It is approximately 1050 BC and Saul is king of the nation of Israel. The Lord through Samuel commands Saul to attack and destroy the Amalekites because of their wickedness and resistance to God’s people. Carefully read the command: Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:3; ESV) The command is very clear. Destroy all of their possessions and spare no one. The nation of Amalek had rebelled against God for too long and now its judgment had come. Saul goes into battle and defeats the Amalekites. But notice what happens.
And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. (1 Samuel 15:8–9; ESV)
Saul and the people devoted to destruction all the junk, all the things that were despised and worthless. But the things that were valuable they kept. They kept the best of animals. Not only these animals, they also kept the king alive. Is there a problem with what Saul did? Be honest with your answer. Can you justify what Saul did or do you think that Saul is wrong? I think that many of us can justify what Saul did. Why destroy all of these valuable animals that they could use for themselves? Why destroy the spoils of victory? Why not bring back the king to show the people the victory you had obtained? Let’s look at what God thinks about it.
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.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night. (1 Samuel 15:10–11; ESV)
The Lord says some very powerful words: “I regret that I have made Saul king.” It is a sad moment when we do not obey the commands of God. But notice how God observed what Saul did. God says, “He has turned back from following me.” Now, that is not how we look at what is going on. We would not see ourselves as turning our back on God. We would not see this act as walking away from God. Saul did go to war and he was victorious. He did destroy much of the Amalekite nation. But why destroy everything? This is exactly what Saul thinks. He does not see himself as turning back from following God. But that is how God sees us when we do not carefully follow the word of God. Samuel is going to zero in on this problem and try to get Saul (and us) to see the issue.
Samuel Encounters Saul (15:13-23)
Read 1 Samuel 15:13-21. Notice that Saul sees Samuel and says that he has obeyed the voice of the Lord. Maybe Saul is lying. But I do not think that was the case. I believe that Saul thinks he has obeyed God even though he hasn’t. He thinks he has obeyed. This reveals to us the deceitful, lying nature of sin. Sin lies to us and causes us to think that we are obeying God while engaged in sin. Sin blinds us to the reality that we are disobeying God. We think we are obeying God while we are actually violating God’s command because we have chosen to do what we want to do. Do we see that this is the problem? If not, Samuel is going to make the point clearer as we move through this study. The problem is that Saul did what he thought was best. Keep that in mind as we go through this dialogue between Samuel and Saul.
Samuel does not buy into Saul’s words. If you have obeyed the voice of the Lord, Saul, then why do I heard the bleating of sheep and the lowing of oxen? God’s command was to destroy everything. So why do I hear these animals?
Notice what Saul says: They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction. This is pretty slick. First, Saul casts blame. This is not his fault. It is the people who spared the best of the animals. They are the ones who did this. Second, they spared to animals to sacrifice to the Lord. We have good intentions. We brought the animals back to offer sacrifices to the Lord. Third, notice Saul says, “your God.” We are worshiping your God here, Samuel. Don’t criticize us. We are doing what you said your God told us to do. So back off. Finally, we have devoted the rest to destruction. Saul includes himself in this act only when it comes to the obedience of destroying everything else. This is one of the biggest excuses we read about in the scriptures. Saul just throws everything at Samuel as to why this is okay. What a contrast to what we studied a few weeks ago concerning godly sorrow and repentance. David’s first remark when confronted with sin is that he had sinned against God. Saul has done the opposite. First, he didn’t do it the people did. But what the people did was to offer sacrifices to God. And it is your God that we are trying to make these offerings. Beside we have destroyed everything else.
Samuel responds to these excuses in verses 17-19. Samuel says that Saul is the king. The buck stops with you. You were commanded to devote everything to destruction. Why have you not obeyed the voice of the Lord? But Saul still does not get it. He does not see the problem. Saul declares, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord.” I have gone on the mission the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. The people are the ones who took the spoil. But they took the spoil to sacrifice to the Lord your God. Do you see Samuel rubbing his head over this? Saul does not get it. He still does not see it. He thinks that this has been obedience. He thinks he did what he was supposed to do but it was the people who fouled things up. But the people are okay because they are going to offer those animals as sacrifices. Samuel tries one last time to get this point into this head.
