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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 10–23
Verses 10–23

Saul is here called to account by Samuel concerning the execution of his commission against the Amalekites; and remarkable instances we are here furnished with of the strictness of the justice of God and the treachery and deceitfulness of the heart of man. We are here told,

I. What passed between God and Samuel, in secret, upon this occasion, 1 Sam. 15:10, 11. 1. God determines Saul’s rejection, and acquaints Samuel with it: It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king. Repentance in God is not, as it is in us, a change of his mind, but a change of his method or dispensation. He does not alter his will, but wills an alteration. The change was in Saul: He has turned back from following me; this construction God put upon the partiality of his obedience, and the prevalency of his covetousness. And hereby he did himself make God his enemy. God repented that he had given Saul the kingdom and the honour and power that belonged to it: but he never repented that he had given any man wisdom and grace, and his fear and love; these gifts and callings of God are without repentance. 2. Samuel laments and deprecates it. It grieved Samuel that Saul had forfeited God’s favour, and that God had resolved to cast him off; and he cried unto the Lord all night, spent a whole night in interceding for him, that this decree might not go forth against him. When others were in their beds sleeping, he was upon his knees praying and wrestling with God. He did not thus deprecate his own exclusion from the government; nor was he secretly pleased, as many a one would have been, that Saul, who succeeded him, was so soon laid aside, but on the contrary prayed earnestly for his establishment, so far was he from desiring that woeful day. The rejection of sinners is the grief of good people; God delights not in their death, nor should we.

II. What passed between Samuel and Saul in public. Samuel, being sent of God to him with these heavy tidings, went, as Ezekiel, in bitterness of soul, to meet him, perhaps according to an appointment when Saul went forth on this expedition, for Saul had come to Gilgal (1 Sam. 15:12), the place where he was made king (1 Sam. 11:15), and were now he would have been confirmed if he had approved himself well in the trial of his obedience. But Samuel was informed that Saul had set up a triumphal arch, or some monument of his victory, at Carmel, a city in the mountains of Judah, seeking his own honour more than the honour of God, for he set up this place (or hand, as the word is) for himself (he had more need to have been repenting of his sin and making his peace with God than boasting of his victory), and also that he had marched in great state to Gilgal, for this seems to be intimated in the manner of expression: He has gone about, and passed on, and gone down, with a great deal of pomp and parade. There Samuel gave him the meeting, and,

1. Saul makes his boast to Samuel of his obedience, because that was the thing by which he was now to signalize himself (1 Sam. 15:13): “Blessed be thou of the Lord, for thou sendest me upon a good errand, in which I have had great success, and I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” It is very likely, if his conscience had now flown in his face at this time and charged him with disobedience, he would not have been so forward to proclaim his disobedience; for by this he hoped to prevent Samuel’s reproving him. Thus sinners think, by justifying themselves, to escape being judged of the Lord; whereas the only way to do that is by judging ourselves. Those that boast most of their religion may be suspected of partiality and hypocrisy in it.

2. Samuel convicts him by a plain demonstration of his disobedience. “Hast thou performed the commandment of the Lord? What means then the bleating of the sheep?” 1 Sam. 15:14. Saul would needs have it thought than God Almighty was wonderfully beholden to him for the good service he had done; but Samuel shows him that God was so far from being a debtor to him that he had just cause of action against him, and produces for evidence the bleating of the sheep, and the lowing of the oxen, which perhaps Saul appointed to bring up the rear of his triumph, but Samuel appears to them as witnesses against him. He needed not go far to disprove his professions. The noise the cattle made (like the rust of silver, Jas. 5:3) would be a witness against him. Note, It is no new thing for the plausible professions and protestations of hypocrites to be contradicted and disproved by the most plain and undeniable evidence. Many boast of their obedience to the command of God; but what mean then their indulgence of the flesh, their love of the world, their passion and uncharitableness, and their neglect of holy duties, which witness against them?

3. Saul insists upon his own justification against this charge, 1 Sam. 15:15. The fact he cannot deny; the sheep and oxen were brought from the Amalekites. But, (1.) It was not his fault, for the people spared them; as if they durst have done it without the express orders of Saul, when they knew it was against the express orders of Samuel. Note, Those that are willing to justify themselves are commonly very forward to condemn others, and to lay the blame upon any rather than take it to themselves. Sin is a brat that nobody cares to have laid at his doors. It is the sorry subterfuge of an impenitent heart, that will not confess its guilt, to lay the blame on those that were tempters, or partners, or only followers in it. (2.) It was with a good intention: “It was to sacrifice to the Lord thy God. He is thy God, and thou wilt not be against any thing that is done, as this is, for his honour.” This was a false plea, for both Saul and the people designed their own profit in sparing the cattle. But, if it had been true, it would still have been frivolous, for God hates robbery for burnt-offering. God appointed these cattle to be sacrificed to him in the field, and therefore will give those no thanks that bring them to be sacrificed at his altar; for he will be served in his own way, and according to the rule he himself has prescribed. Nor will a good intention justify a bad action.

