Skip to content

How Not to Live Your Life (1 Samuel 15)

A sermon preached at St Augustine’s Church, Neutral Bay.

Serious comedy

Farcical comedies have always been a popular genre.  From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, through Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Fawlty Towers, Seinfeld, The Office, right down to a very quirky comedy which we enjoyed in the UK called “How Not to Live Your Life”—farces are both very silly and very serious. The main character or characters are extravagantly stupid and get themselves into ridiculous situations. We the audience are given a bird’s eye view of what’s happening. We laugh at their vanity and idiocy, we either love them or hate them…

But then if we think a bit harder, we realize that actually, the foibles of the farcical characters are worrying familiar. Because the farce often amplifies our own absurdity and parades our own sins before us like a grossly distorted mirror.

Our passage from 1 Samuel 15 is, in many ways, a very serious farce. It’s not fiction; it’s a real incident in the life of Saul, the first King of God’s ancient people Israel. A turning-point in King Saul’s life. But it is, in many ways, a tragically comic incident. A story which, like a good farce, holds a mirror to our own lives. Saul was, after all, the people’s choice for King. He was a very human king. And in Saul, we see what so often happens when human beings like us are confronted with the word of God.

How King Saul failed at his job (vv. 1-11)

At this point in the story Saul has had some success, and some failure. Chapter 14 mentions a military success marred by a foolish vow.

Saul’s job

Here in chapter 15, Samuel the prophet reappears on the scene.

Verse 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.

Samuel the prophet reminds Saul the King that he can’t take his kingship for granted. The prophet stands over the king, as we saw in chapter 13. Why?  Because the prophet is the one who brings the word of God.
1Sam15-1(Diagram adapted from 2 Ways to Live)

God is really the king. He rules the world, he rules people, by his word. King Saul is meant to rule under God’s word. And that’s why it’s so important for Saul to “listen now to the message from the LORD”

In fact, the original language is even more emphatic. Literally, Samuel says Saul must “listen to the sound of the words of the LORD”. This is the central job of the king. Not to fight. Not to rule. But to listen to the sound of the words of the LORD.

1Sam15-2Israel’s privilege was to hear the “sound of the words” of God on Mount Sinai [Deuteronomy 4:12]. The king’s key task was to be a student of God’s words [Deuteronomy 17:18-20]. To listen to the sounds of the word of the LORD.

There are many sounds in our world that demand our attention, aren’t there? The sounds of the ads, the sounds of our employers, the sounds of families, the sounds of our devices, demanding us to answer the notifications. What sound are you going to listen to, first and foremost?

The job of the king of Israel was to listen to the sound of the words of the LORD.

The message

And what is the sound? What do the words say? In this particular case, the words of the LORD give Saul a special mission to do.


Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them.

This is deeply disturbing, isn’t it? Horrible, awful. What’s happening? Why is God commanding this mass destruction of the Amalekite people?

If I had an entire other sermon, I would go into more detail on this—and it needs some detail. But I don’t have a whole other sermon. So I have provided for you a link to an article: The Amalekite Genocide (Andrew Shead has also written an article on a closely related topic in the Eternity Christian Newspaper).

Here’s a very quick summary. The Amalekites had a history of brutal and ruthless aggression against God’s people Israel. They were constantly provoking and mercilessly attacking Israel. In fact, in many ways the Amalekites were like the Islamic State. Aggressors against Israel, constantly. Nothing short of eradication of the Amalekite state and its people was going to stop the aggression.

Israel and her king at this point in history were supposed to be the specific agents of God’s judgment against the Amalekites [Exod 17:14, Deut 25:17-19]. Let me stress that we can never ever use this passage to justify our own aggression. Rather, this was a specific judgment of God against an Amalekite state implacably opposed to God and his people. Today our job as individual Christians is not to fight the Amalekites like Saul, but to trust in God and his justice. Because God has made Jesus Christ, his king, judge of all the world.

For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)

So please pick up the article if you’d like to know more.

God’s command vs Saul’s actions

But let’s now return to Saul and his actions. What does Saul do with God’s specific command? To start with, he seems to obey, doesn’t he? He starts to eradicate the Amalekite state. And he even does it in a measured way. In verse 6, he makes sure there is no collateral damage to non-aggressors.

But then in verses 8-9 we start to see an anomaly.

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.

Saul “spared” the King, Agag. And he “spared” some really good animals. Precisely what God had commanded him not to do in verse 3. Was he perhaps being merciful? Merciful to the king? Merciful to the best stuff…?

