By J.R. Miller
1 Samuel 15
Saul began his reign with enthusiasm. He had a splendid coadjutor in his son Jonathan. Jonathan was brave and popular with the people. The Philistines made an effort to crush the Israelites. They gathered in vast numbers against them. The men of Israel were afraid, and followed Saul tremblingly. Samuel had appointed a time to come to Saul at Gilgal to offer sacrifices before the battle should begin. But Saul became impatient of Samuel's delay and offered the sacrifices himself. Just as he had ended his offering Samuel came. Saul went out to greet him--but Samuel said to him: "What have you done?" Saul explained his action--but Samuel said: "You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God." He said further to him that if he had obeyed--his kingdom would have been established forever. "But now your kingdom shall not continue: the Lord has sought a man after his own heart, and the Lord has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept that which the Lord commanded you."
Samuel continued to be prophet and guide to Saul, and brought him a Divine message, commanding him to smite the Amalekites. Very definite instructions were given to the king: "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." The battle was fought, and Saul's victory was complete. But Agag, the king, was spared, also the best of the sheep and oxen, and all that was good. What was vile and worthless, was utterly destroyed--but what was choice and valuable, was spared.
After the battle was over came Samuel with sharp reproof. Saul met the old man graciously. He was greatly pleased with himself and with what he had done. He regarded his victory over the Amalekites as a splendid achievement. He had already set up a monument to himself, perhaps a stone, to commemorate his victory. He heard that Samuel was coming to see him, and went to meet him with patronizing words and manner: "The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD's instructions."
He had indeed performed the Lord's bidding in a way, in his own partial and imperfect way, doing just as much of what God commanded, as he had felt inclined to do, then leaving out such parts of the commandment as he felt disinclined to perform.
There are a good many people in every age who obey God in the same way. They render a general obedience--but pay no heed to the exact requirements of the Divine law. They tell the truth as a whole--but are not concerned about slight deviations from it. They are honest in a large, general way--but do not think that their little dishonesties count against them. Saul thought he had come near enough to what God had told him to claim to have been obedient and to merit strong commendation for his fidelity. What God thought, however, of Saul's way of obeying--we learn a little farther on.
Just as Saul was telling Samuel how well he had done his errand for God, there came ominous sounds from some place near-by, and Samuel said: "What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?" According to the command, all the sheep and oxen of the Amalekites were to be killed. What then were these noises of sheep and cattle? We cannot hide our sins. We may think we have covered up our disobediences so deftly, that detection will be impossible. Suddenly something tears away the veil and they are exposed to the gaze of the world.
A man carries on a series of dishonesties and conceals them by expert bookkeeping, thinking he is safe from detection. But some morning he is startled to find that the stolen sheep have been bleating, and all the world knows of his thefts and embezzlements. It is the nature of sheep to bleat and of oxen to low, and they have not sense enough to keep quiet when they are wanted to. Indeed, they are almost sure to make a noise just when they are expected to keep perfectly still. It is the same with sin. It is a poor friend. It professes well when it offers its solicitations--but when it has been committed, it is a most unsafe confidant. It cannot keep a secret. It is sure to betray the man, who depends upon it for discreet silence. In many people's lives there are some bleating sheep and some lowing oxen, which tell the story of the imperfectness of our obedience.
It is a good rule, when something goes wrong, in matters in which we are interested, to take the blame upon ourselves. That is the manly way, at least. But that is not the common way--it was not Saul's way. Saul said: "The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God." Saul could not deny the disobedience now, with the evidence sounding in the prophet's ears--but he threw the blame on the people. "They spared the best of the sheep and cattle," he said. The king thus showed a spirit of baseness and cowardice and lack of fine manliness.
Would the people have brought them if he, the king, had forbidden it? Had he not at least connived at their disobedience by his silence? A command had been given to him, and he was the responsible leader. Nothing is more contemptible than the attempt to throw the blame of our sins and mistakes on other people. Yet few things are more frequently done" Adam set the example at the beginning, and many of Adam's children follow him! The true, manly way--is to take the blame of our own sins. In God's sight--and that is the way always to look at our acts--everyone must bear his own burden of sin. If we have done wrong--let us be frank enough to confess it.
Saul went still farther and sought or invented a religious reason for what the people had done. "The people spared the best of the sheep and cattle--to sacrifice to the LORD your God." We do not know certainly whether this was a true statement of fact or not, or whether the reason given for the disobedience was only an invention of the king's--to excuse himself. If the people had really planned the matter, they probably thought that if they used the spoil, although disobediently spared, to make a great triumphal offering to the Lord, He would overlook the disobedience. That is, they would propitiate the Lord after they had broken His command, by a generous sacrifice and by effusive devotion. What pitiful mockery!
Let us be careful that we never repeat the mockery. We never can satisfy God for one failure in duty--by extraordinary zeal in some other direction. We cannot appease Him when we have sinned--by bringing to His altar the fruits of our sin. For example, God will not overlook a man's dishonesty--if the man lays part of what he has made by the dishonesty in the collection plate or gives it to some holy cause. Men can play all manner of tricks with their own consciences--but not with God.
"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!" 1 Samuel 15:3
"Saul and the troops spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, cattle, and fatlings, as well as the young rams and the best of everything else. But they did destroy all the worthless and unwanted things." 1 Samuel 15:9. They utterly destroyed all the common spoil--but spared whatever was especially good. They kept all the fat, plump sheep and oxen--and destroyed the poor, lean and worthless ones. That is the way with a good many people. They are quite ready to devote to God the things they do not care much for--but the things that are desirable for their own use, they keep.
