[Note: These are my notes for a Sabbath school class I had been asked to give but which I had to pass on to someone else because I was asked to give the sermonette in Portland at the same time Sabbath School classes were held. I hope you enjoy my notes anyway.]
Since the regularly scheduled teacher for this week’s Sabbath School asked me on Wednesday night if I could teach the class, I had only a few days to prepare. Fortunately, I had given some context in my previous class, and fortunately the story of Saul is not one that is unfamiliar to me at all . While I approached my previous class as a choose your own adventure one for my young but bright students because the subject was so sprawling, the topic of Saul’s rejection by God is a vastly more focused story and therefore it rewards a study in depth and not in breadth as my previous topic did. In fact, the focus of this particular story is so narrow that it invites a forensic examination, to figure out what exactly went wrong with Saul and what can be learned by us. This is especially important because many people look at Saul and think that God gave him a raw deal when compared with other kings, like David. The difference between the two is an instructive one that will hopefully inform our own understanding of how God decides who to reject.
Let us begin with the rejection itself and Saul’s response to it. We find it in 1 Samuel 15:22-31: “But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.” Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe,and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.” Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” So Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord.”
What we have here is a decisive conflict between Samuel as a prophet of God and Saul as a king who clearly does not get the point. Without needing to hear Saul’s excuses, we know that there will be excuses, as Saul repeatedly tries to convince Samuel to come with him and that he will worship God. Let us compare this half-hearted repentance with David’s famous Psalm 51:10-17: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” When we compare the repentance of David with the half-hearted repentance of Saul, we see some clear differences. David sinned, more obviously than Saul did, but he got the magnitude of his sin. It was ultimately his depth of repentance rather than any sort of level of sin that made the biggest difference in the different response that God made between Saul and David concerning their biggest sins.
What command did Saul break? Well, specifically, Saul disobeyed a direct commandment made by God through Samuel discussed in 1 Samuel 15:1-3: “Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”” What did Saul do instead? As it is written in 1 Samuel 15:7-9: “ Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur,near the eastern border of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.” And then, on top of that, Saul had the temerity to claim that he had done precisely what God asked him to do in 1 Samuel 15:20-21: “ “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 theLord your God at Gilgal.”” One wonders exactly what Saul understood by the command to “completely destroy” the Amalekites. Obviously he did not have a literal meaning intended. Perhaps he reasoned among himself that God clearly did not want to waste all of the spoils of victory, but God wanted Amalek wiped off the map, not merely plundered and looted. For Saul, it was a fatal error.
So, what were the reasons for Saul’s rejection by God? Here we see several related problems. For one, we see that Saul did not take the word of God seriously. He was given a direct command and he interpreted it in a way that corresponded with the way he thought, rather than asking clarification as to what God meant so that he could obey the command. Then he had the temerity to lie about what he had done, or not done, and then offered specious reasons for his failure to obey, prompting Samuel’s reminder that obedience is better than sacrifice, something that ought to be remembered in our days as well where people seek to earn goodwill with God and men through generosity of ill-gotten gains. There are some clear lessons as to the way that we often tone down what we view as God’s outrageous or difficult commands, and reinterpret them in the light of our own wishes, and the way that we claim obedience to God when we have in fact disobeyed His commandments. Given what happened to Saul, we would do well to reflect upon our own half-hearted obedience, our own tendency to give excuses, and our own attempts to cover up our disobedience. Failure to do so could be just as fatal for us as it was to Saul and his reign.
 See, for example: