This is the second of my sermon series through the early history of the Israelite kingdom, delivered on June 17th.
The Story So Far
15:1-3 The Prophet Samuel gives King Saul a summons to Holy War: it’s time to utterly destroy the Amalekites!
15:4-7 King Saul starts carrying out his duties, gathering the army and marching South to Amalek.
15:8-9 King Saul reinterprets God’s command to suit his and his soldiers’ preferences, deciding to take back some loot and the King of the Amalekites.
15:10-11 God disapproves, expresses his “sorrow” that he ever made Saul king, and thusSamuel weeps for fear of what will happen to Israel now.
15:12-15 Samuel confronts Saul, who doesn’t even realize that he has sinned against God.
15:16-19 Samuel points out that Saul did not uphold the herem command (to destroy the Amalekites and their bounty completely).
15:20-21 Saul still thinks that his reinterpretation, in taking prisoners, is valid!
15:22-23 Samuel teaches that obedience is greater than sacrifice (which will be repeated throughout scripture hereafter).
15:24-29 Saul confesses his transgression but cannot change God’s judgment that he’s no longer worthy to be Israel’s king.
15:30-31 Saul does manage to get Samuel to support his kingship for the time being.
15:32-33 Samuel then completes the mission that God had given Saul, and beheads the king of Amalek.
15:34-35 Saul and Samuel part ways, never to meet again.
16:1-13 David is privately anointed king, just like Saul had first been (10:1)!
Why did God revoke Saul’s kingship?
When Israel Demanded a king (back in chapter 8), it seemed like a rejection of God’s kingship, but instead God accommodated this by creating a separation of powers between king (temporal & political) and prophet (spiritual). As the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary thus explains it,To be king in Israel was therefore quite a different matter from being king in the countries round about. Saul did not understand this distinction, and resented Samuel’s ‘interference,’ whereas David appreciated the point that the Lord his God was the focus of authority, and therefore he was willing to submit to the word of his prophet even though, in the eyes of the watching world, it must have seemed that David’s own authority would thereby be weakened. Here lay the crucial distinction between Saul & David. The man after God’s own heart submitted to God’s word, obeyed his prophets, and found acceptance and forgiveness, despite his many glaring faults and failures. Saul obstinately clung to his rights as king, but lost the throne. (page 39).
What did Saul actually do wrong?
Holy War is a concept in the Law defined in the book of Deuteronomy. It’s reserved to apply only to the conquest (and defense) of the Promised Land, and the occasional campaign ordered by God, such as the destruction of the Amalekites as foretold in Exodus 17:8-14, Numbers 24:20, and Deuteronomy25:17-19. One of the major features of Holy War was that the standard practice of taking home loot after a successful battle was forbidden. Instead, all the loot was considered herem, or totally devoted to the Lord. This communicated that the purpose of Holy War was part of God’s ultimate purposes, not the purposes of human kings and generals. Therefore, all gain was totally given to the Lord – in other words, destroyed.
Saul, however, decided that he could rewrite God’s word concerning Holy War, and take home the best of the loot, supposedly to sacrifice them in worship, as well as to bring the Amalekite king back as a prisoner of war. This may have seemed like good intentions from certain angles – sacrifices are major acts of worship in their day, but when it comes down to it, God’s command was for them to destroy the loot in Amalek, not bring it home and sacrifice it (if that’s what they were really going to do)! And Samuel gives a word from God here which echoes throughout the rest of the Bible – prophets, psalms, and also Jesus – “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice…”
What does this have to do with Christianity?
The Church has no biblical precedent (let alone instructions) concerning Holy War. Nor do we have a theocratic monarchy to whom we can apply the warning of what happened to King Saul. Instead we should look at the spiritual dynamics of what went on: King Saul sinned against God by disobeying his commands, and was punished for it. But even beyond that disobedience, there was something else amiss. For God looks on the heart (as Samuel was reminded in 16:7), and Saul’s heart was not devoted to God. We’ll see later on that stark contrast between Saul’s disobedience and David’s obedience to God, and even though they both commit sin, one is punished while the other is forgiven. This is because obedience, as important as it is, is not the core of a right relationship with God. Rather, love is.
Jesus, in his teachings, gave us the perfect clarification of this fact of obedience: the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength. And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two depend all the Law and the Prophets. Now, we know from other passages of Scripture that if we truly love God, we’ll obey His commandments. But the Christian reality – the Christian freedom – is that it all begins with love. We don’t obey out of fear of a vengeful God, we don’t obey out of hope for God’s favor, but we obey out of love for a God who first loved us.
One of the many ways we can tease this out is in the Collect of the Day (Proper 6).
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love,
that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion;
for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
It’s the same spiritual progression as we see in the story of the transition from Saul to David: God’s priority criterion for his people is love, and then through his grace he moves them to carry out His Word.