30 Days in the Bible, Day 17: 1 Samuel 15:20-23
When confronting a lesson such as the one in this passage, it is important not to take the point further than it goes. We must always read the Bible carefully, and make sure that we understand what it says and what it does not say. It is possible to look at a warning given to us in Scripture and to apply it incorrectly, sometimes even turning it on its head.
Samuel’s words to Saul emphasize the necessity of serving the Lord with a heart that seeks to fully obey His commands. If our hearts are not right, our actions will not be either. When we insist on giving the Lord the service we want to give Him, rather than what He desires, our service isn’t really to God, but to ourselves.
This point is made by contrasting a obedience with the ritual observances that Saul and the Israelites were performing. The sacrifices they made were viewed by the Lord as presumptuous rebellion, sacrifices that actually violated the Lord’s word rather than fulfilling it. These religious observances were improper, and were done in stark contrast to the obedience the Lord desired. Obedience would have been far superior to sacrifices in this instance.
Some have taken Samuel’s words here to say that our religious practices don’t matter to God; what truly matters is obedience to Him. This isn’t what Samuel says at all. While he does say obedience is better than sacrifice, and that the Lord takes greater delight when we obey His voice than when we engage in religious observance, that doesn’t mean that those observances are meaningless or even unimportant in God’s sight. If our heart is right in obedience to the Lord, what we do to honor Him in our church or in our personal devotional life will also honor Him and be pleasing in His sight.
The key here is not the comparison of religious observance with obedience, but the contrast between what Saul did and what a genuine sacrifice to the Lord should be. He offered sacrifices that should never have been given in order to satisfy his own ideas of what honored the Lord. Had he slaughtered the flocks as ordered, and then made sacrifices from his own possessions, the Lord would have been pleased. It is the combination of a disobedient heart with a cynical sacrifice that angered God.
The lesson for us today is not that “religion” is unimportant, but that simply going through the motions of religion without a repentant and humble heart will not please the Lord. The Bible is clear that we can serve the Lord in many ways, including in the way we come together to worship Him and in our private time with Him. That must always be done with a desire to obey God; when it is, our religious observances will please the Lord as much as any other service we give Him.