Our passage today is one of the most difficult in the entire bible to teach. It is used by Atheists to accuse God of genocide. It raises questions about the goodness and justice of God. It is shocking that God would ask for the total destruction of a group of people including women, children and animals. What is going on here? As I dug in I got some answers and prayed to God for a modern day example to help us wrap our mind around this complex story. War is ugly. When nations fight against nations it produces civilian casualties. God’s judgment is not pleasant either. The story of the Amalekites as enemies of God’s people in the Old Testament is longstanding and interesting. It reminds me of our own national struggle in World War 2 against our (then) enemies the Japanese. The Japanese attacked us first at Pearl Harbor taking 2403 lives. The ensuing fight back over the next few years would be very costly in lives, money and materials. After losing over 41,000 military personnel and over 145,000 wounded in the war against Japan an agonizing and controversial decision was made. In agreement with our allies we decided to take enemy civilian lives in order to save American lives and drop the atomic bomb on Japan. If you can relate, make sense or even agree to the need for that difficult decision in World War 2, then you can relate to the story in 1 Samuel 15.
Here’s the back story: the Amalekites attacked Israel first as they were coming out of Egypt (Ex. 17:8-16). It was a surprise attack on the back of the column of people targeting the old, women, children, weak and those lagging at the back (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Moses and Joshua had to pray and fight with all their might just to escape. God was not happy and promised that the Amalekites would be dealt with later for attacking his people and “raising their fists against God’s throne.” The Amalekites would again attack God’s people in Numbers 14:45, “beating them down all the way down to Hormah.” Later in the book of Judges, God’s people would go through the cycles where enemies would attack them, they would cry out to God and He would provide a judge to deliver them. Three times in the book of Judges it was the Amalekites who were oppressing God’s people (Judges 3:13, Judges 6:3, Judges 10:12). Even in the days of Saul the Amalekites were still plundering God’s people. Can you see what a menace the Amalekites were?
Now when it’s time to drop the atomic bomb on their bitter arch enemies who killed and oppressed thousands of God’s people over the last 400 years Israel’s first king Saul doesn’t pull the trigger. He disobeys a direct order from his Commander and Chief. He thinks somehow he knows better how to handle this situation. He is confronted in our passage, faces court marshal and is relieved of duty. Now how does this relate to us today? How many times do we think we know better than God? Do we ignore the clear directions of God to do what we want? Some commentators and teachers are really hard on Saul. I can relate, his decisions make perfect sense in human reasoning. It’s amazing how much like Saul we can be.
Saul presented the ideal visual image of a king, but the tendencies of his character often went contrary to God’s commands for a king. Saul was God’s chosen leader, but this did not mean he was capable of being king on his own.
During his reign, Saul had his greatest successes when he obeyed God. His greatest failures resulted from acting on his own. Saul had the raw materials to be a good leader—appearance, courage, and action. Even his weaknesses could have been used by God if Saul had recognized them and left them in God’s hands. His own choices cut him off from God and eventually alienated him from his own people.
This is a pivotal chapter in the story of Saul. The Lord gave him another opportunity to prove himself, but he failed again, lied about it, and was judged. Saul had a habit of substituting saying for doing and of making excuses instead of confessing his sins. No matter what happened, it was always somebody else’s fault. He was more concerned about looking good before the people than being good before God. What can we learn from his mistakes?
Disobedience Grieves God
As a parent I understand how disobedience is grieving. It feels like I am rejected personally when my children ignore me or willfully disobey. Do you feel that too?
I knew when Niki and I were contemplating having children that they would have to potential to break our hearts. We also knew they had potential to bring us much joy. God feels the same way! He swells with joy and satisfaction when we listen and follow His instructions. “That’s my boy!” “That’s my girl!” And He grieves when we disobey.
Look at God’s heart here in this passage: 11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the LORD all that night. 1 Samuel 15: 9-11 (NIV)
Samuel was upset too and it cost him a terrible sleepless night of anguish. Our disobedience has lasting impact to those around us!
As the story continues Saul lies to Samuel (1 Sam. 15:12-15). In the eyes of the soldiers and the Jewish people, Saul had won a great victory over a long-time enemy, but in God’s eyes he was a failure. Yet the king was so impressed with himself that he went to Carmel and erected a stone monument in his honor! Was he trying to avoid meeting Samuel? Perhaps, but his efforts were futile.
Saul’s greeting was sheer hypocrisy. 13When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.”
First he lied to himself in thinking he could get away with the deception, and then he lied to Samuel who already knew the truth. He even tried to lie to God by saying he would use the spared animals for sacrifices!
14 But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” 15 Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.” 1 Samuel 15:13-15
Saul blamed the soldiers for sparing the spoils, but surely as their commander-in-chief. he had the last word. “They” spared the best, but “we” utterly destroyed the rest! With Saul, it was always somebody else’s fault.
Partial Obedience is Disobedience
We act just like Saul when we offer God our leftovers. “Work is keeping me really busy! I don’t have time to serve God.” “I can’t afford to give, my bills are too high.” We give God what’s left after all the bills are paid. We give the church the nursery furniture that we are finished with. We offer excuses and blame instead of giving God our best and first.
Lastly we see that Disobedience Has Consequences
For Saul he lost the Kingship. He also lost the respect of Samuel and the people. I was fascinated to find out that it was an Amalekite that took Saul’s life. Years later in the book of Esther, it’s an Amalekite (a descendant of King Agag) named Haman that seeks to destroy the entire Jewish race through a royal decree.
Saul’s disobedience to God cost him his position, his dynasty, his character, and his throne and crown. He had also lost a godly friend. When David appears on the scene, Saul will lose his self-control and his good sense, and eventually he will lose his last battle and his life.
What will your disobedience to God cost you? Each of us is one decision away from losing our job, our reputation, our marriage or worse.
Let these last two verses be a reminder to us all:
Do you think all God wants are empty rituals just for show?
He wants you to listen to him!
Not doing what God tells you is far worse than fooling around in the occult.
1 Samuel 15: 22-23 (MSG)
The Pacific War Online Encyclopedia: Casualties
Life Application Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1988), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 433-435.
Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary – History, (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2003), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, 244-247.