I am reading Dale Ralph Davis’s commentary on 1 Samuel right now, and have found it to be a terrific read. He has a keen insight regarding the problem with Saul in 1 Samuel 15. We’ve actually seen the trouble with Saul brewing since his impatience in chapter 13 drove him to offer the burnt offering himself instead of waiting on Samuel (1 Samuel 13:8-14). At that time, Samuel told Saul that his kingdom would not continue and that God would seek out a man after His own heart. So what exactly was the problem with Saul’s heart? Did he not offer sacrifice?
In chapter 15, Samuel gives Saul clear instruction to wipe out the Amalekites — to completely wipe them out:
1 And Samuel said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD.
2 Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt.
3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'”
As we read just a few verses later, though, this is not at all what Saul did. Departing from the command of the Lord, Saul spared Agag and chose to keep the best of the plunder for himself and his people.
7 And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt.
8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword.
9 But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.
Samuel sharply rebukes Saul, and demands an explanation. Notice how Saul tries to justify himself, indicating that partial obedience to what the Lord commanded is sufficient, and then making excuses for his transgressions.
12 And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.”
13 And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
14 And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
15 Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the LORD your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.”
16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stop! I will tell you what the LORD said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Speak.”
17 And Samuel said, “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.
18 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.’
19 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?”
20 And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction.
21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.”
22 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.
23 For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”
In his remarks on verse 22 regarding sacrifice and obedience, Dale Ralph Davis writes:
Samuel negates sacrifice not absolutely but relatively; he is saying that formal worship cannot be substituted for obedient life, external devotions for internal submission. Your Gloria Patri, Apostles’ Creed, Christian luncheons, and all-star Bible conferences – none of these matter unless you are keeping Christ’s commandments (1 John 2:3-4). The Berleburg Bible caught Samuel’s reasoning: “In sacrifices a man offers only the strange flesh of irrational animals, whereas in obedience he offers his own will, which is rational or spiritual worship.” (Dale Ralph Davis: commentary on 1 Samuel 15, page 158)
Surely, David learned this lesson, for we hear the echoes of it in his cries of repentance in Psalm 51 (verses 10-19:
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
And again, we hear the same from the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Romans (verses 12:1-2):
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
In the gospel of Mark (Mark 3:32-35), Jesus speaks of the great blessing that rests upon those who have abandoned the world and denied themselves to learn from Him and live according to His word. They who do the will of God, it is them who are blessed:
32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.”
33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!
35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
In John 14:15, our Lord Jesus reiterates, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
The Apostle John also stresses the necessity of obedience to the will of God as well in his first epistle (1 John 2:15-17), contrasted with obeying the flesh and its passions (see also 1 Peter 2:11 and Romans 6:12-14):
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.
17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
And James, the brother of Jesus adds (James 1:22-25):
Jas 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
Jas 1:23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.
Jas 1:24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
Jas 1:25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
Again, I really appreciate how the Berleburg Bible states this so simply and succinctly: “In sacrifices a man offers only the strange flesh of irrational animals, whereas in obedience he offers his own will, which is rational or spiritual worship.”