Do rubber-neckers frustrate you? You know the people who slow down to 20 mph on the highway to look at a car wreck that’s taken place? They really frustrate me, I’m sure you’ve felt this to. But what happens when we drive by the wreckage? We turn and look too. We just can’t turn our eyes away.
1 Samuel 15 marks a moment of wreckage in Saul’s life. This chapter functions transition point in the book. While chapter 14 marks the end of Saul being the focus and while chapter 16 introduces us to young David as the new focus, chapter 15 functions as a sort of middle ground between the persons of Saul and David. It’s in this middle ground chapter where we see the wreckage of Saul’s final demise.
a) Prophetic Direction
In v1-3 we see the prophet Samuel come to king Saul with prophetic direction to do something that sounds utterly horrid to our modern ears. God commands Saul to wipe out an entire people. Isn’t it passages like these that prompt us to ask ‘How can this be the same God who loved us sent His Son to die for sin? Is this passage really a part of the Bible?’ Perhaps you know of someone or perhaps you yourself have rejected the God of the Old Testament simply because of passages like this, where He seems so cruel and tyrannical. But listen for a moment: first, the Bible never sanitizes or sterilizes events for us, it’s real, it tells it like it is. Second, the vengeance of God on display here should not be overruled or rejected because it feels off to us. Reading the Bible and jumping to the conclusion that our sense of morality is correct while God’s is wrong is to read the Bible arrogantly. It’s to read the Bible as a chronological snob, believing the biblical people and the biblical God are an underdeveloped people who don’t really know what morality is…like we do now in our modern sophistication. Rather than feeling a sense of superiority over the Biblical text and calling it’s legitimacy into question, why don’t we call our sense of morality into question? Maybe we’re the ones who’ve got it backwards and God is the One who’s got it right? Don’t we teach our kids that it’s wrong for them to always assume that they’re right and others are wrong? Why don’t we follow the same advice?
You see, from God’s point of view, His vengeance on Amalek is just. He is punishing them for what they did to Israel when they were coming up out of Egypt. Deut. 25:17-19 tells us the account. ‘Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you…you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.’ So while Israel was faint, weary, and barely able to defend themselves as they left Egypt Amalek came to attack. Knowing this changes how we view God’s command in 1 Samuel 15:1-3, because Amalek attacked a weak and fragile people. Because of this, they are to be wiped out. And if any of you are thinking, ‘Well that was many generations before these Amalekites, God mentions they haven’t changed much since then. In 15:18 God refers to them as sinners, and announces the war crimes of their king (Agag) as the basis for his execution in v33. 300 years have passed and they haven’t changed a bit…God is patient, slow to anger, He’s given them time to repent, but they haven’t. So rather than condemning God for His actions here, an honest look would lead us to believe this vengeance isn’t tyrannical violence, it’s virtuous. It’s God protecting the weak against the strong, the humble against the proud, His people against His enemies.
b) Saul’s Unfaithfulness
Saul responds to this command in v4-9 by summoning 210,000 troops and attacking the Amalekites. v7 says they devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword, but left Agag the king of Amalekites and the best of the sheep, oxen, calves, and lambs. On top of this it says in v9 that they took for themselves as spoil all that was good and destroyed all that was despised. It’s at this point we must remember v3, ‘Do not spare them, kill everything.’ Yet here in v9, ‘But Saul and the people spared…’ See what happened here? Saul didn’t listen. This is confirmed in v10-11 when the word of the Lord came to Samuel, ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not performed My commandments.’ It may seem strange to see God regretting something He has done, but He does have emotions. It’s just that His emotions don’t rule Him like ours do. God really feels a regret and a grief over the sinfulness of Saul (a regret that He repeats in v35). Note what’s in view here. Saul’s failure to listen and obey God’s command isn’t just mere disobedience, it shows that something deeper has taken place within Saul’s heart, for God said, ‘He has turned back from following Me.’ Samuel heard this proclamation from God and became angry and cried out to God all night. Two questions hit us here:
First, when is the last time you prayed about something all night? Or perhaps I should ask, have you ever prayed about anything all night? We in the reformed tradition have an easy bent about our prayer life, and from such an attitude we often don’t labor in prayer with God over much of anything. We pray, sure, but then we quit praying and wait on God’s sovereign decision. There is a challenge for us here. Perhaps our charismatic friends who are given to praying all night for all sorts of things should practice more trust in God to bring about what is best and go to bed while we in the reformed tradition who are given to go to bed trusting God to act should stay up all night and pray about lots of things?
