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Obedience Is Better Than Sacrifice

For the past few weeks we’ve been following the career of King Saul – the first King of Israel. And it’s really been a mixed bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are times when Saul does a fantastic job as king. As you read through 1 Samuel, often Saul is presented as the hero of Israel – rescuing the nation from all it’s enemies!

For example, at the end of the chapter we read last week, we find a bit of a summary of Saul’s military success. If you look at 1 Samuel 14, verse 47, it reads like this:

47 Now when Saul had secured his grasp on Israel’s throne, he fought against his enemies in every direction—against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. And wherever he turned, he was victorious. 48 He performed great deeds and conquered the Amalekites, saving Israel from all those who had plundered them.

Then we get a brief summary of Saul’s family tree – which I won’t read right now – and then verse 52 continues…

52 The Israelites fought constantly with the Philistines throughout Saul’s lifetime. So whenever Saul observed a young man who was brave and strong, he drafted him into his army.

1 Samuel 14:47-48, 52

So as you can see, from a military point of view, Saul was a very successful King. It says he saved Israel from all who had plundered them. Where ever he turned, he was victorious! In the eyes of the people of Israel, Saul was exactly the kind of King that they wanted.

However, in the eyes of God, King Saul had not been quite so successful. Two weeks ago, we saw how Saul disobeyed the command of the Lord by offering up a burnt offering to God – instead of waiting for the prophet Samuel – who was the only one God had authorized to make such an offering. Saul over-stepped the bounds of his God-given authority as King, and took the role of priest for himself. And as we’re going to see today, this wasn’t just an isolated incident of sin –  It wasn’t a one-time foolish choice in a moment of weakness – this was evidence of a heart that would increasingly become prideful and arrogant.

Although Saul had very humble beginnings, it seems that his position of power and his military success caused him to grow in his esteem of himself and decrease in his esteem of God and his commands.

And so today, as we turn to 1 Samuel chapter 15, we’re going to see this pattern continue – with Saul concluding that his ways and his decisions are just a little bit wiser than God’s ways and God’s decisions. But I should warn you… As we go through this story and see how foolish and arrogant Saul has become, we need to be careful, because we might just see ourselves doing the exact same thing…

1 Samuel chapter 15 begins like this:

One day Samuel said to Saul, “It was the Lord who told me to anoint you as king of his people, Israel. Now listen to this message from the Lord! 2 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. 3 Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.”

1 Samuel 15:1-3

Now I’ll pause here for just a moment to add a quick note of explanation to this seemingly harsh command from God to completely annihilate the Amalekite nation.

This isn’t an arbitrary command from God where He just decides one day to wipe out an entire people group. The Bible makes this very clear that this is an act of divine judgement – much like how God destroys Sodom & Gomorrah, or how he wipes out everyone but Noah & his family in the flood. The nation of Amelek was not just an innocent bystander, but had, in fact, ruthlessly attacked the Israelites as they were on their way out of Egypt as newly freed slaves. This is described in Exodus chapter 17.

 If you remember from your years in Sunday school as a kid, this is the battle where as long as Moses held up his staff, the Israelites had the advantage. But if he put it down, then the Amalekites would gain the advantage. So Aaron and Hur had to hold up Moses’ tired hands all day long so that the Israelites would win the battle.  Which in the end, they did.

But at the end of the battle we see this verse in Exodus 17:14:

14 After the victory, the Lord instructed Moses, “Write this down on a scroll as a permanent reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will erase the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Exodus 17:14

Because of their unprovoked attack on the children of Israel, God had declared that He would execute judgment on the Amalekites and basically erase them from the face of the earth. But that didn’t mean he would do it right away. A little later on when Joshua is about to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, we get a little more insight. Moses says in Deuteronomy 25:17:

17 “Never forget what the Amalekites did to you as you came from Egypt. 18 They attacked you when you were exhausted and weary, and they struck down those who were straggling behind. They had no fear of God. 19 Therefore, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies in the land he is giving you as a special possession, you must destroy the Amalekites and erase their memory from under heaven. Never forget this!

