By Samuel Ridout
1 Samuel 15.
We have reached now the great turning-point in the history of king Saul. He had, as we have already seen, manifested the results of the unbelief of the flesh in failing to wait for the presence of Samuel at Gilgal, and in intruding into the priestly prerogatives, as did king Uzziah in a later day. (Comp. 1 Sam. 13: 8-10 with 2 Chron. 26: 16-21.) For one under the Levitical law, an intrusion into the priesthood was a most glaring act of sacrilege. What answers to it now is the refusal of Christ in His priestly and atoning work as the only way of access to God. This will explain the terrible judgment upon Uzziah and the setting aside of Saul. No one who fails to see the absolute necessity for the sacrifice and intercessory, priestly work of Christ is fitted to lead His people. Indeed, he manifests in this act the fact that he is not a Christian himself.
It is, however, like the long-suffering of God not to visit the full consequences of one's wrong-doing upon him at once, and to grant, if it may be, a space for repentance and an opportunity for one to retrieve himself, if his former error has been a 'slip rather than the habit of his mind. God is not unrighteous, to confound one's being overtaken in a fault with the expression of what is his radical character. It will be found, in the day when He will judge the secrets of men, that amplest opportunity was given for men to recover themselves from any course of evil upon which they had set out. Indeed, the history of the people of God gives many illustrations of this recovering mercy.
Saul being now fully established as king, he must meet the responsibilities connected with his high office. It has been from time immemorial the bane of kings that they have used their position for themselves, their own ease or selfish ambition, rather than for serving the people. The principle, "He that is greatest among you shall be servant of all," seems to have a twofold meaning; primarily, perhaps, to show that any thought of self-importance only makes it necessary for one to be abased; but, on the other hand, the best proof of a spirit of rule, in a scene where the beloved sheep of Christ are subjected to all kinds of assaults, is to serve them; so He, the true King, could say in the fullest way, "I am among you as He that serveth."
Saul must now show his fitness for the place to which he had been called. In his case, it was the office which preceded the gift, rather than followed it. In the case of David, his fitness for the position was established in those secret conflicts which he had had, before ever the thought of rule was put before him. With Saul, he is first anointed, and must then prove his qualification.
Amalek was Israel's first foe after leaving Egypt. The Amalekites were descendants of Esau; and this, connected with the assault in the wilderness, gives us a clear clue as to what they represent. Esau, the first-born, is that which is natural as contrasted with Jacob, the younger, who suggests the sovereignty of grace which sets aside the first-born. It is the flesh which is the first-born in us, and only as born again is faith present. "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit." It may be cultivated, refined, improved, and what not, but it remains unchanged. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." "The carnal mind is enmity against God." The descendant of Esau, Amalek, seems to suggest rather the lusts of the flesh than mere nature in general.
Referring for a moment to the assault of Amalek upon Israel in the wilderness, we find it resulted from their unbelief and doubting whether God was among them or no. "Then came Amalek and fought against Israel" (Ex. 17: 8). In the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 25: 17-19) we find that they were successful in assailing the weakest and hindmost of the host of Israel. This is ever the case. The lusts of the flesh can have no power over those who are pressing forward, forgetting the things which are behind; but for those who lag, who forget their pilgrim character and become stragglers, following afar off, the lusts of the flesh have special power. It was when Peter followed at a distance that he succumbed to that cowardice which is one of the marks of the flesh.
God had commanded that when His people had entered into their inheritance in Canaan they should execute His judgment upon Amalek because of what they had done. They were to "blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. Thou shalt not forget it" (Deut. 25: 9). It was also declared that Israel should have war with Amalek from generation to generation (Ex. 17: 16). That is, the flesh and its lusts were never to be regarded as aught but enemies; and there is to be, not surely constant conflict, but absolute hostility between the people of God and the lusts of the flesh. The time is coming, thank God, when the very name of the flesh, with all its wretched significance, shall be blotted out, so far as the beloved people of God are concerned, and become only a memory of what we once were and of a grace which has delivered us completely. This is what is before God. One, therefore, who is in the place of king — a type in that way of Christ — must be a relentless foe to Amalek. We cannot conceive of our blessed Lord sparing the flesh in its fairest form.
