Devoted to Destruction (1 Sam 15:1-3)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

What do you do when something God does seems to contradict who God is? When His commands or actions seems to compromise God’s character?

When God informs Abraham of His intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is shocked. And so might we be, were we in his shoes. He asks God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? (Gen 18:23). Abraham is alarmed—God judging the wicked is to be expected, but to destroy the righteous? This would, in Abraham’s eyes, compromise God’s justice. So, he pleads with God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25). Abraham assumes that God’s initial plan is unrighteous; it directly contradicts what he knows to be true about the character of God. So he does a remarkably bold thing: he rebukes God, far be it from you to do such a thing. 

Now, Abraham’s response is a fascinating mixture of truth and error, of correct impulses and wrong assumptions. Abraham is right: it would be unjust for God to sweep away the righteous alongside the wicked, that is true. But Abraham is wrong in his assessment of whether or not there even are righteous people in Sodom Gomorrah. He does not know how bad things have become there, so he assumes that there are plenty of righteous individuals who are going to be unfairly judged. But he’s wrong—there is only Lot and his family, that’s it, and God spares them. But Abraham brings his wrong interpretation of circumstances and collides it against the true theological reality of God’s character: the Judge of all the earth will always do what is just. Right? Shall the Judge of all the earth do what is right? 

Today, as we return to our study of 1 Samuel I want to do something a little unusual. In our passage today, we are going to encounter a command given by God that may lead us to think: how could a good and just God command such a thing? In 1 Samuel 15, Saul the king of Israel is told by the prophet Samuel: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 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 Sam 15:2-3).

The command to exterminate the Amalekites, at first (or second) glance, jars us. Saul is commissioned to go kill men, women, children, infants, even the livestock of the Amalekites. Isn’t there something in us that raises up, much like in Abraham, that says, “Far be it from you to do such a thing, God!”

What I want to do this morning is use the paradigm of Abraham’s pleading with God in Genesis 18 as a kind of diagnostic tool to jump into this dilemma (and other dilemmas similar to this we may encounter in the Bible). If we read Saul’s command to exterminate the Amalekites and find ourselves wanting to say “Far be it from you to do such a thing, God,” then there are likely assumptions we have about God’s character that are right and some interpretations of the circumstances of this command that are false. If that is our method of approach, then what we approach will be the classic revelation of God’s name to Moses to serve as clear picture of the character of God.

“The LORD — the LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, 7 maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 (CSB)

What is God like? Not “god” as we imagine him to be like, but what does the true God, the living God, Yahweh, tell us He is like? Here, in the proclamation of the name of God to Moses, we get maybe the clearest and most concise picture of who He is. Here we see that God is patient, just, and merciful.

God is Patient

“The LORD — the LORD is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth,” (Ex 34:6, CSB). 

He is compassionate and gracious; He is slow to anger, but is overflowing in faithful, steadfast, unwavering love and faithfulness. God is not a powder keg of anger needing only the faintest spark of a mistake to explode. He is not an abusive father who strikes his child because she loaded the dishwasher wrong. He doesn’t fly off the handle. He is the safest person in the universe. The Bible describes God being “provoked” to anger (eg. Jer. 32:32), but never being provoked to love or mercy. Love is what God abounds in, what spills over the sides. “We tend to think: divine anger is pent up, spring-loaded; divine mercy is slow to build. It’s just the opposite. Divine mercy is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick,” (Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, p. 148).

But, we may say, then why would God command something like the extermination of the Amalekites? Why wasn’t He slow to anger with them?

Look back again at what Samuel tells Saul prior to war command, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt,” (1 Sam 15:2). Four hundred years prior, when the people of Israel were initially fleeing from captivity as slaves in Egypt, they are ambushed in a series of terrorist-like attacks by the Amalekites (Ex 17:8-16). Moses later recounts the story:

“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 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.” – Deut 25:17-18

Who lags behind in a large train of people? Children, the elderly, pregnant women, the sick. And along comes the Amalekite raiders, picking them off. This unprovoked aggression causes Israel to turn around and fight in battle, and God grants victory. But He is so outraged at what has been done that He proclaims a curse over Amalek:

19 Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” – Deut 25:19

And so, the command that Saul is given is the culmination of this curse. But, that doesn’t come to fulfillment for over 400 years. Just to put that into perspective, it will be 2176 before America will have existed as a nation for 400 years. 

