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SECTION 2. The Rise and Fall of Saul. Saul Having Been Anointed As King, The Reasons For His Downfall Are Now Described, Along With His First Major Defeat Of The Philistines And His Defeat Of The Amalekites. This Is Accompanied By A Brief Reference To His Wider Successes (13:1-15:35).
This section opens and close with examples of how as Saul becomes established he becomes lax in respect of his obedience towards YHWH, resulting first in the loss of his dynasty (1 Samuel 13:1-18), and then in the loss of his kingship (1 Samuel 15:1-35). In between these two incidents are a record of his victories (1 Samuel 13:19 to 1 Samuel 14:23 a; 1 Samuel 14:47-52) and indications of Saul’s increasing spiritual failure. We can analyse this section as follows:
a Saul disobeys YHWH and does not wait for His advice through Samuel. His dynasty are rejected from the kingship (1 Samuel 13:1-18).
b Jonathan and YHWH deliver Israel (1 Samuel 13:19 to 1 Samuel 14:23 a).
c Saul makes a rash oath and Jonathan unknowingly breaks it and becomes liable to sentence (1 Samuel 14:23-31 a).
d As a result of Saul’s rash oath his men eat animals with their blood resulting in Saul building his ‘first altar’ (1 Samuel 14:31-35).
c Saul consult the oracle over his rash oath and Jonathan is sentenced to death, but the people will not allow it (1 Samuel 14:36-46).
b Saul and Abner deliver Israel (1 Samuel 14:47-52).
a Saul disobeys YHWH and preserves for himself and the people what is ‘devoted’ to YHWH. He is rejected from the kingship (1 Samuel 15:1-35).
Saul’s Victory Over The Amalekites And His Subsequent Tragic Failure To Honour YHWH’s Commands (1 Samuel 15:1-35 ).
In this chapter Saul reveals that he has become so filled with a sense of his own importance that he now feels that he can ignore God’s clear commandment simply for his own benefit, however heinous his actions might be. He considers that he has a right to put YHWH right. The result is that God rejects him from being king over Israel, and Samuel leaves him never to return. The further effects of this rejection on Saul will be that he will go into clinical depression, and become schizophrenic, thus being ‘two men’ at the same time and being plagued with paranoia and delusion. Had he been obedient to YHWH this illness may never have happened.
There is no indication as to when this incident in 1 Samuel 15:0 occurred but it has been suggested that it may well have been some years after the incidents described in 1 Samuel 13-14 in order for Saul’s arrogance and disobedience to have grown sufficiently to account for his behaviour here. On the other hand we might consider that his behaviour in the previous chapter has already demonstrated that he was quite capable of exactly this at any time. The stress in this passage is on obedience, and the whole is designed so as to bring out Saul’s total disobedience, in accordance with the tendency that we have observed previously (1 Samuel 13:13). It is describing the final stage in his downfall. To us his crime might appear small, and even reasonable. But it would not have been seen like that in his day. It would have been looked on with horror by the independent observer. For to take for oneself what had been ‘devoted to YHWH’ was sacrilege of the most heinous kind (compare Joshua 7:0).
It is, however, interesting that Samuel is again involved with Saul here. It demonstrates that, while their relationship was no longer as close, Saul was still being given an opportunity to at least partially redeem himself. He was still seen as being ‘YHWH’s anointed.’
a And Samuel said to Saul, “YHWH sent me to anoint you to be king over his people, over Israel, now therefore listen you to the voice of the words of YHWH” (1 Samuel 15:1).
b “Thus says YHWH of hosts, I have marked what Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” And Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred units of footmen, and ten units of men of Judah. And Saul came to the city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley. And Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them, for you showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is before Egypt (1 Samuel 15:2-7).
c And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword, but Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the second oxen, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them, but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly (1 Samuel 15:8-9).
d Then came the word of YHWH to Samuel, saying, “It repents me that I have set up Saul to be king, for he is turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to YHWH all night (1 Samuel 15:10-11).
e And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning; and it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a monument, and turned, and passed on, and went down to Gilgal. And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said unto him, “Blessed are you of YHWH. I have performed the commandment of YHWH” (1 Samuel 15:12-13).
f And Samuel said, “What means then this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” And Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to YHWH your God, and the remainder we have utterly destroyed” (1 Samuel 15:14-15).
g Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stay, and I will tell you what YHWH has said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Say on”. And Samuel said, Although you were little in your own sight, were you not made the head of the tribes of Israel? And YHWH anointed you king over Israel, and YHWH sent you on a journey, and said, “Go, and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed. For what reason then did you not obey the voice of YHWH, but did fly upon the spoil, and did what was evil in the sight of YHWH?” (1 Samuel 15:16-19).
h And Saul said to Samuel, “Yes, I have obeyed the voice of YHWH, and have gone the way in which YHWH sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the prime choice of the devoted things, to sacrifice to YHWH your God in Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:20-21).
i And Samuel said, “Has YHWH as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of YHWH? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because you have rejected the word of YHWH, he has also rejected you from being king (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
h And Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of YHWH, and your words, because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray you, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship YHWH” (1 Samuel 15:24-25).
g And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of YHWH, and YHWH has rejected you from being king over Israel.” And as Samuel turned about to go away, Saul laid hold on the skirt of his robe, and it tore (1 Samuel 15:26-27).
f And Samuel said to him, “YHWH has torn the kingship of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours who is better than you. And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for he is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Samuel 15:28-29).
e Then he said, “I have sinned. Yet honour me now, I pray you, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship YHWH your God” (1 Samuel 15:30).
d So Samuel turned again after Saul, and Saul worshipped YHWH (1 Samuel 15:31).
c Then said Samuel, “Bring you here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him apprehensively. And Agag said, “Is the bitterness of death surely past?” (1 Samuel 15:32).
b And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel executed Agag before YHWH in Gilgal (1 Samuel 15:33).
a Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house to Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death; for Samuel mourned for Saul, and YHWH repented that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:34-35).
Note that in ‘a’ Saul treats Saul as the anointed of YHWH, ready to do His bidding, and in the parallel Saul is no longer seen by Samuel as the anointed of YHWH. In ‘b’ Saul is to slaughter the Amalekites (including Agag the king) and devote them to YHWH and in the parallel Samuel ensures the final completion of that task. In ‘c’ Saul spares Agag and in the parallel Agag is brought before Samuel for sentence. In ‘d’ Saul is declared to have ‘turned back’ from following YHWH, and Samuel cries to YHWH concerning it all night, and in the parallel Samuel ‘turns again’ to Saul, and Saul worships YHWH. In ‘e’ Saul builds a monument in honour of his victory and claims to have obeyed YHWH, and in the parallel he admits that he has not obeyed YHWH and asks that Samuel will still honour him before the elders and the people. In ‘f’ Samuel draws attention to Saul’s disobedience and Saul tries to excuse it, and in the parallel Samuel tells him that as a result of his disobedience YHWH has torn his kingship from him and will not change His mind. In ‘g’ Samuel asks Saul why he has not obeyed the voice of YHWH, and in the parallel declares that he has thus rejected the word of YHWH and done evil in His sight with the result that YHWH has rejected him from being king over Israel. In ‘h’ the people took of the prime items from among the devoted things to sacrifice to YHWH (something specifically forbidden), and in the parallel Saul admits that he has sinned by listening to the people. Centrally in ‘h’ Samuel indicates that obedience is better than sacrifice, and listening to and doing what YHWH requires is better than the fat of rams.
YHWH Commands His Anointed To Slay The Amalekites As A Divine Judgment On Them (1 Samuel 15:1-3 ).
It is important to recognise in this passage that Saul is specifically instructed as ‘the anointed of YHWH’ and is called on to act as His instrument of justice on the Amalekites. He is to ‘devote’ the Amalekites and all their possessions to YHWH. This involved total annihilation and destruction of something which all recognised that YHWH had specifically made His own. It was all thus sacred to Him and non-negotiable. No exception was allowed. We can compare the story of Achan who also sought to keep for himself what had been devoted to YHWH and was visited with swift judgment (Joshua 7:0).
1 Samuel 15:1
‘ And Samuel said to Saul, “YHWH sent me to anoint you to be king over his people, over Israel, now therefore listen to the voice of the words of YHWH,” ’
Samuel now comes to Saul emphasising that he is the anointed of YHWH. That means that he is dedicated to doing YHWH’s will. In view of that he is now to listen to the words of YHWH which will instruct him in what YHWH requires of him.
