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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 15

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament CommentaryKeil & Delitzsch


War with Amalek. Saul's Disobedience and Rejection - 1 Samuel 15

As Saul had transgressed the commandment of God which was given to him through Samuel, by the sacrifice which he offered at Gilgal in the war with the Philistines at the very commencement of his reign, and had thereby drawn upon himself the threat that his monarchy should not be continued in perpetuity (1 Samuel 13:13-14); so his disobedience in the war against the Amalekites was followed by his rejection on the part of God. The Amalekites were the first heathen nation to attack the Israelites after their deliverance out of Egypt, which they did in the most treacherous manner on their journey from Egypt to Sinai; and they had been threatened by God with extermination in consequence. This Moses enjoined upon Joshua, and also committed to writing, for the Israelites to observe in all future generations (Exodus 17:8-16). As the Amalekites afterwards manifested the same hostility to the people of God which they had displayed in this first attack, on every occasion which appeared favourable to their ravages, the Lord instructed Samuel to issue the command to Saul, to wage war against Amalek, and to smite man and beast with the ban, i.e., to put all to death (1 Samuel 15:1-3). But when Saul had smitten them, he not only left Agag the king alive, but spared the best of the cattle that he had taken as booty, and merely executed the ban upon such animals as were worthless (1 Samuel 15:4-9). He was rejected by the Lord for this disobedience, so that he was to be no longer king over Israel. His rejection was announced to him by Samuel (1 Samuel 15:10-23), and was not retracted in spite of his prayer for the forgiveness of his sin (1 Samuel 15:24-35). In fact, Saul had no excuse for this breach of the divine command; it was nothing but open rebellion against the sovereignty of God in Israel; and if Jehovah would continue King of Israel, He must punish it by the rejection of the rebel. For Saul no longer desired to be the medium of the sovereignty of Jehovah, or the executor of the commands of the God-king, but simply wanted to reign according to his own arbitrary will. Nevertheless this rejection was not followed by his outward deposition. The Lord merely took away His Spirit, had David anointed king by Samuel, and thenceforward so directed the steps of Saul and David, that as time advanced the hearts of the people were turned away more and more from Saul to David; and on the death of Saul, the attempt of the ambitious Abner to raise his son Ishbosheth to the throne could not possibly have any lasting success.

Verses 1-3

The account of the war against the Amalekites is a very condensed one, and is restricted to a description of the conduct of Saul on that occasion. Without mentioning either the time or the immediate occasion of the war, the narrative commences with the command of God which Samuel solemnly communicated to Saul, to go and exterminate that people. Samuel commenced with the words, “ Jehovah sent me to anoint thee to be king over His people, over Israel,” in order to show to Saul the obligation which rested upon him to receive his commission as coming from God, and to proceed at once to fulfil it. The allusion to the anointing points back not to 1 Samuel 11:15, but to 1 Samuel 10:1.

1 Samuel 15:2

Thus saith the Lord of Zebaoth, I have looked upon what Amalek did to Israel, that it placed itself in his way when he came up out of Egypt ” (Exodus 17:8). Samuel merely mentions this first outbreak of hostility on the part of Amalek towards the people of Israel, because in this the same disposition was already manifested which now made the people ripe for the judgment of extermination (vid., Exodus 17:14). The hostility which they had now displayed, according to 1 Samuel 15:33, there was no necessity for the prophet to mention particularly, since it was well known to Saul and all Israel. When God looks upon a sin, directs His glance towards it, He must punish it according to His own holiness. This פּקדתּי points at the very outset to the punishment about to be proclaimed.

1 Samuel 15:3

Saul is to smite and ban everything belonging to it without reserve, i.e., to put to death both man and beast. The last clause וגו is only an explanation and exemplification of וגו והחרמתּם . “ From man to woman,” etc., i.e., men and women, children and sucklings, etc.

Verses 4-9

Saul summoned the people to war, and mustered them (those who were summoned) at Telaim (this was probably the same place as the Telem mentioned in Joshua 15:24, and is to be looked for in the eastern portion of the Negeb). “ Two hundred thousand foot, and ten thousand of the men of Judah:” this implies that the two hundred thousand were from the other tribes. These numbers are not too large; for a powerful Bedouin nation, such as the Amalekites were, could not possibly be successfully attacked with a small army, but only by raising the whole of the military force of Israel.

