The passage we’re going to look at today isn’t particularly confusing or difficult to understand, but reading it in its place in 1 Samuel, it definitely stands out as interesting. And with such a pivotal moment in the life of King Saul being so interesting, it definitely draws our attention to the importance of what happened that day. With that being said, take a moment to read through 1 Samuel 13:5–14.
1 Samuel 13 describes some wartime events in the life of Saul, the man who had been crowned just a few chapters before as Israel’s first (human) king. The actual coronation took place after Saul, through the power of God, led the people to a mighty victory over the Ammonites. (Note specifically in chapter 11:7b the reference to following Saul “and Samuel” into battle; with Samuel as a representative of God’s voice, will, and blessing. Also note Saul’s acknowledgement in 11:13 that it was the LORD that delivered them.) In the beginning of chapter 13, we see Saul and his son Jonathan leading a much smaller force to attack a garrison of Philistines, drawing their attention and inciting their inevitable retribution. He calls the people to gather and prepare, and it’s here in the story that we start today’s passage.
5 Now the Philistines assembled to fight with Israel, thirty thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen, and people like the sand which is on the seashore in abundance; and they came up and camped in Michmash, east of Beth-aven. 6 When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble (for the people were hard-pressed), then the people kept themselves hidden in caves, in crevices, in cliffs, in crypts, and in pits. 7 And some of the Hebrews crossed the Jordan into the land of Gad and Gilead. But as for Saul, he was still in Gilgal, and all the people followed him, trembling.1 Samuel 13:5–7 NASB
The author wants to make it very clear that the Philistine army was massive and ready to fight, and the Israelites were scared. This is of course understandable from a human perspective. Yet remember that these same people would no-doubt know the stories of Joshua vs. the armies of many kings, or Gideon vs. the Midianiates (see Josh. 11:4 and Judg. 7:12 for similar descriptions of the enemy armies); or any of the other innumerable times God had triumphed in seemingly impossible situations. Time and time again God had demonstrated to the Israelites that the size of the enemy’s force doesn’t matter when he is with them. But the people forgot and they were afraid—and as easy as it is for me to sit here and judge them, I know how easy it is in my own life to temporarily forget or ignore what God has done when faced with daunting or difficult situations.
So some of the people hunkered down, some of them hid, and some of them full-on fled out of fear; and even those who remained with Saul were “trembling.” The Philistines were not going to just roll over and allow Israel to get away with attacking their garrison. It was time for war.
Now he waited for seven days, until the appointed time that Samuel had set, but Samuel did not come to Gilgal; and the people were scattering from him.1 Sam. 13:8 NASB
In this section we see that Saul starts off in an at-least-somewhat commendable way. He knows that he should not rush into war without God’s blessing, and so he waits for Samuel to come and do his priestly and prophetic duties. We read that Samuel was set to arrive within seven days, which could harken back to his words to Saul in 10:8, or another more recent instruction he had given. Either way, it is evident that the instructions were clear. But when things don’t go according to plan, Saul panics. What if Samuel doesn’t show up? What would that mean? What should I do? Unfortunately, he makes the wrong choice.
So Saul said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering.1 Sam 13:9 NASB
There are plenty of times in scripture when someone loses hope in God’s promises and fails to hold firm to his commands, instead taking matters into their own hands. My mind immediately goes to Abram, who is promised a son in Genesis 15, despite his wife’s old age. But he considers God’s promise of Sarai’s pregnancy to be inconceivable, so he impregnates her servant instead, and faces the consequences.
Saul knows that it’s fruitless to march to battle without the strength of the LORD empowering him. He knows that he needs to wait for Samuel to present the offerings to God, the way that God has prescribed it (Num 18:7). But the people are losing hope and his numbers are quickly dwindling (a reality that shouldn’t phase him if he, too, remembered what God did with someone like Gideon. Contrast with his son Jonathan’s words in 14:6b). So rather than marching unblessed, Saul seeks God’s favour without following God’s directions. And just like with Cain’s unpleasing, self-determined offering in Genesis 4, Saul is going to learn that you can’t entreat God’s will without following God’s way.
As if on cue, Samuel arrives.
10 But as soon as he finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him and to greet him. 11 But Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “Since I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come at the appointed time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Michmash, 12 I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not asked the favor of the LORD.’ So I worked up the courage and offered the burnt offering.” 13 But Samuel said to Saul, “You have acted foolishly! You have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, for the LORD would now have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”1 Samuel 13:10–14 NASB
We don’t learn why Samuel was delayed, because what matters here is that Saul was disobedient. If a set of parents leave their older children home alone and get back a little bit later than expected, that doesn’t mean the kids can just throw all the rules out the window as soon as the expected arrival time has passed. In the same way, Samuel didn’t say, If I don’t show up on time, go ahead and do my job without me. That’s not the way it works. Obedience to God is not subjective based on particular circumstances in any given moment—you obey or you don’t. In this case, while Saul might have had good intentions, he failed to obey.
Through his own fear and insecurities, Saul elevated the ritual of burnt offerings above the command to wait for Samuel, and in doing so, he abandoned the intention and direction behind those commands. Read what Samuel had to say on this topic a couple chapters later:
Does the Lord have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices1 Samuel 15:22 NASB
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than a sacrifice,
And to pay attention is better than the fat of rams.
The consequences are dire. Saul is told that his legacy is ending, and the crown will depart from his family. While it might seem like this is an extreme punishment for one bad decision, we need to remember Saul’s role—he was the king. He was charged with leading the people to follow God, their true king. Israel was to be set apart from the other nations so that it was clear that they were subservient to the LORD. So a king who disobeys and leads the people astray is not fit to be king.
Now, a moment ago I emphasized that Saul might have had good intentions. But from the context, it would seem like that was not really the case. Saul makes the claim that he wanted to “ask the favor of the LORD”, which is why he went ahead and offered the sacrifice. What’s interesting is the book of 1 Samuel opens with the story of Hannah, who seeks God in prayer (to the point of tears and distress) but does so in private. However here we have no indication that Saul sought God privately at all. Instead, when things don’t go the way he expects, he takes rash action and then tries to justify himself with spiritual platitudes when he gets busted. As Samuel says, he acted foolishly (a word that, more than just negatively commenting on someone’s intelligence, often conveyed spiritual and moral blameworthiness in the Hebrew).
Why Does it Matter?
Once again, I feel like I don’t need to say much in this section of the post. What we see here is another important reminder of the cost of disobedience. What makes this one so captivating is that it’s so relatable, despite that face that most reading this likely have little in common with the life of Saul. But in many ways, it’s easy to see why the people were scared. It’s easy to understand why Saul panicked and chose to do something he shouldn’t have. It’s even easy to relate to the way he tries to justify his actions as not that bad or perhaps even completely acceptable. I read this story and see times in my own life where I’ve given in to fear, engaged in disobedience, and rationalized sin.
But the fact that it’s so relatable is also what makes it so striking, when we are once again reminded that sin brings consequences. When we choose to take actions that are in direct opposition to what we know we ought to do we have to realize that we have made a choice that is against God. It doesn’t matter if we think we can justify it, if we have “good” intentions, or even what the results are. What matters is we have disobeyed. My hope is that in reading these reminders today we are all challenged and encouraged—to keep a short account with the Lord, to confess our sins and trust that he is faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9), and to learn from our bad choices and do better next time.