God’s instructions to Saul through the prophet Samuel were quite clear. God was going to punish the Amalekites because “their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they were coming from Egypt” and so Saul was to “go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing; kill all the men, women, children, and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys” (1 Samuel 15:2-3, GNT). According to the narrative, “But Saul and his men spared Agag’s [the king of the Amalekites] life and did not kill the best sheep and cattle, the best calves and lambs, or anything else that was good; they destroyed only what was useless or worthless” (v. 9). In other words, Saul outrightly, knowingly, and purposefully disobeyed God.
The response was immediate. The LORD said to Samuel, “‘I am sorry that I made Saul king; he has turned away from me and disobeyed my commands.’ Samuel was angry, and all night long he pleaded with the LORD” (v. 11). The prophet went and confronted Saul who greeted him with the words, “The LORD bless you, Samuel! I have obeyed the LORD’s command” (v.13), but Samuel was having none of it. Without acknowledging the greeting, he asked, “Why, then, do I hear cattle mooing and sheep bleating?” (v. 14). Saul tried to explain himself, and the prophet countered with what the LORD had told him (vv. 15-18) before asking the all-important question: “Why, then, did you not obey Him? Why did you rush to grab the loot, and so do what displeases the LORD?” (v. 19). Saul insisted he had obeyed, “but my men did not kill the best sheep and cattle that they captured; instead, they brought them here to Gilgal to offer as a sacrifice to the LORD your God” (vv. 20-21).
Samuel then spoke words to Saul that continue to echo across the centuries to all humanity: “Which does the LORD prefer: obedience or offerings and sacrifices? It is better to obey Him than to sacrifice the best sheep to Him. Rebellion against Him is as bad as witchcraft, and arrogance is as sinful as idolatry” (vv. 22-23a). But Samuel was not finished. “Because you [Saul] rejected the LORD’s command, He has rejected you as king” (v. 23b). It was only then that Saul admitted, “Yes, I have sinned . . . I disobeyed the LORD’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of my men and did what they wanted” (v. 24). Read that last statement again, slowly: “I was afraid of my men and did what they wanted.”
Obeying God is not easy, but to remain in fellowship with Him it is mandatory. To do so means we often risk offending people, sometimes losing people we call friends, people who do not understand that we have to do what God commands. No matter the situations in which we find ourselves, we can never justify disobeying God. Regardless of the consequences, given the choice between obedience or offerings and sacrifices, the believer would do well to never forget Samuel’s words: “It is better to obey [the LORD] than to sacrifice the best sheep to Him.” It is what He prefers.