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The Story of Saul’s Incomplete Obedience

AN EXPOSITION OF

 1 Samuel 15:9-35

     9 But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.

 Most Bible commentators, ministers, and Sunday School teachers focus attention on this portion of the narrative in order to teach about Saul’s incomplete obedience to the known will of the LORD. It is instructive to note that prior to this incident Saul was known for his disregard for the commandments of the LORD. Rarely does a person sin in a unique manner. There is often a pattern of sinful behaviour. Saul’s life is no exception.

When Saul is introduced in Scripture, he is not a particularly spiritual minded man. He did not know where the prophet Samuel could be found. “And he said unto him, Behold now, there is in this city a man of God, and he is an honourable man; all that he saith cometh surely to pass: now let us go thither; peradventure he can shew us our way that we should go….18 Then Saul drew near to Samuel in the gate, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, where the seer’s house is” (1 Sam. 9:6).

Saul thought the gifts of a prophet could be purchased, or at least rewarded. “Then said Saul to his servant, But, behold, if we go, what shall we bring the man? For the bread is spent in our vessels, and there is not a present to bring to the man of God: what have we? 8 And the servant answered Saul again, and said, Behold, I have here at hand the fourth part of a shekel of silver: that will I give to the man of God, to tell us our way” (1 Sam. 9:7-8).

Even more telling, early in his reign, Saul intruded upon the holy office of priest. At Gilgal, he offered an inappropriate sacrifice with devastating consequences. The story is told in 1 Samuel 13:8-14.

“And he tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. 9 And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings. And he offered the burnt offering. 10 And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might salute him. 11 And Samuel said, What hast thou done? And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash; 12 Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the Lord: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering. 13 And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel forever. 14 But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the Lord hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the Lord commanded thee.”

Throughout his reign, Saul proved himself to be self-centered, self-justifying, impatient, and above the Moral Law of God. Is it any wonder we read that the LORD repented that He had set Saul up to be king?

     10 Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying,

     11 It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.

Despite the many, and obvious faults of Saul, Samuel still grieved for him, and defended him. Samuel did not want the heavy hand of divine discipline to fall upon the king, and so Samuel prayed all night unto the LORD on Saul’s behalf. While it is good to have faithful friends, there comes a time when it is wrong to defend the defenseless, and to try and justify that which is blatantly unjustifiable.

     12 And when Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning, it was told Samuel, saying, Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a place, and is gone about, and passed on, and gone down to Gilgal.

     13 And Samuel came to Saul: and Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD.

There is an unholy boldness to sin that is breathtaking. There are individuals in high places of leadership that believe can do anything they want, and say anything they want, and it will be believed and accepted. “I have performed the commandment of the LORD”, said Saul. The problem was that his partial truth, in the sight of God, is a whole lie. He had not performed perfectly the commandment of the LORD. Samuel did not allow Saul to get away with his lie. Samuel held the leader of the land accountable with a simple, penetrating question.

     14 And Samuel said, What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?

Samuel’s question to Saul was devastating. It was as if Samuel was saying, “Saul, why are you lying? You have not really obeyed the commandment of the LORD. You did not destroy the enemy of the people, and the enemy of God. You did not keep Israel safe. You have advanced your own personal agenda, Saul.”

     15 And Saul said, They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.

It is a characteristic of the ungodly, that, instead of acknowledging the truth, repenting, and ask for grace and forgiveness, they double down on their position with a determined, and clever response. Saul immediately replied to Samuel’s rhetorical inquiry by blame shifting. He was not responsible for the “bleating of the sheep” in the ears of Samuel. The people were to blame! “They have brought them from the Amalekites.” “Samuel, you have to understand, it was the people, not me, that spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen.” “Samuel, the people had a noble reason for their disobedience.” The people were going to offer to the LORD a sacrifice of the best sheep and oxen of the spoils of war.

Have you ever noticed that those who do wrong always have good intentions? They never mean to hurt anyone. They never mean to intentionally do wrong. The unintended consequences are unfortunate, but they were not done with any sinister motives. Therefore, the guilty should not be judged harshly. In fact, they should not be judged at all since their intentions are always so noble.

     16 Then Samuel said unto Saul, Stay, and I will tell thee what the LORD hath said to me this night. And he said unto him, Say on.

It is possible that the blood of Samuel began to boil with righteous indignation at Saul’s unholy boldness. Most people have a sense of rational understanding. People know when someone is lying, blame shifting, and trying to appear more noble than they are. It is disgusting. It is infuriating.

Not only was Samuel upset, but the soldiers of Israel were probably upset as well. Saul was making them his scapegoat. Saul was blaming his army. People are not stupid. They do not want to be blamed for the poor judgment of their political leader(s).

