• The BaptistWay lesson for July 13 focuses on 1 Samuel 15:1-35.
This week’s text is difficult for many reasons, the greatest perhaps being the task Saul is given from God—to completely wipe out the Amalekites. Part of me never will be comfortable with this.
You’ve likely heard the reasons used to soften its offense to our sensibilities: 1) God was using violent means within a violent culture; 2) God was taking measures to preserve his people from impurity; 3) God was doing what was necessary, but did not necessarily take joy in it. While these points are true and worth stating, they do not detract from God explicitly commanding Saul to commit genocide. In spite of his long-term plan, the evil of the people or his particular disposition, I will never be 100 percent at ease with this section in the Bible.
That it makes most people uncomfortable demonstrates the potential it has to teach some important things about obedience. As we draw lessons from it, we must be careful of making an exact, one-to-one comparison between our situation and Saul’s. Saul’s situation was unique, so unique it is unlikely anyone will find himself or herself in a similar one.
We must not use this text to justify breaking the law or engaging in immoral activity simply because “God told us to do it.” Rather, we must use it as a general guide to help understand how obedience functions under God’s authority.
Be sure of God’s command
For Saul, there was no question what God was commanding him to do. He received God’s message from Samuel, who was considered a prophet and God’s mouthpiece (vv. 1-3). While prophecy is mentioned as a spiritual gift in the New Testament, there is no position today that carries the weight and authority as the one Samuel had as both a prophet and an adviser to the king. During this period, this was God’s primary way of speaking to people and unveiling his will. Considering this, it is astounding Saul even considered disobedience.
On the other hand, Saul was a person with his own wishes, will and desires. That is something to which we certainly can relate. While God does not speak through anointed prophets in the same way he did in Saul’s day, we all have felt the conflict that comes with discerning the difference between obeying God and our own desires. In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, Eric Metaxes quotes a portion of Bonhoeffer’s diary from 1928 that demonstrates the tension he experienced between obedience and his own desires: “I myself find the way such a decision comes about to be problematic.
One thing is clear to me, however, that one personally—that is, consciously—has very little control over the ultimate yes or no, but rather that time decides everything. Maybe not with everybody, but in any event with me. Recently, I have noticed again and again that all the decisions I had to make were not really my own decisions.”
Perhaps the best way to distinguish between a direct, specific command of God that requires obedience is to question how we would respond if our faith played no role. If we cannot make the same decision as a follower of Christ, then the decision is not really ours to make. It is obedience to be observed.
Just how should we observe obedience? There is only one way—completely. If you are convinced God has spoken, as Saul was, there should not be anything holding you back.
Unfortunately, something held Saul back. Instead of destroying the Amalekites completely, he spared their leader and the best of their livestock (v. 9). When confronted by Samuel, he justifies his actions with some clever reasoning: “‘But I did obey the Lord,’ Saul said. ‘I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal”’ (vv. 20-21). Samuel responds with God’s rejection of Saul as king (vv. 22-23), demonstrating partial obedience is disobedience to God.
I recently watched a movie called Ragamuffin about the life of Christian songwriter Rich Mullins, who is responsible for writing the song “Awesome God” sung by many churches. He moved to Nashville out of a conviction from God. He believed he had a unique voice that needed to be heard among the contemporary Christian music audience.
The problem he encountered was some found his words too harsh and unpleasant. In several scenes, he is portrayed arguing with music producers over his lyrics, and even is shown in one confrontation with a pastor over something he said during one of his concerts. In spite of the opposition he faced, he remained consistent in his message even in the threat of losing a recording contract.
Be aware of the consequences
Rich’s story leads us to one final admonition concerning obedience: Be aware of the consequences. There are consequences for both obedience and disobedience. Saul faced rejection as king as a result of his disobedience. Rich faced being misunderstood and losing his livelihood as a result of his obedience.
Obedience does not necessarily bring prosperity; it brings God’s blessing.