I Samuel 15
1. Samuel also said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD.
Now Samuel comes to Saul with instructions from the LORD. First, the LORD claims Saul’s allegiance and obedience since He anointed him king and gave him the rule over His people. This was a good argument. Saul owed much to the LORD, and He had every right to demand his service in repayment. Saul really did owe it to the LORD to hear whatever instructions He might give him.
2. Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt.
Now Jehovah gives Saul his instructions. He has remembered and not forgotten Amalek. Besides being Canaanites, these were also God’s enemies whom He had promised to destroy, as we read in Exodus 17:14-16.
14. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” 15. And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-LORD-Is-My-Banner; 16 for he said, “Because the LORD has sworn: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
A little more of the LORD’s reasons for this are explained in Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
17. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt, 18. how he met you on the way and attacked your rear ranks, all the stragglers at your rear, when you were tired and weary; and he did not fear God. 19. Therefore it shall be, when the LORD your God has given you rest from your enemies all around, in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, that you will blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget.
Jehovah was particularly incensed at these people because in their ambush they made against Israel they had attacked the rear ranks of the people as they traveled and had destroyed those who lagged behind from tiredness and weariness. This would include the elderly, or the very young, or the infirm. We know that Jehovah is very solicitous of the weak and helpless, and that Amalek would attack these was a particular affront to Him. So He promised that He would have war with them from generation to generation, and commanded Israel that when they had rest in their land, they would remember and not forget, and wipe the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. Now many hundreds of years have passed since Israel first moved into the land. Yet still this task is unaccomplished. Yet, though Israel may have forgotten, the LORD has not, and He will see to it that His will regarding Amalek will be carried out. He was merciful on the Amalekites until now. Now, He is ready for His curse to fall upon them.
3. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
So Yahweh commands Saul to take his army and go attack Amalek. Moreover, He reveals that in this war Amalek is to be devoted to destruction, or to be under the ban. This means that nothing alive among them is to be spared. Neither man nor woman, infant nor nursing child, nor any animal of the field, nor any beast of burden is to be spared, but all are to be executed.
Now this was indeed a harsh penalty against these people, and one that causes many people consternation. Why would God command something like this? Today we might call such a thing “genocide,” wherein an entire people is to be wiped out. Yet this was to be done by Yahweh’s command, and we must remember that He is the Judge of the whole earth. If He determined that this must be done, then it was necessary for it to be done, and it could not be otherwise.
But why, some might ask, could not even the infants and children be spared? Yet what would be done with these if they were spared? If they were left where they were with no adults to care for them, they would die a slow, terrible death by starvation. If they were left alive, then Israel would have had to take them in, as surely no other nation of the time would have been willing to take them in. Then, if they were taken in among Israel, they would have had to be treated almost as Israelites themselves, and they would have soon mixed in with the people. This would have diluted Israel with the very people whom God declared their enemies. This could surely not be right! So the only thing to be done was to execute them all. If we think this still sounds unfair, we must remember that God does not just have this life to work with. He can raise these Amalekites from the dead, and if any of those who were killed deserve another chance, surely He will give it to them. We can know that the Judge of the whole earth will always do right.
Yahweh also makes it clear that this war is not to be to enrich Israel. They are carrying out His judicial punishment on these people. They are to solemnly execute them all. This is not for the purpose of enriching themselves by taking in their animals. These too are under the Amalekites’ ban, and are to be wiped out along with them as sharing, by extension, in the sin of their masters. This was a hard command for Yahweh to lay on Saul and the people of Israel, as often the way kings would pay their soldiers was by the spoil they would take in the war. Yet this was God’s command to Saul, and He was more than able to provide him the means to carry it out.
4. So Saul gathered the people together and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men of Judah.
So Saul starts to carry out the LORD’s orders. He gathers his army together at a place called Telaim, which means “Lambs” (and so probably was shepherd country,) which was in the land of Judah. There, he numbers his army, and finds them to be 200,000 foot soldiers, along with 10,000 men of Judah. Yet this census seems a questionable thing to do. The LORD had commanded him to carry out this campaign, so what did the number of his soldiers matter? Did not the LORD deliver all Judah previously using only Jonathan and his armor-bearer? Saul is already focusing on the wrong thing.