1 Samuel 15:2-3
“ Thus says YHWH of hosts, I have marked what Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
What in fact YHWH requires of him is that he ‘devote’ Amalek to YHWH. That will involve destroying the Amalekites and all connected with them. The idea of ‘devoting’ a people in this way was that they were consecrated to God in judgment and must be offered to Him in their totality. Those who performed this work were seen to be acting as God’s instruments of justice. For that reason they must take no benefit of it for themselves, for everything involved was ‘devoted’ to and belonged to YHWH. We can compare how Jericho was also previously devoted to YHWH and how Achan was executed because he kept for himself certain ‘devoted things’ (Joshua 6-7). Thus what Saul was being called on to do was a most sacred task, and as he knew perfectly well, not to carry it out to the letter would be sacrilege. This was not unique to Israel. Similar ideas were also found among surrounding countries such as Moab (it is referred to on the Moabite Stone), while evidence of it is also found at Mari.
The basis of it in this case was stated to be because the Amalekites were the first to attack the people of Israel as they came out of Egypt, when they were especially vulnerable in the wilderness (Exodus 17:0). The Amalekites had mercilessly swooped down on them, decimating their lines in order to obtain booty, and probably having also the aim of preventing them from passing through what they saw as Amalekite territory. These Amalekites were wandering tribespeople like the Bedouin today, and in those days they obtained much of their wealth by preying on others. They were a part of the alliance of tribes that caused such misery to the new nation of Israel in Judges 3:13; Judges 6:3-6, and they would think nothing of wiping out any whom they saw as intruding on their wide-ranging territory. They made an exception of small tribes like the Kenites whom they saw as also being genuine desert-dwellers. Some may well eventually have settled down to semi-nomadic living. But like the Canaanites/Amorites earlier, YHWH now saw them as having filled up their sins to the full (compare Genesis 15:16).
We should note that 1 Samuel 14:48 suggests that they had recently been despoiling the Israelites so that this was not just something out of the blue concerning things long past, but was a means of preventing further injury to the people of Israel. Total destruction was necessary because if such a people were not totally destroyed they would re-gather, associate with other tribespeople and subsequently take their revenge. The security of the people of Israel security thus demanded their annihilation. Nevertheless it was also to be seen as fulfilling God’s curse on Amalek because of what they had previously done (Exodus 17:16; Numbers 24:20; Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
(We should note how long the Amalekites had had to repent of and change their ways. YHWH had not brought His curse into effect immediately. It was rather exacted as a result of further infringements.
The slaughter of all their cattle was seen as similar to offering up sacrifices to YHWH with the difference that it was done at once, without an altar and without any participation in the meat. All had been devoted to Him and was now being offered to Him. They would be slaughtered and then burned to ashes.
We should recognise that the whole point of The Ban (the devoting of people and things to YHWH) was that none would benefit from the slaughter. It was intended to be solemnly treated as an act of YHWH’s judgment. We who live in less violent days, who do not sit in our houses and work in our fields wondering when the Amalekites will next sweep down on us and murder us all, cringe at the thought of this total destruction of a people, but we should remember that for people in those days there would have been no better news for them than that of their final deliverance from the threat of the depredations of the murderous Amalekites. To them it would have been like us locking up all the criminals at once.
Saul’s Campaign Against The Amalekites And His Sacrilege With Regard To The Devoted Things (1 Samuel 15:4-9 ).
1 Samuel 15:4
‘ And Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred military units of footmen, and ten military units of men of Judah.’
In obedience to YHWH’s command Saul sent out the call to the tribes, and when they were gathered in Telaim assessed their strength. (Telaim was a town in the Negeb. Compare possibly Joshua 15:24). From the central and northern tribes had come two hundred units of infantry. From Judah in the south had come ten military units. We can compare this with 11:8 where there had been three hundred units and thirty units respectively. This decrease may have been because both the central tribes and Judah needed to retain many of their troops to keep back the Philistines who would inevitably take any opportunity to invade an unprotected territory, or alternatively it may simply be that the units were larger. Another possible alternative is that war and disease had reduced their numbers considerably.
1 Samuel 15:5
‘ And Saul came to the city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley.’
The ‘city’ of Amalek may have been a large tent encampment (compare Numbers 13:19), or some may have settled down in a small city called Ir-Amalek (city of Amalek). We do not know where it was, but it would either have been in the Negeb or in the wilderness. Whatever it was it was seemingly on a hill, and Saul and his troops settled down in ambush in the valley, partially surrounding the hill.
1 Samuel 15:6
‘ And Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them, for you showed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.’
A group of Kenites were with the Amalekites, or in their own encampment close by. They were seen by the Amalekites as ‘brother nomads’. The Kenites had, however, unlike the fierce Amalekites, assisted Israel in its journey through the wilderness and one of their number had acted as Israel’s guide (Numbers 10:29-32 with Judges 1:16). They had long lived with Israel in friendly fashion. Saul thus sent them a message inviting them to leave the mount for a place of safety so that they would not be destroyed with the Amalekites. He may well also have communicated to them the fact of the Ban (the devotion of the Amalekites to YHWH) which would have indicated the seriousness of the conflict that was approaching. The Kenites, no doubt deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, ‘departed from the Amalekites’. It was not their fight, and they had no animosity towards Israel. Nor did they want to be destroyed.
1 Samuel 15:7
‘ And Saul smote the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is before Egypt.’
Saul and his army then smote the Amalekites, first in their main encampment and then all the Amalekites who were in their territory ‘from Havilah to Shur’ (compare Genesis 25:18). Shur was near the border of Egypt. In Genesis 10:0 two Havilahs are mentioned, one connected with Cush and possibly in Arabia, and one connected with Joktan. It was clearly a popular name. It simply means ‘circle’ or ‘district’. The exact area of the Havilah mentioned here is unknown. The description may simply indicate the extent of the territory in which the Amalekites roamed which was emptied of them.
1 Samuel 15:8
‘ And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.’
Saul’s first act of disobedience was to allow Agag to live. If YHWH’s instructions had been followed Agag would not have been taken alive. Saul may have spared him out of fellow regard for a fellow-king, or because he wanted to parade him and have him as his servant in order to emphasise his victory or it may have been in the hope of a ransom from the wider Amalekite community. But whichever way it was he had disobeyed God. The fact was that Agag was not his to dispose of. He was ‘devoted’ to YHWH. He should therefore have been put to death on the spot. For the name Agag compare Numbers 24:7. Agag was probably an hereditary title like ‘Pharaoh’ and ‘Abimelech’ (Genesis 20:2; Genesis 26:1; Psalms 34:0 heading re a Philistine king).
“Utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.” That is, all those whom they caught. Some would have escaped and joined up with other Amalekites to cause problems later (1 Samuel 27:8; 1 Samuel 30:1; 2 Samuel 8:12).
1 Samuel 15:9
‘ But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the second oxen (or ‘fatlings’), and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them, but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.’
Here the people are brought into Saul’s sin as well. They also knew that everything should have been devoted to God, and it was theirs as well as Saul’s responsibility to ensure that it was. So in sparing these prized animals all are guilty. Their aim may have been to keep some of the cattle and sheep for themselves after making what they saw as ‘appropriate’ offerings to YHWH. Alternately the idea might have been that by offering these animals as sacrifices they would be able to feast on them (thus committing the sacrilege of partaking of meat that had been devoted to YHWH) and not be required to offer so many of their own. But what they were in fact doing was stinting God, and forgetting that these animals were YHWH’s already. By eating of them they would be eating of ‘holy things’, and even worse, of ‘devoted things’.
“Second oxen” (compare Judges 6:25). The Hebrew word means ‘of the second sort, of the second birth, second in order, rank or age’ (oxen is inferred). It therefore indicates the second rank of oxen, or even the most prized oxen because of its second birth. Many would, however, add a Hebrew consonant and translate as ‘fatlings’ which would parallel the ‘lambs’. This is, in fact, how it is translated in some versions (LXX has ‘of the fruits and of the vineyards’). But the translation ‘second’ makes good sense in view of Judges 6:25, and the translator may well have taken the easier option.
YHWH’s Response To Their Actions (1 Samuel 15:10-11 ).
YHWH’s response was to reject Saul from being king on the grounds of sacrilege and high treason, that is, because by his actions he had rejected his Overlord’s commands, and had committed sacrilege against what belonged wholly to YHWH.
1 Samuel 15:10
‘ Then came the word of YHWH to Samuel, saying,’
The word of YHWH came to Samuel. He alone represented the true voice of YHWH. He was still very much YHWH’s representative, with his authority still acknowledged by Saul.
1 Samuel 15:11
“ It repents me that I have set up Saul to be king, for he is turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to YHWH all night.’
YHWH declared to Samuel that He regretted setting up Saul as king because he had turned from following Him and had not obeyed His commandments. ‘Repent’ is an anthropomorphism indicating what it looked like from a human point of view. It simply indicated that as a result of Saul’s disobedience YHWH would now see him and act towards him differently. For the one thing above all others that He required in His ‘anointed one’ (verse 1) was obedience.
