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Thursday, June 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 15

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 2-35


This third major part of 1 Samuel contains three subsections: Samuel’s ministry as Israel’s judge (1 Samuel 7:2-17), the kingship given to Saul (chs. 8-12), and the kingship removed from Saul (chs. 13-15). The main point seems to be Israel’s unjustified dissatisfaction with her sovereign God and its awful consequences. In spite of His people’s rejection, the Lord continued to show them mercy and faithfulness.

Verses 1-35

5. Yahweh’s final rejection of Saul ch. 15

"In the short pericope 1 Samuel 13:7-15 a obedience was the stone on which Saul stumbled; here it is the rock that crushes him." [Note: Ibid., p. 142.]

Chapter 15 records one of the battles Saul fought with the Amalekites, Israel’s enemy to the south (cf. 1 Samuel 14:48). The Amalekites were descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:12; 1 Chronicles 1:36) and, therefore, linked with the Edomites. They were nomads who lived principally in southern Canaan and the Sinai Peninsula. This battle evidently happened about 25 years after Saul began reigning, which was 23 years after God rejected Saul’s dynasty following Saul’s disobedience at Gilgal (1 Samuel 13:1-15). [Note: Wood, Israel’s United . . ., p. 138.] Thus Saul apparently served as king about 23 years between God’s rejection of his dynasty (ch. 13) and God’s rejection of him personally (ch. 15).

Most scholars are sure Saul attacked the Amalekites who lived in the southern Judah Negev, though some feel he attacked an enclave of them in western Samaria. [Note: E.g., Diane Edelmann, "Saul’s Battle Against Amaleq (1 Samuel 15)," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 35 (June 1986):74-81.] Saul did not destroy all the Amalekites at this time (1 Samuel 27:8; 1 Samuel 30:1; 2 Samuel 8:12). King Hezekiah completely annihilated them years later (1 Chronicles 4:43).

God directed Saul through Samuel (1 Samuel 14:1-3). Consequently for Saul to disobey what Samuel said was tantamount to disobeying God. Samuel reminded Saul that Yahweh was the Lord of hosts (1 Samuel 14:2), his commander-in-chief. Saul’s mission was to annihilate the Amalekites plus their animals completely (1 Samuel 14:3; cf. Deuteronomy 7:2-6; Deuteronomy 12:2-3; Deuteronomy 20:16-18). God had commanded Joshua to do the same to Jericho; every breathing thing was to die (Joshua 6:17-21; cf. Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Saul was now to put the Amalekites under the ban (Heb. herem). This practice was not unique to Israel; the Moabites and presumably other ancient Near Eastern nations also put cities and groups of people under the ban. [Note: See Gordon, pp. 143, 147-48.] God had plainly commanded this destruction of the Amalekites through Moses (Exodus 17:16; Deuteronomy 25:17-19; cf. Numbers 24:20; Genesis 12:3). Thus there was no question what the will of God involved. The phrase "utterly destroy" (Heb. heherim) occurs seven times in this account (1 Samuel 14:3; 1 Samuel 14:8-9 [twice], 15, 18, 20), showing that God’s will was clear and that Saul’s disobedience was not an oversight.

"The agent of divine judgment can be impersonal (e.g., the Flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah) or personal (as here), and in his sovereign purpose God often permits entire families or nations to be destroyed if their corporate representatives are willfully and incorrigibly wicked (cf. Joshua 7:1; Joshua 7:10-13; Joshua 7:24-26)." [Note: Youngblood, p. 673. On the problem of God’s goodness and His severe treatment of sinners, and even their animals, in the Old Testament, see Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament; and John W. Wenham, The Enigma of Evil: Can We Believe in the Goodness of God?]

