1 Samuel 15 starts off with Samuel giving some specific instructions to Saul. When exactly this occurs in relation to the previous chapters, I don’t know. Assuming chronological order, at this point in time Samuel has rebuked Saul for disobedience and declared that his kingdom will not last forever.
But while the kingdom may not last forever, it is still in Saul’s possession for now. So Samuel gives Saul some specific instructions from the LORD:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
1 Sam. 15: 3, NKJV
Immediately, Saul gathers his army together and prepares to attack. He sends a message to the Kenites, who were dwelling among the Amalekites, to get out of the city before the battle occurs, lest they be punished along with the Amalekites. Once that’s taken care of, he attacks the Amalekites across their territory.
But he fails to obey God’s specific instructions to “utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.” Instead, he spares the king of Amalek along with the best of the animals.
The LORD sees Saul’s disobedience and reveals to Samuel that Saul has not been obedient. In great sorrow, Samuel cries out to the LORD all that night, and then the next morning rises early to go look for Saul. Someone tells him where Saul is, and also informs him that Saul has “set up a monument for himself” (vs. 12). Apparently Saul is pretty proud of himself for what he has accomplished against the Amalekites, and doesn’t have a clue that he’s actually in big trouble.
When Samuel finally meets up with Saul, the king greets him with pride, “Blessed are you of the LORD! I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (vs. 13).
But the old prophet is not easily fooled. “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of oxen which I hear?” (vs. 14).
Saul quickly explains that the best animals have been spared for the purpose of sacrificing them to the LORD.
Samuel is tired of the excuses. “Be quiet! And I will tell you what the LORD said to me last night” (vs. 16). He reminds Saul of how he had started off – a humble man who thought himself the least of all the men of Israel. And it was when he was humble that God raised him up and anointed him king over all Israel. The only reason he is great is because the LORD has made him great. So when God gave him a specific command and said to destroy the Amalekites completely, why didn’t he obey the command?
Saul still seems confused, “But I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me” (vs. 20, emphasis added). But then he goes on to admit his fault without even realizing it, “[I have] brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the plunder, sheep and oxen, the best of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal” (vs. 20-21).
To this excuse, Samuel gives his famous declaration:
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 heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
He also has rejected you from being king.
To this rebuke, Saul basically says, “Okay, you were right. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have disobeyed and listened to what the people wanted. So please forgive me – and I want you to come with me so that I may worship the LORD.”
Now, there are 3 main things that I gleaned from Saul’s response here and in subsequent verses:
- Saul wants Samuel to come with him to worship the LORD. But what was he wanting to worship God with? Probably all the animals from Amalek that God had told him to destroy! If Saul were truly sorry, then maybe he should have called off the sacrifices and finished the job that God gave him.
- Saul seems to have completely missed what Samuel just told him: obedience is better than sacrifice. In spite of the stern rebuke he has just received, Saul remains focused on the worship service that he had planned. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that the sacrifices will mean nothing if they come from a heart that’s clinging to disobedience. Is it really worship when you are in that state?
- Saul seems very insistent on Samuel being there so that he may worship God (see vs. 25 and 30). Back in chapter 13, we read that Saul was in Gilgal, waiting for Samuel to arrive; but he lost patience and performed the sacrifices himself – and got in trouble for it. Here in chapter 15, Saul is back in Gilgal, wanting to make sacrifices. This time he wants to make sure the prophet is the one overseeing the sacrifices, so he doesn’t get in trouble again. What’s sad is that he doesn’t seem to truly grasp that, in spite of his efforts, he is repeating the same mistake anyway – the mistake of not following God’s commands.
- There is a difference between “I’m sorry because I got caught” and genuine repentance. Which attitude characterizes our own apologies?
- When God convicts us through His Word or someone else, do we really pay attention and take the lesson to heart? Or are we too focused on what we want to focus on?
- When we worship God, do we come in sincerity, worshiping in spirit and in truth (John 4:24)? Or could God say of us, “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me” (Matt. 15:8-9).
My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.
1 John 3:18, NKJV