King Saul, alas, was himself, in spirit, an Amalekite. That is, he represented the best of what was natural. It is the one lesson of his life which stands out in prominence above all others. David and Hezekiah failed — David, more particularly. As the man after God's own heart, and one of the brightest types of Christ in the Old Testament, he was not that because of an entirely blameless life, but because he stood for the mind and purposes of God, and because, eventually, he judged all that was excellent in nature in himself, and his confidence was in God alone.
But if king Saul represents the best of the flesh, how can we expect him to be a successful warrior against it? This is manifest in what follows. It was not, of course, that Saul had any love for the Amalekites, or that he was particularly disposed to spare them. As a matter of fact, he seems to have done his work with a good degree of thoroughness. An enormous army of Israelites is gathered; significantly, the majority of them belonged to the ten tribes, there being but ten thousand men of Judah.
The Kenites, who were dwelling among the Amalekites, were warned to withdraw lest they should partake in the doom which was to fail. Then Saul seems to sweep over the major part of the territory occupied by Amalek, from Havilah close to Shur, near Egypt. It was therefore not because of any lack of power on his part, nor any sudden strength of the enemy. Agag, the king of Amalek, was taken captive, and surely the sheep and oxen offered no resistance to the victorious sword of Israel. The sparing, therefore, of the best of the cattle and bringing of Agag alive did not suggest a partial victory, but a deliberate purpose because of special desire. This is noteworthy. There is, alas, often a failure in faith to count upon God for complete victory over the lusts of the flesh. This is most reprehensible, but it is a very different thing from deliberately choosing those lusts as something to be spared.
It was the best of the possessions of the Amalekites that were thus spared. Everything that was vile was utterly rejected. How often are the grosser forms of fleshly evil unsparingly denounced and rejected while a fair show in the flesh is still being made! Thus, no one thinks of making provision doctrinally for the allowance of drunkenness and the lower vices of the flesh, yet will plead earnestly that what appeals to the aesthetic taste in ritual service, or legal formalism, or an unequal yoke with the unconverted in the work of God, may be spared and dedicated to the Lord's service. But how can that which is unclean be dedicated to Him? There is but one dedication of evil to God, and that is the dedication to the sword of judgment. The sin, therefore, of Saul and the people — for he seems to have been both their agent and co-partner in this act — was a distinct refusal to obey the command of the Lord. He had put his own interpretation upon that command, an interpretation which fell in with his own and the people's desires.
All of this disobedience God rehearses to Samuel before the prophet goes to meet Saul. God repented — not surely in the sense of having been taken by surprise at the outcome — but rather, speaking so that we may understand Saul's responsibility, which alone debarred him from the place of dignity and confidence.
Samuel is deeply grieved at this. There seems to have been a strong natural affection on the part of the prophet for Saul. No doubt he was a lovable man in many ways, and the prophet, as having been used in connection with his anointing, would feel especially the keenness of the disappointment which now is his. He cried to the Lord, perhaps pleading that fresh opportunity might be given, and that the final word might not yet be said; but with God, and indeed with every spiritual judgment, Saul's character was fully and finally manifested. Its essential was disobedience. As a matter of fact, too, he was allowed a long season in which he could have shown whether or not his repentance was genuine, and whether he could again be trusted; but the longer the space given for repentance, the more manifest is his inherent and total apostasy of heart from God.
Samuel therefore goes to meet Saul, and finds him at Gilgal, a place of blessed associations, but the scene, too, of Saul's previous failure to manifest faith. Before reaching Gilgal, he had gone to Carmel — the place of fruitfulness — and had there "set him up a place" — doubtless a memorial of some kind to celebrate his victory over Amalek. This was appropriate to one who was boasting in the excellence of the flesh and would declare his own prowess.
