Shaking the Dust

“And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, as ye go forth out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet” (Matthew 10:14).

At some point we must come to the realization: people have made up their minds. They will not listen. It’s now on them.

In Matthew 10:1-42 Jesus commissioned the twelve disciples to go out and proclaim the Gospel; this event is called the “limited commission” since it lasted for a specific period of time while the disciples remained under Jesus’ tutelage (cf. Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6). The disciples were to go to the villages and towns of Israel and proclaiming the imminent coming of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 10:5-7); they were to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the unclean, cast out demons, and give freely as they had received (Matthew 10:8). They were not to bring any provisions with them, but instead rely upon the goodwill and hospitality of a house in each village or town they visited; they should pronounce peace upon houses in which they were received favorably, but to hold their peace if received unfavorably (Matthew 10:9-13). If they came upon a village or town in which no one would receive them, or hear their message, they were to shake the dust off of their feet as they left the town; on the day of judgment it would prove more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town (Matthew 10:14-15; cf. Genesis 18:17-19:29)!

Jesus’ call to shake the dust off of their feet proved quite memorable; it remains a feature of the narrative in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 6:11, Luke 9:5). To shake the dust off the feet is a ritualized act of judgment denoting the separation of all association between the person and that location. They wanted nothing to do with the message; the disciple now has nothing to do with their place. They now stand liable for judgment for not heeding the Gospel message; the disciple wants no share in that judgment, and so removes any trace of connection by removing the dust from his feet. Sodom and Gomorrah had long become proverbial in Israel as a bastion of wickedness and a model of God’s judgment (cf. Isaiah 1:9-10); for any village or town of Israel to be liable to a fate worse than Sodom or Gomorrah was shocking and startling. Jesus meant for His warning in Matthew 10:15 to shock; sure, Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful places, but they never heard the Gospel of the Kingdom, so how much worse off will be those who could have enjoyed all the benefits of the Kingdom but turned aside from it on account of their rebellion against God’s purposes in Christ (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22)?

Jesus’ followers took His exhortation to shake the dust off of their feet seriously, and well beyond the “limited commission” of Matthew 10:1-42; when the Jewish people of Antioch of Pisidia rejected Paul and his associates, they shook the dust off of their feet and went to Iconium (Acts 13:51). They performed this ritualistic action even though some among the Antiochenes in Pisidia heard the Gospel and accepted it (Acts 13:48, 52).

These days few Christians go about as itinerant proclaimers of the Gospel; few, therefore, would find themselves needing to literally, concretely shake the dust off of their feet. And yet all Christians ought to be proclaiming the Gospel in their own lives to their family members, friends, associates, and others (Matthew 28:18-20); no doubt they will come across people who will reject the message no matter how well presented or embodied (cf. Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23). Thus, even if Christians do not literally remove dirt from feet anymore, they most likely will have opportunity to proverbially knock the dust off of their feet and resign people to the judgment awaiting them.

Many people today might consider this harsh and unloving: how can we just resign people to their doom? If Christians showed absolutely no care or concern for such people, or despised them, then they would indeed by harsh and unloving. But Christians “shake the dust off of their feet” only after they have proclaimed the Gospel message and it was denied or rejected. The Christian has manifested enough love for the person to share with them this good news.

If anything, Christians must learn that the time does come to “shake the dust off the feet” and to move on, so to speak, to the next village. We would understand this if we had a little more distance, very much like the kind of itinerant preaching performed by the disciples and the Apostles. Yet we often seek to convert those to whom we are close and whom we love deeply. We deeply desire their salvation; we do not want to imagine they will be condemned. We are easily tricked into thinking that constant exhortation will move the needle and encourage them to convert.

Yet no one has ever been nagged into the Kingdom of Heaven. To constantly preach to people who have made it clear they do not want to hear speaks toward the insecurities and fears of the preacher, and his or her unwillingness to step back and respect the decision which has clearly been made. We do well to remember that we are to love others as God has loved us in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:2); God has provided the means of salvation in Christ, and has done everything He can to save us, but does not coerce or compel us into accepting it; we must come to Him in faith, not under compulsion, but willingly. Love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5).

