1 Samuel 15

1 Samuel 15

SERIES: Leadership in Hard Times

Partial Obedience Is Disobedience

SCRIPTURE: 1 Samuel 15

SPEAKER: Michael P. Andrus                        

Introduction:  Let me paint a little word picture for you that will be readily identifiable to anyone with a toddler at home.  

“It’s almost supper time, Adam.  Pick up the papers and crayons that are all over the floor and put them in your desk before supper.”  

“Oh, Daddy, do I have to?”  

“Yes, you have to.”  

The family gathers at the supper table, Adam being the last one to the table.

“Did you pick up the mess?”, his father asks.


“All of it?”

“Yes, all of it!”

Daddy, knowing Adam and how much he hates to pick up after himself, makes a quick trip to the family room.

“Adam, come here.”


“What are these crayons and papers on the floor?  Didn’t I ask you to pick them up?” 

“But I did.”  

“Did I ask you to pick up half of them or all of them?”

“But Daddy, you gave me too many crayons.  I’m too tired.  My stomach hurts.  If I have to pick up all those crayons I’m going to die.”  

Has anyone ever had a conversation like that in your home?  It’s almost word-for-word like conversations I remember, both as a parent and as a child.  But is it all that different from unspoken conversations we all have with God, arguing that partial obedience should be acceptable?

Our Scripture reading today is taken from I Samuel 15, and I want to read the entire chapter.  This is the Word of the Lord, so listen carefully.

         Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD.  This is what the LORD Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.  Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them.  Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

         So Saul summoned the men and mustered them at Telaim–two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men from Judah.  Saul went to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the ravine.  Then he said to the Kenites, a tribe living with the Amalekites, “Go away, leave the Amalekites so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.  So the Kenites moved away from the Amalekites.  

         Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, to the east of Egypt.  He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.  But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs– everything that was good.  These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.  

         Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel:  “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”  Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the LORD all that night. 

         Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel.  There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”  

         When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The LORD bless you!  I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.”

         But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears?  What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

         Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

         “Stop!” Samuel said to Saul.  “Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.”

         “Tell me,” Saul replied.

         Samuel 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.  And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the LORD?  Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?”

         “But I did obey the LORD,” Saul said.  “I went on the mission the LORD assigned me.  I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king.  The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.”

         But Samuel replied:

“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices 

                  as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  

To obey is better than sacrifice, 

         and to heed is better than the fat of rams.  

For rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft, 

         and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.  

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, 

         he has rejected you as king.”

         Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned.  I violated the LORD’s command and your instructions.  I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them.  Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD.”

         But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you.  You have rejected the word of the LORD and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel.”  

         As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore.  Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors–to one better than you.  He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind, for He is not a man, that He should change His mind.”  

         Saul 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.”  So Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the LORD. 

         Then Samuel said, “Bring me Agag, king of the Amalekites.”

         Agag came to Samuel confidently, thinking, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.”  

         But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.”  And Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal.  

         Then Samuel left for Ramah, but Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul.  Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.  And the LORD was grieved that He had made Saul king over Israel.

In our study of 1 Samuel, Israel’s King Saul has taken three giant steps toward spiritual defection within the space of three chapters: first, lack of integrity, then misuse of authority, and now partial obedience.  May God use this poignant account as a practical warning in our lives about the importance of absolute obedience to His revealed will.

The commandments of God are obligatory, if not always easy to obey.  (1-8)

God told Saul through the prophet Samuel that he was to completely destroy the Amalekites.  Lest there be misunderstanding concerning what “completely destroy” means, it is spelled out in detail.

Saul’s assignment is unambiguous.  (3)  Every person–man, woman, and child—and every animal is to be put to death.  There’s no gray area here–it’s cut and dried, black and white.  Now my preference would be to simply mention this and move on, but in the day in which we live I’m not sure it’s possible to move on without addressing this scorched-earth policy that God employed on occasion in the Old Testament.  It seems barbaric to many today, and our 21st century spirit of tolerance has little room for such instructions.  

