The sacrifice of obedience (1 Samuel 15)

“Rebellion is as the sin of divination.”

We have now seen Saul fail in usurping the sacrifices (chapter 13), and in willing to execute his son Jonathan (Chapter 14). Now we will cover Saul’s failure in executing God’s command in foreign policy—in this case, the command to annihilate the Amalekite people. These three chapters constitute three tests for the administration of Saul: one highlights the church, another family, another the state. Saul fails all three. Similarly as we noted of Eli in chapter 2, Saul was a failure in all three covenantal institutions. All three failures were judicial and stemmed from the Saul’s abuse of his civil power.

Here, then, we have the culmination of Saul’s failure, and the pronunciation of his punishment—rejection from being king. We have already seen this message delivered to Saul by Samuel once before (13:14). Now we get a second witness. As we saw this phenomenon with also Eli before, so we see it again. God provides certainty of His judgment in this way. We will see this phenomenon again with the twice-repeated confrontation of Saul by David (chapters 24 and 26). The point here is certainty. We know, of course, that Saul’s death will not take place until chapter 31. He sits on the throne until then. But the definitive pronouncement of his rejection as king takes place here; no matter when, exactly, God decides to manifest it in history, from this point on it is certain. This is one reason Saul so quickly grows paranoid of David after David becomes a national hero. We will discuss this further when we get to it.

In this particular failure, however, we are given several vignettes into ungodly politics once again. The issue of God’s Law versus human pragmatism surfaces again, and in fact is the theme behind the whole passage. Thus, we will see, is rebellion likened to divination or witchcraft (per the KJV). Also highlighted here are the excuses made by Saul when confronted by Samuel. These turn out to be typical ruses made by failing governments and politicians. We will find them illuminating for today as well.

Wiser than God

The basic message running throughout this story is that God gave Saul a very clear, specific command, and Saul disobeyed it. God called for Saul to perform a specific mission according to specific guidelines. Saul partially fulfilled the mission, but carried out parts of it according to his own wisdom which contradicted what God had commanded. Based on his actions, Saul was implicitly saying that he was wiser than God. In dealing with foreign policy, many rulers have made such an assessment, and still do today. Saul would pay dearly for it.

Samuel begins with the message that God had shown much grace to Saul. Not only had God privileged Saul in anointing him king, but he entrusted Saul with settling age-old scores dating back to Moses’ time. In particular, he noted Amalek who had attacked Israel during the exodus from Egypt (Ex. 17:8–16). God had an outstanding promise to Israel to blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven (Deut. 25:17–19). This was prophesied by the Word of God through Moses, and it was thus certain. To Saul fell the privilege of carrying out this prophecy, should he only obey the command.

The command was stark and severe. It called for Israel to devote the entire civilization of the Amalekites to His vengeance—i.e., total destruction. Nothing was to be left alive: man, woman, child, beast, kitten, parakeet. Execution was to be total and indiscriminate. This was recalling earlier judgments brought upon Canaanite enemies, for example, Jericho (Joshua 6:17, 21), as well as God’s Law (Lev. 27:28–29). It is clear that God was serious about keeping His promise.

Saul and the people began initially just as seriously about keeping it. Saul numbered the people for war and an impressive 210,000 turned out. Compared to the earlier puny 600 that supported Saul (13:15), this number speaks of a newfound national unity. This no doubt stemmed from the ancient promise freshly confirmed by Samuel.

But Saul quickly departed from the command, and the people followed. Instead of carrying out the total devoted destruction, Saul spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them (15:9). The disobedience to God’s command is clear enough, but note the key word in this verse: would not. The word is specific in the Hebrew. It refers to an act of the human will. In this case, Saul not only did not obey, he would not obey. He asserted his own will against the will of God. In doing so, he becomes a picture of a new Pharaoh: “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go” (Ex. 10:27). Even more pertinently he is a symbol of rebellious Israel in general (Deut. 1:26).

