Obedience vs. Sacrifice: King Saul and the Spoils of War


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.

Samuel Cursing Saul by Hans Holbein the Younger (1530)

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.

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  • http://facebook.com/jurekryan Ryan

    There's scripture I've been on lately that goes right with what you've shared…

    Psalm 51:16-17 (Amp) says, “For You delight not in sacrifice, or else I would give it; You find no pleasure in burnt offering. My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; a broken down and contrite heart [broken down with sorrow for sin and humbly and thoroughly penitent], such, O' God, You will not despise.”

    You can see that Saul's sacrifices were really a way to glorify himself, rather than God. Here in Psalm 51, David talks about what true sacrifice is. True sacrifice isn't showy or puffed up, it's simply humbling yourself before God.

    Great post, Joe. Keep 'em coming.

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/12123833387 Remnant Culture

    New post on following God's will: "Obedience vs. Sacrifice: King Saul and the Spoils of War." http://bit.ly/d3gNMF #Christian #tlot #tcot

  • http://twitter.com/josephsunde/status/12124658873 Joseph Sunde

    RT @RemnantCulture New post on following God's will: "Obedience vs. Sacrifice: King Saul and the Spoils of War." http://bit.ly/d3gNMF

  • http://twitter.com/kipesquire/status/12124746495 KipEsquire

    I dare anyone to explain how "radical individualism" and "we must remember to bow at the altar of God" go together. http://bit.ly/bWooIf #fb

  • http://facebook.com/jurekryan Ryan

    There's scripture I've been on lately that goes right with what you've shared…

    Psalm 51:16-17 (Amp) says, “For You delight not in sacrifice, or else I would give it; You find no pleasure in burnt offering. My sacrifice [the sacrifice acceptable] to God is a broken spirit; a broken down and contrite heart [broken down with sorrow for sin and humbly and thoroughly penitent], such, O' God, You will not despise.”

    You can see that Saul's sacrifices were really a way to glorify himself, rather than God. Here in Psalm 51, David talks about what true sacrifice is. True sacrifice isn't showy or puffed up, it's simply humbling yourself before God.

    Great post, Joe. Keep 'em coming.

  • http://twitter.com/pragmatics_anon/status/12132154837 Pragmatics Anon

    RT @KipEsquire: I dare anyone to explain how "radical individualism" and "we must remember to bow at the altar of God" go together. http://bit.ly/bWooIf #fb

  • http://twitter.com/inertia186/status/12133582116 Anthony Martin ✔

    RT @RemnantCulture: New post on following God's will: "Obedience vs. Sacrifice: King Saul and the Spoils of War." http://bit.ly/d3gNMF #Christian #tlot #tcot

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/12182523338 Remnant Culture

    Saul tried to bow at the altar of sacrifice. We must always remember to bow at the altar of God. http://bit.ly/d3gNMF #Christian

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  • Reyjacobs

    Saul is told by Samuel to kill all the Amalekites and their animals. He saves many sheep and only one man, the king. Why does he save the king? He explains it all to Samuel when Samuel accuses him of trying to get away with no obeying: He saved the king and the sheep TO SACRIFIE THEM IN GILGAL. Saul says it plain as day, but Samuel refused to accept it. Instead, what does Samuel do? He takes the king and SACRIFICES HIM PERSONALLY in Gilgal. Samuel does exactly what Saul plainly said he intended to do. Rather than trying to get out of killing this king (Agag) Saul merely intended to kill him as a sacrifice rather than on the battlefield. Samuel clearly doesn’t object to human sacrifice, since he himself takes Saul to Gilgal (where the tabernacle was at this time) and ‘dismembers him before Yahweh’, that is, sacrifices him to Yahweh. So the story is not REALLY about Saul disobeying. Its politics. Samuel sent Saul to war in the hopes that Saul would get killed. That would make it real easy to replace him with David. But when Saul returns alive with lots of sheep and king Agag to sacrifice in Gilgal, Samuel fears that if Saul sacrifices Agag in Gilgal he will look really good to the people, like a war hero or something, and that will undermine Samuel’s plan to replace him with David. So Samuel steals Agag from Saul and sacrifices him personally, thus taking the glory from Saul and keeping his plan to replace Saul with David on track. (Kind of sick society where sacrificing a man can earn you great glory, but then again, that’s also kinda the story of Calvinist Christianity.)

    It could also be looked at another way. Maybe Saul had a moral crisis and maybe actually saved way more Amalakites than the text even admits. Maybe he had an epiphany that killing in God’s name is not right. You do realize that when you quote “to obey is better than sacrifice” and “stubborness is as the sin of witchcraft” from this passage, obedience here refers to comitting GENOCIDE and stubborness refers to REFUSING to comitt genocide, don’t you? So, is Saul some bad example to be damned and scorned for disobeying, or is he a courage hero of morality? Saul is kinda like a martyr for morality in this reading of the story–here’s a king who threw away his kingship by displeasing an evil madman murdering Hitleresque ‘prophet’–he refused to commit genocide and as a result had his kingdom taken away from him, a consequence he must have seen coming. Is not Saul, then, the hero and Samuel the villain? Is not Saul on the side of God and Samuel on the side of Samael (a Jewish name for Satan)? (Interesting that Samuel’s name is so close to the devil’s)

  • Reyjacobs

    oops. Samuel doesn’t dismember Saul, not physically, but Agag. Man them typos.

  • Reyjacobs

    But in this case since ‘obeying’ = killing and ‘sacrificing’ = killing, they’re the same thing. Samuel presents a false dichotomy when he says to Saul “to obey is better than to sacrifice.” Since both obeying and sacrificing (in this instance) = killing, and are thus both THE SAME THING. Fact is, if the story as written is accurate, then Saul didn’t disobey. Samuel was just looking for an excuse to get rid of him.

  • http://burnthefatfeedthemusclev.com/ Grant Flower

     Pretty
    good posting about King Saul! I was heard about King Saul from my father and
    now I read this here so I’m very delighted. Thanks once more and fine luck :)

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/89343129383223297 Remnant Culture

    Believe in sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice? Sorry, but obedience is supreme. Just ask King Saul: http://t.co/rhI90Zx

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