Things were strange for the nation of Israel after they entered the long-awaited Promised Land. They had God behind them to take command of all the territory, with each of the 12 tribes responsible for controlling the specific land assigned to each. They did manage to get themselves situated in the land, but they did not all follow through on ridding the land of the previous inhabitants whom God had directed they thrust out. As a result, Israel ended up in a seemingly endless cycle—they would fall away from worshiping God; God would raise up one of these evil nations to rise up and take control of Israel; Israel would realize the oppression was the result of their disobedience and repent and return to God; God would then raise up a leader to rally the forces to push the invaders back; things would go well until that leader died; the nation would fall away again; and the cycle would repeat. This went on for 400 years. Pretty dismal circumstances.
Eventually, the people of Israel concluded that having their own king—like these other nations--would be the ticket to breaking this cycle. Little did they know how wrong this would be, but their persistence led God to give them what they wanted, even though He warned them how bad this would be for them as a people. God selects as Israel’s first king a man by the name of Saul. Well, Saul was a specimen, no doubt about that. He stood a full foot taller than anyone else in the country. The people were overjoyed because this fellow looked like the kind of dude who could lead the nation.
And for a while, he was. Things went oh-so well, in large part because Saul began with an enormous amount of humility. For example, when the old leader, Samuel, that God used to tell Saul he was the chosen one, Saul’s knee-jerk response was to ask, “Why me? I am from the least significant tribe, and the least significant clan in that tribe, and the least significant family in that tribe. Surely, there’s been a mistake.” But it was probably that humility that God saw that made Saul appealing. Perhaps he would be the kind of king that would follow God and not lead the people astray. Saul started out with the view that he could not do this job, so he depended on God for instructions. And God responded by giving Saul great victories. He crushed the Ammonites to Israel’s east, united the 12 tribes, and began to secure the nation’s borders. The prospect for prosperity and safety was high.
But this is, after all, a series about How The Good Go Bad, so you might presume things go off the rails—and if you did, you’d be right. For that part of the story, we pick up the action in 1 Samuel 15.
1 Sam. 15:1-3 - 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.'"
Wow! This, from a loving God? What in the world is up with this? Well, we have to remember Daniel 2:21, which tells us that there are times and seasons, and that God Himself raises up kings and disposes of them. Nations and empires can reach the point of wickedness from which there is no return, and God moves to take them out. We all know that history is strewn with the carcasses of once-thriving cultures and nations. Where are the Hittites? The Assyrians? The Babylonians? The Roman Empire? Gone, plain and simple. History tells us they were once here and now they are no more, but it is scripture that informs us that it is God Himself who has moved to make their disappearances occur.
If you want to read more about the Amalekites, check out Deuteronomy 25 and Exodus 17. The Amalekites were the first nation that attacked Israel as it wandered in the desert, having been rescued from slavery in Egypt. As the Israelites snaked through the wilderness in a line of some 1-2 million, the Amalekites would descend on the back of the line, where the weak and the slow and the challenged and the pregnant and the nursing moms would gravitate. They will kill everyone, grab everything valuable and disappear before the front of the line knew what happened.
The Amalekites have had some 450 years or so to continue their evil ways, but God now decrees that it is coming to an end. And God makes it very clear that this is not a get-rich quick scheme for Israel. It is God’s judgment on a wicked and evil people. Kill everything and destroy all their stuff. Take no spoils whatsoever. Saul masses 210,000 troops and heads up in obedience to the command. He finds some friendlies in the Amalekite camp, Kenites, a nomadic tribe that would go from place to place offering their services. Saul gets word to them to get out of town, lest they be wiped out, too. Once they leave, Saul attacks. Here’s what happened.
1 Samuel 15:7-9 - 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 the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction.
Can you say, “Uh-oh?” Great start. Not a great finish. God’s response is swift.
1 Samuel 15:10-12 - 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.”
Two things. Saul did not obey the command to destroy everything and everyone and take nothing. Beyond this, it appears the humility that once marked Saul is gone. Samuel hears about a monument Saul has erected in honor of himself. And if you think God doesn’t have a bit of a sense of humor, just keep reading as the confrontation between Samuel and Saul heats up.
1 Samuel 15:13-15 - 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 have devoted to destruction.”
Saul is seemingly clueless about the deep doo-doo he is in. “Oh, Samuel, blessings to ya, buddy. I’m back, having done everything God wanted. It’s a great day, ain’t it?” Samuel’s response? “Well, if that’s the case, why am I stepping in cow pies? Why do I hear the noises of sheep and cows?” Saul’s defense? “Oh, all that stuff? I didn’t bring that back. The people did. You know people, right? Who can control ‘em? So, you can see that none of that is my fault, so we’re good here.” He’s about to find out that things are not good. In fact, he’s about to find out that the good has gone bad.
