Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

— 1 Samuel 15.22-23, NRSV

In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel (Israel’s great judge and prophet) confronts Saul (Israel’s first king), for his disobedience to the Lord. In verse 3, God explicitly tells Saul to attack the Amalekites (a tribal people, descended from Amalek, who resided south of Judah), and utterly destroy them, leaving no man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel or donkey.

Saul disobeys.

He first warns the Kenites (another tribal people who had settled with the Amalekites) to leave the land before Israel attacked (vv. 6-7). He then captures and spares Agag, the Amalekite king (vv. 8-9). And finally, he keeps the best of the sheep, cattle, fattlings, lambs, and all that was valuable (v. 9).

Saul did not, and would not, utterly destroy them (v. 9). His disobedience arouses God’s, and Samuel’s, anger.

In the next scene, Samuel calls out Saul’s disobedience. The dialogue unfolds in a sequence of Samuel’s questions and Saul’s rebuttals.

Saul defends his obedience. When Samuel reiterates God’s direct command, Saul adamantly claims he has followed it. Yet, Saul’s response reveals just the opposite—his words expose his disobedience.

He willingly admits that he, and the Israelites, have spared the best livestock, as a sacrifice to the Lord (v. 15, 21).

This seems like an admirable misstep. Preserving animals to honor the Lord seems like a notable cause.  The problem, however, is that Saul was operating off of a wrong assumption—what he thought the Lord wanted (sacrifice), was not what the Lord actually wanted (obedience).

As a result, the Lord rejects Saul. Despite Saul’s earnest repentance, the Lord strips him of his crown and kingdom (v. 26, 28).

Whether we're aware of it or not, I think we often patronize Saul. We read his story and are quick to judge. With snubbed noses we think, “What a fool!”

Yet, the reality is, we’re no different.

Like Saul, we’re prone to incomplete obedience. When we hear a direct command from God, we don’t necessarily respond with an emphatic “no,” but we dismiss God’s seriousness. We waffle. We question. We think we’re helping God out by reinterpreting his commands, by offering our midrash on his explicit directions.

While we can speculate about Saul’s motives (whether he was genuinely trying to obey, slightly misguided, or in outright revolt against God), God’s stance is clear—his will trumps any designs, or assumptions, we may have.

We may think God’s directives are ludicrous, that his orders are a tad absurd. We may question, “Geez God, what’s the big deal? So, Saul saved a few sheep and spared a guy’s life? Why all the melodrama?"

Yet, God isn’t always interested in our rejoinder. He’s not amused by our offer to improve upon his commands. Rather, he’s interested in our complete obedience. And, as the passage illustrates, anything less is considered rebellion.

I believe God’s grace and mercy covers all; that’s why this passage is so disconcerting. However, I also believe, like Saul, God calls to account for our actions, especially when he's commissioned us for a task, or given us specific instructions.

When we are called to account, I hope and pray God doesn’t find our obedience wanting.