“…Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice…”
(1 Samuel 15:22)
The first king of Israel was getting impatient. Israel was in a war with the Philistines, and things weren’t going well. King Saul was at the town of Gilgal waiting for the prophet Samuel. Samuel was supposed to offer God a sacrifice there…but he was delayed in coming. Meanwhile, Saul’s army continued to crumble.
So the king took it upon himself to act. He offered the sacrifice instead. Samuel arrived just as Saul was finishing the offering and asked Saul what he had done. After giving a bunch of excuses, Saul said, “…So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering” (v. 12). The prophet then told the king that he had sinned and had disobeyed God. As a result, his kingdom would not last. God would give his kingdom to someone else, “a man after his own heart” (vs. 13-14).
Unfortunately, Saul did not learn his lesson. At a later time God through Samuel commanded the king to strike the country of Amalek and destroy everything and everyone inside it (1 Samuel 15:1-3). Yet Saul chose instead to spare Amalek’s king and the best of their animals. This was a man who had been told by Samuel earlier how important obedience to God was, and yet he continually disobeyed his Creator anyway (cf. 1 Samuel 12:14-15, 20-25). So Saul didn’t have any excuse.
When Samuel met with Saul this time, the king actually had the gall to claim that he had obeyed God (v. 13), prompting Samuel to sardonically ask about the noises of the animals he was hearing which Saul had spared (v. 14). Saul tried to shift the blame from himself to the Israelite people (v. 15), but Samuel was having none of it and reminded Saul that he, in spite of his former humility, had disobeyed God again. The king again tried to shift the blame to the people, even going so far as to make a subconscious blunder which might have revealed his true mindset by referring to God as Samuel’s God rather than his own (v. 21). Samuel responded with the question quoted above, giving us an eternal truth about our relationship with God: obedience is valued by the Almighty more than anything else (v. 22).
No one knows the mind of God except the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:11), who in turned inspired the writers of Scripture (1 Corinthians 2:12-13; Ephesians 3:3-5; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Thus, the only way to know the will of God is to read the Bible. This makes acting without biblical authority the equivalent of disobeying God, something which the episodes with Saul and Samuel shows is very serious. Read the beginning of Saul’s biblical biography and you’ll read about a very humble man. Yet he changed. He now acted without divine authority, and God punished him for it by giving his kingdom to David. He worshiped God by offering sacrifices…but he wasn’t authorized by God to make those sacrifices. So God was not happy even though He was being worshiped. Obedience is more important to God than sacrifices. Worship which is acceptable must be within the parameters of His Word. He was told by God what to do, and didn’t do it. So no excuses he made would suffice or save him from God’s punishments.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12). Many scoff at that notion, but it is true nonetheless. Many “profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works” (Titus 1:16). The reality is that our whole reason for existing is to fear God and obey Him (Ecclesiastes 12:13). If we love Jesus, we will obey Him (John 14:15). If we love God, we will obey Him (1 John 5:3). Everything we say or do is to be done in His name, by His authority (Colossians 3:17).
Obedience means more to Jesus than praising Him as Lord (Luke 6:46; Matthew 7:21-27), because obedience proves the praise is real. That’s why He “is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” (Hebrews 5:9).