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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 1–9
Verses 1–9

Here, I. Samuel, in God’s name, solemnly requires Saul to be obedient to the command of God, and plainly intimates that he was now about to put him upon a trial, in one particular instance, whether he would be obedient or no, 1 Sam. 15:1. And the making of this so expressly the trial of his obedience did very much aggravate his disobedience. 1. He reminds him of what God had done for him: “The Lord sent me to anoint thee to be a king. God gave thee thy power, and therefore he expects thou shouldst use thy power for him. He put honour upon thee, and now thou must study how to do him honour. He made thee king over Israel, and now thou must plead Israel’s cause and avenge their quarrels. Thou art advanced to command Israel, but know that thou art a subject to the God of Israel and must be commanded by him.” Men’s preferment, instead of releasing them from their obedience to God, obliges them so much the more to it. Samuel had himself been employed to anoint Saul, and therefore was the fitter to be send with these orders to him. 2. He tells him, in general, that, in consideration of this, whatever God commanded him to do he was bound to do it: Now therefore hearken to the voice of the Lord. Note, God’s favours to us lay strong obligations upon us to be obedient to him. This we must render, Ps. 116:12.

II. He appoints him a particular piece of service, in which he must now show his obedience to God more than in any thing he had done yet. Samuel premises God’s authority to the command: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the Lord of all hosts, of Israel’s hosts. He also gives him a reason for the command, that the severity he must use might not seem hard: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, 1 Sam. 15:2. God had an ancient quarrel with the Amalekites, for the injuries they did to his people Israel when he brought them out of Egypt. We have the story, Exod. 17:8-16, and the crime is aggravated, Deut. 25:18. He basely smote the hindmost of them, and feared not God. God then swore that he would have war with Amalek from generation to generation, and that in process of time he would utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek; this is the work that Saul is now appointed to do (1 Sam. 15:3): “Go and smite Amalek. Israel is now strong, and the measure of the iniquity of Amalek is now full; now go and make a full riddance of that devoted nation.” He is expressly commanded to kill and slay all before him, man and woman, infant and suckling, and not spare them out of pity; also ox and sheep, camel and ass, and not spare them out of covetousness. Note, 1. Injuries done to God’s Israel will certainly be reckoned for sooner or later, especially the opposition given them when they are coming out of Egypt. 2. God often bears long with those that are marked for ruin. The sentence passed is not executed speedily. 3. Though he bear long, he will not bear always. The year of recompence for the controversy of Israel will come at last. Though divine justice strikes slowly it strikes surely. 4. The longer judgment is delayed many times the more severe it is when it comes. 5. God chooses out instruments to do his work that are fittest for it. This was bloody work, and therefore Saul who was a rough and severe man must do it.

III. Saul hereupon musters his forces, and makes a descent upon the country of Amalek. It was an immense army that he brought into the field (1 Sam. 15:4): 200,000 footmen. When he came to engage the Philistines, and the success was hazardous, he had but 600 attending him, 1 Sam. 13:15. But now that he was to attack the Amalekites by express order from heaven, in which he was sure of victory, he had thousands at his call. But, whatever it was at other times, it was not now for the honour of Judah that their forces were numbered by themselves, for their quota was scandalously short (whatever was the reason), but a twentieth part of the whole, for they were by 10,000, when the other ten tribes (for I except Levi) brought into the field 200,000. The day of Judah’s honour drew near, but had not yet come. Saul numbered them in Telaim, which signifies lambs. He numbered then like lambs (so the vulgar Latin), numbered them by the paschal lambs (so the Chaldee), allowing ten to a lamb, a way of numbering used by the Jews in the later times of their nation. Saul drew all his forces to the city of Amalek, that city that was their metropolis (1 Sam. 15:5), that he might provoke them to give him battle.

IV. He gave friendly advice to the Kenites to separate themselves from the Amalekites among whom they dwelt, while this execution was in doing, 1 Sam. 15:6. Herein he did prudently and piously, and, it is probable, according to the direction Samuel gave him. The Kenites were of the family and kindred of Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, a people that dwelt in tents, which made it easy for them, upon every occasion, to remove to other lands not appropriated. Many of them, at this time, dwelt among the Amalekites, where, though they dwelt in tents, they were fortified by nature, for they put their nest in a rock, being hardy people that could live any where, and affected fastnesses, Num. 24:21. Balaam had foretold that they should be wasted, Num. 24:22. However, Saul must not waste them. But, 1. He acknowledges the kindness of their ancestors to Israel, when they came out of Egypt. Jethro and his family had been very helpful and serviceable to them in their passage through the wilderness, had been to them instead of eyes, and this is remembered to their posterity many ages after. Thus a good man leaves the divine blessing for an inheritance to his children’s children; those that come after us may be reaping the benefit of our good works when we are in our graves. God is not unrighteous to forget the kindnesses shown to his people; but they shall be remembered another day, at furthest in the great day, and recompensed in the resurrection of the just. I was hungry, and you gave me meat. God’s remembering the kindness of the Kenites’ ancestors in favour to them, at the same time when he was punishing the injuries done by the ancestors of the Amalekites, helped to clear the righteousness of God in that dispensation. If he entail favours, why may he not entail frowns? He espouses his people’s cause, so as to bless those that bless them; and therefore so as to curse those that curse them, Num. 24:9; Gen. 12:3. They cannot themselves requite the kindnesses nor avenge the injuries done them, but God will do both. 2. He desires them to remove their tents from among the Amalekites: Go, depart, get you down from among them. When destroying judgments are abroad God will take care to separate between the precious and the vile, and to hide the meek of the earth in the day of his anger. It is dangerous being found in the company of God’s enemies, and it is our duty and interest to come out from among them, lest we share in their sins and plagues, Rev. 18:4. The Jews have a saying, Woe to the wicked man and woe to his neighbour.

V. Saul prevailed against the Amalekites, for it was rather an execution of condemned malefactors than a war with contending enemies. The issue could not be dubious when the cause was just and the call so clear: He smote them (1 Sam. 15:7), utterly destroyed them, 1 Sam. 15:8. Now they paid dearly for the sin of their ancestors. God sometimes lays up iniquity for the children. They were idolaters, and were guilty of many other sins, for which they deserved to fall under the wrath of God; yet, when God would reckon with them, he fastened upon the sin of their ancestors in abusing his Israel as the ground of his quarrel. Lord, How unsearchable are thy judgments, yet how incontestable is thy righteousness!

VI. Yet he did his work by halves, 1 Sam. 15:9. 1. He spared Agag, because he was a king like himself, and perhaps in hope to get a great ransom for him. 2. He spared the best of the cattle, and destroyed only the refuse, that was good for little. Many of the people, we may suppose, made their escape, and took their effects with them into other countries, and therefore we read of Amalekites after this; but that could not be helped. It was Saul’s fault that he did not destroy such as came to his hands and were in his power. That which was now destroyed was in effect sacrificed to the justice of God, as the God to whom vengeance belongeth; and for Saul to think the torn and the sick, the lame and the lean, good enough for that, while he reserved for his own fields and his own table the firstlings and the fat, was really to honour himself more than God.