17. Israel Gets A King (1 Samuel 1:1-16:23)
1 Samuel 1:1–16:23163
Years ago, our family went to an amusement park, along with another family from church. It was a beautiful day, and so many other families had chosen to do likewise. There were lines waiting for the “good” rides. After spending several hours at this, I turned to our friends and said, “You know, this is an excellent illustration of sin – the ride is short, and the price is high!” I have since thought of another dimension: “If the ride is any good, it will scare you to death.” As we come to the reign of King Saul, I find the above words to be an apt description. The ride was short, and the price was high, and frightening.
When we come to the Book of 1 Samuel, we move from the period of the judges (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel 1-7) to the monarchy (1 Samuel 8ff.). At Israel’s insistence, they will have a king, and Saul will be the first. The ride will be short, for Israel and for Saul (40 years really isn’t such a long time). His sons will not reign after his death. A new king, David, will reign in his place. The price for Saul is high. He loses his dynasty, his son Jonathan, and his own life. It is also high for Israel, as Samuel will clearly explain (1 Samuel 8:10-18). The ride is also frightening. If the Israelites thought that a king would give them security and uninterrupted peace, they were wrong. Under Saul’s leadership, there were many terrifying moments (see
1 Samuel 13:7; 14:15).
As I have indicated, our text takes us from the period of the judges to the monarchy – the reign of Israel’s kings, beginning with Saul. The structure of our text is very simple. Chapters 1-7 describe the end of the period of the judges. Eli and his sons will be removed from the priesthood and from judging Israel, and they will be replaced by Samuel and his sons. Chapters 8-15 tell the story of how Israel obtained her first king. While Saul will not die until the end of the book, the sins that cost him his kingdom will be documented in chapters 13 and 15. His positive contribution is illustrated by his victory over Nahash and the Ammonites in chapter 11. His weaknesses in character are illustrated in chapters 13-15. His reign is less than ideal, and his final days are nothing short of tragic.
The Book of 1 Samuel describes a number of “turning points,” for individuals like Saul, and for the nation Israel. This book contains some of the most popular and well-loved Bible stories of all time, but it is important that we understand them in the context of God’s “unfolding drama of redemption.” Let us listen carefully, then, to what God says to us through this portion of His inspired Word.
Originally Samuel was but one book, not two, and it immediately followed the Book of Judges. This means that the words that immediately precede 1 Samuel would be:
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 21:25).164
In those days, men and women did not live according to the Law of Moses, the revealed Word of God; they lived in accord with their own standards, their own sense of right and wrong – and it was a disaster. Consequently, God was silent for a time:
Now the boy Samuel continued serving the Lord under Eli’s supervision. Word from the Lord was rare in those days; revelatory visions were infrequent (1 Samuel 3:1).
The birth of Samuel, much like the birth of John the Baptist, was a divine initiative whereby God’s silence was broken. Elkanah had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Hannah was the most beloved wife, but she was childless, and Peninnah took full advantage of this, deeply wounding Hannah’s spirit by flaunting the fact that she could bear children, while Hannah could not. (It is apparent that Peninnah had no grasp of the fact that God had purposely prevented Hannah from conceiving children, up to this point in time – see 1:6, 19-20. ) Although Elkanah sought to comfort his wife, she suffered much.
It was out of the agony of her heart that she cried out to the Lord, petitioning Him for a child. She promised that if God would give her a male child she would dedicate him to the LORD, and that (like Samson – see Judges 13) he would be a Nazarite (1 Samuel 1:11). Eli saw this distraught woman and mistook her demeanor for that of someone who was drunk. When he rebuked her, she quickly explained her circumstances, and in response, Eli blessed her with the assurance that she would have a son. Not long after this, Hannah became pregnant, and when her son, Samuel, was weaned, she took him to the Lord’s house at Shiloh, leaving her son in the care of Eli.
The author then includes this psalm of praise, composed by Hannah:
1 Hannah prayed,
“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
my horn is exalted high because of the Lord.
I loudly denounce my enemies,
for I am happy that you delivered me.
2 No one is holy like the Lord!
There is no one other than you!
There is no rock like our God!
3 Don’t keep speaking so arrogantly,
letting proud talk come out of your mouth.
For the Lord is a God who knows;
he evaluates what people do.
4 The bows of warriors are shattered,
but those who stumble find their strength reinforced.
Those who are well-fed hire themselves out to earn food,
but the hungry no longer lack.
Even the barren woman gives birth to seven,
but the one with lots of children withers away.
6 The Lord both kills and gives life;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.
7 The Lord impoverishes and makes wealthy;
he humbles and exalts.
8 He lifts the weak from the dust;
he raises the poor from the ash heap
to seat them with princes
and to bestow on them an honored position.
The foundations of the earth belong to the Lord,
and he has placed the world on them.
9 He watches over his holy ones,
but the wicked are made speechless in the darkness,
for it is not by one’s own strength that one prevails.
10 The Lord shatters his adversaries;
he thunders against them from the heavens.
The Lord executes judgment to the ends of the earth.
He will strengthen his king
and exalt the power of his anointed one” (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
We cannot attempt to expound this wonderful psalm in a survey like this, but I do wish to make a few observations, which should serve to enhance our appreciation of this psalm of praise, and as a result enhance our own worship.165
First, this is a prayer.
Second, this prayer is poetry, a psalm of praise to God.
Third, it is a divinely-inspired psalm. It has become a part of Scripture, and so we are assured of its divine inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16). As such, we know that God has included it in Scripture for our edification and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Fourth, this psalm is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving, prompted by God’s answer to Hannah’s prayers for a son.
Fifth, it is a psalm that is God-centered. Unlike Jonah’s “psalm” in Jonah 2:2-9, Hannah does not dwell on her experiences; she dwells upon God, His sovereignty, His power, and His grace. Here is a lesson we could all take to heart in our worship. How much of our testimonies and worship are self-centered?
Sixth, it is a psalm that is quite similar to Mary’s magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. It would certainly seem that Mary’s words were influenced by Hannah’s psalm.
Seventh, this psalm of praise looks beyond Hannah’s personal experience to Israel’s hope and assurance; indeed, it looks forward to the coming of the Messiah (see 2:10).