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

This verse makes it clear that God’s judgment on the Amalekites would be carried out after God had given them rest from their enemies as they conquered the Promised Land. This is precisely why God has chosen this moment many years later – with King Saul leading the united armies of Israel – to finally carry out God’s promised judgment on the Amalekites. And so that’s why we read in verse 2:

2 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I have decided to settle accounts with the nation of Amalek for opposing Israel when they came from Egypt. 3 Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation—men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, goats, camels, and donkeys.”

1 Samuel 15:2-3

And so that’s what Saul set out to do. We read in verse 4….

4 So Saul mobilized his army at Telaim. There were 200,000 soldiers from Israel and 10,000 men from Judah. 5 Then Saul and his army went to a town of the Amalekites and lay in wait in the valley. 6 Saul sent this warning to the Kenites: “Move away from where the Amalekites live, or you will die with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites packed up and left.

7 Then Saul slaughtered the Amalekites from Havilah all the way to Shur, east of Egypt.

1 Samuel 15:4-7

From these verses here, it seems like Saul has done exactly what God has commanded.  He takes his army and he prepares to attack the Amalekites – being careful to warn the Kenites who had shown kindness to the Israelites, to get out of the area so they wouldn’t get caught up in the battle. Then with the Kenites safely out of the way, Saul attacks the Amalekites and slaughters them just as God commanded. Well… almost as God commanded… Take a look at verse 8 & 9:

He captured Agag, the Amalekite king, but completely destroyed everyone else. 9 Saul and his men spared Agag’s life and kept the best of the sheep and goats, the cattle, the fat calves, and the lambs—everything, in fact, that appealed to them. They destroyed only what was worthless or of poor quality. 1 Samuel 15:8-9

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember God saying anything about sparing the King’s life or keeping the best of the cattle, calves, and lambs. It seems to me that God was abundantly clear that Saul was to completely destroy everyone and everything! Not just what was worthless or of poor quality – But EVERYTHING!

So what in the world was Saul doing? Well, I can tell you what he wasn’t doing! He wasn’t obeying the command of the Lord! Look what God says to Samuel in the very next verse.

10 Then the Lord said to Samuel, 11 “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.” Samuel was so deeply moved when he heard this that he cried out to the Lord all night.

1 Samuel 15:10-11

So as Saul blatantly disobeys the command of the Lord once again, God comes to Samuel and says “I am sorry that I ever made Saul King, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.”

And this is an interesting verse. Is God expressing regret for something he has done? Is God saying that he made a mistake in choosing Saul to be King? How can that be? God doesn’t make mistakes, does he? So how is it that God says “I’m am sorry that I ever made Saul King?”

Well it might be helpful to look at another passage where God uses this same kind of language. If you flip back in your Bibles to Genesis chapter 6 – which of course, is the account of Noah and the flood – it says in verse 5 of Genesis 6…

5 The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. 6 So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart.

Genesis 6:5-6

Here again we see that God appears to express regret over creating people because everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. It’s the same language that God uses when he says he was sorry that He made Saul King. But I want you to noticed the little sentence at the end of that verse. “It broke his heart.”

The sorrow that God is expressing here isn’t so much regret about his decision to create man – as if he made a mistake – but God is expressing the great hurt and grief he feels because of the sinful, rebellious actions of man.

Remember, God is omniscient – He knew how sinful man would be before he created him. He also knew how disobedient Saul would be before he chose him to be King.

God is not surprised by these outcomes – and in fact, God had already worked these things together for good in his greater plan for mankind.

But that doesn’t negate the grief that God feels when we sin! As Genesis 6:6 puts it, our sin breaks the heart of God. One commentator I read put it this way:

As all this unfolded, God’s heart was not emotionless. He didn’t sit in heaven with a clipboard, checking off boxes, coldly saying, “All according to plan.” ~ David Guzik

No! Our sin deeply grieves heart of God. And this is what God is expressing to Samuel. Saul’s disobedience has so grieved God’s heart that God uses the expression “I’m sorry that I ever made him king.”