The Amalekites (1 Samuel 14:6) were descendants of Esau (Genesis 36:12), whereas the Kenites traced their ancestry from Midian, one of Abraham’s sons by Keturah (Genesis 25:2). The Kenites had been friendly to Israel (Exodus 18:9-10; Exodus 18:19; Numbers 10:29-32), whereas the Amalekites had not. There may have been a treaty between the Israelites and the Kenites. [Note: See F. Charles Fensham, "Did a Treaty Between the Israelites and the Kenites Exist?" Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 175 (October 1964):51-54.]

Saul’s criterion for what he put to death was not part of God’s command but his own judgment (1 Samuel 14:9). Again, Saul’s defective view of his role under Yahweh’s sovereign rule is obvious. God had earlier revealed through Balaam that Israel’s king "shall be higher than Agag" (Numbers 24:7). As Achan had done, Saul misused some of what God had devoted to another purpose. Clearly Saul set his will against the orders of his Commander; he was "not willing" to destroy everything that breathed (1 Samuel 14:9). His obedience was selective and partial.

The phrase "the word of the Lord came to" occurs only three times in 1 and 2 Samuel (1 Samuel 14:10; cf. 2 Samuel 7:4; 2 Samuel 24:11). In all cases it refers to an important message of judgment that God sent Israel’s king through a prophet. God regretted that He had made Saul king (1 Samuel 14:11) because of Saul’s actions, not because God felt He had made a mistake in calling Saul. Saul’s failure to follow God faithfully also broke Samuel’s heart. The disobedience of leaders always grieves the hearts of God’s faithful servants. Samuel foresaw the consequences of Saul’s actions. The village of Carmel (lit. vineyard) stood about 8 miles south and a little east of Hebron. The monument Saul set up honored himself, not God who gave him the victory. When Moses defeated the Amalekites, he built an altar (Exodus 17:15-16); but when Saul defeated them, he erected a stele, a monument commemorating a victory (cf. 2 Samuel 18:18).

Consistent with his view of his own behavior, Saul claimed to have obeyed God (1 Samuel 14:13). Nevertheless he had only been partially obedient. God regards incomplete obedience as disobedience (1 Samuel 14:19). Rather than confessing his sin, Saul sought to justify his disobedience (1 Samuel 14:15; cf. Genesis 3:12; Exodus 32:22-23). He believed it was for a worthy purpose, and he failed to take responsibility for his actions and blamed the people instead (1 Samuel 14:15).

"Samuel now realized that Saul was not a leader, but the tool and slave of the people." [Note: Young, p. 285.]

Samuel had earlier delivered a message of doom to Eli in the morning (1 Samuel 3:15-18). Now he delivered one to Saul on another morning (1 Samuel 14:16).

"There is in all of us an inclination to resent being told what to do; but those in positions of authority and power are all the more reluctant to acknowledge anyone else’s superior authority." [Note: David Payne, pp. 77-78.]

Since Saul returned to Gilgal to offer sacrifices, it is possible that this was the site of the tabernacle (1 Samuel 14:12; 1 Samuel 14:15; cf. 1 Samuel 10:8; 1 Samuel 13:8-10). If this was the Gilgal in the Jordan Valley, it was where the Israelites had pitched the tabernacle first in Canaan after they crossed the Jordan River in Joshua’s day (Joshua 4:19). On the other hand, the Israelites offered sacrifices at places other than the tabernacle after they entered the Promised Land. We cannot say for sure that Saul went to Gilgal because the tabernacle was there.

Saul had formerly been genuinely humble. He had realistically evaluated himself before his anointing (1 Samuel 14:17; cf. 1 Samuel 9:21). Yet when he became king he viewed himself as the ultimate authority in Israel, a view common among ancient Near Eastern monarchs. This attitude led him to disobey the Law of God. God had sent Saul on a mission (1 Samuel 14:18; cf. Matthew 28:19-20), which involved the total extermination of the Amalekites. The Hebrew word translated "sinners" means habitually wicked people (cf. Psalms 1:1; Psalms 1:5), like the Canaanites.

