Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 15 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/19/2015 in Novato, CA.
1 Samuel 15
“Now Go and Attack Amalek”
We will be taking two weeks to consider this passage. Next week we will focus in more on how Saul’s sin here leads to God’s rejection of him as king. Yes, we’ll deal with that somewhat today as well. But today I want us to particularly focus in on the actual mission that God gives Saul here. What is this mission all about? Why does God give this mission? Why is it so important for King Saul to carry it out? Because when we come to a passage like this, the temptation is to focus on Saul’s disobedience and rejection, which is surely the main point here. And yet God’s dealings with the Amalekites also can tend to shock us. And yet there is a very important matter that God is dealing with as he sends Saul on this mission against the Amalekites.
So today I want us to first consider the mission that God gives Saul. What is he asking Saul to do and why? Second, we will consider Saul’s failure, and actually the people’s failure as well, to carry out that mission completely. Third, we’ll see how God uses a different anointed one to complete God’s mission.
So then let’s begin with our first point. Let’s consider this mission that God gives Saul. Look with me at verse 1. Samuel comes to Saul with a word from the LORD. Samuel starts by reminding Saul that God had first sent Samuel to anoint him as King over Israel. And now God is sending Samuel to Saul with a mission from the one who made him king. This is how things work, by the way. If someone sets you up in some place of authority, that makes them the authority over you. And there will surely be a time coming when that greater authority will ask you to do something in service to them. Well, God, who established Saul as king, now comes through Samuel the prophet to send Saul on a divine mission. Let me say right here, that’s an exciting thought. Saul’s given an important mission from God. In general, that’s a pretty exciting thing to be given some divine assignment!
Well, the mission is outlined in verses 2-3. Essentially God is ordering Saul to go and completely wipe out the Amalekite people. He is to destroy every man, woman, and child, and even all their livestock. They are to be completely wiped out off the face of the earth. The language of verse 3 is translated as to “utterly destroy” them. Some translations say to “devote [them] to destruction”. The technical Hebrew term for this is herem warfare. It’s a sort of holy war where God uses his people to inflict divine judgment upon the target of this herem warfare. The word herem can also be translated as to put something under a ban. And so the general idea of this term in Scripture typically involved exactly what you see here. Israel was not only to completely kill every human, but also all their livestock. None of it was to be taken alive. No prisoners were to be captured and taken as slaves. No livestock was to be taken as spoils of war. It was all under a ban, to be devoted to God’s judgment by being devoted to destruction.
Let me give a little clarification here. This was seen a lot in the book of Joshua. When God had brought the people out of Egypt into the land of Canaan, he had identified seven specific nations that Israel was to wipe out in this fashion. On the other hand, Israel was not instructed to do this as their ordinary way of battle. They would not have ordinarily killed every single person. Normally, in a victory, they very likely would come back not only with some people captured, but also many great spoils of war. But not when God called for herem warfare. It was different then.
And so we saw a lot of the herem warfare in the book of Joshua because God ordained through this to pour our his wrath against seven specific nations. The point in Scripture is clear. These nations had done so very many evils in the sight of God. God had finally had enough of their wickedness and had decreed their end. And so God found a way to give the Israelites the Promised Land as an inheritance and gift, while simultaneously using them to be his hand of divine judgment against these seven nations in the land of Canaan. And so this herem warfare is similar to what God did at the time of Noah with the flood, or what he did when he sent fire from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Each of those were divine judgments upon wicked people. And yet each of them only anticipates a greater divine judgment to come. You see if this herem warfare causes your heart to sink and your breath to stop at how horrible it sounds, well, keep in mind, how even worse the Day of Christ’s return will be for all of God’s enemies. They will be brought to a swift judgment and destruction, ultimately being cast into an eternal lake of fire where there will be no end to their punishment.
And so God has given a foretaste of his final judgment a number of times in history. When Joshua led the people to completely wipe out those seven nations, that was a foretaste of the final day of judgment. And so now we are here in today’s passage, not with Joshua, but Saul. And not with any of those other seven nations, but with the Amalekites. Why has God called for the complete destruction of the Amelkites? Well, verse 2 tells us why. It’s because of their past evil against the Israelites. Many years back, when Israel had first come out of Egypt, the Amalekites had ambushed Israel and attacked them, unprovoked. This is recorded in Exodus 17. Well, Israel won that battle against them back in Exodus 17, but because of this evil attack by the Amalekites, God told Moses this in Exodus 17:14, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” And so this became something God would not forget. God would not forget how the Amalekites, in their evil, attacked the people of God. God even had the wicked prophet Baalam prophesy their destruction in Numbers 24:20. And as the people of Israel finished their forty years of wandering in the desert, just before they finally enter the Promised Land, listen to what God chose to remind them about in Deuteronomy 25:18-19:
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and cut off all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
And so in summary, the Amalekites had made themselves to be enemies of God’s people, and so they had made themselves enemies of God. God did not forget this. And now that God had appointed a king in Israel, he would send his Anointed One to right this wrong. God remembered the sin of the Amalekites and now was sending his Anointed One to destroy them. God’s wrath is sobering, but it is just.
