TWO KINDS OF DISOBEDIENCE
A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Cataloged May 4. 1997
“And the men of Israel were distressed that day, for Saul had placed the people under oath, saying, ‘Cursed is the man who eats any food until evening, before I have taken vengeance on my enemies.’ So none of the people tasted food. But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath; therefore he stretched out the end of the rod that was in his hand and dipped it in a honeycomb, and put his hand to his mouth; and his eyes were opened” (Isaiah,14:24,27).
Today we are going to consider the story of two men, father and son; one is a king and the other a prince. Historically each is a brave and capable fighter, and each delighted in serving the Lord by fighting and killing the enemies of the Children of Israel. Each of them disobeys a command and does what is evil, but one of them is forgiven, the other is not. Our challenge for today is to study the story of these two men so that we can see the difference in their behavior and then apply these truths to our own relationship with the Lord and see if we deserve to be forgiven. We can also apply these truths to our relationships with others and learn when to forgive them as well.
Saul became the King of Israel when the people rejected the Lord’s leadership through judges and prophets and demanded a king instead so that they could be like all the other nations around them. The Lord accepted their rejection of Him, and gave them the king they wanted. The people were delighted with Saul. He was tall, good looking, a great warrior -everything they wanted in a king. He ruled them well for many years, and fought many great battles against the Philistines. When his son Jonathan was old enough he joined the army and soon became something of a hero himself. The Scriptures record how he, accompanied only by his armor bearer, attacked a Philistine garrison of twenty men and killed them all, a feat he was able to accomplish because he had received a sign that the Lord was with him. This little victory struck terror in the hearts of the Philistines, which, we are told, was then amplified by an earthquake sent by the Lord.
Saul, seeing that the Philistines were in confusion and fear, attacked. Filled with the desire to totally destroy his enemy, Saul commanded that no one would be permitted to rest from the killing for any reason, even to eat bread. He says “bread,” but by it means all food of any kind (see NJHD 218, AC 2165). He wanted complete and utter vengeance upon his enemies.
During the course of the day’s battle, Jonathan and his men found themselves in an area where there were many honeycombs, and being quite hungry, Jonathan ate some, not knowing of his father’s order. The men with him had heard it, though, and they did not eat. It was then that they told him about the order. But Jonathan already knew something was wrong, for we are told by the internal sense of the words that “his eyes were opened,” which means that he had an inner sense that what he had just done was evil: “he saw what he knew not” (AC 212). “Jonathan’s eyes were opened by tasting the honey” because “honey” corresponds to natural good and its delight, and this good gives life experience, a kind of enlightenment or “sixth sense” from which Jonathan knew that he had done evil (AE 619:8). However, in spite of the fact that he suddenly knew that he had done something wrong, he still criticized the order to the other men, saying that the soldiers would have been able to do a much better job fighting if they had taken a little time to refresh themselves.
The battle ends as night falls, and Saul, flushed with his day’s victory, seeks counsel from the Lord about how to proceed the next day. But because the Lord does not answer, Saul immediately knows that something is wrong, that someone has committed some evil that has caused Jehovah to withdraw. Saul is both enraged and afraid, for he knows that his success in war has been due to the Lord’s constant presence with the army. He knows that he must find and punish the evil-doer or the Philistines will return and destroy them. In order to find the evil-doer, Saul draws lots. He puts the whole of the army on one side, and Jonathan and himself on the other. The lot shows that the guilty party is either Jonathan or Saul. He then draws lots with his son, and discovers that Jonathan is the one who must be put to death because he has broken the king’s law.
Something very unusual happens next: the army and people intercede on Jonathan’s behalf. They believe that since it is obvious that the Lord is with Jonathan, as shown by what he did to the Philistine garrison, it would be wrong for him to be put to death, and the implication is that if Saul were to follow through on his threat, the people would cease following him, and perhaps even overthrow him as king. The Scripture does not give the details, but it is clear that Jonathan was pardoned by Saul under intense pressure from the elders of the people and the army.