Hannah was barren, and greatly distressed. Peninnah was Hannah’s enemy, who would harass her constantly about her inability to bear children. God heard Hannah’s prayer, giving her not just one child, but several. From her experience, Hannah could see and rejoice in the sovereignty of God. She could see that God is a God who elevates the humble and the broken, and who humbles the powerful and the proud. What God had done for her, she knew God would do for others. God will humble Israel’s enemies, exalt the weak, and bring judgment and justice. Ultimately this will take place when God raises up his “anointed one,” his Messiah (2:10).
What faith Hannah had, as she penned this psalm. She saw God’s hand in her life, and knew that it was but a sample of God’s work among His people. While the Book of Judges ends with, “In those days Israel had no king” (Judges 21:25a), Hannah’s psalm looks forward to the day when God will send His anointed One to reign. At this time, the truths of her psalm will be totally and permanently fulfilled.
I wonder if Hannah lived long enough to see the reason for her suffering? In her childless days, with Peninnah constantly “rubbing salt in her wounds,” Hannah could only trust that God would somehow cause her circumstances to turn out for good. And so they did, in time. Hannah was so eager for a son that she vowed she would dedicate this boy to God, that she would give him up. It must have been difficult for her to place Samuel into the hands of Eli, knowing how he had failed to deal with his own sons. Little did she know that God had purposed for Samuel to be raised by Eli and to grow up in the house of the Lord, so that he might be Eli’s replacement. It is only as we look back that we can see how God used Hannah’s suffering for her good, and for His glory.
Eli’s sons were exceedingly wicked. They refused to wait and eat the boiled beef that was rightfully theirs, and instead forcibly took the meat before it was cooked, even before the fat was offered to God. Our author sums it all up when he tells us that they “treated the LORD’s offering with contempt” (2:17). Not only did they sin in regard to the offerings, they also sinned by having sexual relations with the young women who worked at the entrance of the tent of meeting (2:22). Samuel verbally chastised his sons, but he never followed through. At the very least Samuel should have dismissed his sons from their duties, and by law he should have stoned them (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
Parents today would do well to consider Eli’s foolishness in raising his sons. There is a time when mere words are not sufficient, and when more aggressive action is required. Some parents are so committed to “reasoning” with their children that they never move beyond mere talk. If words do the job, then words are sufficient. When words fail to accomplish the task, something more than words is required. This most certainly does not justify abuse. Our generation is characterized by children who don’t know the meaning of the word “No,” and who are convinced that if they disobey, their parents will merely throw up their hands and give up. That was Eli’s problem: a little talk and no action.
God’s Word was rare in those days (3:1), and so Eli should have been duly impressed when a “man of God” visited him (2:27ff.). This prophet reminded Eli of how God had appointed his family to serve as His priests forever (2:28, 30). Now, that would come to an abrupt end, due to their sin. It is important to see that God held Eli guilty as an accomplice:
“‘Why are you scorning my sacrifice and my offering that I commanded for my dwelling place? You have honored your sons more than you have me in that you have made yourselves fat from the best parts of all the offerings of my people Israel’” (1 Samuel 2:29).
The man of God makes it clear that Eli actually reaped the fruits of his sons’ sinful behavior. We know that he was a very large man (4:18), and God informs him that he and his sons had “made themselves fat” by eating the meat that they did. Eli knew what he was eating. He knew how that meat was cooked, and how it was obtained. Nevertheless, he partook of it, along with his sons. No wonder he did not take any further action to than merely rebuke them. He enjoyed the fruits of his sons’ sins. The time for judgment on Eli and his sons had come. God would destroy the house of Eli, and his two sons would die on the same day and God would raise up another to take Eli’s place (2:33-35).
It is at this point that we are informed that revelations (like that given by the man of God in chapter 2) were extremely rare (3:1). Suddenly, in these dark days, God once again begins to speak – to, and through, young Samuel. We all know the story about how God calls out to Samuel three times in the night. God confirms the word of the earlier prophet concerning Eli and his sons (3:11-14). Encouraged by Eli to be completely honest, Samuel told Eli everything that God had revealed to him. Eli’s response is not really very encouraging:
So Samuel told him everything. He did not hold back anything from him. Eli said, “The Lord will do what he pleases” (1 Samuel 3:18).
There is a kind of fatalism to Eli’s words that I find distressing. Moses would have interceded, I believe, and not have given up until God either granted his petition or emphatically denied it. Eli just seems to passively accept God’s verdict, without any repentance, and without taking any corrective action.
At least Eli acknowledged that Samuel’s words were a divine revelation. The author informs us that this was not an isolated prophecy on Samuel’s part; it was the first of many other prophecies. Samuel was recognized as a prophet, and rightly so, for God did not allow any of his prophetic utterances to fail. Even before Eli’s death, all Israel came to recognize that Samuel was a prophet, through whom God spoke.
Chapters 4-7 describe the final episodes of the period of the judges. These chapters revolve around two related themes: (a) the ark of the covenant, its loss and its recovery; and (b) Israel’s on-going conflict with the Philistines. When the Israelites waged war with the Philistines, the Israelites suffered a humiliating defeat, and the loss of 4,000 men (4:1-2). The elders were puzzled as to why God would allow them to suffer this defeat. They determined to return to the battlefield, but this time, with the ark of the covenant. Surely this would guarantee the presence and the power of God with them. And so it seemed. When the ark was brought into the Israelites’ camp, the warriors let out a great shout that could be heard by the Philistines. They were terrified by it and were certain they would suffer defeat at the hand of the Israelites. Nevertheless, they determined to fight – and to die – like men. To the amazement of all, the Philistines won the battle. They killed 30,000 foot soldiers, and also Hophni and Phineas, the two sons of Eli (4:10-11), thus fulfilling one aspect of the prophecy given earlier. When word of this tragedy was brought to Eli, he fell from his chair, breaking his neck from the fall (4:18). In all, Eli judged Israel for 40 years. Hearing the news, Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phineas, went into labor. The child lived, but the woman did not. Before she died, she named the baby boy Ichabod, which means, “Gone is the glory.”
The account of the ark’s brief (seven months – see 6:1) sojourn in the land of the Philistines is both amusing and enlightening. The ark of the covenant was the symbol of God’s presence and power. When the Philistines defeated the Israelites and captured the ark, they wrongly concluded that their god, Dagon, had prevailed over Israel’s God. And so they took the ark as a trophy of war and placed it in the temple of Dagon at Ashdod (5:1-2). Early the next day, the idol of Dagon was lying on the ground before the ark. The Philistines propped it back up, only to find it the next day lying before the ark once again – but this time with its head and arms broken off. Dagon was quite obviously bowing before the God of Israel, broken and powerless to save himself.
