In this chapter, Saul is commanded to completely destroy the Amalekites but fails to do so.
In chapter 13 we were told that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, because the LORD “sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people.” (1 Samuel 13:14). This chapter says more or less the same thing, but as the result of a separate incident where Saul has again disobeyed a command from Samuel.
In this case, Samuel commands Saul to totally destroy the Amalekites as retribution for when they attacked Israel (see Ex 17 in general and Ex 17:14 in particular), and Saul does not obey. In v. 9 we see that the army keeps “everything that was good” and destroy “everything that was despised and weak”. I will write a bit more on this later, but for now what we can note is that the things they destroy are what is “given over to the LORD”. The things they keep are kept for themselves. This is an attitude of pride: they keep all of the best for themselves and give all the worst to the LORD. The LORD asked for everything: all of the best and the worst from the Amalekites to be destroyed and given over to him.
One can possibly draw a parallel between this and the story of Cain and Abel; Genesis 4:4 points out that Abel brought the fat from the firstborn of his flock, i.e. the best. Cain brought "the fruits of the soil", and did not attract the LORD's favor. Now interpretations of Cain's story vary, but a very common criticism of him is that he is not giving the best of his produce as an offering to the LORD. Israel behaves similarly in this chapter, giving only the things of least value to the LORD.
Verses 10-11 are one of my favorite passages because it shows how the LORD grieves at Saul’s sin, and in response “Samuel was troubled” and stays up all night long in prayer. This is the true mark of a prophet, that he feels what the LORD feels, and in his distress he prays all night long. Abraham (who was called a prophet in Gen 20:7) interceded on behalf of the righteous when he prayed in Gen 18 that God should not wipe away the righteous with the wicked. However, Moses interceded on behalf of the wicked when he prayed that God should not destroy Israel after they sinned with the golden calf in Ex 32. In this case, Samuel is closer to Moses than Abraham, because he is praying out of sorrow at the sinfulness of Saul. But I think what I like the most about this passage is that it shows not just the actions of Samuel, but the emotions underlying it in both the LORD and Samuel’s behavior.
In verse 12 we see Saul’s pride emerging as an ever stronger force, as he builds a “monument in his own honor” to mark his victory over the Amalekites. In the previous chapter, Saul took an oath that no man should eat until "I have avenged myself on my enemies". In doing so, Saul places all of the emphasis on himself: his own struggles and his own enemies. In this chapter, Saul places emphasis on his own victory and honor. Saul’s pattern of behavior is deeply troubling, because the king of Israel is meant to be a servant of the LORD, when Saul appears to just be serving himself.
The interplay between Saul and Samuel is also very interesting. Beginning in v. 13, Saul claims that he “carried out the LORD’s instructions”. When Samuel challenges him, Saul adapts his story but still keeps a moral/religious spin on it: yes, we kept some of the best animals, but only for “sacrifice to the LORD your God”. Keep in mind, even if this is true, the meat from the animals would be given to the men as a feast, so there is definitely an aspect of self-interest here.
Samuel challenges Saul again, and Saul repeats his denial, insisting that taking the animals back for sacrifice is acceptable and that it would honor the LORD. We can also see that Saul’s admissions are getting wider and wider, because he now mentions that he also took Agag back alive, which could not possibly be justified as a sacrifice or burnt offering. Samuel replies with (another) one of my favorite verses, v. 22: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”
Before continuing with the story, I would like to take a closer look at this verse (and v. 23 which I did not quote). In the context of this passage, Samuel’s retort is straightforward and literally applies to what Saul did. Saul did not obey Samuel’s command by killing everything from the Amalekites. He and his men took back the best of the animals, and Saul thought that if the animals were offered for sacrifices that would be sufficient to make up for it. Hence, he thought sacrifices would be more important than listening to the command of the LORD.
