To Obey is Better than Sacrifice
“To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22). One bible study I saw suggested that if we had to pick between obedience and sacrifice, clearly obedience is better. I’m not sure how helpful that is since in many cases one has to make sacrifices in order to obey. In fact, had Saul obeyed in this situation he would have sacrificed more than he did by disobeying.
Is Obedience contrasted with Sacrifice?
With no context, “To obey is better than sacrifice” suggests that obedience and sacrifice are opposites; as if in order to have one, you must forsake the other. So let’s look at the story in context to understand its meaning.
The word of the Lord came to Samuel that Saul was to go to Amalek, an enemy of Israel, and to devote everything to destruction (much like the Israelites were to do with Jericho when they first entered the land) (1 Sam. 15:3). That means Saul and the army could not be motivated by greed—a desire to gain the plunder of the Amalekites. Using sacrifice in the more general sense of the word, that would have been a much greater sacrifice than what Saul chose.
Saul chose to devote to destruction all that was worthless, weak, and despised (1 Sam. 15:9), He spared the king though he was happy to kill everyone else and spared the best of the sheep, calves, and lambs. When he was caught, he claims that it was the soldiers who kept the animals and that for sacrificing to the Lord. However, that seems to be far from either his or the soldiers’ real intent.
Even if the intent was to sacrifice the animals, Samuel tells him that obedience to God is better than these “cover-up” sacrifices he claims he is going to make. Bill Arnold in the NIV Application Commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel writes, “The series of statements made by the king in his defense before Samuel in this passage reveals a pitiable soul who is sorry only that he has been caught.”
“The series of statements made by the king in his defense before Samuel in this passage reveals a pitiable soul who is sorry only that he has been caught.” Bill Arnold
Samuel tells Saul,
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.” (1 Sam. 15:22-23)
Obedience is More Costly than Sacrifice
By using the comparative phrase, “as much as,” it suggests that the Lord did still delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, just not as much as in obedience. More importantly, the sacrifice that Saul suggested he would make was an outward form of worship unmatched by an inward submission to Him as King. Those sacrifices did not require faith from Saul. Faith called him to obey, and that obedience would have been even more costly, indeed more sacrificial.
Saul became afraid when he heard these words from Samuel, as well he should have. He acknowledged that he had feared the people more than he feared God. He pleaded for Samuel to go back with him so that he could properly bow in worship to the Lord (1 Sam. 15:24-25), but it was too late.
The problem Saul had to begin with was that he was not only king, but that he was his own king. He feared whatever threatened that status. He suddenly wanted to bow but only to maintain his position as king. There was no real repentance.
Samuel sums up Saul’s actions when he says, “Because you have rejected the Word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.” By adjusting the word of the Lord, he was in fact rejecting it. I wonder how often we do that with God’s word. How often we choose to obey the parts that we like and disobey the parts that we don’t?
By adjusting the word of the Lord, he was in fact rejecting it.
What is the Bleating Sheep?
Samuel’s question for Saul may be applicable to us. “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” (1 Sam. 15:14) Those sheep and cattle were evidence of Saul’s disobedience.
We might find an example in the Great Commission involves teaching disciples “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20 emphasis mine). When we pick the commands of Jesus we are to obey and discard the commands we find too difficult, or don’t fit with our favorite way of “knowing” God, are we not doing the same as Saul? I suppose Saul could have argued that God is the God of grace so it didn’t matter if he disobeyed certain parts of the instruction, but I doubt that would have worked.
What are the bleating sheep or lowing cattle one might hear in your life? Are there areas in your life in which you have put on an outward form of worship, but haven’t been willing to do the greater sacrifice of obedience to God’s commands? Are there areas in which you have rejected God’s word by discounting certain commands while embracing others?
Are there areas in your life in which you have put on an outward form of worship, but haven’t been willing to do the greater sacrifice of obedience to God’s commands?
Saul’s Rejection is Not Our Own
There is an aspect of this story that is not applicable directly to all of us, and I think we must be careful here. After Samuel’s rebuke of Saul, Saul confesses and repents of his sin, begging Samuel to return with him so that he can worship the Lord. Here is Samuel’s response:
26 Samuel replied to Saul, “I will not return with you. Because you rejected the word of the LORD, the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.” 27 When Samuel turned to go, Saul grabbed the corner of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingship of Israel away from you today and has given it to your neighbor who is better than you. 29 Furthermore, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change his mind, for he is not man who changes his mind.” (1 Sam. 15:26-29 emphasis added)
One might draw the conclusion from this that if you disobey God you stand in danger of being rejected as one of his people. That should never be an application of this text.
In what sense was Saul rejected? The Lord rejected Saul as king over God’s people Israel. He was not rejected as one of God’s people. This chapter is about Saul’s rejection as king (and his descendants), which results in God choosing David and his descendant to reign on the throne of his kingdom. The King who obeyed God fully is Christ Jesus. He will never be rejected. And we are safe as long as we are in Him.
There is certainly application for under-shepherds. The standard and qualification for that office has higher standards and greater judgment (James 3:1). One can certainly be rejected from an office in the church due to disobedience. However, no one who loves Christ and pursues obedience to him, will ever be rejected from God’s people because they fail.
As believers we are grafted into Israel, God’s covenant people, through Jesus Christ. As God’s people, we are under a King and are to be conformed to His image. When we fail, our King redeems us and restores us. But our goal is always to be conformed to His image. So while the rejection of kingship which Saul faced does not apply to the believers belonging to Christ, it does speak to the kind of king Christ is and how he will lead us.
The King who obeyed God fully is Christ Jesus. He will never be rejected. And we are safe as long as we are in Him.