That was only the beginning of Ashdod’s troubles. A plague broke out in the city, causing painful sores or tumors. An infestation of rodents seemed to accompany this outbreak as well (see 6:3-5). The people of the city suspected that the presence of the ark was the source of their affliction and so they sent the ark on to the Philistine city of Gath, where the same plague followed. The ark was then sent on to Ekron, but the people of that city were not about to endure the same suffering; they insisted that the ark be sent back to Israel, where it came from.
It was concluded that the ark must be returned, and with a guilt offering (five “gold sores” and five “gold mice”). It is most interesting to see the logic of those who realized that they must honor the God of Israel:
5 You should make images of the sores and images of the mice that are destroying the land. You should honor the God of Israel. Perhaps he will release his grip on you, your gods, and your land. 6 Why harden your hearts like the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When God treated them harshly, didn’t the Egyptians send the Israelites on their way? (1 Samuel 6:5-6, emphasis mine)
These pagans not only heard about the Israelites’ exodus; they learned from it. They did not wish to be like Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They did not wish to be destroyed by the wrath of God. If the Egyptians had to be persuaded to release the Israelites the “hard way” (via the plagues), the Philistines did not wish to be so hard-hearted. They would release the ark and send it on its way, with gifts, just as the Egyptians had done with the Israelites.
They also wanted to assure themselves that these plagues came from the hand of the God of Israel, and so they designed a very clever test. They would place the ark on a new cart and would use two milk cows to draw it. These cows would be separated from their calves, so that their natural instinct would be to turn back toward the land of the Philistines (where their calves were tied up, bawling for their mothers). If these two cows pulled the cart directly to Israel, without turning back, then the Philistines would know that this had all been the work of God. The cows headed directly for the Israelite town of Beth Shemesh, as the Philistines looked on in wonder, greatly relieved to see the ark gone from their land.
There is certainly a lesson to be learned from the ark. The Israelites learned that the ark was not magic; its presence did not necessarily guarantee God’s presence and power, as we can see in chapter 4. On the other hand, God was closely associated with the ark, so that He was able to bring the Philistines (and their god) to their knees. The army of Israel, with the ark, was powerless without God’s presence among them. The ark of God, without the Israelite army, was powerful against the Philistines when God was present. God did not need the Israelites to prevail over the Philistines, but the Israelites surely needed God to prevail.
When the ark returned to Israel, the Israelites also needed to be reminded of the terror of the Lord. The people foolishly looked into the ark and on that day, 50,070 were stuck down. The people of Beth Shemesh asked a very important question, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” (6:20). The answer is, “No one.” God always provided some form of shield or barrier between His holy presence and the sinful people among whom He chose to dwell. In a spirit similar to that of the people of Ashdod (5:6-7), the ark was now passed along to the people of Kiriath Jearim. Abinadab’s son, Eleazar, was tasked with the job of guarding the ark of the LORD. The ark remained in Abinadab’s home for 20 years (7:2).
The final incident of the days of the judges is recorded in 1 Samuel 7. It is a most appropriate conclusion to the period of the judges. The Israelites longed for the Lord, and Samuel called the nation to repentance:
3 Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are really turning to the Lord with all your hearts, remove from among you the foreign gods and the images of Ashtoreth. Give your hearts to the Lord and serve only him. Then he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So the people of Israel removed the Baals and images of Ashtoreth. They served only the Lord (1 Samuel 7:3-4).
Samuel then called the whole nation to gather at Mizpah, where he would pray for them. The people fasted and prayed, as Samuel led them. Mizpah was a few miles north of Jerusalem and was located on some of the highest ground in that area. The name “Mizpah” means “watchtower” or “place for watching.” It was a kind of lookout, over the surrounding country. The Philistines heard that the Israelites had assembled there, and seem to have mistaken their gathering as a military maneuver. It was, after all, the perfect place to defend yourself against an attack. The Philistines gathered their forces and converged on the Israelites, who were engaged in worship. When the Israelites realized that the Philistines were attacking them, they were terrified. They had few weapons as it was, because the Philistines had confiscated all iron weapons and all the tools required to manufacture iron products:
19 A metalworker could not be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines had said, “This will prevent the Hebrews from making swords and spears.” 20 So all Israel had to go down to the Philistines in order to get their plowshares, cutting instruments, axes, and sickles sharpened. 21 They charged two-thirds of a shekel to sharpen plowshares and cutting instruments, and a third of shekel to sharpen picks and axes, and to set oxgoads. 22 So on the day of the battle no sword or spear was to be found in the hand of anyone in the army that was with Saul and Jonathan. No one but Saul and his son Jonathan had them (1 Samuel 13:19-22).
The Israelites seemed to be in a terrible fix, something similar to the Israelites who left Egypt, who found themselves trapped between the Red Sea, the mountains, and the Egyptian army. Since the people could not really fight, they were forced to petition God for help (7:8-9). God saved the Israelites in a most incredible way – He employed the Philistines’ advanced military technology against them. Their technological edge was their iron weapons – their swords and shields, and also their chariots with iron wheels (Joshua 17:16, 18; Judges 1:19; 4:3, 13). I can see it now, in my mind’s eye. The Philistines approach the high ground, closing in on the Israelites who are huddled together. They raise their swords into the air, waiting for their commander to yell, “Charge!” Just then, God sends an electrical storm, and the world’s most advanced weapons become lightening rods. The Philistines, decked out in their iron-clad armor, holding their iron swords high in the air and standing in iron-wheeled chariots, are like magnets, attracting the lightning bolts to themselves. This was the beginning of a great victory for Israel, and a devastating defeat for the Philistines (7:13). And because of the way the Philistines were destroyed, it was very obvious that this was all of God. I would think that the Philistines would have quickly shed their iron weapons and fled, so that the Israelites would only need to pick up these weapons (once they cooled) and pursue the Philistines.
In the very next chapter of 1 Samuel, the people will insist on having a king who will go before them and fight their battles. Saul did not prove to be that kind of military leader. Why would the Israelites want a king like Saul, when they could have a deliverer like God, who single-handedly rescued Israel from their foes? The failure of the era of the judges was not God’s failure, but man’s. Would it be any different in the monarchy, when kings ruled? The next few chapters will certainly give us the answer.