4. Samuel overrules, or rather overlooks, his plea, and proceeds, in God’s name, to give judgment against him. He premises his authority. What he was about to say was what the Lord had said to him (1 Sam. 15:16), otherwise he would have been far from passing so severe a censure upon him. Those who complain that their ministers are too harsh with them should remember that, while they keep to the word of God, they are but messengers, and must say as they are bidden, and therefore be willing, as Saul himself here was, that they should say on. Samuel delivers his message faithfully. (1.) He reminds Saul of the honour of God had done him in making him king (1 Sam. 15:17), when he was little in his own sight. God regarded the lowness of his state and rewarded the lowliness of his spirit. Note, Those that are advanced to honour and wealth ought often to remember their mean beginnings, that they may never think highly of themselves, but always study to do great things for the God that had advanced them. (2.) He lays before him the plainness of the orders he was to execute (1 Sam. 15:18): The Lord sent thee on a journey; so easy was the service, and so certain the success, that it was rather to be called a journey than a war. The work was honourable, to destroy the sworn enemies of God and Israel; and had he denied himself, and set aside the consideration of his own profit so far as to have destroyed all that belonged to Amalek, he would have been no loser by it at last, nor have gone this warfare on his own charges. God would no doubt have made it up to him, so that he should have no need of spoil. And therefore, (3.) He shows him how inexcusable he was in aiming to make a profit of this expedition, and to enrich himself by it (1 Sam. 15:19): “Wherefore then didst thou fly upon the spoil, and convert that to thy own use which was to have been destroyed for God’s honour?” See what evil the love of money is the root of; but see what is the sinfulness of sin, and that in it which above any thing else makes it evil in the sight of the Lord. It is disobedience: Thou didst not obey the voice of the Lord.

5. Saul repeats his vindication of himself, as that which, in defiance of conviction, he resolved to abide by, 1 Sam. 15:20, 21. He denies the charge (1 Sam. 15:20): “Yea, I have obeyed, I have done all I should do;” for he had done all which he thought he needed to do, so much wiser was he in his own eyes than God himself. God bade him kill all, and yet he puts in among the instances of his obedience that he brought Agag alive, which he thought was as good as if he had killed him. Thus carnal deceitful hearts think to excuse themselves from God’s commandments with their own equivalents. He insists upon it that he has utterly destroyed the Amalekites themselves, which was the main thing intended; but, as to the spoil, he owns it should have been utterly destroyed; so that he knew his Lord’s will, and was under no mistake about the command. But he thought that would be wilful waste; the cattle of the Midianites was taken for a prey in Moses’s time (Num. 31:32-34), and why not the cattle of the Amalekites now? Better it should be prey to the Israelites than to the fowls of the air and the wild beasts; and therefore he connived at the people’s carrying it away. But it was their doing and not his; and, besides, it was for sacrifice to the Lord here at Gilgal, whither they were now bringing them. See what a hard thing it is to convince the children of disobedience of their sin and to strip them of their fig-leaves.

6. Samuel gives a full answer to his apology, since he did insist upon it, 1 Sam. 15:22, 23. He appeals to his own conscience: Has the Lord as great delight in sacrifices as in obedience? Though Saul was not a man of any great acquaintance with religion, yet he could not but know this, (1.) That nothing is so pleasing to God as obedience, no, not sacrifice and offering, and the fat of rams. See here what we should seek and aim at in all the exercises of religion, even acceptance with God, that he may delight in what we do. If God be well pleased with us and our services, we are happy, we have gained our point, but otherwise to what purpose is it? Isa. 1:11. Now here we are plainly told that humble, sincere, and conscientious obedience to the will of God, is more pleasing and acceptable to him than all burnt-offerings and sacrifices. A careful conformity to moral precepts recommends us to God more than all ceremonial observances, Mic. 6:6-8; Hos. 6:6. Obedience is enjoined by the eternal law of nature, but sacrifice only by a positive law. Obedience was the law of innocency, but sacrifice supposes sin come into the world, and is but a feeble attempt to take that away which obedience would have prevented. God is more glorified and self more denied by obedience than by sacrifice. It is much easier to bring a bullock or lamb to be burnt upon the altar than to bring every high thought into obedience to God and the will subject to his will. Obedience is the glory of angels (Ps. 103:20), and it will be ours. (2.) That nothing is so provoking to God as disobedience, setting up our wills in competition with his. This is here called rebellion and stubbornness, and is said to be as bad as witchcraft and idolatry, 1 Sam. 15:23. It is as bad to set up other gods as to live in disobedience to the true God. Those that are governed by their own corrupt inclinations, in opposition to the command of God, do, in effect, consult the teraphim (as the word here is for idolatry) or the diviners. It was disobedience that made us all sinners (Rom. 5:19), and this is the malignity of sin, that it is the transgression of the law, and consequently it is enmity to God, Rom. 8:7. Saul was a king, but if he disobey the command of God, his royal dignity and power will not excuse him from the guilt of rebellion and stubbornness. It is not the rebellion of the people against their prince, but of a prince against God, that this text speaks of.

7. He reads his doom: in short, “Because thou has rejected the word of the Lord, hast despised it (so the Chaldee), hast made nothing of it (so the LXX.), hast cast off the government of it, therefore he has rejected thee, despised and made nothing of thee, but cast thee off from being king. He that made thee king has determined to unmake thee again.” Those are unfit and unworthy to rule over men who are not willing that God should rule over them.