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12. Saul and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-35)


I have always had trouble throwing things away. When Jeannette and I were first married, we lived in the country in Washington State. Since there was no trash pick-up, we hauled our garbage to the country dump. I had a trailer which I used for this purpose, and virtually every time I set out for the dump, Jeannette’s final words to me were, “Don’t bring anything back!” This was because I often returned with more garbage from the dump than I took in the first place.

When I came to Dallas to attend seminary, I worked in the warranty department. Items judged to be damaged beyond repair went into the “scrap” pile. You can imagine how difficult that was for me; I hated throwing anything away that looked like it could be used for something. Even today in our neighborhood I am one of the very few with people driving by to tell me where some good garbage is -- up the alley a few stops. One day, a neighbor drove down the alley and hollered out the window, “Bob, there’s a great looking lawn mower behind Tinsley’s house in the alley.” I found the mower and was mowing my lawn with it when the neighbor who had thrown it away returned home from work. When I explained how I came across his mower, he replied, “I’m really glad you could fix it and use it; would you like the bagger, too? I forgot to throw it out with the mower.”

Saul and I are not really alike in this matter of saving things considered garbage by others. Saul happily throws out the garbage. What troubles him is seeing perfectly good things destroyed. He has no trouble killing the Amalekite men and women, and even their little children. He finds it difficult, however, to kill their king, Agag. He has no problem slaughtering all of the marginal cattle, but he can’t stand to throw away the prime USDA Grade A beef and lamb.

Saul’s refusal to totally annihilate the Amalekites costs him his kingdom. It is a most serious sin. Our text not only exposes Saul’s sin, it may very well expose our own. Saul is willing to do things we might never even consider – like killing little children. Would we have put the Amalekite children to death as Saul did? If not, why not? Our text addresses the nature of Saul’s disobedience which is very much like the disobedience prevalent among Christians today. Our text holds important lessons for us to learn about Saul’s disobedience and its consequences and about our own disobedience to God’s commands as well.

The Command to Kill the Amalekites

The Amalekites, a name which might sound vaguely familiar to the reader of the Bible, may be foreign to us, but these people are not strangers to the Israelites. The Amalekites are one of the peoples dwelling in the southern part of Canaan. When the Israelites left Egypt and set out toward Canaan (see Exodus 17:8ff.), they were one of the first nations the Israelites encountered. This is one of the surrounding nations with which Israel has continual conflict. The Amalekites attack the Israelites, who disobediently seek to possess the promised land after their unbelief at Kadesh-barnea (see Numbers 14:25, 43, 45). They join with the Midianites in attacking and plundering Israel, and are one of the nations which pose such a serious threat to Israel that Gideon needs reassurance of God’s presence with him in battle (see Judges 6:3, 33; 7:12). This is the nation David attacks, which overruns the city of Ziklag and captures the families and goods of David and his men (see 1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1, 18; 2 Samuel 1:1).

The command to kill an entire nation and their cattle is not new. God required the Israelites to do so when they encountered the Canaanite nations:

28 “’Nevertheless, anything which a man sets apart to the LORD out of all that he has, of man or animal or of the fields of his own property, shall not be sold or redeemed. Anything devoted to destruction is most holy to the LORD. 29 ‘No one who may have been set apart among men shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death’” (Leviticus 27:28-29, NASB).

16 “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, 18 in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 29:16-18).

15 Then it came about on the seventh day that they rose early at the dawning of the day and marched around the city in the same manner seven times; only on that day they marched around the city seven times. 16 And it came about at the seventh time, when the priests blew the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city. 17 “And the city shall be under the ban, it and all that is in it belongs to the LORD; only Rahab the harlot and all who are with her in the house shall live, because she hid the messengers whom we sent. 18 “But as for you, only keep yourselves from the things under the ban, lest you covet them and take some of the things under the ban, so you would make the camp of Israel accursed and bring trouble on it. 19 “But all the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.” 20 So the people shouted, and priests blew the trumpets; and it came about, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, that the people shouted with a great shout and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight ahead, and they took the city. 21 And they utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword (Joshua 6:15-21).

