Mostly Obedient (I Samuel 15:1-23)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: 1 Samuel 15:1–15:23
Crying for a King
I. Only Mostly
Listen to this short bit of a dialogue from a movie many of you have probably seen. To set the scene, a two men are desperately bringing a fallen comrade to a miracle worker to see what can be done. Listen as one of the men and the miracle worker talk:
“We're really in a terrible rush.”
“Don't rush me, sonny. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles. You got money?”
“Sheesh! I never worked for so little, except once, and that was a very noble cause.”
“This is noble, sir.”
“His wife is crippled. His children are on the brink of starvation.”
“Are you a rotten liar.”
“I need him to help avenge my father, murdered these twenty years.”
“Your first story was better. He probably owes you money, huh? Well, I'll ask him.”
“He's dead. He can't talk.”
“Look who knows so much. Well, it just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Now, mostly dead is slightly alive. Now, all dead...well, with all dead, there's usually only one thing that you can do.”
“Go through his clothes and look for loose change.”
The end of that little exchange from the 1987 film “The Princess Bride” works for only one reason: all of us know that “mostly” is not a word that can qualify death. In fact, there are a lot of words that “mostly” cannot qualify: “Mostly perfect”? “Mostly flawless?” “Mostly cured?” “Mostly forgiven?”
Turn with me this morning to I Samuel 15. We are once again returning to this book of I Samuel which has taught us quite a bit since we started this study last November.
Let me give you a super-brief summary of what has happened so far in the book: The beginning of the book takes place in the period of the Judges. These were men (and one woman) that God raised up to rescue God's people from the consequences of their sin, which usually meant rescuing them from some foreign army. So not unlike the book of Judges, at the beginning of Samuel there is a crisis of leadership.
We've seen so far how God removed the corrupt priest Eli and his family and raised up Samuel. We've also seen how God used Samuel to anoint Saul, the nation's first king. But from the very beginning of Saul's story, and all the way through so far, their have been serious 'red flags' with Saul. And actually, the last chapter, chapter 14, is the final chapter of what we might call “The Story of Saul”.
As we move into chapter 15, we are actually at the beginning of “The Story of David”, even though David is not introduced until the next chapter. This chapter, chapter 15, sets the stage for the rise of David. Let's look at how it does that.
II. The Passage: “I Regret That I Have Made Saul King” (15:1-23)
Let's look together at the first 11 verses of chapter 15:
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.’” 4 So Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand men on foot, and ten thousand men of Judah. 5 And Saul came to the city of Amalek and lay in wait in the valley. 6 Then Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. 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. 10 The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.”
Now, I think this passage provides us with another classic example of a term that cannot be qualified by the word “mostly”. When it comes to serving God, one cannot be “mostly obedient”, right? You either obey God or do not obey God. Saul seems to think that being “mostly obedient”, as he might describe it, is the same as being obedient. But God's message to Samuel in verses 10 and 11 confirm that, in fact, the opposite is true. Being (quote-un-quote) “mostly obedient” is not being obedient at all.
Now at the risk of having a hard time getting back to this concept, I want to take a very quick “rabbit trail” this morning, a “trail” that will lead us back to our main path.
I think it's important that we spend a few minutes addressing the unsettling issue of what the Bible calls “herem”. “Herem”, also known as “the ban”, was the act of devoting everything to God's purposes, which usually meant destruction.
Therefore Saul is called here in verse 3 to put everything under “herem”. What is most troubling about this is that the phrase “infant and child” is included in verse 3. How could God order a massacre like this? Isn't this inconsistent with His character?
Let me quicklly give your four biblical truths that help us better, not completely, but better understand what is happening here. We unfortunately cannot go into a deeper consideration of these points this morning, but think about them in light of this passage:
First, the Bible tells us God alone has the power of life and death (Ezekiel 24:15-18; I Timothy 6:13; Job 1:21; Psalm 139:16). He gives life. He can take life away, wherever and however he chooses. God does this every single day. God can even use sinful creatures to accomplish these purposes.
Second, I believe that God has mercy on children and infants in regard to eternal life. Even though all of us are born a sinners, infants and young children do not sin in light of knowledge in the same way as adults who are described as knowing the truth but rejecting it. I think a very good case can be made from the Bible that the children who die are covered by God's sovereign grace through the atoning work of Christ's death on the cross.