1 Samuel 15:5

He then advanced as far as the city of the Amalekites, the situation of which is altogether unknown, and placed an ambush in the valley. ויּרב does not come from ריב , to fight, i.e., to quarrel, not to give battle, but was understood even by the early translators as a contracted form of ויּארב , the Hiphil of ארב . And modern commentators have generally understood it in the same way; but Olshausen ( Hebr. Gramm. p. 572) questions the correctness of the reading, and Thenius proposes to alter בּנּחל ויּרב into מלחמה ויּערך . נחל refers to a valley in the neighbourhood of the city of the Amalekites.

1 Samuel 15:6-7

Saul directed the Kenites to come out from among the Amalekites, that they might not perish with them ( אספך , imp. Kal of אסף ), as they had shown affection to the Israelites on their journey out of Egypt (compare Numbers 10:29 with Judges 1:16). He then smote the Amalekites from Havilah in the direction towards Shur, which lay before (to the east of) Egypt (cf. Genesis 25:18). Shur is the desert of Jifar, i.e., that portion of the desert of Arabia which borders upon Egypt (see at Genesis 16:7). Havilah, the country of the Chaulotaeans, on the border of Arabia Petraea towards Yemen (see at Genesis 10:29).

1 Samuel 15:8-9

Their king, Agag, he took alive (on the name, see at Numbers 24:7), but all the people he banned with the edge of the sword, i.e., he had them put to death without quarter. “ All,” i.e., all that fell into the hands of the Israelites. For it follows from the very nature of the case that many escaped, and consequently there is nothing striking in the fact that Amalekites are mentioned again at a later period (1 Samuel 27:8; 1 Samuel 30:1; 2 Samuel 8:12). The last remnant was destroyed by the Simeonites upon the mountains of Seir in the reign of Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4:43). Only, king Agag did Saul and the people (of Israel) spare, also “ the best of the sheep and oxen, and the animals of the second birth, and the lambs and everything good; these they would not ban.” משׁנים , according to D. Kimchi and R. Tanch. , are לבטן שׁניים , i.e., animalia secundo partu edita , which were considered superior to the others (vid., Roediger in Ges. Thes. p. 1451); and כּרים , pasture lambs, i.e., fat lambs. There is no necessity, therefore, for the conjecture of Ewald and Thenius, משׁמנּים , fattened, and כּרמים , vineyards; nor for the far-fetched explanation given by Bochart, viz., camels with two humps and camel-saddles, to say nothing of the fact that camel-saddles and vineyards are altogether out of place here. In “ all that was good ” the things already mentioned singly are all included. המּלאכה , the property; here it is applied to cattle, as in Genesis 33:14. נמבזה = נבזה , despised, undervalued. The form of the word is not contracted from a noun מבזה and the participle נבזה ( Ges. Lehrgeb. p. 463), but seems to be a participle Niph. formed from a noun מבזה . But as such a form is contrary to all analogy, Ewald and Olshausen regard the reading as corrupt. נמס (from מסס ): flowing away; used with reference to diseased cattle, or such as have perished. The reason for sparing the best cattle is very apparent, namely selfishness. But it is not so easy to determine why Agag should have been spared by Saul. It is by no means probable that he wished thereby to do honour to the royal dignity. O. v. Gerlach 's supposition, that vanity or the desire to make a display with a royal slave was the actual reason, is a much more probable one.

Verses 10-11

The word of the Lord came to Samuel: “ It repenteth me that I have made Saul king, for he hath turned away from me, and not set up (carried out) my word.” (On the repentance of God, see the remarks on Genesis 6:6.) That this does not express any changeableness in the divine nature, but simply the sorrow of the divine love at the rebellion of sinners, is evident enough from 1 Samuel 15:29. יי מאחרי שׁוּב , to turn round from following God, in order to go his own ways. This was Saul's real sin. He would no longer be the follower and servant of the Lord, but would be absolute ruler in Israel. Pride arising from the consciousness of his own strength, led him astray to break the command of God. What more God said to Samuel is not communicated here, because it could easily be gathered and supplied from what Samuel himself proceeded to do (see more particularly 1 Samuel 15:16.). In order to avoid repetitions, only the principal feature in the divine revelation is mentioned here, and the details are given fully afterwards in the account of the fulfilment of the instructions. Samuel was deeply agitated by this word of the Lord. “ It burned (in) him,” sc., wrath ( אף , compare Genesis 31:36 with Genesis 30:2), not on account of the repentance to which God had given utterance at having raised up Saul as king, nor merely at Saul's disobedience, but at the frustration of the purpose of God in calling him to be king in consequence of his disobedience, from which he might justly dread the worst results in relation to the glory of Jehovah and his own prophetic labours.