Saul seems (though it may be hypocrisy) delighted to meet Samuel, and apparently is ignorant of having disobeyed God. He goes out with the bold profession, "I have performed the commandment of the Lord." The prophet, who might weep in secret over the rejection of the proud king, is most faithful, however, in his dealing with him. He asks as to the spared flocks and herds, who give the lie to the king's declaration that he had obeyed the commandment of the Lord. How often do those spared things of the flesh and its lusts contradict the bold profession of having put to death all our members which are upon earth!
Samuel now goes on to tell Saul the judgment of God upon him. There was a time when he was little in his own sight, when he shrank with greatest reluctance from any intrusion into a place of prominence. He had thus protested to Samuel on the occasion of his anointing; and later on, when declared the chosen one of the people, he had hidden himself. A change has come over him. He has become flushed with victory; he has been recognized by the mass of the people, and has attained an importance in his own eyes far different from the low thoughts he once had. Samuel recalls this past to him, and places it side by side with his present lofty disregard of the will of God.
Again Saul protests, and would seek to throw the responsibility for sparing the cattle upon the people. No doubt they were quite willing thus to spare them, but that did not relieve Saul from his responsibility as king. What king yields to his people, or obeys them? It is ever the reverse. Samuel, however, does not dispute this, or speak of it to Saul. There is another King who had given His command. It was to Him that Saul must give an account. Did He delight in sacrifices, even if all the cattle were thus to be devoted, as much as in obedience? And then follows that word so often quoted, so heart-searching: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." It tests many a specious claim to devotedness or service. How often is the plea made that we should spare something of the flesh in order to devote it to the Lord!
Thus an unscriptural course, either in the private life or in public association, is condoned on the plea that we can the better serve the Lord. The principle, "Let us do evil, that good may come," has not yet lost its power in the minds of many, and is often used as an excuse for manifest disobedience. Disobedience here too is characterized as rebellion. It is not merely neglect; it is not some trifle, for there can be no trifles in what God commands. To disobey Him is rebellion. The first sin that came into the world was that of disobedience; and this earth has been from that day in rebellion against its rightful Lord and Owner.
The sin of rebellion is closely linked with those satanic powers suggested in witchcraft. Indeed, Satan thus deceived our mother Eve. He led her into disobedience by his satanic ways. How solemn and striking it is to remember that this act of disobedience and rebellion of Saul's culminates finally in that scene with which his life closes! When he consulted the witch at Endor he was linking together the beginning and the ending of his course of disobedience, and all alike had the same character of stubbornness and idolatry.
At last Saul seems to have recognized his sin; at least, there is the acknowledgment of it; but we remember how Pharaoh acknowledged his sins only to repeat them again; and how Judas, after his deliberate treachery against the Son of God, repented himself. "The sorrow of the world worketh death." It does not work repentance "that needeth not to be repented of."
He pleads his fear of the people, which, if true, showed his incapacity for all true rule. For "he that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God "; and the fear of man is inconsistent with the fear of God. It bringeth a snare. Scripture abounds with illustrations of this. It is the bane of the life, even of many a child of God — a shrinking from the path of full surrender to Him, in the fear of what flesh can do or say.
Saul begs that Samuel will return with him, still to honor the Lord in sacrifice; but the prophet cannot compromise. The declaration of judgment had been final, and could not be retracted. Saul was a rejected man, and there must be no uncertainty as to this. Therefore the prophet, whatever his personal feelings may have been, turns away from the suppliant king. Saul lays hold of his garment to detain him, and that is rent; furnishing only an illustration that God has rent the kingdom of Israel from him, and will give it to another, a man who will answer to the thought of God. He cannot repent. God does not lightly speak here: at the very outset of Israel's history as a monarchy He must put His stamp of judgment upon that principle of confidence in the excellence of the flesh which shall abide a lesson for all time.