Even before the death of Eli, it was known to all Israelites that Samuel was a prophet, through whom God spoke. Samuel was, in fact, the last (and the greatest) judge in Israel (1 Samuel 7, especially verse 17). As a prophet, it would also be Samuel’s duty to designate Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David. But in so doing, Samuel would be turning in his resignation as Israel’s judge (or deliverer).
If we were living in the latter days of Samuel, we would surely be concerned about the future, as the Israelites were:
1 In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second son was Abijah. They were judges in Beersheba. 3 But his sons did not follow his ways. Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice (1 Samuel 8:1-3).
The future did not look particularly bright with Samuel’s sons serving as judges. They were not at all like their father. One must wonder why Samuel would appoint his sons as judges. Did he think that they would carry on in his place when he was gone? Were they already corrupt before he made them judges, or did their positions of power corrupt them? Was Samuel following in the footsteps of Eli, overlooking the sins of his own sons? Whatever Samuel’s reasons might be, the people were not eager to have his sons as judges. Even if some of the concerns of the people were valid, the solution they demanded did not please Samuel or God.
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the nations have.” 6 But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. 8 Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you” (1 Samuel 8:4-8).
How true to life this incident is. I have seen it work this way many, many times in my ministry. People have a certain sinful course of action they wish to pursue, and they seize upon any and every excuse that appears to justify their doing it. It is, in the words of the Book of Proverbs, finding “a lion in the
road”166 – that compelling excuse for doing or not doing what we desire. The sluggard refuses to go outside his house and work, because “there’s a lion in the road.” If, indeed, there were a lion in the road, one would be foolish to go outside one’s house. But it is often merely an excuse.
The Israelites surely remembered God’s words of instruction in the Law of Moses:
14 When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will appoint a king over me like all the nations surrounding me,” 15 you must without fail select over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the Lord has said you must never again return that way. 17 Furthermore, he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold. 18 When he sits on his royal throne he must make a copy of this instruction on a scroll given to him by the levitical priests. 19 It must be with him constantly and he must read it as long as he lives, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and observe all the words of this instruction and these statutes in order to carry them out, 20 so that he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens and turn from the commandment right or left, and so that he and his descendants may enjoy many years ruling over his kingdom in Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
The Israelites of Samuel’s day read this text as a permission slip for what they wanted to do. They saw it as God’s seal of approval on their plan to have a king. Their attitude was very similar to that of the Jews in Jesus’ day regarding divorce:
3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:3-12).
Divorce was God’s provision for men, due to their hardness of heart. It was not pleasing to God. Our Lord made it clear that it would be far better for a person not to marry at all, than to marry with a view to the possibility of getting a divorce. God’s ideal – that which was pleasing in His sight – was for a man to marry a woman for a lifetime.
So it was with Israel having a king. In Deuteronomy 17, God gives clear instructions to the Israelites regarding who could become their king (only an Israelite) and how he was to be selected (God’s designation). He also set down regulations regarding the conduct and practices of the king. But having noted this, let us not fail to sense the note of disapproval in Deuteronomy 17:14:
When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “ I will appoint a king over me like all the nations surrounding me” (emphasis mine).
These words of Moses were both a warning and a prophecy. Compare the words of Moses with the words of the people to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8:5:
They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the nations have” (emphasis mine).
In both texts, it is the people who demand a king, just as in both their motivation is to be “just like the nations.” If the Israelites cannot imitate the other nations by immorality and idolatry, they will imitate them by having a king. What the Israelites failed to grasp was that their desire to have a king was idolatry:
7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. 8 Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you” (1 Samuel 8:7-8, emphasis mine).
Here, we see that idols are not always man-made objects of metal, word, or stone; idols may also be men. The reason why men make idols is because they want to see who or what they worship. Idols assure the “worshipper” of success, whether that be victory in battle, bountiful reproduction, or rain for his crops. A strong and powerful king may appear to be the key to success. And remember, some kings actually were worshipped as gods (see Daniel 3; Acts 12:20-24). Since God is invisible, there can be no representation of Him in the form of an idol (Deuteronomy 4:15-19). The Israelites wanted a leader they could see, someone they could trust to save them. They wanted a king, like the other nations.
Idols can therefore be men, and it is not merely kings who are “worshipped” (whether literally or functionally). Many of the youth of our country virtually worship certain celebrities, especially musicians, actors, and actresses. Some Christians idolize prominent Christian leaders while others (unfortunately some may be Christians) blindly follow persuasive cult leaders. Let us be careful to show proper respect to those in authority, but let us also beware that we do not become worshippers of men. Never look to men for what only God can do; never give to men what only God deserves.
Samuel responds to the Israelites as God has instructed him. At this point in time, he does not accuse them of rejecting God, though they have. Instead, he points out the very high cost of kings:
10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: he will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. 12 He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. 13 He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. 15 He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. 16 He will take both your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. 17 He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants. 18 In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8:10-18).
The Israelites were already required to give tithes and offerings for the care of the poor and for the support of those who ministered as priests. Having a king would virtually double their expenses. Having a king would not only cost them money, it would also restrict their freedom. The king they so desperately desire will forcibly take their property and use it, or give it to his friends, as he will take their children as his servants. What the Israelites are demanding not only offends God, it is not in their own best interest. While sinners think they are enhancing their own interests, they are actually doing the opposite. Sin is self-defeating and self-destructive. This is probably a good thing to remember when seeking to turn another from their sin. Let the sinner understand that the price of sin is high, and the ride is short (and often frightening).
I should point out something that is very important concerning Samuel’s words of warning about the high cost of kings. Samuel is not merely warning the Israelites that their first king (whom we know will be Saul) won’t be worth the price. God is making it clear that every king – even the best – will come at a very high cost. One would only have to ask Uriah about this, for King David was able to take his wife, and this faithful soldier’s life. Later on, Solomon would oppress the people of Israel with his taxes (see 1 Kings 4:7-22-25; 9:1f; 12:4).
I’m going to go on to say something that will be recognized as somewhat political, but needs to be said because I believe it is true. All too many people today look to government as though it were their god. They look to government for prosperity and peace. They look to government for “the good life.” And this is why, for some, the bigger that government becomes, the better. Samuel’s words apply not only to kings, but to any government, and especially “big government.” It is interesting that inscribed on the money our government prints are the words, “In God We Trust.” I wonder how many people today trust their government more than they trust in God? Perhaps we should read our money and take these words to heart. We most certainly should take Samuel’s words to heart.
The people will not be dissuaded. They insist on having their king. And so God instructs Samuel to send the people away with the assurance that He will give them the king that they have demanded. As the people return to their homes, they do not know who their king will be, and so all eyes are on Samuel to see who he will designate as their king.
