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Saul's first two tragic sins and dynastic succession
As a result of Saul's disobedience, Samuel pronounced the Lord's rejection of Saul and his dynasty for the second time, while prophesying that the throne would be given to another man. Verses 17 and 181 state:
When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the Lord anointed thee king over Israel? And the Lord sent thee on a journey, and said, Go and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed. Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the Lord?
Saul's excuse was, "I feared the people, and obeyed their voice". He begged Samuel to return with him that he might be honoured "before the elders of my people, and before Israel." When Samuel refused and turned to leave, Saul, in desperation, grabbed Samuel's garment and tore it. Using this as an illustration, Samuel said, "The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou" (v28). Then he returned with Saul, but strictly as an outward show for the people. We are reminded of the significance of the tearing of the high priestly garment which we read first, in Scripture, of the occasion of Aaron sons being punished for offering "strange fire" to the Lord (Leviticus 10:2). When Aaron saw the judgment on his sons he was moved with grief and began to grab his high priestly garment at the neck to "rend his garment," as was customary at that time to demonstrate utter grief and mourning. Moses quickly stopped him, commanding: "Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die" (v6). We go back into Exodus 28:322 to see the significance of this prohibition when we read the description of how the garment should be constructed:
32 "And there shall be an opening at its top in the middle of it; around its opening there shall be a binding of woven work, as it were the opening of a coat of mail, that it may not be torn.
The high priestly garment was not to be torn, even in mourning, and Moses warned Aaron not to tear it "lest ye die." In Matthew 26:64 we read of the encounter between Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, and Christ, at the illegal kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:53-65). Jesus had just answered the question as to whether He was the Son of God by stating (v641):
Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
In response, verse 65 informs us, "Then the high priest rent his clothes." Orthodox Christian belief widely acknowledges that, when Caiaphas rent the high priestly garment, he ended the Jewish priesthood. A very few hours later, (Matt. 27:51) we read that "the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom." So, within the span of 24-hours, between the time when Caiaphas rent the high priestly garment and the veil of the temple was rent, Jesus Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice on the cross of Calvary and became our High Priest in the New Covenant (Acts 4:121):"There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved"
Saul rent the garment of Israel's High Priest - whose position he had already had the temerity to usurp, even if briefly - and now, Samuel being sinless in this matter, Saul's rule was ended. Some may be tempted to think that Saul disobeyed the command of God out of sincere, if misguided, motivation - from compassion for the weak. They argue that we would look upon Saul's disobedience differently if we saw him sparing the little Amalekite children. But, of course, the evidence shows that Saul did not spare one Amalekite child; he spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites. So Saul did not disobey God because he was misguidedly compassionate, caring, and kind, but slaughtered every Amalekite man, woman, and child, save one - the king. Saul surely would have reasoned that, of all the Amalekites, Agag the king would have been more guilty of sin against God and His people than the children he had killed - and yet he spared him. It is reasonable to assume that Saul's sparing of Agag, along with his sparing of the best of the flocks and herds of the Amalekites, was really self-serving. Saul stood to gain a measure of popularity for allowing the Israelites to enjoy a "free" sacrificial meal (at God's expense!) with the Amalekite animals (2:12-17; 9:11-25). They could enjoy a meat feast without having to sacrifice their own animals. Once again, Saul's disobedience has a pious veneer but, at its core, it is self-serving sin and his actions are hypocritical and resemble a pagan religion rather than loving obedience to his God.
Sparing the life of Agag provided Saul with a trophy of his prowess and power, for Saul was probably very aware of the practice of humiliating defeated kings by keeping them as trophies so, when Agag sits at Saul's table he is rather like a stuffed animal head, mounted and prominently displayed on the drawing-room wall. We have evidence for this kind of mentality - and, after all, the people wanted a "king like the other nations" - from the words of another king recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Judges (Judges 1:6-72):
6 But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me." So they brought him to Jerusalem and he died there.
Therefore, for a king to sit at Saul's table in this same way, captive and dependent upon him for his livelihood, is to make a trophy of that king and probably the reason Saul spares Agag's life and not the life of any other Amalekite.
Saul does most of what God instructs him to do through Samuel, but he does not obey completely and, when he first speaks to Samuel, he is willing to talk of his self-defined obedience in first person terms: "I have carried out the command of the Lord" (v 132). But once it is apparent that his "obedience" is unacceptable to God, Saul seeks to pin the blame on the people of Israel:
15 "They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed"
20 Then Saul said to Samuel, "I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites"
Samuel does not accept Saul's excuses and, in verses 22 and 23, he sets down a principle which is taken up often by later prophets, our Lord, and His apostles (ref. Psalm 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Isaiah 1:11-15; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6; Amos 4:4-5; 5:21-24; Matthew 9:13; 12:7; Hebrews 10:4-10). The principle is stated both positively and negatively and first, in verse 22, Samuel states matters positively. He informs us that while performing God's prescribed religious rituals is a good thing (especially if done with clean hands and a pure heart), obedience to God's commands is even better.
Saul has approached the commandments of God in precisely the opposite manner and, in fact, in the manner of a pagan, for unbelievers always believe that doing things their way is alright and can be put right with God by following some work or ritual even after they have disobeyed. By his words and actions, Saul makes it clear that he believes going through the motions of religious rituals is the most important thing of all. It is clearly not that important to Saul that he should have disobeyed God's command, as long as his disobedience enables him to offer a ritualistic sacrifice to God. To Saul, offering a sacrifice to God is more important than obedience to God, whereas Samuel makes it clear that obedience to God is the highest form of sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1-2). To obey God is better than all sacrifices - to disobey God, and then offer sacrifices, is worthless.