Our text in 1 Samuel 15 and the passages above may pose several questions for Christian readers today. (1) Why does God order the annihilation of entire nations in the first place? (2) Why are the cattle and even innocent children to be destroyed? (3) Why are the Amalekites specifically named as those to be wiped out? (4) Why is a later generation of Amalekites punished because of the sins of an earlier generation? (5) Why is Saul’s sparing of one man and a few cattle such a serious offense to God? Let us attempt to answer these questions.

First, there are general reasons for the annihilation of peoples like the Canaanites. These are the peoples who possess the promised land which God gave to Israel. The primary reason stated above is that these peoples are exceedingly wicked. If they are not totally wiped out, they will teach the Israelites their sinful ways and thus bring them under divine condemnation. It is easy to see why all the fighting men of the enemy should be killed, but why the women, children, and cattle? The sin of the Canaanites involved had defiled and corrupted their animals, and God would not allow any to survive.

Secondly, those whom God orders annihilated are those who are guilty, those for whom their punishment is just retribution. While their predecessors may have sinned greatly, the people whom God orders Saul to destroy are guilty sinners themselves, for whom their fate is a just recompense:

18 And the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated’ (1 Samuel 15:18).

33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal (1 Samuel 15:33).

The Amalekites are sinners, deserving of God’s wrath through Israel. These sinners, the Amalekites, are those who made women childless, and thus it is just for them to experience the suffering and cruelty they themselves mete out to their enemies.

Third, we are reminded that God does not take pleasure in the punishment of the innocent:

9 Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” 10 Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 “And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11).

Fourth, the annihilation of the Amalekites in Saul’s day is the outworking of a command given many years earlier and reiterated several times.

Exodus 17:8-15

8 Then Amalek came and fought against Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose men for us, and go out, fight against Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 And Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought against Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set. 13 So Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this in a book as a memorial, and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” 15 And Moses built an altar, and named it The LORD is My Banner; 16 and he said, “The LORD has sworn; the LORD will have war against Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:1-16).

Numbers 24:20-25

20 And he looked at Amalek and took up his discourse and said, “ Amalek was the first of the nations, But his end shall be destruction.” 21 And he looked at the Kenite, and took up his discourse and said, “Your dwelling place is enduring, And your nest is set in the cliff. 22 “Nevertheless Kain shall be consumed; How long shall Asshur keep you captive?” 23 And he took up his discourse and said, “Alas, who can live except God has ordained it? 24 “But ships shall come from the coast of Kittim, And they shall afflict Asshur and shall afflict Eber; So they also shall come to destruction.” 25 Then Balaam arose and departed and returned to his place, and Balak also went his way.

Deuteronomy 25:17-19

17 “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out from Egypt, 18 how he met you along the way and attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. 19 “Therefore it shall come about when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your surrounding enemies, in the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you must not forget.

When the Israelites leave Egypt and make their way toward the promised land, they are attacked by the Amalekites as depicted in Exodus 17. We know from Deuteronomy 25:18 that this attack is cowardly because they attack from behind, preying upon stragglers who are faint and weary. God gives the Israelites victory over the Amalekite army, but this does not wipe out the entire nation. God specifically commands that a future generation blot out the memory of this people, and this command is recorded for Israel’s posterity.

In Numbers 24, there is a most interesting reference to this “curse” which God imposes upon the Amalekites. Balak, the king of Moab, fears the Israelites and seeks to bring about their demise by hiring Balaam to curse them. Balak must be ignorant of the Abrahamic Covenant:

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine).

The Amalekites did not bless the Israelites, they cursed them by attacking them along the way. Because of this, God curses them, as He had covenanted with Abraham and his descendants. Now Balak seeks to entice Balaam to “curse” Israel, the people whom God has blessed. Not only does Balaam bless Israel, he reiterates the curse on the Amalekites, pronounced earlier in Exodus 17. In addition to cursing the Amalekites, he blesses the Kenites, who had shown mercy to the Israelites (Numbers 24:21; see 1 Samuel 15:6). In spite of himself, Balaam must bless those whom God blesses (including those who bless Israel), and he must curse those whom God curses (those who curse Israel).