As God has loved us and therefore allowed us to go our own ways, even to our own harm, so we must love others and allow them to go in their own ways even to their own harm. To shake off the feet does not mean to become indifferent or hostile to people; we must still love them and do good for them as we have opportunity (Galatians 6:10, 1 Peter 4:19). Shaking off the feet is the way we demonstrate our respect for their decision: they have not really rejected us, but the Gospel, and God will hold them accountable for that. We have done what we could. The situation is sad and lamentable, and we wish it were not so; but God does not compel or coerce, and therefore neither do we. As long as people have life they have an opportunity to repent and change, and it might well be that they remember how you had told them of Jesus, and may come to you again to hear the message anew and afresh. If not, the day of judgment will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than it will be for them.

Proclamation of the Gospel is not about us; it is about what God has done in Jesus and the importance for everyone to know about it. Not everyone will accept it; perhaps we could have presented it in a more winsome way, or could have better manifest its message in our lives, but ultimately God will hold each person accountable for what they did with the message. Those who reject the Gospel, regardless of motivation, will be liable to terrible judgment. God would have them to be saved, and wants us to communicate that message; once the message is communicated, it is no longer on us. If it is rejected, we move on. May we prove willing to shake the dust off of our feet when necessary while doing good to all people as we have opportunity, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Smooth Things

For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; that say to the seers, “See not”;
and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits, get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9-11).

The Iraq war of 2003. The economic disaster of 2008. These are but two of many instances in history when certain people warned about dangers and problems with conventional thinking and wisdom that went unheeded but proved to be precisely correct. Such voices often only gain credibility and respect after the fact when “I told you so” proves to be cold comfort.

The reason why this tendency exists in humanity is the same as the origin of the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger”: humans do not like doom and gloom predictions and warnings about the dangers of their behaviors and the consequences of their actions. In such circumstances most will seek out reassurance that all will be well, to keep on accepting the official line or statement, and carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue to grow and develop, and when they become too painfully obvious to ignore, it is too late. Pain and regret follow.

The prophets of Israel understood this tendency only too well. Isaiah laments how the king of Judah and his associates have not put their trust in the LORD but instead seek to make political alliances with Egypt in Isaiah 30:1-17. He has, no doubt, prophesied before them about the dangers of their path, but they did not want to hear it. It is unlikely that the people of Judah would be so bold as to actually tell the prophet to lie, deceive, and say smooth things (cf. Isaiah 30:10-11). Instead, they communicate the same message through their actions, rejecting the message of Isaiah and turning instead to listen to another prophet who would tell them, in the name of the LORD, that their alliance with Egypt would stand, and all would be well with them, just as they would put their trust in the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear in the days of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17).

We do well to remember that even though the voice of the false prophets is rarely heard in the Old Testament, they would have been quite prominent and vociferous in ancient Israel (cf. Luke 6:26). The false prophets do not feature prominently in the Old Testament since their deception and error proved evident: after the devastations of 722 and 586 BCE, the remnant of Israel recognized just how accurately the true prophets of God foretold what would happen. This realization helps us to understand why the Israelites did not really listen to prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: their messages were dire and harsh, demanding repentance, lest the LORD destroy them and/or exile them away from the land. Meanwhile, these false prophets would tell them that YHWH would destroy their enemies and keep them in their land. If we were there, which one would we rather believe?

We also should keep in mind that the message of the false prophet might seem to better match theological expectations. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Jesus prophesied that God would render judgment against Israel and destroy Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, many in Israel were convinced that God would give them victory over the Roman oppressor just as He gave the Maccabees victory over the Macedonians for His name’s glory and honor. Therefore, to many Jews of the first century, Jesus’ prediction seemed blasphemous and perhaps even demonic, an attempt to weaken resolve in the struggle against an imperious overlord. And then, in 70 CE, Jesus was fully vindicated.

Isaiah is right: people like to hear “smooth things.” Paul warns Timothy of how Christians will no longer endure sound doctrine, but having “itching ears,” will find teachers to satisfy their desires, and turn away to fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People still do not like hearing messages that challenge the way they live their lives and ideas or the ideas and philosophies upon which they have built their understanding of their environment. To this day people are still looking for ways to justify their attitudes and behavior rather than changing them in healthy ways.

