The Good and the Better

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 heed than the fat of rams” (v. 22).

- 1 Samuel 15:17-23

It often happens in Scripture that a message of judgment begins with a reminder of God’s goodness. The reason is obvious—every sin is a repudiation of divine grace. That is certainly the case in what Saul has done, as the prophet Samuel tells him in the passage before us today. “ ‘You were little in your own eyes,’ ” the prophet says, reminding the king that he is of humble origins and that he knew it at one time. But from that low estate Saul was raised up to be ruler over all Israel. He was set apart to be king, not by Samuel or any other man, but by God Himself. A great honor was placed upon him—the honor of being God’s regent. And furthermore, Saul also was given the honor of being God’s instrument of judgment. The task was simple: “ ‘Utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites.’ ” But Saul did not do that. Instead, as Samuel puts it, he “ ‘swooped down on the spoil.’ ” That was evil, for all the material goods of the Amalekites were to be destroyed for God’s honor. Why, Samuel asks Saul, did you do this?

Saul protests his innocence, but he also contradicts himself and shifts blame. In one breath, he claims to have wiped out all of the Amalekites though he spared their king. And, as in yesterday’s passage, he accuses the people of bringing back plunder to sacrifice to God, even admitting that it “ ‘should have been utterly destroyed.’ ”

Samuel answers these ridiculous protestations with words that speak volumes about the ways in which God’s people are to relate to Him. God, he says, does not take as much delight in sacrifices as in obedience. Sacrifices are good and proper things. But God wants more than ritual observances; heartfelt submission to His will pleases Him most. To obey, to heed, is better. By contrast, rebellion (disobedience) and stubbornness rank with the most vile sins, such as witchcraft and idolatry. “It is as bad to set up other gods as to live in disobedience to the true God,” Matthew Henry writes.

Then comes God’s final judgment against Saul. Because he has rejected the word of God, God has rejected him as king. Saul lost sight of his place as God’s regent, forgetting that he himself was a man under authority, and that is a fundamental requirement for the job. “Those are unfit and unworthy to rule over men who are not willing that God should rule over them,” Henry writes in his commentary.

Coram Deo

It is much easier to bring a bullock or lamb to be burnt upon the altar than to bring every high thought into obedience to God,” Henry writes. Take care lest the good but more-ritualistic aspects of the Christian life—church attendance, Bible reading, tithing—keep you from pursuing obedience in every area of your walk with God.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 1:12–17
Hosea 6:6
Micah 6:6–8
Matthew 15:7–9

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