And it is not as if Amalek made a mistake 400 years ago, and then spent the next four centuries volunteering with the local rotary club. Throughout the book of Judges we are repeatedly told of the Amalekites oppressing and brutalizing Israel (Judges 3:13; 6:3; 6:33; 7:12; 10:12) and in 1 Samuel 14:48 the Amalekites are listed as one of the nations who were plundering and exploiting God’s people. So, picture yourself standing in your field, working with your family and a band of raiders ride up, they kill all the men in your home, kidnap and rape all the women, and then sell them into slavery or turn them into another wife. Not to mention them stealing all of your livestock, grain, and any other possessions you have. That’s a good picture of what marauding bands of raiders would do back then. 

What does God think of that? Consider what David teaches us in Psalm 7:

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;

he has bent and readied his bow;

  • Ps 7:12

For every unrepentant sin, God prepares His sword and bow. Genesis 2:17 promises death as the consequence for all who sin, and what is stunning is not that God lets the arrow of judgment fly, but that His hand stays on the string for so long! The moral dilemma of the Old Testament is not God’s severity, but rather His unbelievable patience.

God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

God is Just

God is slow to anger, but His anger will be roused. The first half of the proclamation of God’s name centers on His love, compassion, and patience, but this doesn’t come at the expense of God’s justice, “But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation,” (Ex 34:7b, CSB).

God is not morally mushy. A common mistake individuals in the Bible make is that they mistake God’s patience for permission or even absence (eg. 2 Pet 3:3-4, 8-9). Paul picks up this danger in his letter to the Romans when he asks, “do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed,” (Rom 2:4-5). 

You may look at your life and think: “Everything seems fine, I don’t see the sky falling or the ground opening up to swallow me.” Maybe you even feel like you are getting away with something and clever enough to not face the consequences. But Paul sobers us all. Don’t confuse God’s kindness with absence. God will not leave the guilty unpunished.

The “consequences of the fathers’ iniquity” that is passed on to the third and fourth generation doesn’t refer to the guilt or punishment of their father being passed on to the children. The prophet Ezekiel is explicitly clear: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son,” (Ez 18:20). Children are not punished for sins they haven’t committed as if they were guilty. No, but children are affected by the consequence of sin. If your sin turns you into an absent mother or abusive father, your children are not guilty of your sin, but they are marked by it. There is a crater of impact left behind by our sin. So God will not sit idly by and let our sin continue to run rampant; His justice will not be compromised. 

But, you might be thinking, how is it just for women and children and infants to be included in the slaughter of the Amalekites? That seems like the opposite of justice—that seems like a war crime. Saul is told, “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 Sam 15:3). That may be the biggest piece of data we find in this verse that makes us think, Far be it from you to do such a thing, God! 

However, just like Abraham mistook God’s act as being unrighteous because He lacked a complete picture of the circumstances, we will be greatly helped once we get a better picture of the circumstances that makes sense of this command (and others like it). There are whole books on this issue, and lest my sermon devolve into an academic lecture, I will limit myself to just a few of the arguments, but if you are interested in knowing more, feel free to speak with me after the service.

In 1 Sam 15:7-8 we are told: “And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.” So we are told that apart from the king Agag, Saul is successful in devoting to destruction “all the people”. 

But, interestingly, later in 1 Samuel we are told that there are Amalekites again! In 1 Samuel 30:1 we are told, “Now when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, the Amalekites had made a raid against the Negeb and against Ziklag. They had overcome Ziklag and burned it with fire,” (see also 1 Sam 27:8; 30:18; 2 Sam 1:1; 1 Chron 4:41-43; Esther 3:1; 8:3; 9:24). If Saul devoted all the Amalekites to destruction, then where did these Amalekites come from? Well, you could say, I guess Saul didn’t do what he was supposed to do then. But 1 Samuel 15 says the exact opposite. It says that he was successful, except for Agag (who is put to death by the end of the chapter). 

The same phenomenon happens repeatedly in the book of Joshua. For instance, in Joshua 10:36-37 we are told that Joshua kills “every person” in the city of Hebron so that there was “none remaining…and he devoted it to destruction and every person in it.” Yet, in Joshua 11:21, we are told that Joshua must again fight the inhabitants of Hebron and “devote them to destruction.” But, you know who we find again in Joshua 15:13-14? You guessed it, people from Hebron. There are many, many instances of this in Joshua. How are we to make sense of this?