So then, we turn to our second point to consider how both Saul and the people as a whole fail to carry out the mission. As I said, we’ll go into this more next week. But for now, I want us to observe some of the main points. In summary, Saul does assemble a great Israelite army. Saul does lead the people in a great military victory against the Amalekites. In verse 8, we read that they did utterly destroy almost everyone; but they did take back the king captive, King Agag. And in verse 9, we read that they did utterly destroy some of the livestock, but only that which wasn’t very good spoil. The best of the livestock they did not utterly destroy. In other words, they kept some of the livestock which God had put under the ban. Later, Saul would claim that it was so it could be used in sacrifices to God, but we see in verse 9 that it was really the people’s unwillingness to put such great spoil to destruction. And it seems important here to note that verse 9 does credit both Saul and the people in this failure. They are both credited as sparing King Agag and this spoil of livestock. You might remember last chapter we saw how the people spoke up when Saul was about to kill Jonathan, and stopped that great evil. Or you might recall how earlier in the book, the people at least tried to speak out against Eli’s wicked sons who were eating the fat of the sacrifice when they should not have been. But here they do not speak out against Saul. No, the text rather shows that they joined with him in this sin. It seems it was an aspect of greed. Surely they wanted to walk away with something from this military battle. The best of the livestock would have been something nice to take home with them as a spoil of victory. But it was wrong. It was wrong because God had sent them on a mission to be his hand of wrath and judgment upon these people. He said this spoil was under a ban. And they shouldn’t have let that wicked king stay alive either. And so they failed to complete God’s mission to the degree that God had decreed.
And yet as much as the people are at fault here, the text especially highlights Saul’s failure. God had particularly entrusted this mission to Saul. When Samuel really challenges Saul about how he didn’t complete the mission, Saul at points try to point the finger at the people. But God through Samuel is particularly holding Saul accountable. Saul was the Lord’s Anointed One. God sent Saul particularly on the mission. Saul was king of the people. He was in charge of them. Saul can’t get away with passing the buck here. Shifting the blame won’t help. Think about it. As the Lord’s Anointed One, he didn’t complete his God-given mission. As the Lord’s Anointed One, he failed to adequately destroy this enemy of God’s people.
Well, despite the failure of Saul as the Anointed King, God would complete his mission. This turns us now to our third point. God completes his mission through another Anointed One. Look at verses 32-33. Here Samuel puts the evil King Agag to death. He literally hews him in pieces. Samuel notes the evil that King Agag has done, and in a sort of “the punishment fits the crime” mentality says to him, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” Yes, I know this can often leave people a bit uncomfortable. But this is the judgment of God. God’s wrath is a real thing and King Agag began to experience it that day. Saul, the Lord’s Anointed King failed to do this. But, Samuel, a prophet anointed as prophet by the Holy Spirit to do God’s will, completed this work in putting to death King Agag.
Unfortunately, the work to destroy the Amalekites would yet have to continue. And yet there is the prophecy here in verse 28 that Saul’s kingship is being given to another. In the very next chapter we’ll see who that is. Samuel will anoint a new king. King David will become the next Anointed One of the Lord. David will continue the work of God. For example, later in chapters 27-30 we’ll see that David will engage the Amalekites in battle, and have some military success against them. As the Lord’s Anointed he would continue the mission of doing battle with those would be the enemies of God’s people.
And yet even with King David’s labors, and even especially with Samuel’s work here to hew King Agag to pieces, as we look to the distant future, we see that the line of these enemies lived on. By the time you get many years later to the book of Esther we see that the battle yet lingers on. There, in the book of Esther, the main bad guy in that book is Haman. And we read that Haman is an Agagite. That’s right, he’s a distant descendant of King Agag. And in the book of Esther, besides Esther, the other hero is Mordecai. And Mordecai is recorded as a Benjamite, also a descendant of Kish, who was Saul’s father. In fact, the Talmud believes the genealogical record in Esther would make him a descendant even of King Saul. It’s hard to be sure of that. But certainly the point is clear. The battle here between King Agag and King Saul takes on a new phase of the battle in the future through these distant relatives. And there, by the grace of God, Mordecai is able to secure a great victory against Haman and those who stood with them. There in Esther, Haman tries to utterly destroy the Jewish people. But the tables are turned, and Mordecai and Esther, by the grace of God, are able to give a tremendous defeat instead to Haman and his allies who stood against the Jews. And you have to love the Word of God. At that point in the book of Esther, when Mordecai the distant relative of Saul leads the Jews in this great victory, it tells us this three times about the Jew’s victory over them: “But they did not lay a hand on the plunder” (Esther 9:10, 15, and 16).