In Deuteronomy 24, the second generation of Israelites who are about to enter the promised land are reminded of the duty of their descendants to destroy the Amalekites, once the nation has established itself and won victory over its surrounding neighbors. It is interesting that the reminder that Israel must annihilate the Amalekites is found in the context of teaching on justice (see 25:1-16). By inference, the annihilation of the Amalekites is the outworking of justice.

The question may remain, “But why should this generation be destroyed when it was an earlier generation which dealt cruelly with Israel?” We have already said that the generation of Amalekites in Saul’s time is wicked and deserving of death. It seems safe to say that this later generation is even more wicked than the one which first oppressed Israel in the wilderness as depicted in Exodus 17. I understand the destruction of the Amalekites in the light of God’s words to Abraham spoken centuries earlier:

12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 “But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 “And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. 16 “Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:12-16).

God tells Abraham (Abram here) that He is going to give him the land of Canaan, but first his descendants will be enslaved in an unnamed land for 400 years. We know this is the land of Egypt. After the 400 years of bondage is completed, God will then give them the land of Canaan. The reason given here for this delay is that the “iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). God chose to let the sin of this people ripen, reach its full maturity, and then bring judgment upon them. At the time God commands Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, we can safely assume their sins have ripened, and that the time for judgment has come.

In addition, we can say that God’s delay in judgment is also due to His grace, for in delaying judgment, God gives time for those whom He has chosen to be saved from His wrath:

22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:22-23, NASB).

9 The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9, NASB).

Saul’s Disobedience

This chapter is about Saul’s disobedience and its consequences, and so let us now ponder the nature of Saul’s disobedience so we can understand the severity of the consequences.

Saul’s disobedience does not stem from compassion. We may be tempted to think that Saul disobeys the command of God out of sincere, if misguided, motivation. Perhaps we would look upon Saul’s disobedience differently if we saw him sparing the little Amalekite children. But Saul does not spare one Amalekite child; he spares Agag, the king of the Amalekites. Saul does not disobey God because he is so compassionate, so caring, so kind. He readily slaughters every Amalekite man, woman, and child, save one – the king.

I think we may safely assume that Saul’s sparing of Agag, along with his sparing of the best of the flocks and herds of the Amalekites, is really self-serving. Saul certainly gains a measure of popularity for allowing the Israelites to have a good sacrificial meal with the Amalekite animals. After all, this not only means they can feast on the meat; it also means they do not have to sacrifice their own animals. Sparing the life of Agag probably provides Saul with a trophy of his prowess and power. When Agag sits at Saul’s table, he is much like a stuffed moose head, mounted and prominently displayed in a hunter’s den. I am reminded of the words of another king recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Judges:

6 But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.” So they brought him to Jerusalem and he died there (Judges 1:6-7).

For a king to sit at Saul’s table, captive and dependent upon him for his livelihood, is to have a trophy of that king. I believe this is the reason Saul spares Agag’s life and not the life of any other Amalekite.

Saul’s disobedience is committed by his partial obedience. Disobedience sometimes occurs in bold, blatant forms, such as Adam and Eve’s disobedience regarding the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But here, Saul sins by failing to obey God’s commandment to the letter. Saul does most of what God instructs him to do through Samuel, but he does not obey completely. Samuel sees this incomplete obedience as sin.

Saul’s disobedience is religious in nature. Saul’s disobedience is perceived and represented as obedience. I don’t know how Saul justifies saving Agag’s life. It does not appear very religious to me. But Saul is masterful at camouflaging his sin regarding the best of the Amalekite flocks. He says he and the people spared the best of the flocks to sacrifice to the Lord. Now, they may have indeed intended to do this, but their motivation is probably self-serving. The slaughter of all the cattle, as God has commanded, would be a sacrifice too, but the people will not be able to eat any of it. Sparing the animals as they do and then sacrificing them to God accomplishes at least two things. First, the people get a free meal at God’s expense. They are able to share in the sacrificial meal (2:12-17; 9:11-25). And second, they are able to sacrifice these cattle to God in place of their own, thus avoiding any real sacrifice on their part. The point is that Saul’s disobedience has a pious veneer, but at its core, it is self-serving sin. Thus, Saul’s actions are hypocritical, appearing to be pious when they are pagan.

