1 Samuel 13:5-13b; 15:7-11, 22-23.
The Sin of Selective Obedience

Copyright © 2016, Dr. John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

During the period surrounding the life of the ancient prophet, Samuel, the nation of the Philistines played an important and sometimes devastating part in the Israelite experience.  The settlement of the Philistines in southwest Canaan (modern Gaza and southward) predates the settlement of Israel by several centuries and they are believed to have emigrated from across the Mediterranean Sea, possibly from Crete or Cyprus.  The Philistines were competent in the fabrication of objects made of iron, causing Israel to be dependent upon their technology for iron objects such as tools and farm implements.  The agrarian Israelites were no military match for the nomadic and warrior Philistines on any field of battle.   

However, during the period when Samuel judged Israel, the more powerful Philistines were held back by their fear of YAHWEH who brought about their utter defeat at Mizpeh.[1]  As long as the Israelites looked to the LORD and to Samuel as His prophet, Godís hand of protection preserved the feeble Israelites.

However, as Samuel aged, the growing military threats that surrounded Israel led the Israelite leadership to desire a political king who would, like those of their neighbors, serve as a military leader who would work to guarantee their continued security.  However, Samuel clearly taught them that God would take care of them if they would serve the LORD as their king.  The people rejected Samuelís counsel, so contrary to Godís purpose, but under Godís direction, Samuel gave the people what they wanted when they anointed Saul as their first king.

When the Israelites rejected Samuel, they rejected God, moving themselves away from His hand of protection.  Immediately upon Saulís anointing the presence of a king and a standing military ďarmyĒ in Israel drew the attention of their warrior neighbors who now perceived them as a threat.  Consequently, the Philistines began to again threaten and harass Israel.  Battles with the Philistines became common.  Saulís son, Jonathan and his armor bearer scored a miraculous victory at a Philistine outpost that brought an unexpected response from the Philistines.  Saul expected a typically small skirmish to follow.  What took place was quite different.

Though the people saw Saul as a King, any time the LORD referred to the position that Saul (and subsequently David) held, it was the position of ďprinceĒ or ďcaptain.Ē  When Samuel anointed Saul as King, he did not abdicate his own position as the chief religious leader.  Saul could not literally serve as a priest since he was not of the tribe of Levi, though many of his duties were similar to the priestly role.  Only two of Israel's Kings were given the responsibility of religious leader:  David and Solomon: David, because he inherited the role from Melchizedek when Jerusalem was taken; Solomon was his immediate successor.  Saul's position was clearly one of a political and military leader.  The religious leadership remained with Samuel.

Both Saul and the Philistines put out a call to arms as a result of Jonathan's action.

1 Samuel 13:5.  And the Philistines gathered themselves together to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots, and six thousand horsemen, and people as the sand which is on the sea shore in multitude: and they came up, and pitched in Michmash, eastward from Bethaven. 

The army of the Philistine kings is described as larger than any other described in the Old Testament.  It would appear that the Philistines determined to finally remove this disorganized group of militant Israelites from the region, and their potential of success was significant.  The Israelites simply could not engage such a large and well-armed force in battle.  That is, they could not do so as long as they attempted to enter the conflict without Godís help and direction.


1 Samuel 13:6-8.  When the men of Israel saw that they were in a strait, (for the people were distressed,) then the people did hide themselves in caves, and in thickets, and in rocks, and in high places, and in pits.  7And some of the Hebrews went over Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead.  As for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.  8And he tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him

Though some probably remembered Godís deliverance of the nation from the Philistines at Mizpeh under the leadership of Samuel, that experience was only a vague memory that had since been overshadowed by the Philistines renewed successes and the changes in Israelís character.  The temple was gone, the Ark of the Covenant was now out of the picture, and the Israelites were no longer accepting a religious leader as their primary administration.  Consequently, knowing of their own inability to stand against the amassed armies of the Philistines the nation of Israel, including its new king Saul, was struck with great fear.  Many simply considered the nation of Israel to be lost and hid themselves. 

Samuel had instructed Saul to travel to Gilgal and wait for him to bring an offering to God and communicate Godís plan for deliverance.  Samuel specifically told Saul to wait seven days and on the morning of the seventh day Samuel had not yet arrived.   