To Samuel what he learned was devastating, for he recognised what it demonstrated, that Saul could no longer be trusted to do what YHWH required, even in the most serious of matters. His kingship had gone to his head. The result was that he was furious with Saul, and spent the night mourning because Israel’s king, whom he had appointed, had been a total failure. And perhaps at the same time he was praying for God to show him what he should now do to prevent catastrophe for Israel.
Samuel Seeks Saul Out In Order To Give Him A Stern Rebuke And Declare That YHWH Has Withdrawn From Him His Support (1 Samuel 15:12-31 ).
We do not know for sure where Samuel was at this time although the last that we heard of him he was in Gibeah (1 Samuel 13:15). However much had happened since that time and this may have been years later. Perhaps he was in fact in or near Carmel awaiting news of the raid.
1 Samuel 15:12
‘ And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning, and it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a monument, and turned, and passed on, and went down to Gilgal.”
Next morning Samuel rose early and went to meet Saul. Carmel was in the mountains of Judah, about seven miles south-south-east of Hebron, and was on Saul’s expected route from the Negeb. And on arrival there he learned that Saul had already set up a monument in Carmel and had moved on to Gilgal. The monument was probably a token of victory. Why he had set it up in Carmel we do not know, unless it was because it was the first large town through which he had passed on re-entering Israel, but in view of what we are shortly to learn it was hardly appropriate. Saul, like Samuel, should have been mourning because of his own failure.
Gilgal was probably the place where the Tabernacle now was, or alternately was simply seen as the Central Sanctuary in lieu of the Tabernacle. As we have seen it was regularly the place for offering offerings and sacrifices on important occasions (1 Samuel 10:8; 1Sa 11:15 ; 1 Samuel 13:4; 1 Samuel 13:8). Saul had clearly gone there in order to offer thanks for his victory to YHWH and presumably thought that YHWH would be pleased. He had become so blase that he had not yet realised how great a sin he had committed, one that was in fact worse than that of Achan (Joshua 7:0).
1 Samuel 15:13
‘ And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of YHWH, I have performed the commandment of YHWH.” ’
When Samuel arrived Saul greeted him warmly and declared that he had done what YHWH had commanded. He was feeling pleased with himself. He had largely destroyed the Amalekites in the southern area of Israel, and in the wilderness beyond, and had returned with great booty.
1 Samuel 15:14
‘ And Samuel said, “What means then this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” ’
But Samuel was not to be taken in. He knew what Saul had done, and so he asked, ‘What then means this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen?’ He wanted to face Saul up to his sin. It is probably difficult for us to realise how great a sin Saul’s was. It was the kind of sin that would even have horrified Israel’s neighbours. It was a sin against the ‘most holy of things’. It is evidence of the arrogance and careless attitude that Saul now had towards YHWH that he did not realise it. He was beginning to think that he could do what he liked.
1 Samuel 15:15
‘ And Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to YHWH your God, and the remainder we have utterly destroyed.” ’
Saul began to make excuses and tried to assure Samuel that they had brought these animals from the Amalekite encampment and had kept the best in order to present them to YHWH, having destroyed everything else as YHWH had commanded. He did not seem to realise that for them to eat them as peace and thanksgiving offerings would be to transgress against what was most holy, against what had already been devoted to YHWH. He should have known that if they were to offer peace and thank offerings they should have taken them from their own resources, not from these. These were already YHWH’s.
1 Samuel 15:16
‘ Then Samuel said to Saul, “Stay, and I will tell you what YHWH has said to me this night.” And he said to him, “Say on.” ’
1 Samuel 15:17
‘ And Samuel said, “Though you were little in your own sight, were you not made the head of the tribes of Israel? And YHWH anointed you king over Israel,” ’
Samuel reminds Saul of what YHWH had done for him. When he was but little in his own sight, God had shown him great favour. He had made him the head of the tribes of Israel. He had anointed him as king over Israel. There is a reference back here to Saul’s own words in 1 Samuel 9:21.
1 Samuel 15:18
“ And YHWH sent you on a journey, and said, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed’.”
And it was this same YHWH Who had sent him on this expedition and had said to him, ‘Go, and utterly destroy the sinners the Amalekites.’ Note the emphasis on their sinfulness. These were no ordinary enemy, they were ‘the sinners’. They had been particularly evil. And that was why they had been ‘devoted to YHWH’ so as to remove this evil from the earth for the good of all. And that was why YHWH had told him to fight against them until all were consumed.
1 Samuel 15:19
“ For what reason then did you not obey the voice of YHWH, but flew on the spoil, and did what was evil in the sight of YHWH?”