"That Haman the ’Agagite’ (Esther 3:1; Esther 3:10; Esther 8:3; Esther 8:5; Esther 9:24) was an Amalekite is taken for granted by Josephus, who states that Haman’s determination to destroy all the Jews in Persia was in retaliation for Israel’s previous destruction of all his ancestors (Antiq. XI, 211 [vi.5])." [Note: Youngblood, p. 674.]

However, there is good reason to believe that Agag was the name of an area in Media that had become part of the Persian Empire. [Note: See Archer, p. 421.] If Josephus was correct, Saul’s total obedience to God would have precluded Haman’s attempt to annihilate the Jews in Esther’s day.

Saul persisted in calling partial obedience total obedience (1 Samuel 14:20). He again placed responsibility for sparing some of the spoils taken in the battle on the people (1 Samuel 14:21), but as king he was responsible for the people’s actions. Saul sometimes took too much responsibility on himself and at other times too little. He tried to justify his actions by claiming that he did what he had done to honor God. He betrayed his lack of allegiance by referring to Yahweh as "your" God, not "our" God or "my" God, twice (cf. 1 Samuel 14:30).

Samuel spoke what the writer recorded in 1 Samuel 14:22-23 in poetic form, indicating to all that God had inspired what he was saying. God frequently communicated oracles through the prophets in such exalted speech (cf. Genesis 49; Deuteronomy 33; et al.). These classic verses prioritize total obedience and worship ritual for all time. God desires reality above ritual. Sacrificing things to God is good, but obedience is "better" because it involves sacrificing ourselves to Him. The spared animals Saul offered to God were voluntary sacrifices.

"The issue here is not a question of either/or but of both/and. Practically speaking, this means that sacrifice must be offered to the Lord on his terms, not ours." [Note: Youngblood, p. 677.]

What is the difference between obedience and sacrifice? Sacrifice is one aspect of obedience, but obedience involves more than just sacrifice. We should never think that we can compensate for our lack of obedience to some of God’s commands by making other sacrifices for Him.

Suppose one Saturday morning a father asks his teenage son to mow the lawn for him since he has to work that Saturday and cannot do it himself. Company is coming and he wants it to look good. The son decides that his dad’s car needs washing more than the grass needs cutting. Besides, the boy plans to use the car on a date that night. When the father comes home, he finds that his son has not cut the grass. "I decided to wash your car instead," the boy explains. "Aren’t you pleased with me?" His father replies, "I appreciate your washing the car, but that’s not what I asked you to do. I would have preferred that you mow the lawn, as I told you."

The failure of Israel’s king to follow his Commander-in-Chief’s orders was much more serious than the son’s disobedience in the illustration above. Departure from God’s will (rebellion) presumes to control the future course of events, as divination does (1 Samuel 14:23). Failure to carry out God’s will (insubordination) is wicked (iniquity) and puts the insubordinate person in God’s place. This is a form of idolatry. God would now begin to terminate Saul’s rule as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 14:23; cf. Exodus 34:7). Previously God had told him that his kingdom (dynasty) would not endure (1 Samuel 13:14).

"Saul’s loss of kingship and kingdom are irrevocable; the rest of 1 Samuel details how in fact he does lose it all." [Note: Peter D. Miscall, 1 Samuel: A Literary Reading, p. 98.]

Saul’s confession was superficial. The Hebrew word translated "transgressed" (abarti) means "overlooked." Saul only admitted that he had overlooked some small and relatively unimportant part of what God had commanded (1 Samuel 14:24). What God called rebellion Saul called an oversight. Saul’s greater sin was putting himself in God’s place. He was guilty of a kind of treason, namely, trying to usurp the ultimate authority in Israel. Samuel refused to accompany Saul because Saul had refused to accompany God (1 Samuel 14:26).

"Most of us like to think that however serious our disobedience, once we repent of that sin, we are forgiven and experience no real loss. The Scripture teaches that genuine repentance always meets forgiveness, but it does not teach that there are no losses. Actually, every reflective Christian knows of permanent losses that are the result of our failure to live up to God’s ideals for our lives." [Note: Chafin, p. 130.]