Yet we must admit that this numbering may have been in order to properly divide the troops under captains of thousands. The numbers are given in even thousands, which may lend credibility to this conjecture. Surely, the soldiers did not actually show up in exactly even thousands.
5. And Saul came to a city of Amalek, and lay in wait in the valley.
Saul now comes to an Amalekite city and prepares to destroy it. We are not told where this city is, though it is probably part of the land the Amalekites occupied to the south of Israel. This city is on a hill, and Saul camps in the valley, waiting there until he is ready to attack.
6. Then Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, get down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the children of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
The Kenites, which in Hebrew means “smiths,” were the tribe of Moses’ father-in-law. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is described as the priest of Midian in Exodus 3:1.
1. Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
Jethro came to Moses as he was leading the children of Israel into the wilderness, and Moses urged him to stay with them, as we read in Numbers 10:29-32.
29. Now Moses said to Hobab the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the LORD said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us, and we will treat you well; for the LORD has promised good things to Israel.”
30. And he said to him, “I will not go, but I will depart to my own land and to my relatives.”
31. So Moses said, “Please do not leave, inasmuch as you know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you can be our eyes. 32. And it shall be, if you go with us—indeed it shall be—that whatever good the LORD will do to us, the same we will do to you.”
We learn here that Jethro had another name, Hobab. This was not at all unusual at the time. Though the outcome of Moses’ urging of Hobab is not given here, apparently he prevailed, and Hobab joined him. Since he was the priest of Midian, it seems he was an important man, and so when he came to Moses, he must have brought a good number of people of his tribe along with him. We read later in Numbers that these people of this tribe, the Kenites, were still with them decades later as they arrived at the land, as we learn from Balaam’s words in Numbers 24:21-22.
21. Then he looked on the Kenites, and he took up his oracle and said:
“Firm is your dwelling place,
And your nest is set in the rock;
22. Nevertheless Kain shall be burned.
How long until Asshur carries you away captive?”
When the children of Israel took over the land, the Kenites who had come with them allied themselves with the tribe of Judah and dwelt along with them, as we learn from Judges 1:16.
16. Now the children of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up from the City of Palms with the children of Judah into the Wilderness of Judah, which lies in the South near Arad; and they went and dwelt among the people.
In the hundreds of years that have passed with Israel in the land, it seems that the Kenite tribe has grown extensively. Some of them, however, have not remained in Israel, but have moved around, as nomadic tribes often do, and this has resulted in some of them dwelling among the Amalekites. This could have resulted in them being wiped out with the Amalekites, yet Saul seeks to spare them here, no doubt because of their long-standing alliance with the people of Israel. Saul has no desire to wipe out their friends along with their enemies.
7. And Saul attacked the Amalekites, from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is east of Egypt.
Now that the Kenites are safely out from among them, Saul begins his campaign against the Amalekites. He destroys them from Havilah, which means “Circle” and is in Arabia southeast of Israel, all the way to Shur, which means “Wall,” and is southwest of Israel just to the east of Egypt. Therefore Saul is zealousy doing what Jehovah said, at least so far. Yet we will see that there nevertheless were exceptions to his obedience.
8. He also took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword.
In spite of the orders he has received to wipe out every living being among the Amaleties, Saul nevertheless keeps Agag, whose name means “I Will Overtop,” the king of the Amalekites, alive. He utterly destroys all the rest of the people with the edge of the sword. Why did he save Agag alive, then, and make this one exception to his obedience? It is hard to say for certain what his reasoning was, but we do know that in that part of the world a ruler who specialized in conquest would sometimes start a collection of kings whom he had conquered. He would maim these kings some way to humiliate them, and then would keep them with him in his household as servants. This became then a kind of status symbol. The numbers of former kings you had serving you in your household showed how great and clever a conqueror you were. It could be, then, that Saul wanted to spare Agag simply for the bragging rights of having him.
9. But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.
It seems that both Saul and the people are complicit in sparing Agag. Moreover, they do not utterly destroy the animals, as they were commanded to do. Instead, they keep what is good of the animals but destroy what is worthless. The result is that they obey the LORD only when it is convenient for them to do so. When it comes to the best of the spoil, however, they would not obey Him in destroying that.
