“I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
There’s a lot going on here, but at a glance, this seems like another one of those places where, yes, though Saul didn’t do what the Lord had apparently told him to do, He’s overreacting to his failure to do so rather wildly. But, while that is perhaps the obvious understanding, it misses the bigger and more important picture. Let’s take a look at that one.
Now, for starters, what makes this passage a little hard to understand is that it assumes on a conversation between Samuel and Saul (probably through messengers) to which we are not privy. What seems to have happened is that Saul sent Samuel a note that things with the Philistines were about to hit the fan and would he come and offer the people the assurance of the Lord’s presence in the upcoming battle.
For a number of reasons it did not appear that the Israelites had much of a chance against them. Sure, Jonathan, Saul’s son, had led a successful raid against a local Philistine outpost, but that didn’t scare them off so much as rile up the full army to come and teach them a lesson. They successfully won a fight against a bear cub and their prize was an encounter with momma bear. Also, as we later learn, apparently no one in Israel had a sword. They were fighting an army of chariots and swords and spears with what amounted to sticks and stones. They were effective fighters with those sticks and stones, but when things got up close and personal, a sword always beats a stick.
Samuel replied that he would be there in seven days at which point he was going to offer a sacrifice intended to invite the Lord’s presence with the people, something they all understood was crucial to having even a slight chance at victory. Well, seven days came and by that afternoon Saul started to panic. The soldiers, who were already scared to death, had started to desert and flee. So, Saul took matters into his own hands and offered the sacrifice Samuel was going to offer to insure the Lord’s presence.
With perfectly dramatic and ironic timing, Samuel walks up just as Saul finishes making the sacrifice. Incredulous that he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—listen to this simple instruction, Samuel lays into Saul. What do you think you’re doing?!?
Saul’s response is almost flippant. I knew the Philistines were coming and you hadn’t arrived like you promised. I decided that somebody had to do something and since I was the king I went ahead and did it. What he implies is that since the sacrifice has already been made, God’s presence has been assured, and Samuel really doesn’t have any reason to be there.
Samuel responds that because of his disobedient foolishness Saul has guaranteed he will be a one king dynasty. God is going to find somebody else, somebody willing to do what He says, to be the next king.
What strikes me here is the immediacy and harshness of this punishment. Saul offers a sacrifice to the Lord that Samuel was supposed to make. Who cares? At least the sacrifice was offered. Why does God jump on Him like a ton of bricks? (And don’t you figure Samuel is at least a little smug delivering this news since Saul was the guy the people had asked God to be his replacement?)
Perhaps a different way to ask this question is this: What was so wrong with what Saul did? Well, several things. Several things the seriousness of which, had it been you or me doing them may not be such a big deal, but for somebody in Saul’s position to do them raised things to a whole other level.
First the most obvious, Saul didn’t obey the Lord’s command. That should be bad enough by itself. Our problem is we think so little of sin that we don’t think of that as such a big deal. We disobey Him all the time without earth-shattering consequences. What made this time so special?
Saul’s position for one. As king, he was influential in a way you or I will likely never achieve—unless you have a family like I do in which case we are just as influential in the decisions we make, but on a different scale. What he did impacted the whole nation. If he did something they all knew God had told him not to do without facing repercussions, the fear of the Lord among the people would begin to evaporate. After all, if he could get away with it, why couldn’t they? Given that whole existence of Israel as a nation was contingent on their faithfulness to the Lord, Saul’s disobedience represented an existential threat. In other words, this really was a big deal.
Another issue bridging the gap between the first and the third is that Samuel was the one who was authorized to represent the people to God. Now, this one is a bit more difficult for us to understand because of our historical location on this side of the cross, but Saul wasn’t authorized to make this sacrifice. In that day, the average person couldn’t interact with God like we can. Because of sin and the absence of a Savior to serve as an intermediary, the average person needed a priest who had offered the proper atoning sacrifices to stand in the gap and offer sacrifices on their behalf.
For Saul to offer the sacrifice sent a message to the people that invoking the presence of God wasn’t as big a deal as they had been taught to think it was. If Saul didn’t need a priest to get to God, maybe they didn’t either. It risked their thinking that maybe sin wasn’t as big a deal as they had been taught to think it was. If Saul was flippant toward God, perhaps they didn’t need to be serious about Him either. The problem was, sin was still a big deal. If the people started thinking it wasn’t, their very relationship with God was at stake. And again, given their special relationship with God as a people, this ultimately posed an existential threat to the nation.
This points us to a third issue: Saul’s attitude here suggests that he viewed making this sacrifice in order to gain God’s presence for the people before the coming battle as more of a formality. It was a necessary in a perfunctory way, but not really as an act of devotion. In other words, Saul here was guilty of magic thinking. If he made the proper sacrifice, he would guarantee God’s presence. The one led directly to the other like a cause and effect. Religion, in this case, was about securing power over the deity for the end of personal (or national as was the case here) gain.
The problem here is that our God is not like the made-up gods of the nations. Saul was treating God like He was no different in essence from the gods of the Philistines. The difference between the them was essentially like the difference between one person and another. Sure, they aren’t the same, but they are both people and so share a fundamental similarity that makes the differences that do exist merely of degree, not kind. Yet the fundamental truth is that God was and is ontologically different from any other god. He is something wholly different. For Saul to treat Him otherwise sent a message to the people that once again threatened their very existence.
In other words, while it may not seem like it at first read (or even second or third), Saul’s sacrifice here really was a big deal. And if he had genuinely repented, perhaps things would have gone differently for him. Perhaps God would have relented and allowed his son Jonathan, who by all scriptural accounts was a much greater warrior and certainly more righteous, to become king after him. But he didn’t. He was too insecure and by that insecurity arrogant to actually admit he’d done anything wrong. This is borne out even more starkly in chapter 15 where he is reduced to begging Samuel for at least a show of support so he didn’t lose the people on the spot.
The hard truth for Saul was that what he did mattered. He was in a position in which his actions influenced others. Actions that influenced them away from God the Lord took very seriously. Those were ones to which He was going to react immediately and dramatically in order to send a message to the people that He was who He said He was regardless of what Saul was demonstrating for them.
Here’s the connection point for us: When we are in a position to influence people toward or away from God, He will still take our actions which threaten to do the latter very seriously. Jesus Himself said that it is better to tie a heavy stone around our neck and toss it into the ocean than lead someone impressionable away from Him. He will hold us accountable for our choices, especially when those choices impact people beyond just ourselves.
And, here’s the harder truth: We are all in a position to impact someone else in their relationship with God. It may be a colleague who knows we claim to be a Christian. But it may also be our kids or our employees or our parishioners. If you are in a position to influence people—and you are—you need to carefully consider your actions and how they will represent God to them. Will they show God as someone worth following, or will they demonstrate Him to be someone who isn’t really worth their time? The eternal destiny of the people around you is a stake. Every chance you get, live the life of Jesus and make choices that honor Him so that others will see that He is honorable. Don’t follow Saul’s example.