To Obey is Better than Sacrifice
Message given at The Moody Church by Rev. Vance Havner, D.D. of Greensboro, N.C.
Turn to the 15th chapter of 1 Samuel and I want to read about King Saul and a very tragic chapter in his life.
“Samuel also said unto Saul, The Lord sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from 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 gathered the people together, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand footmen, and ten thousand men of Judah. And Saul came to a city of Amalek, and laid wait in the valley. And Saul said unto the Kenites, Go, depart, get you down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them: for ye shewed kindness to all the children of Israel, when they came up out of Egypt. So the Kemites departed from among the Amalekites. And Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur, that is over against Egypt. 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 fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly. Then came the word of the Lord unto Samuel, saying, “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the Lord all night. And when Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning, it was told Samuel, saying, Saul came to Carmel, and, behold, he set him up a place, and is gone about, and passed on, and gone down to Gilgal. And Samuel came to Saul: and Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord. And Samuel said, What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine 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 unto the Lord thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed. Then Samuel said unto Saul, Stay, and I will tell thee what the Lord hath said to me this night. And he said unto him, Say on. And Samuel said, When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the Lord anointed thee king over Israel? And the Lord sent thee on a journey, and said, Go and utterly destroy the sinners of the Amalekites, and fight against them until they be consumed. Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the Lord? And Saul said unto Samuel, Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and have gone the way which the Lord 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 chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal. And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king. And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.”
Next to Judas Iscariot, I do not think there is any more tragic figure in all the Scriptures than Saul, King of Israel. No man ever got off to a better start and no man ever had a sadder finish. To begin with, Saul was tall and good looking and that is not to be despised. Once in awhile, not often, God makes a handsome man just to relieve the monotony. Then, Saul had gifts of leadership, because we read that there followed him a band of men whose hearts the Lord had touched. On occasion he could use good sense. The critics scoffed at him once, but we read that he held his peace. Blessed is the man who can hold his tongue when the children of Belial are reviling him. He was reticent. When his uncle asked what Samuel had said, he didn’t tell him everything he had said. Some of us tell all we know and add a little for good measure. And yet, King Saul was a tragic failure. He had his good moments. He mastered a good many situations but he never mastered himself, and he ended his days in the weird setting of a séance with a spiritist medium and died a suicide on dark Gilboa—Gilgal to Gilboa. There are certain incidents in his life that show him up; symptoms one might say of a malady that lay deeper. He was impatient. He couldn’t wait on Samuel and he offered the sacrifice himself when Samuel appeared and Samuel had a habit like Elijah of showing up at the most embarrassing moments. When Samuel did appear Saul tried to explain everything instead of repenting. He showed a violent temper with Jonathan and jealousy over David’s success, but the incident that furnishes the key to his trouble, I think, is found in the Scripture when he went out to slaughter the Amalekites. God had commanded the utter extermination of both people and possessions, but Saul spared King Agag and the best of the spoil.
Once again Samuel appeared right at the critical moment. This is very dramatic occasion. Saul starts off in high key, “Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” Just then I think a sheep must have bleated or an ox must have lowed and Samuel very bluntly demanded in verse 14, “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Something always happens to betray the man who professes to be what he is not. He may maintain for years that all is well, but one day there will be the tell-tale bleating of the sheep. The worst thing about our sins is not that they will be found out, but that they’ll find us out and show us up. Now, here God used an ox to confound the king, and no matter how well we may think we have concealed the matter, the sheep we should have slaughtered will bleat and show up the farce that we have been living and all our pious chatter cannot hide it.
You will notice that Saul’s possessions here included things God had told him to destroy. And I may be speaking tonight to someone who insists on lugging idols and affections and wedges of gold which God commanded him to do away with, and you’ll see the day that you’ll stand indicted by the very accursed thing that God told you to exterminate. One of God’s great saints was wont to identify his besetting sin as Agag. He used the very name of this king. I remember reading how that on one occasion he had a battle with his besetting sin and he said this in his diary, “This morning I hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.” I wonder if somebody here tonight has in your possession, in your life, something that God vetoed and you hang on to it, and the worst of it is that when you get caught up with it you don’t repent. Saul didn’t. Oh, I know, he said, “I have sinned,” but he did not bring forth fruits meet for repentance, and it is a mark of the unyielded self to argue the case and try to explain and justify one’s self. I think a lot of sermons could be preached from Luke 10:29, “But he, willing to justify himself, said” and how many things we say to justify ourselves. Saul explains the sheep and the oxen had been spared to sacrifice unto the Lord, but the end did not justify the means. Money made the wrong way is not justified by giving a tithe to church. The man who gambles on a horse race or a woman who wins a prize at a card game cannot sanctify that to God by a tip in the Sunday morning collection. God will not accept the offering of the fruits of your disobedience.