However, I think Samuel's statement has broader applicability. Any time somebody tries to make a moral equivalence between committing a sin and then making an "offering" or "sacrifice" to make up for it, they are making the same fallacy as Saul. One could imagine a person saying to him or herself, "I really want to commit adultery, but I will make up for it by spending this Saturday working at a soup kitchen." It's pretty ridiculous when I put it like that, but I think people sometimes unconsciously do this. They think that religious or selfless deeds can "balance out" sins committed in other contexts.
While I can't speculate to the motivations of others, I can't help but wonder if that's what goes on in the mind of all these famous ministers who get caught swindling money or having sexual affairs while married. Maybe, without even realizing it, they think that great ministries, years of service to others and lots of great work justifies disobedience "to the voice of the LORD". If so, then they make the same error as Saul.
Saul is doing something wrong and he knows that he is doing something wrong. He is trying to justify a wrong by layering it with a religious sheen. The LORD will never be interested in people who disobey and think that a vaneer of religiosity will deceive him. Of course, I think it’s more likely than not that Saul was simply trying to deceive himself, to assuage his own conscience that sacrifices make up for his disobedience.
Here is my experience with obedience to the LORD and doing what is right or wrong. There have been numerous times where I felt like I did not do the right thing in whatever situation. Usually it is because I knew the right thing to do but it was just too hard for me to do it, because the temptation to do wrong was too great and I simply couldn’t overcome it. Doing something wrong will always cause harm, either to yourself or to others around you. But the LORD will never reject someone for doing wrong. The proper way to respond is to say, “Yes, I did something wrong and I am sorry about it. I regret what I did and I will try to make up for it to what extent I can, and to do better in the future.”
Contrast this with Saul’s response, where he does wrong but then argues with Samuel, attempting to justify what he did even though it’s contrary to what the LORD told him to do. He isn’t sorry, he doesn’t show regret, and he doesn’t express any interest in “doing better next time”. It is only after being rebuked three times that Saul admits he did wrong, because he was “afraid of the people”. There’s a bunch of things wrong with this, but I’ll just point out that Saul is supposed to be a leader of the people, and yet from this one verse we can see that he is actually just a follower of the people. He is not controlling them; they are controlling him. This is similar to the previous chapter where Saul would have killed Jonathan, but the army pressured him against doing so and Saul relented to popular pressure. Of course, killing Jonathan probably would have been the wrong thing to do. In that case, the people were right. In this case, the people were wrong. And in both cases, Saul followed the will of the people rather than the voice of the LORD.
Saul’s previous sin was in offering a sacrifice rather than wait for Samuel to come. In that case, we saw a very similar pattern of behavior to what he's doing here. Saul was trying to rally his men who were scattering, and he thought that offering a sacrifice would make up for his violation of the Law (since by the Law of Moses he is not permitted to offer a sacrifice). This was also in violation of Samuel’s command, who had ordered him to wait for Samuel to come offer sacrifices in 1 Sam 10:8.
In all of these things, Saul demonstrates religiosity in a sense, but it is a shallow religiosity. More often than not, he appears to be acting to show his faith to other people, and concerned about the opinions of other people, rather than being concerned about God’s opinion. He does not act to obey the LORD, he acts to please people, driven by his fear of people. He continues to demonstrate this behavior later in this chapter when he asks Samuel to go back with him “so that I may worship the LORD” (v. 25). This sounds religious and noble, but when Samuel refuses and Saul insists again, Saul shows what he is really interested in: “Please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God.” (v. 30) This is really the story of Saul’s life so far, and because Saul is more concerned about the opinions of men than of God, God will take the kingdom away from him.
In conclusion, Samuel tells Saul that not only is his replacement a better man, it is “one of your neighbors” (v. 28). It’s very possible that Saul is going to be thinking about this prophecy in the future and it will make him more and more suspicious that the people around him are conspiring to overthrow his kingdom.
Samuel also puts Agag to death; who knows what Saul would have otherwise done. He possibly would have kept Agag alive as a captive or “trophy” of sorts, as was commonly done by kings of the day. We will see king-trophies later in the bible.