The Gospel of Christ can never be a “smooth thing.” It convicts and challenges everyone toward greater faithfulness to Christ; it is a hard way to go (cf. Matthew 7:13-14)! There are always temptations to make the message smooth–always. Some might make the message smooth by toning down or compromising those parts of the Gospel which work against conventional cultural thinking. Others might make the message smooth by focusing only on the problems, errors, or challenges of others without having to go through the uncomfortable process of looking in the mirror and confronting their own problems and challenges (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). The whole truth of God’s message in Christ proves difficult for everyone!

It is understandable why so many people attempt to make the message smooth: we can read how the prophets, Apostles, and others who faithfully proclaimed God’s message were persecuted, humiliated, injured, or even killed because the people did not like their message (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38). Meanwhile, those who tell people what they want to hear receive accolades, praise, and other benefits (cf. Luke 6:26). We would rather be liked than disliked; loved rather than hated.

Nevertheless, God’s message proves true. There are many false prophets about, just as there has always been, and many will be led astray by them (2 Peter 2:1-4). Yet a day will come, just like it did for Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE, and Jerusalem again in 70 CE, when God will render judgment on all people, and on that day far too many, both “Christian” and otherwise, will recognize how they have been deceived and that it is too late (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Therefore, we must resist the temptation to preach smooth things or to listen to them, and to be willing to deal with the discomfort and challenge that comes from acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Let us heed God’s warnings and prove willing to fully repent and follow after Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Road Soil

And he spake to them many things in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went forth to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them…Hear then ye the parable of the sower. When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side” (Matthew 13:3-4, 18-19).

The Parable of the Sower is perhaps the parable par excellence— it introduces Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. It has all of the elements of a parable– a realistic setting, familiar to the hearers, an understandable event, and all of it with a spiritual meaning. It is profound in its simplicity.

We are informed that the seed is the Word of God, the word of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:18, Luke 8:11). The sower is the one who proclaims the message. While some have errantly taught that the sower is to seek out and find just the “good soil,” Jesus never suggests that this is the case. The sower goes out and sows the seed– how the “seed” is received is dependent on the hearer and the type of “soil” he or she proves to be.

This is evident from the first type of soil– the “road soil.” In the physical realm, no sower worth his salt would knowingly and intentionally cast precious seed upon roads. While most roads in the ancient world were not paved, they would be very hard surfaces, packed down by the constant movement of people, animals, carts, and the like. Seeds could not penetrate such a hard surface; therefore, it would be most likely blown off the road by wind or rain or, as Jesus presents, eaten by birds (Matthew 13:4).

So it goes with those who hear the Word of God but do not understand it (Matthew 13:18) and/or of whom Satan takes away that word, lest they should be saved (Mark 4:15, Luke 8:12). Their hearts are as the road soil– too hard for the word of Christ to penetrate and grow.

Some might protest here. How is it “fair” if Satan is the one who comes and takes away the word from such people? We must remember that just as God does not coerce or compel anyone, neither can Satan force anyone to do anything. He is the tempter, and he does tempt (cf. 1 Peter 5:8), but if people are unwilling, he can do nothing (James 4:7). Therefore, the reason that Satan can take the Word from their hearts is that they have no problem with him doing so– they themselves have rejected the Word of God and the message of Christ and His Kingdom. Thus Jesus categorizes all those who do not believe in Him and in His Father.

It is interesting to note that disbelief in God must always be rationalized in a way that disbelief in other concepts does not. People must justify to themselves and to those around them why they do not believe in God. In reality, their arguments tend to be rather weak, and end up boiling down to certain principles. For some, it is embracing something that God has deemed sinful. For others, it is reconciling the existence of a good Creator God with the pervasive evil in our world. Many have been puffed up with pride and have no desire to subject themselves to a Higher Power. And, for a tragically high number of people, it comes down to nothing more than a lack of consideration and reflection– they have not cared enough about their spiritual lives to consider whether there is a God or not and whether He should be obeyed.

People in these conditions remain hardened toward God. They have always existed, exist now, and will always exist. Jesus expected it, and through this parable tells us to expect it, also. Many such people will not show much concern; others, however, will be rather antagonistic toward the faith and those who practice and promote it. This is why all those who desire to serve the Lord will experience persecution (Acts 14:22, 2 Timothy 3:12). Furthermore, when believers attempt to promote the Gospel with such people, they feel the pain concerning which they were afraid– rejection and hostility.