This spirit is shown in the way many give to the Lord's service. The gold and silver and the banknotes they keep for themselves, while they put the nickels and the pennies in the collection plate. It is shown, too, in the way they treat their own vices and lusts. Those that they do not particularly love--they crush out with amazing zeal. But their favorite vices and fat, rich sins--they spare for their own indulgence!
Men may go on and do as they will--but that is not the end of the matter; the Lord has something to say about their acts. If they could leave Him out of their life altogether and get clear of meeting Him, if there were no final and eternal judgment, disobedience would not be such serious business. But they cannot eliminate God. He stands in their paths as they return from their sins and utters His Word and tells them what He thinks about them. We never can avoid meeting God after our sinful acts. We cannot go through life by any path so as to miss His final judgment. Indeed, the voice of conscience tells us at once, as God's prophet here told Saul, just what God has to say. If we are wise we will ask beforehand what God will have to say--and will then shape all our acts so as to have His approval on whatever we do.
Samuel was growing old, and he was a gentle, kindly man--but he never grew lenient towards men's sins. As he listened to the king's excuses for disobedience, instead of frank and honest confession, Samuel's indignation grew hot, and he spoke to him with sternness: "Stop! Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night!" He compels Saul to stop and listen to the rehearsal of the story of his sin. "The Lord sent you on a mission and said: Go and completely destroy the sinful Amalekites. Fight against them until you have annihilated them!" 1 Samuel 15:18
The evil things in us--are our Amalekites, and we are to destroy them! Yet how many of us, like Saul, cut away at the little Amalekites and spare the big Agags? Do not some of us also see the story of our own disobediences and failures--in the way Saul treated God and His commandments?
He owed everything to God. He had been taken from a lowly place and exalted to high honor. He ought to have shown his gratitude in unwavering obedience. But his promotion, instead of making him humble, had turned his head. When Samuel asked him why he had not obeyed the Lord, but had seized the spoil that God had devoted to destruction, Saul still insisted that he had obeyed, repeating the assertion that the people had spared part of the spoil to sacrifice unto the Lord. The king showed anything but a submissive and docile spirit. He was willful, impenitent, haughty and insolent.
To Saul's words Samuel replied: "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice." In its reference to Saul's act the meaning of his words is plain. The king had not propitiated God, in proposing to offer the fruits of his disobedience in sacrifice. Nothing would satisfy God, but obedience.
But there are other applications less obvious.
Many people set a great deal more importance upon religious ceremonials than upon practical obedience. They will be very faithful in attendance upon all church services and very devout and reverent in worship--and yet in their daily life they will disregard the plain commandments of God! They fill the week with selfishness, with pride, with bitterness, with evil speaking and all manner of little deceptions and falsehoods--and then come on Sunday, with great show of devotion, to engage in the worship of God!
When God tells a mother to care for her child, He is not satisfied if she neglects that duty in order to write a book or to look after a sick woman, or to go out to a religious meeting. When God wants a man to help a poor family in some obscure street; He is not satisfied if instead of that lowly service--the man does some excellent thing which seems to bring ten times as much honor to the Lord. The supreme thing in Christian life--is to obey God, and without obedience nothing else counts at all.
There is a story of a father and his child which illustrates Samuel's words, "To obey is better than sacrifice." They were living a little distance from a lake whose shores were lined with beautiful and brilliant shells. The father was absent the greater part of the day, and had bidden the child never to go near the water while he was away, fearing that some harm might come to her. One day the little girl broke her father's commandment and wandered to the lake shore. She dreaded to meet her father in the evening, knowing that he would be very much grieved to learn of her disobedience. She thought, however, that she might appease him and make him feel less angry--if she would show him some special kindness. So she gathered a basketful of the loveliest shells she could find, and took them to give as a present to her father. When he came home she told him what she had done, and then producing the shells, she gave them to him as a present, asking him if they were not very beautiful. With great sadness on his face he flung the shells away, saying: "My child, to obey is better than sacrifice!" No gifts, however lovely, could please the father, since his child had disobeyed his command.
Saul understood now, that his sin was a most grave and serious matter, and he made confession. "I have sinned!" The same words have been spoken in such a way as to bring instant pardon. When David said to Nathan, "I have sinned!" he heard the answer at once: "The Lord has taken away your sin." But in Saul's case there was no real confession in the words, no deep sense of sin. Saul was not sorry he had done wrong--but was sorry only for the consequences, the punishment which had been declared.
God is merciful and gracious--but Saul's sin could not be forgiven. A second time he had disobeyed the Lord when he was sent with specific directions on a definite duty. The doom was final and irrevocable. "You have rejected the Word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king!"
No one is fit for God's service who will not obey God's commands. If we would be employed as His servants, to work for Him--we must do what He bids us to do. Saul was thrust from the throne of Israel, because he persisted in taking his own way--instead of God's. May this not be a reason in many cases--why men with great abilities do not rise to high spiritual influence and power? God will entrust His servants with responsibility, only so far as they prove worthy to be trusted. When one fails in smaller trusts, the larger will not be given to him; and the smaller, too, will be taken away. If we want to be used in the work of the Lord--we must learn to obey implicitly and unquestioningly. No other kind of servant can stay in the Lord's service!