Second, what was it that made Samuel go into angry prayer all night? Was he mad at Saul? At God? At the situation? Was he praying for Saul? Protection for Israel or for himself knowing he’d have to confront Saul soon? We don’t know, it may very well be a ‘yes’ to all of these things. But one thing is clear, Samuel was grieved at Saul’s failure, and in that angry grief, how could he possibly lay his head down to rest? He eventually rose from prayer to meet Saul early in the morning, probably still angry, and on his way learns that Saul has built a monument to his own honor after the battle. You think this is going calm down Samuel’s anger? Not a chance. Samuel has got to be livid by this point. So, in one corner we have Samuel, the angry and resolute prophet. In the other corner we have Saul, the proud and disobedient king. Their conversation forms the bulk of this chapter, it begins here in v13 and goes all the way until v31. Saul see’s Samuel coming and the first words out of his mouth are in v13, ‘Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD.’
Samuel’s first question comes in v14, ‘What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?’ In response to this Saul blames the people saying ‘they’ brought them and spared them so we can sacrifice them to the ‘LORD your God.’ Saul’s answer is religiously deceptive. He justifies his disobedience with outward religious ritual, with sacrifices, that he is going to make offerings with all these things. Samuel sees through this nonsense and his second question comes in v17-19, ‘Though you are little (ironic) in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?’ In his response this time Saul again used religious offerings to justify his actions but added something – he denied that he had done anything wrong at all in v20-21. Samuel’s third question comes in v22-23, ‘Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.’
Notice why God is so offended at Saul’s disobedience in v22-23? Samuel poses a question in v22a, ‘Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?’ Samuel answers this question in v22b, ‘Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.’ Samuel then explains his answer by comparison in v23a, ‘For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.’ So Saul’s disobedience is rebellion and presumption, which God compares rebellion to ‘divination’ and presumption to ‘idolatry.’ Divination because it’s the act of seeking guidance apart from God’s counsel. It’s hearing from God and saying, ‘You know what? I think I’ll refer to another source for guidance in this matter’ and for Saul this other source was HIMSELF. So Saul has wickedly exchanged the counsel of God for his own. Idolatry comes into view then because of this very action, preferring his wisdom over God’s meant Saul was preferring himself over God, which is the essence of idolatry. Because of these things, Samuel in v23b gives the condemnation, ‘Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.’ Learn here: to reject God’s Word is to reject God Himself. Because Saul had rejected God as King over himself, God rejected him as king over His people. All the smoke and fire on his offerings meant nothing to God if Saul refused to obey Him.
We’re challenged here aren’t we? When we sin what do we do? We labor to do religious things to make up for it. Perhaps you decide to come back to church, or begin reading your Bible and praying again. Perhaps you give more money in the offering plate, perhaps you begin serving the poor and needy, perhaps…you become a pastor and spend a lifetime trying to do good things to make up for your own shortcomings…as if by doing such things God may be pleased with you again. How foolish we are. We’re like little kids who clean up our rooms by stuffing all our sinful little toys in the closet quickly slamming the door rather than putting them away like we know we should. Sure our rooms may give the appearance of obedience, and we may even fool others for a time, but deep down we know two things: we’re phony, and God can see right through our phony hearts, our shallow obedience.
