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.
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.”
(1 Samuel 15:22–23, ESV)
1 Samuel 15 begins a turning point in the Old Testament’s history of Israel. The Israelites have begged God for a king, so that they could become just like all of the other nations. God chose Saul to be the first king. However, since Saul chose to do things his own way and disobey God, he was rejected as king. In 1 Samuel 15, God declares that He has rejected Saul and will appoint a new king in his place (David, the ancestor of Jesus).
For the sake of brevity, I will simply summarize this chapter (you can read 1 Samuel 15 in its entirety on your own if necessary). God commanded Saul (through the prophet Samuel) to destroy the Amalekite nation. Saul did not fully obey God: he spared some livestock and the king.
God viewed Saul’s partial obedience as full disobedience. The consequences lasted for centuries. Since Saul chose to spare a few Amalekites, more survived. David ended up having to battle them in 1 Samuel 27:8 and 1 Samuel 30. Many commentators believe Haman the Agagite, the enemy of the Jews in the Book of Esther, was a direct descendant of the Amalekite king.
Some of Saul’s excuses sound similar to excuses we hear nowadays. “I did this for God, even if it goes against His Word” (1 Samuel 15:15). “Everybody else was doing it” (1 Samuel 15:21). “Quit making a big deal about it; you’re making me look bad!” (1 Samuel 15:30).
This verse came to mind recently while I was meditating on another Bible passage. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said the following:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24, ESV).
Modern-day Christians do not rely on sacrifice, in the Old Testament sense, as an element of our spirituality. We do not slaughter sheep and goats and roast them on an altar. We have other ways of serving God that have replaced sacrifice: evangelism, church ministry, worship, prayer, Bible reading, Bible teaching, tithing, fasting, etc. Yet, Jesus calls us to make healthy interpersonal relationships a higher priority than all of these things.
To obey God is better than sacrifice—or evangelism, or serving in the church, or worship, or prayer, or reading the Bible, or tithing, or fasting, or anything else we say we are doing for God.
To wilfully disobey God defiles the sacrifice or ministry. To do your own thing and ask God to bless it defiles the altar itself. “For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matthew 23:19). Far too often, we are tempted to decide to do our own thing and then ask God to bless it. Shortly before He was betrayed, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” We are often tempted to instead pray, “Okay God, this is what I am planning to do. I ask You to bless it and provide what I need to succeed in this.” (Even worse, in some circles they do not ask God to bless or provide: they demand it, bossing the King of Kings and Lord of Lords around by “claiming” the blessing, often by twisting a verse of Scripture to mean what they want it to mean.)
God has called us to obedience and service. He is the Lord, which means our responsibility is to do exactly what He calls us to do. Many live with the desire to one day hear our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 15:21, 23). That commendation is reserved for those who obey God, not those who look for excuses to do things their way. May we always have a heart willing to hear the will of the Lord and obey.
For a closing thought, I will leave you with this classic song by Keith Green, inspired by this verse:
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.