So, allow me to digress for a few moments and try to address the moral objections some may have in their minds.  There is, of course, much we do not know, for God hasn’t given us His full rationale.  We do know that the Amalekites were totally perverted and corrupt, practicing child sacrifice, sacred prostitution, and unmitigated violence.  These people were the Taliban or Hamas of the ancient Near East, and they had been bent on the destruction of the Israelites ever since Moses led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land.  For reasons sufficient to Him, God determined that extermination was the only appropriate way to deal with them.  

But please do not think this was a snap decision on God’s part–sort of a fit of anger because these Amalekites believed in some other god.  He ordered the destructions of these people because they violently and steadfastly impeded or opposed His work over a long period of time.  A thousand years before Samuel’s day, Abraham was told that his descendants would have to be exiled and mistreated for 400 years before God would deliver them, because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”  (Gen. 15:13-16).  God waited for centuries while these wicked people filled their rap sheets with all kinds of sinful behavior.  He refused to act precipitously against them; His grace and mercy waited to see if they might repent and turn from their evil behavior.[1]  

I assume the animals were included under the curse to communicate to the Israelites that even the possessions of God’s enemies are tainted.  This is not unlike the statement in the book of Jude to the effect that some people are so wicked that we should hate even their clothing!  And that’s in the NT, where God is supposed to be a God of love, not a God of wrath!  The fact is there is much about God’s love in both Testaments, and much about His judgment in both.  This passage speaks of His judgment.  The bottom line is that if we consider God’s instructions here to be unacceptable, we are putting our own moral standards above His, and that’s a rather precarious place to be.

His resources are substantial.  (4)  In the battle recorded in chapter 13 Saul could only muster 3,000 soldiers; in chapter 14 he has only 600; but now with the fair-weather friends coming out of the woodwork, due to Jonathan’s great act of courage, he has 210,000 at his disposal.  God has enabled him to put together a tremendous army to carry out this assignment. 

The enemy is vulnerable.  (6)  This is because their allies, the Kenites, abandon the Amalekites at God’s urging.  The Kenites were kind to the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings, in contrast to the Amalekites, so God determines to reward them for it by warning them of the coming destruction.  

Victory is promised.  (2)  Notice the wording of verse 2:  “This is what the LORD Almighty says:  ‘I will punish the Amalekites. . .'”  When God says, “I will,” it’s as good as done.

Now I see in these four facts relating to Saul’s situation a pattern regarding God’s commandments.  When God gives orders, we can generally count on the fact that the directions will be unambiguous, the resources available, the enemy vulnerable, and victory assured, if we follow His orders.  And that is true even when the commandment is not easy to fulfill.

Let’s take an example that relates to us today as much as during OT times.  God commands us to abstain from fornication and from all kinds of sexual immorality–heterosexual and homosexual.  The directions are unambiguous, although our culture has done a masterful job of redefining them.  The standards for purity have fallen to such an extent that many now accept thinking as convoluted as President Clinton’s regarding what constitutes sexual relations. 

It’s the church’s job to correct such cultural deceptions, with grace towards those who have never heard God’s law stated as clearly as Saul had, or as we have.  The time has come for churches to speak clearly and frankly to our culture’s lies about sex, especially as sexually transmitted diseases are reaching epidemic proportions, to say nothing of the emotional and psychological damage our young people are suffering.  There are wonderful Christian resources available on many age levels to warn and educate on these moral issues.  The current issue of Christianity Today lists many of them.   

Furthermore, our enemy is vulnerable–whether it’s the world, the flesh, or the Devil.  The Bible says that “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”  And finally, victory is promised if we seek God’s face and appropriate His power.  It’s not easy to keep God’s commandments regarding moral purity; but it is possible.  And it is obligatory.  And that’s true of all of God’s commandments.