When Saul seized Samuel’s robe, he was making an earnest appeal. The phrase "to grasp the hem" was a common idiomatic expression in Semitic languages that pictured a gesture of supplication. [Note: See Edward L. Greenstein, "’To Grasp the Hem’ in Ugaritic Literature," Vetus Testamentum 32:2 (April 1982):217, and Ronald A. Brauner, "’To Grasp the Hem’ and 1 Samuel 15:27," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 6 (1974):135-38.] Later, David would cut off the hem of Saul’s robe in a cave while the king slept (1 Samuel 24:4). Since the hem of a garment identified the social status of the person who wore it, [Note: See Jacob Milgrom, "Of Hems and Tassels," Biblical Archaeology Review 9:3 (May-June 1983):61-65.] David was symbolically picturing the transfer of royal authority from Saul to himself when he did this. When Saul tore Samuel’s hem, he symbolically, though perhaps unintentionally, seized the prophet’s authority inappropriately. Samuel interpreted his action as symbolizing the wrenching of the kingdom from Saul (cf. 1 Kings 11:29-33).

1 Samuel 14:29 poses a problem in the light of other passages that say God changed His mind (e.g., Exodus 32:14; Numbers 14:12; Numbers 14:20; 1 Chronicles 25:15). What did Samuel mean? I believe he meant that God is not fickle. [Note: See Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 250.] God does sometimes relent (change His mind) in response to the prayers of His people or when they repent (cf. Jeremiah 18:7-10; 1 John 1:9). [Note: For a fuller discussion of this subject, see Thomas L. Constable, "What Prayer Will and Will Not Change," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 105-6; Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Does God ’Change His Mind’?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):387-99; and idem, "Does God Deceive?" Bibliotheca Sacra 155:617 (January-March 1998):11-28.] However, when He determines to do something, He follows through (cf. Jeremiah 14:11-12). God is initially open to changing His mind about how He will deal with people, but He does not remain open forever. He is patient with people, but His patience has its limit (2 Peter 3:9-10). God allows people time to make their choices, but then He holds them responsible for those choices. The language "changed His mind" or "does not change His mind," when applied to God, is anthropomorphic (describing God in human terms). Obviously God does not have a mind or brain as humans do, since He is a spirit being. Anthropomorphic (human form) and anthropopathic (human feeling) expressions indicate that God is like human beings in these comparisons.

"When God issues a decree that is plainly intended as irrevocable, as in the rejection of Saul, then, says our text, there is no possibility of that decree being rescinded (cf. Numbers 23:19)." [Note: Gordon, p. 146.]

Saul had established a long record of rebellious behavior. God knew that Saul’s confession was not genuine and his repentance was not real. Saul may have thought that he could "con" God, but He could not. He behaved toward God as a manipulative child deals with his or her parents. Rather than having a heart to please God, as David did, Saul only obeyed God when he felt that it was to his advantage to do so. He wanted to maintain control and to receive the glory. Samuel reminded the king that Yahweh was the "Glory of Israel." Saul may have been bowing down in repentance in Samuel’s presence, though the text does not say that, but he was standing up inside. It was that unbending resistance to God’s complete will that made Saul unusable as Israel’s king.

"Saul, as this chapter in particular would have us understand, was a man in contention with Yahweh in a way that David, for all his lurid sins, never was." [Note: Ibid., p. 142.]

Saul’s lack of submission was an even more serious sin than David’s sins of murder and adultery. God did not remove the kingship from David for his sins, but He did from Saul.

