1 Sam 15:1-3, 7-23
Have you ever had someone disobey you? Have you ever had someone not do what you asked them to do even after they agreed? Then this sermon is for you.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been watching the decline of Saul’s tenure as king over Israel. It started out as such a bright possibility, with God giving the people what they asked for: a king like the other nations had.
Saul was tall, handsome, a warrior, a leader who could rally the troops. But in the end, Samuel’s warnings to the people about putting their hope in a king rather than in God turned out to be true, as Saul continually chose not to obey God’s commands, but instead made decisions that benefited him or gave him a better reputation among his people.
Today, we will read the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back, or, rather, the choice that broke Saul’s kingship. Keep your Bibles open because we’ll be looking at all of 1 Samuel chapter 15, and now let’s hear an excerpt…
The last time we saw Saul, he was fighting off the long-time enemy of Israel, the Philistines. Things weren’t going as well as he wanted, so he imposed a rule on his soldiers of no eating or drinking until the battle was over. His son, Jonathan betrayed that order, since the men were wasting away during a long, exhausting day of fighting. When Saul found out, he was so livid he almost had Jonathan killed for going against his order. Talk about being a bit tight-fisted with the rules and power.
Today’s story shows just how far Saul has come since he was anointed king. Do we remember how it started? He started out by hiding when he had been selected to become king. He was so worried about the pressure that was going to be put on him, that he chose to hide and escape the scrutiny of the people rather than accept the mantle of responsibility from God.
Later in his story, he was facing Israel’s enemies, and it seemed like a battle was inevitable. But they had to wait for Samuel to show up to make an offering before God so that they could fight with the confidence of God on their side. But when the troops started drifting, and the enemy seemed bigger than ever, and Samuel was still “on his way,” Saul buckled under the pressure and opted to try and coerce God into supporting his mission through empty ritual.
Now, we find Saul as a much more confident leader. He’s gotten experience. He’s won battles. Sure, he had that little thing where he tried to snuff out his own son last week, but other than that, he’s a strong and fit king. So strong and fit that he’s starting to think that he is the one who can call all the shots, and he starts playing fast and loose with God’s commands.
Our story opens with Samuel going to Saul and reminding him that it was the Lord who anointed him as king, and now the Lord has a mission of divine warfare for Saul to carry out and completely wipe out a neighboring tribe, the Amalekites.
Now, we have to pause here. We’re barely three verses into this section, and already we’ve hit something that seems crazy to us modern listeners.
What? God wants Saul to COMPLETELY wipe out a people group? Why in the world would God order something as brutal as this? A self-defensive war may be justified, perhaps, but total warfare? Why destroy the animals? The women? The CHILDREN?!
I don’t know if you are as surprised and thrown off as I am, but we need to spend a few moments addressing this before we continue on with our real focus, which is Saul’s disobedience.
There are whole books on the subject of violence and war in the Old Testament, and many scholars have spent their whole careers studying it. So, disclaimer: there is much more that can be said than we’ll get to here. However, there was an Old Testament scholar who made a couple points in my research that I thought would be helpful to share.
First, we need to remember that God is a holy, good, and loving Creator. We can’t make sweeping pronouncements based on a few sections of the Bible. Rather, we need to look at the whole overarching narrative of God’s redemptive plan, from creation to new creation. Old Testament Holy Wars can only be rightly understood within a story that reveals God who is committed to eradicating sin and renewing his creation.
Second, divine warfare is limited and not repeatable. We need to remember that these wars were fought in a particular time in Israel and are not to be repeated by the church nor by any other people in our present world. It’s not justified now just because it happened back then. The church cannot use any piece of 1 Samuel 15 to connect obedience to Jesus to the desire to “go out and kill the infidel.” That would be a complete misapplication and departure from the clear teaching of Jesus on how we are to love even our enemies.
Finally, divine warfare is not genocide or ethnic cleansing. It’s the elimination of false worship. Ancient peoples like Israel and Amalek saw their national identities bound up with three factors: their particular place, their particular god, and their particular people group. Just like the plagues in Exodus were used by God to show that the Egyptian gods were powerless, God works to eliminate the false gods around Israel in the Promised Land so that his people will not stray from him.
And while these tactics might have been employed at a time when the world was full of tribal warfare and regional deity worship, we cannot skew the picture by assuming that this is our model for how to exact justice today. Jesus completely threw out the people’s previous understanding of rules and laws and proper actions and called his followers to the higher standard of love. Love is the new covenant that we are under. Love is the command he gave to his disciples and us on the night he was betrayed. Love is the only acceptable filter for the actions of those of us who follow Jesus. If we’re not motivated and empowered by love for others and love for God, anything we do is only clanging noise at best and really harmful at worst.
Now, I don’t know if that is actually satisfying to you at all for why God commands Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites. It’s still a hard to read section, but it’s interesting to me that the word in Hebrew actually means to completely devote something to God in a special act of consecration. It belongs to the Lord now. In other areas of the Old Testament when this word is used in reference to warfare, it means consecrating something to destruction. The point is that it belongs to God now, and so Saul’s decision to partially obey the command is really all about his decision to keep for himself something that was supposed to be devoted to only God.
So Saul sets out with his army, totally destroys all the people, but spares the life of the Amalekite king, Agag, and spares all of the best livestock. In other words, they treat this mission like a war of conquest, complete with prisoners and plunder, rather than a holy mission from the Lord. Saul and his soldiers set out to win a battle for their own prestige and bounty, rather than seeking to exalt God through their obedience.
Before news about how the battle went can even get back to Samuel, the Lord speaks to him and says that he is grieved that he made Saul king, because he had turned toward following his own leadership, rather than the leadership of the Lord. Samuel, the prophet of God who had poured so much in to king Saul, the one who had found him and anointed him as king, responds with anger, and he cries out to God all night.
Have you ever gotten mad when someone didn’t live up to your hopes for them? After all you’ve done for them, after all you’ve sacrificed for them, they go and squander it? They do something stupid and mess everything up? You’re mad at them, you’re mad at God. You’re mad at yourself for giving so much. But really, you’re just sad. That’s where Samuel was in that moment. So he cries out to God all night.
In the morning, he heads out early to find Saul. But he’s told that Saul had already left to set up a monument “in his own honor” (1 SAM 15:12) to commemorate his victory.
So when Samuel finally reaches him, he’s had time. Time to mull over his thoughts. Time to calm down, or to dwell on his disappointments. Saul comes out, good-natured, and greets him joyfully. “The Lord bless you! I did the thing the Lord asked me to!”
Saul is riding high from his victory and he’s expecting to get even more praise from his mentor, Samuel. But Samuel’s response lands like a thud:
“Oh yeah? Then why do I hear the noises of sheep and cattle? What part of TOTALLY DESTROY did you not understand?”
Saul responds the way most of us do when we feel we’re being blamed for something, by defensively passing the buck: “Those? Ummm, well, it wasn’t me! The soldiers brought those here. And, and, we were going to use the best ones to sacrifice to the Lord! We…we destroyed the rest!”
But Samuel isn’t having it: “Enough, let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night. You came from nothing, but the Lord made you king. That’s not from your doing. That’s all because of God. And that same God is the one who gave you a holy mission to devote the Amalekites to destruction. But is that what you did? Did you obey the command from the Lord? No! You saw an opportunity to make much of YOURSELF and then you kept whatever you thought would be good plunder. Can’t you see how what you chose was completely against what God told you to do?”
And Saul’s response this time is to double down. It’s as if he’s a kid who’s been caught red-handed with his hand IN the cookies, or as if he’s the dad on a sit-com who has just been cornered by his wife about forgetting to do something:
“But, but, I DID obey God,” he says, “I went on the mission. I completely destroyed the Amalekites…except for their king, I brought him back as a trophy prisoner! And, ummm, the soldiers were the ones who took the plunder, not me! I was the one who told them they had to sacrifice the best to the Lord your God.”