It is important to note that no one questioned the fact that Jonathan had committed a crime. He had broken the king’s law and deserved to be punished. What the people introduced was an element of mercy based on their judgment of Jonathan’s intent, and so properly demanded that the punishment be moderated to fit the intent. Our sympathies properly lie with Jonathan, and we are satisfied that justice has been done when he escapes the death penalty.
Our attention now turns to Saul, and the quality of his disobedience. Some time after the incident just mentioned, Samuel commanded Saul to attack and utterly destroy the Amalekites, specifically ordering him to destroy men, women, children, and animals. In the sense of the letter, this was commanded because the Amalekites had cruelly ambushed the Children of Israel when they were first struggling in the desert after leaving Egypt. In the spiritual sense, the Lord commanded the complete and utter destruction of this Canaanite tribe because it represented interior evils of the will.
In the subsequent battle, Saul makes some changes in the orders. He captures Agag, king of the Amalekites, instead of killing him. He slaughters the women and children, but keeps the animals as spoil. And then, when Samuel comes to confront him with his disobedience, he repeatedly lies, first telling Samuel that he had obeyed the Lord completely, and then when Samuel called his attention to all the animals in the camp, Saul claimed that the animals had been kept “for sacrifice” to the Lord. Finally Saul tries to blame others for the crime, saying that the people made him do it, but he was never able to see or admit his own guilt.
Samuel responds to Saul with the words that served to condemn not only Saul’s action but the actions of all those who believed that the life of religion consisted in merely following the rituals of the Jewish Church and yet harbored all kinds of evil loves in their hearts; Samuel said to Saul, “to obey is better than to sacrifice, to hearken better than the fat of rams” (Isaiah 15:22), and as Samuel turned to leave, Saul fell on his face on the ground, and grabbed at the hem of his garment, imploring him not to leave him. In so doing he tore the prophet’s garment, and was further told that “the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel away from you today” (Isaiah 15:28), and it had been given to another who would be more worthy. As a final gesture of displeasure with Saul’s response to the Divine leading, Samuel took a sword and killed Agag, the Amalekite king, himself.
Both Saul and Jonathan disobeyed. Jonathan disobeyed the king; Saul disobeyed the Lord. Jonathan disobeyed through ignorance and without an evil intent, and was forgiven. Saul disobeyed knowingly, deliberately, and then lied to Samuel about it, trying to put the blame on others. He was not forgiven, but instead lost his kingdom for himself and his family forever.
The story of these two men, their evils, and their subsequent forgiveness revolves around the distinction between what is evil and what is a sin. Jonathan’s experience illustrates what evil is. It is always evil to break a commandment, even if you don’t know about it, or even if you were trying to do something good. If something is forbidden by God, it is evil to do it – but it is not necessarily a sin. An evil act becomes a sin only when the person knows that it is evil and deliberately goes about it anyhow, planning ways to hide it from others, or to make it appear that others have done it. This is what Saul did.
A little child may take something that belongs to another. That is wrong; it is an evil. But we all instinctively and immediately recognize that he cannot be blamed for it, because he does not know any better. In other words, the act itself may have been evil, but because the little child could not have intended harm we forgive him; the child is free from sin in the matter.
Sin is a matter of the will, and a person cannot be blamed for an evil until he is of an age where he can and does act solely from his own will. The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that such a state begins “about the twentieth year,” (AC 10225:5) although it is obvious from the context and from common sense that it is the spiritual state of the person, not the number of birthdays, that is the essential here.
The way we distinguish between evils and sins is by judging, as best we can, as to the thought, intent, and will of the person who is in disorder, whether it be another or ourselves.
Jonathan acted thoughtlessly, then had a pang of conscience. His first reaction was to belittle the command, say it was not really important, but he knew that he had done wrong and would have to pay for it. Our immediate reaction when we do something wrong is to try to justify it, and that’s normal. It often happens that even as we hear ourselves arguing and protesting about something, we can feel ourselves internally recognizing the truth of the very things we are denying. Even though we are fighting for the right to do something, we have already decided in our hearts that we know that it is wrong, and will not ever do it again. In the eyes of the Lord, what really counts is what happens in the long run. Do we try to make our mistakes and our evils appear to be good, or do we honestly admit when we are wrong and try to amend our lives?
When people die and enter the world of spirits, they soon find that the spiritual world is so much like the natural world that they forget that they are spirits, and soon slip back into the old, familiar ways of life. In other words, while they are in the state of their exterior life, they return to the same mistakes and habits they were subject to while in the world. The big difference is that the angels who are in charge of keeping order in the world of spirits are unlike judges in the natural world, for the spirits can see into the interiors of the mind, and so immediately know what the intention behind the act is. When spirits commit evils in the world of spirits from ignorance, from thoughtlessness, or in the course of trying to do something nice, they are excused and forgiven. It is the intention behind the act that counts.
Saul’s evil, on the other hand, was evil of the will, evil deliberately and consciously done in the full knowledge that it is evil. This is sin, pure and simple, and as it contaminates the will itself, it destroys spiritual life and cannot be removed except with great difficulty through the most grievous of temptations. The reason it is so difficult to remove is that by its very nature it is difficult to discover because it hides itself in falsity, in self-justification, in lies. It makes every attempt to appear as good – the mass-murderer who believes that he is doing the world a service by removing certain people from it; the adulterer who believes he is doing his wife and marriage a favor by taking his perversions elsewhere; the thief who believes that he can put the money to better use than its proper owner – but when such things are seen in the light of truth, we see how insane sin really is.
We all commit evils all the time – knowingly and not – but they are not sins, and we are not responsible for them unless we knew they were evil at the time, and consciously chose to do them from will. This is the Lord’s mercy toward us. He judges according to the heart, not according to the act, for who of us could stand against the judgment of Divine Truth alone untempered by the mercy of the Divine Love?
But there is something that we must do to earn this mercy. We must first be in charity: we must treat others as we wish to be treated; that is, if we wish others to assume our good intentions, we must also assume their good intentions toward us. After all, which of us actually plans to say or do something unkind to another? But how often do we assume that something said to us was intended to be unkind? We must recognize that most things that offend and annoy were not intended that way at all, but were thoughtless or accidental. If we wish the Lord to forgive and excuse us for our thoughtlessness and accidental evils, then we must also forgive others who offend us, for the Lord said, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14,15). But if we wish the Lord to forgive us for our sins, we must search our hearts in the light of His Divine truth, discover the sin that is there, and flee from it as if from hell itself. Amen.
Lessons: 14:24-30, 15:13-19, Matt. 6:1-8, AC 6559
Arcana Coelestia 6559
How the case is with returning evil, or with penalties, in the spiritual world, must be told, because from this the internal sense of these words is plain. If evil spirits do any evil in the world of spirits beyond what they have imbued themselves with by their life in the world, punishers are instantly at hand and chastise them in exact accordance with the degree in which they pass these limits; for it is a law in the other life that no one must become worse than he had been in this world.
They who are being punished cannot tell how these chastisers know that the evil is beyond what they had imbued themselves with, but they are informed that there is such an order in the other life that the very evil is attended with its penalty, so that the evil of the deed is wholly conjoined with the evil of the penalty, that is to say, its penalty is in the evil itself; and therefore that it is according to order for the avengers to be instantly at hand.
This is what happens when evil spirits do evil in the world of spirits; but in their own hell they chastise one another according to the evil which they had by act imbued themselves with in this world; for this evil they bring with them into the other life.
But as regards good spirits, if perchance they speak or do evil, they are not punished but pardoned, and also excused; for their end is not to speak or do evil, and they know that such things are excited in them by hell, so that they have not come to pass by their fault; and the same is also observed from their resistance, and afterward from their grief.