To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice

As we’ve been highlighting portions of the book of Samuel, we began with Samuel’s call and last week saw how the elders of Israel ended up rejecting that call. Despite Israel having experienced a time of peace and protection from their Philistine enemies over the course of Samuel’s life, near the end of his life these elders ceased to trust him and instead insisted upon having a king “such as all the other nations have.”[1] And even after they were warned by the LORD through Samuel that such a king would oppress them, enslave them, and use their sons, daughters, and possessions for his own enrichment, the elders didn’t relent. They didn’t relent even upon being told that the LORD would not answer them when they cried out for relief from their chosen king.[2] As we saw “the people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’”[3] And so “The Lord answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’”[4]

But, fortunately, the awesome God who had created from one man, Abraham, the nation of Israel for himself, chose to protect that nation from its foolish request. Though he did grant them a king as they had demanded, the king he gave them wasn’t as oppressive in governing as those of the Canaanites they had insisted upon. Yet neither was this king ideal. For the first king of Israel that the LORD called Samuel anointed was Saul who, as it turned out, was a reluctant king. When Samuel first privately disclosed to Saul that he would be ruler of Israel, “Saul answered, ‘But am I not a Benjamite, from the smallest tribe of Israel, and is not my clan the least of all the clans of the tribe of Benjamin? Why do you say such a thing to me?’”[5] Later when “Samuel summoned the people of Israel to the Lord”[6] to present themselves “before [him] by [their] tribes and clans”[7] that he might publicly acknowledge Saul as king, when the lot fell upon Saul and “they looked for him, he was not to be found.”[8] And the reason they couldn’t find him was because he had “hidden himself among the supplies.”[9]

But despite being a reluctant king, Saul nonetheless was appointed by God. After Samuel initially anointed him as king we’re told that “a procession of prophets” met him and “the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him”—so much so that he joined in their prophesying.[10] This presence of God’s Spirit upon Saul would enable him to rule in God’s name. And Saul was not only anointed by God but he was also embraced as king by the people of Israel. After they went and found their reluctant ruler hiding among the supplies “23 [t]hey ran and brought him out,… 24 Samuel said to all the people, ‘Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.’ Then the people shouted, ‘Long live the king!’”[11] In choosing Saul the LORD had condescended to the request for a king made by the elders of Israel after they rejected Samuel and, more significantly, rejected God as their ruler and provider.

Now in chapter 11 of 1 Samuel we learn of a second anointing of Saul by God’s Spirit. Whereas the first anointing confirmed him as God’s chosen and enabled him to prophesy, this second anointing provided Saul power to protect Israel from its enemies. There was a man named Nahash, an Ammonite, who had gone up and besieged the Israelite city of Jabesh Gilead. The men of that city asked that he make a treaty with them in which they would agree to be subject to him. But the price of such a treaty would be steep for Nahash replied, “I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on all Israel.”[12] The elders were given seven days to decide whether or not to accept the terms of Nahash’s agreement and they ended up sending messengers to Saul. “When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger.”[13] So it was that by means of God’s Spirit Saul was enabled and empowered to protect his subjects. And for rescuing the men of Jabesh, Samuel had Saul’s kingship renewed in the sight of the people and in the presence of the LORD so that “Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration.”[14] So despite the people having rejected the LORD as king and requested a human king “such as all the other nations have,” initially it looked as though Saul, their first king, might in fact be able lead them well by means of his being empowered by God’s Spirit.

Unfortunately an anointing by God’s Spirit wasn’t a guarantee that Saul would end well—and he didn’t. As king over Israel, God’s chosen nation, Saul should have remained obedient to the LORD under Samuel, his prophet’s, guidance. But instead of obeying Samuel, Saul began to freelance. On one occasion, upon feeling threated by Philistines who were assembling, Saul offered a burnt offering to the LORD despite Samuel having explicitly told him to wait for him. The repercussions for this disobedience were severe. As recorded in the thirteenth chapter Samuel said to Saul: “13 You have done a foolish thing,… You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”[15] So though Saul had not been God’s first choice as king, had he sought to obey the LORD, he could have established his kingdom over Israel for all time. He could have had a dynasty, a line of hereditary rulers established. But because Saul chose to disobey God, he lost that opportunity.