Saul’s disobedience is cooperative. Saul does not act alone. When he first speaks to Samuel, he is willing to talk of his self-defined obedience in first person terms: “I have carried out the command of the LORD” (verse 13). But once it is apparent that his “obedience” is unacceptable to God, Saul suddenly seeks to lay the blame off on the people of Israel:

15 “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed” (verse 15).

20 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the LORD, and went on the mission on which the LORD sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites” (verse 20).

Only after his excuses are rejected and his sin exposed by Samuel does Saul “fess” up to his role in this sin, along with the people:

24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice” (1 Samuel 15:24).

How often sin becomes a social event, encouraged and entered into by many.

Saul’s disobedience is not taken seriously enough by Saul. Saul is slow to accept responsibility for his sin, as exposed by Samuel. Even when Saul confesses his sin, he lays some of the blame off on the people and then tries – too quickly for my liking – to “move on” to the blessings of God, hoping to sidestep divine discipline. This is especially apparent in verses 24-33. In a sense, Saul is saying something like: “O.K., O.K., so I messed up. I admit it. Now, can we get on with my life. I want you to stay with me and worship with me, so that my image is not tarnished before the people.” In effect now, as in the sin of partial obedience, Saul is more concerned with the people’s opinion of him than of God’s estimation of him. Saul wants to put his sin behind him without hating it, without putting it away from him.

Saul’s sin is hypocritical. If you remember, Saul is a man who will not tolerate anyone who fails to carry out his commands, even when they are foolish and detrimental. In chapter 14, Saul’s son, Jonathan, inadvertently violates Saul’s command not to eat anything until evening. Jonathan has not heard this command as he is too busy fighting the Philistines, but Saul is determined to put him to death for this disobedience and would have done so if the people had not refused to let it happen (14:36-46). Now, when it comes to Saul’s obedience to the command of God, he is amazingly lenient on himself. Disobey God? Maybe. Disobey Saul? Never!

Saul’s disobedience is a repetition of the same kind of disobedience seen earlier in 1 Samuel. This is the second of two major instances of Saul’s disobedience. The first comes in chapter 13, when Saul offers up the burnt offering instead of waiting for Samuel. In response to this sin, Samuel says,

13b “You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, for now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 “But now your kingdom shall not endure. The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:13b-14, NASB).

Now in chapter 15, we find the second instance of Saul’s disobedience:

22 And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. 23 “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).

Why is the indictment of chapter 13 seemingly repeated in chapter 15? Why does Samuel tell Saul that God has rejected him as king when he has already said nearly the same thing in chapter 13? The answer is that the first statement of condemnation is a conditional prophecy which would not be carried out if Saul genuinely repented of his sin. This is what we see stated in principle by the prophet Jeremiah:

6 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD.” Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. 7 “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jeremiah 18:6-8).

This, of course, is the very thing the king of Nineveh hoped for and received:

4 Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. 7 And he issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8 “But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9 “Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?” 10 When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it (Jonah 3:4-10).

There are then prophecies which are absolutely certain, prophecies which cannot be reversed or changed. And there are also prophecies which are warnings of the judgment which will come about unless men repent and are forgiven. When Joseph interprets the Pharaoh’s dreams, he tells the Pharaoh that these two dreams concern one and the same thing, and this indicates that what the dreams prophesy will most certainly happen (Genesis 41:32). The words of Samuel the prophet in chapter 13 are a warning of judgment and the opportunity for Saul to repent. In chapter 15, we see that Saul most certainly does not repent, but persists in his disobedience. Therefore, the words of Samuel to Saul in chapter 15 are words of Saul’s certain removal from office, even though a few years in the future. This is the very thing Samuel makes clear to Saul in verse 29:

29 “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”

How then do we square the words of verse 29 with what we have just read in verse 11?

11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not carried out My commands.” And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the LORD all night.