The question then was, why had he not obeyed YHWH when He had spoken to him so clearly? Why had he flown like a great vulture on the spoil in order to keep it for himself, thereby doing evil in the sight of YHWH?
1 Samuel 15:20
‘ And Saul said to Samuel, “Yes, I have obeyed the voice of YHWH, and have gone the way which YHWH sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites.”
Saul’s reply was that he had done what YHWH had said. He had obeyed the voice of YHWH. He had gone the way in which YHWH had sent him. But then he convicted himself out of his own mouth, for while he claimed to have ‘devoted to YHWH’ the whole of the Amalekites, he admitted that he had actually not done so, because here was Agag, the king of Amalek, the one who above all represented Amalek, still alive. So Saul was admitting that he had failed to ‘devote’ all Amalek to YHWH. He had ‘devoted’ only what was right in his own eyes. He had kept back part of the spoil. He had appropriated what was YHWH’s for himself.
1 Samuel 15:21
“ But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the devoted things, to sacrifice to YHWH your God in Gilgal.”
And then he took the age-old path of sinners. While admitting that some of the sheep and cattle, the very ‘chief of the devoted things’, had not been slain, he put the blame on the people. It was not his fault, he claimed, it was theirs. It was they who had taken the best of the spoil in order to bring it to Gilgal and offer it to YHWH. But what he knew perfectly well in his heart was that what already belonged to YHWH because it had been devoted to Him, could not be offered as an offering. What had been devoted to Him was ‘holy to YHWH’ and had to be put to death, not sacrificed (Leviticus 27:28-29; Deuteronomy 13:15-17). And it had been his solemn responsibility as YHWH’s anointed to ensure that that was done. God would not accept half-measures.
Note Saul’s emphasis on ‘YOUR God’. He wanted Samuel to recognise that this great offering was to be to Samuel’s own God. It was He Who was to be honoured. But he was prevaricating, for in his heart he knew the clear regulation that what was ‘devoted’ could not be offered, and this especially so as they would also partake of it. For what was ‘devoted’ was already totally set apart as His.
1 Samuel 15:22
‘ And Samuel said, “Has YHWH as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of YHWH? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” ’
Samuel’s reply, which would be regularly echoed by later prophets, was that while offerings and sacrifices might delight YHWH when they were evidence of, and came from, an obedient and loving heart, without that they were meaningless. It was not offering and sacrifice and ritual that lay at the heart of religion, but faithfulness and obedience. The former only had meaning if they resulted from the latter. Obedience to God and listening to His commands were what was at the heart of true religion.
This in fact was the difference between Yahwism and all the religions round about. In all the other religions what mattered was to carry out the ritual correctly, while the way in which men lived was of secondary importance. Their gods were seen as having to be pacified and fed and bribed and persuaded by religious manipulation. In contrast what God required was a faithful and obedient heart, a continual response to His covenant. The whole purpose of the ritual in Yahwism was as an expression of love and faithfulness. See Psalms 40:6-8; Psalms 50:8 ff; Psalms 51:16-17; Isaiah 1:11-15; Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 9:17; Matthew 12:7.
1 Samuel 15:23
“ For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim. Because you have rejected the word of YHWH, he has also rejected you from being king.”
Samuel then brings home the seriousness of disobedience. It is rebellion against God. It is thus as bad as using witchcraft and manipulating evil spirits, something for which men and women should be put to death (Exodus 22:18;, Leviticus 19:26; Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-12. And the same is true of stubbornness in the face of God’s commandment. It is as bad as idolatry and resorting to the teraphim (superstitious images). For both disobedience and stubbornness exalt the self above God.
And then Samuel delivered the final blow. Because by his flagrant disobedience to a most sacred command of God Saul had rejected the word of YHWH, so now had YHWH rejected him from being king over Israel. In YHWH’s eyes he was king no longer. He might still bear the trappings, but that was all. YHWH might still assist His people, but it would not be through Saul or because of Saul. Saul was a reject.
1 Samuel 15:24
‘ And Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of YHWH, and your words, because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.”
Saul’s resistance now collapsed. He acknowledged that all his excuses had simply been hypocrisy. He admitted that he had disobeyed YHWH’s strict commandment, and the words of Samuel, because he had been swayed by the people and had done what they had said. He was still seeking to shift the blame onto the people. But we should note that his great concern was concerning what he had lost by it, not about how much he had sinned against God. David in a similar situation would have fallen on his face and cried, ‘Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight’ (Psalms 51:4), expressing his deep regret that he had offended against the God Whom he loved. That above all was what mattered to him. But Saul’s concern was more about the fact that he had lost status and position.