"To be king in Israel was . . . quite a different matter from being king in the countries round about. Saul did not understand this distinction, and resented Samuel’s ’interference,’ whereas David appreciated the point that the Lord his God was the focus of authority, and therefore he was willing to submit to the word of his prophet even though, in the eyes of the watching world, it must have seemed that David’s own authority would thereby be weakened. Here lay the crucial distinction between Saul and David. The man after God’s own heart submitted to God’s word, obeyed his prophets, and found acceptance and forgiveness, despite his many glaring faults and failures. Saul obstinately clung to his rights as king, but lost his throne." [Note: Baldwin, p. 35.]

Perhaps Samuel consented to honor Saul by worshipping with him (1 Samuel 14:30-31) because Saul was still the king. It was good that Saul wanted to honor Yahweh in the eyes of the people by worshipping Him. Perhaps Saul’s sincere though shallow contrition moved Samuel to be more cooperative and gracious (cf. 1 Samuel 14:26). Some of the commentators believed Samuel did not sin in returning with Saul. [Note: E.g., Peter N. Greenhow, "Did Samuel Sin?" Grace Journal 11:2 (1970):34-40.] Note Saul’s continuing obsession with external appearances.

Samuel proceeded to obey God, as Saul should have, by slaying Agag (1 Samuel 14:32-33). The departure of Samuel and Saul to their respective hometowns pictures them going their separate ways. They had little in common since their allegiance to Yahweh was quite different, so they saw nothing more of each other (1 Samuel 14:35). [Note: See David M. Gunn, The Fate of King Saul: An Interpretation of a Biblical Story, p. 147.] Saul’s attitude toward Yahweh and its resultant judgment grieved the prophet who felt, as God, sorrow over the king’s fate (1 Samuel 15:35; 1 Samuel 16:1). God has feelings about our responses to Him. He is not a machine but a Person. God regretted that He had made Saul king because of Saul’s decisions, not because God thought He had made a mistake by choosing Saul. This is an anthropopathism. God felt about Saul the way we feel when someone whom we have favored greatly disappoints us greatly. Note that God regretted that He had made Saul king, not that He had made Saul one of His children. Saul did not lose his salvation because he failed to obey God completely, but he did lose his opportunity to serve God by ruling over God’s people (cf. Proverbs 25:19; 1 Corinthians 9:27). [Note: See Terence E. Fretheim, "Divine Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47:4 (October 1985):597.]

Chapters 12-15 present the negative side of Saul’s character, whereas chapters 8-11 emphasize Saul’s positive traits. The writer structured these sections parallel to each other to make the contrast striking.

The motif of fertility continues as the major theological emphasis in this section of 1 Samuel (chs. 7-15). Samuel, the innocent and obedient servant of the Lord, won the privilege of communicating God’s Word by his faithful commitment to God. Saul, the ideal Israelite who personified the hopes and ambitions of Israel, lost his privilege of leading God’s people because he was unfaithful to God.

"Saul was an impetuous person who wanted to take matters into his own hands rather than trusting the Lord. He had the opposite of the proper covenant mentality. His sin was so serious that there could be no atonement for it. This is similar to Eli’s sons, for whose sins no atonement was available. Their sin resulted in a change of order, from Eli to Samuel. In Saul’s case the change in order was from Saul to David." [Note: Martin, p. 35.]

The writer recorded four more conflicts and reversals of fortune in chapters 7-15: the Philistines and Samuel (1 Samuel 7:2-17), the Ammonites and Saul (chs. 8-11), Saul and Jonathan (1 Samuel 12:1 to 1 Samuel 14:46), and Saul and Samuel (1 Samuel 14:47 to 1 Samuel 15:35). In the first two sections, God’s two anointed servants, Samuel and Saul, defeated Israel’s external enemies by depending on God. They both gave God the credit for their victories (1 Samuel 7:12; 1 Samuel 11:13-15). In the third and fourth sections, because Saul refused to obey God and to acknowledge His victory, Saul replaced the external enemies of Israel as the object of God and Samuel’s anger. Jonathan became Israel’s deliverer when his father failed. The son saw the spiritual significance of events to which the father was blind.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 15". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-samuel-15.html. 2012.
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