To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. 1 Sam. 15:22b (NIV)
I can tell you what the old me thought of that bit of dialogue between the prophet Samuel and King Saul. You’ve got to be kidding, Sam. God prefers simple obedience? Wait till He hears what I’m gonna do for Him!
I of course took the immediate meaning of the phrase out of context. To me, to obey anyone meant to give in, give up or give out, none of which I have ever been prone to do gracefully. So what does it mean to say obedience is better than sacrifice? In my winner-take-all playbook, “to obey” was already a huge sacrifice. How, therefore could it be better than a well-prepared, juicy, choice cut of … oh, wait a minute. Maybe I do have an idea why God would prefer the obedience of our actions to anything we can cook up to distract Him.
My parents had gotten a well-deserved weekend away from their kids. I was about eight, my sister five and my brother a newborn and I honestly don’t remember who they suckered into coming to our house to care for us that weekend. It wasn’t our regular babysitter; I couldn’t have gotten away with it if he’d been there.
Whoever it was, they didn’t know that the most of the trees in our Florida subdivision lot were soft woods. Many were fruit trees. My father, a transplant himself from the majestic forests of Oregon, called the laurels overgrown bushes. And he also called them absolutely off limits for climbing. He maintained that we had a swing set, a sturdy elm and each other to climb on. Sixty pounds of trunk shimmying tomboy did not bode well for the health of the kumquat tree. He had made that clear to me but it was never mentioned to the babysitter. Certainly not by me.
Not only did I climb the kumquat tree, the orange trees, the grapefruit trees and the laurels repeatedly throughout the two days our parents were gone, I attempted to build a fort in the limbs of the almost-majestic cedar in the front yard. A painful experience since the needles were sharp and the bark rough and also my carpentry skills weren’t up to the task. And I fell. Hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to tell the babysitter.
Back to obedience. Samuel told Saul obedience was better. Better for whom? It would have been better for Saul. God doesn’t ask us to do things just to make Himself feel good. Does he ask for a tithe because He needs your money? No, he wants your heart and your heart in the hand of God is better for you. Did he want Saul’s complete obedience in the matter before him because he wanted a bunch of His enemies to die? No, God will accomplish his purposes–here it was to purge the land of a people committing heinous crimes–He wanted Saul to be obedient for the sake of Saul’s own good.
Here’s what happened in our house in 1963, and how I learned that obedience would have been much more acceptable that any sacrifice. Mom and Dad came home to a good report from the babysitter, who still had no clue that my tree climbing was a full frontal school girl rebellion carried out under her nose for two days. After the sitter left, we settled in for the ritual Walt Disney Theater Sunday night show, and, after a rapt half hour in front of the television, all my little muscles, tendons and ligaments refused to move. I was so sore I could barely move. As Mom massaged my thighs, calves and biceps, I could not tell a lie. No, I had not chopped down the cherry tree, but I had surely climbed the kumquat tree, as well as all its citrus cousins. As I experienced my first post-workout soreness Daddy told me the real reason he hadn’t wanted us in those trees. Their limbs couldn’t safely support us; Mom couldn’t climb up after us to help us for the same reason; the dumb laurels could have actually toppled over from our weight, throwing us into the street. And yes, the trees themselves were property that should be respected, but that was secondary.
As was God’s desire to rid the earth of the Amalekites. Without Saul’s compliance to the letter of God’s command to him, their contemptible practices went on for centuries after Saul’s reign. But that was secondary. God loved Saul and wanted his obedience. More than the sweetest fragrance of sacrifice, more than his explanations and excuses for why he didn’t do God’s will, God just wanted Saul’s obedience. And ours. For our own good.