Keith Green – “To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice”
I was watching this Keith Green song on YouTube tonight, about 30 years after I would have first heard it played on vinyl as a teenager in the early ’80’s. The title of the song comes from a verse in the Bible, from 1st Samuel 15 in fact. Keith refers to the story in his intro to the song. What actually happened is that King Saul of ancient Israel went to war to fight the Israelites’ arch-enemies the Amalekites. The Bible takes up the story here:
1. Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'”
But of course Saul knew better than God; the story continues in verse 9:
9 But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.
So what was all this about? Surely God would be happy that Saul and his men showed some mercy and gained some spoils for themselves and also fulfilled a sacrificial religious obligation at the same time?
Not according to the prophet Samuel:
22 But Samuel replied:
“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king.”
What I get from this story, and I think that it’s pretty clear to anyone who considers the actions of Saul, is that materialism got in the way of literal obedience to God for this ancient king. And of course, being the king of Israel he took his whole nation down the same path. If he was going to go to war and kill X number of people (it hardly makes a difference how many), he should have realized that the reason why God commanded him to kill in this situation was to bring an end to the hostilities once and for all. He wasn’t being a nice guy by choosing to kill Y number of people instead, while enriching himself and ensuring that the blood feud between Israel and the descendants of the Amalekites would continue into the future. God actually knew better, and Saul stuffed up. And Saul set the spiritual tone for Israel by making the decision to be half-hearted in his obedience, which in effect became disobedience.
So what does this have to do with us in 2011? Well, 3000 or so years later, not much has changed. Materialism still clouds our judgement when it comes to a lot of things. After another of the Keith Green songs I listened to tonight, in wrapping up the concert he challenged the audience to “Make it easier for Jesus to come back this next year, by living the life he asked you to live so that others don’t have to make excuses for the reason why Christians don’t live the way Jesus asked them to”.
That song, “Make My Life A Prayer To You”, answers a lot of the questions posed by the first song. A lot of Christians who listen to the words of “To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice” feel demoralized and condemned by the seeming legalism behind it. And yet it was Saul’s semi-obedience/disobedience, and his justification for it, that is really legalistic.
And we are often like that too. We stuff up and then defend our actions in religious terms as if God can’t see through our childish excuses for the reasons why we don’t listen to what He has told us, and do it. I often find this same scenario playing out even in my relationship with my wife. She tells me carefully how I should carry out a particular task around the home that I am not familiar with, and I half listen but end up doing it my own way, and then when it doesn’t turn out all that well, I give Leanne my reasons as to why I did it the way I did it. Usually, she isn’t all that impressed, and just asks me why I didn’t listen to her because she told me the way to do it in the first place.
Listening is what obedience is all about, in fact some versions of that scripture use the word “hearken” in place of “obey”. And “hearken” is just another word for “listen”. If you think about it too, making your life a prayer involves both talking to and listening to God. The only thing holding God back from having the gospel preached to all nations, so that he can return, is our obedience. Food for thought in 2011, as the world we live in digs itself deeper into debt, geo-political turmoil, and rebellion against God’s purposes for peace and prosperity on this planet.
When will we start preaching (and living) the good news of the Kingdom of God? Jesus Christ set the spiritual tone 2000 years ago, for His Kingdom, by being fully obedient to the Father in everything He did. All He asks of us is that we spread the good news that He is coming back to inherit his Kingdom, which he will rule with an iron rod, ensuring peace and prosperity for 1000 years. And for those who are obedient in 2011 we can experience a little taste of that peace and prosperity now – not by being greedy as Saul was, but by simply giving up our right to do things our own way, and accepting that God knows better…
Keith Green – “Make My Life A Prayer”