But Saul’s disobedience was of a cunning kind that wields all kinds of human reasonings before it. He spared only the best of all the cattle and all that was good. Why put these to waste after all? They can be used for meat, work, and other purposes—even religious purposes. From a human perspective, it made sense. From a pragmatic perspective, it made perfect sense. I was also popular. Saul was not acting alone. The people willingly joined in. They easily saw the merits of the case as well. But in what way were any of these beasts considered “best” or “good”? By what standard? There is no way they could have been judged so according to God’s Word, for He had already proclaimed them all to be devoted to destruction (15:3). There is no negotiation or room for interpretation here: destruction . . . all . . . do not spare them. Therefore, it could only have been a sinful man’s judgment and man’s standard by which this determination was made: these cattle are “good” and should be spared. No, they’re not, and no, they shouldn’t. God does not call us to determine values based upon human emotions, appearances, pragmatism, popularity, etc. He calls us to make judgments according to His standard—the Law-Word of God.

God did not lead Samuel to discover Saul’s infractions for himself: He told Samuel directly (15:10). Samuel was angry and cried all night long. The crying here is not weeping, though godly men are ready to weep when necessary. The crying here means “calling out,” “shouting,” or “call for help.” Samuel was angry and was calling to God to help deliver the nation from this wicked government. It was oppression to have such a government which would not submit to God’s Word. It could only lead to national calamity. Samuel would grieve over the reality of Saul’s failure, but he would be more than ready to go confront this covenantal failure as a prophetic warrior of God. He was about to bring a covenantal lawsuit against Saul.

Saul in the dock

Samuel pursues after Saul to confront him. Along the way we find that Saul has begun a victory parade moving from town to town in his own honor, during which he has set up a monument for himself (15:12). By the time Samuel catches up to him, Saul has celebrated so much that he has convinced himself he has honored God:  I have performed the commandment of the Lord (15:13). This was a case of Proverbs 18:17: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” But it was evident at first glance that Saul had not obeyed. This was really a case of self-delusion on his part.

Samuel proffered evidence: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” (15:14). The logic was irrefutable. God had commanded the annihilation of the cattle. And yet the cattle were here. Whence the cattle, Saul, if you have obeyed the command of God as you say? The best Saul could do was to blame someone else: they have brought them . . . the people spared the best of the sheep (15:15). Here we get an echo of Adam and Eve after sinning in the garden: “she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate. . . . The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12–13). Sin, classically, seems always to be someone else’s fault. But Saul, like Adam, had the added quality of being a covenantal head—in this case, of the state. He could not escape the ramifications of the sin even if it did lie with the people. He was their head, their king, and the buck stopped with him whether he tried to buck or not. So, Samuel presented the evidence and pronounced judgment according to what the Lord said (15:16).

Samuel rehearsed God’s grace and goodness again, as well as God’s mission. The question followed, Why then did you not obey? The question was not “Did you obey?” etc., but rather assumed his disobedience as a fact. It was a fact which could not be disputed against the evidence. Yet Saul disputed it anyway. He mounts this defense:

“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).

Note four things in Saul’s defense. First, he defied what was already evident: the bleating of the sheep confirmed that Saul had broken the Law of God. So easily can God use a dumb animal to convict a stubborn human (Num. 22:21–38). This shows desperation and delusion on Saul’s part. He was desperate to have his rebellion justified as righteous before God, and he had deluded himself into believing he really had obeyed.

Second, he again blames the people for what he determined and led. This was a denial of the nature of his office. But third, this time he gives it a religious cover. These animals were to be used for the premier religious rituals in Israel: animal sacrifice. Not only would they not go to waste, but they would be donated to the church! What good pastor would not make room for that?

Fourth, Saul’s own testimony witnesses against him. He says he kept the command of the Lord, and yet in the same breath admits he kept Agag alive. By definition, then, he did not keep the command of the Lord. And this he could not blame on the people. He confessed, I have brought Agag. . . .