(Note: “Many grave thoughts seem to have presented themselves at once to Samuel and disturbed his mind, when he reflected upon the dishonour which might be heaped upon the name of God, and the occasion which the rejection and deposition of Saul would furnish to wicked men for blaspheming God. For Saul had been anointed by the ministry of Samuel, and he had been chosen by God himself from all the people, and called by Him to the throne. If, therefore, he was nevertheless deposed, it seemed likely that so much would be detracted from the authority of Samuel and the confidence of the people in his teaching, and, moreover, that the worship of God would be overturned, and the greatest disturbance ensue; in fact, that universal confusion would burst upon the nation. These were probably the grounds upon which Samuel's great indignation rested.” - Calvin.)

The opinion that ל יחר is also used to signify deep distress cannot be established from 2 Samuel 4:8. “ And he cried to Jehovah the whole night,” sc., praying for Saul to be forgiven. But it was in vain. This is evident from what follows, where Samuel maintains the cause of his God with strength and decision, after having wrestled with God in prayer.

Verse 12

The next morning, after receiving the revelation from God (1 Samuel 15:11), Samuel rose up early, to go and meet Saul as he was returning from the war. On the way it was told him, “ Saul has come to Carmel ” - i.e., Kurmul, upon the mountains of Judah to the south-east of Hebron (see at Joshua 15:55) - “ setting himself a memorial ” ( יד , a hand, then a memorial or monument, inasmuch as the hand calls attention to anything: see 2 Samuel 18:18), “ and has turned and proceeded farther, and gone down to Gilgal ” (in the valley of the Jordan, as in 1 Samuel 13:4).

Verse 13

When Samuel met him there, Saul attempted to hide his consciousness of guilt by a feigned friendly welcome. “ Blessed be thou of the Lord ” (vid., Ruth 2:20; Genesis 14:19, etc.) was his greeting to the prophet; “ I have set up the word of Jehovah.”

Verses 14-15

But the prophet stripped his hypocrisy at once with the question, “ What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and a lowing of oxen that I hear? ” Saul replied (1 Samuel 15:15), “ They have brought them from the Amalekites, because the people spared the best sheep and oxen, to sacrifice them to the Lord thy God; and the rest we have banned.” So that it was not Saul, but the people, who had transgressed the command of the Lord, and that with the most laudable intention, viz., to offer the best of the cattle that had been taken, as a thank-offering to the Lord. The falsehood and hypocrisy of these words lay upon the very surface; for even if the cattle spared were really intended as sacrifices to the Lord, not only the people, but Saul also, would have had their own interests in view (vid., 1 Samuel 15:9), since the flesh of thank-offerings was appropriated to sacrificial meals.

Verses 16-19

Samuel therefore bade him be silent. הרף , “ leave off,” excusing thyself any further. “ I will tell thee what Jehovah hath said to me this night.” (The Chethibh ויּאמרוּ is evidently a copyist's error for ויּאמר .) “ Is it not true, when thou wast little in thine eyes (a reference to Saul's own words, 1 Samuel 9:21), thou didst become head of the tribes of Israel? and Jehovah anointed thee king over Israel, and Jehovah sent thee on the way, and said, Go and ban the sinners, the Amalekites, and make war against them, until thou exterminatest them. And wherefore hast thou nor hearkened to the voice of Jehovah, and hast fallen upon the booty,” etc.? ( תּעט , see at 1 Samuel 14:32.)

Even after this Saul wanted to justify himself, and to throw the blame of sparing the cattle upon the people.

Verse 20

Yea, I have hearkened to the voice of Jehovah ( אשׁר serving, like כּי ekil , to introduce the reply: here it is used in the sense of asseveration, utique, yea), and have brought Agag the king of the Amalekites, and banned Amalek.” Bringing Agag he mentioned probably as a practical proof that he had carried out the war of extermination against the Amalekites.

Verse 21

Even the sparing of the cattle he endeavoured to defend as the fulfilment of a religious duty. The people had taken sheep and oxen from the booty, “ as firstlings of the ban,” to sacrifice to Jehovah. Sacrificing the best of the booty taken in war as an offering of first-fruits to the Lord, was not indeed prescribed in the law, but was a praiseworthy sign of piety, by which all honour was rendered to the Lord as the giver of the victory (see Numbers 31:48.). This, Saul meant to say, was what the people had done on the present occasion; only he overlooked the fact, that what was banned to the Lord could not be offered to Him as a burnt-offering, because, being most holy, it belonged to Him already (Leviticus 27:29), and according to Deuteronomy 13:16, was to be put to death, as Samuel had expressly said to Saul (1 Samuel 15:3).