Sadly this pattern of disobedience continued to characterize his life. Two chapters later in 1 Samuel 15 we find Saul yet again disobeying the LORD who, through Samuel, had told him to punish the Amalekites, enemies of Israel, for their actions. This destruction was to be total for the evil of the Amalekites was great. Saul was told clearly that not one of them, nor their cattle and sheep, nor their camels and donkeys was to be spared. Despite these clear instructions “Saul and the army spared Agag [the king of the Amalekites] and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.”[16] As a result of Saul’s disobedience the LORD expressed regret for having made him king “because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”[17] So clearly the LORD’s regret in having made Saul king was due to his sin. It was due to his having turned away from God. Yet even upon hearing this, Saul still didn’t repent over his disobedience. Instead he defended and sought to justify himself: “20 But I did obey the Lord…. I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. 21 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.” Apparently Saul didn’t quite understand the meaning of “completely” since he had not only spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, but had also kept the best of what they had plundered. Samuel’s poignant and well-known reply to Saul’s self-justification is a powerful reminder that what the LORD calls us to is obedience, and not to doing the wrong thing even for what we believe to be the right reason—in Saul’s case sacrificing the best of the sheep and cattle to Samuel’s LORD. As recorded in 1 Samuel 15, Samuel, God’s prophet rhetorically asked—and answered—Saul:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23 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.”[18]

Aren’t these words we all need to hear and be reminded of? If we reject God and his ways for what we tell ourselves is the right reason, we are wrong. We’re called to submit to, not resist, God’s authority. For God’s law, his guidance and direction, is always for our good and so we’re called to trust in his goodness and wisdom. Rebelling, resisting God’s authority is likened to the sin of divination, seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means—a sin, by the way, which Saul later committed.[19] Yet God calls us to trust him in the present, not to try and figure out what the future may hold. He desires us to trust him this day, today, for our daily bread. We’re to trust in his daily care and provision for us. Similarly arrogance, having an exaggerated sense of our own importance or abilities, is likened to the evil of idolatry, of looking to anything other than God to meet our needs. Both rebellion and arrogance displace God from the center of our lives; both place confidence in our own judgment and ability rather than in him. In disobeying what the LORD had commanded through Samuel, Saul displayed both of these sins

And though Saul finally did acknowledge and beg Samuel to forgive his sin and return with him that he might worship the LORD, it was too late. As “Samuel said to him, ‘I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!’”[20] When Saul then grabbed the hem of Samuel’s robe and tore it, Samuel turned this act into a prophetic symbol as he announced, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors to one better than you. 29 He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”[21] Now when Saul again acknowledged his sin, Samuel did end up returning with him that he might worship the LORD but not until he had finished the task Saul should have done and put to death Agag, the king of the Amalekites whom Saul had disobediently spared. Subsequently Saul and Samuel parted ways bringing us to the start of our passage. As we read in verse 35, “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.” So despite this parting, Samuel grieved over what could have been. And then we’re told again that “the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Though Saul had been chosen from the nation of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin; though he had been anointed by the Spirit of the LORD at various times to carry out his responsibilities as king; though he had been granted some initial success in protecting Israel in that position, ultimately his disobeying the LORD and displaying confidence in his own know-how instead of God’s know-how resulted in the kingship being taken away from him. And because of his disobedience, though Saul ended up ruling for a total of forty-two years, again, he would have no dynasty, no line of descendants that would carry on his name and rule.[22]

Chapter 16 of 1 Samuel introduces the trajectory of Saul’s descent from kingship as it turns to the LORD choosing David instead thus marking the beginning of his ascent as king. As the chapter opens, we find the LORD rebuking Samuel in asking, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” There was no point in grieving what might have been. It was time to look to the future. Saul, Israel’s first king, had been rejected by God; now it was time to appoint a king who would rule according to God’s ways. So the LORD sent Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem. And Samuel’s reply suggests that though Saul may not have been as ruthless in his governing as the Canaanite kings the elders of Israel had requested, nonetheless he wouldn’t leave his kingship easily or willingly. Samuel, who from the start of his call from the LORD had known how difficult obedience to this call could be, near the end of his life now feared for his life should he obey the LORD in rejecting Saul and choosing another man as king. As stated in verse 2, “But Samuel said, ‘How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.’” Samuel is speaking literally, not hyperbolically. The initially reluctant Saul had acquired a taste for being king. So Samuel’s call never got any easier, not even in his golden years. But the LORD provided a way for him to follow through with his appointed task. He told Samuel, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’  3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.” And so “Samuel did what the Lord said” and brought a heifer to sacrifice to God and so would commemorate Israel’s future king.

Now Samuel, whose reputation as one called by God preceded him, was met with some trepidation. As we read in verse 4, “When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, ‘Do you come in peace?’” No doubt these elders wondered why in the world Samuel had come to their city. Had they done something wrong? Might he be there to bring a word of judgment from God? Samuel eased their concerns as he replied, “‘Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.’ Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.”

Now in what follows we see that though Samuel had been called by God as a youth and followed him throughout his life, not even he was able to second-guess whom the LORD would choose as Israel’s king. Starting in verse 6, when Jesse and his sons arrived, “Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.’” We’re not told why Samuel thought this but we quickly learn he was wrong for “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” Perhaps not coincidentally, Saul’s physical appearance when he was chosen king had been commented upon earlier. In chapter 9 we’re told that his father “Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” And then again in chapter 10, the people “ran and brought [Saul] out, and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others.” So perhaps something in Eliab’s physical appearance was impressive enough that Samuel did what we so often do: he assumed that physical stature and attractiveness must somehow correspond with intellect and ability. But not so with the LORD who seeks those who possess not outward beauty but inward character.

