As the king of Israel, Saul was the commander-in-chief of the army of the Lord, and the prophet Samuel came to him with battle plans from heaven. The mission was to attack the city-state of Amalek and completely destroy them. You can read in Exodus 17:8-16 how the Amalekites were the first people to attack Israel when God’s people made their first steps toward the Promised Land in the days of Moses (v.2). The Amalekites were terrorists, guerrilla raiders who constantly threatened the peace of Israel. Additionally, they threatened the morality of Israel because of their wickedness and idolatry. Through Saul, the time was right for God’s people to eliminate the threat once and for all.
Samuel made it clear to Saul that everything and everyone in Amalek was to be completely destroyed — no exceptions. This directive may seem cruel and harsh, but it puts the consequences of sin and the holiness of God on display. The sin of the Amalekites was legendary, and the wages of their sin was death (Romans 6:23). The terrible annihilation of their entire population would make it impossible for them to ever be an aggravation or an evil influence on God’s people again.
King Saul led a large force to Amalek and easily defeated them, but he disobeyed God’s command to destroy everything and everyone. Saul took it upon himself to spare Agag, Amalek’s king, and to allow the army to take the best of the livestock for themselves. This selective, incomplete obedience was a willful act of disobedience on Saul’s part, and the Lord saw it as nothing less than open rebellion. Saul’s attitude effectively disqualified him from royal service. He had “turned back from following” the Lord (v.11), a fact that would not be overlooked or excused.
The news angered Samuel, who interrupted Saul’s victory celebration to confront his sin. At first Saul deflected blame onto his army (v.13-15), then he tried to justify his disobedience (v.19-20). Only when he learned that he stood to lose the throne did Saul admit his sin and ask for forgiveness. There is a hollow sound to his confession (v.24-25). The Lord did not buy it, and neither did His prophet. In dramatic fashion, they made it clear to Saul that the kingdom would be ripped from his control and given to another (better) man (v.27-29). The horror of Saul’s sin and squandered opportunity is reflected in the horror of Agag’s execution. What the king had arrogantly refused to do, the elderly prophet did with gusto (v.33).
We do not have to wonder about the lesson God has for us in this chapter. Samuel’s statement in verses 22-23, his most memorable quotation, makes it clear: there is no substitute for obedience. When Saul rejected God’s authority, choosing a self-directed, self-styled form of half-obedience, he lived to regret it. Let’s not make the same mistake. There is no substitute for obedience.