Living Theology | 1 Samuel 15
Living Theology is a blog series that draws out the theological principles of each week's sermon text and thinks through how we can apply them to our personal lives. In other words, this series asks how we can live out the theology of Scripture each day.
Sermon Text: 1 Samuel 15
You can listen to Pastor Brian's sermon on 1 Samuel 15 here.
As Pastor Brian mentioned, this chapter is often a topic of controversy. First of all, for those unfamiliar with the storyline of Israel's history, the order to completely destroy the Amalekites—including the animals, the women, and the children—seems cruel and unjust. Then, there's the question of whether Samuel's claim that God does not "change his mind" (verse 29) conflicts with the narrator's claim, "the LORD regretted he had made Saul king over Israel" (verse 35)—and it certainly does. But both of these are topics for another post.
Our focus in this chapter for this week revolves around Saul's failure as God's appointed leader of his people. Saul does not seem to view himself as a servant of God so much as a partner with God. Saul seems to think that if he gives God what God wants, then God will give him what he wants. Saul's disobedience isn't blatant; it's sneaky. "I completely destroyed the Amalekites....that plunder? Oh, that was the troops, but it's for the LORD!"
Notice also the way that Saul's focus is on himself. What does Saul spare? Does he spare the women and children who would be nothing but a burden on him? No, he spares the "best." He spares what can most benefit him, and he veils his selfishness by claiming that these things are actually meant for the LORD rather than himself. Interestingly, Saul never does sacrifice these things to the LORD. Pastor Brian also pointed out how Saul is repeatedly distancing himself from the LORD:
"in order to offer a sacrifice to the LORD your God" (verse 15)
"to sacrifice to the LORD your God" (verse 21)
"so I can bow in worship to the LORD your God" (verse 30)
Even if we want to give Saul credit for seeking to worship the LORD, he himself admits that his real intention is to be "... honor[ed] ... before the elders of my people and before Israel" (verse 30). 1 Samuel 15 describes the climax of Saul's failure as God's appointed king over his people, Israel, and Saul's faithlessness to the LORD is the primary reason for that failure.
Theological Principle #1:
Actions are more important than words.
Pastor Brian noted that Saul does acknowledge his sin in this chapter (twice, in fact, verses 24-25, 30). He even asks for forgiveness. But there's still something missing.
God's command is still unfulfilled when Saul begs Samuel to forgive him. The battle spoils that the Israelites plundered are still in Saul's possession, and Agag, the king of the wicked nation of Amalek, is still alive.
The narrator does not tell us whether the result would have been different if Saul had immediately called for the Amalekite plunder (and the Amalekite king along with it) to be destroyed in obedience to the command of God. But we do know this is what Saul should have done in the first place, and Samuel demonstrates that it was not too late to complete the task.
So was Saul repentant or not?
Often when people define repentance, they talk about a "change of mind." This is because the word in the New Testament that gets translated as "repent" (metanoia) is made of two Greek words: meta, which means "after"; and nous, which means "mind." But you can't always determine what a word means just by looking at its parts. It would be like claiming that "to understand" something means that you're shorter than it. Words just don't work this way. Meaning doesn't work this way. No one thinks butterflies are made of butter.
The Hebrew word that gets translated as "repent" is only slightly more helpful. Take, for example, the English Standard Version of the Bible. The word "repent" occurs 13 times, and 12 of these are from the Hebrew word shūv. The word shūv usually carries the meaning "to turn" or "to turn around."
On a surface level, it's a lot easier to tell whether or not someone has "turned around" than whether they have had a "change of mind." That's because "turning around" has an outer manifestation that can be seen by others. It's an action. And while God can see our inward thoughts, a true "change of mind" should also manifest itself outwardly. Anyone can say that they are sorry, but the evidence is in their actions.
On occasion, my 4-year-old daughter has been known to disobey something that her mother or I have told her to do. When I tell her that she is being disobedient, her first response is not always repentance. She will often say in a whiny voice, "I'm sorry for disobeying!" But, of course, these are just words. When I hear this, I will often tell her, "Show me you're sorry by doing what we told you." See, that's where things get interesting. She insists that she is sorry for disobeying, and yet, she still refuses to obey. [Folks, I'm not joking here. I went through the exact episode I'm describing as I was typing this.] Confessing sin, asking for forgiveness, and even claiming to be sorry are not the same as repenting. Repentance toward God includes a genuine sorrow for what we've done (or not done), and it leads us to obedience.
Now, I'm not saying that God requires our obedience before he is willing to forgive us. Nor do I require my daughter's obedience before I forgive her. But I do let her know that her refusal to obey shows me that she's not really sorry. In the same way, if we claim to repent of our sin but are still unwilling to obey, we are fooling ourselves and lying to God.
Can you think of a time when someone claimed to be sorry for what they had done, but their actions demonstrate that they were insincere? The apology can almost feel like an insult. Sometimes we can even feel manipulated by insincere apologies. "Welp, they said they're sorry. I'm a Christian, so I guess I have to forgive them." In one sense, yes. You do need to forgive them. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to believe an insincere apology. How much less can we fool God?
What about your own sin? What actions are lacking in your repentance? Where are you still refusing to obey the will of God?
What would true repentance look like in that situation?
Theological Principle #2:
Obedience is better than offerings
In all honesty, this principle isn't much different from the first, but it is important enough and clear enough in this passage to deserve a few words of its own.
Saul tries to excuse his disobedience claiming that the plunder he and his troops "were not willing to destroy" was intended to serve as a sacrifice to the LORD. But Samuel corrects this foolish idea that a sacrifice is going to make up for Saul's disobedience:
Then Samuel said: Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? Look: to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and defiance is like wickedness and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king. (1 Samuel 15:22-23, CSB)
Nothing we can do, no offering that we can bring, will ever undo the sin that we have committed. Interestingly, David seems to understand this point when he is confronted by the prophet Nathan about his violation of Bathsheba:
You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it;
you are not pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit.
You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God. (Psalm 51:16-17, CSB)
Compare Saul's response with David's. This is the difference between confession and repentance.
Is there some offering you're trying to present to God in order to cover over your disobedience? Is there some "good deed" that you're clinging to in order to make up for a "bad deed?" Hear these words from the Sovereign Grace Music song "Not in Me":
No list of sins I have not done,
No list of virtues I pursue,
No list of those I am not like
Can earn myself a place with You.
No separation from the world,
No work I do, no gift I give
Can cleanse my conscience,
cleanse my hands;
I cannot cause my soul to live.
But Jesus died and rose again–
The power of death is overthrown!
My God is merciful to me
And merciful in Christ alone.
The penalty of death that Christ suffered on our behalf on the cross is the only acceptable offering for our sin and disobedience. And God showed us that he has accepted the sacrifice of Jesus by raising him from the dead. That's what we are celebrating this Easter season—Jesus's victory over sin and death, our reconciliation to God by trusting in Jesus as our only acceptable offering, and the promise of eternal life with him to all who believe.
As you pray this week, ask God to point out to you unnoticed sin, disobedience, and obstinance in your life. Ask him to give you genuine sorrow over the sin that you are aware of. Thank him for his patience and mercy. Ask him to give you a desire to obey and the discipline to put his will above your own.