In verse 23 Samuel likens the sin of an Israelite to the sins of the heathen, sins which a good Jew would never consider committing. The pagan Amalekites deserve to die and Saul does not question that fact, for the sins the pagans commit are those which an Israelite loathes. Samuel puts it clearly in perspective by informing Saul that his disobedience is no less despicable than the pagan's sins of divination, iniquity or idolatry. In fact, the pagans commit their sin largely in ignorance for they do not possess the Scriptures, as do the people of God, and so Saul's sin of disobedience is on a par with those pagan sins Saul hates most. To obey is better than ritualistic worship; to disobey is worse than pagan idolatry or witchcraft.
We read with sadness the details of Saul's disobedience, but sadder still is Saul's response to Samuel's rebuke, for he starts by claiming to have obeyed God's command until his sin is exposed, when he admits his failure to fully execute the command but tries to sanctify his disobedience by claiming it is to better worship God. When Samuel casts aside this weak excuse, Saul finally confesses that he has sinned, but tries to lay some of the blame on the people by claiming that he feared the people and thus gave in to the pressure they applied on him (v 24): Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice." However, he shows again that his concern is not that he has sinned against a righteous God, but that his public image will be damaged if Samuel openly severs his relationship with him. He does not have a deep conviction concerning the vileness of his sin and only fears that he will look bad if this situation is not handled properly and so he pleads for Samuel to go back and worship with him, thus giving the appearance that all is well. Again, we also see that Saul's disobedience is not taken seriously enough by him and he tries to quickly move on to the blessings of God, hoping to sidestep genuine repentance and divine discipline.
Sadly, the evidence reveals that Saul is a man who will not tolerate others who fail to carry out his commands, even when they are foolish and detrimental, for in chapter 14, Saul's own son, Jonathan, inadvertently violated his father's command not to eat anything until evening. Jonathan did not hear this command as he was too busy fighting the Philistines, but Saul was determined to put him to death for this disobedience and would have done so if the people had not refused to let it happen (14:36-46). Now, when it comes to Saul's obedience to the command of God, he is amazingly lenient on himself and thus shows himself to be a hypocrite. Thus Saul shows where his heart really lies and his unchanging attitude has proven that the indictment of chapter 13, after he had offered the burnt offering which was Samuel's anointed task, needs to be repeated in a similar fashion here in chapter 15 so that he can be in no doubt that his kingship and lineage is coming to a tragic end.
So now it is necessary for Samuel to carry out Saul's task - the task for which Saul had been anointed, except in this instance it is not sin. Saul seems unwilling to "repent," to reverse his decision to let king Agag live. This being the case, Samuel carries out the command of God himself, for it is necessary that all of the Amalekites be put to death, especially the king who led them in their wickedness. Agag was still alive and thought he was out of danger for he said (v321), "Surely the bitterness of death is past." But Samuel said to him, "As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women" and he cut Agag into pieces. Verse 35 ends the narrative with a tragic epitaph:
And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the Lord repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.
We do not read that Saul ever truly grieves over his sin or even over his parting with Samuel, but we know that it is a sad day for Samuel for he had wept and interceded with the Lord all night before he rebuked Saul (15:11) and also grieved over Saul after they parted company (15:35). Although Saul could not be the king from whom our Messiah would come, for he was not of the Tribe of Judah but of the tribe of Benjamin, the Lord also grieved over Saul, and over the fact that He had made him king over Israel. Saul failures came as no surprise to God, who sees the end from the beginning, but nevertheless He grieved over having to set him aside even though all He does is for His ultimate glory and for our ultimate good.
Examination of Saul's sin should teach the contemporary church a valuable lesson about spiritual leadership, for it is not actually about giving people what they want - unless they desire to follow God's Word above all - as much as being about doing what God wants. Spiritual leaders must first be followers of God. Saul was appointed king over Israel and his task was to know God's commands and obey them and to lead the nation in obedience. Whatever degree Saul's words about the pressure applied by the people were true, Saul still failed to lead in a godly manner. His task was not to please men but to please God and, in our day and time, when leaders are often elected by percentage votes, their election is very often based upon how well they have pleased others. This is not the test of a spiritual leader. The test is how well that person has pleased God by obeying His Word, and by challenging others to follow him as he obeys. This does not justify autocratic leadership, of which we have so many varieties in British churches today, and which merely claim to speak for God. This is said of biblical leadership, which is based upon, and tested by, the Word of God.
We learn even more than that from our study, for not only is disobedience to God's Word a most serious sin but partial obedience of His Word is also a most serious sin. Saul teaches us that partial obedience to God's commands is really disobedience. Like Saul, many of us are inclined to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt if we have almost completely obeyed God's commands. God does not view partial obedience the way we do, for serving God is not like scoring points for coming close to the mark. Sin is falling short of the mark, no matter how close you come to it (Romans 3:23). Repeatedly in the Bible total obedience is the standard, not partial obedience. Our Lord's parting words, in His "Great Commission," include this statement:
28 "Teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:282, emphasis mine).
It is amazing how we have convinced ourselves that many of our Lord's commandments are no longer applicable to us today. We should seriously consider whether we, too, are guilty of carrying out "Saul-like" forms of partial obedience?
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