Say what you want about Saul, but at least he’s consistent. Every single time he has engaged God, it has always been at an arms’ distance. Even here, he refers to Yahweh as “the Lord YOUR God,” as if he’s trying to win points with Samuel. But he just reveals how personally distant he is from God. And every time he tries to engage God himself, it is through ritual or ceremony, as if God will be convinced to act if Saul can just do the right sacrifice or say the right prayer or tithe the right amount or say the right insightful thing in the Bible study. On the surface, he LOOKED like he was doing all the right things, but underneath the carefully curated image, he wasn’t submitting to God. He was hoping to use his religious deeds to manipulate God into giving him what he wanted in life.
Am I the only one who is feeling a little hot under the collar right now? Is anyone else feeling that tug of conviction in their heart?
Instead of immediately accepting responsibility and repenting of his sin, Saul offers a bunch of excuses. And then he has the gall to think that if he just performs the right ritual, the right sacrifice, then he can dupe God into thinking Saul had the right motivations all along.
But Samuel stops him. Here’s how Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message translation:
“Do you think all God wants are sacrifices—empty rituals just for show? He wants you to listen to him! Plain listening is the thing, not staging a lavish religious production. Not doing what God tells you is far worse than fooling around in the occult. You can’t get self-important around God. Because you said No to God’s command, he says No to your kingship.”
And it’s here that Saul finally starts to realize the severity of what Samuel is saying. The kingship that he ran from at first has been revoked, and so he gives in and confesses, “I’ve sinned. I violated the Lord’s command. And I didn’t listen to YOUR instructions. I listened to the soldiers. I was afraid of what they would think of me, so I gave in to their demands.”
It seems like we have a first: Saul is actually aware of his sin. He’s actually saying he’s sorry. Of course, he’s also still passing the blame to the soldiers for “demanding” the spoils of war. As if keeping king Agag wasn’t all about displaying a royal slave that makes Saul look like a strong, conquering king.
But then he REALLY shows his motivations when he asks Samuel for forgiveness. He says, “Please forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” (1 SAM 15:25)
What Saul cares most about is his own reputation. He knows he messed up, and Samuel has made it pretty clear how the Lord has responded to him, but all he is focused on at this moment is being able to SEEM like he is being honored before the elders of the people. (1 SAM 15:30)
When Samuel showed up, Saul went out and greeted him jovially, but it became pretty clear right away that Samuel wasn’t in a jovial mood. Even if they were standing far enough away for others not to really hear what was being said, you could tell from the yelling that Samuel was doing, and the indignant posture of Saul that one of them was receiving a talking-to.
Saul is very aware that if Samuel comes back to the group with him and presides over the sacrifice ceremony, it will seem as if all is well with the king. Sure, maybe he did something the old prophet didn’t like, but he kneeled down and repented, and the prophet came back and helped the king sacrifice to God. Wow, what a great leader we have. He’s a strong warrior, AND he’s a devout worshipper. He took the best of the plunder from the war and gave it to God! God MUST be impressed and happy with him!
Saul is doing everything he can to hold on to this image that he has constructed of himself. Saying sorry to Samuel isn’t about actual repentance, it’s about SEEMING repentant. Taking the plunder and keeping Agag as a prisoner was all about caring more about his reputation with his people than his relationship with God. Getting Samuel to come back and go through the motions with him isn’t about worshiping God with a sacrifice, it’s about LOOKING like someone who worships God.
And some of us now aren’t thinking about Saul any more, but we’re thinking about the people we know that act like this. The people who play the part when others are looking. The people who always seem to have an angle. The people who you’re unsure if you’ve ever heard them be truly honest about anything.