Again Saul pleads, not now for a reversal of the judgment, but rather that at least his own dignity may be preserved, and that he may be honored before the people. Alas, here again we see the flesh. It has its own interests, and its own honor is ever before it. It is incapable of thinking of the glory of God, and thus is branded for all time as a thing to be absolutely refused.
Samuel consents to this, as God had His own ways of working out His purposes. It was not necessary that Saul should be outwardly deposed at once. His own conduct will manifest his unfitness for his position, and therefore it could be no compromise for Samuel to return thus and worship with the king. It is, however, the last occasion in which he has intercourse with Saul. He returns to his home, ever mourning for him whom he loved, but in faithfulness never again to enter his presence. Sad and solemn parting, when he who stands for the word of God must part company from one who had proved himself to be utterly unworthy of the confidence reposed in him!
Samuel also hews Agag in pieces, as though he would illustrate God's abhorrence of the lusts of the flesh, the controlling principle of which is represented by its king. Good would it be for us if we allowed the keen sword of the word of God to do its complete work, and if we, as Samuel, would mortify our members which are upon the earth.
It is necessary and refreshing for faith to turn from one who thus utterly failed to meet his responsibilities, and who, when placed in the highest position, only showed his incompetence by disobedience, to One who never failed, and who was the contrast to king Saul in every detail. Our lessons as to Saul can be of little profit to us unless they turn us absolutely to Christ. It would do no good to know that the flesh must be refused in its fairest and most attractive forms unless we also realized that there was One who would fill the whole soul if He is only allowed to.
Saul was in the place of exaltation when called to his service. Our Lord was in the place of lowliest humiliation when He entered upon His earthly work. Saul had a great army with which to carry out the command of God. Our Lord was all alone, forsaken even of His own disciples. But oh, how perfectly did He embody God's abhorrence of evil, and, in His work upon the cross, "utterly destroy" Amalek! The sentence of death which He bore, the judgment of God which He endured, was the complete condemnation of the flesh. The body of the flesh was put off in that true circumcision in which He marked it forever as a thing irrevocably condemned. (See Col. 2: 11.1) It is this which makes possible also the practical putting to death, or mortifying, our members which are upon earth. (Col. 3: 5.) It is the crucifixion of the flesh, with its affections and lusts, spoken of in Gal. 5: 24.
What marked Him at the outset was, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God "; at the close of His life, "I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do." It was at the cost of everything here that He thus accomplished that will; but in it we have our deliverance for all eternity from that which would mar heaven itself were it allowed there — the presence of the flesh and its lusts.
Any page of the Gospels would furnish illustrations of our Lord's unsparing judgment of Amalek. His dealings with the self-righteous Pharisees partly illustrate it. All that they boasted in — the best of the sheep and the cattle, which they professed to spare for the service of God — was by Him inflexibly characterized and condemned. Their religiousness, their obedience to the traditions of the fathers, their fair show in public prayer and alms-giving, were all characterized, in truth, as being absolutely rejected by God; and we can see in the sevenfold denunciation of the Pharisees (Matt. 23: 13, etc.), what answers to the hewing of Agag in pieces before the Lord.
And yet He never sacrificed an iota of grace or mercy to a truly penitent sinner. Nay, one was saved who could truly characterize himself as the chief of sinners — chief because all his religious excellence which was a gain to him he found to be arrayed in bitterest enmity against the Son of God. Thank God, we need not therefore mourn for Saul, nor need we mourn that the flesh, with its affections and lusts, was so incurably evil that nothing but the sword of judgment could do for it. We turn from all vain confidences in it unto Him whose cross has judged it, and rejoice that we have as Leader and Lord one who has triumphed over it completely.
1 All are agreed that the words in Col. 2: 11 should read, "In putting off the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ."