Earlier this week, the Lord brought to mind this verse from 1 Samuel 15:22 (NIV).
But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”
I have been thinking about this verse all week. Have you ever really thought about what it is saying? Obviously, it is saying that obedience is important, but as I thought about it this week, I thought about this verse differently than I have in the past.
The context of this verse is during King Saul’s reign. God had sent the Israelites into battle against the Amalakites and He instructed them to destroy everything – every person, every animal – without exception. Though the Israelites defeated the Amalakites, Saul kept the king alive and the Israelites kept the best of all of the livestock. When Samuel confronted Saul, Saul said that they had kept the best of the animals to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Saul even said to Samuel that he had “kept the Lord’s instructions”. But he really didn’t did he? Obeying most is not obeying all. The disobedience was so great from God’s perspective that it was because of this that God rejected Saul as king.
I’ve always thought of this passage in terms of not obeying completely, but now I’ve been thinking about the contrast of what a situation would look like if there had been obedience from the beginning, as opposed to how it changes when there has been disobedience and then sacrifice. For example, I remember once when we were kids that my brothers were throwing something in the living room and it hit and broke a vase. If they had obeyed and not thrown the object, the vase would not have been broken. Although they were very sorry, and my dad did his best to glue the vase back together, the vase was forever changed. Many acts of disobedience are far more consequential than a broken vase. Disobedience can result in damage to relationships, physical damage, emotional damage, and even death.
What was the purpose of sacrifice except to pay for someone’s disobedience? While someone might be repentant and sorry for their sin, the damage is already done. Repentance doesn’t erase the pain or injury that has been caused and would have been avoided by obedience. While the sacrifice or penalty for disobedience meets the requirements of justice, it does not have the same result as if the person had obeyed and done the right thing in the first place. Sacrifices without repentance are a “stench” to the Lord. Sacrifices offered with genuine repentance are a “fragrant offering”, but how much better to not have disobeyed at all!
When I was a little girl, I was very shy. When I realized I had done something wrong, either because I was in trouble for disobeying, or because I had been unkind, I would feel bad, but I was too timid to say I was sorry. So I would try to show that person I was sorry by how I behaved, and I would promise myself that I was never going to do THAT again – whatever it was that caused the trouble. Committing myself to not behaving that way again is in keeping with repentance, and that’s a good thing, but demonstrating by my actions that I was sorry, while it’s at least something, is not the same as confessing what you have done, acknowledging the pain you caused, or asking forgiveness. It was sort of my self-imposed penance or my “sacrifice” to make things right.
I’ve often heard people say that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”. Isn’t this the same as saying sacrifice is better than (or perhaps as good as) obedience? You usually hear this in the context of someone wanting to do something they know or suspect they won’t get permission to do. They surmise that if they go ahead and do it and then apologize, somehow the apology makes it OK. But it is not OK. Even if they perceive no real harm was done, it damages the relationship.
This week, as I am wrapping up our theme of obedience, I want to help my students see that obedience is always better, to obey is better than sacrifice. I want to help them see the “before and after pictures” of decisions to obey in contrast to the “before and after pictures” of disobedience followed by sacrifice, apologies, repentance, restitution. Doing the right thing is always the better choice. Disobedience brings pain.
Yet none of us obeys perfectly do we? By God’s grace, Christ came to pay the ultimate sacrifice for our sin, bringing both forgiveness and reconciliation.
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.