The same Hebrew term is employed in both verses 11 and 29, so we dare not attempt to solve our problem by saying the original term is not the same. What we can say is that the term employed here is found over 100 times in the Old Testament. The form employed here (Niphal) is translated “repent” 38 times in the King James Version, and most of these refer to God’s “repenting.”55 In the first instance of this verb (verse 11 of our text), the author speaks of God’s sorrow over the way Saul’s kingship has gone. It is not that God has been caught unaware or that this is not a part of His sovereign plan. God is not untouched by human sin; He is grieved by it. Even when God purposes that evil will play a part in His eternal plan, He does not enjoy it. Instead, it causes Him grief, which is what verse 11 says.

In verse 29, the same Hebrew form (Niphal again) is used, but the context dictates how this somewhat broad term is to be understood. When God rebukes Saul for his disobedience in chapter 13, He warns that Saul will lose his dynasty, his kingdom. This is a conditional prophecy, which could be avoided if Saul truly repents. He does not. So now, in verse 29, when Saul begs Samuel not to abandon him, not to bring the promised judgment upon him, Samuel reminds him that God is not a man who makes mistakes and then has to “repent” to change course. Samuel’s indictment indicates that Saul will be removed from power. Saul pleads that it be some other way. Samuel tells him that God doesn’t err in such judgments, and thus He will not “repent” of the course He has determined for Saul. It is too late, and God’s mind will not be changed now, for the time for repentance has passed.

The Governing Principle

Saul seeks to excuse his disobedience by claiming that he intends to use the animals which are spared to offer sacrifices to God. Samuel will have none of this. In verses 22 and 23, he sets down a principle which will be taken up often by later prophets, our Lord, and His apostles.56 The principle is stated both positively and negatively. In verse 22, Samuel states matters positively. He informs us that while performing God’s prescribed religious rituals is a good thing (especially if done with clean hands and a pure heart), obedience to God’s commands is even better.

Saul says things in precisely the opposite manner. By his words and actions, Saul informs us that going through the motions of religious rituals is the most important thing of all. It is no big thing to Saul to disobey God’s command, as long as his disobedience enables him to offer a ritualistic sacrifice to God. To Saul, offering a sacrifice to God is more important than obedience to God. To Samuel, obedience to God is the highest form of sacrifice (compare Romans 12:1-2). To obey God is better than all sacrifices. To disobey God, and then offer sacrifices, is worthless.

In verse 23 Samuel likens the sin of an Israelite to the sins of the heathen, which a good Jew would never consider doing. Saul does not take his sin of disobedience seriously. This pagan people, the Amalekites, deserves to die. Saul does not question that. The sins the pagans commit are those which an Israelite loathes. Samuel brings Saul up short by informing him that his disobedience is no less despicable than the pagan’s sins of divination, iniquity or idolatry. In fact, the pagans commit their sin largely in ignorance. They do not possess the Scriptures, as do the people of God. Saul’s sin of disobedience is on a par with those pagan sins Saul hates most. To obey is better than ritualistic worship; to disobey is worse than pagan idolatry or witchcraft (NKJV).

Saul’s “Repentance”

It is indeed sad to read the biblical report of Saul’s disobedience. But sadder still is reading the account of Saul’s response to Samuel’s rebuke. Saul starts by claiming to have obeyed God’s command. Then, when his sin is exposed, he admits to his failure to fully execute the command, but tries to sanctify his disobedience by claiming it is to better worship God. When Samuel casts aside this weak excuse, Saul finally confesses that he has sinned, but he lays some of the blame on the people. He claims that he feared the people and thus gave in to the pressure they applied on him. (verse 24). His concern is not that he has sinned against a righteous God, but that his public image will be damaged if Samuel openly severs his relationship with him. He does not have a deep conviction concerning the vileness of his sin. He only fears that he will look bad if this situation is not handled properly. And so he pleads for Samuel to go back and worship with him, thus giving the appearance that all is well.

Samuel Fully Carries out God’s Command
1 Samuel 15:32-35

32 Then Samuel said, “Bring me Agag, the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal. 34 Then Samuel went to Ramah, but Saul went up to his house at Gibeah of Saul. 35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; for Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.

