The shipwreck of partial obedience

Scripture Readings

  • 1 Samuel 14:31-45
  • 1 Samuel 15:17-23


Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Friends of ours had a hobby farm. They had milking goats .  These animals were fairly expensive.

We arrived for a weekend visit, only to find everyone in pandemonium.  One of the goats was terribly sick, lying on its side with its belly resembling a huge balloon.  Over the telephone the vet had advised that the animal was poisoned by eating a certain plant which blossomed after the good rains.  (These things only happen on a Friday afternoon after hours, don’t they!)  If they wanted to, our friends could puncture the belly to let the air out, but before that could be done, the goat breathed its last and was no more.

The eldest boy of the family had good idea what the plants look like, and on command of his father he set out to chip out everything looking like it and collecting it into a bag.  They could not afford another animal dying.  What was left of the afternoon, and also the Saturday morning, the chipping of the culprit plants continued.

Alas!  That afternoon another goat died with a ballooned belly.  The father asked his son, “Did you chip out all the poisonous plants?” The answer came, “Almost!”

The consequence of almost in this case was death.

Righteousness demands holiness 

For some reason we think we get a score out of ten if we are obedient: 10/10 is admirable, but we sometimes see it as unreasonable; five or six might get us a pass, and we argue that’s good enough.

When it comes to our righteousness before God, nothing less than 10/10 will do.  God is perfect and holy, and He demands perfection and holiness. But, and this is where grace comes in, our saving righteousness can never be our own—to God’s standard we can never attain, but by his mercy and grace God provided our perfect righteousness in Christ.  His score is 10/10 in all possible ways. Who clings to Him by faith, receives his righteousness as if it is their own. “Nothing in may hands I bring, simply to Your Cross I cling; stained by sin, to You I cry: ‘Wash my, Saviour, or I die.’”

God appointed Saul to be the ruler over Israel not based on any inherent goodness, social standing, or leadership qualities; God did so because of grace.  Saul then was supplied everything he needed to rule and guide God’s people.  Do you remember how Samuel gave him the unction and how God confirmed his choice to Saul by having him prophesied with the prophets? The command to Saul was:

But be sure to fear the Lord and serve Him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things He has done for you. (1 Samuel 12:24, NIV)

Disobedience by presumption

In many ways Saul was a disappointment.  The Bible records his first major failure in 1 Samuel 13.  Instead of waiting for Samuel as the Lord commanded him, out of desperate mistrust in God and fear that his men would leave him weak and vulnerable to the Philistines, he took it upon himself to make the burnt and fellowship offering.  Samuel then said,

“You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, He would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure… ” (1 Samuel 13:13–14, NIV)

We saw last week how Saul was too weak to even attack the Philistines.  His son, Jonathan, with his eyes fixed on God, attacked the “uncircumcised” while God sent them into great confession.  It was probably the earthquake God sent to brought about more panic, that shook Saul out of his stupor—only to then muster his forces for battle.  Although he first thought it a good thing to enquire of the Lord, his assessment of the situation then turned into self-confidence: his enemy was in such a disarray, that he could just pounce on them, with or without the direction of God; he would just go in and knock the enemy over. As far as Saul was concerned, victory was in his hands.

Disobedience by addition

To assure his own glory, Saul added to Word of God.  Taking own control he issued this command:

“Cursed be anyone who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food. (1 Samuel 14:24, NIV)

The Israelites were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under that oath.  He had no right to issue the command.  In his effort to take control, he did not understand that “…the Lord saved Israel”. (1 Samuel 14:23, NIV)

When Jonathan became weak of exhaustion, not knowing of his father’s orders, he found honey and ate of it to recharge his energy.  He regarded his father’s order as unreasonable and reckless, and rightly so.

Dead tired, the army—after the day’s battle—pounced on the plunder and butchered the animals and ate it with the blood.  This disturbed Saul greatly.  “Do not sin against the Lord by eating meat that has blood in it.” (14:24)  Once again, without the intervention of priests, Saul presumed upon the office of the priesthood and built an altar.