How do we respond to fearful situations when all we can do is wait?  We might use the time to think about the scenarios that are going to take place when we are overwhelmed.  We might think about ways to take the situation into our own hands and formulate our own extraction from the circumstances.  Rarely will we realize that this is an opportune time to spend in fasting and in prayer as we seek the LORDís deliverance.  Saul had this opportunity.  Samuel had given to Saul a gift of time, time that Saul could have spent in prayer; time spent encouraging the nation with the testimony of Godís promises.  However, this was not in Saulís nature.

What was going through Saulís mind during those seven days?  When we consider that Saulís commitment to God was shallow and conditional,[2] it is not unreasonable to speculate that Saul was considering ways to protect and defend the people.  As the king he is expected to do something, and doing nothing serves only to bring more frustration.  However, had Saul been a man of God he would have used that time productively as he would have been leading the nation to pray to the LORD and seek His deliverance. 

1 Samuel 13:9.  And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings.  And he offered the burnt offering. 

What had Saul just done?  Samuel had told him to wait seven days when he would come to Saul and offer the sacrifice.  When Saul considered Samuel to be a ďno-showĒ he took on the role of Israelís High Priest and offered up the sacrifices for the people.  This says much about Saulís character.  Saul is not a priest, was never anointed to a position of religious responsibility, and is not a Levite.  By taking on this role he demonstrated his ignorance and disregard for the priesthood and Godís purpose in it.  By burning the sacrifice himself he is disregarding the very nature and purpose of the sacrifice in the first place.  It is as though Saul treated the necessity of the burnt offering as a religious ritual rather than an ordinance of sacrifice. 

1 Samuel 13:10-11a.  And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might salute him.  11And Samuel said, What hast thou done?

Samuel arrived in Gilgal just as Saul had completed the burning of the sacrifice.  The smoke and odor would still be in the air.  Samuel, by asking this question gave Saul an opportunity to consider his actions.  Saul would know that he had done what was reserved for Samuel.  Yet, Samuel gave Saul an opportunity for confession and repentance.  There is no question that Saul acted out of fear and desperation that was motivated by his lack of faith in God.  Yet, God always provides an opportunity for repentance. 

1 Samuel 13:11b-12.  And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash; 12Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering. 

Was Saulís response one of confession and repentance?  Saulís response was one of a baseless rationalization that attempted to shift the blame elsewhere.  First he blamed his action on the urgency of the situation.  However, the day was not yet over, and there would yet be time for Samuel to offer the sacrifice.  He further argued that he was following the edict of the King of Israel, a rather weak argument since he is that king.  Saul simply created a series of rationalizations and excuses, never acknowledging the spiritual context of this situation.  He did not acknowledge that he had sinned against God by despising the sacrifice, a sin similar to that of Eliís sons Hophni and Phineas who were judged for their sin.  It was the sin of despising the sacrifice that ultimately deposed the Elidan priesthood, and would ultimately dethrone this self-centered and incompetent king.

Saulís act and his response show his complete misunderstanding of Godís nature and his purposes for Israel.  Likewise, the way we respond to the world around us determines much of what we understand of Godís nature and purpose for us.  Our response also affects the receipt of the abundant life that God promises to those who follow Him

1 Samuel 13:13.  And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever.

Are there consequences to our disobedience?  The consequence for Saul is huge.  Samuel had prophesied that the Israelite kings would turn them away from God, and this first of the kings was leading the way.  Saul had been given the opportunity to lead his nation in faithfulness to God, but had led on his own power instead.  Samuel clearly states that Godís purpose for Saul was that Saul would be a man of faithful integrity and then through him the kingdom would have been eternally established.

People treat God today in much the same manner.  Saul saw God as one to call upon in times of trouble rather than one with which to establish an on-going relationship.  Saul only sought God when the conditions were dire, and even then he sought God on his own terms, terms that demonstrated his own lack of faith and understanding.

Unlike Saul, his son Jonathan did seek obedience to the LORD and when he made a raid upon a Philistine garrison the violence confused the enemy who started fighting amongst themselves and finally withdrew.  However, Israelís conflict with the Philistines and her other enemies was far from over.