Samuel’s rebuttal was three-fold. First, even assuming the religious cover had any validity, it was skewed. “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” (15:22). God does not delight in such sacrifices. Sacrifices presuppose that one has disobeyed and needs atonement and peace offerings. To devote one’s policies to providing meat for sacrifices is to presume ahead of time that sin is the baseline of one’s life. I’ll sin now and simply sacrifice for it later. Better stock up on sheep and goats while the getting’s good. This was never what God had intended. Instead, obedience is better than sacrifice. Paul would later tell us that the living sacrifice of our own wills and bodies is the proper service of the Christian (Rom. 12:1). If you are going to presume upon sacrifice, then presume upon the sacrifice of your own heart and will in submission to His. Paul’s self-sacrificial ethic presumes obedience, not sin.

Second, Samuel gives a quick theological lesson. Rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry (1 Sam. 15:23). This is the theological lesson of the century, and Saul is its poster child among the faithful. Why is rebellion the same a divination? Because rebellion is the assertion of one’s own will against God’s. It is to make yourself God and to value your own decree above His. Thus, you attribute value—i.e., worthiness—more to yourself than God. What is such a shift in worthiness but a shift in worship? Through the simple act of following your own reasoning as opposed to God’s Word, you break both the first and second commandments. You assert yourself to be God, and you worship God according to your own image.

But why is rebellion no different than divination or witchcraft? Because both sins ultimately represent the replacement of God’s will by that of some other agent. It is to assert that some other source of revelation is authoritative. To trust in a fortune-teller, fortune teller, or some means of divination is to assume a different sovereignty and omniscience than God. It is to trust a false providence and a false lawgiver. Thus you can see that to engage in divination is to deny God Himself and to erect a new god in His place.

Thus, both sins represent essentially the same denial of God. Both rebellion and divination deny the Word of God and replace it with a rival sovereign. To rebel is to divine truth according to your own whim. To presume upon one’s own whim is to erect self as an idol. It is no wonder then than Saul’s final act of rebellion just before his death is to visit the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28), and to seek revelation through divination. His rebellion had come full circle.

Third, Samuel then proceeds directly to the verdict based on God’s Law: Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king (1 Sam. 15:23). This is the reassertion of theonomy over autonomy.

Saving face

Saul’s reaction is probably the most transparently self-centered and vain thing he does in the whole book. When clearly convicted, standing guilty before Samuel, Saul confesses his guilt. But he does not repent or even try to discuss his sins other than to continue blaming the people: “I have transgressed  . . . because I feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). In such a state of self-deception, Saul could think of nothing more important than retaining his status. So he asks Samuel to return with him. Samuel refuses: “the Lord has rejected you” (15:26). But Saul was not satisfied: how could such an intensely self-centered soul accept such rejection?  He grabbed Samuel’s cloak as the old prophet turned to leave. The shawl ripped. Samuel used it as an object lesson: so has the Lord ripped the kingdom from you this day (15:28). But Saul was not yet satisfied: “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). Saul is doing what so many godless politicians have done down through history: using the religious authority to provide badly-needed public relations. A photo-op with Billy Graham can go a long way. But Saul did not have a true religious care in his body. He cared about one thing and one thing only: “honor me.”

By turning to go with Saul on the second request, Samuel was not caving. He was not honoring Saul as Saul had requested. Instead, what followed was actually a cleverly executed public rebuke of Saul. Samuel finished the job Saul was supposed to do: he executed Agag (15:33). This made Saul look bad. Whereas Saul was expecting Samuel essentially to lie against his own conscience and provide the king with a façade of respect in front of the leaders and the people, Samuel calculated and seized the opportunity to make sure all these people knew Saul had failed in his mission. He had not destroyed the Amalekites as he was parading around saying; he had not fulfilled the command of God. Instead, he failed, and Samuel had to come tell him so and complete the God’s mission. And Saul had to stand right there in front of them all while Samuel did this.

