“But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction. . . .And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, ‘Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
What were God’s instructions to Saul? He was to destroy everything when he attacked the Amalekites. Everything is a hard word to misinterpret. In pretty much every occasion it means…everything. It doesn’t leave anything out. Now, perhaps it can be used hyperbolically, but that wasn’t how God used it in His instructions to Saul. He meant everything. And Saul didn’t obey.
Now, someone might defend Saul on the grounds that he was trying to lean in the direction of showing mercy—something God certainly wasn’t doing in giving this command. But, that argument fails on a number of levels. First, this was an incidence of divine judgment. God is just when He judges, even when we don’t understand it. I’ve already talked about dealing with some of the apparent difficulty of this command on that front. For Saul to do anything less than what God commanded here was to subvert divine judgment and that would have been a sin worthy of judgment itself. And, because God’s judgment will be executed, it would have been pointless anyway.
Second, this argument assumes Saul somehow knew better than God what was the right thing to do here. There are not a few folks today who believe themselves to be more moral than God. They may not say this out loud, but if you pay attention, it is clearly rattling around in their worldview. The problem here is that we aren’t more moral than God. Ever. His character defines morality. For us to be more moral than God assumes that, instead, our character defines it. If our character defines right and wrong, our world is in serious trouble. Saul did not know better than God.
Third, Saul didn’t actually show any mercy here. He kept Agag, the king, alive, and he kept the best of the spoils. Everything else he destroyed. Now, he would later try and justify that he was just saving it to make a big sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise to God, but the context suggests rather insistently that this was a lie to cover his wrongdoing. He had built a monument to himself. Saul was going to parade Agag around like a trophy to show how big and powerful of a king he was. He may have thrown God a bone of some of the spoil, but he was going to throw a big celebration barbecue and increase his personal wealth with the rest of it.
No, there’s just no way around the fact that Saul simply blew it here. The real problem, though, is not that he blew it. Rather, the real problem is that he didn’t think he blew it. There are two conclusions here. First is that he was lying to Samuel to try and cover for his intentionally not doing what God had said because he felt guilty about it once he was caught. The problem here is that nothing in the text suggests any guilt on his part. He wasn’t worried about Samuel’s (or God’s) judgment, he was worried about saving face in front of all the people. The second conclusion is that he really believed he hadn’t done anything wrong. This is probably the more correct, and also the more problematic. Saul had become convinced that something wrong was something right.
This is a huge part of what finally disqualified him from being king. He had traveled this path of pride far enough that God couldn’t leave him on the throne any longer. Now, He knew this would happen, but the people had asked for a king like everyone else had and He let them experience that as fully as He could. Even still, God left Saul on the throne for many more years as the events leading from Saul to David played themselves out naturally.
When we fall to this kind of thinking, we are in real trouble. When God calls us to do something, He expects for us to do it. To do anything else is sin. To do anything else and think we are not sinning means we think we know more than God. In this we are always wrong. Even when the instructions seem hard or don’t make a lot of sense, practice obedience. That is the path that will always lead to life.