I was reading 1 Samuel 15 the other day and something stuck out to me about the difference between obedience and sacrifice.
In the story, Samuel is sent by God to command King Saul to go out and destroy the Amalekites — a people who were a thorn in Israel’s side. God is extremely specific in His instruction, telling Saul the destruction must be administered thoroughly:
Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
Upon hearing this, Saul gathers his men and does what God commanded…sort of. He conquers the Amalekites, but although he kills off the men, women, and children, he spares their king and seizes their livestock. Saul clearly disobeys what God commands. He doesn’t have a problem doing the dirty work, but he doesn’t follow through when it comes to the things he sees as valuable.
Soon after Saul’s victory, the Lord visits Samuel and says, “I regret making Saul king, for he has turned his back from following Me and has not performed My commands.”
Upon hearing this, Samuel becomes grieved and angered and goes to speak with Saul.
When Samuel arrives, Saul immediately begins bragging about his victory and rejoicing about the spoils he has secured as a “sacrifice to the Lord.” Here is where it gets nasty. Saul not only rejects the Lord’s commands, but is now twisting them to fit his earthly understandings.
Many people have problems with the fact that God told Saul to kill off an entire people with such seeming disregard, but that’s for another discussion. What’s important at the moment is that for Saul the killing wasn’t even the hard part. As King of Israel, he had an earthly incentive to destroy these people, just as he had an earthly incentive to spare their ruler and seize their resources. What God was commanding, however, was not about earthly gain.
Therefore, Saul was either simply foolish and did not understand he was disobeying God, or he was intentionally using a God-given mission to achieve his earthly goals. Either way, I don’t think it matters, because whether Saul’s intentions were right or not, disobedience is disobedience. How often do we do the same thing?
Saul’s rationale for disobeying God was that he was actually blessing God through sacrificial motives and actions. Isn’t this how we tend to think about our “good deeds” and “righteous acts”? Whether we are actually believing or consciously pretending that our earthly schemes are the greatest thing on earth, are they really in line with God’s will?
Do we even bother to ask?
Saul could have very well believed it would please the Lord to sacrifice the animals as burnt offerings. In normal circumstances, God would have seen it as an act of worship. The problem was simply that in this instance God told him to do something else.
The Church loves to glorify sacrificial acts. After all, sacrifice is the reason Jesus came. It is good to give of ourselves and live lives of sacrifice. That’s what Jesus told us to do. However, I think we are often like Saul in that we get caught up in our earthly views of sacrifice and forget that our sacrificial acts must be guided by and in accordance with God’s will.
For example, giving to the poor is a great way to sacrifice, but it is often hailed as the best way. This is truly a narrow view of what Jesus called us to do. It tailors the whole concept of sacrifice to a humanistic and materialistic worldview. What if God wants you to sacrifice by giving that money to help a friend start a business? What if God wants you to put that money in a savings account for your child’s future? What if God wants you to sacrifice by simply giving up one of your hobbies to spend more time with your spouse?
We must try our best to live sacrificially in as many areas as possible, but there will always be choices to make. Many choices will be “good” on our terms, but what does God want us to do? Saul’s argument was perfectly logical from his earthly disposition, but that is not where we should root our decisions, no matter how “good” or “well intentioned” we think we are.
After Saul makes his case for why he thought it best to disobey God, Samuel responds with this:
Has the Lord as great a delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king.
Obedience will often lead to sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean we are to treat sacrifice as if it were a religion. Instead, we must follow God’s will and be led by the Holy Spirit. This requires a lifestyle of constant devotion, constant struggle, and constant pursuit, which is far more difficult than following a list of religious dos and don’ts.
Saul tried to bow at the altar of sacrifice. We must always remember to bow at the altar of God.