This is not a reason to quit “sowing the seed” or to get distressed. Believers must remember that it is not their job to judge the soil– it is given to them to sow and water the seed, and God will give whatever increase will come (1 Corinthians 3:5-8). There will be “road soil” out there, but there will also be “good soil.” How tragic it would be if potential “good soil” goes without seed because sowers were distressed because of all the seed cast upon the “road”!

From beginning to end there have been people who have rejected God (Romans 1:18-32). Thankfully, some such people have awakened before it was too late and changed their ways. Nevertheless, many will not, and we should not be overly distressed at their rejection of the Word; we must still promote that Word among all men. Let us spread the Word of God throughout the world as God has commanded!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Reproof

Whoso loveth correction loveth knowledge; but he that hateth reproof is brutish (Proverbs 12:1).

A wise son heareth his father’s instruction; but a scoffer heareth not rebuke (Proverbs 13:1).

A fool despiseth his father’s correction; but he that regardeth reproof getteth prudence (Proverbs 15:5).

One of the things that unites all mankind is our distaste at being wrong and our extreme discomfort when our words or behavior are challenged or rebuked. We do not like such circumstances. We do not look forward to them. We do not feel good after they happen, generally.

Much of this is due to our internal pride and self-image. If we are proven to be wrong, or if our conduct is unseemly, then we feel lowered in the eyes of others. If nothing else, we feel internally humiliated. Humiliation is hard enough when we try to be humble ourselves (cf. 1 Peter 5:6)– it is that much more difficult when it is being imposed on us. Our pride is wounded, and our fight or flight impulse is often aroused. For some reason the idea that we are debased in the eyes of others because of our words or our conduct do not seem to bother us as much as the feelings that come when we are called out regarding them. Yet the sting remains.

The type of person we are, however, is proven not by whether or not we will be rebuked or chastened, but in how we respond to such rebuke and chastisement. None of us are perfect; there are all times when we find ourselves in the wrong (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). All of us deserve rebuke and reproof at times.

The easy thing to do is to get defensive and refuse to listen to the criticism. Some may get violent; others might unleash a torrent of criticism themselves. We can all easily try to find reasons why we should not listen to the rebuke so that we may find a way to preserve our pride. We may attempt to make the one rebuking look like a hypocrite, or we might wrap our words in sanctimony and denounce them for “judging” us or for imposing their standards upon us. We might construct elaborate arguments to justify a losing cause, no matter how weak or easily dismissed those arguments might be. What is important in the end is to remain justified and right.

It is also easy to just ignore the criticism and pretend it does not mean anything. Some people create very elaborate worldviews that seek to invalidate various forms of criticism. After all, if you can figure out a way to render the basis for the rebuke irrelevant, then the rebuke itself will be irrelevant, right?

Yet, as Solomon (among others) has made clear, this response is not the response of wisdom. It is the way of folly– the way of the fool, the scoffer, and the brute. In fact, such a person is double the fool– he has been carried away in some wrong thinking or action, and when others make effort to correct him, he rejects that correction and continues in the error. In such circumstances it is easy for people to begin writing off the fool– why bother rebuking someone who will not hear and will not change? It is tragic to think about how many people have fallen into such misery and distress, presently and for the future, because they rejected reproof and would rather be wrong and proud than to live according to wisdom and to live.

The wise person who loves knowledge and is prudent will accept criticism. No one ever promises that accepting criticism will be easy– it is not. Yet we must appreciate it when people care enough, for whatever reason, to show us the proper way.

Some may fear that they will look weak or pathetic if they accept criticism. While that may be the response of some, such a response is itself a form of folly. Instead, most people have a higher respect for those who are willing to be chastened and who will accept reproof and rebuke. It is the way of humility and the way of wisdom, and it deserves to be honored. Better to swallow pride, accept that we are wrong, and perhaps look like a fool for a moment than to stubbornly insist on our own way and be the fool perpetually!

