1 Samuel 15:1–35 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions

“The Lord Rejects Saul as King”

In today's passage, Saul (and his ego) will make yet another inexcusable decision. It'll cause the Lord to regret that he'd made Saul king over Israel.

“Totally Destroy All that Belongs to the Amalekites” (15:1–21)

The second time that Saul disobeyed the Lord's command dealt with the Amalekites, which was an archenemy of Israel. That tribe had attacked the Israelites in the wilderness during their escape from Egypt under Moses (Exodus 17:8–16). In today's opening verses, we learn that Saul was told, "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them," including their cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys (vv. 2–3). 

God directed Saul through Samuel. Consequently, for Saul to disobey what Samuel said was tantamount to disobeying God. Samuel reminded Saul that Yahweh was the Lord Almighty (v. 2), their commander-in-chief. Saul's mission was to completely annihilate the Amalekites and their animals. The command to kill an entire nation and their cattle wasn't new. God required the Israelites to do so when they encountered Canaanite nations (Leviticus 27:28–29; Deuteronomy 29:16–18; Joshua 6:15–21). There was no question regarding the will of God. The phrase "totally destroy" (Heb. heherim) occurs seven times in this account (1 Sam. 15:3, 8, 9 [twice], 15, 18, and 20), showing that God's will was clear and that Saul's disobedience was not an oversight.

The Amalekites were descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:12; 1 Chronicles 1:36) and, as such, were linked with the Edomites. They were nomads who lived principally in South Canaan. While they might be foreign to us, they certainly weren't strangers to the Israelites. When the Israelites left Egypt and set out toward Canaan, the Amalekites were one of the first nations the Israelites encountered. Joining the Midianites, they attacked and plundered Israel along the way.

Sadly, Saul disobeyed the Lord's command yet again. His criterion for what he'd put to death wasn't part of God's command but his own judgment. When told to "totally destroy all that belongs to [the Amalekites]," he and his army spared the Amalekites' king, Agag, "and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs" (v. 9). Clearly, Saul set his will against the orders of his Commander; he was "unwilling" to destroy everything that breathed. His obedience was selective and partial. As a result:

10Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11“I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night (1 Sam. 15:10–11).

The phrase "the word of the Lord came to" refers to an important message of judgment that God sent Israel's king through a prophet. It's the key phrase in this chapter. God regretted that he'd made Saul king (v. 11) because of Saul's actions, not because God felt that he'd made a mistake in calling Saul. Saul's failure to follow God faithfully also broke Samuel's heart, and he could foresee the consequences of Saul's actions. God, with Samuel, became irate over Saul's disobedient behavior. God wasn't only looking at Saul's disobedient actions, he also inspected Saul's heart, which had prompted such disobedience. Add to that what Samuel learned about Saul the next morning, on his way to Gilgal to talk with him, following his return from battling the Amalekites: “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor."

The monument that Saul set up honored himself, not God who'd given him the victory. When Moses defeated the Amalekites, he built an altar to worship God (Exod. 17:15–16); but when Saul defeated them, he erected an upright stone slab, a monument commemorating his victory. John MacArthur writes of Saul: “This foolish act of contemptible pride was Saul’s expression of self-worship, rather than true worship of God, and another evidence of his spiritual weakness.”

Saul’s disobedience was committed by his partial obedience. Disobedience sometimes occurs in bold, blatant forms, such as Adam and Eve’s disobedience regarding the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But here, Saul sinned by failing to obey God’s commandment to the letter. He did most of what God instructed him to do through Samuel, but he didn't obey completely. In v. 13, Saul had the audacity to claim: "I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.” Samuel had to ask Saul: “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?” Consistent with his view of his own behavior, Saul claimed to have obeyed God. Nevertheless he'd been only partially obedient. God regarded Saul's incomplete obedience as disobedience. Rather than confessing his sin, Saul sought to justify his disobedience (v. 15; cf. Gen. 3:12; Exod. 32:22–23) and blame the people instead (v. 15).

17Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. 18And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ 19Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?” (1 Sam. 15:17–19)

Saul had formerly been genuinely humble. He'd realistically evaluated himself before his anointing (v. 17; cf. 9:21). Yet when he became king, he viewed himself as the ultimate authority in Israel, a view common among ancient Near Eastern monarchs. This attitude led him to disobey God's Law. God had sent Saul on a mission (v. 18) that involved the total extermination of the Amalekites. The Hebrew word translated "sinners" means habitually wicked people, like the Canaanites.