You could say, Well, I guess that is just proof of how unreliable the Bible is. It obviously contradicts itself. But even if we, for the sake of argument, have the most skeptical of all possible perspectives in the Bible and deny it was divinely inspired and inerrant—then there still was an editor who collected these stories, wrote these stories, and wouldn’t they notice these discrepancies? Wouldn’t they iron them out? Sometimes, the discrepancies are in the very same verse (Josh 10:20). Even if they are making up the story wholesale, the editors/authors of this story didn’t think it was contradictory to say that a certain group or people were totally “devoted to destruction,” yet numerous people remained. How do we make sense of that?

We understand that what is being used here is hyperbolic, exaggerative language. If you read carefully, you notice the language itself bears a kind of poetic structure: notice the four word pairs that are used: “Man and woman (gender), child and infant (age), ox and sheep (livestock), camel and donkey (pack animal).” This is known as a merism, a figure of speech where two polar terms stand in place for the whole (come one, come all). These four merisms themselves together form a four-fold merism referring to all people and all animals. But, much like in English, the meaning of the merism isn’t a literal one, but figurative. If I tell you to search “high and low” for something, to look in every “nook and cranny,” you know that I mean something more than literal height and cracks. What do I mean? Look everywhere. So too, the poetic structure of the phrase itself should give us pause in thinking it is to be interpreted literally. Further, theologian Paul Copan explains: “The expression ‘men and women’ or similar phrases appear to be stereotypical for describing all the inhabitants of a town or region without predisposing the reader to assume anything further about their ages or even their genders…The use of “women” and “young and old” was merely stock ancient Near Eastern language that could be used even if women and young and old weren’t living there,” (Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? P. 175-76). 

If we are watching a basketball game together and I say, “That guy broke his ankles,” or, “They got slaughtered out there,” no one would assume that I literally thought the man’s ankles were broken or that a great massacre occurred. Our cultural transmission codes about victory in the sporting arena makes it clear that I am just speaking in a hyperbolic manner. So too, we need to be able to understand that the Bible’s conquest and war narratives can speak about enemies being “devoted to destruction” without it meaning that genocide is happening. 

Instead a careful reading of the text shows us that what is in mind is a decisive victory that leaves the enemy militarily crippled and thus rendered no longer a threat to God’s people. 

Why is God doing this? Because God is just. He will punish evil, He will defend His people, He will not let the tyrant and bully strut around forever. And this leads to God’s people all throughout the Bible praising God’s name—He will execute vengeance on His enemies. We may struggle with the idea of God exercising wrath and judgment, partially because of where and when we live. For us, oppression is largely mental or ideological or emotional. We don’t know what its like to suffer the way most people across time and space have. Miroslav Volf, the Croatian-born theology professor from Yale, who writes:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?

Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. (Volf, Free of Charge, p. 138-39)

God is Merciful

“…maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.” (Ex 34:7a, CSB).

God is slow to anger, God is patient, but God’s justice is unyielding. When his anger is provoked, God will by no means clear the guilty, but will punish sin. And the consequences of sin pass on “to third and fourth generation.” There are consequences for our actions; we reap what we sow. Yet, notice how lopsided this presentation of God’s character is. The dent of sin is three or four generations; the scope of God’s steadfast love? A thousand generations. Sin runs three or four yards, grace a thousand. God’s love surpasses and supersedes judgment by an immeasurable length, swallowing it up entirely. This isn’t an isolated description either. In Ezekiel God laments and weeps over the death of anyone: He takes no pleasure, it does not make God happy, to put anyone to death (Ez 18:23, 32). What does make God happy?

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity

and passing over transgression

for the remnant of his inheritance?

He does not retain his anger forever,

because he delights in steadfast love.

  • Micah 7:18

God is happy to forgive your sin, to show you steadfast love. God’s anger is not only slow to build, but it has an expiration date. The warmth and compassion of God’s heart, the strength and endurance of His steadfast love—love that stands from age to age, a rock that can be slapped with wave after wave after wave of sin and not lose a granule of its integrity—God’s heart cannot remain distant from those who come to Him in faith. Even if you are an Amalekite or a Canaanite. 