Well as Eliab was rejected as Israel’s next king so, too, were his six brothers. For each time one of them was presented for consideration the LORD told Samuel that none was the one of his choosing; none of these would be Israel’s next king. Therefore Samuel asked Jesse, their father, in verse 11, “Are these all the sons you have?” And he answered, “There is still the youngest…. He is tending the sheep.” So Samuel sent for this youngest brother who is described as one who “was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.”[23] Again, though David’s external features are commented upon, we know that the reason for his being chosen by God was due to his inner character. The future king of Israel would be a shepherd-king. Though he was so insignificant in his father’s mind that he had hadn’t even bothered to bring him to Samuel for consideration as king, David is the “man after his own heart” whom the LORD “appointed…ruler of his people” when Saul neglected to keep God’s command.[24] David is the “neighbor” who is “better than” Saul who fulfilled the prophecy the LORD made through Samuel.[25] So when David was presented to Samuel, “Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; this is the one.’” And Samuel did so, verse 13, “in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.” This mention of the “Spirit of the LORD” coming powerfully upon David is a kind of spiritual passing on of the baton. As the Spirit of the LORD had once come upon Saul, so now it had come upon David. But unlike Saul, upon whom God’s Spirit fell sporadically and for specific purposes, when the Spirit of the LORD came upon David, he did so “from that day on.” In other words God’s Spirit wasn’t withdrawn from David.[26] And verse 14 in this chapter highlights this sharp contrast in stating, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

Now as we’ll see in the coming weeks, though David was anointed Saul’s successor, this succession did not occur quickly but required David’s persevering through much anguish and persecution over a long period of time. In fact chapters 16 through 31 of 1 Samuel record the descending of Saul as David ascends so we have here but an introduction to his kingship.

But this snippet from the life of Saul is a poignant reminder to us of the importance of obeying God as he has disclosed his will for us in his Word. For it’s evident in all of our lives that holiness, being the people God called and made us to be, is hard work. If holiness were easy, we would all be saints. Conversely, if sin didn’t promise a certain kind of pleasure, we would never be drawn by it. But because holiness isn’t easy, our only road to it is by means of Jesus’ obedience, not our own. And we can thank God this morning and always that because of Jesus, we don’t have to suffer the consequence of our foolish and self-destructive choices. Because of Jesus’ obedience and love even to the point of dying on the cross for us, we, like David, have been given his Holy Spirit who will never leave or forsake us,[27] that we might be enabled to do and follow God’s will now and always. And it is because of God’s eternal and triune love for us that we can rest confident in the knowledge that when we disobey—for we all do disobey him at some point—we nonetheless can ask for and receive his forgiveness. Even if we sin seventy times seven times,[28] though we may temporarily experience the consequences of such disobedience, nonetheless God is ever there to forgive us—and embrace us—and welcome us home until the day when we will no longer turn from him but instead will get to willingly obey and enjoy him forevermore.

Let us pray.


[1] 1 Samuel 8:5b.

[2] 1 Samuel 8:11–18.

[3] 1 Samuel 8:19–20.

[4] 1 Samuel 8:22b.

[5] 1 Samuel 9:21.

[6] 1 Samuel 10:17.

[7] 1 Samuel 10:19.

[8] 1 Samuel 10:21.

[9] 1 Samuel 10:22.

[10] 1 Samuel 10:10.

[11] 1 Samuel 10:24.

[12] 1 Samuel 11:2.

[13] 1 Samuel 11:6.

[14] 1 Samuel 11:15.

[15] 1 Samuel 13:13–14.

[16] 1 Samuel 15:9.

[17] 1 Samuel 15:11.

[18] 1 Samuel 15:22–23.

[19] The account of Saul consulting the medium of Endor, asking her to bring back the now departed Samuel, may be found in 1 Samuel 28:3–25.

[20] 1 Samuel 15:26.

[21] 1 Samuel 15:28–29.

[22] As recorded in 1 Samuel 13:1: Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years. See also Acts 13:20b–22. In summarizing Israel’s history to those in Pisidian Antioch, Paul states, “After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’”

[23] 1 Samuel 16:12.

[24] 1 Samuel 13:13–14.

[25] Again, as recorded in 1 Samuel 15:28: The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors to one better than you.

[26] David seemed aware of this fact in praying to God after his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba in Psalm 51:11: Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

[27] Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.; Hebrews 13:5 (quoting Deuteronomy 31:6):Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

[28] Our gracious Savior and LORD, Jesus Christ, does above and beyond what he asks us to do: Matthew 18:21–22: 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven].

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