1 Samuel 15

Jimmy Jo1 & 2 Samuel, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

We are continuing in our study of 1 & 2 Samuel.  As in previous books, we are not covering every verse in Samuel.  Rather, we are skipping through it (probably) quite quickly.  The chapters we skipped conclude Saul’s battle with the Philistines that we introduced last week – where we looked at Saul’s lack of faithfulness in waiting for Samuel, and instead making the offering in Samuel’s stead. 

Today’s passage covers a similar theme in Saul’s battle with the Amalekites.  And this incident includes the well-known verses, “to obey is better than sacrifice.” 

So we’re going to read an abridged version of this chapter (that is, I’ll skip some of the verses for brevity’s sake).  Unfortunately, skipping (or emphasizing) some verses forces us into certain assumptions, so I hope you’ll forgive me.  And (as usual) I hope that you’ll take the time to read the whole passage on your own.  At any rate:

15 Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroyall that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim—two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand from Judah. Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine. Then he said to the Kenites, “Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites moved away from the Amalekites.

Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.

1 Samuel 15:1-9

Then, in vv. 10-16, Samuel arrives on the scene and discovers Saul has not “totally destroyed” the Amalekites as he was commanded to do.  So we continue to read:

17 Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18 And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ 19 Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

22 But Samuel replied:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

1 Samuel 15:17-23

And then the chapter concludes with Samuel telling Saul that God has rejected him as king over Israel. 

Now the crux of what I want to talk about is this particular condemnation by Samuel of Saul where he says, “to obey is better than sacrifice,” and how this fits into the rejection of Saul’s rule.  But first, I want to talk a little about context. 

At the beginning of the passage, we read: 

15 Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroyall that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

1 Samuel 15:1-3

Now the background to which this passage is referring comes from Exodus 17, during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness:  

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.”

10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Exodus 17:8-13

Now we get further background to this incident in Deuteronomy 25:

17 Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. 18 When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. 19 When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

In other words, the Amalekites attacked Israel while they were “weary and worn out,” and by attacking “all who were lagging behind,” it seems that they focussed on those who were most weary, most weak.  Now without getting too bogged down in background, the Amalekites represent one of Israel’s oldest enemies.  That is, they were a people (who incidentally were related to the Israelites – they were descendants of Esau) – the Amalekites were a people who represented opposition to Israel’s nationhood – that is, as the people of God.  And the description of the attack on Israel in Deuteronomy 17 demonstrates the extreme moral shortcomings of the Amalekites.  That they would attack the weakest of Israel, from behind, demonstrates that they had no honour, resorting to abhorrent battle practices. 

So to summarize, all that is to say that the command to totally destroy the Amalekites is not just a political directive, it seems also to be a moral directive. 

However, Saul does not follow that command.  Rather, as we read in vv. 7-9, Saul and the Israelites decided to spare or keep some aspects of Amalek. 

Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.

1 Samuel 15:7-9

So Saul and the army spare the king, and keep the best of the livestock.  And the text adds an interesting commentary:  They were unwilling to destroy everything that was good – they kept those.  But they destroyed everything that was despised and weak. 

Now when Samuel confronts Saul about this, Saul gives his reasons.  He says that the livestock he kept was to be used for offerings to God. 

19 Why did you not obey the Lord? [Samuel asks.] Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

1 Samuel 15:19-21

Now my immediate reaction to Saul’s response is that he’s making excuses.  It sounds to me like he (and the soldiers) wanted to keep the best of the Amalekites for themselves and offered up some of it to God to hide or excuse their own greed.  However, there’s no real indication in the text that this is what’s going on.  Saul says that they devoted the best of what they took to God (which likely means that they did, indeed, keep some).  But Samuel’s rebuke is not that Saul lies about his intentions or that he is hiding his greed in some way. 

Rather, Samuel says this: 

22 But Samuel replied:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23

Now I want to be careful about over-parsing this.  But it seems like Samuel is saying something like, “God didn’t ask for sacrifices, He asked for obedience” (in this context, specifically regarding the elimination of the Amalekites).  Offerings and sacrifices are great in the right context, but you don’t get to decide what is required of you, and when, from God.  All that is required is to obey.  But I don’t want to put words into Samuel’s mouth. 

To explore this a little further, I want to take a look at these verses (22-23) and highlight a couple of items of interest. 

Firstly, and this is a broad generalization – there’s a lot more complexity to it than this – Hebrew poetry makes extensive use of couplets.  So if we look at the couplets involved here, we can see something like this. 

  • “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
        as much as in obeying the Lord?
  • To obey is better than sacrifice,
        and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
  • 23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
        and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
  • Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
        he has rejected you as king.”

If we further examine these couplets, we can see that the first and fourth couplets are related and the second and third couplets are related: 

  • “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
        as much as in obeying the Lord?
    1. To obey is better than sacrifice,
          and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
    2. 23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
          and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
  • Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
        he has rejected you as king.”

