Note: Begin reading the passage at verse 1 in order to grasp the immediate context.
Introduction: A mother is said to have once told this story about her little boy:
My son, Michael, was four years old the night I found him sobbing uncontrollably in the hallway. Concerned, I knelt next to him and drew him close.
“What’s the matter, sweetheart? Are you hurt?” He shook his head and turned to me, but I was unprepared for his response.
“Daddy said a bad word to me!” he sobbed. I almost laughed out loud. I had known my husband 12 years and had rarely heard him raise his voice. But Michael had heard him say something, and I was curious enough to want to know what it was.
“Honey, what bad word did Daddy say?” And seeing a chance for sympathy, my sensitive four-year-old stopped crying and blurted out – “Obey!”
I never think of that incident now without asking my Heavenly Father to keep me from believing, as my son did, that ‘obey’ is a bad word. (2000+ Bible Illustrations, e-Sword)
Today we will take a look at a grown man who seemed to view obey as a bad word, and that man is King Saul. We will focus our attention on verses 22-23 of our text, in which Samuel confronts Saul for having disobeyed God. We will examine the text under three headings: 1) Samuel’s rhetorical question, 2) Samuel’s rebuke, and 3) the reasons for Samuel’s rebuke.
I. Samuel’s Rhetorical Question
We find Samuel’s question in the first part of verse 22:
NKJ 1 Samuel 15:22a Then Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?”
As we have already seen in our reading of the context, Saul claims to have obeyed the Lord, but he has really only partially obeyed the Lord. He has not killed Agag, the king of Amalek, and he has allowed the people to take spoils that they were not supposed to take. His excuse was that they were going to use some of the captured livestock for sacrifices to the Lord. Thus Saul clearly thought that going through the motions of religious observance would somehow make up for the fact that he had not completely obeyed the Lord.
So, when Samuel asked, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?,” he was asking Saul whether he really thought that going through the religious motions of worship could make up for the fact that he had disobeyed what God had commanded him to do.
Application Questions: Before we move any further in the passage, then, perhaps we could each one of us ask ourselves a similar question this morning. For example, do we sometimes think that we can make up for failing to obey God throughout the week by coming to church on Sunday? Do we sometimes think that because we read the Bible on a regular basis we can somehow make up for the fact that we do not really live according to the Bible as we should? Do we sometimes think that sharing the Gospel once in a while will somehow make up for all the missed opportunities the Lord has brought our way? Do we sometimes think that certain acts of obedience are better than others and can thus somehow make up for any lack of obedience in what we might consider to be less important areas? Do we sometimes fall into the same trap as Saul, thinking that somehow partial obedience is just as good as complete obedience, so long as that partial obedience is something that we think is really important?
These are the kinds of things we should think about as we consider Samuel’s question. But now let’s look at Samuel’s answer, in which he drives the point home by way of a rebuke.
We find Samuel’s rebuke in the second part of verse 22:
NKJ 1 Samuel 15:22b Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.
Of course, there can be only one answer to Samuel’s question, the answer which he immediately provides, namely that obedience and really listening to God is better than sacrifice. Nothing can substitute for full, heartfelt obedience. Sadly, there are many today who seem to dismiss any need for complete obedience. For example, many professing Christians claim to hold to the doctrine of eternal security, yet they do not see obedience as all that important. They seem to think that, since they have their “fire insurance” – so to speak – they can live as they please and are assured of everlasting life despite their lack of concern for obeying God. As A.W. Tozer has aptly stated, “To escape the error of salvation by works, we have fallen into the opposite error of salvation without obedience” (Paths to Power, p. 51).
But listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians:
NKJ Romans 6:15-19 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? 17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. 18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.
Someone has rightly said, “When Christ takes the burden of guilt off a sinner’s shoulders, He places the yoke of obedience upon his neck.” But we must remember that our Lord Jesus’ yoke is pleasant:
NKJ Matthew 11:28-30 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.
We must also remember that, as we follow Jesus in obedience, we gain assurance:
NKJ 1 John 2:3-5 Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. 4 He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.
Obedience really is the very best thing for us, isn’t it? And we should allow this to motivate us to obey our Lord Jesus Christ in all that He commands. But Samuel, remember, is rebuking Saul, so he gives some negative reasons for his answer.
III. The Reasons for Samuel’s Rebuke
Now we will focus upon the reasons why Samuel says that complete obedience is better than sacrifice. These reasons are found in verse 23. Here it becomes clear that partial obedience – which is really disobedience – is the worst kind of sin! For the source of such sin is 1) rebellion, 2) stubbornness, and 3) rejection of God’s Word.
First, disobedience is rebellion against God as the source of wisdom for our lives.