Notice Samuel’s immortal answer here in verse 22, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” You can give up worldly amusements; you can give your goods to feed the poor; you can give God time and talent; you can become a preacher; you can become a missionary; you can be a deacon; you can sing in the choir and yet never obey God at heart by the gift of yourselves. The Macedonians first gave themselves to the Lord and our Saviour said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny—card playing, dancing, the movies—no, that will follow, yes, but what he did say was “let him deny himself.” You let a man get right there and I’ll not worry where he goes on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday night. I’ll not worry about the use of his money. You get a man right there. There is the basic issue, there is the pivotal point—get a man right with God on the gift of himself. The trouble with Saul was he never gave up Saul. All the way through this story you see that. Webb-Pepploe who used to speak at Northfield sometimes used this illustration. He said, “Sometimes I buy gifts for my wife and I’m afraid that my choices are rather poor, but she always accepts them with becoming grace because she knows that before I ever gave her these gifts I gave her myself. How many husbands have given their wives flowers and furs and all other things that they could afford or couldn’t afford, and have not given them their hearts and there are broken hearts, grieved hearts all over our land today, where there have been presents of this and gifts of that and never the gift of the heart, and how God’s heart is grieved. It was grieved here. It repented him that he had ever let Saul be king of Israel. Now, what was the matter with Saul? You know there are some things we don’t hear much preaching about. I preach sometimes on the sin of grumbling. The Bible has a lot to say about murmuring and yet we never talk much about that and yet everybody in here tonight is guilty of it. We murmur against the goodness of God. There’s another one—stubbornness, because Samuel said in his answer to Saul in verse 23, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” Now strangely enough stubbornness led to witchcraft in this case because Saul went on later to interview that medium and try to call up Samuel.
You remember the word of the Lord in Psalm 32:8-9, “I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye. Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.” Have you noticed how many times in the Bible the Word of God compares us to different animals, and just between you and me, some of the comparisons are not very complimentary. Now here’s one of them. Don’t be like a mule. Somebody has said that the trouble with a mule is he is always backward about going forward, and we have a lot of people like that—stubborn against the will of God. What made Saul stubborn? He said in verse 24, “I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.” Now compare that with verse 22, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?” The voice of the people and the voice of the Lord! There is a Latin proverb that has been used for years that says, “The voice of the people is the voice of God,” but it isn’t true. It wasn’t true here. We say vox pop today. We use the abbreviation and it has become a very common phrase, but the voice of the people was certainly not the voice of God here. Samuel was the voice of God to Saul, the representative of God, and Saul obeyed the voice of the people. He pretended to be sorry but he wasn’t sorry. He only pretended to be in order that he might keep the support of Samuel, and he begged Samuel not to leave him.
But the chapter ends with Saul rejected both by God and by Samuel and hastening on the route. I think there is no more sinister chapter in all the Bible than one finds in the 28th verse where Saul hunts up this witch of Endor. We read in verse 3 that Samuel was dead and therefore he couldn’t go to Samuel, and then I read in verses 5 and 6 that Saul was afraid and his heart trembled, “And when Saul enquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” A man deserted, and so in verse 7 he turns to the very thing he had outlawed. It is always characteristic of a man out of the will of God. Give him a little time and he’ll turn back every time to something in his life that he once outlawed.
Saul was always playing with forbidden things—Agag, sheep, oxen, witchcraft—and here he is harboring the thing that he had once endeavored to exterminate and has returned to the thing that he had once renounced. I have observed men who gave themselves to Jesus Christ all out in full surrender, and then gave up, we will say, some dirty habit and then when they got out of God’s will later on it showed up first of all by reverting, and they’ll do it practically every time—back to the very thing that they once outlawed. Am I speaking to somebody here tonight who once made a covenant with God; renounced the hidden things of dishonesty and the love of this age and the things of the world, and lately you have been slipping and you are sneaking back and the very thing you outlawed because God outlawed it?
I am not concerned with the details of this episode of Endor. I do see one thing here. Here was a man who missed his chance trying to call back his lost opportunity. Saul had his Samuel; Ahab had his Elijah; David had his Nathan and Herod had his John the Baptist. Blessed is the man who listens to his prophet and heeds his oracle. I’ll venture that practically everybody in this church tonight has had an oracle who has spoken to you for God. Maybe it has been a faithful pastor; maybe some of you can remember a godly man of years ago who was God’s voice to you, and I hope you are faithful and true to that voice. Maybe it was a good wife; maybe it was a loyal friend who loved you enough to exhort and rebuke, if necessary; maybe it was godly parents. Always it was the Word of God. If you trifle with that voice, the day will come when Samuel will no longer warn, and you’ll be left to your doom. Thank God for our Samuels. God pity the man who treats his Samuel like Saul treated his, and how many miserable souls today are going around trying to call up Samuel, trying to get back, as it were, the voice that is gone. Some of them once had favor with God and the blessing of heaven, and they are alone and deserted, but they don’t go to God. They turn to this medium and that to regain lost power. They redouble their activities to make up for the lack of power.
