I Samuel 14:47-15:35 Obedience Is Better Than Sacrifice.
Saul continued to enjoy some success, no doubt under the leadership of Jonathan – against Moab, Ammon, Edom, Zobah, the Philistines and Amalekites. As predicted of kings, “when Saul saw any strong man or any valiant man, he took him for himself” (v. 52). However, Samuel reminded him that he had anointed him king over the LORD’s people, so that he must “heed the voice of the words of the LORD” (15:1). One such word was that he destroy Amalek who had ambushed the LORD’s people as they were leaving Egypt (Dt. 25:17-19 Cf. Nu. 24:20). Clearly he and the people had forgotten this earlier word from the LORD. This was a unique war directed by the LORD himself for a specific purpose (vv. 2-3).
To emphasize that this order had specific reference to the treatment of Israel by the Amelakites as they were fleeing from Egypt, Saul spares the Kenites who were in their midst (v. 6). They were victorious, but in sparing Agag the king and the best of the livestock, they were not heeding all the words of the LORD. They decided what and who could be spared, when the LORD wanted a total destruction. It was Saul’s penchant for following only parts of what the LORD commanded, making himself the arbiter of what should be obeyed, that would ultimately lead to the rejection of him as king (vv. 10-11).
Saul erected a monument to himself and boasted that he had obeyed the LORD (v. 12). In his mind it was right that they should save the best of the livestock, saying that he did so to offer sacrifice (vv. 13-15). Samuel preaches a word of judgment against Saul for not fully keeping the words spoken to him, even though he claimed that he had, again justifying the saving of the best of the livestock for sacrifices (vv. 16-21). It is in this context that we have the famous statement that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (v. 22). Failure to fully obey the word of the LORD was rebellion which was “as the sin of witchcraft” (v. 23).*
It was because he had rejected the word of the LORD that Saul was rejected as king (v. 26). Saul actually confessed that he feared the voice of the people more than the word of the LORD (v. 24). For this reason the kingdom would be given to another better than him (vv. 27-28). When Samuel tried to leave, Saul grabbed the edge of his robe and it ripped, which was symbolic of the kingdom being ripped away from him. The LORD would not relent concerning his decision (v. 29). At this point all Saul wanted was to not be humiliated in front of the people, although he claimed that he also wanted to be forgiven and to worship the LORD.
In any case, Samuel did stay (vv. 30-31), partly to ensure that the command of the LORD was fulfilled with the execution of Agag (vv. 32-33). This would be the last time these two men would be together until Samuel’s death (v. 34). “Nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul, and the LORD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel” (v. 35). Saul is a classic example of those who think that they can pick and choose what words from the LORD God they will obey, and what areas they think their own judgment to be better. Not obeying in whole is rebellion and ultimately idolatrous autonomy.
*Much is made of this sentiment expressed by the later prophets, but it is worth noting that this word first comes through one who was a priest as well as a prophet. However, David also surely learned the lesson as Saul’s successor. (Cf. Ps. 50:8-17; 51:16-17; Pr. 15:8; 21:3, 27; Eccl. 5:1; Is. 1:10-17; Jer. 6:19-20; 7:21-26; Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8).