And Samuel said, “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.” (1 Samuel 15:22–23; ESV)
Samuel’s point is very simple but very important for us to understand. Obedience is more important than offering acts of worship. Doing what God says is far more important than offering these animals as sacrifices. Rebellion is just as bad as the sin of witchcraft and fortune telling. Presumption is just like sin and worshiping other gods. To assume what God wants is to worship a false god. Let Samuel’s words sink into our hearts. To presume God’s will is sin and is idolatry. This is the reason that we must be serious in our study of God’s word. If God has not authorized for us to do something, then we must not do it. To presume that something is authorized by God is the same was idolatry. In fact, what we are doing is rejecting the word of the Lord. If we are not going to go by exactly what God has told us to do, then we are rejecting the word of the Lord.
Let’s break down what Saul did wrong so that we can learn how to live properly and rightly before God.
(1) Don’t blame others for your sin. You were the one who chose to sin, not others. There is no doubt that the actions of others can put us in a place of weakness so that we are more prone to sin. But that does not mean that we had no choice but to sin. Too often we act like we couldn’t help it. We excuse ourselves as if the forces were irresistible and we had sin. But we know that this is not true. The choice is ours and the choice was Saul’s. He did not have to listen to the people who wanted to keep the things that were not detestable or worthless. It is not other people’s fault. You can change who you are to be more like Jesus. You can do what you want to do. It is your choice.
(2) Don’t presume to know what would please God. This is an enormous mistake that is repeatedly made. Everyone thinks they know what God wants but are not reading the scriptures to find out what God wants. People sit at home thinking that worship services are unnecessary. People think they can just be good, moral people and be pleasing to God. This ignores God’s teaching that we are to come together to worship him. This ignores God’s teaching that in God’s eyes no one is righteous or good. All of us are condemned because none of us have lived up to God’s standards. But people think they are pleasing God based on their own knowledge, rather than the knowledge that God has revealed through his word. People think they are pleasing God in worship through entertainment. But the scriptures show that Christians came together for the Lord’s Supper, singing, praying, collecting money for God’s service, and the teaching of God’s word. God did not authorize entertainment events as a form of worship. We cannot think that God is pleased by the things that we think God would be pleased by. Who do we think we are to know the mind of God? Why do we think that we know what God wants without him telling us? We make that joke all the time concerning the opposite gender and our spouses. We cannot know what they want unless they tell us. Yet we think we that can know the mind of the Almighty God! How arrogant we are to think we know what pleases God! So we ask silly question like, “Do you think God would really care if we did this?” “Do you really think it matters that we come to worship?” “Do you think God cares if we miss services?” “Do you think God cares if… and fill in the blank?” Who do we think we are to know the answer to those questions? If God said to gather together, who are we to question if God really cared about that command? The only way we know what pleases God is by what God has told us through the scriptures. Saul and the people thought offering sacrifices to God would be pleasing to God. Samuel said that what pleases God is obedience. Just do what he says. Stop trying to outthink this and just do what he says.
Further, we are not justified by good motives. This is a common lesson that God teaches throughout the Old and the New Testaments. Just because we have the right heart does not mean what we are doing is okay. God wants us to have the right heart that leads us to do what he says. Our motivation must be serve God his way, not to serve God our way.
(3) Is God your God? I think how Saul speaks of the Lord is very revealing. Saul tells Samuel that they would offer sacrifices to the Lord your God. Saul does not claim the Lord to be his God. Do we view God the same way? Is the Lord your God or are you serving someone else’s God? Are you serving the Lord your parents’ God? Are you serving the Lord your spouse’s God? Are you serving the Lord your families’ God? Are you serving the Lord your friend’s God? Is the Lord your God or are you just coming along for the ride because you think that is what you are supposed to do? You cannot serve this God as if he were a detached and distant God. God demands a relationship with his people. The Lord repeatedly said, “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” We have to obey him from the heart, not as a book of rules, but because we love him.
(4) Obeying some of God’s commands is not obedience. Saul thought that just because he had obeyed some of God’s commands that what he had done was enough to be acceptable. God is not giving us these directions for us to then decide which we will obey and which we will not. Partial obedience is not obedience at all. If we tell our children to clean their room and take out the trash and all they do is take out the trash, they have not obeyed your directions. They have chosen what they wanted to do. They are not acting in obedience, but their own wisdom. If we are not going to do all that God has commanded, then why bother? If we are not going to be immersed in water to have our sins washed away because we do not think it is important or necessary, then why are we doing any of the other commands? You are not listening to God. You are listening to yourself and doing what you want and what you think is best.