Chapters 9 and 10 describe the process by which God revealed the identity of Israel’s king. In 9:1–10:16, the author relates the way God privately revealed to Saul that he was to become Israel’s king. Chapter 10:17-27 records the process by which God publicly identified Saul to the Israelites as their king.
Saul was just the kind of man the Israelites were looking for. He came from a prominent family, he was a very attractive fellow, and he was Israel’s Goliath:
1 There was a Benjamites man named Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah of Benjamin. He was a prominent person. 2 He had a son named Saul, an attractive young man. There was no one among the Israelites more attractive; he stood head and shoulders above all the people (1 Samuel 9:1-2).
It all started with a few runaway donkeys that Kish sent his son Saul to find. Saul, accompanied by one of the young servants, pursued them for several days. As they were running out of food, Saul was ready to give up and return home. His servant recognized that they had come to the city where a prophet lived. (Saul does not seem to be aware of this, which may give us a clue to his spiritual state.) The servant believed that the prophet (or seer) could tell them where to find their lost donkeys and was willing to provide the money to pay him for his services. Saul took the servant’s advice, and they came to the city and asked where the prophet could be found. (God had already revealed to Samuel that Israel’s king would be arriving, and that he would be a Benjamite – see 9:15-16. )
Samuel made Saul his guest of honor, and later he privately anointed Saul as Israel’s king. Saul also gave Samuel several signs to convince him that this was God’s doing. Samuel told Saul that the donkeys had already been found – before Saul had the opportunity to mention that they were looking for them. Samuel told Saul that he would meet two men, that they would assure him that his father’s donkeys had been found, and that his father was now concerned about him (10:2). This, by the way, was pretty much what Saul had said earlier in 9:5. Saul would then meet three men who were going up to Bethel. One man would be carrying three young goats, another would have three loaves of bread, and the third a container of wine. The man with the bread would give Saul two loaves, Samuel told him. He also told Saul that he would encounter a band of prophets, and that he would prophesy. All these things happened, just as Samuel had indicated.
Samuel also gave Saul a very specific instruction:
“You will go down to Gilgal before me. I am about to come down to you to offer burnt offerings and to make peace offerings. You should wait for seven days, until I come to you and tell you what to do” (1 Samuel 10:8).
Unfortunately, this instruction would not be obeyed, as we shall soon see. When Saul arrived home, his uncle (Abner? – see 14:50) was most interested in what Samuel had to say to his nephew, once he learned that Saul had spoken with the prophet. No wonder. Everyone knew that Samuel would soon anoint a new king. Anyone who had dealings with Samuel would be considered a possible candidate for king.
Samuel now calls the nation to assemble before the Lord at Mizpah (remember the last time this happened, in chapter 7). Samuel begins with a word of rebuke:
18 He said to the Israelites, “This is what the Lord God of Israel says, ‘I brought Israel up from Egypt and I delivered you from the power of the Egyptians and from the power of all the kingdoms that oppressed you. 19 But today you have rejected your God who saves you from all your trouble and distress. You have said, “No! Appoint a king over us.” Now take your positions before the Lord by your tribes and by your clans’” (1 Samuel 10:18-19).
Samuel’s case against Israel is a very simple one. From the days of their exodus from Egypt, God had delivered His people from the hand of their enemies. All of this God accomplished without a king. Now Samuel rebukes the people for rejecting God as their King and Deliverer. They now are demanding a king in God’s place. Samuel’s words of rebuke preface his designation of Saul as their king. Samuel knows, of course, who that king will be, but he does not simply name Saul. Samuel goes through a process of elimination by the casting of lots. First the tribe of Benjamin was chosen by lot, then the family of Matri, and finally Saul. Saul was not to be found, and so they had to inquire of God. He informed them that Saul was hiding himself among the baggage. He certainly did not seem to be acting like a king. Some were quick to take note of this, questioning how such a fellow could save Israel (10:27). Others noted that he stood head and shoulders above any other Israelite (10:23; see 9:2). Those who accepted Saul as their king brought him gifts. Those who despised him did not.
I must say, somewhat parenthetically, that I took note of this matter of gifts during our offering this Sunday. I called attention to the way the wise men from the East brought gifts to the one whom they sought as “the King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-12). If we acknowledge one as king by giving them gifts, what does it say when we come to church week after week, and yet give nothing to Him whom we profess to be the King of Kings? It is sadly true that in virtually every church there are a significant number of people who never give. This text should give them pause for thought. And lest those of us who do give are feeling a bit too smug, I should also say that the size of our gift says something about our regard for our King as well.
It is in chapters 11 and 12 that Saul’s right to reign is established in a very public way. Did some wonder how this one who hid among the baggage could lead the Israelites in war? God demonstrated how in chapter 11, when Nahash the Ammonite marched against the city of Jabesh Gilead. The inhabitants of that city knew they were outnumbered and were willing to surrender under the usual terms. Nahash was not willing for these people merely to submit; he wanted to utterly humiliate them. If they were to submit to him, they would have to allow him to gouge out their right eyes. The leaders of the city asked for a week to give their decision, in which time they would seek to learn whether any of their brethren would come to their aid. (It would seem that Nahash felt quite confident that they would not be rescued, which meant that he had the upper hand with the other cities as well, since the Israelites would thus demonstrate their lack of unity.)
When Saul heard of the dilemma the people of Jabesh Gilead were in, the Spirit of God came upon him powerfully. He took his oxen and slaughtered them, cutting them into pieces, which he sent throughout the land (not unlike the way the Levite sent pieces of his concubine around the land in Judges 19:29-30). He threatened to slaughter the oxen of anyone who would not come and join their brethren in battle against the Ammonites. This motivated the entire nation to gather for war: 300,000 Israelites and 30,000 men from Judah (11:8). Saul and this army defeated the Ammonites and rescued the city. Now it was clear to all that Saul was capable of leading the nation in battle against their enemies. Some even wanted to punish those who questioned Saul’s right to rule, but Saul forbade them to do so (11:12-13).
The people were jubilant, and so Samuel summoned them to gather at Gilgal, where they were to renew the kingship (11:13ff.). Saul was then unanimously proclaimed as king, and peace offerings were being made. It was a time of celebration, but it was also the time for Samuel to make it clear to Israel how serious their sin was in demanding a king. Samuel began by challenging anyone to bring a charge against him. All acknowledged that he had dealt fairly and justly with him (12:1-5). This gave Samuel the moral authority he needed to rebuke the Israelites for their sin.
6 Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is the one who chose Moses and Aaron and who brought your ancestors up from the land of Egypt. 7 Now take your positions, so I may confront you before the Lord regarding all the Lord’s just actions toward you and your ancestors. 8 When Jacob entered Egypt, your ancestors cried out to the Lord. The Lord sent Moses and Aaron, and they led your ancestors out of Egypt and settled them in this place. 9 “But they forgot the Lord their God, so he gave them into the hand of Sisera, the general of the army of Hazor, and into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the king of Moab, and they fought with them. 10 Then they cried out to the Lord saying, “We have sinned, for we have forsaken the Lord and have served the Baals and the images of Ashtoreth. Now deliver us from the hand of our enemies so that we may serve you. 11 So the Lord sent Jerub-Baal, Barak, Jephthah, and Samuel, and he delivered you from the hand of the enemies all around you, and you were able to live securely. 12 “[But]167 When you saw that King Nahash of the Ammonites was advancing against you, you said to me, ‘No! A king will rule over us’—even though the Lord your God is your king! 13 Now look! Here is the king you have chosen—the one that you asked for. Look, the Lord has given you a king. 14 If you fear the Lord, serving him and obeying him and not rebelling against what he says, and if both you and the king who rules over you follow the Lord your God, all will be well. 15 But if you don’t obey the Lord and rebel against what the Lord says, the hand of the Lord will be against both you and your king” (1 Samuel 12:6-15).
Here is the most comprehensive rebuke Samuel has given for the Israelites’ demand to have a king. He cites instance after instance of God’s care and protection of His people, as their King. He emphasized that their more recent difficulties with foreign nations was the result of their own sin, and that in response to their petitions for help, God sent them a deliverer. Samuel seems to stress the fact that something “snapped” (we might say) when Nahash and the Ammonites attacked Israel. Somehow he managed to terrorize them, so that they felt a king was necessary. Well, Israel has their king, but God’s people must know that their demands for a king constituted a most serious sin. It was a failure to trust God. It was putting their trust in a man, rather than in God.
Even so, God was willing to grant their request and give them a king, and to continue to keep His covenant with them. The change to a monarchy, however, did not set aside the Mosaic Covenant and its requirements. God would continue to bless Israel if they and their king obeyed His commandments. If they or their king rebelled against His commandments, then God would bring judgment on them.
To underscore the magnitude of Israel’s sins and the words of rebuke Samuel had just spoken, God sent a storm that destroyed some of their crops and got Israel’s attention. The people feared both Samuel and the Lord:
All the people said to Samuel, “Pray to the Lord your God on behalf of your servants so we won’t die, for we have added to all our sins by asking for a king” (1 Samuel 12:19).
Samuel’s response was sobering, and yet comforting:
20 Then Samuel said to the people, “Don’t fear. You have indeed sinned. However, don’t turn aside from the Lord. Serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 You should not turn aside after empty things that can’t profit and can’t deliver, since they are empty. 22 The Lord will not abandon his people because he wants to uphold his great reputation. The Lord was pleased to make you his own people. 23 As far as I am concerned, far be it from me to sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you. I will instruct you in the way that is good and upright. 24 However, fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. Just look at the great things he has done for you! 25 But if you continue to do evil, both you and your king will be swept away” (1 Samuel 12:20-25, emphasis mine).
I am especially impressed with the words of verse 21. These words sound very much like a warning against idolatry, do they not? In fact, the NIV renders verse 21 this way:
Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless (emphasis mine).
While this word, rendered “empty things” is a most fascinating word, worthy of further study, it will suffice for this study to simply indicate that “kings” are “empty things” and “useless idols” when we look to them to save us, rather than to God. It is not the greatness and power of human kings, but the power, sovereignty, and loyal (covenant) love of God that assures us of our earthly and eternal safety and security.
All who form idols are nothing;
the things in which they delight are worthless.
Their witnesses cannot see;
they recognize nothing, so they are put to shame (Isaiah 44:9).
22 He is the one who sits on the earth’s horizon;
its inhabitants are like grasshoppers before him.
He is the one who stretches out the sky like a thin curtain,
and spreads it out like a pitched tent.
23 He is the one who reduces rulers to nothing;
he makes the earth’s leaders insignificant (Isaiah 40:22-23).
While Saul’s reign has just commenced, and he will reign over Israel for 40 years, the next chapters (13-15) depict Saul’s character flaws (chapters 13 and 14) and describe the two failures which cost Saul an everlasting dynasty and even his own kingdom (chapters 13:1-14 and 15).
Let’s begin with Saul’s character flaws. Our first clear indication of Saul’s lack of courage comes at the time of Saul’s public introduction as Israel’s king, when he was found hiding among the equipment (10:22). In the first verses of chapter 13, I believe we see another warning sign:
Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost that was at Geba and the Philistines heard about it. Then Saul alerted all the land saying, “Let the Hebrews pay attention!” (1 Samuel 13:3, emphasis mine)
As we can see, Israel is still occupied by the Philistines. Geba is a town in the territory of Benjamin, just a few miles north of Jerusalem. The Philistines maintained an outpost there, a symbol of their dominance and control over Israel, and a means of enforcement.168 Saul was made king over Israel to “fight their battles” (8:20). Why, then, did he hesitate to attack the Philistines, who still maintained outposts in Israel? I fear that it was due to a lack of courage and faith. Saul maintained a kind of “skeleton army,” which would not be large enough to provoke the Philistines. They seemed to be a kind of police force for the nation, and more than anything, protection for Saul. Unlike his father, Jonathan was not intimidated by the Philistines. He attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba, and only then did Saul summon the Israelites for war. What else could he do? Saul’s army had attacked the Philistines, and he knew they were sure to retaliate in force, as they in fact did:
5 For the battle with Israel the Philistines had amassed three thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and an army as numerous as the sand on the seashore. They went up and camped at Micmash, east of Beth Aven. 6 The men of Israel realized they had a problem because their army was hard pressed. So the army hid in caves, thickets, cliffs, strongholds, and cisterns. 7 Some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan River to the land of Gad and Gilead. But Saul stayed at Gilgal; the entire army that was with him was terrified (1 Samuel 13:5-7).