The steps to spiritual failure are discernible, if not always obvious.   (9-31)

You recall the story.  Saul went into battle with the Amalekites and won a great victory, but he failed to do exactly what God had required.  He eliminated everyone and everything except Agag and some of the best animals.  One might be inclined to think that this is at worst a simple momentary lapse, a legitimate mistake, a minor flaw motivated out of compassion for a fellow monarch and a concern for animal rights. 

The fact of the matter is, however, that Saul’s failure to be completely obedient is really part and parcel of a larger pattern of behavior on his part.  We can discern at least eight serious substitutions Saul makes that contribute to his spiritual defection.  

1.  Saul substitutes reason for submission.  (9)  You will notice in verse 9 that Saul and his army are unwilling to destroy the best, the things that are good.  Undoubtedly what is going on here is some serious second-guessing of God.  I can well imagine Saul saying to some of his commanders:  

         “Men, this King Agag is a bad dude, but after all, he is royalty.  It’s always been the custom to spare royal families.  If we kill him, I will probably be killed if I am ever captured.  And then these fine sheep and cattle–it just doesn’t make any sense to slaughter them.  These animals aren’t guilty of anything–it’s the people.  I just can’t understand why we should eliminate such a fine agricultural asset.  Let’s keep the best and we’ll even sacrifice some of them to the Lord.  That’ll keep Him off our case.”  

How often do we substitute reason for submission?  Whole denominations are doing that today as they reject biblical authority in favor of cultural sensitivity and the shifting sands of public opinion.  

2.  He substitutes pride for humility.  (12,17, 23) Do you see the evidence of pride following his victory over the Amalekites?  Verse 12 reads, “Saul has gone to Carmel.  There he has set up a monument in his own honor.”  Not in the Lord’s honor, mind you, but in his own.  Contrast that with the humility with which Saul started his career as a leader.  Samuel alludes to it in verse 17: “you were once small in your own eyes.”  The fact of the matter is when Samuel first tried to find Saul to inaugurate him as king, he was told, “He has hidden himself among the baggage.”  (10:22) Saul doesn’t have that problem any longer.  His press clippings have gone to his head!

Or is it possible that Saul has simply been insecure and fearful all along?  Insecurity without power hides; insecurity with power dominates.  Maybe his hiding in the baggage had nothing to do with humility but was a sign that he was insecure.  If so, he stayed that way to the end of his life, finally admitting in this chapter that he was afraid of the people. 

At any rate, the pride (or insecurity) that is demonstrated in our text is exacerbated by a spirit of rebellion and arrogance.  Look at verse 23:  “For rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.”  Have you ever noticed how we tend to categorize sins?  The really nasty ones in society at large today (and these seem to change regularly) are intolerance (there’s nothing more heinous today than intolerance!), driving drunk, and smoking.  In the evangelical church the worst sins are probably homosexuality, child abuse, and Satanism.  But notice here what God rates as sins worthy of special note–rebellion and disobedience. 

3.  He substitutes charisma for character.  (13)  I see this in verse 13.  When Samuel first contacts Saul after the victory over the Amalekites, Saul slaps the prophet on the back and says, “Hey Sam, whassup?  God bless you, brother!  It’s sure good to see you.  Remember what you told me to do?  I did it all, and everything’s cool.”  Sometimes we try to cover up deficiencies in our character with a confident manner, a “hale fellow, well met” attitude.  I’ve known people at church who seemed to be on cloud 9 spiritually every time you meet them, only to find out later that moral cancer had eaten away everything but the surface.

4.  He substitutes blame and excuses for confession.  (15, 20-21) This, of course, is already a clear pattern in Saul’s life.  Back in chapter 13, when he was caught offering a sacrifice in clear violation of God’s commandment he responded, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come when you said you would, I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”  Then last week we saw how Saul blamed his son Jonathan for a lost battle because Jonathan had unwittingly broken a stupid vow Saul had put the army under.  Now we see this pattern emerging once more.  What a tragic thing it is when a person cannot acknowledge his error even when confronted with it before his eyes! 