That’s not a literal statement of regret, but rather an expression of great sorrow and grief.

And Samuel shares in the Lord’s grief. It says in verse 11….

Samuel was so deeply moved when he heard this that he cried out to the Lord all night. 1 Samuel 15:11

Both God and Samuel were deeply grieved by actions of King Saul, but Saul seemed to be completely oblivious to the whole thing!

Take a look at the next verses:

12 Early the next morning Samuel went to find Saul. Someone told him, “Saul went to the town of Carmel to set up a monument to himself; then he went on to Gilgal.”

13 When Samuel finally found him, Saul greeted him cheerfully. “May the Lord bless you,” he said. “I have carried out the Lord’s command!”

1 Samuel 15:12-13

It certainly doesn’t seem like Saul is feeling very guilt. He’s actually quite proud of himself. In fact, he’s already set up a monument in the town of Carmel to honor and memorialize himself.

Then when Samuel shows up, Saul greets him cheerful with a blessing and says “I have carried out the Lord’s command.”

You can imagine how well this sits with Samuel – who knows exactly what Saul has done and has just spent the entire night crying out to the Lord over Saul’s disobedience! You can tell in the next verse that Samuel is livid! Verse 14.

14 “Then what is all the bleating of sheep and goats and the lowing of cattle I hear?” Samuel demanded.

15 “It’s true that the army spared the best of the sheep, goats, and cattle,” Saul admitted. “But they are going to sacrifice them to the Lord your God. We have destroyed everything else.”

16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! Listen to what the Lord told me last night!”

“What did he tell you?” Saul asked.

17 And Samuel told him, “Although you may think little of yourself, are you not the leader of the tribes of Israel? The Lord has anointed you king of Israel. 18 And the Lord sent you on a mission and told you, ‘Go and completely destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, until they are all dead.’ 19 Why haven’t you obeyed the Lord? Why did you rush for the plunder and do what was evil in the Lord’s sight?”

20 “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul insisted. “I carried out the mission he gave me. I brought back King Agag, but I destroyed everyone else. 21 Then my troops brought in the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and plunder to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”

1 Samuel 15:14-21

It seems that Saul just doesn’t get it! Somehow he’s convinced himself that his disobedience was actually obedience because he did some of what God had instructed him to do. But partial obedience is still disobedience! We can’t just pick and choose what parts of God’s commands we’re going to obey – even if we think we have a good reason for disobeying!

Saul thought his excuse of offering the best of the sheep, goats, and cattle as a sacrifice to God would justify his disobedience. Surely God would understand and even appreciate the gesture, Saul thought. But look how Samuel responds:

22 But Samuel replied,

“What is more pleasing to the Lord:

    your burnt offerings and sacrifices

    or your obedience to his voice?

Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice,

    and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.

23 Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft,

    and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.

So because you have rejected the command of the Lord,

    he has rejected you as king.”

1 Samuel 15:22-23

Whatever excuses or justifications Saul may have had for his disobedience, he was quickly cut off by this sharp rebuke from Samuel. Obedience is better than sacrifice. Or in other words, religious activity is no substitute for obedience.

And we talked about this a couple of weeks ago – that God is not interested in empty religious rituals. He’s interested in the relationship that you have with Him. He wants you to trust Him and thus be obedient to what He tells you to do.

You see, God’s not interested in our obedience just so that He can order us around like little robots. Obedience isn’t about God getting his own way. No! He wants our obedience because that shows that we trust Him.

That’s why Samuel says that obedience is better than sacrifice and submission is better than offering the fat of rams! Obedience shows that we trust God. That’s also why Samuel says rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols. Our disobedience shows that we don’t trust God. That we don’t believe that God is good, or wise, or that He knows what He’s doing.

