Partial obedience is still disobedience. Saul learned this lesson the hard way when he failed to execute God’s judgment against the Amalekites, sparing the king and the best of the sheep and cattle. Instead of a victorious celebration, he met with Samuel’s anger and the Lord’s regret. Our responses matter to God, teaches Alistair Begg. While we can be honest with Him about our frustrations, we are not free to change His word to fit our needs or justify our actions.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel and to chapter 15 and follow along as I read. First Samuel chapter 15 and beginning at the first verse:
“And Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”’
“So Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand men on foot, and ten thousand men of Judah. And Saul came to the city of Amalek and lay in wait in the valley. Then Saul said to the Kenites, ‘Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.’ So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and … lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.
“The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’ And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning. And it was told Samuel, ‘Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned and passed on and went down to Gilgal.’ And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, ‘Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.’ And Samuel said, ‘What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?’ Saul said, ‘They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we[’ve] devoted to destruction.’ Then Samuel said to Saul, ‘Stop! I will tell you what the Lord said to me this night.’ And he said to him, ‘Speak.’
“And Samuel said, ‘Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And the Lord sent you on a mission and said, “Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.” Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?’ And Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have obeyed the voice of the Lord. I have gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me. I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have devoted the Amalekites to destruction. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal.’ 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.’
“Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.’ And Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.’ As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.’ Then he said, ‘I[’ve] sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.’ So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the Lord.
“Then Samuel said, ‘Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.’ And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, ‘Surely the bitterness of death is past.’ And Samuel said, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
“Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
We bow down before you, great and mighty God, thanking you for the Bible. We remember the words of your Son, the Lord Jesus: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Accomplish your purposes, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, we resume our studies here in this chapter, which is a pivotal chapter. There is a sense in which at the end of 15 and into 16, you move into a whole new phase in the book 1 Samuel itself. And last time we only began to introduce the matter, pausing purposefully to acknowledge that the event, this dreadful event that is recorded here, should not be viewed in isolation from the overarching plan and purpose of God but should be viewed in light of the fact that God eventually will bring every matter into judgment. And these terrible events in the Old Testament are in order to accomplish that very fact, to make us say, “How terrific and terrible is this! And what is it that we need to learn from it?”
We have referred to the event, in terms of the robbing of Saul of his kingship, as “a monumental collapse.” He is no longer the king of Israel. Verse 23: “You have rejected the word of the Lord, [and] he has also rejected you from being king.” Now, we know why this is, because we’re told. He had been given an assignment. The assignment was given by God. He knew that was the case. And his assignment is there in verse 3: he was to execute judgment upon the Amalekites.
Now, the way in which this is stated and the language that is used, in keeping with similar incidents in the Old Testament, is in order that we might recognize as readers that what is being described here is not simply an invitation to go and wage war against an enemy. But the way in which the judgment is to be passed and the command is to be fulfilled is to make sure that everybody understands that there is no material benefit that accrues to the army—that the spoils of war, that that which is devoted to destruction, belongs to God himself and not to the victors. It is in that context that we have described it as a mission that is terrible.
And as I say, it is important to recognize that what we’re dealing with in this incident and in similar incidents is not a matter, as some would charge, of ethnic cleansing, for it is not about the ethnicity of the Amalekites; rather, the issue is ethical rather than ethnic. The Amalekites are to be destroyed not because they are Amalekites but because they were sinners. And so, when you take this and you stand far enough back from it, in the unfolding drama of the entire Bible, you realize that these events are to be viewed in light of the supreme plan of God to provide salvation not in a disobedient king like Saul but in the obedient King—namely, the Lord Jesus.
And I think it’s important just to pick up from last time, lest we’ve missed this. But this assignment, this “Mission Terrible,” was given to Saul in that context. We are not called as Christians to these assignments. We are not called as Christians to engage in a holy war. Islam engages in a holy war. This is one of the immediate distinctions between Islam and Christianity. The battles that we are fighting are spiritual battles. Paul makes this clear in his writings. We saw it at the end of Ephesians 6. He says it in, for example, 2 Corinthians 10: the weapons of our warfare are not physical weapons. We don’t take up arms and go and fight people. Our weapons are the proclaiming of the gospel and praying for the intervention of God. Paul is very clear about this in the very practical chapter of Romans 12. You remember he says at one point, “As much as it is possible with you, live peaceably with everybody. Live in peace with everybody. And make sure that you never avenge yourselves; leave that to the wrath of God.” So, let’s make sure we understand that.
