For rebellion is as [serious as] the sin of witchcraft,
And disobedience is as [serious as] false religion and idolatry.
The circumstances of this rebuke by the Prophet Samuel to Israel's first king, Saul, should be a reminder to us of the consequences of our own rebellion. This particular passage stems from Saul's disobedience to the Lord's command to destroy all of the Amalekites. The Amalekites had committed a terrible sin against Israel nearly 400 years before. When the nation was weak and vulnerable the Amalekites attacked the weakest and most vulnerable of the nation (Deuteronomy 25:18). They did this for no reasons except violence and greed. God hates it when the strong take cruel advantage over the weak, especially when the weak are His people.
God still held this sin against the Amalekites because time does not erase sin before God. Among men, time should erase sin and the years should make us more forgiving to one another. But before God, time cannot atone for sin. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can erase sin, not time. In fact, it was time that the Amalekites were mercifully given as an opportunity to repent, but they did not do so. The hundreds of years of hardened unrepentant hearts made them more guilty, not less guilty.
Now, God good have just smote the Amalekites as He did Sodom and Gomorrah, but it was His desire that His command to destroy them would be a test of obedience for Saul and all of Israel. And how did Saul perform? He attacked the Amalekites as instructed by the Lord, but it was a selective, incomplete obedience. First, Saul took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. God commanded Saul to bring His judgment on all the people, including the king.
Saul and the people then went on to spare "Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them:" In other words, they kept the spoils of the war for themselves. It is important to note that Scripture says, "Everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed." Now, in a normal war in the ancient world, armies were freely permitted to plunder their conquered foes. This was often how the army was paid. But it was wrong for anyone in Israel to benefit from the war against the Amalekites, because it was an appointed judgment from God.
One commentary I read had this to say about the ramifications of disobeying God: [The tracking of the spoils of war] was perhaps worst of all, because Israel did not show God's heart in His judgment. When the Israelites came home happy and excited because of what they gained from the battle, they implied there was something joyful or happy about God's judgment. This dishonored God, who brings His judgment reluctantly and without pleasure, longing that men would repent instead.
We must acknowledge that in this case, and all cases of disobedience, partial obedience is complete disobedience. And since King Agag and the Amalekites were considered the epitome of sin to God, to spare them was like sparing some part of evil, some self-indulgence, some favorite sin.
And then the Lord informed the prophet Samuel of Saul's disobedience, and of His grief over the king's sin. Now, the Prophet must discipline the king because he had set us a monument to himself on the way home from the battle. Saul wasn't grieved over his sin at all. In fact, Saul was quite pleased with himself! There is not the slightest bit of shame or guilt in Saul, even though he directly disobeyed the LORD.
(In coming chapters, God will raise up another man to replace Saul as king. David, in contrast to Saul, was known as a man after God's own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Even though David would also disobey God, the difference between him and Saul was great. David felt the guilt and shame one should feel when they sin. Saul didn't feel it. His conscience was dead to shame and his heart was dead to God. Saul's heart was so dead he could directly disobey God and still set up a monument for himself on the occasion).
Saul then tries to excuse his sin to Samuel, by claiming that they spared the best of the sheep, oxen, and lambs as a sacrifice to the Lord. But Samuel tells him to be quiet and listen to the judgment God would bestow on Saul for his disobedience. Samuel goes on to ask the following question: "Is the Lord as delighted is burnt offerings and sacrifices as He is to [our] obedience to His voice? Let me tell you, to obey Him is better than [any] sacrifice, and to take to heart His commandment is better than the fat of any ram". In other words, Religious observance and traditions, without obedience, is empty before God. The best sacrifice we can bring to God is a repentant heart (Psalm 51:16-17) and our bodies surrendered to His service for obedience (Romans 12:1).
It's as simple as this: We could offer to make 1,000 sacrifices to God, or work ten thousand hours in service to Him, or give a million dollars to His work... But all these mean little if there is not a surrendered heart to God, shown by simple obedience. Do what He tells you to do; Go where He tells you to go; and do it all with a willing and repentant heart. That's what honors Him!
Then Samuel concludes with our selected Scripture today: For rebellion is like the sin of witchcraft, and disobedience is like a false religion and idolatry: A rebellious, disobedient heart rejects God just as certainly as someone rejects God by occult practices or idolatry. In fact, when Saul consciously disobeyed God, he was following his own self-will, and in essence placing his desires above God's. Following such self-delusion is, in in effect, a false religion... a worship of self, as god. Saul rejected God's supremacy, and the result was that God rejected Saul as king.
What is the lesson we can take from this tragic story? There are many, but perhaps the most relevant has to do with how the future leader of this nation will obey the commandments of God, and if it will result in God's pleasure or rejection. Because, make no mistake. God still judges the nations, just as He did the Amalekites. Throughout the history of the world the nations have been standing before Christ's bar and have been judged. Nineveh stood there, Babylon stood there, Greece and Rome stood there, Spain and France stood there, Nazi Germany stood there. One after another has heard the solemn word - Depart, and they have passed into destruction. How will the present nations fare? How will the United States of America? If we can take one lesson from King Saul's destructive path, it should be this ... God does not tolerate disobedience. There will be a price to be paid. And He makes it clear that He views our failure or refusal to obey Him very seriously. Let us pray that our next leader has a repentant heart and a desire to obey His every command.