We begin tonight the last of the three chapters devoted to the account of Saul’s reign, this one, as you will see, providing the final stage in the Lord’s rejection of him as king of Israel.
We have been pointing out these past Sundays that the narrative of Saul’s reign has showed him as a man without faith, whose failure to obey the Lord is the proof of his faithlessness. Here, the Lord, as it were, gives him one last chance to show that he does believe and will obey. He is given a very specific charge. Unlike the situation in chapter 10, where he was told that he was being anointed to deliver Israel from the Philistines, given the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and placed before an opportunity to attack a Philistine outpost – of which opportunity Saul made nothing – here in chapter 15 he is given very definite instructions. It was a task, moreover, that seemed to be well suited to his own temperament (14:36). But in spite of this, Saul does not do what he has been commanded to do. He fails miserably to fulfill his commission. As one commentator puts it, “Saul, as this chapter in particular would have us understand, was a man in contention with Yahweh in a way that David, for all his lurid sins, never was.”
The result will be, though we will not reach that part of the chapter tonight, that Saul is pronounced rejected, loses any favor the Lord still extended him, and – as the subsequent chapters will show – becomes a dead man even while he continues to live.
v.1 The Hebrew literally reads “Me the Lord has sent…” and by placing the pronoun in the emphatic position, Samuel accents his role as the Lord’s agent in summoning Saul to be king. That sets the stage for Samuel’s role as the one who will pronounce his reign cancelled.
v.3 The NIV’s “totally destroy” translates the Hebrew term [herem] that is a technical term meaning to “place under the ban” which means to totally destroy people and often possessions because they are regarded as the Lord’s own spoil. Here Israel is to be the Lord’s instrument in judging a deeply wicked people who had, on a number of occasions, done harm to Israel. It was the Amalekites, you may remember, who fought Israel in the wilderness when Moses stood on the hill above the battle with his arms raised and later in the day had to have his aides hold his arms up. Their particularly egregious sin (Deuteronomy 25:18) was to massacre the stragglers. Remember, the failure to observe a ban like this at Jericho by Achan led to disaster for Israel’s army in the next fight at Ai.
v.4 The Amalekites lived in the Negev south of Israel and Telaim was one of Israel’s southernmost cities. Remember what we have said about the word “thousand” and the possibility that in military contexts it stands for a military unit of whatever size.
v.6 Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite.
v.8 It was a comprehensive defeat but not final, for the Amalekites lived to fight again, as we will read in chapter 30.
v.9 The fateful word is “spared” which indicates the direct disobedience to the instructions he received in v. 3 where he was told “Do not spare them…” The verb is in the singular, even though there is a plural subject – Saul and the army – indicating that Saul is the principal and responsible party. That is important because later Saul will blame the soldiers for failing to do what God had commanded.
v.11 The Lord is often represented as grieving over past decisions and changing his mind in the Bible. Such expressions, taking the Bible as a whole, are certainly “anthropopathic”, that is, they attribute human feelings and passion to God whose feelings and passions are obviously unlike man’s in many important ways. Still, such expressions reveal to us the dynamic relationship that God sustains to his creation and the reality of his emotions, however different they may be from ours.
Samuel’s crying out to the Lord through the night is probably his intercession for Saul in hopes of averting at the last hour the Lord’s rejection of him.
v.12 The Lord himself tells us the motives that led Saul to erect a monument to his victory over the Amalekites.
v.13 We hear the jar in Saul’s words. The Lord has already said in v. 11 that Saul did not carry out his instructions. Here is Saul using the same word to say that he had carried out those instructions.
v.15 Saul attempts to rationalize his conduct, but his language indicates that he fully understood what it meant to put something under the ban.
v.19 The NIV’s “why did you not obey” is literally “why did you not listen to the voice of the Lord. That is important because that is what we got at v. 1. “Listen now to the voice of the Lord”. The Hebrew word voice, used in vv. 1 and 19, and then again in v. 22 – where the NIV again renders it “obey” – is also the same word used twice in v. 14. The NIV translates it “bleating” and “lowing”. It is the thematic key word in the chapter. Saul should have listened to the voice of the Lord, instead only the voice of animals can be heard, animals that should be dead. In v. 24 Saul admits that instead of listening to the voice of the Lord, he listened to the voice of the people (the NIV’s “gave in to them”).
v.22 Obviously a both/and, not an either/or. A standard theme in the prophets. Isaiah 1; Amos 5; Jeremiah 7; etc.
v.23 The choice of divination is not accidental, given Saul’s repeated attempts to divine the future. Rather than trust God’s word, he wants to know ahead of time how everything will turn out.