Saul persisted in calling partial obedience total obedience (v. 20). He again placed responsibility for sparing some of the spoils taken in the battle on others (v. 21), but as king, he was responsible for his people's actions.

Saul’s Repentance, So to Speak (vv. 22–35)

Next, Samuel spoke what the writer recorded in vv. 22–23 in poetic form, indicating to all that God had inspired what he was saying.

22But Samuel replied:
    “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.
    “23For 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).

These classic verses prioritize total obedience over worshiping sacrifices to him. God desires reality above ritual. Sacrificing things to God is good, but obedience is "better" because, for us, it involves sacrificing and surrendering ourselves to him.

Saul admitted to Samuel that he'd sinned (v. 24). But his confession appears superficial. The Hebrew abarti means "overlooked." Saul only admitted that he'd overlooked some small and relatively unimportant part of what God had commanded because he feared his men (v. 24). Ironically, Saul became king as a result of the voice of the people (8:9, 22; 12:1) but he was rejected because he listened to the voice of the people, instead of listening to God's voice. What God called rebellion (v. 23), Saul called an oversight. His greater sin was putting himself in God's place. He was guilty of a kind of treason, that is, trying to usurp the ultimate authority in Israel. Note: Samuel refused to accompany Saul because Saul had refused to accompany God (v. 26).

"As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore" (v. 27). When Saul seized Samuel's robe, he was making an earnest appeal. The phrase "to grasp or catch hold of a hem" was a common idiomatic expression in Semitic languages that pictured a gesture of begging. Later, in a cave, David would cut off the hem of Saul's robe while the king relieved himself (24:4). Since the hem of a garment identified the social status of the person wearing it, David was symbolically picturing the transfer of royal authority from Saul to himself when he did that. Now, when Saul tore Samuel's hem, he symbolically, perhaps unintentionally, seized the prophet's authority inappropriately. Samuel interpreted his action as symbolizing "the wrenching of the kingdom" from Saul.

30Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” 31So Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord (1 Sam. 15:30–31).

Saul had established a long record of rebellious behavior. God knew that Saul's confessions weren't genuine and his repentance wasn't sincere. Saul may have thought that he could "swindle" God, but he couldn't; he behaved toward God the same way that a manipulative child deals with his or her parents. Rather than having a heart to please God, as David did, Saul obeyed God only when he felt that it would be advantageous to do so. He wanted to maintain control and receive the glory; he wanted Samuel to honor him so that he wouldn't lose face with the people (v. 30). Samuel reminded the king of Israel that Yahweh was the "Glory of Israel."

Saul's request for forgiveness and his desire to worship God suggest that, despite his flaws, he believed in God. Samuel proceeded to obey God, as Saul should have, by slaying Agag (vv. 32–33). The departure of Samuel and Saul to their respective hometowns pictures them going their separate ways. They had little in common, and, since their allegiance to Yahweh was quite different, they saw nothing more of each other (v. 35).

Hearty Review — Only Obedience Will Do

Plain and simple, it's inappropriate for believers to try to justify partial obedience to God. King Saul tried to justify ignoring the Lord's instructions. After God ordered the Israelites to to utterly destroy the Amalekites and all their holdings, he spared their choicest beasts as well as their king, Agag. Pleased with himself, Saul announced that he'd done as commanded. But when Samuel questioned him further, Saul blamed the people (v. 15).

Saul didn't stop there! He argued that the animals had been saved so that "they could be sacrificed to the Lord." He must have sounded quite righteous to his own ears. But Samuel wasn't fooled. He called Saul's action by its proper name: insubordination (v. 23).

Our reason for partial obedience might sound logical, but that doesn't change the fact that we're still in rebellion. Excuses and justifications won't sway God in the slightest. He doesn't alter his will to accommodate human desires or common sense. Instead, he looks for and takes delight in a faithful follower.

Are you trying to rationalize a decision or behavior? Perhaps you've offered reasons for pursuing a certain path. Or maybe you tried bargaining with God. Reminder: God isn't moved by any of our arguments. Partial obedience is disobedience in his eyes.

Summary Video: “The First Book of Samuel”

 Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Did Saul express repentance in vv. 24 and 30? If so, why did Samuel say that God rejected him as king?
  • Q. 2  Who carried out God's death sentence against King Agag? How and why?

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