The LORD’s command was a difficult one to follow, in some ways. In their day, you did not necessarily get any kind of salary as a soldier. It was simply your duty to serve in your nation’s army, and besides seeing that you were properly fed and equipped, the army really didn’t provide much for you. In many ways, your only hope of enriching yourself as a soldier was that you would be able to get a good amount of loot and plunder after a successful, victorious combat. Therefore, for the LORD to forbid them from taking the spoil from this conquest, He is basically telling them to fight without a salary. Well, if God calls on you to fight, you should be willing to do it without receiving any kind of compensation for your time and effort. Yet it seems neither the people nor Saul were willing to actually do this.
The attitude these people had is much like that of many people today. They will serve the LORD as long as it is convenient; however, if service to Him actually means they might have to sacrifice their time, their funds, or their efforts, they are nowhere to be found. How sad that men are often so reluctant to serve our great God! May we always be willing to sacrifice all, even our livelihood, if we find that this is His desire for us!
10. Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying,
The LORD sees what Saul and the people have done, and it displeases Him. He speaks to Samuel about this.
11. “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the LORD all night.
Jehovah tells Samuel that he greatly regrets the choice of Saul as king because of his disobedience. This raises an obvious question: why did Jehovah choose Saul, then? Did He make a mistake in doing so? Did He not know that Saul would refuse to obey and would disappoint Him?
There are no easy answers for such questions, yet I think there are some things we can keep in mind. One is that Saul was chosen by Jehovah as the king whom the people desired. They had demanded a king of Jehovah, and He gave them a king like they wanted: a tall and warlike man able to lead the army and fight against their enemies. They did not care about his heart, however, and whether or not he would faithfully obey Jehovah. Jehovah chose such a king for them, but then He started to test him to see if he would serve Him faithfully. Then, the second fact came into play: Saul’s free will. God gives people the real opportunity to make real choices. Saul certainly was no exception. God chose Saul as he was, and as he was was both what the people wanted, and was not entirely different from what Jehovah wanted either. Saul was given a new heart, and might well have made a very good king. However, he failed at this by his own choice, and so he is to blame for what finally happened to him. We cannot just simply blame God for Saul’s later choices. He degenerated, and the man who fell in battle at the end of Saul’s life was not the same sort of man as he was when God first chose him. Yet now this is all settled, and Saul is no longer worthy of the throne. Jehovah regrets now that He ever gave it to him, considering how unfaithful he turned out to be.
Samuel is grieved by Jehovah’s words regarding Saul, and so he cries to Jehovah all night. Have you ever had such an experience? A time when something so burdened your heart that you could not help but cry out to Jehovah, and do so over an extended period, even if that meant staying awake all night? That is what Samuel does here, and this was indeed a sad thing, for Jehovah had now rejected Israel’s stubborn and disobedient king, and who now would ensure the safety of the people?
12. So when Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul, it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul went to Carmel, and indeed, he set up a monument for himself; and he has gone on around, passed by, and gone down to Gilgal.”
Samuel rises up early the next morning, which I suppose it was quite possible for him to do since he hadn’t slept anyway. He goes to meet Saul. He is trying to find him, and it is told him that Saul has gone to Carmel, which means “Garden-Land.” The word can just mean any garden-like land, but there were specific places with this name. There was a region of Carmel in the northern parts of Israel in the tribe of Asher. “Mount Carmel” was there. However, this would have been quite a ways out of his way for Saul, so what is meant may be the city in Judah bearing that name, as we see in Joshua 15:55. This city appears to have been in the mountains west of the Dead Sea and south of the city of Hebron in Judah.
It seems that while he was in Carmel, Saul set up a monument, perhaps to commemorate his great victory over the Amalekites. So while Yahweh regretted and Samuel grieved, Saul was setting up a monument to himself! When he was first chosen by God and raised very high, he was humble and argued his own lowliness. Yet when he truly was the lowest, he thought he was greatest. This is how men often are.
After setting up his monument at Carmel, Saul went around, passed by, and arrived back at his army’s rallying place in Gilgal.