What was the trouble with Saul? He never was broken. You notice that he said here the people kept the best to sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel said God is not interested in that kind of sacrifice. “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” That reminds us of another king and another prophet in the Bible. You remember another king who got out of the will of God and a prophet came to him and told the story and, thank God, made the application which some preachers do not do, and said, “You are the man,” and then when David got down to business and prayer to God he talked about sacrifice, too, “Thou desirest not sacrifice; else I would give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Saul never offered God a broken heart. David listened to Nathan but Saul did not listen to Samuel, and his trouble was stubbornness, and it led to spiritism, and it led to suicide. What God wants is broken things: It takes the broken Saul to produce a cross; it takes the broken clouds to give rain; it takes the broken grain to produce bread; it takes the broken bread to feed our bodies; it takes the broken alabaster box to shed forth the precious perfume; and a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.
The tumult and the shouting dies,
The captains and the kings depart;
Still stands thine ancient sacrifice,
A broken and a contrite heart.
It was when Jacob limped away from Jabbok that he had power with God and man; it was a broken Simon Peter, weeping bitterly, who was on the road back to greater power than he had ever had. I am hearing a lot today to the effect that what young people need is simply redirection. No, that is not what the Word of God says. One of our preacher friends tells about being in a home where there was a youngster who wouldn’t behave, and his mother told him to sit down, and he wouldn’t; and his mother told him again to sit down and he wouldn’t; and finally she went over there and made him sit down, and as she started out he said, “Mother, I may be sitting down but I’m standing up inside.” There is an awful lot of that today. Sin is having your own way. We have turned everyone to his own way. It may be a stylish way; it may be a very nice cultured way; it may be a very artistic way; it may be an altruistic, idealistic way; but if it isn’t God’s way it is your way and it is sin. God doesn’t ask any sinner to give his heart to God. There isn’t any Scripture about sinners giving their hearts to God. What would God do with such a vile, deceitful thing? God gives the sinner a new heart and then says, “Son, give me thy heart.”
There are those today who try to make us believe that this old self in us just needs a little encouragement, a little correction, maybe a little discipline, but that is all. There are those who coddle that old self and there are those who at least try to correct it, but God’s way is crucifixion, and we have a generation of unbroken Sauls today. They grow up in the homes stubborn and disobedient to parents and both in Romans and in Timothy one outstanding mark of the depravity of the human heart in one case, and one mark of the end time in the other, is disobedience to parents, and that one stands out today like a headlight on a freight train, everywhere evident. If you want to teach your class of twelve year olds something, teach them how that our blessed Lord at twelve, when He went to the Temple and confounded the wise men, might easily have said, “I am a prodigy. Joseph isn’t my father anyhow. Why should I go back down there and live with them?” But He didn’t do that. He went back and was subject unto them.
A schoolteacher who attended Pinebrook Conference last summer said to me, “I like what you said about that old fashioned word obedience. In my schoolroom up in New York the principal came in the other day and said, ‘What’s this I hear that you have been telling these youngsters that they must obey?’ He said, ‘You are no dictator. Where did you get that word obey? Tell them they must cooperate, but don’t tell them that they must obey.’” Cooperate isn’t what my daddy used to tell me back in North Carolina when I was growing up. If I hadn’t cooperated he would have operated, I can tell you that.
We are this very night in the midst of a nation-wide, world-wide chaos, and I’m not harping on juvenile delinquency alone, because the worst thing about juvenile delinquency is adult delinquency back of it all. But discipline and obedience and submission are out-of-date, and the generation grows up today that never learns to say “I’m sorry.” Oh, I know we use it as a polite little phrase when we bump into somebody, but I mean a real “I’m sorry.” Why it’s the hardest thing in the world for anybody to say to anybody else, not only the young people but the old. How many people have you gone to in your life really with a heartfelt sorrow for something you said about them or did you shouldn’t have done, and apologized? How many times have you been able to get hold of enough of the grace of God to go to somebody and apologize for something you said you oughtn’t to have said; for something you did you shouldn’t have done? We won’t tell folks we are sorry and how do you expect this generation ever to tell God they are sorry? There is no fear of God before this generation. It is a mark of weakness to tell anybody, “I am sorry. I apologize.” It isn’t. It’s a mark of stubbornness, and it breaks more hearts, and wrecks more homes, and divides more churches, and fills more suicide graves, and sends more people into all sorts of curious quirks and having them around psychiatrists trying to get taken apart and put back together when they need to get right with God. The root of most of our troubles today is an unbroken self. The Bible speaks of lovers of pleasures, and lovers of money, and lovers of the world, but another mark of the end times. It is found in that increasing generation who are lovers of their ownselves, and the hardest job in all the world is to blast any man out of that shrine worshipping himself.
In the New Testament there was another man named Saul and he was just as stubborn as the Old Testament Saul. But one day on a Damascus road God knocked him down and broke him up and made him over and named him Paul. The Old Testament Saul started out with a crown and ended under a cross of his own making. The New Testament Saul submitted to a cross, “I am crucified with Christ,” and ended up down here looking for a crown of God’s making.