God directs Saul to orchestrate the killing of Amalek. Saul is to kill “both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” This is in retribution to the way that Amalek had victimized Israel.
Saul showed mercy on the Kenites in asking them to remove themselves from among the Amalekites. These people were interspersed within the larger group of Amalekites, who were nomadic. Israel had been loosely associated with the Kenites since the time of Moses’ marriage to Jethro’s daughter, a Kenite (Judges 1:16). Saul’s mercy on the Kenites would not have represented disobedience because the Kenites were not Amalekites, and the Lord had instructed Saul to attack and destroy Amalek.
However, Saul does take a very wrong turn in verses 8 and 9 when he spares King Agag and the best of the livestock, as well as other things of value. Saul’s motivation is not clear. He should have done what the Lord commanded and killed everyone and laid to waste every valuable; the severity of the command is surprising and difficult to carry out, but it demonstrates the depth of the Lord’s judgment on Amalek. Instead, Saul saved Agag and kept some spoils. Why did Saul disagree? It is unclear at this point, but he could have been seeking the glory for himself, envied the valuable resources, or he might have even supposed that God would have wanted Israel to enjoy the spoils of Amalek. Whatever his reasoning is makes little difference. Just like us, when Amalek acted beyond what God had directed, He disobeyed and sinned. In doing so, Saul not only brought judgment on himself but he also made of lesser effect the judgment and punishment that God had decreed for Amalek.
We get an insight into Saul’s thinking as we read through verses 13-15. Saul thought and acted beyond what God said and he took liberties with the Lord’s commandment, supposing that God would prefer for the good animals to be sacrificed rather than destroyed. He thinks himself within the realms of obedience. The extent to which he is in denial is not known.
When Samuel reminds Saul that he was supposed to have utterly destroyed everything, Saul responds by blaming the people. This blame not only further reveals Saul’s disobedience, but also underscores his ineptitude as a leader. Samuel responds in verses 22-23 in a song or verse of sorts that condemns Saul’s actions, rejects him as king, and illuminates some facts:
- To obey God is better than to offer sacrifice to God
- Rebellion, like witchcraft, is sin
- Stubbornness is also sin and a form of idolatry (self-worship)
Saul admits his mistake and reveals more of the reason behind his disobedience. Earlier he seemed to blame it on the people, but in verse 24 we learn that he was actually scared of the people. This likely means that Saul knew what God had asked and tried to lead the people to do as God said, but Saul was too weak to instruct and lead the people when they challenged him. This is a deeper insight into the lack of Saul’s leadership abilities. Saul seeks forgiveness, but Samuel rejects Saul also, because “you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”
Saul accidentally tears Samuel’s robe by grabbing it as Samuel is leaving him. Samuel uses the opportunity to demonstrate to Saul that the robe tore just as God tore Israel away from Saul. Saul again seems to repent, and entreats Samuel once more to worship with him. This time Samuel allows it, perhaps seeing sincerity in Saul’s plea.
In the end of this chapter, Samuel is the righteous man to do the dirty work. He gorily kills Agag before the Lord in Gilgal. Samuel and Saul part ways after this and “the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel.”
Saul’s downfall and disgrace here are embarrassing and deplorable. He seems to have a heart that wants to serve God but his resolve is weak. The lesson for us is clear: it matters ever so much less what we intend to do with God’s commandments than what we actually do with His commandments. With our God, it is not the thought that counts, it is the action.