The Spirit begins to depart

We are told that Saul and Samuel here parted ways, and that Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death (15:35). This is not to be taken in an absolute sense, for Samuel will literally see Saul again (19:18–24). This simply means that Samuel quit regularly visiting Saul with the Word of the Lord. As we shall see in future chapters beginning in the very next one, the Spirit of God is leaving Saul and beginning to trouble him rather than aid him in ruling Israel. Saul’s replacement, David, will inherit the approval of the anointing. The Spirit comes upon David and departs from Saul. Saul had been rejected as king, and he had himself rejected God’s Word. As such, Samuel had no reason to visit the guy. He had proven he would not have listened even if Samuel did go see him.

And yet, this was not mere partisan politics. This was not time for Samuel to take to the airwaves and newspapers denouncing the administration frivolously, calling for its replacement by the other party. Samuel grieved over Saul. Samuel knew that apostate government meant judgment could fall upon the whole nation. Samuel knew that an apostate government was merely an expression of an apostate people. It was not time for opportunistic electioneering. The real need was for repentance, godliness, and ground-up reconstruction. As we shall see in the next chapter, the real need is for bold obedience to job and calling in this world, braving the reactions of the powers that be, making local connections, and working for grassroots-level revival according to the Law and Word of God.


It is easy to apply the basic lesson here at the individual level, and it has been done many times. You need to submit to God, not self. Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and that means you too. Don’t put your own desires ahead of being faithful to God. So, increase your quiet time in Scripture and set aside that copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. We could go on and on when it comes to personal devotion. Not to discount these things, but this sermon series is about worldview and every area of life. So let us expand beyond the tradition approach.

1. We can never be wiser than God.

In sparing the best of the cattle, what Saul was saying implicitly was that he was wiser than God. He had determined good usage of these beasts where God had not, and that Saul’s determination was of such value that it should be implemented instead of God’s Word. From a whole host of human perspectives, the move made perfect sense. Certainly God would understand our situation, and approve of the scheme, too.

We do the same thing every day in every sphere of life. In government, we make determinations as to what should or should not be law that contradict God’s standards on various levels. In wealth redistribution, money, education, jurisprudence, foreign policy, war, prison, taxation, property rights, immigration, markets, arms, self-defense, freedom of travel, privacy—the list is infinite. We find a thousand human reasons why it is “good” to do exactly what God has told us not to do. We find a thousand human justifications why not to do what God has explicitly told us to do. That which should be devoted to destruction, we enshrine as “good” in our laws and schools. That which we should uphold, we despise, ignore, and then say we have served God anyway. We’ll even brag of our accomplishments for the kingdom and build monuments to ourselves in the meantime. Before long, we are self-deluded, assuming our own sins are in fact perfect obedience.

In similar self-delusion as Saul, many Christians and conservatives cannot bear to be reminded of God’s Word in the public square. When that Word confronts the many political compromises, these people stand ready with their justifications as to why God’s Word simply isn’t workable at this point. Due to sinfulness in society (other people’s sins, of course), or the slow and difficult nature of social change, our own solutions are so much more practical right now. We content ourselves with compromise, and call it faithfulness. In so many cases we quit preaching God’s Word as the ideal altogether because it is thought to be unreachable and unrealistic. We soon exalt our own compromises as the best and the good in general. We really have no intention of upholding God’s Word as the standard for society. We then begin to argue against the Samuels among us who do uphold that standard. Don’t you know what’s best and good for us right now? The Christians promoting such views rarely realize they stand condemned already: they are asserting that they are wiser than God.