Saul sins in chapter 13 when he offers the burnt offering which is Samuel’s task. But now, in chapter 15, it is necessary for Samuel to carry out Saul’s task. And in this instance it is not sin. Saul seems unwilling to “repent,” to reverse his decision to let king Agag live. This being the case, Samuel carries out the command of God himself, for it is necessary that all of the Amalekites be put to death, especially the king who led them in their wickedness. Agag is brought forward. This king feels confident that since he has not been executed by now, the danger is over. He certainly feels that he is safe while in the custody of Saul. But his confidence is ill-founded. Samuel is now the one he must stand before, and Samuel acts in God’s behalf.57 As he, the commander-in-chief of the Amalekite army, made women childless, so now his mother will be childless by his death (verse 33). Samuel does not merely put Agag to death, he hews him in pieces, no doubt because this is the way he dealt with the foes he defeated. While the text does not inform us of this, it is likely that Samuel sees to it that all of the Amalekites’ cattle, which the Israelites spared, are also put to death.

We are not told that Saul ever truly grieves over his sin or even over his parting ways with Samuel. It is a sad day for Samuel, however. He had wept and interceded with the Lord all night before he rebuked Saul (15:11). He grieves over Saul after they part company (15:35). And the Lord too grieved over Saul, and over the fact that He had made Saul king over Israel. It comes as no surprise to God, for this had been a part of the plan made in eternity past. Saul cannot be the king from whom Messiah will come, for he is not of the Tribe of Judah but of the tribe of Benjamin. Nevertheless God grieves over having to set Saul aside. It is necessary, but it is not a source of joy. Do we think that the God who is all-powerful does only the things which make Him happy? God does things which cause Him sorrow, like making Saul king, and like sending His Son to die on the cross of Calvary at the hands of wicked sinners. God does all of this for His ultimate glory and for our ultimate good.


We should see first from our text that God always carries out His purposes. Not only at the time of the exodus (Exodus 17:8-16), but several times afterward (Numbers 24:20-21; Deuteronomy 25:17-19), God instructs the Israelites that the Amalekites are to be exterminated because of their great sin, as evidenced in their attack on the Israelites after the exodus. God does not forget His Word, and in 1 Samuel 15, in spite of Saul’s disobedience, God’s Word is carried out. God keeps His promises, whether they are promises of blessing (as we see with the Israelites and the Kenites) or of judgment.

We see in the preservation of the Kenites and the destruction of the Amalekites not only the fulfillment of a very specific promise of God, but also the fulfilling of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). In this covenant with Abraham, He promises to bless those who bless Abraham and his descendants (e.g. the Kenites), and to curse those who curse Abraham and his seed (the Amalekites). The Abrahamic Covenant is a dominant factor in Israel’s history, explaining God’s judgment and blessing with respect to the nations which deal with the nation Israel.

I fear that Saul’s cavalier attitude toward his own sin is similar to the way many view their sin today. For example, within Roman Catholicism some feel rather free to sin, and then to go to confession and say, “Father, forgive me for I have sinned. . . .” Many evangelical Protestant Christians take their sins too lightly as well. We glibly say that when Christ died for our sins, He died for all of them: past, present, and future. This, of course, is true. But this does not give us a license to sin. The grace of God must never be used as an excuse for our sin (see Romans 5:18—6:11; Jude 1:4). To presume upon God’s grace and willfully sin, expecting to be forgiven, is perhaps the most terrifying sin of all (see Hebrews 10:26-31).

Our passage also warns us about the danger of stratifying sins. The heinous sins are those sins which others practice, while we tend to look upon our own sins, such as lying, as “little white lies.” In evangelical churches, we who don’t drink, smoke, or dance rail against those who do. It has been relatively easy for Christians to condemn homosexuals and those who are immoral, if this is not “our” kind of sin. Let us be warned that disobedience to God’s Word is looked upon as the worst of sins. To know what God commands us to do (or not to do), and then to disobey, is to willfully rebel against God. No ritualistic worship, no ceremonial activity, overrides the evil of such sin.

