In this essay we are studying 1 Samuel chapter 15, in which we will see Saul’s final confrontation with Samuel. Israel had quite a history with the Amalekites. The Amalekites were the first nation to attack Israel following her Exodus from Egypt (Ex. 17:8-16). In Deut. 25:17-19, we see that God, through Moses, declared that Amalek must be punished for her wickedness. The passage reads:
Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and cut off at your rear all who lagged behind you; and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.
Now in Saul’s day, the Amalekites, those ancient enemies of Israel (who may have once again been threatening) were to be punished for what they had done. Samuel came to Saul with a word from the Lord that Saul was to attack Amalek and utterly destroy them. Every person and thing was to be destroyed according to the ban. The ban meant that everything taken in battle was dedicated to God and could not be used for any human purpose. In this particular case, the Lord was calling for war for his purposes, and there was to be a total ban.
In verses 4-9 we get a brief description of the war itself. No one knows where Telaim was located, though it had to be somewhere deep in the southern part of Israel. When Saul’s army approached the city of the Amalekites, the location of which also is unknown, he called out the Kenites from the city.
The Kenites, in contrast to the Amalekites, had been closely associated with Israel following the Exodus. Moses’ father-in-law came from that people group (cf. Num. 10:29 with Judg. 1:16). Thus Saul did not want to destroy them when he destroyed the Amalekites. Then Saul defeated the Amalekites decisively.
Unfortunately Saul did not do it as instructed. First, though Saul was to kill every last Amalekite, he spared the life of the Amalekite king, Agag (v. 8). Apparently others escaped, which is why the Amalekites are mentioned later in the Old Testament. But they killed all that they could get their hands on. God would not hold them responsible for those that escaped. However, Saul consciously made an exception with king Agag. But the Lord had ordered no exceptions.
Second, Saul spared “the best of the sheep and the cattle and of the fatlings.” The “fatlings” literally were second-born animals. They were generally considered superior to first-born animals, because the mothers were at their healthiest and greatest strength after their first pregnancy.
The reason for not killing all of the animals is evident. They were valuable. It is not so clear why Saul spared Agag. Perhaps his ego wanted to have a royal slave. At any rate, he and the people blatantly disobeyed the Lord.
The Lord quickly responded to the disobedience of Saul by giving a word to Samuel who went to Saul to deliver it (vv. 10-23). The Lord told Samuel that he regretted making Saul king, because Saul was disobedient. Samuel was deeply angered by the Lord’s word, not because God regretted having made Saul king, but because he knew the Lord’s will had been frustrated by Saul’s disobedience (v. 11; cf. v. 29).
Then Samuel prayed all night (v. 11). Some say he was praying for Saul. But I suspect he was praying about the encounter he was to have with Saul. The next day Samuel caught up with Saul at Gilgal (v. 12); and Saul’s first comment was that he had “carried out the command of the Lord” (v. 13). But Samuel quickly took the air out of that boast, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears” (v. 14)?
Saul didn’t bat an eye. He blamed the people; and then he claimed the animals had been saved for the purpose of making sacrifices to the Lord (v 15). Samuel would have none of that. He told Saul to be quiet. And he informed Saul of the word of the Lord, while accusing him of outrageous disobedience (vv. 16-19).
But Saul still was defiant. “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord,” he said (vv. 20-21). But again Samuel put a stop to all excuses by declaring, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (v. 22). And then he concluded by saying, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (v. 23).
That powerful prophecy brought Saul up short; and in verses 24-25 he began to confess his sin. However, even though Saul confessed, his words betrayed his insincerity. He still was justifying himself somewhat by saying he was afraid of the people. That wouldn’t wash. He was the king. A word from him was all that was necessary to assure that the people followed the Lord’s command. Saul’s repentance was out of fear of losing the kingdom, not out of genuine consciousness of sin (v. 25).
Saul also asked Samuel to stay and lead in worship so that Saul would not be embarrassed. At first Samuel refused (v. 26). Then as Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed Samuel’s robe; and the hem tore off in Saul’s hand. Samuel told Saul that the torn robe symbolized the tearing of the kingdom away from Saul. But interestingly, Samuel then relented and led the people in worship, which kept Saul from losing face (vv. 28-31).
After the worship Samuel ordered the Amalekite king, Agag, brought before him. Acting as judge, jury and executioner, Samuel pronounced the death sentence on Agag, and then proceeded to hack him to pieces. The Lord had ordered all of the Amalekites killed; and Samuel carried out that command insofar as he was able (vv. 32-33). That was the last contact Samuel had with Saul prior to the day of Samuel’s death. But we are told that Samuel “grieved over Saul” (vv. 34-35).
Turning to application, it seems to me that the “big idea” here is Saul’s arrogant disobedience and its consequences. And it is seen most clearly in verses 22-23. First, obedience is of greatest value. Indeed it is of greater value than worship. As Samuel pointed out, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (v.20).
We human beings often don’t seem to grasp that truth. Many of us are just like Saul. We are faithful to public worship; but at the same time, we consciously sin day by day. We go to church, and try to use the fruit of our disobedience “to sacrifice unto the Lord.” But that isn’t acceptable to the Lord. Other people may pat us on the back and say it is acceptable. But it what the Lord thinks that matters.
Second, disobedience is idolatry (v.23). In other words disobedience is as wicked as obedience is excellent. And again Saul was typical of many people today. He consciously disobeyed God, but rationalized it. He told Samuel he had carried out the command of the Lord, even though he had not done so. The cattle were spared for purposes of worship. They would make excellent sacrifices, said Saul. The fact that they were not supposed to be spared didn’t seem to matter to him. He had more or less done what the Lord commanded; and that was good enough in his opinion.
Today a multitude of persons name the name of Christ and do the Lord’s will more or less. More or less is good enough in their view, just as it was in Saul’s. Unfortunately that isn’t good enough in God’s view of things.
Notice what Samuel told Saul: “rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry” (v. 23). There is the truth of the matter. When we decide what is right and wrong; when we make the rules; when we decide what is sin, we have made ourselves God. And that is idolatry.
Third, disobedience is justly punished. Samuel rightly declared to Saul, “because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king” (v. 23). Saul gave lip service to repentance; but because it was insincere, it did him no good. His kingdom was lost even while he still reigned. As we are going to see in coming weeks, God chose David as the next king; and over a period of time, David came into favor with the people, even as Saul declined both personally and in popularity.