Human beings are naturally religious, and part of that religious impulse involves following religious rituals. In most of the world’s religions, central importance is placed on the proper following of ritual while less attention is devoted to right belief. Orthopraxy—rightly following regulations and rituals—tends to take precedence over orthodoxy—right beliefs and theology. Biblical Christianity stands out as the exception. Various regulations and rituals have been important in church history, but Christian theology tends to focus more on getting our beliefs right than on enforcing adherence to a set of religious rituals.
Yet, God’s people have sometimes elevated external conformity over heart-motivated belief and obedience. King Saul committed that error when he disobeyed God’s command to annihilate the Amalekites and their livestock (1 Sam. 15:1–9). He preserved the Amalekite king, Agag, and several of the best Amalekite animals. And when Samuel came to confront Saul for his disobedience, Saul explained that he spared the animals so as to make the best sacrifice to the Lord (vv. 10–16). Saul was so focused on the external letter of the law—giving the best animal for sacrifices—that he violated the Lord’s explicit will for dealing with the Amalekites. For this blatant disobedience, God rejected him as Israel’s king, pledging to give the throne to another (vv. 17–31).
It is important to get the externals right, and the intent to be faithful in the rituals is not a bad thing in itself. When Samuel said, under God’s inspiration, that obedience is better than sacrifice (vv. 22–23), he did not mean that the sacrificial system was optional or that offering quality sacrifices was unimportant. His point was that we cannot offer a proper sacrifice if we are not intent on following all of God’s commandments. Saul lacked that intent, so he thought it would be fine if he gave the choicest Amalekite animals to the Lord even when that entailed disregarding what God had told him to do.
Note also the statement in today’s passage that “the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king” even as the text also says that God does not “have regret” (vv. 29, 35). We have no contradiction here; rather, the point is that the Lord’s regret or change of mind is not the same thing we experience as human beings. God does not literally change His mind. He did not fail to anticipate what would happen with Saul. The author is speaking of the Lord in a “human way” to help us understand that He was angry with Saul.
Going through the motions—even if they are the right motions—is insufficient to fully please the Lord. He does not want our sacrifices if we do not intend to obey Him in other matters. It is vital that we strive to do what the Lord wants us to do in all things and that we quickly and truly repent when we have failed to obey Him.