As in all things, chastisement requires discretion. Not all reproof and rebuke will necessarily be legitimate, but it is better to be open to possibilities of error than to delude oneself into thinking that he or she is always right. Those who would rebuke others must also make sure that their motivations are pure and that they are conducting themselves in the best way so as to obtain the desired repentance, always watching for themselves (cf. Matthew 7:1-5, 18:15-18, Galatians 6:1).

Being wrong is never fun, and correcting error should not be relished. Yet it is necessary for our physical and spiritual health to be rebuked and reproved when we are wrong. Let us be wise and accept reproof and live!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Rejecting God’s Words

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. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

The time was right.

The Amalekites were a foul stench in the nostrils of the LORD. While He was trying to lead His people Israel to His mountain, the Amalekites presumed to attack Israel (Exodus 17:8). While Israel was victorious, God made sure that this indignity would not be forgotten (Exodus 17:9-14). It was decreed that day that Amalek would be utterly destroyed (Exodus 17:14-16).

It would take about four hundred years before the day would come when the LORD would fulfill this promise. After Saul the king had defeated the Philistines and many other enemies of Israel (cf. 1 Samuel 14), God told Samuel His will for Saul.

And Samuel said unto Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I have marked that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Samuel 15:1-3).

The command, as disturbing as it may seem to modern ears, is quite clear: utterly destroy Amalek. Men, women, children, and animals. Spare nothing.

So Saul went forth and began to carry out the command. He fought with Amalek and defeated them (1 Samuel 15:4-8). Yet, as it is written,

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 (1 Samuel 15:9).

God was not pleased at all. He was sorry that Saul was made king, and Saul would pay dearly for this offense (1 Samuel 15:10-12). And yet what does Saul continue to say?

And Samuel came to Saul; and Saul said unto him, “Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:13).

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. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:20-21).

It sounds so holy and pious, and in the eyes of Saul, it was. Saul had gone out plenty of times to fight battles, and when he returned, he would devote all the best things to the LORD. Apparently, in his mind, however rebelliously intentioned or not, “to devote to destruction” meant “destroy the unworthy people and animals, and devote the rest of the spoil and animals to God at the Tabernacle.” Or, perhaps, Saul understood God’s command, but the people assumed that they were to take the best back to God, and Saul did not bother correcting them. Nevertheless, Saul was still convinced that he had done the will of the LORD.

Samuel devastates this view with 1 Samuel 15:22-23. Sacrifices offered in disobedience to God’s commands are vain. God would much rather have obedience than sacrifice. Rebelliousness is just as bad as witchcraft and idolatry. And, in the end, Saul had rejected God’s word. Therefore, Saul and his line were rejected for the kingship.

Yet this seems overly harsh. Rejecting the word of God? Did Saul not go out and fight the Amalekites because God said to do so? Had he not devoted to destruction all the unworthy things because God said to do so? Yes indeed. But God had commanded Saul to devote everything to destruction. By adapting God’s words Saul had invalidated the whole message. By adapting God’s words Saul had really rejected God’s words.

And this is the powerful lesson that we need to consider. It is very easy, when confronted with a difficult command or example, or when a given command seems like other commands but is not exactly the same, to adapt things a bit. It is easier to do all things consistently. When things get tough, and especially when God’s words are in direct opposition to the highly esteemed values and “virtues” of our society and culture, we find it easier to modify or mollify what God has said.

In doing so we may not think much of it. We may still feel that we are obeying the commandment of God. After all, it may be mostly like what He said. It might just be a “little different.” It is just “updated” to fit “our culture” and “our way of doing things.” No matter; it very likely is, in the eyes of God, a wholesale rejection of His Word.

We do well to remember that if we start adding parenthetical comments or force a passage to say something other than what it says to fit our view of other passages, we might very well be entirely changing God’s words. When God’s words get changed, they are no longer God’s words. The serpent in the Garden added one word to God’s two words, and they were no longer God’s words at all– they were a temptation, a snare, and death (cf. Genesis 3:3-4).

God’s words are powerful– they provide life (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3) and are the basis of the creation (Hebrews 11:3). We do well to respect God’s words and not attempt to modify them explicitly or through interpretation. We just might find ourselves in Saul’s position– rejected by God because we, in truth, rejected His words. Let us understand God’s will and not seek to adapt God’s will!

Ethan R. Longhenry