Israel’s King Saul had his marching orders. They had been given to him by Samuel, Israel’s unquestioned spiritual leader. Samuel, speaking for God, had told Saul to take Israel’s army and attack the Amalekities. More than just attack the Amalekites, Samuel had commanded Saul to kill anything or anyone that carried the name “Amalekite.” That included: men, women, infants, babies, oxen, sheep, camels, and donkeys (1 Samuel 15:1-3).
Why was God coming down with such complete vengeance upon the Amalekites? It was because they were a wicked people, originally spawned from a wicked ruler (Amalek. a grandson of Esau), who had long ago attacked Moses and the Israelites in an unprovoked manner as the exhausted group had been making its way toward the promised land of Cannan (Exodus 17:8-13; Deuteronomy 25:17-18). That day the Amalekites had become a marked people in God’s eyes.
Following that attack, and Israel’s subsequent victory over them, God had sworn to one day utterly blot out the remembrance of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:14-16). Years later, He had even told Moses to instruct the Israelites to blot out the Amalekites completely once Israel was securely established in Canaan (Deuteronomy 25:19). And so now, under King Saul’s leadership, it was time for Israel to at long last make good on the blotting out of the Amalekites, who had been a thorn in their side for centuries (Judges 6:3).
But what did King Saul do? He didn’t completely obey his marching orders. Oh, he did gather together an army of over 200,000 soldiers (1 Samuel 15:4), and he did attack the Amalekites and slaughter thousands of them in a sweeping invasion of their territory (15:5-7). What he didn’t do, though, was thoroughly annihilate all of them, per Samuel’s instructions. As evidence of this, the Amalekites could still be found in the land years afterward (1 Samuel 27:8), and David, Saul’s successor to Israel’s throne, would one day be forced to engage in a memorable battle with them (1 Samuel 30:1-31).
Not only did Saul spare the Amalekites’ choicest livestock, he was audacious enough in his disobedience to even spare the Amalekite king, Agag, and keep him as a prisoner of war (15:8-9). Well, you can imagine how displeased God was with those decisions, and so He told Samuel, “I greatly regret that I have set Saul up as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments” (15:10-11, N.K.J.V.). In keeping with that word from God, Samuel then rose early the next morning and eventually found Saul and his encampment at Gilgal (15:12).
Saul greeted Samuel with the cheerful words, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (15:13, N.K.J.V.), but Samuel was in no mood to hear it. Rather than greet Saul with a warm reply in return, Samuel curtly asked him, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” (15:14, N.K.J.V.). You see, Samuel didn’t even have to hear about Saul’s sparing of King Agag to consider Saul a rebel. The mere fact that Saul had spared the Amalekite sheep and oxen was enough to do it!
In the conversation that ensued, Saul offered a lame excuse about how he planned to offer the sheep and oxen as sacrifices to the Lord (15:15). When Samuel reminded him that his marching orders had been to utterly wipe out everything about the Amalekites, Saul threw his troops under the bus by saying they were the ones who had spared the best livestock to use in sacrifice (15:17-21). By this point, Samuel was tired of hearing about those animals being used as sacrifices, and so he said to Saul, “Has 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” (15:22).
Then Samuel, in effect, ended Saul’s reign as king even though Saul would continue to occupy the throne several more years. Samuel told him, “Because you have rejected the word of the lord, He has also rejected you from being king” (15:23). Later that day, Samuel had King Agag brought to him and promptly hacked Agag to pieces right there on the spot (15:32-33)! Samuel then departed for Ramah, as Saul returned to his home in Gibeah, and Samuel went to his grave never paying Saul another visit (15:34-35). Talk about a pivotal day in the life of Saul and the history of Israel!
The lesson we should glean from this story is very simple: In God’s eyes, partial obedience amounts to full disobedience. Yes, this is a high standard, but it’s hard to draw any other conclusion from God’s words to Samuel — “(Saul) has not performed My commandments” — and Samuel’s question to Saul — “Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord?” Obviously, when God tells us to do something, He will accept no substitutes for obedience to that command, even substitutes that appear to be “religious” in nature (such as offering sacrifices). And so I’ll ask you just one question: Have you left any sheep bleating in your life? If you have, then be warned that God won’t be pleased with you until you fully do what He told you to do.