Verses 22-23

Without entering, therefore, into any discussion of the meaning of the ban, as Saul only wanted to cover over his own wrong-doings by giving this turn to the affair, Samuel put a stop to any further excuses, by saying, “ Hath Jehovah delight in burnt-offerings and slain-offerings as in hearkening to the voice of Jehovah? (i.e., in obedience to His word.) Behold, hearing (obeying) is better than slain-offerings, attending better than fat of rams.” By saying this, Samuel did not reject sacrifices as worthless; he did not say that God took no pleasure in burnt-offerings and slain-offerings, but simply compared sacrifice with obedience to the command of God, and pronounced the latter of greater worth than the former. “It was as much as to say that the sum and substance of divine worship consisted in obedience, with which it should always begin, and that sacrifices were, so to speak, simple appendices, the force and worth of which were not so great as of obedience to the precepts of God” (Calvin). But it necessarily follows that sacrifices without obedience to the commandments of God are utterly worthless; in fact, are displeasing to God, as Psalms 50:8., Isaiah 1:11., Isaiah 66:3, Jeremiah 6:20, and all the prophets, distinctly affirm. There was no necessity, however, to carry out this truth any further. To tear off the cloak of hypocrisy, with which Saul hoped to cover his disobedience, it was quite enough to affirm that God's first demand was obedience, and that observing His word was better than sacrifice; because, as the Berleb. Bible puts it, “in sacrifices a man offers only the strange flesh of irrational animals, whereas in obedience he offers his own will, which is rational or spiritual worship” (Romans 12:8). This spiritual worship was shadowed forth in the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament. In the sacrificial animal the Israelite was to give up and sanctify his own person and life to the Lord. (For an examination of the meaning of the different sacrifices, see Pent. pp. 505ff., and Keil's Bibl Archäol. §41ff.) But if this were the design of the sacrifices, it was clear enough that God did not desire the animal sacrifice in itself, but first and chiefly obedience to His own word. In 1 Samuel 15:22, טּוב is not to be connected as an adjective with זבח , “more than good sacrifice,” as the Sept. and Thenius render it; it is rather to be taken as a predicate, “ better than slain-offerings,” and מזּבח is placed first simply for the sake of emphasis. Any contrast between good and bad sacrifices, such as the former construction would introduce into the words, is not only foreign to the context, but also opposed to the parallelism. For אילים חלב does not mean fat rams, but the fat of rams; the fat portions taken from the ram, which were placed upon the altar in the case of the slain-offerings, and for which חלב is the technical expression (compare Leviticus 3:9, Leviticus 3:16, with Leviticus 3:4, Leviticus 3:11, etc.). “ For,” continued Samuel (1 Samuel 15:23), “ rebellion is the sin of soothsaying, and opposition is heathenism and idolatry.” מרי and הפצר are the subjects, and synonymous in their meaning. קסם חטּאת , the sin of soothsaying, i.e., of divination in connection with the worship of idolatrous and demoniacal powers. In the second clause idols are mentioned instead of idolatry, and compared to resistance, but without any particle of comparison. Opposition is keeping idols and teraphim, i.e., it is like worshipping idols and teraphim. און , nothingness, then an idol or image (vid., Isaiah 66:3; Hosea 4:15; Hosea 10:5, Hosea 10:8). On the teraphim as domestic and oracular deities, see at Genesis 31:19. Opposition to God is compared by Samuel to soothsaying and oracles, because idolatry was manifested in both of them. All conscious disobedience is actually idolatry, because it makes self-will, the human I, into a god. So that all manifest opposition to the word and commandment of God is, like idolatry, a rejection of the true God. “ Because thou hast rejected the word of Jehovah, He hath rejected thee, that thou mayst be no longer king.” ממּלך = מלך מהיוה (1 Samuel 15:26), away from being king.

Verses 24-25

This sentence made so powerful an impression upon Saul, that he confessed, “ I have sinned: for I have transgressed the command of the Lord and thy words, because I feared the people, and hearkened to their voice.” But these last words, with which he endeavoured to make his sin appear as small as possible, show that the consciousness of his guilt did not go very deep. Even if the people had really desired that the best of the cattle should be spared, he ought not as king to have given his consent to their wish, since God had commanded that they should all be banned (i.e., destroyed); and even though he has yielded from weakness, this weakness could not lessen his guilt before God. This repentance, therefore, was rather the effect of alarm at the rejection which had been announced to him, than the fruit of any genuine consciousness of sin. “It was not true and serious repentance, or the result of genuine sorrow of heart because he had offended God, but was merely repentance of the lips arising from fear of losing the kingdom, and of incurring public disgrace” (C. v. Lapide). This is apparent even from 1 Samuel 15:25, but still more from 1 Samuel 15:30. In 1 Samuel 15:25 he not only entreats Samuel for the forgiveness of his sin, but says, “ Return with me, that I may pray to the Lord.” The שׁוּב presupposes that Samuel was about to go away after the executing his commission. Saul entreated him to remain that he might pray, i.e., not only in order to obtain for him the forgiveness of his sin through his intercession, but, according to 1 Samuel 15:30, to show him honour before the elders of the people and before Israel, that his rejection might not be known.