Rahab the prostitute was a Canaanite in the city of Jericho—a city that was “devoted to destruction” and everyone within it was to be slain. But she wasn’t. Why? Because she had faith (Heb 11:31) and because our God is an abundantly compassionate, merciful God whose arms are flung wide open to any and all! A God who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but is made happy to instead forgive and love them.

Exodus 34:6-7 may provide the clearest picture of who God is in the Old Testament, but the black and white picture is brought into three-dimensional color and sound when the God who spoke in Exodus takes on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. 

In Matthew 15 we are told of a fascinating interaction Jesus has with ‘a Canaanite woman’ (Matt 15:22). What should catch out attention right away is the fact that ‘Canaanite’ is an anachronism. By Jesus’ day, no one referred to the inhabitants of Palestine as “Canaanites.” This would be like me referring to someone from the South today as a ‘Confederate.’ So, if Matthew is referring to her as a ‘Canaanite’ that means he has done so intentionally. The Canaanites were those who were devoted to destruction in Joshua. But here, we have a Canaanite woman approaching the Messiah of Israel—what will He do? Here is what we are told:

“And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” – Matt 15:22-26

Jesus’ response seems alarming. So alarming we might say, Far be it from you Lord to do such a thing. First his silence, then he doesn’t outright tell her “No” but let’s her know that he is the Messiah of Israel, not her; but then he rudely compares her to a dog begging for scraps. Yet, what we may not notice is two things: first, calling someone a dog is an insult, but not in the way you may assume. Dogs were ceremonially unclean animals (cf. Matt 7:6). When Jesus compares this woman to a dog, He is saying that she is unclean, and therefore does not deserve to receive any aid from the holy and pure God. Second, that just before this interaction Jesus taught His disciples that what made someone unclean wasn’t eating the wrong food or coming from the wrong places, but it was a sinful heart that defiled you (Matt 15:16-20). In other words, Jesus points out to all of His disciples: you all are unclean. None of you deserve to be in the presence of God. 

Jesus’ silence, initial denial, and seeming insult here are exactly what we would expect God’s justice to look like. He leads His disciples along by treating the woman exactly how they—in their sinful self-righteousness—expect an unclean Gentile woman to be treated. But, as Jesus does so often in Matthew, he is trying to expose his disciples’ own hypocrisy by subverting their expectations. What did Jesus just teach them a few verses ago? They’re dogs too; they’re unclean. And while the ink is still drying in their minds, along comes this woman, who is unclean, and they say, “Ugh, come on Jesus, just send this unclean woman away.” It is after that comment that Jesus engages and says, Okay, you guys think you’re better than her. Let’s see what happens. And so Jesus treats her exactly how the disciples think a dog should be treated.

But look at her stunning response:

27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” – Matt 15:27-28

What is her response? What would your response be? How dare you talk to me that way, don’t you know how important I am? I am not unclean, I’m a good person! Or maybe, You’re right, nevermind, and walk away in pit of self-hatred. The woman admits (1) Yes, I am wretched sinner, I am unclean, but (2) still, I know you can help me Jesus. And then Jesus drops all the pretense and turns to her with warmth, “O woman,” you can hear the emotion and tenderness. And then gives her the highest accolade He gives to any one in the gospel: “great is your faith!” and then gives her what she asks for.

None of the disciples are ever told “great is your faith!” Ever. In fact, there is no Jew who is told that. It is only those “outside” who receive that commendation—those who would have been slated for destruction. What is the message of the Bible trying to teach us? That it is only those who are aware of their sin and desperate state who receive the blessing of God. 

We all stand under the barrel of God’s justice, we have made our home in the bullseye of God’s wrath. And God has been so patient with us, so kind. He has not let loose the cannons heaven the minute we sinned. He has reserved judgment, patiently waiting for us to see that His arms are wide open, eager to welcome us in. But doesn’t the Bible say that God will by no means clear the guilty? Yes, it does. If we, like this magnificent woman, admit our sin and go to Jesus in faith for help, Jesus will come and He will take us out of the bullseye of wrath and put us into His home of blessing. And He will take our place, He will suffer our punishment as if He was guilty, so we may go free.

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