Through the Old Testament in a Year

Today's Reading – 1 Samuel 13:1-15 – Samuel rebukes Saul

To obey is better than sacrifice

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Israel had asked for a king like the nations. Samuel had warned them, "This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots." (1 Samuel 8:11-12). A king will demand the best of Israel's men for his army and that many others should be engaged in support for the military machine. But the people did not listen; they wanted a king like the nations.

And that is what they got. Saul chose 3,000 men from Israel to be in his army, 2000 to be commanded by him and 1,000 by Jonathan, his son. But they were no match for the Philistines whose soldiers were as numerous as grains of sand (v.5). Clearly Saul had a long way to go in developing his army before he could match that of the Philistines – or any other threatening nation.

Saul and his soldiers were quaking with fear in Gilgal. He must quickly have realised that military might would not give him victory over the Philistines – he did not have it; nor had Israel ever won their battles through military superiority. Saul realised that he needed the help of the Lord, the God of Israel. So he sent for Samuel to come to him at Gilgal.

A whole week passed while his troops began to sneak away to their own homes, convinced that a life in Saul's army was a sentence of death. In Samuel's absence Saul ordered that the burnt offerings and fellowship offerings they had set apart for Samuel's arrival be brought to him and he offered them to the Lord, taking upon himself the role of a priest.

Samuel had told Saul the duties and responsibilities of a king, based on the law given through Moses, and had ensured that these were recorded and kept safe before the Lord. But Saul must have thought, this is no time for petty law-keeping; extreme situations demand extreme measures. So he took upon himself the role of a priest in seeking God's favour through sacrifice. In doing so he seems to have believed that the ceremony was of first importance. If only the right offerings can be made then surely the God of Israel will rise to the defence of his people. In this he was adopting the thinking of the nations around him who believed that they could manipulate their gods through ceremonies and sacrifices – think of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in the days of Elijah.

Samuel arrives as Saul finishes the offering and is horrified. He cries out, "What have you done?" (v.11). Saul tries to defend himself by saying that the crisis situation demanded it – he had to seek the Lord's favour (v.12). I wonder whether it crossed his mind to try prayer.

Samuel responds by saying, "You have done a foolish thing. You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command." (vv.13-14). The king was required to keep the Lord's commandments; he was not supposed to come up with schemes of his own devising to win the Lord's favour. Saul is left with 600 men and the knowledge that his days as king are numbered; God has determined that someone else will take his place.

Are there times when we seek to do things our own way rather than God's way and then, when they do not work out, seek to bargain with God for his favour? We need to remember that obedience is better than sacrifice (see 1 Samuel 15:22).

Living God, help me to remember that, in myself, I have no ability to win the battles I face nor to command your favour. Thank you for the Lord Jesus who has won the battles for us and has secured an eternal place in your favour by his own perfect obedience and sacrifice. By your Spirit, keep me faithful and obedient in following him.

Peter Misselbrook