Verses 26-29

This request Samuel refused, repeating at the same time the sentence of rejection, and turned to depart. “ Then Saul laid hold of the lappet of his mantle (i.e., his upper garment), and it tore ” ( lit. was torn off). That the Niphal ויּקּרע is correct, and is not to be altered into אתהּ ויּקרע , “Saul tore off the lappet,” according to the rendering of the lxx, as Thenius supposes, is evident from the explanation which Samuel gave of the occurrence (1 Samuel 15:28): “ Jehovah hath torn the sovereignty of Israel from thee to-day, and given it to thy neighbour, who is better than thou.” As Saul was about to hold back the prophet by force, that he might obtain from him a revocation of the divine sentence, the tearing of the mantle, which took place accidentally, and evidently without any such intention on the part of Saul, was to serve as a sign of the rending away of the sovereignty from him. Samuel did not yet know to whom Jehovah would give it; he therefore used the expression לרעך , as רע is applied to any one with whom a person associates. To confirm his own words, he adds in 1 Samuel 15:29: “ And also the Trust of Israel doth not lie and doth not repent, for He is not a man to repent.” נצח signifies constancy, endurance, then confidence, trust, because a man can trust in what is constant. This meaning is to be retained here, where the word is used as a name for God, and not the meaning gloria, which is taken in 1 Chronicles 29:11 from the Aramaean usage of speech, and would be altogether unsuitable here, where the context suggests the idea of unchangeableness. For a man's repentance or regret arises from his changeableness, from the fluctuations in his desires and actions. This is never the case with God; consequently He is ישׂראל נצח , the unchangeable One, in whom Israel can trust, since He does not lie or deceive, or repent of His purposes. These words are spoken θεοπρεπῶς (theomorphically), whereas in 1 Samuel 15:11 and other passages, which speak of God as repenting, the words are to be understood ἀνθρωποπαθῶς (anthropomorphically; cf. Numbers 23:19).

Verses 30-31

After this declaration as to the irrevocable character of the determination of God to reject Saul, Samuel yielded to the renewed entreaty of Saul, that he would honour him by his presence before the elders and the people, and remained whilst Saul worshipped, not merely “for the purpose of preserving the outward order until a new king should take his place” ( O. v. Gerlach), but also to carry out the ban upon Agag, whom Saul had spared.

Verse 32

After Saul had prayed, Samuel directed him to bring Agag the king of the Amalekites. Agag came מעדנּת , i.e., in a contented and joyous state of mind, and said (in his heart), “ Surely the bitterness of death is vanished,” not from any special pleasure at the thought of death, or from a heroic contempt of death, but because he thought that his life was to be granted him, as he had not been put to death at once, and was now about to be presented to the prophet (Clericus).

Verse 33

But Samuel pronounced the sentence of death upon him: “ As thy sword hath made women childless, so be thy mother childless before women! ” מנּשׁים is to be understood as a comparative: more childless than (other) women, i.e., the most childless of women, namely, because her son was the king. From these words of Samuel, it is very evident that Agag had carried on his wars with great cruelty, and had therefore forfeited his life according to the lex talionis. Samuel then hewed him in pieces “ before the Lord at Gilgal,” i.e., before the altar of Jehovah there; for the slaying of Agag being the execution of the ban, was an act performed for the glory of God.

Verses 34-35

After the prophet had thus maintained the rights of Jehovah in the presence of Saul, and carried out the ban upon Agag, he returned to his own home at Ramah; and Saul went to his house at Gibeah. From that time forward Samuel broke off all intercourse with the king whom Jehovah had rejected. “ For Samuel was grieved for Saul, and it repented the Lord that he had made Saul king,” i.e., because Samuel had loved Saul on account of his previous election; and yet, as Jehovah had rejected him unconditionally, he felt that he was precluded from doing anything to effect a change of heart in Saul, and his reinstatement as king.

Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 15". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/1-samuel-15.html. 1854-1889.
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