And then let’s move on to verses 4–9, in what I’m referring to not now as “Mission Terrible” but as “Mission Partial,” in the sense that it is only partially fulfilled. You will notice that it is partially fulfilled inasmuch as Saul decides that he’ll give a pass to the Kenites, because the Kenites were a good group at the period in time when they were coming out of Egypt, and so he sends word into the context: “You fellows should slip out now, so that you don’t end up being destroyed along with the Amalekites around you.”
The real issue, though, of course, is the fact that he just doesn’t do what he’s told. It’s hard to tell from the text what was in the mind of Saul; in fact, it’s impossible to know what was in his mind. Whether his partial obedience was premeditated or not—in other words, whether when he received the command, he said in the back of his mind, “Well, I’m gonna do some of this, but I’m not going to do all of it”—whether it was premeditated or not, his partial obedience is unmistakable. And it is this that incurs God’s displeasure.
The clarity of it can be seen by looking at the straightforward instruction of God in verse 3. In four words in English: “Do not spare them.” That’s verse 3. Now, again—and let me reinforce this for us, because it’s very, very important—the extermination that was to be carried out, that was to be carried into effect, was to be carried out with a sense of solemnity, the kind of solemnity that would mark, if you like, a judicial execution. So, in other words, there’s no sense in which this is sort of a flare-up of animosity, where one group is going to go and punish another group. This is Almighty God, who is of purer eyes than to look on evil, who has given, from three hundred years before, instructions concerning the destruction of the Amalekites, now giving that responsibility to King Saul in order to do what God desires.
“Do not spare them.” Verse 9: “But Saul and the people spared [them].” He identifies the fact that Agag, the king of the Amalekites, he kept alive. I wonder whether this is just an opportunity for him to testify to what a good job he’s done. It certainly would’ve been in keeping with the idea of him raising a monument to himself, which comes later on. In saving the best of the livestock, what has happened is that the mission has failed. It has failed as an act of divine, judicial, solemn retribution. I know that this will cause some of you to deviate from course, but think in terms of the execution of the death penalty, as opposed to somebody getting angry with somebody in the Wild West and running out and having a shoot-up to settle a score. It is not the issue. The issue is that God is God, and therefore, God determines what is to happen. And Saul is to be the one who executes his judgment.
You have, for example, by the time you get to 1 Peter, that the state uses the sword for the punishment of those who do wrong and for the praise of those who do right. The fact that, secularly and philosophically, and in many churches, we are completely confused about this issue is a separate matter for another occasion. But the reason I point it out is that the notion that is here was not that these people could go and maraud against these people and choose whatever they fancied for themselves and come home and keep parts and take them to their house and save different bits and pieces. That is the failure. That is the failure. God was not content with that, because that was not what God had asked them to do. He asked them, “Do not spare them: man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, donkey.” And so what they had done—to quote Blaikie, the Scottish commentator—gave the appearance of “an ordinary unprincipled foray, in which the victorious party slew the other, mainly to get them out of the way, and enable them without opposition to appropriate their goods.”
Saul had listened to the word of the Lord but had failed to fulfill the mission, making something clear to us that is clear always in all of Scripture: that partial obedience is still disobedience. Partial obedience is still disobedience. The clarity of God’s Word that calls us to obey his Word is not a series of options whereby we can choose the parts that seem amenable to us and divorce ourselves from the parts that we don’t like. No! For partial obedience is disobedience.
That may ring very clear for some of us this morning, because we have been operating on that mistaken notion that God really didn’t mean what he said when he said he hates divorce, that God didn’t really mean what he said when he said what he said about human sexuality, that God does not actually mean what he says he means. Presumably, that is the only way that I can navigate myself to the position where I can be Saul-like in response to the clear commands of God: “‘Mission Terrible’? I don’t like it. Well, then, I’ll just do ‘Mission Partial.’”
