To Obey Is Better (1 Sam 15)

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

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. 

Bob Dylan here touches on the universal reality that—whatever your station in life—you are a slave to something. Servanthood isn’t reserved for the poor and destitute, but for the wealthy, the successful, the powerful as well. We all look at something, it could be our reputation, our ego, our comfort, and say: I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you. A decade later, Bruce Springsteen told us the same truth when he sang that “everybody’s got a hungry heart.” There is something in us that craves, that needs, that says: there is something wrong and you need to figure out how to fix it.

10 The word of the LORD came to Samuel: 11 “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. 12 And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.” 13 And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” 14 And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” 15 Saul said, “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.” 16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the LORD said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.”

17 And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. 18 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.’ 19 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?” 20 And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. 21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.” 22 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.
23 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.”

24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the LORD.” 26 And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” 27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” 30 Then he said, “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.” 31 So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the LORD.

32 Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33 And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.

34 Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

–       1 Sam 15:10-35

One of the major themes in this chapter is listening. The word for “obey” in Hebrew is the same word as “hear.” In verse 1 Saul was told, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD,” (1 Sam 15:1). Saul had been installed as king, from one angle, by God for the purpose of delivering Israel from the nations who had been oppressing them (1 Sam 9:16). But from another angle, Saul became the king because of the people refused to listen to the voice of God through Samuel (1 Sam 8:19) and then Samuel is told by God, “Obey their voice and make them a king,” (1 Sam 8:22). It was popular demand that installed Saul into his position and popular demand that controls Saul’s position. But fame and popularity are fickle things. And everybody’s gotta serve somebody, even the king of Israel. If your status rests on keeping the people happy, even if you are in a position of prominence, you are a slave to the likes and follows and compliments of the crowd. 

The two outward sins that leads Saul to lose his kingship are the failure to destroy all the livestock and king Agag. In the text, we are explicitly told that (according to Saul) that it was the demands of the people that led to the sparing of the best of the livestock. But why does Saul keep Agag alive? The text doesn’t tell us, so we can’t be sure, but perhaps Saul was following the common practice of parading conquered kings around as a demonstration of his own power. We are told about a monument Saul erects for himself in vs. 12, so he obviously is interested in displaying his military prowess. And for these sins, Saul is rejected by God. If we read of Saul’s demise here with a shallow eye, we may be surprised at the severity of God’s judgment, puzzled even. But the transgression of Saul in this chapter is just the tip of an iceberg of something much more sinister that runs far, far deeper in him.

Sin Grieves

Perhaps you noticed right away the strange notion that God “regrets” that He has made Saul king, mentioned at the very beginning and very end of the story (15:11, 35). But, nestled in-between those two we are told that “the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret,” (15:29). How are we to make sense of that? In verse 29 Samuel is responding to Saul’s request for his sin to be pardoned, but Samuel makes it clear that God’s word of judgment has fallen—he has rejected Saul as being king, so He will not go back on His word; He isn’t a man, so He doesn’t lie, which means when God says He will do something He won’t change His mind (cf. Num 23:19). Samuel makes it clear that when we are told that God “regrets” Saul becoming king it isn’t the regret of God saying, “Oops, I wish I wouldn’t have done that. If only I had known better.” 

So what is it then? The “regret” of God here is an anthropomorphism that demonstrates the emotional pain God experiences in Saul’s disobedience. It is similar to what we are told in Genesis 6:6 just before the flood, “And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” 

This touches the reality that our sin grieves God. Perhaps we think of Paul’s warning, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption,” (Eph 4:30). God is not indifferent to sin. You and I can grow callous to sin, but that is because we are sinners ourselves. There is no sin in God, so His heart is infinitely more sensitive to the wretchedness of sin than we are. 

Sin Deceives

One of the most common characteristics of sin is that it is ‘deceitful.’ Sin always lies. It lies to you about what you are missing out on, what it offers, and what it costs. When God warned Cain of sin He told him that it is “crouching at the door” for him (Gen 4:7)—sin always presents itself smaller than it really is. This story is a perfect display of what the deceptiveness of sin looks like.

After Samuel is told of Saul’s sin by God, he goes to confront Saul: “And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” (1 Sam 15:13) This is literally the exact opposite of reality. God told Samuel that Saul, “has not performed my commandments,” (1 Sam 15:11). Yet, through twisted logic, Saul has convinced himself that he has indeed done what God said. And while it is tortured logic that leads to Saul’s confidence, if we are honest, it is also familiar. Who of us haven’t been in a position where we have been caught or confronted and been embarrassed and ashamed and tried to grab some fig leaves to hide behind?

14 And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” 15 Saul said, “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,” (1 Sam 15:14-15).

Though Saul listened to the command, he did not hear. And, ironically, Samuel hears the evidence of Saul’s disobedience: the bleating of sheep and the excuses of Saul. Notice: when explaining the undeniable and indefensible, Saul pushes responsibility out (They have brought…the people spared), but when explaining the aspects of the situation that perfectly line up with obedience to God’s command, Saul includes himself (the rest we have devoted to destruction). Saul is really good at spinning a story. He sees Samuel coming, so he greets him with an official blessing and boldly proclaims his total obedience to God’s command. Of course, he can’t hide the droves of bleating sheep and lowing oxen behind him, but perhaps if he confidently asserts his obedience, it will throw the grumpy prophet off kilter. Why do I have all these sheep and oxen from the Amalekites when God told me to devote them to destruction? Well, you know how the people are, they just hated the idea of wasting perfectly good sheep that they could offer to Yahweh in worship (they’re heart is in the right place, after all) and who am I to get in-between them and sacrificing to the Lord? But don’t worry, I remember what you said, I personally made sure that everything else was totally destroyed.