1 Samuel 15:16-19 - 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?”
Samuel has heard enough. He tells Saul to just stop talking because he’s dug himself enough of a grave already. Remember, Saul, when you were once small in your own eyes, when you were certain you could not do this job, when you depended entirely on God, and He came through for you? Have you forgotten that God’s the One in charge, not you? Have you gotten too big for your britches? Why didn’t you just obey the very clear instructions. You blame the people, but we both know you pounced on the spoil for yourself. Despite what you think you did right, what God sees is simply disobedience. You have hidden your rebellion behind all the good things you think you pulled off. Your real heart in this matter is revealed not in the things you did right, but in those corrals over there with the sheep and the oxen and in the tents over there with the spoils, and in your new buddy, Agag.
And I actually believe that Saul is flabbergasted. I think he has convinced himself that he is 100% in the right. It comes out in his continued attempt to defend himself.
1 Samuel 15:20-23 - 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 doesn’t even realize that his defense condemns him. “I obeyed. If you don’t believe me that I destroyed everyone, just ask King Agag over there. He’ll tell you.” Problem? King Agag is still breathing. He’s just the most visible sign that Saul was disobedient. And here’s where we struggle a little bit. I mean, Saul probably scored about 98% on the test. He killed everyone except Agag. Yeah, he grabbed some spoils. He wasn’t 100%, but still, 98's a pretty good grade, don’t you think? Yet, God calls it evil and rejects Saul as king. Man, this is tough love at its toughest. And for a moment, it seems maybe Saul might come out of this intact. He acknowledges his sin. But he quickly reverts to type, as we’ll see in this next exchange.
1 Samuel 15:24-25;30 - 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.”. . . Then he said, "I have 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."
OK, yes, I get it that I sinned. And the reason I did it was because I feared the people and not God. I figured my popularity would go down if I didn’t let them keep the spoils of the victory. And here’s the rub. With everything Saul says after this, it’s clear that his concern isn’t for his sin or his relationship with God as much as it is in how he’s seen by the people. Notice that Saul’s references aren’t to his God, but to Samuel’s God. Samuel, you go with me to church, OK? Show me honor by just being with me and the people will still think highly of me. Because it’s the people I’m concerned about. It’s the people whose opinions matter to me. Not God. And God declares He’s finished with Saul. And for the rest of Saul’s reign, God never speaks to him again. And Saul begins a descent into depression, rage, jealousy, and madness.
A couple of final points for us, because this isn’t just a cute story. It’s an account God put down for us to learn from. First point is this: partial obedience is really just disobedience. And our problem is this: If it takes 100%, or we’re evil, what hope do we have. Because none of us are going to hit 100%. I sure don’t. Ah, that leads us to our second point.
God is more concerned with our direction than our perfection. The Christian life is not about being perfect. I don’t want anyone reading this today thinking, “Wow, I’ve got to be perfect. Otherwise, I’m evil and God has found me useless.” God is concerned about our hearts and our direction. Let me illustrate this quickly by the guy God picks next as king. A fellow you’ve heard of named David. A guy who has an affair with his neighbor, gets her pregnant, and kills her husband to cover it up. That wasn’t all. David had some major blunders—probably about 4 of them where he blew it big time. But listen, every time, when called on the carpet for those things, he did something Saul never did. David dropped to his knees and said, “God, I have sinned against you and you alone. Forgive me. God, create in me a new heart. God, show me what it’s like to follow you with my whole heart and soul and mind and strength and help me to do that.
How different from Saul’s prayer, which was, “Help me look good in front of the people.” But this isn’t a story where God says, “If you are a child of mine you have to be absolutely perfect.” This is a story where God says, “If you are a child of mine, you will want to be perfect, knowing you can’t get there on your own, knowing that Jesus already paid the price for your mess ups. So, with the new heart God gives you, you’ll will strive from your love for him to be obedient. and when you fail--and you will fail, just like me--at being obedient. When that is brought to our attention, children of God say this: “God, this is not something I will accept, this is not something I am willing to condone, this is not something I am willing to excuse, this is not something I will hold on to. I will change my mind about that. I will repent. I will turn and head in a new direction You have set for me. Teach me how to battle it and move on.”
People who aren’t children of God do this: "God, I know what you say about sexuality, I know what you say about marriage, I know what you say about raising kids, and finances and loving others, especially those that don’t love us back. I know what you say about serving and giving and dying to ourselves to live for you. I know all that. But listen, God, I think I’m doing 98%. But everyone’s got a little stash, and surely you recognize that being obedient right now is really bad timing for me, right?" See, there’s always a reason, an excuse. And if that’s our stand, don’t be surprised if God shows up and says, “Well, if that’s your stand, feel free to use all the God talk you want, but I’m done with you. Can’t use you. I’ll find someone else to pick up the mantle you should be carrying.
And that’s what happened to the first sheriff of Israel, and it’s how the good go bad.