I don’t sit in judgment on Saul. I hope you don’t.
Now, in verses 10 and 11, we come to what I’m going to suggest is “Mission Result.” You say, “Well, I’m not sure it’s the result.” I mean the result in this way: that it resulted in a response first from God and then from Samuel. The response that comes from God and then from Samuel. “The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king.’” Why? “‘He has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.’”
So, the response of Yahweh is to repent of what he has done, in the Authorized Version; to “regret” it, in the English Standard Version; to be “grieved” by it in the New International Version. And it is, of course, immediately a dilemma for some of us, because we think immediately that somehow or another God is admitting to the fact that he made a bad choice and has had to fix it in time. Well, there is no sense in which we should understand this as if God were saying, “If I’d known that was going to happen, I’d never have appointed him,” because clearly God knew it was going to happen, because God knows everything. God cannot be taken by surprise. That is true in terms of the past events, of future events, and of present events.
Now, I’m not going to delay on this at this point. We’ll come back to it in the evening. But let’s just acknowledge the challenge that it presents. Elihu, when he’s having his dialogue or one of his dialogues with Job, says to him on one occasion, “[Hey, Job,] do you know the balancings of the clouds, [do you know] the wondrous works of him who is perfect in knowledge?” Now, clearly, the answer to that is “No, I don’t. How could I?” How could finitude understand and grasp the infinite? How could those of us who struggle with some elementary aspects of understanding ever understand the mind of God or become a counselor to God? So, what is being conveyed here is this: that the response of Saul matters to God. The response of Saul matters to God. The fact that it wasn’t news to God doesn’t mean that he is incapable of bemoaning a circumstance that he brought about. He brought it about. He bemoans the fact.
In other words, what we’re confronted with in a verse like this and in passages like this—you can go all the way back, for example, to the beginning of the world in Genesis chapter 6, where it says that God regrets that he made Adam and Eve, and you have as a result of that the flood and so on—what do we need to know? Well, we need to know this: that God in himself is capable of regretting an act of foreknown evil, and yet he is able to go ahead and call for it for his own divine and wise reasons.
God is not changing his mind. His response, to bemoan the change in Saul, is to let us see something of God. It is, if you like, in human language, an endeavor to do what the teachers are doing in the nursery, and that is to come down to the children where they are. You don’t expect any of them on the basis of what I’m saying now to go into the classrooms in the third hour and say, “Children, we’re going to have a discussion this morning following the talk. We’re going to look together at the issues of impassability and immutability.” You say, “That’s insanity. No! It’s bad enough up here, let alone down there.” And so we go down here. And so we’re gonna speak in ways that God, who is a faithful God and “does[n’t] change like shifting shadows,” still in the immensity of his being, regrets, is bemoaning, that which he has endeavored to put in place.
Now, you see, this is one of the ways in which language—remember we said last week that God reveals himself in act and in word and in person—and in revealing himself verbally in the Bible, the great challenge, if we can put it that way, is how the Eternal reveals himself in time and how the Omniscient reveals himself to those of us who have a hard time even understanding the periodic table of the elements. And he does this in a number of ways. He does it by, as I say, accommodating himself to us, by using language that is suitable to our weakness.
Now, you know this. You know this. Now, you may not be alert to it every day, but you know this to be the case. So, for example, when the psalmist declares, “The Lord is my rock and [he is] my fortress,” first of all, we know that God is not a rock, and secondly, what is not being said there is that God is immobile. Immutable, yes; immobile, no. He’s not lifeless. He’s not static. He’s not unfeeling. What he is doing, says Augustine, is, by means of these anthropomorphisms, bringing the Bible to us suitable to babies. Charnock says God condescends to reveal himself in human terms so that his glory will not harm us but rather heal and help us.
Now, I read the whole chapter, and so you’re already alert to verse 29, and some of you are saying, “But wait a minute, but what about verse 29? ‘The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.’” And you’re just reading verse 11; it says that God regretted. Well, we’re not at verse 29 yet! We will be, God willing, this evening.
