Here we have record of Saul’s disobedience, whence the kingdom was stripped from his hand. We must see: God’s Word (vv.1-3), Saul’s Sin (vv.4-9), Samuel’s Rebuke (vv.10-23), Saul’s Pride (vv.24-31), Samuel’s Faithfulness (vv.32-35). From Saul’s perspective, we see: his commission (vv.1-3), his disobedience (vv.4-9), his unrepentant heart (vv.10-35). We see also a conversation between the Unrepentant Man (vv.1-9, 24-31) and the Word (vv.10-23, 32-35). I have represented these three possible outlines in the image below.
“Utterly Destroy” (vv.1-3)
Many today would have God be an easy-going, impassionate being with few, if any, controversial (i.e. controversial with our will) demands. His command in verse 3 shatters our anthropocentric concept of Divinity.
- The call for an utter destruction of the Amalekites guarded Israel from the sins of that people.
- The call likewise reminds us of human worth in depravity and God-hatred. That is: if even our infants (v.3) deserve death, then what does that say of all our natures?
- The call reminds us that God is just, because Amalek was not left unpunished for his ill-treatment of Israel (v.2).
“Not Willing to Destroy” (vv.4-9)
Here we see the face of human condition under sin (Romans 3:9), for Israel was not unable but unwilling to carry out God’s command. Clearly the material worth of war’s spoils enticed them to this. Do I keep spoils of the wicked? We are to be as Joseph and run without hesitation – yet do I linger on the wealth of pleasures that sin provides me? No matter the perceived benefit, I must not spare Agag (v.9).
“Rushed Upon the Spoil” (vv.10-23)
It is imperative that we seek understanding for 1) God’s Regret, 2) Saul’s Denial of Guilt, 3) Saul’s Humble Beginning (v.17), 4) Saul’s Rebellion.
1) How can God regret something if in fact He does all that He pleases (v.11, 35; cf. Psalm 115:3)? We first consider the semantic range of “regret.” Like “repentance,” its most basic meaning is to turn away, in some sense. Clearly God turns away from willing Saul to be king. We see similar language employed in Genesis 6, Exodus 32, 2 Samuel 24. How can God grieve His own decision?
Language such as this reminds us of the organic, authentic interaction we as humans may have with God. Though He is holy above all, unsearchable, transcendent in glory, we may still live in relationship with Him. Language such as “regret” or “relent” or “changed His mind” does not nullify or diminish His perfections, but rather translates them into our ability for comprehension. Such language allows us to understand something of God’s disposition towards sin and sinners. When Saul sinned, it was not as though God was indifferent. God had zeal for the dignity of kingship, the value of righteousness, etc. and when Saul sinned, the Lord was grieved. It is said that God “regretted” making Saul king lest we think that He calls men to offices while caring little for their integrity. No one can read 1 Samuel 15 and reasonably conclude that God is complacent or apathetic towards those who rebel against His Word. You can never say, “God is sovereign, so He must be OK with what I’m doing.” 1 Samuel 15 forbids you think such thoughts.
2) Saul clearly denies guilt, but for what reason? I see two options. First, he did not heed the Word as it was being given, and so did not have adequate information going into battle. This does not seem to be the case, given that his action is called “rebellion” and nothing is said of the moment when he received the Word.
I thus favor a second option: he knew what God commanded but refused to obey. Rather than prostrating himself underneath the Word in obedience, he judged the Divine Scripture, finding it insufficient and errant. We see this not only in his initial disobedience but in his argument with Samuel. He typifies the one who would read Romans 3 and debate whether God is just to condemn. Yet when all things are made subject under Christ’s feet (Philippians 2:9-11), you shall not find boastful and self-righteous men. In fear and full disclosure, they will concede to His judgment.
3) We are given a small insight into 1 Samuel 10:17-27. It is said there that Saul was hiding among the baggage, seemingly in timidity, when the lot fell upon him to lead Israel. First, it is noteworthy that Saul did not think highly of himself. He stands in Moses’ shoes (Exodus 3). Yet he, secondly, allowed his insecurity to overcome confidence in God. When our low-view of humanity keeps us from doing God’s will, we demonstrate a low-view of God. Is He not strong enough to work miracles among us? And through us? It is striking that Saul’s littleness “in [his] own eyes” (v.17) morphed into a bigness that subverted God’s Word to his wisdom.
If we do not believe God and take Him at His Word, our trust will fall upon something else. The heart must lean upon something – it is a crippled man desperate for rest. It cannot erect itself while the mind pauses for reflection. At all times it reclines, straddled upon whatever is in reach. The Word of Christ in near you, friend. Prop your heart against the Lamb of God; there is no time for contemplation. The mind may be given time to recognize the sufficiency of Christ, but no more. Any more time will allow the heart to search out another brace, and when this happens your fate shall be Saul’s. He did not fling himself in lowliness upon God and so his heart put faith in something else (namely, his wisdom). The result was, literally, damning, for faith in Christ and that faith alone will keep you upright when the Day of Wrath dawns.
4) Though laboring as God’s servant, Saul “rushed upon the spoil.” How quickly feet run to sin that are not already at rest in Christ. The thirsty heart will always succumb to temptation in search of satisfaction among the spoils of sin. In contrast to Saul, we must be swift to mortify sin, as he was commanded to slay the Amalekites. There should be a wildness in our eyes as we lay-waste to the fortresses of unholiness within our flesh. Even our most precious, innocent vices must be slain (“put to death… child and infant” [v.3]). The fool who mortifies but a select number of sins is like a doctor who removes one tumor and leaves the other. The cancer will spread and lay waste to the body. So too shall be your fate if you rush “upon the spoil” of iniquity. Lay down your sword and give harbor to even one delicious transgression, and it will prove a poison to your soul. He who sympathizes with sin to let it dine at the heart’s table has befriended an assassin. The dinner knife will find his throat before midnight.
Yet unwilling are wicked men to mortify their precious vices! They love unrighteousness and are “not willing to destroy [it] utterly.” Lest your relationship with sin change, you may have no confidence that your relationship with God has. His reputation is at stake in an unholy, disobedient disciple (John 15:1-8). Thus we see that a desperateness for mortification is a fruit of the Spirit wrought in regeneration and invigorated in the Spirit’s sustaining ministry.
We must not pass verses 22-23 without seeing God’s zeal for His glory. We must ask: Why does God desire obedience above sacrifice? More specifically: Why did God want Saul to obey Him rather than sacrifice to Him? “To obey is better than sacrifice; to heed than the fat of rams.” Saul’s sacrifices were according to his own wisdom and power. In contrast, an obedient heart is only a work of God. God’s power is demonstrated when people obey Him in sincerity, because all of the willingness is wrought in God. He regenerates and produces the heart that loves Him. What He wants, therefore, is for His work to be worked out (Philippians 3:12-13) and manifested in obedience (John 15:1-9). “My father is glorified in this, that you bear much fruit” (John 15:8). The Lord wanted Saul to obey His Word and thus glorify the riches of sovereign grace. What purpose does the blood of bulls and goats serve in God’s redemptive plan (Hebrews 10)? The Christian life is not chiefly concerned with doing things for God but resting in His doing things for us. He labors on our behalf and thus gets the glory. Yet some, as Saul, think themselves wise and strong, so as to work for God’s benefit. Commit to such a thing and I’m afraid the opposition you face will be unbearable. God’s zeal for His glory is the moving energy behind all things. You will be consumed in His pursuit of manifesting Himself. You will be ruined by underestimating the happiness He has in Himself – and rightly so.
“I Have Sinned; But Please Honor Me” (vv.24-31)
Saul’s pride is not only evident in his initial act of rebellion, but in his response to Samuel’s critique. It is painfully evident that his sorrow in sin was not a repentant anguish, but a self-seeking ambition. Verse 24a shows nothing ascue – until, “Because I feared the people and listened to their voice.” Saul brings others into his sinful act, whereas a true repentance lets the accusation rest upon his own chest. Saul is clearly concerned for more than his offense to God.
Saul’s false repentance is seen clearly in verses 25 and 30. “Pardon my sin,” he says, “but please honor me.” The true repenter is crushed by the gravity of his sin, to the point that his world seems to have come to an end, lest God be gracious. Yet Saul has room in his heart to be concerned with something else – namely, his reputation. The man who labors to maintain a godly image before his people is a fool; yet he who labors to maintain a godly image before God will find the former fulfilled, and with an appropriate heart.
How greater the falsehood in that man who would use the house of worship for the maintenance of his image. Saul clearly does not worship in Spirit and truth (v.31).
Let it be simply put: you may earnestly plead to God, “I have sinned…” but if the next breath holds, “…please honor me,” you may rest assured that your tiny mind has yet to grasp the seriousness of your plight. You have transgressed God and are as despicable in His holy sight as a witch or sorcerer or summoner of Satan himself. The stench of your iniquity permeates the courtroom of heaven. The Judge would take great pleasure in cleansing His earth of your filth. Yet you are not consumed – and until you are crushed by that fact, you have not yet come under a repentant conviction.
“Agag Came to Him Cheerfully” (vv.32-34)
In and among a depraved people, what is least expected is a man of righteousness, who would dare be unpopular and risky for the sake of his King’s will. Agag, for certain, thought little of this possibility. Yet his cheerfulness was quickly severed – along with his limbs. We notice in these verses the righteousness of Samuel, and in two deeds: 1) Samuel Hewed, 2) Samuel Grieved.
1) Even after the rebuke, Saul did not obey God to kill Agag and the spoils of war. Yet Samuel, faithful to and zealous for God’s name, set his feet to the path that other shepherds were too weak to tread. The man of God must likewise have great zeal for God’s honor. And you, sister: make no room among your people for unrighteousness.
2) Still, Samuel finds room in his heart to grieve over Saul. The emotion is not further articulated, and certainly there are facets to any emotional disposition. Yet it cannot be mistaken that grieving over sinners is near to the heart of God. Jonah was rebuked for his love of wrath (Jonah 4:9-11). Moses was answered in his prayer for Israel (Exodus 33:12-14). We likewise must not forget Ezekiel 18:23, “‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’” Christ’s lament over Jerusalem should surely beckon our compassion (Matthew 23:37-39). Our grief is especially appropriate for those who, like Saul, taste God’s grace yet forsake Him for idols. May God have mercy on such men.
- Saul judged God’s Word; the repentant heart is judged by the Word. The repentant heart quickly places itself beneath the testimony of God, accepting his Word as a spear meant to pierce the callous film of sin, in order to draw forth pools of repentance.
- Saul made excuses; the repentant heart takes responsibility. The repentant heart allows no one else into the spotlight of blame. “It is I,” he says, “and I alone who must take burden for this transgression. From the depths of my heart came forth this evil; I am the sinner.”
- Saul grieved for his reputation; the repentant heart grieves for God’s. At conversion, the self-centered creature is made to cherish God Almighty, and a great sign of the conversion is his love for God-centered reflections. Thus, in reflecting upon transgression, his heart will be foremost broken by how he has dishonored God.
- Saul remained in sin; the repentant heart returns to God. Conviction is not repentance but only the beginning of it. The purest, fullest vision of repentance is not the weeping man upon his knees, but the obedient man leaving sin. And it should be noted that sin, not sins, must be left. As Watson writes, “True leaving of sin is when the acts of sin cease from the infusion of a principle of grace, as the air ceases to be dark from the infusion of light” (Doctrine of Repentance, 17).
- Christ’s merit does not excuse the elect from terrestrial suffering for sin. David was forgiven of his sin, but the sword never left his house (2 Samuel 12). Negative consequences for rebellion extend to all on earth. The hope of the elect is that their suffering for sin is God’s discipline, therein drenched in a gospel mercy that all things work toward their conformity to Christ’s image. We must take great care with the text to recognize that the kingdom was taken from Saul because of his sin (1 Samuel 15:23), before he had a chance to repent. Christian: you may lose many terrestrial honors because of iniquity. Christ’s merit does not make God blind to your deeds. Behave accordingly.