We see this in the first part of verse 23:
NKJ 1 Samuel 15:23a For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft [קֶסֶם, qesem, divination]
The Hebrew word for witchcraft here is qesem, which denotes divination (BDB #8634, BibleWorks) or “prediction, the survey of future events” (HALOT #8435, BibleWorks). Divination could encompass a number of practices, such as seeking to communicate with the dead, the examination of animal entrails, or astrology. Such practices were strictly forbidden by God:
NKJ Deuteronomy 18:10-12 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft [קֶסֶם, qesem, divination], or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, 11 or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. 12 For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you.
So, Saul’s partial obedience was really rebellion against God as the true source of wisdom. Such partial obedience, which does not see complete obedience to God as important, actually rejects God’s wisdom and cries, “I know better!” In this way, it is just like divination, which seeks after wisdom in a source other than God.
Sadly, this tendency actually later led to Saul’s literal practice of divination – and to his ultimate demise – when he visited the witch of En Dor (1 Sam. 28:3-25). This should serve as a warning to us, since it shows us how easily partial disobedience ultimately leads to complete disobedience.
Second, disobedience is stubbornness toward God that is the same kind of sin as idolatry.
We see this in the second part of verse 23:
NKJ 1 Samuel 15:23b and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
John Piper has described this point well:
When God says one thing and we consult the little wizard of our own wisdom and then stubbornly choose to go our own way we are idolaters. We have not only chosen to consult ourselves as an alternative to God, and thus become guilty of divination, but we go beyond that and actually esteem the direction of our own mind over God’s direction and become guilty of idolatry. And worst of all, the idol is our own self.
So it stands to reason that God will be displeased with disobedience because at every point it is an attack on his glory.
It puts the fear of man in the place of the fear of God.
It elevates pleasure in things above pleasure in God.
It seeks a name for itself instead of a name for God.
It consults the wisdom of self instead of being satisfied with the will of God.
And it sets more value on the dictates of self than on the dictates of God and thus attempts to dethrone God by giving allegiance to the idol of the human will. (The Pleasure of God in Obedience
This is the nature of the sin committed by Saul, and it is the nature of all sin that ignores the commands of the LORD.
Third, disobedience is a rejection of God’s Word.
We see this in the third part of verse 23:
NKJ 1 Samuel 15:23c Because you have rejected [מָאַס, mā’as] the word of the LORD, He also has rejected [מָאַס, mā’as] you from being king.
Saul claimed that he really allowed the people to keep the cattle they should have destroyed because he wanted to give them as sacrifices to God. He claimed, therefore, to be interested in worshiping the Lord and bringing Him glory. But Samuel showed him that he could not claim to worship God while at the same time he rejected His Word. And because he rejected God’s word and refused to obey it, he was rejected as a servant of God. Any opportunity he had to truly do good for God was therefore lost due to his disobedience.
Application: What about us? Do we have the same tendency as Saul to blind ourselves to the true motives for our disobedience? Do we try to rationalize our disobedience, rather than admit that it amounts to outright rebellion against God? Do we sometimes tell ourselves that partial obedience is good enough, rather than admit that we are just too stubborn and selfish to put God’s will first?
Perhaps we would all do well to remember the words of a little poem that is said to be inscribed in the cathedral of Lübeck in Germany:
‘Ye call Me Master and obey Me not;
Ye call Me Light and see Me not;
Ye call Me Way and walk Me not;
Ye call Me Life and desire Me not;
Ye call Me Wise and follow Me not;
Ye call Me Fair and love Me not;
Ye call Me Rich and ask Me not;
Ye call Me Eternal and seek Me not;
Ye call Me Gracious and trust Me not;
Ye call Me Noble and serve Me not;
Ye call Me Mighty and honour Me not;
Ye call Me Just and fear Me not;
If I condemn YOU, blame Me not’.
Let each one of us resolve today to obey God more completely and to refuse to rationalize away our disobedience and thus fail to see it for what it really is – an affront to God, a rejection of His loving, sovereign will in favor of our own stubborn, sinful desires.
Let us also remember that we cannot truly worship the LORD apart from heeding his word. We must always look to His word as the source of the wisdom we need to truly serve and worship Him. As the Apostle Paul again teaches us, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Conclusion: As someone once wrote, “One of the reasons people find it hard to be obedient to the commands of Christ, is that they are uncomfortable taking orders from a stranger.”
This really hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it? It highlights the fact that when we continually struggle to obey, it is because we have grown distant in our relationship to Christ. But remember what Jesus said:
NKJ John 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.
We can never obey as we should without a close relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ, without the strength of our Lord enabling us. As the Apostle Paul so wonderfully put it:
NKJ Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.