Further, the first and fourth couplets, and the second and third couplets seem to have a relationship of opposites.  That is, couplet one opposes the delight of the Lord and the rejection of the Lord.  And couplet two opposes obedience/heeding with rebellion/arrogance. 

Now, this all deserves a lot more attention than we can give it.  But what we might discern (in a very simplified way) is that the outer couplet explains what’s going on:  That is, God does not accept Saul’s offering and Saul has been rejected as king.  The inner couplets explain the specific reason – that is, Saul did not obey and heed God, but rather rebelled and was arrogant towards God. 

Now this may seem a little harsh because Saul’s actions, though misguided, hardly seem like rebellion – though we could certainly understand arrogance.  However, if we examine the words “to obey” and “to heed” a little more, we can get some clarity. 

Here, because I don’t have the facility in Hebrew, I am leaning on the resources.  But in short, “to obey” here doesn’t have a strictly legal connotation.  That is, it’s not simply a matter of following the rules, staying on the right side of some imaginary line.  From a certain point of view, we might be tempted to think that Saul did indeed “obey” and could argue that he observed appropriate religious rules. 

However, the word “obey” here is (probably) deeper than that.  It has the connotation of obedience, sure.  But it also has the connotation of listening, hearing, or attending to.  In fact, it’s the same word that we see in the famous declaration in Deuteronomy: 

Dt. 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

Now of course, and as we’ve said before, we have to be careful in terms of how we do word studies (I won’t go into that now).  But the second part of the couplet helps us here.  In this couplet, “obey” and “heed” go hand in hand.  “Heed” is the Hebrew word, qasab, and it has the usual translations of hear, listen, but also pay attention to. 

Indeed, we even hear this distinction in the English.  In English, when we hear “obey,” we think of following a rule or a law; but when we hear the word “heed,” we probably think more of a connotation of taking notice, considering, and yes, paying attention.  Think of how we use the phrase, “take heed.”

We might be willing to concede that Saul was “obeying” God (but only in that limited way).  But he certainly wasn’t paying attention to God in his actions.  He wasn’t truly listening or hearing God in this situation (indeed, in his life).  And for that reason, he was rejected as king of Israel. 

Okay.  So what do we do with all of that.  The obvious takeaway is simply, “Don’t be like Saul.”  But we want a little bit more than that. 

Firstly, we saw that Saul’s sin was to not totally destroy the Amalekites.  Instead of doing what he was told to do, Saul kept the best of the spoils.  And the issue isn’t so much what he did with those spoils (he offered some of it to God, but he likely kept some of it).  The issue is that he didn’t totally destroy it.  And if we remember the little bit of background of the Amalekites, they were symbolically a people who opposed or challenged Israel’s nationhood – that is, as the people of God.  We might say that they represented the world, and that Israel had to totally destroy them if they wanted to take hold of their status as the people of God. 

Saul, however, wanted to hold onto the best of the spoils.  Now he offered up religious reasons for keeping them, but (in my mind) they merely boiled down to excuses.  The obvious question for us is, “what are we holding on to?”  What parts of the world are we holding on to, making whatever religious (or other) excuses as to why they are good and “for God,” but are really for ourselves? 

As you probably know, I tend to pay attention to what I think is going on with the western church.  And obviously I have a particular lens through which I see these things.  But when I look at the western church, I see that we often try desperately to hold onto, or we cling to, certain aspects of western culture.  Some of these things we’ve talked about in our series several months ago.  These include things like humanism, individualism, and neo-gnosticism.  And they also include (especially in the western world) things like capitalism and consumerism, imperialism, exceptionalism, and privilege. 

I’m sure that if you think about western Christianity, there may be other things that stand out to you.  But the question has to be, not what we think others (or the Church) need to be willing to give up.  It must be, “what am I being called to give up?”  What am I called to let go of? Where am I holding onto things that are not of the Kingdom?  What excuses am I making to not live fully into the gospel? 

Now the second takeaway from this passage flows out of the importance of “obey and heed.”  And what I simply want to say about this is that there’s a difference between simply obeying and Shema.  There’s a difference between simply following the rules and listening to God.  There’s a difference between walking the line and paying attention. 

Now we all, hopefully, want to live for God and not in the world.  We all, somewhere maybe deep, have a desire to give up the things that keep us from God.  But this is never a simple matter of writing down a bunch of dos and don’ts.  It’s never just a matter of, things in column A are good and things in column B are bad. 

And make no mistake, I’m not suggesting that everything is permissible or that we can do whatever we want.  Holiness does matter.  Faithfulness does matter.  But what I do want to suggest is that what we need to do is pay attention.  Obedience is about rules (at least in the limited definition we talked about).  Obedience is about rules;  But Hearing is about relationship.  Obedience can be wildly impersonal; Hearing – true hearing – is intensely personal. 

And what God is calling us to is not an impersonal, robotic, life of rules.  God is calling us into deep, personal relationship with Him so that we might truly hear His voice as we make our way through this broken world.  God is calling us so that He can lead us into life.

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