The most obvious and effective of humanistic excuses for rebellion is that wartime changes everything. This is exactly the context of Saul’s failure here. There seems to be no better time to fudge on God’s standards than when the crisis of war hits. There seems to be no easier time to slack up than when celebrating an alleged victory, even if it was not a true victory. Historically, wartime has been the enabler of the greatest encroachments of government upon daily life, and the most devastating detractions from God’s Law. Witness even now as our “war on terror” has brought about massive intrusions into personal privacy, police-state lockdowns like we saw in Boston, indefinite detention policy, deaths of countless innocents via drone strikes, and much more. World War I brought about the prototypical “war state” which served as the model of central planning for both Hitler and Mussolini. World War II revived and expanded the total state including the national takeover of countless private businesses for the production of arms, munitions, etc. Countless things that Christians should have opposed from the perspective of biblical law are justified by the crisis of war. When Christians ought to speak out, they are neutralized by the emotional power of faux patriotism, supporting the war effort, supporting our troops, allegedly abetting the enemy, shouts of treason, etc., and the social pressures built up by these things. Christians end up supporting the pragmatic efforts and remaining silent on God’s Word, even when the pragmatic efforts cross the line into rebellion. Pulpits grow silent on expositions of the Law, and thunder with reaffirming warnings against radical Islam. I personally believe there is some threat from radical Islam, but when it is used as a blanket silencer of God’s Law and indiscriminate promoter of all things military, it has become rebellion against God, no matter how many Christians it comforts.

In short, we cannot be wiser than God. We cannot create legislation or public policy more wisely than God. We cannot face down a crisis more wisely than God. We cannot conduct war or foreign policy more wisely than God. He has revealed His Will in these areas in His Word. We can never please God if we are not upholding his Word. Anything either more or less, right or left of that Word is rebellion and will be met as such by God in history. All of our rationalizations can never amount to a justification otherwise.

2. The Church must hold social leaders accountable to the Law

These things make us question to proper relationship between church and state. Religion can lend tremendous authority to persons or policies. For this reason, politicians have historically used religion as a façade by which to ensure the public they are on God’s side. But this is too often for the sake of status and not faithfulness. We must not let governments or government leaders coopt religion for a façade of public relations. Instead, among other things, the church has a role as a prophetic voice pronouncing God’s standards to those leaders. When politicians and government are out of line, in rebellion, the pulpit has a duty to preach God’s Law to the lawbreakers.

Just as we see Samuel here confronting Saul for his rebellion, so Christians and especially pastors today should be willing to preach the truth when civil leaders trample it. Especially when civil leaders are pronouncing their accomplishments, shaking hands with religious icons, and building monuments to their victories, the pulpit ought to be providing society with a dose of reality. The pulpit ought to preach the truth uncompromised, even if Congressman Smiley (who voted for that compromise measure) is on the front row. We should not only be willing to do so, but just as Samuel pursued Saul to confront him the truth, so should we be eager to be the prophetic voice of Law in society. Let the politicians tremble.

Some will complain that this is mixing church and state, but this is to misunderstand the meaning of that rule. Romans 13:1–4 teaches that the authorities are God’s servants, and thus they are accountable to Him. Further, it says that these servants of God are ordained for our good for the purpose of punishing evil. The church, as an institution, may not usurp this power of the sword. But it also is God’s servant. It may and must perform its own delineated duty of preaching God’s Word. This includes the preaching of that which God determines is both good and evil for society. This Word is not left to the civil sword to determine for itself; the church and Christians must proclaim it and call for obedience to it by all of God’s servants, including the civil authorities. So while we separate properly the institutions of church and state as well as their proper functions, it is impossible to separate religion and state, for the state is His creature and must be reminded it is subject to Him.

At any rate, we should not lend any credibility to any leader who refuses to stand for God’s Word even in the toughest of conditions. When leaders defy God’s Law, we should confront  them. When they persist in such defiance, the church should act as Samuel: show their failure publicly and then depart from them. Departing from them means to have no relation with them, to deprive them of any facade of support, and to act as if they have no part of the Spirit and Word until they repent.

We cannot expect accountability in government if no one is preaching accountability, and accountability to what, exactly. We must, then, preach Him who takes account ultimately, as well as what His accounting standards are, so that all His servants may be held accountable to Him.

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