And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.”
1 Samuel 15:22 ESV
Even before 1 Samuel 15, God had already promised another king in Saul’s place as a result of his presumptuous sacrifice before a battle. Yet this chapter marks the full-blown decline of Saul’s reign and is followed up in the next chapter with the anointing of David as the next king. Here’s what happened.
Through Samuel, God told Saul to destroy the Amalekites, and by destroy, God meant, “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (v. 3). In other words, the LORD was using Saul and the Israelites as His instrument of judgment upon the Amalekites, and their judgment would be the same as that of Sodom and Gomorrah: utter destruction. Wickedness of the Amalekites was evidently complete, and God would not spare any of them.
Those were Saul’s commands, and after assembling an army of two hundred thousand soldiers from Israel and ten thousand from Judah, Saul purged the land of the Amalekites. Unfortunately, Saul cut some corners of God’s commands. For one, he kept Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, likely as a trophy of his victory. For another, the Israelites did not destroy the animals that were pleasing to them. Interestingly, Samuel hears the animals and rebukes Saul, saying,
Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD? (vv. 17-18)
Evidently, Saul disobeyed because of his own weakness before the people. Later, he told Samuel that the people asked for the best of the animals, and Saul gave into their request because he was afraid of his own people. He then sought to justify their disobedience by resolving to sacrifice those animals to the LORD. His keeping Agag alive was also likely meant to display his greatness to the Israelites. Saul, therefore, was more concerned with earning the approval of his people than he was with winning the approval of God Almighty.
In this manner, we are very often like Saul, caring more about the fickle favor of those around us (or worse, of the online masses) than the favor of the true and living God. Yet we also tend to follow Saul’s pattern in handling our sin. Like Saul, it is all too easy to attempt covering up our disobedience with sacrifice. We disobey in some manner and then resolve to do something else for God. We then feel better because we have done something tangible to make up for our sin. Unfortunately, that impulse runs contrary to the gospel. In fact, it is anti-gospel.
First of all, such petty sacrifices actually display how insignificant we truly think our sin is. They are meant to assuage our own guilty conscience and think next to nothing about the Holy One against whom we have rebelled. No, not even the ordained sacrifices of the priests in the temple were sufficient to deal with sin once for all; only the sacrifice of Christ is enough. Thus, whenever we attempt to appease our own guilt with ‘sacrifices,’ we are, in reality, mocking the once for all atonement of Christ on our behalf.
Instead, we ought to consider the message of God through Samuel: God desires obedience more than sacrifice. What should we do after repenting of sin and trusting in the forgiveness bought by the blood of Christ? Obey God. Our petty sacrifices and attempts at atonement must be left to the garbage heap. Cleansed and justified fully by the blood of Christ, we then resolve to obey God through the strength of the Holy Spirit. Let us not attempt fruitlessly to justify ourselves as Saul did; rather, let us trust in the finished work of Jesus, which is the only foundation for any real obedience to God.