Looking at Saul’s sin in our text teaches us a valuable lesson about spiritual leadership. Spiritual leadership is not really about giving people what they want as much it is about doing what God wants. Spiritual leaders must first be followers of God. Saul is appointed king over Israel. His task is to know God’s commands and obey them and to lead the nation in obedience. To whatever degree Saul’s words about the pressure applied by the people are true, Saul fails to lead in a godly manner. His task is not to please men but to please God. In our day and time, when leaders are often elected, their election is very often based upon how well they have pleased others. This is not the test of a spiritual leader. The test is how well that person has pleased God by obeying His Word, and by challenging others to follow him as he obeys. This is not said to justify autocratic leadership, which merely claims to speak for God. This is said of biblical leadership, which is based upon, and tested by, the Word of God.

Our text is even harder on us than we might think. Not only is disobedience to God’s Word a most serious sin, partial obedience of His Word is a most serious sin. Saul teaches us that partial obedience to God’s commands is, in truth, really disobedience. Like Saul, many of us are inclined to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, if we have almost completely obeyed God’s commands. God does not view partial obedience the way we do. Serving God is not like horseshoes, where one gets points for coming close to the mark. Sin is falling short of the mark, no matter how close you come to it.

Repeatedly in the Bible total obedience is the standard, not partial obedience. Our Lord’s parting words, which we know as the “Great Commission,” include this statement:

28 “Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:28, NASB, emphasis mine).

It is amazing how many of our Lord’s commandments we have convinced ourselves are no longer applicable to us today. Is this just another form of partial obedience? We should seriously ponder this question.

Some Christians call striving to fully obey God’s commandments legalism. Legalism is not holding to the high standard set by the Scripture. Legalism is finding the standard set by the Scriptures too low, and adding one’s own requirements to those given us by God. Legalism goes beyond God’s commands. Biblical Christianity should not seek to hold the standard short of God’s commands.

We have never obeyed the commands of the Bible perfectly. The scribes and Pharisees foolishly thought they did, and they were wrong. Remember what our Lord said of their obedience:

20 “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

No one has ever perfectly obeyed God’s commandments. Even when it appears that we have, our attitude and motivation in doing so is never what it should be. My “righteousness” is often “self-righteousness” and my service, “self-serving.”

In truth, there is only one person whose obedience has ever been perfect, and we can thank God for Him, our Lord Jesus Christ.

18 “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 “And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left; in order that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:18-20, NASB).

8 I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy Law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8, NASB).

While God’s king is to obey God’s Word, no Old Testament king, including David, ever came close to the standard of perfect obedience. Only Jesus Christ, God’s Messiah, could claim perfect obedience to the will of God, and this obedience made possible the salvation of unworthy sinners like me and you:

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8, NASB).

4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. 5 Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “SACRIFICE AND OFFERING THOU HAST NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY THOU HAST PREPARED FOR ME; 6 IN WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN THOU HAST TAKEN NO PLEASURE.7 “THEN I SAID, 'BEHOLD, I HAVE COME (IN THE ROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) TO DO THY WILL, O GOD.'“ 8 After saying above, “SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS AND WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN THOU HAST NOT DESIRED, NOR HAST THOU TAKEN PLEASURE in them” (which are offered according to the Law), 9 then He said, “BEHOLD, I HAVE COME TO DO THY WILL.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second (Hebrews 10:4-9).

Paul summed the whole matter up in these words:

19 For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous (Romans 5:19).

It was Adam’s sin, his disobedience, that plunged the whole human race into trouble. It was the obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ which made our salvation possible. We must forsake all thought of earning our salvation, and realize that our works of righteousness are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We must cling to the righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the cross of Calvary, bearing the punishment for our sins, and who rose from the grave, declaring us to be righteous and giving us victory over sin and death. Here is our hope, and here is our salvation.

55 R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), p. 571.

56 See Psalm 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Isaiah 1:11-15; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6; Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-24; Matthew 9:13; 12:7; Hebrews 10:4-10.

57 Note the phrase “before the LORD” in verse 33.

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