5.  He substitutes greed for gratitude.  (19)  Look at Samuel’s question in verse 19:  “Why did you pounce on the plunder?”  There’s not one of us here who cannot put ourselves in Saul’s shoes in this regard, for there’s not a one of us who does not suffer from greed to one degree or another, at one point in life or another.  Here is a fortune in sheep and cattle, perhaps enough to put him on easy street for the rest of his life.  And he doesn’t have to deprive anyone else of it to take it for himself, because the alternative is to destroy it.  All it takes is a little disobedience.  And greed gets the best of him.  

How many times do we face similar situations?  Greed says work the extra ten or fifteen hours a week it takes to get a big promotion while God is saying, “Don’t neglect your family.”  Greed for recognition tells a father to get his son on the best baseball or hockey team available, even if they play their games on Sunday morning, but God says, “Don’t forsake the assembling of yourselves together.”  The alternative to greed, of course, is gratitude to God for what He has provided.  He promises to meet our needs and He will.  And He will do far more than that if we put Him first:  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.”

6.  He substitutes ritual for reality.  (22)  In one of the greatest short speeches in the Bible Samuel says to Saul, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” Friends, I don’t know of any statement in the Bible that is more important for us to grasp than this one, because it points to the difference between a life of performance and a life of worship in spirit and truth.  God is not impressed with our church attendance, our tithing, our participation in communion, our involvement in Promise Keepers, our Christian bumper stickers, or anything else by way of symbolism or ritual if it is not accompanied by obedience that springs from a heart overflowing with love for Him, for His Word, and for others. 

Isn’t that what David acknowledges in Ps. 51 when he says, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  God is not impressed with some artificial point system to rank our spirituality.   But a life lived in humble obedience, in the power of the Holy Spirit, pleases Him and transforms our world.

7.  He substitutes fear of people for fear of the Lord.  (24)  The Proverbs tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  This speaks of the awe and respect that the almighty God deserves from his creatures.  Appropriate fear of God should be a major motivating factor in our lives, for as the book of Hebrews tells us, “Our God is a consuming fire.” 

But Saul is far more concerned about the fear of people than the fear of the Lord.  Notice verse 24: “I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them.”  Isn’t it amazing how we can become more afraid of people than of God?  Teenagers can be more afraid of being rejected by their peers than of being disobedient to the standards of God’s Word.  Adults can be more afraid of the comments and judgments of their fellow-workers and neighbors than they are of God’s judgment on their disobedience.  God save us from the fear of people and instill in us a proper fear of Him! 

8.  He substitutes verbal repentance for repentance of the heart.  (25, 30) In verses 24 and 25 Saul admits he has sinned.  But I challenge you to compare this verbal confession with the confession of David in Psalm 51.  The words are similar, but the attitude and spirit are so different.  If I may use a more modern parallel, it’s like the difference between Jimmy Swaggart’s confession and that of Gordon MacDonald, the President of InterVarsity, both of whom suffered major moral failure about 15 years ago.  Swaggart said, “I sinned, but my denominational leaders have no right to discipline me.”  On the other hand, Gordon MacDonald simply said, “I sinned.”  He offered no excuses, no extenuating circumstances.  He stepped out of ministry, put himself under accountability, quietly rebuilt his own personal life and family, and eventually God restored him to the same church he was serving when he sinned.

Look again at verse 30:  “Saul replied, ‘I have sinned.  But please honor me before the leaders of my people and before Israel.'”  Even while confessing, he is more concerned about his reputation before the people than before the Lord.

We have seen eight steps to spiritual failure.  None of them seem like blatant felonies, just small spiritual misdemeanors.  But each contributes to the defection of this leader who once had so much promise. 