Sometimes the people of God take a long time to learn certain lessons. But we thank God for his patience with us. It’s amazing how the failure here with Saul and the people sees such a distant correction in the book of Esther. And after the book of Esther, we do not hear in the Scriptures anything more about Amalekites and Agagites. We don’t know if there are any more distant stray descendants of Amalek or Agag anymore. But one thing we do know, what the Amalekites represent in Scripture does still exist. They represent those who have set themselves as enemies to God’s people.
And so in that regard, the battle with evil continues on. There continue to be people opposed to the people of God. In the New Testament, we see people like the evil Herod and Herodias who afflict the people of God. Beyond the New Testament, history has continued to record this reality. There are many who have not only made themselves enemies of God, but have specifically sought to persecute in proactive ways the people of God. God knows this and so he has put a plan in place to save us his people from these enemies. Yes, King Saul as the Lord’s Anointed failed in the mission God gave him in this regard. In many ways, the new Anointed One, King David did a much better job. Yet, as we said, the battle has continued to rage on. Yet, we thank the Lord that God will yet complete his mission through the ultimate Anointed One. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the ultimate Anointed One of God. And part of God’s mission for Jesus is to indeed fully vanquish all the enemies of God’s people.
In Jesus first coming, he started this. He took on demons. He challenged those opposed to the true people of God, especially those religious leaders who promoted false religion from within the ranks of God’s people. But in other ways, the way he began to confront the enemies of God’s people was different than what people might have first expected out of the Messiah. For example, he called sinners and tax collectors to repent and be forgiven! And that is why he went to the cross. And why he then sent his disciples out to the world with the gospel. In other words, at Christ’s first coming, Jesus did not come to bring utter destruction upon his and our enemies. Rather, he came with an offer to find peace and forgiveness and reconciliation through salvation in his name.
And yet make no mistake. Jesus is coming again. At his second coming, he will come to finish the very work we see started in today’s passage. Then he will come not for salvation of enemies, but for the utter destruction of his enemies. King Jesus will completely and utterly devote to destruction all the enemies of God and all that they have. They will be conquered, judged, and cast into the eternal lake of fire.
So then, here we have our application from this passage. For those who currently live as enemies to King Jesus and his people: repent and be saved, before it is too late. In God’s graciousness, we have examples of things like the Amalekites to show us that God is serious about his wrath and about justice. But in his mercy and grace he yet holds out to you today to be saved from the wrath of God to come. Don’t delude yourself thinking that this judgment isn’t coming, or that you can defy the Lord’s Anointed One. When Jesus comes back he will not fail the LORD’s mission to utterly destroy the enemies of God and his people. Be saved today through the gift of his grace and by trusting in his work on the cross to atone for the sins of all who call upon him in faith. Repent and believe in Jesus and be saved! You then will no longer be an enemy of God’s people. You will be received and welcomed as part of God’s people.
As for us who have already come to be a part of God’s people, how are we to live as God’s people now, in between these two comings of Jesus Christ? How do we live when there still exists enemies who would attack us, ridicule us, harm us, or thwart us? Well, we’ve been given a divine mission too. But it’s not quite like King Saul’s mission. Our mission is actually called a commission. The Great Commission. We’ve been called on behalf of King Jesus to advance his mission to convert enemies of his kingdom to citizens of his kingdom. We are called to go to the nations and make disciples of King Jesus. To call them to repent and turn in faith to Jesus. To be baptized into his kingdom and to begin to join with us in following him and worshipping God.
It’s kind of like what we see here even with the Kenites in verse 6 of our passage. Saul knew rightly to call the Kenites to flee the area before the judgment of God came upon the Amalekites. The Kenites wisely heeded the call and were saved. We too, call people to come out from the camp of God’s enemies. We call them in Christ to be a part of God’s people through the gospel. And we are to do that until Christ comes back. That’s our God-given mission.
In one sense, our God-given mission looks quite a bit different than the mission God gave Saul here. But I hope you have seen today how they both serve the bigger picture of God’s plan in human history to save and vindicate a holy people unto himself. Praise God for how we have become a part of this kingdom through the Lord’s Anointed One, Jesus Christ. Jesus has been faithful to carry out all the mission God has given him to do. And he will complete that mission. And so we go out in our own mission with Christ. Jesus is not like Saul. He’s faithful and able to fulfill his divine mission. And so that is our encouragement as we seek to fulfill this mission God has given us. That Jesus, the mission keeper, said he’d be with us on the mission he’s given us. He’ll be with us on our mission. Even until the end of the age. That encourages me on the mission. Even when the enemies around us seem to be so strong. Jesus, the Lord’s Anointed, the Completer of the Mission, is with us, to aid us in completing the mission entrusted to us. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.