As a way of focusing on our Lord Jesus Christ and his love and self-sacrifice for us, let us consider two faithful Benjamites. Both were mighty men in their time but were cut off in their prime. Though this pair lived relatively short lives, they carried huge responsibilities on their shoulders, bearing them with grace, faithfulness and humility. One was a Benjamite who had royal blood in his veins but gave up all claim to the throne for a friend that he esteemed more worthy. The other was a “son of the right hand” and his career was based on proud heritage and traditions, yet he esteemed it all refuse in order to win Christ. Both men learned obedience, patience and kindness by the shame and humiliation they each endured. One was an elite archer, the other a soldier for Christ, quenching the fiery darts of the wicked. Both understood that self-glorifi cation and self-promotion was baseless and futile, for without God fighting with them and helping them, they were incapable of victory.

God’s strength made perfect in weakness

These lively and dynamic heroes come together in Christ. Both lived and died “in Christ” because they knew that God could work “unrestrained” in their weakness; in their smallness, their troubles and their constraint. It is vital we learn that we are not the masters of our own destiny, but slaves to weakness!

Christ’s suff ering, shame, humility, patience and love is perfected not in our own will or self determination. Rather, Christ’s love and character are brought to perfection when we practice kindness, humility and love, despite the troubles surrounding us. Paul, loyal apostle of Christ, took up the baton of courage from his royal ancestor, and continued the relay race of faith, his eyes fi rmly fi xed on the finish line and the crowning glory of eternal life in the Kingdom of God. He had shared his fears and weakness with his Corinthian brethren in his fi rst letter to them: “I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Cor 2:1–3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:8–11, to those he loved in Christ, he expressed the depth of his fears, saying he was troubled, perplexed, persecuted and cast down.

A Benjamite by birth, Saul of Tarsus was transformed by the heat of God’s blow torch into a fool for Christ’s sake. A conundrum, a riddle and a problem for Jew and Greek! A ‘living’ witness of death by crucifi xion that was foolishness to Greeks and an obstacle to faith for Jews! Paul put his finger on the real soreness he was suffering. He wrote to his Greek brethren of a chronic illness he was suffering which he imaginatively styled, “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me” (2 Cor 12:7). When an attack occurred it caused immense discomfort and embarrassment.

Paul painted a portrait: a boxer stands proud in the ring, while his opponent, Paul, weakened and blood spattered lies collapsed against the ropes, having been battered from strike after strike. Those blows Paul likened to a sharp, jabbing “thorn” in his body. Some suggest that Paul’s painful buffeting resulted from bouts of epilepsy or malarial fever, or possibly a difficulty with his eyesight. He singled out the Galatians for their kindness and self-sacrificing nature in regard to his illness when he said to them, “if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me” (Gal 4:15).

So as all faithful saints do when undergoing afflictions – he prayed. Not just once! In desperation he pleaded to Christ three times to release him from this torment, but the calm and firm answer from his Lord was the same each time: “No, my grace is sufficient for you, Paul. And why, Paul, have I given you this particular illness? Why am I doing this to you and not extracting this thorn from your flesh? I was whipped, punched, slapped in the face and humiliated. I know well the shooting pain and shock from thorns rammed into my scalp. I know how excruciating it is! So for this reason Paul, my grace extended to you is ample: my strength, my endurance under trial, is perfected or brought to maturity in your weakness; in your trials, and the blows of shame and embarrassment you must accept for my name’s sake. It’s your abasement and infirmities Paul, which allows my character to shine forth from you as my ambassador. Not because I delight in seeing you drag yourself about as a tortured wreck of humanity, or because I’m carrying out revenge for your sins against me, but because from this weakened position, with pride at its lowest – that’s when you show to others that the flesh profi ts nothing. You show that it’s worthless!”

In 2 Corinthians 1:8–10 (RSV) Paul reveals how perilous things had become, preaching the truth in Asia: “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.”

The legacy of pride

Consider Jonathan, the mighty warrior of Benjamin. From the day he climbed hand over hand up the passages at Michmash to destroy a garrison of Philistines, until he drew his last breath on the ridge of Gilboa, Jonathan lived and died by the principle that pride is an abomination to Yahweh, and the flesh profits nothing. 1 Samuel 31 is a sad report of the ugly end of God’s fi rst anointed dynasty in Israel’s history. It is the final chapter in the little book that was the royal Benjamite family tree, set for savage pruning because of pride. The king and three sons, Israel’s princes, had, like the Apostle Paul, received the sentence of death in themselves, muttered from the lips of a witch echoing the curse of Samuel’s ghostly prophecy: “tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me” (1 Sam 28:19).

Saul the Benjamite king was now distressed, in despair, forsaken and destroyed. Everybody was sore afraid; from the king to the armour bearer, morale in Israel was at an all time low. Israel’s spirits were even lower than those early years, when the men of Israel were afraid and dismayed in the valley of Elah as Goliath arrogantly strutted for 40 days, bellowing out his demands for a man to challenge him. Saul, accompanied by his sons and the men of Israel, were drawn to a high place on the western ridge of Mt Gilboa. Saul was filled with meat prepared by the witch, but his mind was tormented by a defiled conscience!

As the Philistine rulers marched with their units of hundreds and thousands, David and his band of outlaws were marching in lockstep at the rear with Achish! Like Paul, Jonathan was now “pressed beyond measure” and was among his brothers in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. However, neither flinched from shame and humiliation, facing their foes with courage! Th ough troubled on every side, they were not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed!

The Philistine adversaries constantly took the fight to Israel. They were Jonathan’s proverbial thorns in the flesh, “messengers of Satan.” Now for the third time he faced a deadly peril, not from the Philistines, but from his own father. Jonathan had first been condemned to death by Saul over the bittersweet incident of the prohibited honey; next he dodged the blow of the javelin, and now in his last stand against the Philistines on Gilboa, he was to die because of his father’s rebellion against Yahweh. Exhaustion, fear and terror fl ickered in Saul’s eyes that morning, telling Jonathan all he needed to know about how this day of doom would end. No doubt he would have been utterly disgusted to learn of his father’s midnight deals with a witch.

It’s not hard to imagine Jonathan in deep distress praying words similar to that of Messiah in Psalm 22:1–2: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Surely he would have sought a sign as he did at the ravine in Michmash? Facing impossible odds he had challenged his armour bearer to follow him to victory: “Come, and let us go over unto the garrison of these uncircumcised: it may be that the LORD will work for us: for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few” (1 Sam 14:6).

In his hour of darkness he could recall great warriors like Joshua, Caleb, Samson and Gideon. A legacy of valour and courage fighting with Yahweh’s might, passed down from one generation to another. He doubtless thought of his loving wife and fi ve year old son, Mephibosheth, the one who would bear his family name. But would David truly honour the terms of the covenant he had sworn before Yahweh? Could that second covenant of kindnesshe had struck with David secure the future for his family: “thou shalt not cut off thy kindness from my house for ever” (1 Sam 20:15)? Again Psalm 22:4–6 captures Jonathan’s emotions in his hour of darkness: “Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded. But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.”

But now God was silent. Perhaps this silence then, was the sign. As Christ felt the pain of isolation by his God in his hour of greatest need, so Jonathan felt it also … “Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help” (Psa 22:11). Yahweh was silent because Saul had consulted a witch. He had sold out his family to a witch! Could Jonathan ever begin to imagine that right now his beloved friend David was marching with the enemy toward him? No wonder the providence of God prevailed on Achish to send David away at the break of day!

How are the mighty fallen

As Jonathan prepared for his final battle, perhaps he contemplated the prophecies of doom uttered by Samuel against his father: “thy kingdom shall not continue … thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee” (1 Sam 13:14). Another fateful prophecy uttered in hushed tones would be fulfilled that day. David whispered it to Abishai when they had crept down in the dead of night and grabbed the spear and water jug beside the slumbering Saul: “as the LORD liveth, the LORD shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish” (1 Sam 26:10).

Israel under Saul was now facing an ‘Armageddon’ in the valley of Jezreel. Saul and all Israel were as a heap of sheaves in a valley for threshing! So “the Philistines slew Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Melchi-shua, Saul’s sons” (1 Sam 31:2). Tragically Jonathan, the selfl ess peacemaker, the mediator between men embroiled in confl ict, the covenant maker and true friend, popular, wise of heart, a true leader in Israel and a courageous fighter and loyal son – died! Protecting his unworthy and rebellious father, Jonathan expired beneath a hail of arrows from Philistine bowmen. His flesh was cruelly pierced with ‘thorns’, literal sharp and fiery darts of the wicked. So those uncircumcised Gentiles, abusers of the flesh, performed their shameful work the following day (1 Sam 31:8–10).

Jonathan’s body was treated with contempt by his enemies, but with great respect by the men of Jabesh Gilead, who like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, took charge of the burial of their Lord. Jonathan identified with the Lord Jesus Christ in his death, laying down his life for his friends. The thoughts of Messiah resonate with Jonathan’s as he expired on Gilboa: “Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help. Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round” (Psa 22:11–12).

David wept and tore his clothes on learning the tragic news that the mighty ones had fallen in battle: that his great friend Jonathan and Yahweh’s anointed, Saul the King of Israel, were dead. As the tears flowed so did the ink from his pen. David wrote a eulogy to memorialise his loss, fittingly styling it – “The Song of the Bow” (MLB 2 Sam 1:17–18). The beauty (like a graceful roe) of Israel had been slain in his high places, the heights of his mountains! Indeed the mighty had fallen. But they would not be forgotten. Hebrews 11:33–34 describes the profile of those like Jonathan, who “out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” From a position of weakness in the dust, faithful saints from all ages, including Paul and Jonathan, will rise with great strength. They will live again for eternity!

David described in forgiving and loving tones how Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and how in their death they were not divided: he said that they were swifter than eagles, and stronger than lions. By the power of God’s spirit we too will soar with the eagle and bound with the beauty of Israel on His high places. Yahweh’s promise to His saints from Isaiah 40:31 is truly grand: “they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint”.

The lesson we learn from these two faithful Benjamites, Paul and Jonathan, is that with God’s help, we can overcome doubts and fears in order to endure the painful thorns that buffet and torment us. We can face the foe with humility and faith, trusting that God has the strength to deliver us, applying the comfort and hope of Christ’s words to our own trials, “My grace is suffi cient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).