Monday, February 26, 2007

Obedience Rather Than Sacrifice

Saul it seems, was instructed to have the Israelite completely destroy the Amalekites – people and animals. Rather, Saul allowed the Israelites to capture the Amalekite king, and to bring back the choicest live stock. When Samuel returns to visit Saul, the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the cattle are clearly audible. Assuming that the Israelites had done what had been directed, Samuel finds this noise to be somewhat unexpected, and so he asks Saul to explain what has happened. Saul’s response is a two-parter. The first is that the people have brought back the best of the plunder to sacrifice it to God. The second is that Saul was afraid of the people and so he let them bring back the plunder [and in this explanation, we don’t know why].

Samuel’s response is his mission for God, and he will complete it. Samuel tells Saul that he has failed in his mission to destroy the Amalekites and as a result God has rejected him as king of Israel. In Samuel’s discussion with Saul, he says:

“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. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” (1 Sam 15.22-23, RSV)

Verse 22 is one of the most familiar verses in all of Scripture: God prefers obedience rather than sacrifice. What exactly does this mean, and what are the implications for us? What does the word obedience entail, what does it mean?

Obedience in the immediate context deals with Saul’s failure to wipe out the Amalekites, as he was told by God to do. And why are we told Saul failed to do this? It is simply this: Saul’s pride. After returning from the Amalekite battle, he goes to Carmel and sets up a monument to himself. This is in stark contrast to what the people of Israel have done in the past when given victories by God. In those instances, altars and sacrifices, accompanying praise to God have been offered. Here, Saul apparently thinks the victory has been secured through his efforts rather than God’s. Perhaps bringing the Amalekite king and the best stock isn’t so much for God’s glory but more as a procession to exalt Saul as the conquering king. Saul has a pride problem.

As verse 23 tells us, God says Saul is rebellious and stubborn, two characteristics of prideful people. This gives us a window into Saul’s problem and why God is so displeased with him. Obedience it seems is not obedience for its own sake. Rather, obedience is an indicator of Saul’s submission to God in all things. Saul didn’t complete his mission because he was dismissive of God’s directive.

And God knew it.

Sacrifice is secondary to obedience because acceptable sacrifice comes only from those who submit to God and who trust Him above their own reasoning, above their own ideas of what is “right.” The words in the Hebrew that are used here for obedience and hearken have as their root, the idea of listening, of pricking up the ears, of intelligently hearing and owning what has been said. Obedience then carries with it much more than simply hearing the words, and arises out of a hearing and owning what has been said. It stands to reason then that sacrifices made by those who are rebellious toward God are worthless.

What does this say to us? There are at least two things we can gather from this event. The first is that God wants us to trust Him and to submit to what He wants, especially in contrast to our own glory and advancement. As Paul will say in Ephesians, God has submitted Himself to us and we in turn submit to one another. It is in this submitting to one another that we are tested in the same way Saul was tested. Do we trust God sufficiently to submit ourselves to each other, or do we reserve the option of asserting our rights if we get too uncomfortable? Do we become self-righteous, counting the number of times we have been hurt, and justifying this instance of taking care of Number One? We do so at the peril of our souls.

The second application is that sacrifice, or worship is unacknowledged by God if it comes from rebellious and prideful people. Even if done correctly, according to the book, sacrifice and worship avail nothing. Worship, rightly done, is a response of a grateful people to their gracious God to whom they are submissive.

Obedience then is not simply lock-step behavior, but arises from the heart and is itself colored by the kind of heart out of which it comes. Worship arises from and is colored by the same heart and is acceptable to God on the basis of the worshipper rather than the worship behaviors themselves.

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