1 Samuel 15:25
“ Now therefore, I pray you, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship YHWH.”
We should note Saul’s approach here. Rather than being down on his face before God in utter despair over how he had grieved Him, he was more concerned about his sin against Samuel, and looked for Samuel’s intervention with God. His faith was not direct, it was second hand. His concern was to be accepted back cultically, so that he might be seen to be worshipping YHWH correctly, not on how his behaviour had broken his own personal relationship with God.
1 Samuel 15:26
‘ And Samuel said unto Saul, “I will not return with you, for you have rejected the word of YHWH, and YHWH has rejected you from being king over Israel.” ’
But Samuel would have none of it. He would not return with him to the Sanctuary at Gilgal, because he had rejected the word of YHWH, and thus YHWH had rejected him from being king over Israel. He would thus no longer acknowledge him before the people. As far as he was concerned as the prophet of YHWH he had no further responsibility towards Saul.
1 Samuel 15:27
‘ And as Samuel turned about to go away, Saul laid hold on the hem of his robe, and it tore.’
Saul was desperate. He was afraid that without Samuel’s support his whole status and acceptability might collapse. So in his desperation he reached out to grab the robe of the departing prophet in order to prevent him from leaving. But all that he managed to lay hands on was the very hem of the robe which spoke of the commandments of YHWH, and on which were the tassels that depicted the commandments of YHWH (Numbers 15:38-40). And the hem tore. This might suggest that in fact one of the tassels was torn loose, symbolic of his own breach of the commandments, but even if not it was symbolic of his breach of the commandments.
1 Samuel 15:28
‘ And Samuel said to him, “YHWH has torn the kingship of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbour of yours who is better than you.”
Then Samuel basically said to him, ‘Just as that hem has been torn, so has YHWH torn from you the kingship of Israel this day.’ Both recognised the significance of the torn hem. Disobedience and breach of YHWH’s commandments had brought separation from God, and in Saul’s case that included the matter of the kingship. And inevitably, as his family’s succession had already been ruled out (1 Samuel 13:14), that involved another Israelite replacing him, someone who was better than he was.
This is the second time that Samuel has indicated that YHWH now has his replacement in mind. In 13:14 he had said, ‘YHWH has sought a man after His own heart, and YHWH has commanded him to be war-leader over His people’. Here it is to ‘one of your neighbours -- someone who is better than you’. Samuel did not yet know who it was. But he did know that YHWH had someone in mind. We note here that Saul’s punishment now exceeds Eli’s. Rather than lifting Israel higher, Saul has brought them even lower.
1 Samuel 15:29
“ And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for he is not a man, that he should repent.”
Samuel then stresses the finality of YHWH’s verdict. YHWH is the very foundation and strength of Israel, its very backbone, the unchanging One, the eternal One, God and not man. He is totally steadfast and sure. In a word used elsewhere He is their Rock (1 Samuel 2:2). And because His desire is for the very best for His people, nothing less than the best for them can finally satisfy Him. Thus once YHWH has determined on something which He knows is for their benefit it will come about, and nothing will change His mind or make Him regret it, because it will have been purposed for the very best. And all this because He is the Unchanging One (compare James 1:17).
This is not a contradiction of what is said in 1 Samuel 15:11. The appointment of Saul there had not been ‘within the eternal will of God’. It had not been purposed from the beginning. It had not been for the very best. Indeed He had warned the people from the very start that to have a king would be very much second best. It had not been something that He had wanted for them. It had simply been something that He had allowed because He was ready to give the people what, of their own free will, they wanted so that they might learn by it. But once He had felt that the consequences were becoming too grave He was ready to alter them. He was ready to go back on what He had allowed. While He had allowed it because of the persistence of their demands He did not now want them to suffer too much from it. And so He altered course. But that was not to change in regard to something that He had purposed because it was for the very best. That was simply the alteration of a course that had been set by men because it had proved unsuitable.
So Saul can be sure now that YHWH will not change His mind about what He has determined. He can be sure that He will not withdraw from His rejection of Saul. It should be noted that this did not necessarily mean that he had lost the ability to find personal forgiveness. It was indicating his loss of privilege, not of his final salvation. That last would be determined by the true state of his heart. It is a reminder to us too that if we are not fully obedient we will lose the privileges that God wants to give us, possibly even irrevocably if it is in a case like this. We need to be aware that there comes a time when, if we keep saying ‘no’ we lose the opportunity to say ‘yes’.