Let me just say a couple of things, then, before I pick up the narrative. And one—and this is very straightforward, and it should be obvious to us all; and it is a principle of biblical interpretation, incidentally—that the author of 1 Samuel clearly was not unaware of this contradiction. He wrote it. He wrote it purposefully. Twice he says, in verse 11 and verse 35, that God regretted making him king, and in verse 29, right in the middle of it, he says, “But God, of course, is not a man that he should regret things in this way.”
You think Isaiah 55, where God through the prophet says, “You know, your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways”—and we might add to that, “And your regrets are not my regrets. What is expressed by my regret is not necessarily akin to what you think when you think in terms of regret.” Because most of our regrets have to do with the fact that we regret it because we didn’t know it would happen. Since it happened and caught us off guard, we therefore regret it, and if we could have a further chance, we wouldn’t do it again. That’s perfectly natural for us. That can’t happen with God. Therefore, it can’t mean that.
It’s a reminder, incidentally—the Westminster Confession is so good, isn’t it, when it says that “not all things in Scripture are equally plain in themselves or equally clear to all”? I like that. But all the parts that are “necessary to be known, believed, … observed for salvation are so clearly stated and explained in one place or another in [the Bible], that not only the educated but also the uneducated may gain a sufficient understanding of them by a proper use of the ordinary means.” In other words, God makes himself known to us in his Word, and surely there are parts that stretch our minds and paradoxes that unsettle us and things that reveal to us our own finitude. How could it ever be other than that? It could never be.
So, “Mission Result.” The result in God is that he regrets this, and the result in Samuel is that he’s angered by it. “And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.” What a wealth is surely contained in this. Samuel. We’ve been with Samuel now for a while, haven’t we? Samuel, the one that his mother longed for, and then he came. Samuel, the wee boy. Samuel, dedicated to the Lord. Samuel, given the assignment, and so on. And now Samuel in his bedroom, as it were, punching the pillow, getting up, making the equivalent of a cup of tea, and walking back and forth in the room, prowling.
I imagine him saying things out loud like “You know, Lord, I wasn’t pleased with this whole idea when these people asked for a king to judge them. You remember that! And remember, Lord, you’re the one who told me to go and anoint them. I anointed him because you said he must. And there’s something else, Lord, while I’m at it: this guy Saul has not just exactly been a piece of cake to work with—from the very beginning! And I’ve worked with this fellow. I told him your word. I told him the problems. I guided him in the path. In fact, I may as well just tell you that on the evening when I had first thought it was Eli who was calling me, and then I realized it was you, and I was supposed to go back to my bed as a wee boy and say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears’—and I did that, you know that—I never bargained for this. I never thought it would be like this. And now you regret having made him the king? I don’t know whether to burst out laughing or dissolve into tears. Here am I! I warned the people about this. I told the people. ‘If you will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel …, then the hand of the Lord will be against you.’ Lord, I’m frustrated, I’m confused, I’m upset, I’m annoyed.”
“And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.” You know, God is able. God is able for our rumblings and our ramblings. If you have never rumbled, as it were, in the night, if you have never rambled, if you have never been angered by these things, then I wager you’re living in a strange world, for the unfolding drama of God Almighty is confusing on our best day, is alarming many a day, and is unsettling to us. And here if nowhere else in Scripture—pointing us forward to Gethsemane itself, where Christ is dealing with the Father in relationship to the immensity of what’s before him—here, then, is some justification for us in the silent place, being very real with God. Says Blaikie the commentator, “It took the whole night” for Samuel to “reconcile” himself “to the Divine sentence.” Or, in the words of Joyce Baldwin, “The personal cost of ministry is seen in the life of Samuel, and in this passage in particular.”
Who would ever accept the assignment of the prophet of God? Who would ever say, “Here I am, Lord. You can take me and use me. I will obey you. I will serve you. I will follow your word. I will proclaim it, no matter what it means and no matter what it costs.” Who would ever do that and assume that it would be some tranquil experience of great grandeur and joy? All of the blessings and encouragements that attend the exercise of the ministry of the Word of God to the people of God are tempered by the nighttime—tempered in the nighttime. Next time you have a member of the pastoral congregation from Basics staying in your home, ask them about this. They may be honest enough to let you know. “Oh,” says Samuel, “I was angry with God, and I stayed up the whole night, ’cause I couldn’t put the jigsaw together.”
