Listen to audio version
Bible Passage: 1 Samuel 15
Let’s continue our study of 1 Samuel in chapter 15. But I want to warn you in advance, this is not a consumer-friendly sermon. If I preached topical sermons, I would never preach this chapter.
1 And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
I want to be clear. God just told Saul to kill babies. Man and woman, child and infant. Forget the animals… God asked Saul to erase the memory of an entire people group.
And that’s exactly what God said he would do in Exodus 17, when Amalek attacked Israel in the wilderness. God said then, “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
Listen to what Moses said about Amalek in Deuteronomy 25:
17 “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.
Saul is being given a chance to fulfill that prophecy. The only reason it seems cruel to us is because we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of sin and the nature of God. No one is born innocent. If babies are innocent, then God is here guilty of great evil. These people, young and old, were not being punished because they were Amalekites, but because they were sinners. This judgment is a picture of what humanity deserves from God, just as the salvation of Israel was a picture of God’s grace – His undeserved favor.
Psalm 9:5 – “You have rebuked the nations; you have made the wicked perish; you have blotted out their name forever and ever.”
That is what fairness looks like according to God. This is what WE deserve, because WE are the nations, and the rest of the Bible makes no sense if we ignore the part about judgment. If we try to minimize the judgment of God, if we think of Him as safe or timid about our sin, then we have also minimized our sin. And that’s exactly what Saul does next.
Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. 8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword. 9 But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.
Notice that Saul kills all the men, women, children, and babies. He wipes out the entire nation – but he spares the king and keeps the best animals. This sounds like a 21st century ethic – when the babies have less value than the animals.
10 The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. * 12 And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.” * 13 And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.”
Notice the disconnect between what God thinks of Saul and what Saul thinks of Saul. Saul is proud of himself – so proud that he sets up his own monument. Look what I did everyone!
But God sees it as failure. Partial obedience is not obedience.
14 And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
Saul, if you really did what you were told, then why do I hear animals? Shouldn’t they all be dead? The rest of the chapter is an argument between Samuel and Saul. I want us to pay close attention to all the ways that Saul tries to defend himself.
15 Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”
Tim Chester identifies five excuses Saul makes for his sin.
Excuse #1 – It would be a shame to let all these animals go to waste. In other words, we decided that this makes more sense than what God asked us to do.
“I know God wants me to trust Him, but this just doesn’t make any sense. Why would God plan this for me? Why would He ask this of me?”
This is a heart that says: “I know better than God does.”
Why does God ask us to do hard things – like giving up our time and resources for other people, or honoring the Bible’s sexual ethics? Staying in a difficult marriage, or passing through a difficult trial? Why does God sometimes ask His children to go to dangerous places for the sake of the Gospel where some of them will die violent deaths?
Saul’s excuse demonstrates a heart that thinks it knows better than God.
16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.”
17 And Samuel said, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18 And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ 19 Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”
God asks Saul more directly – why didn’t you obey? And then He takes it a step further – why did you do evil? He says it this way because failure to obey God is evil. It’s never just a “mistake”. But Saul argues that point.
20 And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. 21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.”
Here we find at least three more excuses.
Excuse #2 – let’s focus on what I did right. I know I didn’t obey perfectly, but I did a good job!
This is the easiest excuse to make. It is the low hanging fruit of excuses. Everyone on the planet can find someone worse than themselves. “At least I’m not that bad. Everyone makes mistakes, but look at all the good I’ve done.”
This is a heart that says, “I’m a better person than God thinks I am.”
Excuse #3 is also common – everyone else is guilty too. “The people took… we did this… not just me.” Let’s spread this guilt around. “Everyone else is doing it, God. It can’t be that bad!”
This is a heart that says, “I’m a better judge of character than God is.”
Excuse #4 – we did the wrong thing, but we did it for the right reasons. “We did it for you, God. We plan to use these animals for worship!”