1 Samuel 15:30
‘ Then he said, “I have sinned. Yet honour me now, I pray you, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship YHWH your God.” ’
Saul’s defence now collapses. He ceases defending himself and acknowledges that he has sinned. Perhaps had he at this time flung himself down before God and repented as David repented in Psalms 51:0 God might have shown him more mercy. But he did not. That was not Saul’s way. He rather settled for what seemed to be the inevitable. His one desire now was not that he might be restored to YHWH’s favour as something that he could not bear to be without (which is what David would have wanted), but to be honoured before the people so that he might not lose their respect.
So he calls on Samuel to uphold his honour among the people and their leaders, by going with him to the Sanctuary at Gilgal so that they may together take part in the worship of YHWH. He knew at this point that, because Samuel was held in such high honour, if Samuel did not do so, his own position might well become unstable.
We note that Saul still wanted to worship YHWH ritually in the time honoured way. Indeed throughout his life he demonstrates his loyalty to Yahwism. But what he lacked was that personal sense of the need to be completely responsive to God. To him his religion was a useful crutch, and something that sustained him in a general kind of way. But it was not something intensely personal
1 Samuel 15:31
‘ So Samuel turned again after Saul, and Saul worshipped YHWH.’
Samuel then revealed his compassion by following Saul to Gilgal and enabling him to worship YHWH. But it was the last thing that he would do for him. From then on Saul was on his own.
Samuel Completes What Saul Had Failed To Complete (1 Samuel 15:32-35 ).
Samuel recognised that what had been devoted to YHWH must be given to him, and so he calls for Agag to be brought and executes him. And although it is not mentioned we would assume that Samuel also insisted on the ‘devoted’ animals being slaughtered and not offered as sacrifices. Then he leaves Saul for the last time and never sees him again.
1 Samuel 15:32
‘ Then Samuel said, “Bring you here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him cheerfully. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” ’
Having completed their worship of YHWH Samuel demanded that Agag be called before him. He was determined to do what Saul had failed to do. Indeed it was his responsibility as a prophet of God.
If we translate as above Agag came ‘unsuspectingly’, and even ‘happily’, thinking that all was well and that he would be spared. But in fact the verb is neutral and simply indicates some form of emotion, or even apprehension. Thus LXX translates as ‘trembling’. We might therefore translate as ‘apprehensively’, indicating that he was not quite sure what to expect. That would then connect with next phrase put as an apprehensive question, ‘Is the bitterness of death indeed past?’ As a captor (and knowing what he would have done himself) he would know that his life hung by a thread. And he would have had cause to feel that with a prophet ‘you never knew’. He would know that what a prophet did could depend on the omens.
1 Samuel 15:33
‘ And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before YHWH in Gilgal.’
He was soon to learn his fate. Samuel knew him as a man who could quite relentlessly slaughter others, and he sentenced him to the same fate. Indeed he had no option, for the man was ‘devoted to YHWH’ and therefore had to die. And so Samuel executed him (the word only occurs here and ‘hewed in pieces’ may not be strictly accurate. He presumably slew him as he would slaughter an animal), no doubt with a sword, ‘before YHWH’. YHWH’s requirement was being satisfied.
1 Samuel 15:34
‘ Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house to Gibeah of Saul.’
Samuel and Saul then went their separate ways. This time there was no going to Gibeah for Samuel (contrast 1 Samuel 13:15). He went home to Ramah, and Saul went back to his rustic fortress in Gibeah.
1 Samuel 15:35
‘ And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death, for Samuel mourned for Saul, and YHWH repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.’
The final break is now signalled. The completeness of the break is stressed by the threefold description. He ‘came no more to see Saul’, he ‘mourned for Saul’, ‘YHWH repented that He had made Saul king’. Saul is now clearly rejected by YHWH, and we can therefore expect some indication of what YHWH will do next (which will come in the next chapter).
The clear implication of these last three chapters is that in spite of his successes Saul has been a failure. And yet Samuel was not unconcerned by the fact. Nor was he cynical, even though it had turned out as he had expected. Rather it was a great grief to him, a grief that had already begun in verse 11. He had hoped that Saul might turn out well in spite of his initial doubts. But now it was not to be. As for YHWH He also had withdrawn His support from Saul. As He had informed Samuel in verse 11, He was altering the planned course because the participant had proved unworthy. But He would not desert His people while Samuel was there to pray for them. He would now therefore choose a replacement for Saul.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 15". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany