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Grace Notes

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“TO OBEY IS BETTER THAN SACRIFICE”
by Philip Owen

We can become far too cavalier in our response to the Lord and His holy, gracious will.  Under the law, disobedience was marked by swift, often severe judgment, but the patience and mercy demonstrated under grace all too often breed a laxity in both our faithfulness and obedience.  Our Lord is not a harsh taskmaster, nor does He impose His will on us.  Rather, He draws us with the bands of love.  But consequences follow all our actions.  When we heed the wooing of the Lord, the consequences are sweet fellowship, power for service, and glorious victory.  But if we become willful, we pay another price.  Witness a signal example.

The Philistines had gathered against King Saul of Israel because Jonathan, Saul’s son, had attacked and resoundingly defeated a garrison of Philistine soldiers at Geba.  Saul called his soldiers together in preparation for battle.  But he grew nervous because he knew that, as the Lord’s anointed king, he could not make a move without the Lord’s direction.  He also knew that both would come via Samuel, the prophet of the Lord, and his sacrifice of the mandatory burnt offering.  For seven long days, Saul waited for Samuel, who had promised to arrive within that time frame.  But as his people grew restless, Saul, in desperation, called for a burnt offering and sacrificed that which only a priest was prescribed to offer.  “As soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came” (I Sam. 13:10a). 

What follows is hardly pleasant—much less regal, and far from godly.  Samuel demands from Saul an explanation for his intrusion into the priest’s office.  1.  Fear.  Saul excuses himself on the basis of fear:   his own people fled, the Philistines gathered, and Samuel still absent, Saul “asked the favor of the Lord” (v. 12b).  Fear and disobedience are partners:  either will initiate the other.  And both are enemies of the Lord.  2.  Force.  “So I forced myself,” Saul tries to explain, “and offered the burnt offering” (v. 12c).  Left unchecked, fear in the flesh invariably leads to force by the flesh to act contrary to God’s will.  For the cry of the flesh is never, “Wait on the Lord” but always, “What are you going to do?”  But as forceful as is the flesh, it is impotent to accomplish God’s will.  3.  Foolishness.  As a result, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever.  But now your kingdom shall not endure.  The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after his own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you’” (vv. 13, 14).  Fleshly actions invariably result in utter folly.  4.  Failure. The Lord will not sanction a carnal project, the sure result of which is failure.  “Saul was staying in the outskirts of Gibeah under the pomegranate tree” (14:2a).  Armed for battle, with his soldiers about him, and with a superior force of Philistines nearby—all suggesting a surprise attack as the best strategy, Saul cooled his heals under a pomegranate tree—immobilized by his own disobedience, and a failure before both God and his own nation.

Only four chapters earlier, the record reveals that Saul had been anointed king.  Only three chapters earlier had been chronicled his great victory at Jabesh-gilead.  But now through his willfulness and disobedience, Saul sits dejected and defeated, not by his Philistine foes on the field of battle (that would have been shameful enough), but by his own flesh, by a conscious and seemingly rational decision to disobey the will of God.   Though Saul is to remain as figurehead king for some time yet, he will never regain the blessing of the Lord.  In fact, the next chapter recounts Saul’s overt disobedience, and the following chapter paints the picture of a hapless Saul, sitting in embarrassing fear and impotence as the giant Philistine, Goliath, mocks the armies of Israel, showing contempt for their God.  Saul never recovers from this downward spiral.

Obedience is for the weak, for bootlickers, for the dependent, sneers the flesh.  But Saul stands as a lesson for us all.  Failure falls on all who disobey God:  that’s the initial price of judgment, though not the ultimate price.  But favor follows those who obey God’s perfect will.

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