We have here, therefore, only one further and still clearer evidence of Saul’s failure as the king, and this is the last. After this there can be no thought of Saul or his house continuing to rule over Israel. In the very next chapter provision is made for his replacement.
And the problem is on this occasion what it was before: Saul did not do what he was supposed to do. He did not obey God, or God’s summons or commandments. And his disobedience was a demonstration of his unbelief. That point is emphasized explicitly in the verses we read. We read the point in v. 11 where the Lord likens Saul’s disobedience to “turning away from me.” And, of course, that same idea lies in the very phrase that is used three times: “listen to the voice of the Lord.” Saul did not listen to God. His disobedience, his not doing, was a result of his not listening and hearing the Lord, of the distance that was between them, of the failure of relationship with God, or, what we would more typically say, of Saul’s unbelief in God, which is the same thing.
That is the point that is made so powerfully in v. 23 where Saul’s disobedience to the commands he had received is likened to divination and idolatry. What divination, the practice, forbidden to Israel, of trying to extort from God the knowledge of his will for the future so that you can line up your plans with his, and idolatry have in common is precisely that both are an affront to God’s unique authority. Divination assumes that God’s word is not sufficient for us. We need inside information. It is not enough simply to trust and obey the Lord our God. And idolatry assumes that worshipping God alone is not enough. In both cases, as in Saul’s disobedience to God’s commands, there is a diminishment of God’s Word, an unwillingness to let God be God, and simply to trust ourselves to him.
In that way, disobedience is a form of unbelief, a failure of true, humble, reliance upon God, a failure of confidence in him, his grace, his truth, his faithfulness, his covenant. That is why disobedience is so important. It is a symptom of an underlying cancer, the cancer of unbelief.
Now, this chapter serves as a study in disobedience and, especially, in the psychology of disobedience. And that in two ways especially.
First, disobedience always has its rationale. It never seems unreasonable to the one who turns away from God’s commandments. Quite the contrary.
Faith and obedience are necessarily joined and obedience is the demonstration of faith precisely because there will always be considerations of sight, sense, and reason not to do what the Lord has said.
It certainly appeared foolish to Saul to do what God had commanded. It isn’t entirely clear why Saul spared Agag, the Amalekite king. Perhaps he thought it wise, as a king himself, to show deference to another king. Perhaps it stoked his pride to have another king owe him his life. But it is perfectly obvious why he spared the best of the livestock and destroyed only that of poorer quality. We can hear the arguments across the ages. What a waste of quality property? Surely God does not want us to waste his resources. Some of this can be used for sacrifice. [Believe me! They weren’t planning to use all of it for sacrifice, if they were planning to use any of it until Saul, in v. 21, needed an excuse for his action.] It would be poor stewardship of God’s blessing just to destroy these animals. The Amalekites hurt Israel years before. Surely it is better repayment to plunder them rather than simply destroy them. Often in the past the Lord has permitted Israel to take the best of what belonged to the peoples she conquered in battle. Why not now?
All of that is most reasonable. And those arguments seem most persuasive to those who have their eyes on those flocks and herds and are thinking of possessing them themselves! Only faith knows that not a one of these considerations amounts to a hill of beans if, in fact, God has commanded the destruction of all the Amalekite herds and flocks. Is the infinitely good and wise God to be suspected by us his sinful people of having given foolish or bad commandments?
We run into this all the time, don’t we? There are always good reasons for disobedience. A case can always be made for doing what God forbids. You young people whose parents wisely forbid you to do things that would expose you to temptations of various kinds, or would amount to a waste of your time, often raise just these sorts of arguments. Don’t you? Other Christian kids get to do this thing or that. When I am doing it I’m with other Christian kids, so really it’s a form of Christian fellowship. I’m old enough to make right decisions, you can trust me. I need these experiences; they are part of my growing up. You are making my life dull and uninteresting. How is that good for me? And so on. And your parents, young people, struggle in precisely the same ways. We can always think of reasons to disobey the Lord. We can always come up with an argument for not listening to his voice. In any number of ways, doing what he says strikes us as unreasonable, too restrictive, hard, unnecessary, and likely to dampen our fun.
I deal with people all the time who struggle at precisely this point. They are sure that doing what God requires will be too difficult for them. He asks too much of them. They will be happier doing something else.
Sight and sense and reason will never convince them that they are wrong and that the path to true happiness, peace, and fulfillment lies in obeying God’s commands, however difficult, come wind, come weather. Only faith knows that. Only faith is sure that God’s commands are not burdensome, that he never asks anything that is not right and, at the same time, best for us. Only faith knows that God will bless the obedient but that the way of the transgressor will be hard. Sooner or later, and usually sooner in my experience, the way of the transgressor will be very hard.
F.W. Krummacher, in his lovely book on Elijah, commenting on the Lord’s strange and difficult command to Elijah to go off into the barren wilderness:
“Whenever the Lord says to any of his children, ‘Get thee hence, and hide thyself,’ he also says, either expressly or by implication,’ ‘and the ravens shall feed thee there.’ Every duty which he commands has its promise appended to it; and we need be under no concern except to know that the Lord has directed our way.” [Elijah, 32]
Faith knows that, but Saul did not. He was sure he would be better off doing it his way than the Lord’s. The result was his ruin.
No one said that obedience would be easy. It is hard, it is often very hard. It often does require standing against very powerful desires to do otherwise. But that God will reward it and that everyone who obeys will be far, far better off and happier than anyone who disobeys, everyone with faith in Christ knows to be true! Indeed, the Lord has even made obedience, I think, purposely apparently unreasonable, just to test our faith in him and our loyalty to him. Think, for example, of God’s command to stop and circumcise the nation of Israel after she had crossed into the Promised Land. She lay just before her enemies, but six miles from Jericho. Circumcision was hardly a militarily responsible thing to do. Israel knew her history. In Genesis after the men of a town were circumcised two men were able to murder them all. For three days Israel was unable to move or fight, she lay open to her enemies. And what was the result of her obedience to God? Her victory at Jericho. God always knows best. Obedience is always the wisest policy.
We live in a day when it is thought absurdly old fashioned to require conduct of people that seems oppressive, difficult, restrictive, unpleasant, uninteresting, or unreasonable to them. And so, more and more, people do what they want to do and are a law unto themselves. In preparation for this message I read over again the scathing comments of Allan Bloom concerning the so-called student movement in the late 1960s. What he saw so clearly and what the students never saw was the complete identification of the higher ideals they were supposedly standing for and their own personal preferences, wants, and desires. They were able to live as they please and imagine themselves moral crusaders at the same time. Bloom writes, in his Closing of the American Mind [p. 329]: “Never in history had there been such a marvelous correspondence between the good and the pleasant.”
Well not with obedience to God. God’s standards are very high. Meeting them will always pose a difficulty for us and require sacrifice of us. There will always be reasons our flesh poses for not obeying. Only faith understands that obedience is absolutely necessary, however difficult, and that no one will profit more from it, in the long run, than we ourselves. Sauls’ fundamental problem, therefore, was not his disobedience but his lack of faith, of spiritual sight. Lacking that, he could not see why obedience was best and disobedience was folly. He judged by sight and sense and lost everything.
In the second place, this chapter is a study in the psychology of a fundamental, faithless disobedience in the portrait it paints of a man who has been caught and in the excuses he offers to mitigate and lesson his guilt.
As we have pointed out a number of times so far, David will do some terrible things as the King of Israel. The difference between David and Saul does not lie in the fact that one disobeyed and the other did not. David disobeyed in some ways as inexcusable and destructive as Saul’s disobedience was. Thousands of Israelites died as the result of David’s sin of numbering the people at the end of his reign, to say nothing of Bathsheba and Uriah.
But when David was caught he did not extenuate; he did not excuse; he did not explain; he confessed and he repented and in so doing he showed that the disobedience was not the measure of his truest self. Down deep in his heart he was a slave to God’s law not a rebel against it.
But not so Saul. He responds to Samuel in v. 20 with the three most typical excuses people use when trying to defend their disobedience.
- The first excuse is to set one’s virtues over against one’s disobedience.
Saul wants his failure to comply with the Lord’s command completely to destroy the Amalekite flocks and herds to be mitigated by his pointing out how thoroughly he did everything else that the Lord said to do.
I hear this excuse all the time. I remember a man of our number some years ago who did not obey the law in his business. When we confronted him about that his response was to be offended that we didn’t pay enough attention to the good works that he had done, the jobs that he had given to others in the church. All the obedience in the world is to no effect if it is offered as an excuse for one’s disobedience.
Saul’s response only made matters worse. To make his excuse he had to admit that he had not done what God had commanded him to do.
- The second excuse is to blame others for one’s failure.
As long ago as Adam in the garden this has been the standard dodge. It wasn’t my fault. In this case, Saul said it was the soldier’s fault. A point already denied in v. 9, where the verb is in the singular and Saul is clearly regarded as the responsible party, which he was in any case as the King.
I have heard people use that excuse a hundred times. Husbands blame their wives, children their parents, parents their children, and so on. Ninety percent of American divorcees say that the divorce was the other spouse’s fault. I have often heard people blaming the church for this or that that they have done. If they aren’t happy, if they have had a falling out with someone, if they have a critical spirit, it is the church’s fault for not doing this for them or that. With what passion we defend ourselves! How willing we are to sacrifice our neighbors to defend ourselves! We see it in public life all the time. And, alas, we see it in the church.