But Samuel is not fooled and yells at Saul to just stop (1 Sam 15:16) and asks Saul:

“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?” (1 Sam 15:19) Samuel isn’t buying Saul’s version of the story. He doesn’t think that they have spared the sheep and oxen for altruistic purposes nor does he think Saul is innocent in the matter—“Why did you pounce on the spoil?” But Saul only doubles down:

“And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal,” (1 Sam 15:20-21). With a clever use of verbal jiu-jitsu, Saul makes a stack of proclamations of what he has done in obedience, but slides in part of his disobedience in there and treats it like obedience: I have brought Agag the king of Amalek. Saul speaks as if this is what he was supposed to do, but that wasn’t what he was supposed to do—he was supposed to execute Agag. But he hopes the train of his rhetoric will smooth that out, and finishes by (again) pinning the blame on the people. Saul sounds just like Adam in the garden: it’s the woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit, it’s her fault—really its your fault God, since you gave her to me (Gen 3:12). Honestly, he sounds like us. When our sin is confronted, how easy is it to qualify and excuse and defend why what we did wasn’t actually wrong, why the rules don’t necessarily apply to us here. Especially if you see a good reason to deviate from God’s commands some. Saul thought he could flex God’s commands a bit because he found a holy, religious justification for it: we’ll make it a sacrifice! But Samuel reminds us:

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. (1 Sam 15:22)

God is not pleased with sacrifices, offerings, good deeds, donations, or anything that comes at the expense of simple obedience to His commands. It may feel tempting to modify God’s commands to something that makes more sense, is less uncomfortable or challenging, but Saul’s story is a sobering reminder that to modify God’s word is to reject God’s word. Is there any command that God has given that you have felt like you don’t technically need to follow? Is there forgiveness you have been withholding? Lust you have been indulging? Honesty you have hidden? Do you feel like directly obeying the plain force of God’s Word feels unbelievably overwhelming? 

How do we prevent ourselves from being deceived? “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin,” (Heb 3:13). We need one another. The Christian isolated from others is in mortal danger.

Sin Bereaves

Sin will cost you more than you can imagine. The sin that seemed so justifiable in the dark of Saul’s mind and in the company of the crowds, now, in the daylight of God’s Word, seems like a monster devouring everything dear to Saul. His kingdom and rule are now, in God’s eyes, over. Sin promises you everything (you’ll be like God!) and takes everything. We see the cost of sin played out in God’s rejection of Saul (1 Sam 15:23) and Agag’s execution (1 Sam 15:33). Both are the proportionate judgment for their sin by God: Saul has rejected God’s word, so God rejects Saul as king; Agag’s sword made women childless, so shall his mother now be childless by the sword. What you reap is what you sow.

The judgment from Samuel gets Saul’s attention. Twice he admits his fault and pleads with Samuel:

24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the LORD.” (1 Samuel 15:24-25)

30 Then he said, “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.” (1 Sam 15:30)

We may wonder, why didn’t God accept Saul’s apology? He admitted his sin, yet his request is denied by Samuel (1 Sam 15:26). Isn’t God forgiving and merciful? Isn’t He slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Yes, of course He is. But just because someone says, “I’m sorry,” doesn’t mean they are actually sorry. Paul warns of the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow, true repentance and fake repentance. If we look at Saul’s two confessions, we can discern that there isn’t much genuine repentance here.

–       First, in vs. 24 Saul admits that he “feared the people and obeyed their voice.” That is exactly right and fits with the entire character arc of Saul in the book. He is a slave to the opinion of everyone else. But notice his request for Saul to “return with” him indicates that he is still in the same bondage. The second request he doesn’t even mention anything about a request for pardon, but just says, “honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel.” Samuel has already once publicly opposed Saul (1 Sam 13), and Saul knows his political career cannot sustain another blow from the head of the Church.

–       Notice the pronouns in vs. 30: “honor me before…my people…that I may bow before the Lord your God.” Who is Saul’s god? The people, not Yahweh.

Honoring God with your lips while your heart is far from Him doesn’t please the Lord. God sees what Saul loves, what Saul serves, what his heart hungers for—and it isn’t Him. In fact, this chapter artfully draws us to compare Saul and Agag. I was speaking with another pastor this week about why Saul spares Agag, and he suggested that perhaps Saul spares Agag because he sees something of himself in him and couldn’t bring himself to issue out what justice requires, knowing that he himself deserves something similar. Notice how the author compares the two:

1.     Both are kings

2.     Both are associated with armies

3.     Both are rejected by the Lord

4.     Both approach Samuel cheerfully (1 Sam 15:13; 15:32)

5.     Both have their sins specifically named (1 Sam 15:9; 15:33)

6.     Both are cut to pieces by the Lord: Saul’s kingdom is “torn” to pieces, Agag himself is “hacked to pieces before the LORD” (1 Sam 15:27-28; 15:33)

Samuel’s execution of Agag would have served a powerful object lesson for Saul: this is what your sin leads to. While that may seem prophetically dramatic and over the top, don’t miss the lesson for ourselves: sin will cost you. 

We all are sinners, here. Eradicating sin out of our life entirely simply isn’t an option. So what do we do when we sin? How do we keep ourselves from offering phony confessions that God rejects? Look at 1 John:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:6-10)

What must we do? We must be honest about our sin. If we are honest, what happens? We have fellowship with one another and we receive the forgiveness of sins that Jesus’ shed blood has secured for us. If we deny our sin, we are deceived and we call God a liar. What foolishness!

When we sin we have two options: 

1.     We stand with our sin and defend it against God

2.     We stand with God against our sin

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