Samuel took the appropriate action. Rather than rail against Saul, he prayed. Samuel wanted to hear what the LORD had to say about this matter. That is a proper and righteous response when someone is known to be lying, and covering up their behavior.

It was not long before Samuel had something to say to Saul on behalf of the LORD.

     17 And Samuel said, When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?

     18 And the LORD sent thee on a journey, and said, Go and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed.

     19 Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the LORD, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the LORD?

     20 And Saul said unto Samuel, Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites.

Despite being confronted with his failure to obey the LORD, Saul stubbornly insisted that he was innocent of the charge Samuel had brought against him. “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me.” It is not hard to image such a bold defense. Americans witness this type of lying dogmatism on a daily basis. No matter what the objective evidence presents, individuals insist that what they are saying is reality. Saul declared that he had utterly destroyed the Amalekites, while at the same time admitting he had spared the king, Amalek. Saul is not simply delusional, he is wicked to the core, as he proceeded to shift attention from himself to others.

     21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal.

Samuel had enough of Saul’s lying defense, misrepresentation of the facts, and shifting of attention.

     22 And Samuel said, Hath 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 hearken than the fat of rams.

     23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.

Samuel informed Saul, that, in the sight of God, his rebellion was as terrible as the sin of divination, and his stubbornness was as bad as worshipping false gods (iniquity), and teraphim (idolatry). Saul did not think his actions were bad at all, but, he was willing to feign repentance after discerning that the conversation was not going in his favor, and something bad was about to happen to him. The wicked are cunning. They are clever enough to change their rhetoric, if not their reality. Saul suddenly changed his rhetoric.

     24 And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.

Saul did not really believe he had sinned, but, he was willing to concede the language. The evidence that Saul was not truly repentant is reflected in his failure to take full responsibility. Once more he blamed others. It was because he feared the people that he obeyed their voice, and did not fully obey the LORD. Saul played the role of being the victim. For many people, suddenly becoming the victim of a situation is an effective defense. Saul’s new defense was that he was motivated by fear of the people to disobey the LORD. Then, Saul did something else which is commonly done. He got religion. He asked Samuel to pray for him, and forgive him of his sin. Suddenly, Saul wanted to worship the LORD.

     25 Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.

A person finding religion in the middle of a political scandal is nothing new. During the 1970’s, when President Richard Nixon, a Quaker, was about to be impeached for his part in the Watergate cover-up, he literally fell to his knees in the White House and, with tears, asked his Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to pray with him. In the 1990’s, when Bill Clinton was about to be impeached over his inappropriate behavior with an intern, suddenly there were Bible studies being conducted in the Oval Office with Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister. When Saul perceived he was about to be punished, he found religion. The tactics of sinners never change. History merely repeats, itself because human nature does not change.

     26 And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.

Samuel did not fall for the religion pretentiousness of Saul. He did not offer to pray with the king. He simply said, “The LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” Then, Samuel turned to leave.

     27 And as Samuel turned about to go away, he laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent.

In a final act of desperation, Saul tried to physically restrain Samuel from leaving his presence. It is the mark of a tyrant, that they will take by force, what they cannot take by verbal persuasion.

     28 And Samuel said unto him, The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.

     29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.

To Saul’s surprise, the tearing of Samuel’s mantel became a symbol as to how God would deal with him. As Saul had torn Samuel’s mantel, so God would tear the kingdom from Saul’s control, and give it to someone better. Moreover, the Strength of Israel, as the LORD is called, will not change His mind on this matter. God is not a man that He should repent.

     30 Then he said, I have sinned: yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD thy God.

     31 So Samuel turned again after Saul; and Saul worshipped the LORD.

Finally, the seriousness of the situation penetrated the mind of Saul, but it was too little, too late. He could ask for prayer. He could worship the LORD. However, the divine discipline would stand.

     32 Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past.

     33 And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.

Samuel had to do what Saul had neglected to do. Samuel “hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.” It is a bloody and violent scene recorded here, but it establishes a principle. There are enemies of a nation that must be destroyed. They cannot be degraded, they must be exterminated without apology, and without false guilt. It takes a certain mindset to engage in that type of fierce combat. It takes a belief in a righteous cause.

Before D-Day, June 6, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower instill in the hearts of the men of America’s Greatest Generation a righteous cause. This, in part, is what he said.

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world….

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.

I have full confidence in your courage and devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

Some wars are worth fighting to a conclusive end.

     34 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house to Gibeah of Saul.

Gibeah of Judah refers to a city in the land belonging to Judah, located SW of Jerusalem (Josh. 15:57).

     35 And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The story of Saul’s incomplete obedience ends on a tragic note. Samuel mourned for Saul, and the LORD repented that He had made Saul king over Israel. There is always heartache and sorrow when the known will of God is violated without gospel repentance.

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