- The third excuse is to place a positive construction on one’s disobedience.
We may have done the wrong thing, but we did it for a noble reason. So here. Saul excuses the failure to destroy the Amalekite flocks and herds by making the claim, no doubt if not downright untrue at least highly exaggerated, that the animals were spared to be used in sacrifice to God.
And so it goes. The harsh and unkind remark was a case of speaking the truth in love. The failure to share one’s faith was an instance of not casting one’s pearls before swine. The shaving of one’s gifts to God was a case of meeting one’s responsibilities to one’s family. [We see that a great deal in American professional sports. Whenever athletes seek to gouge their team for more and more money it is always because they have to think of their families. I remember Carol Rosenbloom, the owner of the old Baltimore Colts remarking years ago how happy he was about the first player’s strike because it had made so many family men out of the football players! We see it also in lawsuits. No one ever sues for the money. It is always for justice and for the sake of others who might be injured in the same way as he was.]
Samuel is unimpressed with any of these arguments and we should be too and quick to refuse ourselves when the temptation to use them rises in our minds. If we have disobeyed the Lord, it is our fault, no one else’s; no other obedience makes up for what we have failed to do; and there is no and can be no good reason for doing what God forbids or failing to do what he commands. “Lord did we not cast out demons in your name…” Yes, you did. But depart from me, I never knew you. For not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father in heaven.”
Forget the excuses. Stop making arguments. Obey. If Daniel had stopped praying and remained safely at home in bed instead of being cast in the lion’s den, the plaster probably would have fallen from the ceiling above his bed and killed him. He was safest with the lions, picking a nice soft one for a pillow.
And will you obey? Well, remember this. As Thomas Halyburton wrote, “…the most effectual inducement to obedience is, a constant improvement of the blood of Christ by faith, and a sense of forgiveness kept on the soul.” Or, as Walter Marshall put the same point, “We must first receive the comforts of the Gospel in order that we may be able to perform sincerely the duties of the law.”
This was Saul’s problem. There was no real love for God in his heart. No desire to please the Lord and love the Lord with his life. He wasn’t rejoicing in God’s grace given to him and wanting to make a generous return to God to show his thanksgiving. He wasn’t full of the goodness and wisdom of God that would banish from his mind all thought that God’s commandments might be unfair or harsh or unreasonable. He was distant from God. It appears that we are being reminded of that in v. 15 when Saul refers to the Lord as Samuel’s God and not as his own God.
There is no better way to maintain a hunger and thirst for obedience and a delight in obedience and a willingness to obey in the face of obstacles than simply to keep a sense of God’s love on the heart, and nothing is more important to that end than worship, thanksgiving, and meditation on the salvation which is ours in Christ.
Remember that great scene in Bunyan’s Grace Abounding which is then repeated in Pilgrim’s Progress? Where Bunyan, so overwhelmed by the sense he had of God’s great love and grace to him through the Lord Jesus, that he walked home, as it were, a foot off the ground. He said he could have shared his happiness with the birds on the tree if only they could have understood him. And then those great words: “I thought, had I had a thousand gallons of blood in my veins, I could freely then have spilt it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Savior.” [Grace Abounding, paragraph 192]
Christian do not always feel so strongly the love of God, but if they are careful to school themselves in that love, the principle and the conviction will be there even if the feeling is not as powerful as they wish were.
“Take his easy yoke and wear it, love will make obedience sweet.”
There was nothing of that in Saul’s heart and so there was no passion to do all that the Lord God had told him to do; there was no pure delight in obedience; and there was no immediate and unqualified condemnation of himself when he failed to obey. It is just in this way that we will see a different man in David.
Two thoughts to conclude. Let’s not leave this chapter without hearing the most obvious lesson of all. When God commands, we are to obey. No discussion, no questions. “I like you and your company very well,” someone told the Puritan Richard Rogers, “but you are so precise.” “Sir,” replied the Essex clergyman, “I serve a precise God.”
And then remember this. There is obedience for you and for me all the time, every day. It is not as though these principles concern only commandments such as God gave Saul to destroy the Amalekites. We too live under orders of every kind and our lives will be measured as Saul’s was.
We need not bid, for cloistered cell,
Our neighbor and our work farewell.
Nor strive to wind ourselves to high
For sinful man beneath the sky;
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we need to ask, —
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
And one more thought: Augustine’s perfect expression of the obedient Christian mind: “Command what you will, O Lord, but give what you command.”