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.
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.”
— 1 Samuel 15:22-23
At the beginning of this story, God commands Saul, “Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1 Samuel 15:3). Unsurprisingly, Saul fails to obey: “Saul and the people spared Agag [the king of the Amalekites] 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. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction” (v. 9). When pressed by Samuel, Saul simultaneously blames the people and claims they’ve improved upon God’s plan: “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the LORD your God” (v. 15).
I have a new lens through which to view this episode since becoming a father. I tell my children to come to dinner, but they continue playing with legos. I tell them to brush their teeth, but they continue coloring. They protest, “But this tower, this drawing—it’s for you!” How eager my children are to come up with plans of their own instead of simple obedience to my instruction! How eager we all are to justify our own desires when those desires clash with an authority that directs us otherwise.
Saul, my children, all of us—we have a heart problem (our desires) and a head problem (our understanding, or lack thereof). Apart from grace-empowered repentance, faith, and obedience, these two weaknesses will lead us to the same rebellion and presumption as Saul.
Saul didn’t fully understand God’s reasoning for utterly destroying Amalek (though he could have discovered much in Exodus 17:8-16 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19). And frankly, he and the people desired to keep for themselves (instead of destroy) “all that was good” (v. 9). But Saul did not need to have God’s exhaustive comprehension of the command in order to obey, just as my children do not need to have my understanding of my commands in order to obey. Indeed, we need commands from God precisely because we lack his comprehensive understanding and his unified heart.
Saul could have acted with the trust of a naive and conflicted but nevertheless obedient child. Instead, under Saul’s leadership 210,000 fighting men of Israel became like Achan, who took some of the devoted things and himself became devoted to destruction (Joshua 7).
My children, not unlike Saul, easily convince themselves that their own way will satisfy them and me more than simple obedience to my commands. But it never works out that way. How often do we do the same to God, altering His plain commands to suit our own desires and our own understanding? Our gifts to God, worship of God, and service for God are a stench in His nostrils if we arrive at them through disobedience.
The good news is that we can perform an activity that pleases Him more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. We can repent, believe, and obey. Through the power of the death and resurrection of our Lord, we can turn away from our own selves as the authority and security of our lives, we can turn toward all that God is for us in Christ, and we can walk in obedience to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit and so be “fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:10).
Lord, we pray along with the apostle Paul, that we may be filled with the knowledge of Your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of You, Lord, fully pleasing to You, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to Your glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy (Colossians 1:9-11). Forgive us for our rebellion, our presumption, and our disobedience, and grant us the grace to obey You—for Your glory and for our joy.
Ministry Fellow at Stanford University
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