Saul’s double standards in this story is dumfounding!  Once one starts to build one’s obedience in one’s own understanding of God’s law, one runs into the trouble of tripping over your own interpretation, and double standards follow!  It’s not good enough to only know about obedience to the Lord—Saul knew of it, but applied it as he thought right.  Obedience is only obedience when we fully go by what God actually commands. We might think we know about right and wrong, but because of our sinful nature we can easily add our own interpretation to right and wrong.  “If you ask me, I cannot see a problem with…” Or, “I don’t think what the Bible says actually means …”  That’s in essence disobedience! That’s to be wise in our own eyes. What I think is of no importance; what God says matter infinitely.

The rest of the story reveals the effect of disobedience by addition.

When Saul then wanted to pursue the enemy through the night, the priest thought it might be a good idea to find out what God thinks about it.  The men were tired, it was dark, and Saul’s ego was blossoming—a good mix for disaster.

Saul asked for God’s direction, but God did not answer him.  The only explanation for this silence was that someone sinned.  Saul interpreted this “sin” as disobeying his order. Once again Saul prayed for a right answer.  Keep in mind, Saul did not pray that God would point out the man who sinned.  What was important was that between the two of them only one actually sinned against the Lord—that’s the matter. He and Jonathan were taken by lot.  When the lot fell on Jonathan, Saul jumped to the conclusion that Jonathan sinned against the Lord by disobeying him!  Saul’s disobedience by addiction—adding to the Word of God—would have demanded the death of his own son—and once again there was no Biblical ground for it.

The rest of Saul’s men understood the lot on Jonathan the other way round.  Jonathan stood behind the success of the army that day, not Saul! He was the culprit.

The church can fall in the same trap as Saul.  Actually, the Roman Church added many traditions to the Word of God, like eating fish on a Friday.  Really? By what authority?  Many thousands of Christians who faithfully obeyed the Lord only according to his revealed will found in the Bible died at the stake because they refused to obey the additions of men to the Bible. Wycliffe died because he dared translate the Bible in English. What a “sin”!

Many a child who grew up in strict, let’s call it fundamentalist, Christian homes, fell from the Christian faith because rules not found in the Scriptures, were imposed on them as “authentic Christianity”.  Children can so easily get confused between man-made morality and godly conduct: when these two oppose one another, both are usually discarded.

Disobedience by omission

In the next chapter we find Saul on a mission against the Amelikites.  God’s command was clear:

Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ” (1 Samuel 15:3, NIV)

Why this stern command?  It is all connected to God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants—and therefore God’s church through the ages—that those who curse him, God will curse (Genesis 12:3). While still in the desert the Amelikites, descendants of Esau, attacked God’s people.  Now God, through Saul, would strike them with the curse.

We know what happened.  Saul did attack the Amelikites, but not all of them.  He killed the animals, but not all of them.  His disobedience was by omission:  it was partial obedience.  Agag, the king, was omitted, and the best of the animals were omitted—in Saul’s opinion, the good ones escaped death. He applied his own standard to what was weak and despised, and what was good.  Saul showed himself more merciful than God! He actually thought what God despised would be good enough to sacrifice to God!

He became so arrogant that he erected a monument in his own honour (15:12). What completely escaped his mind were God’s words right in the beginning of the chapter:

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. (1 Samuel 15:1, NIV)

Samuel met Saul with a message from God:

“You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!” (1 Samuel 15:26, NIV)

What was the underlying principle?

To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” (1 Samuel 15:22–23, NIV)

Disobedience, whether in the form of presumption, addition or omission, is nothing short of idolatry. Disobedience stands equal with witchcraft.

There is a verse in Revelation which comes to mind:

So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. (Revelation 3:16, NKJV)


There is not a scale of obedience on which we can score 5/10 or 6/10 and still pass in the sight of God. Like the son of my friend, his “almost” was not good enough; maybe there was just one poisonous plant left which killed the goat.

God demands perfect obedience and perfect holiness.

Let’s go back to the scene in the woods towards that evening when Saul almost killed his own son.  The soldiers then said:

“Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great deliverance in Israel? Certainly not! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he has worked with God this day.” So the people rescued Jonathan, and he did not die. (1 Samuel 14:45, NKJV)

God demands perfect righteousness.  Should Jesus die who has accomplished great deliverance?  No! He didn’t deserve death.  But He willing to die and gave his life for sinners.  When He did die, there was no-one to rescue Him.  His Father did not stop to pursue the enemy; He sent his Son to conquer them, but to do so, He had to die.

His obedience is our perfect righteousness.  Salvation is in Him only.

The king is dead; long live the King! Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 1st October 2017


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