Third, God's word reminds us of the danger of spiritual corruption (Deuteronomy 20:18). The sinful nations that were destoryed by the Israelites were completely destroyed because there was a very real danger that they would infect God's people with their heinous lifestyles and practices (things like burning babies in the fire as offerings to their gods). God was also giving the Israelites an important picture in all of this about dealing comprehensively with the cancer of sin.
Fourth, God justly brings judgment for sins past and present. (Psalms 7, 9) God must judge sin and he is always right and righteous when does this. He judged the world in the time of Noah and his judgment was complete.
So here's the junction back to our main path. In verse 2, we clearly see that God's command to destroy the Amalekites is motivated by judgment of sin. That sin is first rooted in what Amalek did right after Israel came out of Egypt, as described in Exodus 17. Listen to how Moses, at the end of his life, went on to describe what Amalek did to Israel.
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)
But, also notice in verse 18 of I Samuel 15 that the Amalekites of Saul's time are described as “sinners” and the description of Agag in verse 33: And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.”
So God's judgment against this corrupt people, whose corruption was so clearly seen way back in Exodus, God's judgment is that this group of people will no longer exist. No trace of them will remain. No infectious taint will remain. It is God's mercy that has allowed them to remain for so long since the Exodus.
And in some sense, the death of these children is really a 'severe mercy' from God because he has not let them grow up in the midst of such an evil people and become culpable themselves.
And so, moving forward once again on our main road this morning, we return to this question of being 'mostly obedient'. Saul was called to destroy everything in light of God's “herem” judgment. But he did not. Not only did he and his troops keep the best spoils of war (things like sheep and goats and cows), but Saul also spared Agag the Amalekite king.
But I believe the rest of the chapter confirms for us that Saul really believed he did what he was supposed to do. Saul believed that he did enough of what God commanded to earn the label of obedience. But as we continue down to verse 23, look at what else we learn from this story about this kind of 'mostly obedience'.
We see in verse 12 that wherever we find 'mostly obedience', pride cannot be too far away.
Look at 15:12...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.” (I Samuel 15:12)
What an interesting thing for the author to make mention of! But if we were to go back to Exodus 17, where Amalek attacked Israel, we would find that after Joshua and the soldiers with him defeated Amalek, Moses also built a monument...a monument dedicated to the “Lord..My Banner”. But here, after Saul's victory, he sets up a monument “for himself”.
Wherver we find 'mostly obedience', pride cannot be too far away.
We learn something else in verses 13-15 and verse 20 and 21. We learn that 'mostly obedience' is often explained by blaming others:
Listen to those passages:
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.” (15:13-15)
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.” (15:20, 21)
Notice how quickly, Saul, the leader of God's people, the commander-in-chief, notice how quickly Saul blames God's people for what's happened...as if he were somehow powerless to stop them from disobeying God.
Also, did you notice another truth revealed in those verses? In those same verses we see that in some cases, 'mostly obedience' is justified with what we might call sanctified rationales.
Did you see how Saul not only blamed the people for taking these spoils of war, but then tried to justify his actions by saying that all of these spoils were taken for the express purpose of sacrificing to the Lord.
But Saul knew better. He knew that “herem” implied that everything was already intended as a sacrifice to God. If the people truly wanted to worship God through sacrifice, if this is what Saul truly wanted, then they would have obeyed God completely and destroyed everything.
It seems that for some reason, Saul thinks this kind of justification will pacify Samuel. That for some reason, Samuel will say, “Oh, you took them for God. Oh, good job, Saul. For a minute there I thought your greed had something to do with it.”
Look at what else we discover in this chapter, specifically in verses 16-19. In those verses we see that 'mostly obedience' often results from a failure to see one's grace-given identity. Listen to these verses:
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?” (15:16-19)(kingship first stressed in 15:1a)
Samuel has to remind Saul that God had graciously made him the king over all Israel. And as king, his number one responsibility was to obey the voice of God. If God did not look first to God's kingship, he would sabotage his own kingship. If only he had remembered and taken seriously his God-given, grace-given identity, this kind of 'mostly obedience' would have been complete obedience.
Finally, look with me at verses 22 and 23. These verses are really the heart of this whole chapter. In these verses Samuel switches into poetic speech; maybe he's quoting some kind of saying or song. It's not clear. But what we do see here is that 'mostly obedience' always fails to see that incomplete obedience is the same as complete disobedience.