The consequences of partial obedience are far-reaching, if not always immediate.  (32-35)

Saul’s assignment is given to another.  (32-33, 28) The immediate assignment God had given him was to exterminate the Amalekites, including their king, Agag.  That task is assumed by Samuel himself.  But more importantly, the long-term assignment God had given him of being king over His chosen people, is now officially taken away and promised to someone else.  (Verse 28) “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors–to one better than you (which should probably be interpreted as meaning, ‘one more obedient than you.’).”  Now, if you’ve been reading ahead in the book of 1 Samuel, you know that Saul continues to be king for several years after this incident.  When it says, “The LORD has torn the Kingdom of Israel from you today,” it means that the decision has been made today.  Saul’s removal was predicted in chapter 13, determined in chapter 5, but not consummated until chapter 31. 

His spiritual mentor abandons him.  (35)  There’s a lot of pathos in those words in verse 35:  “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him.”  Samuel had great hopes for this boy when he inaugurated him as the first king of Israel.  He prayed for him regularly.  He warned him and encouraged him and on occasion announced discipline upon him.  Earlier in our chapter, in verse 11 when he first learned of Saul’s disobedience, it says “Samuel was troubled, and he cried out to the LORD all that night.”  But Saul refused to respond.  And now Samuel takes his hands off.[2]  

Maybe there’s someone here who has been prayed for, discipled, encouraged, and even disciplined by someone who loves you, but up to this point your response has been rebellion.  Friend, don’t wait until that spiritual mentor throws in the towel.  More importantly, don’t wait until God throws in the towel.  

Finally, one of the saddest statements in the entire Bible is found in verse 35:

The Lord regrets having made him king.  (35)  “And the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.”  Now we could get hung up over the theological questions that naturally arise from a statement like this.  How could a sovereign God get caught in a situation where he grieves over something that He Himself allows to happen?  And especially does that question come to mind in light of verse 29, which says that “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind, for he is not a man, that he should change His mind.”  

I think those theological questions can be answered, and I will be glad to attempt it later for anyone who is troubled by them, but this morning instead I want us to come to grips with the awful indictment that is found in these words, “the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.”  From this point on there is no evidence of the Lord’s involvement in Saul’s life.  It’s as though the Lord takes his hands off Saul and leaves him to his own devices.  And the slide into moral decay from this point on is fast and thorough until Saul ends his life by suicide.

Conclusion:  If there’s a lesson for us in this chapter that stands out above all others it is that partial obedience is disobedience.  Let’s not fool ourselves by thinking God is impressed with the little tokens of obedience we throw at him.  Let us go all the way or quit playing the game.  

Jesus, you know, went all the way for us, becoming obedient even unto death so that our sins might be paid for, and we might be made right with the Father.  Let us follow His example of complete obedience–for His sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

DATE:  June 27, 2004        





Religious ritual




[1]. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Hard Sayings of the Old Testament, chapter 27.  

[2].  I once knew a Saul.  He graduated from a fine Christian college with a pastoral ministry degree.  He had several student pastorates but chose to go into sales for a few years because he didn’t want to live on a pastor’s salary.  His intent was only to work a few years and get ahead and then return to the ministry.  But he became so accustomed to living well that the ministry was put further and further back in his mind.  

He tried partial obedience to God’s call on His life instead.  Not willing to be a full-time pastor, he was at least willing to be active in church as a layman.  He taught Sunday School, sang in the choir, and was very impressive in all that he did.  But then his wife came to me one day and poured out her heart about an affair she caught him in.  I went to him, he confessed, and we removed him from all ministry in the church.  Repentance was apparent, so after a year we slowly let him get back into ministry.  Then it happened again.  This time he left the church and became active in another church across town.  That lasted about six months.  Then it was another church. 

All through this time there was a friend of his in our church, a mature Christian about his own age, who tried to disciple him and work with him; he was always available.  But the instability, the poor choices, the partial obedience, the pride, the greed, the charisma, the blame and excuses all continued until his spiritual mentor turned away and said, “You’ve chosen a path for yourself that is a broad road leading to destruction.  There are others who want my help.  I feel called of God to spend my time with them.” 

1 Samuel 17