Well, the review, then, follows. The report card is going to be given from verse 12 on. Samuel is about to confront Saul. And as a result of the confrontation, eventually the confession will come. Many of you operate on the kind of Samuel principle: if you got a tough case, let’s do it first. If you’ve got somebody you have to meet with in the office you don’t want to meet with, let’s just do it as early as possible. And there’s something of that there, surely. He “rose early to meet Saul in the morning.” Of course, he couldn’t immediately track him down, because, as we noted in passing last time, Saul had been off erecting a monument for himself.
What an amazing thing, isn’t it? What a time for a monument. Did he put a little inscription on it—you know, something at the bottom like “To memorialize the fact that I, King Saul of Israel, took Agag alive”? Would you really memorialize your sin? Surely it’s conjecture; I understand. Is Saul so oblivious to his disobedience that he fails to see the incongruity of his actions—so oblivious to his disobedience that if somebody said to him, “You’re doing a what?”
“Yeah, I’m doing a monument. Yeah.”
“Well, weren’t you supposed to spare—”
“Yeah, yeah, of course, but, you know…”
I say again, I don’t sit in judgment. He was, I think, oblivious. Sin will blind you. Sin will blind you. I would not give you chapter and verse—I would not even tell you the nation in which it took place—but I can tell you of a fact about a pastor writing a book on marital fidelity while shacked up with a lover. Sin will blind you to the reality of what’s going on. And a clear conscience is not necessarily testimony to our freedom. It may be testimony to how the blinding nature of sin has settled upon our minds.
The judgment of God in verse 11 was that Saul had not performed his commandments. When he meets Samuel, he tells Samuel, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” You’ll notice that his greeting is enthusiastic, it’s religious, it’s naive. He steps forward in the misplaced confidence that he’s done what was asked of him. “The mission is accomplished,” he said. And Samuel said, “Do you hear what I hear? If I’m not mistaken, there’re a lot of bleating going on here. If you have fulfilled the command, explain the noise.” And that leads on to further conversation, to which we will have to come this evening.
Gracious God, help us not to play fast and loose with your Word. Forgive us for creating in our own minds a divine being who chops and changes, when in actual fact we know that you do not change like shifting shadows. The brother of Jesus wrote it to us in his letter. There’s no “shadow of turning” with you. So even when language, in order to accommodate us to a level of understanding of the nature of you as God—the unchanging God who yet at the same time bemoans—Lord, we bow down. We bow down. And may—in the dangerous fringes of speculation—may we not allow the rambling of our limited intellects to draw us away from the clear call and instruction of your Word: that all of your warnings are true and real, and all of your promises are absolutely fixed, so that by the same execution of your judgment you will bring from the lips of some, expressions of joy, and from the lips of others, the cries of anguish.
Hear our prayers, O God, and let our cry come to you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 John 17:17 (ESV).
 See Ecclesiastes 12:14.
 See Ephesians 6:12.
 See 2 Corinthians 10:4.
 Romans 12:18–19 (paraphrased).
 See Habakkuk 1:13.
 See 1 Peter 2:14.
 W. G. Blaikie, The First Book of Samuel, The Expositor’s Bible, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Toronto: Willard Tract Depository and Bible Depôt, 1888), 246.
 See Malachi 2:16.
 1 Samuel 15:11 (NIV 1984).
 Job 37:16 (ESV).
 See Romans 11:34.
 See Genesis 6:6–7.
 James 1:17 (NIV).
 Psalm 18:2 (ESV).
 Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributions of God (1853; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 1:199.
 Isaiah 55:8 (paraphrased).
 The Westminster Confession of Faith, Modern English Study Version, 1.7.
 1 Samuel 3:9 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 12:15 (ESV).
 See Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; Luke 22:40–46.
 Blaikie, First Book of Samuel, 247.
 Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1988), 115.
 James 1:17 (KJV).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.