1 Samuel 15:7.  And Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur, that is over against Egypt. 

When Saul faced the Amalekites he did so following the LORDís command to completely destroy the tribe including all of its people, animals, and spoils, taking nothing for himself.  This is consistent with Godís promise to utterly destroy the Amalekites.[3]  The command would also be a test for Saul and his leadership.  Following the LORDís command, Saul was successful in destroying Amalek as the cities that are listed encompass the limits of their influence.

1 Samuel 15:8-9a.  And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.  9But Saul and the people spared Agag,

The command of the LORD was for Saul to destroy all of the Amalekites.  However, Saul chose to spare the life of its king, Agag.  It is notable that the writer of the account repeats the description of Agagís survival.  In the first instance, Saul is personally accountable for Agag, and in the second example the people are included in the choice, a reference to Saulís leadership.  Why would Saul keep Agag alive?  It was a common practice among the ancients to take the king alive, so by doing they could humiliate the prisoner, graphically demonstrating to their subjects the extent of their power.  The practice was also shared by pagan kings who believed that by taking an opponent king, they were appropriating for themselves some of the prisonerís life-power.  The entire act of taking the king as a prisoner was self-serving, and was a direct violation of the command that God gave to Saul.

This choice by Saul, to take upon himself to redefine obedience based upon his own authority as a king, was not dissimilar to his choice to take on the role of the high priest and bring the burnt offering that preceded the battle.

We might refer to Saulís capture of Agag as ďselective obedience,Ē a practice that is probably quite common today.  Christians testify to their obedience to the LORD, yet they pick and choose which areas of life are subject to His Lordship.  We claim obedience, but fall short of complete obedience.  What are some of the areas in our lives where we fall short of submitting ourselves entirely to the LORD?  What are some of the things in our lives that are to be dedicated entirely to the LORD, but we keep back a portion for ourselves?  Saul kept back a small, but valuable, portion of the defeat of the Amalekites for himself, and by that ďsmallĒ digression is characterized by disobedience.  Saulís example was well-received by the army:   

1 Samuel 15:9b.  and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly. 

Saulís choice of selective obedience was shared by those who served him.  Saul, as king, could easily have dictated that all the spoils that were taken were to be completely destroyed.  However, it was not in his heart to destroy such valuable things, particularly those that are the best of the spoils.  They did utterly destroy that which was not desirable to keep, but they chose to keep that which they desired. 

The taking of the spoils by a conquering army was an accepted pagan practice, and consistent with the expression of the defeat of another nation.  However, the LORD demanded a different set of values from the Israelites, demanding that they would not copy the pagans and profit from the battle, but rather by destroying the spoils they would show the entire region that the battle was not for profit, but for the LORD.

1 Samuel 15:10.  Then came the word of the LORD unto Samuel, saying, 11It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments.  And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night. 

The response of the LORD to Samuelís disobedience is notable.  The word that is translated, ďrepenteth,Ē or ďgrieved,Ē is used in this context in only one other place in the Old Testament, when God looked over the wickedness of the people and determined to bring the devastating world-wide flood.[4]  Understanding Godís omniscience, we also know that God knew Saul, his nature, and his sin.  God does not discover new knowledge as time transpires, since He knows and sees all that is His creation from His vantage point in eternity.  However, the word of the LORD that is brought to Saul is brought through Samuel, who needed to understand Godís heart to fully communicate the nature of the circumstance to Saul.  Samuel, understanding the utter failure of the king was angry with Saul and concerned about Israelís future.  He was moved to the point of lying awake all night crying out to the LORD.  During that time with God, Samuel came to an affirmation of the consequence of Saulís disobedience, and a clear direction in how to address Saul.

