“Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He has also rejected you from being king.” 1 Samuel 15:22-23
Chapter 15 of 1 Samuel is a hard text to wrestle with; it is one in which we see God’s vengeance on full display, and it is a text in which we are forced to realize the high value that God places on obedience. We read of Saul’s failure to obey God completely, and we learn from that failure that incomplete obedience is not good enough for God; we are forced to understand that incomplete obedience to God is no better than total disobedience.
At the outset of chapter 15, God calls upon Saul to go and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites and all of their livestock; Saul and his men were to leave nothing left of the Amalekites. This is a prime example of one of the issues which make this text so difficult; it is hard for us to read and accept that God would give such orders to be carried out. Many critics of Scripture point to such instances in the Old Testament–such as this example of the destruction of the Amalekites, or the purging of the Canaanites in the conquest of the Promised Land–and make claims about God being blood-thirsty and unjust. Such claims ignore the fact that God is, indeed, just, and He is also holy. He is so holy that He cannot tolerate sin; anything which is infected with sin is destroyed by His very presence. God is so totally holy that He cannot even be in the presence of sin, and yet the mere fact that He does not issue more such decrees to destroy sinful man–that He continues to allow fallen humanity to exist– is a testament to His mercy and love. We must remember that God is holy and just and that He has justified reasons to issue the commands that He does. We must also not forget that such decrees for destruction are but mere reminders of what we all truly deserve.
The root cause of the destruction of the Amalekites is found in the pages of Exodus, in chapter 17. Immediately after liberation from Egypt, and just as Israel was starting their journey through the wilderness, they were attacked by the Amalekites. This attack was unprovoked and came at a time in which Israel was weak, vulnerable, and unprepared to fight. The Amalekites knew this, and as such, this attack was intended to destroy Israel. Moses and Joshua were able to find men to fight back against the attack. As Joshua led the defense, Moses went up on a mountain overlooking the battlefield. During the course of the battle, Moses stands upon the mountain with his arms and staff raised above his head; as long as he had his arms up the Israelites prevailed. As the battle rages on, Moses grows tired and is unable to keep his arms up, and the Amalekites began to prevail. Aaron and Hur come up the mountain and hold Moses’ arms up for him, and the Israelites defeat the Amalekites. Following the battle, God tells Moses that He will remember the transgression of Amalek, and because of this egregious attack, He will “blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven” (Exodus 17:14). God told Moses that He would seek vengeance upon Amalek for trying to destroy His people.
Some 300 to 400 years later, God decides that the time has come to repay the Amalekites for their attack. He gives Saul the orders to follow, to completely destroy all the Amalekites and all their possessions, and Saul calls up the army and heads off to fight. Saul and the army destroy the Amalekites, but they do not follow through with everything that God had told them to do. They spare Agag, the Amalekite king, and they spare the best of the livestock–they only destroy the things that were of lesser quality and importance. Saul was given explicit orders by God, yet he only offered God partial obedience.
The results of Saul’s partial obedience are severe: God tells Samuel the Prophet that He regrets making Saul king over Israel. We see the same word used here to describe God’s emotion as was used in Genesis where before the flood that God was “sorry” He had created humanity after seeing how evil mankind had become.
God’s regret regarding Saul stems from the fact that Saul was disobedient. Saul was supposed to be God’s representative on earth. He was ruling over the people with whom God had chosen to recreate the relationship that had been lost as a result of the fall in Eden, and Saul repeated the same sin–disobedience–which had led to the fall in the first place.
Samuel is sent to confront Saul about his disobedience, and Saul attempts to justify saving the best of the Amalekite livestock by saying they were going to be offered as sacrifices to God. Samuel, however, informs Saul that this is not the point; God doesn’t value sacrifices as much as He values obedience. Saul’s offerings were merely insincere flattery, a lip-service to God, in the light of his disobedience. The true intentions of Saul’s heart were revealed through his actions.
Due to his failure to obey, Saul would lose the kingdom, and a new king–David–would be anointed. David would be the king that ruled as God wanted a king to rule, and he would be a king who sought after God’s own heart. The obedience exhibited in David–though he did have his failures–would be further exemplified and perfected by one who would come from his line. From David’s line would come one who would demonstrate perfect obedience to God, following God all the way to the cross to die so that sinful humanity might be redeemed. That one would be Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of God.
So often, we find ourselves following in Saul’s footsteps, offering God partial obedience and expecting Him to be satisfied with that. We have made ourselves believe that God will look past our lack of obedience because we show up on Sundays to offer Him praise and prayers and worship. We forget that our real intentions–the intentions of our hearts–are exhibited in our actions and that He sees our very hearts. We try to substitute prayer for obedience, but we fail to understand that our prayers and worship mean nothing if we have no intention of being obedient. We pray to God and give Him our list of demands to be satisfied, and tell Him that if He fulfills those demands that we will then reward Him with our obedience. We demand that the God of the Universe justify our obedience to Him as if we have authority over Him to make such a plea. If Christ’s death isn’t enough to justify our obedience, then there is nothing which will justify it.
We must stop acting like Saul. We must stop offering God partial obedience. Our incomplete obedience is the same as total disobedience. We cannot substitute prayer or worship for obedience; for our obedience is the thing which God values more than anything. Christ was obedient to God, even unto death, a death which saved us from damnation. You can offer Christ no less than your total obedience in return.
Artwork: “Saul Reproved by Samuel For Not Obeying the Commandments of the Lord,” John Singleton Copley, 1798.