In other words, don’t our motives count for something? We had good intentions! This is a heart that says, “I know what God wants for me better than He does.”
I hope you are beginning to see how deceptive our sin can be. And look at how Samuel responds:
22 And Samuel said,
“Has 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 listen than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.”
Notice how Samuel attacks these excuses.
Do you really think God wants your worship more than your obedience? He cuts to the heart and tells Saul exactly what he is guilty of.
“Rebellion is as the sin of divination” –Divination is fortune-telling – literally to “see with the eyes of a god”. Saul’s choice to follow his heart instead of following God was rebellion. He put himself in the place of God.
“Presumption is as iniquity and idolatry” – in other words, it was wicked of you to assume you know better than God.
Do you remember the statement of the armor-bearer last week to Jonathan?
“Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.”
Samuel is telling Saul – “You did what was in your heart to do, Saul. You did what you wanted to do. And now, you’re trying to mask it behind fake religious zeal.”
24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.”
This sounds like a sincere apology but buried inside this apology we find two problems. The first problem is that Saul makes another excuse.
“I feared the people…” There’s the word “fear” again – for the third week, fear is again an important theme. And here, Saul uses it as an excuse for his sin, or at least an explanation.
“I know I did the wrong thing, but I was overcome with fear. What would people think if I did this?” Saul’s desire to be viewed as a good king mattered more than God’s approval.
This is a heart that says, “Your opinion of me matters more than God’s opinion of me.”
That’s the first problem. But the second problem is that Saul’s words do not match his actions. In the very next breath, after he admits his fear of people, he asks Samuel to pardon his sin and return with him in a demonstration of worship.
This is a problem because he’s asking for public pardon from Samuel rather than private pardon from God. And Samuel knows it.
26 And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”
And that is the final verdict.
27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
When we started the book of Samuel, I told you that a major theme is glory. A man’s robes were a demonstration of his glory. So, when Saul tears the robe of Samuel, it makes a perfect illustration. Picture Saul reaching out in a last, desperate attempt to control the situation. And God only uses it to confirm His control of the situation.
The kingdom never belonged to Saul. It was never his to control.
Next week, we will find out about the mysterious “neighbor” who is better than Saul.
But there is one hopeful statement – there in verse 29. “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” In other words, we may change but God does not. He is consistent. But if you were paying attention, what do we do with verse 11?
“I regret that I have made Saul king.” That’s God speaking to Samuel and He says it again at the end of the chapter. But twice in verse 29, Samuel says that God does not have regrets. It’s the same Hebrew word – I checked.
If humans made all this up, then this is a pretty bad mistake. It seems like an obvious contradiction. But it is not. In fact, I agree with Ralph Davis, who reads this as a brilliantly written paradox and a window into the heart of God. He writes:
“This God who both regrets and does not regret is the only God we can serve. Only in the consistent God of verse 29 and in the sorrowful God of verse 35 do we find the God worthy of praise. Here is a God who is neither fickle in his ways nor indifferent in his responses. Here is a God who has both firmness and feeling.”
And it is this same heart of God we find in the Gospel – a God who is both just and loving at the same time. He is able to punish and pardon because Jesus became both the just and the justifier. Saul, the chosen king, was rejected by God and one day Jesus, the chosen King, would be rejected by men, hung on a cross, and also ultimately rejected by God in our place.
And for us – the only path of no regret is repentance and faith – the path through Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus – the way, the truth, and the life. No one gets to God except through Him.
And one final note. Remember when God said He wanted to “blot out” His enemies – erasing their memory from the earth? That phrase – “to blot out” – only occurs twice in the New Testament: once when Peter preaches in Acts 3 and again in Revelation 3 in the letter to the church at Sardis.
Peter says, “Repent and turn back that your sins may be blotted out.”
And Jesus says to Sardis, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.”
We were the enemies of God – deserving of having our memory erased from the earth. But thanks be to God in Christ, the memory of our sins have been erased instead and our names will never be erased.