For Saul, he figured he knew better than God. He had a better plan – a better way of doing things. Surely it would be better spare Agag and all those animals so that they could make a great sacrifice to God later! Certainly God would see Saul’s wisdom as they offered all those animals in a glorious burnt offering. In fact, I’m sure God would sure be grateful that Saul improved God’s foolish plan.

And of course, that sounds ridicules to us, but that’s exact what happens every time we choose to disobey God. We think that we know better. Or that we can take care of our situation better than God can. Or that God has somehow missed some important details and if God only knew what we knew, then things would be different.

I guess that kinda sounds ridiculous too, doesn’t it?

It all comes down to the question: Do you trust God enough to obey Him? Do you believe that He knows what he’s doing and that He loves you and wants what’s best for you?

Saul didn’t. He chose to reject God’s way and do to things his own way instead. And as a result his relationship with God suffered greatly. 

And there is a little bit of the story left, so I want to read through that this morning. I won’t have time today to comment on everything, but I at least want you to know how the story ends. So I’ll start at verse 24 and then finish the chapter.

24 Then Saul admitted to Samuel, “Yes, I have sinned. I have disobeyed your instructions and the Lord’s command, for I was afraid of the people and did what they demanded. 25 But now, please forgive my sin and come back with me so that I may worship the Lord.”

26 But Samuel replied, “I will not go back with you! Since you have rejected the Lord’s command, he has rejected you as king of Israel.”

27 As Samuel turned to go, Saul tried to hold him back and tore the hem of his robe. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to someone else—one who is better than you. 29 And he who is the Glory of Israel will not lie, nor will he change his mind, for he is not human that he should change his mind!”

30 Then Saul pleaded again, “I know I have sinned. But please, at least honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel by coming back with me so that I may worship the Lord your God.” 31 So Samuel finally agreed and went back with him, and Saul worshiped the Lord.

32 Then Samuel said, “Bring King Agag to me.” Agag arrived full of hope, for he thought, “Surely the worst is over, and I have been spared!” 33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has killed the sons of many mothers, now your mother will be childless.” And Samuel cut Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal.

34 Then Samuel went home to Ramah, and Saul returned to his house at Gibeah of Saul. 35 Samuel never went to meet with Saul again, but he mourned constantly for him. And the Lord was sorry he had ever made Saul king of Israel.

1 Samuel 15:24-35

Even though Saul was finally forced to admit his sin, we can see that he still wasn’t genuinely sorry for his actions. He was more concerned about being honoured before the elders of Israel than he was about how he had grieved the Lord. And the chapter closes with both Samuel and the Lord mourning the foolish choice of Saul.

Can I just encourage you not to make that same foolish choice? Don’t harden your heart and reject the Lord and his commands. Instead, put your trust in Him in every area of your life. I think Proverbs 3:5 says it well:

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart;

    do not depend on your own understanding.

6 Seek his will in all you do,

    and he will show you which path to take.

7 Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom.

    Instead, fear the Lord and turn away from evil.

8 Then you will have healing for your body

    and strength for your bones.

9 Honor the Lord with your wealth

    and with the best part of everything you produce.

10 Then he will fill your barns with grain,

    and your vats will overflow with good wine.

11 My child, don’t reject the Lord’s discipline,

    and don’t be upset when he corrects you.

12 For the Lord corrects those he loves,

    just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.

Proverbs 3:5-12

Our heavenly Father delights in us. He delights in you. He loves you like crazy and He deeply wants what’s best for you – just like a parent wants what’s best for their child.

Can I just encourage you this morning to trust in your heavenly father. Trust in him with all your heart – and do not depend on your own understanding or be impressed with your own wisdom!

Don’t follow the path of Saul – trying to improve God’s plan or take matters into your own hands. Trust in the Lord. Believe that He is good, that He is wise, and that He loves you more than you can imagine. Because that’s all true!

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.

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