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.” (15:22, 23)
Do you see how Samuel deals here with Saul's 'sanctified rationales'? He makes sure that priorities are positioned properly. He puts first things first. He tells Saul that obedience is always more important than sacrifice. A man who consistenly disregards God's word cannot be called righteous because he offers a sacrifice once in a while. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” Therefore, Saul's 'mostly obedience' cannot be justified by talk of sacrifice.
But notice the second half of Samuel's poetic punch in verse 23. “Rebellion (resistance to what is right) is as the sin of divination. Presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.” Samuel pushes Saul into the corner here. He makes it black and white. If you are not willing to do all that God has commanded you to do, then why are you any different than the one who looks to some other power, some other God through sorcerery or idolatry? If you are willing to pick and choose which parts of God's voice you will obey, haven't you already set yourself up as God's rival?
Samuel finishes in 15:23 by exposing Saul's 'mostly obedience' for what it really is...”you have rejected the word of the Lord”. “Saul, you haven't almost fulfilled God's word. You've all the way rejected it. A because you have, God has rejected you. Your kingship is coming to an end.”
Incomplete obedience is always the same as complete disobedience.
III. Perspective: Are You Mostly Obedient?
Brothers and sisters, friends, can you relate with Saul this morning? I can. Let me clear about what I mean by 'mostly obedience'. I am NOT talking about the big picture in terms of your obedience or my obedience. Even if you feel like you are faithful in most things, none of us can claim complete obedience to God's will.
No, I'm talking about obedience in each of those instances where we know what God has called us to do. In those situations, 'mostly obedience' is patting ourselves on the back because we scored a solid “B+” in terms of faithfulness.
We feel justified because when called to forgive, we walked away from the situation and didn't give the person what they really deserved. We feel justified because when called to turn the other cheek, we slapped back, but in love. We feel justified because when called to purity, we only looked at the bikini shots, not the pornography. We feel justified because when called to rebuke a brother or sister about sin, we made sure not to associate with that kind of person. We feel justified because when tempted by greed, we deliberately settled for the second biggest house or the second most expensive car. We feel justified because when God called us to be a servant to those struggling, we decided to be a prophet over those struggling.
Can you relate? Look back over what these 23 verses teach us about 'mostly obedience'.Wherever we find 'mostly obedience', pride cannot be too far away. Are you struggling with pride this morning?
We learn that 'mostly obedience' is often explained by blaming others. Do you really believe that you would not be stuggling with sin IF ONLY that other person we're different?
Is your 'mostly obedience' justified with what we might call sanctified rationales? I just want to be successful so I can give more money to the church. I can tear that person apart because God's word calls us to always tell the truth. My kids never see me because the Bible tells me to provide for my family. I don't want to speak to my neighbor about Jesus because I know they would be offended and the Bible calls me to be loving, not offensive.
'Mostly obedience' often results from a failure to see one's grace-given identity. Christian, do you know who you are in Christ? Do you understand all that you've been given? To understand why God saved you? For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
Do we really understand that incomplete obedience is the same as complete disobedience?
If you can relate to Saul like I can, then we need to look to Samuel instead. Listen to how Samuel responded to the news that Saul had failed. Look at the end of verse 11: And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. (15:11b) Why was Samuel angry? We're not told why. But the context seems to say the Samuel was angered by Saul's disobedience because his hopes were dashed. How could Saul do this? What would happen to God's people? Why did God let this happen?
The essence of Sameul's response here is this: he is angered by the reality of sin and driven to prayer. Isn't that what we should do in light of our 'mostly obedience'?
Chapter 15 is positioned right here at the beginning of the story of David, not simply because Saul is a major player in that story, but because a man like Saul is the very reason the people need a man like David. That has to be made clear. David did not stage a coup. David did not weasel his way in. Saul was thrown out. He was rejected because he consistently rejected God.
God's people must be led by a man who is led by God. It doesn't work any other way. And if we are to be rescued from our 'mostly obedience', we need to be led by a man who is completely obedient to God.
Remember the words of Zachariah in Luke 1: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David...
Even though David was a man after God's heart, he was not completely obedient. No, Zachaiah points us this morning to the One who came. Saul points us this morning to what we desperately need. Jesus Christ is not about living in the 'most'. He is about giving it 'all'.
And like God's word to Saul, Jesus calls us to go all the way: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”
On the cross, Jesus was under God's “herem”. And through faith we can share in that destruction; the destuction of me, of myself. We are not 'mostly' free in Jesus...we are free indeed. Free to let Christ live His life through us.