The Israelites did not seem to turn out in the same numbers as before, at Jabesh Gilead. Saul seemed unwilling or unable to take the offensive. As a result, his soldiers were terrified and hid out wherever they could. One cannot help feeling that the fear of Saul’s soldiers was but a reflection of Saul’s own fears. It would be Jonathan, along with his servant, who would attack the Philistine garrison at the pass of Micmash (13:23ff.), with Saul only acting when it appeared that the Philistines were already in retreat. Saul did not seek divine guidance, as he should have (14:3, 16-19), only doing so when under great duress, or when urged to do so (14:36-37). When Saul foolishly made his men take an oath to fast (an oath that reminds one of Jephthah in Judges 11), Jonathan was unaware of this foolish act and unwittingly violated it (1 Samuel 14:24-30). Jonathan could easily see the folly of this decision. And when it was found that Jonathan was the one who had violated Saul’s oath, his father was going to put Jonathan to death. It was only the people who saved Jonathan from death. Saul was a man with serious character flaws, and these will only become more apparent when David becomes popular with the Israelites.
Saul was guilty of two specific sins that cost him his kingdom. The first is recorded in 1 Samuel 13:
8 He waited for seven days, the time period indicated by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the army began to abandon Saul. 9 So Saul said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” Then he offered a burnt offering. 10 When he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel appeared on the scene. Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. 11 But Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the army had started to abandon me and that you didn’t come at the appointed time and that the Philistines had assembled at Micmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down on me at Gilgal and I have not sought the Lord’s favor.’ So I was compelled to offer the burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:8-12).
Saul was definitely under pressure. The Philistines seemed to have the upper hand, and his army was vaporizing before his eyes. Though some distance removed, it would certainly seem that the instructions given by God at the time of Saul’s private designation as king were the command that Saul disobeyed:
7 “When these signs have taken place, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God will be with you. 8 You will go down to Gilgal before me. I am about to come down to you to offer burnt offerings and to make peace offerings. You should wait for seven days, until I come to you and tell you what to do” (1 Samuel 10:7-8).
Given all that we are told about Saul, my impression is that once God notified Saul he was to be king, God gave him a certain amount of discretionary power. From verse 7, it would seem that God has informed Saul that once the confirming signs had taken place, he was free to begin acting as Israel’s king. In other words, he was free to commence war with the Philistines, as, in fact, his son Jonathan did. God promised to be with Saul as he did so. But what did Saul do? Virtually nothing, until prodded to do so. His most decisive action occurred when the Ammonites threatened the people of Jabesh Gilead,169 on the eastern side of the Jordan, but Saul did not take any initiative to attack the Philistines, who threatened Israel from the west.
I am inclined to conclude that while God had given Saul the “go ahead” to attack the Philistines, he had not done so, out of fear and passivity. But before he was to wage this assault, Saul was instructed to go to Gilgal, where Samuel would offer peace offerings and burnt offerings. It was at this time that Samuel would give him more specific instructions concerning the battle. Saul was told to wait for Samuel seven days. Saul had procrastinated so long to attack that his men were now deserting him. Now, due to his passivity, Saul felt he could not wait any longer for Samuel, and so he offered the sacrifices himself. It occurs to me that in so doing, Saul committed two sins. First, he clearly disobeyed God’s instructions. Second, he did not honor the “separation of powers” God had established. The king was not to usurp the function of the priests, and he was to be guided by prophetic revelation. He acted unilaterally, setting aside God’s division of power.
This foolish and sinful act on Saul’s part would cost him dearly:
13 Then Samuel said to Saul, “You have made a foolish choice! You have not obeyed the commandment that the Lord your God gave you. Had you done that, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom will not continue. The Lord has sought out for himself a man who is loyal to him and the Lord has appointed him to be leader over his people, for you have not obeyed what the Lord commanded you” (1 Samuel 13:13-14).
Saul’s kingdom would not last beyond his own reign as king. He would have no lasting dynasty – his sons would not rule as king after him. God sought a king who would obey His commands (remember Deuteronomy 17:14-20; 1 Samuel 12:14-15, 24-25), but Saul had disobeyed. Implied in Samuel’s words in 13:14 is the fact that God would replace Saul as king. This matter will be dealt with decisively at the time of Saul’s second great act of disobedience as king. Most distressing of all is that even when Samuel rebukes Saul for his sin, there is not so much as a hint of repentance. Saul does not confess that he has sinned. He and Samuel simply part ways.
Saul’s second great act of rebellion is described in chapter 15. God instructs Saul through Samuel to go to war with the Amalekites:
1 Then Samuel said to Saul, “I was the one the Lord sent to anoint you as king over his people Israel. Now listen to what the Lord says. 2 Here is what the Lord of hosts says: ‘I carefully observed how the Amalekites opposed Israel along the way when Israel came up from Egypt. 3 So go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have. Don’t spare them. Put them to death—man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3, emphasis mine).
Nothing could be clearer than these instructions. The Amalekites were all to be annihilated – men, women, children, and cattle. Nothing was to be left alive. Saul assembled the army of 210,000 and waged war with the Amalekites at Amalek. He defeated them, but failed to annihilate everyone and every living thing:
8 He captured King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but he executed all his people with the sword. 9 However, Saul and the army spared Agag, and the best of the flock, the cattle, the fatlings, and the lambs, as well as everything else that was of value. They were not willing to slaughter them. But they did slaughter everything that was despised and worthless (1 Samuel 15:8-9).
It would appear that Saul kept Agag alive as a kind of trophy, or for some other self-serving reason. Saul did kill everything that was worthless, but kept the things with the greatest value. Saul was another Achan (Joshua 6:17-19; 7:19-21), only on a much larger scale, and it was done publicly. It was a great mistake, one that was to cost Saul his kingdom. Unlike Achan, Saul did not repent. He initially denied his sin, and then attempted to excuse it. When Samuel came to him, Saul was busy making a monument for himself:
12 Then Samuel got up early to meet Saul the next morning. But Samuel was informed, “Saul has gone to Carmel where he is setting up a monument for himself. Then Samuel left and went down to Gilgal.” 13 When Samuel came to him, Saul said to him, “May the Lord bless you! I have done what the Lord said.” 14 Samuel replied, “If that is the case, what then is this sound of sheep in my ears and the sound of cattle that I hear?” 15 Saul said, “They were brought from the Amalekites ; the army spared the best of the flocks and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord our God. But everything else we slaughtered.” 16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait a minute! Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” He said to him, “Tell me.” 17 Samuel said, “Is it not true that when you were insignificant in your own eyes, you became head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord chose you as king over Israel. 18 The Lord sent you on a campaign saying, ‘Go and exterminate those sinful Amalekites! Fight against them until you have destroyed them.’ 19 Why haven’t you obeyed the Lord? Instead you have greedily rushed on the plunder. You have done what is wrong in the Lord’s estimation.” 20 Then Saul said to Samuel, “ But I have obeyed the Lord! I went on the campaign the Lord sent me on. I brought back King Agag of the Amalekites, after exterminating the Amalekites. 21 But the army took from the plunder some of the sheep and cattle—the best of what was to be slaughtered—to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:12-21, emphasis mine).