We all have the potential for this, even a little bit. We all try and maintain our curated image. We all hide certain things about ourselves in front of certain people.
We’ve all tried to appease God by going above and beyond in one area of our life in order to make up for disobedience in another.
Saul asks Samuel again, “Please come back with me and honor me in front of the elders. Please help me do this sacrifice to worship the Lord your God.”
And the crazy thing is that Samuel DOES. They go back together and do the charade so that Saul can maintain his image with the people. He knows Samuel is devastated, and he knows the Lord is through with him, but as long as he can keep treading water and seeming like a calm duck on the surface of the pond…
This story ends tragically. After the sacrifice, Samuel demands to see Agag, the captured Amalekite king, and then kills him himself, finishing the job that Saul failed to follow through on.
And then Samuel went home, and Saul went back to his home. And the Scripture tells us that Samuel never went to see Saul ever again, and the Lord turned away from Saul’s kingship and set his presence elsewhere.
It’s easy to want to just move along, to not sit in this uncomfortable and uneasy ending. And if you peeked, you’ll know that what comes next is David. So it’s natural to want to just move forward quickly, leaving behind the failure of Saul and get going with the exciting narrative of David, the poet and warrior and king!
That’s what the world does, isn’t it? We move on quickly from people who have failed us. We brush aside those who have fallen from grace. We’re on the hunt for the new, the exciting, the fun.
But we shouldn’t miss the lesson we can learn from this section of Saul’s story, because this is OUR story. Isn’t it?
It’s the story of someone who has worked real hard, overcome many things, and has prevailed due to his work ethic. Sure, he’s messed up a few times, but he has friends, a family, people who respect him. All he has to do is keep the people around him happy, and life will be good. All he has to do is protect his legacy, and things will go okay. All he has to do is make sure others see him as a successful follower of God. Who cares if he didn’t fully obey?
But this story reminds us that partial obedience is disobedience.
Those of us who are religious are often tempted to cover rebellion with rituals, to substitute ceremony for surrender. We disobey in one area and try to make it up to God with some offering in another area. But partial obedience, or delayed obedience, or conditional obedience (I will if you will…) are all just various forms of disobedience.
And once we have our disobedience exposed, we have a choice like Saul. Do we continue to live in self-deception, keeping up the front? Pretending that we’re fooling others, God, or even ourselves? Or do we repent? Acknowledging our disobedience and falling on the grace of God?
Because the truth is: none of us can obey perfectly!
We all fall short. Saul’s story reminds us what it looks like when humans try to follow God on their own power. It doesn’t work! This is why Jesus came!
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus already perfectly fulfilled obedience FOR US. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to try anymore! Jesus gave all kinds of commands for how to live, just look at the Sermon on the Mount!
We can’t obey perfectly on our own, but because of Jesus, we get to rely on Christ and His Holy Spirit as we follow him in DOING the things he says.
So, how are you going to respond to the tug of the Spirit on your heart?
If we’re honest, we can ALL find places where we have disobeyed God. Whether we know that he has prompted us to forgive someone, or whether we’ve felt that we’re supposed to sacrifice some time or resources for the sake of someone. We all know that we haven’t been honest with those we love. We know that we’ve been pursuing our own goals and dreams and have kind of left God in the dust.
We have all disobeyed and turned away in some form or another. But how are you going to respond today? Will you keep up appearances?
Or will you confess, and repent, and fall on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ?
Stories like this remind us how much we need Jesus. Stories like this remind us how incredible it is that we have a God who KNOWS how much we will stray from him. He KNOWS how much we will disobey. He KNOWS how far we will run away from him. He KNOWS how apathetic we will be to his plans and mission in this world. And yet he still pursues us, calls us back, brings us in, picks us up, cleans us off, and still invites us to partner with him in his mission of restoration in the world.
We are being invited to drop the facade. We are being invited to admit how we fall short. We are being called back into a life of forgiving and forgiveness. Isn’t that good news?