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