Saul attempted to excuse his actions, claiming that the animals that had been kept alive were saved as sacrificial animals. That prompts Samuel’s response, which distinguishes between mere ritual observances and the obedience of faith:
22 Then Samuel said,
“Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as he does in obedience?
Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice;
paying attention is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and presumption is like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
Saul’s sin of disobedience was the sin of rebellion and was thus as wicked as the sins of divination and idolatry. God is not pleased by ritual sacrifices as much He is by the obedience of faith. Finally, Saul admits his guilt, but claims that he did so in fear of his army:
24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have disobeyed what the Lord commanded and what you said as well. For I was afraid of the army, and I followed their wishes. 25 Now please forgive my sin. Go back with me so I can worship the Lord” (1 Samuel 15:24-25).
This leader claims to have been led astray. He maintains that it was not really his fault at all. His sin was excusable because of his circumstances. Saul still did not repent; he only sought to reverse the consequences of his sin. How familiar this sounds. I have seen it many times in my ministry. Saul was now rejected by God as Israel’s king. As much as Saul sought to save his kingship, or at least his dignity, God had spoken, and He would not change His mind:
27 When Samuel turned to leave, Saul grabbed the edge of his robe and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to one of your colleagues who is better than you! 29 The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.” 30 Saul again replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel. Go back with me so I may worship the Lord your God.” 31 So Samuel followed Saul back, and Saul worshiped the Lord (1 Samuel 15:27-31).
It was Samuel who personally executed Agag, king of the Amalekites (15:32-33). When Saul and Samuel separated that day, it was for the last time. They would never again see each other face to face. Samuel had his regrets over Saul’s punishment, but God did not:
34 Then Samuel went to Ramah, while Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Until the day he died Samuel did not see Saul again. Samuel did, however, mourn for Saul, but the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:34-35).
Years would pass before this sentence upon Saul was carried out, but his destiny was now irreversibly determined. In the very next chapter, Samuel will anoint David as Saul’s replacement.
There is a very sobering lesson to be learned from Saul’s disobedience, one that we should all heed:
Partial Obedience is Really Disobedience
Saul was content to only partially obey the Lord’s commands, supposing that God would find that acceptable. God’s standards are unbending. If we do not fully obey God’s commands, then we have disobeyed them. This kind of sin is so common, and so commonly accepted, that we must stop to realize how frequently and flagrantly it is practiced today, even by professing Christians. We excuse ourselves by saying things like, “Well, I’m only human… .” Sometimes folks will say something like, “Well, even David sinned.” So he did, and he suffered the sobering consequences of his disobedience.
We often pick and choose among the commandments of the Bible, and even the commandments of our Lord. Jesus told His disciples,
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
He also said:
“If you love me, you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15).
“If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (John 15:10).
How many of our Lord’s commands do we actually practice? We have found countless excuses for not doing what He commanded. That should deeply disturb and convict us. But does it? We are told to submit to human authorities, but how many of us ignore the speed limit?
This is just about the point where someone might object, “But that’s legalism!” No, it is not! Obedience to all of God’s commands is not legalism. The New Testament has much to say about legalism, but we can’t enter into that discussion here. Jesus fully obeyed His Father’s commands. Was that legalism? I think not.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do this will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).
41 He went away from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:41-42).
“Who among you can prove me guilty of any sin? If I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8:46)
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death–even
death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8)
7 During his earthly life Christ offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. 9 And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7-9).
5 So when he came into the world, he said,
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me.
6 “Whole burnt offerings and sin-offerings you took no delight in.
7 “Then I said, ‘Here I am: I have come—it is written of me in the scroll of the book—to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:5-7).
Children, I want to speak to you about obeying your parents. It is not obedience when you obey only those instructions you like or agree with. Obedience is really proven when we obey those commands that we would rather disobey. True obedience is costly; it requires sacrifice – doing without some things we desire. True obedience is full obedience, not just doing what we are told that we find acceptable.
I want to say just one more thing on the subject of partial obedience. Saul sought to excuse his disobedience by viewing his circumstances as exceptional. He excused his refusal to wait for Samuel because it was an emergency situation (an emergency that he created). His failure to annihilate all of the Amalekites and their cattle was also due to exceptional circumstances. I’ve heard this argument countless times. “I know that God is against divorce (in general), but my husband (or wife) … .” “I know that it is wrong to marry this person, but I just know that God wants me to be happy.” “I know that the Bible tells me I should confront the one who is sinning this way, but he is my boss and he might fire me.” Emergencies don’t set aside God’s commandments, or excuse our disobedience.
What we have seen thus far (and will continue to see throughout the remainder of the Old Testament) is that no human system of government will work as it should so long as men are involved. Individual saints like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and even Moses will fail. The period of the judges failed because of “human failure.” No system of government will ultimately succeed if mere men carry it out. The problem is not with these systems as much as it is with man himself. We soon come to see that the only perfect world will come about when it is governed by God and when sin ceases to exist. If we supposed that having a king would change things, we are wrong. The Kingdom of God will come when the King Himself returns to this world to rule over it. Until that day, we can only pray,
“May your kingdom come,
may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
163 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on March 11, 2001.
164 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
166 See Proverbs 26:13.
167 It seems to me that the conjunction here must be translated as adversative, “but.” This is consistent with the flow of thought of the passage, and it is the way several other translations (e.g., the NIV) have rendered it.
168 As we can see from 1 Samuel 13:19-22, the Philistines would not allow the Israelites to manufacture or maintain any iron products. The garrison at Geba (and perhaps other garrisons elsewhere) would see to it that this technology embargo was observed. This would be something like the U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq (although I suspect that the Philistines were more successful).
169 It is interesting to recall that the people of Jabesh Gilead did not go to battle with the Benjamites in Judges 21:9. Did this in any way predispose Saul, a Benjamite, to come to their aid?