“To Obey Is Better Than a Sacrifice”

THE first king of ancient Israel was Saul. Although chosen by the true God, Saul eventually became disobedient.

What wrongs did Saul commit? Could he have avoided them? How can we benefit from considering his example?

Jehovah Makes Known His Choice of King

Before Saul became king, the prophet Samuel was serving as God’s representative in Israel. Now Samuel was old, and his sons were unfaithful. At the same time, the nation was being threatened by its enemies. When the older men of Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king over them who could judge them and lead them in battle, Jehovah directed the prophet to anoint Saul as leader and said: “He must save my people from the hand of the Philistines.”​—1 Sam. 8:4-7, 20; 9:16.

Saul was “young and handsome.” His looks, though, were not his only recommendation. He was also humble. For example, Saul asked Samuel: “Am I not a Benjaminite of the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my family the most insignificant of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? So why have you spoken to me a thing like this?” Saul had a modest opinion of himself and his family, even though his father, Kish, was “mighty in wealth.”​—1 Sam. 9:1, 2, 21.

Consider also Saul’s response when Samuel made public Jehovah’s choice of Israel’s king. Samuel first anointed Saul in private and told him: “Do for yourself what your hand finds possible, because the true God is with you.” Thereafter, the prophet called the people together to make Jehovah’s choice public. When Saul was identified, however, he could not be found. Bashful Saul was hiding. Jehovah indicated where he was, and Saul was proclaimed king.​—1 Sam. 10:7, 20-24.

On the Battlefield

Saul soon proved wrong any who may have doubted his qualifications. When the Ammonites threatened an Israelite town, “the spirit of God became operative upon Saul.” He authoritatively summoned the nation’s warriors, organized them, and then led them to victory. But Saul ascribed this  triumph to God, saying: “Today Jehovah has performed salvation in Israel.”​—1 Sam. 11:1-13.

Saul had good qualities and God’s blessing. He also acknowledged Jehovah’s power. However, the continued success of the Israelites and their king depended on one very important factor. Samuel told the people of Israel: “If you will fear Jehovah and actually serve him and obey his voice, and you will not rebel against the order of Jehovah, both you and the king who must reign over you will certainly prove to be followers of Jehovah your God.” What could the Israelites be sure of if they were faithful to God? “Jehovah will not desert his people for the sake of his great name,” said Samuel, “because Jehovah has taken it upon himself to make you his people.”​—1 Sam. 12:14, 22.

Obedience was the key to having God’s approval, and it still is. When Jehovah’s servants obey his commands, he blesses them. But what if they disobey Jehovah?

“You Have Acted Foolishly”

Saul’s next action against the Philistines provoked a strong reaction from them. An army “like the grains of sand that are upon the seashore for multitude” rose against Saul. “The men of Israel themselves saw that they were in sore straits, because the people were hard pressed; and the people went hiding themselves in the caves and the hollows and the crags and the vaults and the waterpits.” (1 Sam. 13:5, 6) What would Saul do?

Samuel had told Saul to meet him at Gilgal, where the prophet would offer sacrifices. Saul waited, but Samuel was late in coming, and Saul’s army was scattering. So Saul took it upon himself to offer the sacrifices. As soon as he did so, Samuel arrived. After hearing what Saul had done, Samuel told him: “You have acted foolishly. You have not kept the commandment of Jehovah your God that he commanded you, because, if you had, Jehovah would have made your kingdom firm over Israel to time indefinite. And now your kingdom will not last. Jehovah will certainly find for himself a man agreeable to his heart; and Jehovah will commission him as a leader over his people, because you did not keep what Jehovah commanded you.”​—1 Sam. 10:8; 13:8, 13, 14.

Lacking faith, Saul presumptuously chose to disobey God’s command to wait for Samuel to come to offer the sacrifice. How Saul’s course differed from that of Gideon, a former commander of Israelite armies! Jehovah directed Gideon to reduce his army from 32,000 to 300, and Gideon obeyed. Why? Because he had faith in Jehovah. With God’s help, he defeated 135,000 invaders. (Judg. 7:1-7, 17-22; 8:10) Jehovah would have helped Saul too. Because of Saul’s disobedience, however, the Philistines pillaged Israel.​—1 Sam. 13:17, 18.

When faced with difficulties, how do we make decisions? From the point of view of those who lack faith, it might seem practical to ignore divine principles. In Samuel’s absence, Saul may have thought that what he did was sensible. For those who are determined to have God’s approval, though, following Scriptural principles that apply to the issue at hand is the only proper course to follow.

Jehovah Rejects Saul

During a campaign against the Amalekites, Saul was guilty of another serious error. God had condemned the people of Amalek because of their unprovoked attack on the Israelites following the Exodus from Egypt. (Ex. 17:8; Deut. 25:17, 18) Moreover, the Amalekites joined others in attacking  God’s chosen people again during the times of the Judges. (Judg. 3:12, 13; 6:1-3, 33) So Jehovah called the Amalekites to account and commanded Saul to execute judgment upon them.​—1 Sam. 15:1-3.

Instead of obeying Jehovah’s command to wipe out the hostile Amalekites and destroy their possessions, Saul captured their king and kept their best animals. What happened when Samuel challenged Saul in this regard? Saul tried to shift the blame by saying: “The people had compassion upon the best of the flock and of the herd, for the purpose of sacrificing to Jehovah.” Whether Saul really intended to sacrifice the animals or not, he had been disobedient. Saul was no longer so ‘little in his own eyes.’ Hence, God’s prophet pointed out that Saul had disobeyed God. Samuel then said: “Does Jehovah have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of Jehovah? Look! To obey is better than a sacrifice . . . Since you have rejected the word of Jehovah, he accordingly rejects you from being king.”​—1 Sam. 15:15, 17, 22, 23.

When Jehovah withdrew his holy spirit and blessing from Saul, “a bad spirit” began to dominate Israel’s first king. Saul’s disposition came to be characterized by suspicion and jealousy toward David​—a man to whom Jehovah would later give the kingship. More than once, Saul tried to kill David. Seeing that “Jehovah was with David,” says the Bible, “Saul came to be an enemy of David always.” Saul tried to hunt him down and even ordered the death of 85 priests and others. No wonder Jehovah abandoned Saul!​—1 Sam. 16:14; 18:11, 25, 28, 29; 19:10, 11; 20:32, 33; 22:16-19.

When the Philistines again attacked Israel, Saul turned to spiritism in a fruitless search for help. The next day, he was severely wounded in battle and committed suicide. (1 Sam. 28:4-8; 31:3, 4) Regarding Israel’s disobedient first king, the Scriptures state: “Saul died for his unfaithfulness with which he had acted faithlessly against Jehovah concerning the word of Jehovah that he had not kept and also for asking of a spirit medium to make inquiry. And he did not inquire of Jehovah.”​—1 Chron. 10:13, 14.

Saul’s bad example clearly shows that obeying Jehovah is better than offering any sacrifice to him. “This is what the love of God means,” wrote the apostle John, “that we observe his commandments; and yet his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) May we never neglect this fundamental truth: Lasting friendship with God depends on our obedience to him.

[Picture on page 21]

Saul started out as a humble leader

[Picture on page 23]

Why did Samuel tell Saul that “to obey is better than a sacrifice”?