Well after such a thorough rebuke from God in v22-23 you think Saul would come to his senses but look at what he says in v24-25. ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the LORD.’ Saul does admit to two things: that instead of fearing God and obeying His voice, he feared the people and obeyed their voice…that’s all he says though. We don’t see repentance here. We don’t see a Psalm 51 type mourning over the sinfulness of his sin. This reveals Saul’s main issue, and it also reveals the main issue in so many of our hearts. If you treat sin lightly, if you think your sin really isn’t as bad as the Bible says it is, you know what your problem is? You don’t know who God is! Once you know who God is, you would also learn who you are. He is holy, you are not. Be challenged: to treat sin lightly before such a holy God shows nothing but ignorance of God. Sin against an eternal holy God isn’t small thing, it’s eternal tragic cosmic treason. Saul’s trivial and light response shows where his heart really is, and perhaps some of you are seeing where your heart really is.
Samuel rejects his appeal, turns to walk away, and Saul reaches out and accidentally tears a corner off Samuel’s robe. Which prompts Samuel to then say in v28-29, ‘The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to another who is better than you. And the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for He is not a man that He should have regret.’ Samuel is telling Saul to quit begging, God may be grieving over you but He isn’t going to change His mind. Saul still doesn’t get it, and says in v30, ‘I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the LORD your God.’ Samuel surprisingly goes back with him to the people in v31. Saul probably thinks he’s won and everything will be ok, that his image as king before the people will be upheld. Little does he know what Samuel is about to do.
c) Samuel’s Faithfulness
So we’ve seen Saul’s unfaithfulness throughout this whole chapter, now see Samuel’s faithfulness in v32-33. He enters the camp, calls for Agag the king of the Amalekites to be brought to him. He is brought to Samuel, and the text says Agag is cheerful because he thinks he’s escaped death. Samuel points out his guilt and sin, and finishes what Saul should’ve done and literally ‘hacked Agag to pieces.’
d) Prophetic Separation
Now the chapter ends. Remember it began with prophetic direction to Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, now in v34-35 we sadly see prophetic separation as Samuel leaves for good, never to see Saul again until the day of his death. The last thing we read in v35 is both Samuel and the LORD are grieving over Saul.
What have we seen and learned today? To obey is better than sacrifice. Think about that. Many people put the two together, thinking all it means to obey God is to perform various religious ceremonies, and when people think like this what they’re really saying is this: to sacrifice or to offer religious ceremony to God is to obey God. I think that’s a fair estimation of what Saul really believed. To him, true obedience to God was just religious ritual, religious ceremony, a skin deep appearance of religious devotion. But…that’s not what God really cares for is it? No. What then does God want from us? He wants us. He wants our hearts. He wants (you ready for it?) our obedience. God isn’t against religious ceremonies, or rituals, not at all, but if we think those outward observances are the substance of true religion we’re mistaken and God isn’t pleased with our religiosity. To obey is better than sacrifice.
e) Romans 12:1
When we travel forward from this story through the cross and venture into the New Testament we find a unique statement on this very thing. Romans 12:1 says this, ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present (or offer) your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ You see what just happened there? 1 Samuel 15 taught us ‘to obey is better than sacrifice.’ Most people reverse that into ‘to sacrifice is to obey.’ But Paul says ‘To obey is our sacrifice.’ In view of all that God has done for us in Jesus we now offer our very selves up to God as a sacrifice. Obedience is our sacrifice. And more so, at the end of the verse you see what Paul calls a life lived like that? Worship. Whereas Old Covenant worship focused on offering animal sacrifices, Paul says New Covenant worship now includes offering one’s whole life up to God. Jesus sacrificed Himself to God on our behalf, and in response to that sacrifice we also make a sacrifice, a sacrifice of obedience.
You know…there are two errors we make here: some of us tend to believe God says, ‘Work hard and I’ll set you free from sin.’ Others of you believe God says, ‘I love you, and I set you free by My grace and now I want nothing more than for you to spend the rest of your life in leisure.’ No. God’s not into our legalism, and God’s not into our lawlessness.
You know what pleases God? Obedience. For us, to obey is our sacrifice.