I Samuel 15: The LORD Rejects Saul as King
This passage begins with a mission that the LORD is going to send Saul on:
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 destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (verses 1–3)
So Saul musters his men, and prepares to attack the Amalekites. (Before he does, however, he gives advance warning to the Kenites, who live near the Amalekites. Since the Kenites were kind to the Israelites, when they came up out of Egypt, Saul is willing to spare them.)
So Saul and his men attack the Amalekites, but they don’t quite follow the LORD’s command to the letter. They spare the Amalekite king, Agag, and they also keep for themselves the best of the livestock as plunder—although they do deign to destroy the “despised” and “weak” animals (verse 9).
Obviously this displeases the LORD, who tells Samuel that He is grieved for having made Saul the king, since Saul has turned away from Him. Which troubles Samuel, who cries out to the LORD for the rest of that night. The next morning, Samuel goes to find Saul, only to be told that Saul has moved on to another place—where he has set up a monument in his own honour.
When Samuel finally catches up with Saul, Saul proves that he doesn’t understand that he has disobeyed the LORD:
When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.”
But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”
Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”
“Stop!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.”
“Tell me,” Saul replied.
Two thoughts, which I won’t bother to put down in the Thoughts section:
- When Samuel asks about the livestock that has mysteriously appeared, Saul says that they kept those animals to sacrifice to the LORD, but he calls Him, “the LORD your God,” and since he used the word “your,” that probably indicates that he feels Samuel is closer to the LORD right now than he is. I think he knows that something isn’t right.
- Samuel says he’s going to tell Saul what the LORD has told him, and Saul simply says, “Tell me.” It’s very hard to tell from a two word response—in print—how Saul felt about this. Did he say those two words with dread? With optimism?
“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. 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.” (verses 20–21)
And I know I’ve been putting a lot of quotations in here, but I’ll include Samuel’s response as well:
But Samuel replied:
“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
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.”
This is a great quote—and one that I’ll be talking about in the Thoughts section below.
After hearing this, Saul gets the point. He realizes that he has sinned, and says he did it because he was afraid of the people, so he “gave in to them” (verse 24). (A valid question at this point would be why Saul is changing his story; first he said he committed no sin, but then he said that he committed the sin because he was giving in to the people, which makes it sound more like a conscious decision.) But Saul asks Samuel to forgive his sin, and accompany him in worshipping the LORD.
Samuel refuses, and turns to leave—because Saul has rejected the LORD, the LORD has rejected Saul—but Saul grabs Samuel’s robe, which tears. Samuel uses the torn robe as an object lesson for Saul: The LORD has torn the kingdom away from Saul, just as his robe was torn. Samuel tells Saul that God is going to give the kingdom to one of Saul’s neighbours—someone who is better than Saul. Samuel also tells Saul that He “who is the Glory of Israel” (verse 29) doesn’t lie or change His mind.
But Saul again asks Samuel to come and worship with him, to honor Saul before the elders of Israel, and Samuel relents, and goes to worship the LORD.
Samuel then asks for Agag to be brought before him, and Agag comes confidently, thinking that “the bitterness of death is past” (verse 32)—which seems like a strange thing to think, to my ears. The battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites is at most a few days past; has enough time really past that the Israelites will have forgotten the “bitterness of death?”
But Samuel quickly dispells any confusion by putting Agag to death. He then leaves, and goes back to his home in Gibeah. Then, until the day Samuel dies, he never goes to see Saul again, and the LORD is grieved that He has made Saul king of Israel.
I guess the first thought I have is about the reason that God is wiping out the Amalekites. He is not just trying to enlarge the Israelites’ territory, He is punishing the Amalekites for a particular sin they committed in their past. Sometimes His justice is swift, and sometimes it takes a while before coming, but God is just.
One of Saul’s problems is that he misses the big picture, and thinks it’s about him, when it should be about God. We see that again in this passage; Samuel goes looking for Saul, and is told that Saul has erected a monument in his own honour. Why not a monument to God—the one who actually won the battle? Because Saul doesn’t have the right perspective.
When Samuel confronts Saul, and Saul says that he has carried out the LORD’s commands, it’s possible that he knows he’s done wrong, and he’s just trying to cover up. However, I don’t get that impression when I read this passage; to me, it seems like Saul really believes that he’s carried out the LORD’s commands. (Until he finally gets convinced—and then blames it on the people.) I don’t think he’s lying to Samuel, so much as he just doesn’t understand what he has done wrong—after all, he mostly followed the LORD’s commands, right? (And how often do we fall into the same trap? “Well, I mostly love my neighbour as I love myself. Except for that guy, but he doesn’t count, because he’s too crotchety.”) And later, in verses 20–21 (quoted above), I still read this that Saul really believes he’s followed the LORD’s commands. I don’t think that he’s just trying to weasel out of it.
With regards to Samuel’s response to Saul, in verses 22–23 (quoted above), I have a few thoughts:
- As important as the sacrificial system is in the Old Testament, another theme is even more important, and there are various times during the Old Testament history of the Israelites that they miss it: Obeying the LORD is better than sacrifice. To my mind, sacrifice was probably a very tricky thing for the Old Testament Israelites—maybe similar to the discussions we have about baptism in the modern-day Christian church?—because it was definitely something they had to do, to obey the LORD’s command, but sacrifice in and of itself didn’t make Him happy. (That was probably badly stated; I await comments on this blog post…) The Israelites weren’t saved by sacrifice any more than we are—unless you count the sacrifice of Jesus. Not that the Israelites would fully understand how their sacrificial system was a picture of what was to come—how could they?—but God did tell them that He was more interested in obedience than in sacrifice.
- I also find it interesting that Samuel compares rebellion with divination, and arrogance with idolatry.
- After all, what is divination, other than a lack of trust in God? You wouldn’t need to know the future if you just trusted Him to guide you and provide for you day by day. (See Matthew 6:25–34 or Luke 12:22–34 for good examples of Jesus telling his disciples not to worry about tomorrow; just trust God to provide for today, and tomorrow will take care of itself. Or rather, God will take care of tomorrow.)
- Similarly, what is arrogance, if not idolatry—where you yourself are the idol you’re worshipping. Arrogance is nothing more than putting yourself in God’s place.
It might seem strange to read that the LORD is grieved that He has made Saul king—didn’t He know ahead of time that this was going to happen? Of course he did. But He can still regret that He has to do things this way, to teach the Israelites (and us) the lesson that He wants to teach. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that He is grieved that He had to punish his Son to save us from our sins, either, but that’s what He had to do, to solve the problem of being a Just God, who is also a Merciful God, who wants to save a people that He loves. In a sense, it’s unfortunate that things have to be this way, but they are. (Again, this sentence is badly worded, so I expect comments—especially from Jonathan Edwards readers—but it would take me hours to word it properly.)