When Samuel confronted Saul, he was greeted with bragging words about his success and his obedience, stating ďI have established YAHWEHís words.Ē  Saul had no idea of the truth of the statement, but the words that he truthfully established were those of the prophecy of his own demise, not his military victory.  When Samuel asked about the presence of the spoils, Saul again shifted blame, pointing to the disobedience of his soldiers, rationalizing that the spoils were preserved for a subsequent sacrifice to the ďLORD your God.Ē  Saulís position had moved so far from a relationship with God that Saul admitted that it was Samuel who had a relationship with God rather than himself.  Ultimately, Saul refused to accept Samuelís criticism of his actions, insisting that he had obeyed God, and the taking of the king of Amalek and the spoils was inconsequential. 


1 Samuel 15:22-23.  And Samuel said, Hath 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 hearken than the fat of rams.  23For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.  Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.

Samuel had continued to listen to Saulís litany of rationalizations as this disobedient king attempted to justify his choices to the LORD.  Finally, Samuel simply interrupted Saul with one of the most notable and well-known statements of his prophetic career.  Actually, Samuel stated his argument as a four-line Hebrew-styled poem:

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 divination

   and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,

   he has rejected you as king.


What does the LORD truly seek from those who profess to have faith in Him?  Some will go through a complex set of rituals hoping to win His favor.  Some will work long and hard hoping that their service will turn Godís heart.  Some will give great gifts and make great sacrifices hoping to find redemption.  However, no matter how difficult the ritual, no matter how great the work, and no matter how great the sacrifice, it is simply obedience that God desires.  That obedience is deserved by God simply because of who He is:  LORD.

What does it mean to be ďLORD?Ē  When we look at the life of Samuel, we see an individual who not only acknowledged that God was his LORD, he showed it in His life as he gave God authority over every part of his life.  A LORD has complete and uncompromised authority over his subjects.  If we profess Jesus Christ as LORD, then the true evidence of our testimony is not shown in our sacrifice, but rather in our obedience.  All of the sacrifices ever given cannot together please the LORD as much as one simple act of obedience. 

When we look at our lives, do we see ourselves as a Samuel who has dedicated his entire life to the LORD?  Or, do we see ourselves as a Saul who claims to be a child of the King, but does everything his own way, without a true regard for the true King?  Probably most of us are positioned on a spectral line somewhere between these two disparate examples.  If we lean toward Saulís end of the spectrum we probably have never seriously considered the importance of acknowledging and living under Jesusí Lordship.  The consequences of disobedience are profound.  God has a plan and purpose to provide and protect those who have placed their faith in Him as He provides them with blessing and abundance of spiritual fruit.  Those who reject His Lordship reject that hand that provides that spiritual blessing and abundance, and have no idea of what they are missing.  They may look at circumstances and ask, ďwhy is this happening to me?Ē never realizing that those circumstances are simply the result of a lifestyle that is characterized by rebellion towards God. 

If God is not the LORD of our entire life, He is not our LORD.  If God is not LORD, we are in rebellion, and note the earlier allusion to rebellion as a form of witchcraft, since witchcraft in and of itself is an expression of rebellions against Godís authority and nature. 

The litmus test of Lordship is found in one simple word:  obedience.  We know enough of Godís Word, and enough of what the Holy Spirit is communicating to us to put away our pride and confess before an omniscient LORD that we have come short of complete obedience in our lives.  Having come short, it is appropriate that we turn from our self-centered ways and put God in charge of our lives.  God, through Samuel, gave Saul several opportunities to confess and repent of his arrogant self-will and turn to God in obedience.  However, Saul continually refused to accept responsibility for his action and was in complete denial of any disobedience on his part.  The consequence for Saul was to be removed from his place of service to the LORD.  When we live in denial of our sin and refuse to turn to God in complete obedience, we are simply acting like Saul, and God may also remove us from a place of service for Him.

Samuel spoke to Saul about rebellion and arrogance, equating them with the sins of witchcraft and idolatry.  These sins turn us away from God.  To rebel against God is the height of arrogance, since by our rebellion we reduce our opinion of Godís majesty to a level below our own self-will.  This is a harsh reminder to all of us of the dangers of self-will.  Let us take the example of Saul to heart as we look at our own lives and set aside our denial, our pride, our self-will, and our arrogance as we return to the LORD who fully deserves our complete and uncompromised obedience.


[1] 1 Samuel 11:10.

[2] Much like most people today.

[3] Exodus 17:15.

[4] Genesis 6:7.