Well what does God think of Saul’s actions?

In verses 10-11, Saul gets his divine performance review. And it’s not pretty.1Sam15-4

Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel: 11 “I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”

This is serious. And it’s even more serious if you know anything about your biblical history. Can you think back to another time when God is “grieved” over something? A key moment is Genesis chapter 6, just before the flood that destroyed the earth:

The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. (Genesis 6:5-6)

But “hold on”, you might say, “Is it really all that bad? Sure Saul didn’t do everything he was supposed to—but surely God is overreacting here!”

Let’s hear Saul’s defense!

How King Saul tried to explain himself (vv. 12-21)

Well in verses 12-21, we see King Saul attempting to explain himself. And this is where the tragic comedy comes in to play.

Saul’s ignorance (vv. 12-14)

Samuel goes to meet Saul, to give him the review. But Saul’s a busy man. He’s not available for a meeting straight away. He’s off doing some important public relations work, promoting his newly launched monument to himself…

But eventually Saul manages to fit Samuel into his diary. And he greets him with a lovely little blessing! Verse 13,


He’s happy, his conscience is clear. “I have carried out the LORD’s instructions”, says Saul! But of course, that is precisely what God said Saul had not done, isn’t it?


Saul’s conscience may be clear, but his conscience isn’t working properly.

What does Samuel say? Does he greet him with a blessing in return? Does he start some chit-chat about the recent monument-launch and ask him how it’s going?

No—Samuel gets to the point, with heavy sarcasm.

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul had failed to listen to the “sound” of the LORD’s words (as in v. 1). Instead Saul had been waylaid by other sounds. The “sound” of the sheep bleating. The “sound” of the cattle lowing.

Now we need to pay very close attention to Saul’s next sentence in verse 15. On the one hand, it is actually quite brilliant rhetoric from Saul. But the rhetoric masks his deep self-deception.


So let’s get this straight. Who took the sheep and cattle, Saul?

“Not “I”, but “they”, the people did it.”

Oh. Why did “they” do it, Saul?

“They had a noble motive! To sacrifice to God. They meant well. But anyway, “we” totally destroyed the rest. Don’t stress, Samuel. We did what God said. God bless!”

This sentence is truly farcical in its hypocrisy and excuses and blame-shifting.

Friends, watch out for those who duck and weave in their words. Watch out for those who have learned to manipulate their language to make themselves look better than they really are. This is a particular danger for Christian leaders, because Christian leaders are trained at using language to persuade. We have seen it recently, haven’t we, in the tragic events at Mars Hill church in the USA?Where a preacher was carried away with his own persuasive power. Please pray for him, for all Christian leaders.

But it’s not just Christian leaders, is it? Don’t we all too often convince others, convince ourselves, that we’re better than we really are, by our words and our ducking and weaving?

But God’s word cuts through the hypocrisy. The prophet will not let Saul get away with it.

“Stop!” Samuel said to Saul.

Shut up. Stop your babbling, you fool.

“Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.” …

Saul, you’re the leader. You can’t palm it off like that. God anointed you! You’re the Messiah! Your job is to do what God says.

Remember that God had been perfectly clear, verse 3:

Verse 18, Samuel reminds Saul again:


Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?” (v. 19)

Stop your shifting and slippery excuses, Saul. It wasn’t the people. It was you. And don’t give me that claptrap about making a sacrifice. You all just pounced on the plunder, didn’t you?

“But I did obey the LORD,” Saul said.


Samuel hasn’t even mentioned Agag yet. Why does Saul bring it up now? Maybe Saul realized that the Agag thing was going to come out sooner or later, so he decided that he might as well take the initiative and introduce it himself so could put the best possible spin on it. Maybe he was feeling threatened, maybe he wanted to be in control of the conversation, so he could minimize the damage.

Which is another strategy of the self-deceived.

Saul goes on:

The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.”

Saul doesn’t repent. He just repeats. It’s as if he’s saying: “Look, I’ve already explained all this, Samuel. The whole thing about the sheep and stuff, that was the people, not me, and they had good intentions. They were going to do a sacrifice to your God. OK, so I’ve explained, right? So let’s move on, Samuel, shall we?”

How King Saul had his heart exposed (vv. 22-35)

But Samuel will not accept this ridiculous testimony of the self-deceived. So he picks up on the issue of the sacrifice that Saul keeps mentioning,

Hearing God’s word is what matters, Saul. Not doing the rituals. Not being a good Anglican, or loving the prayer book, or coming to church, or giving money, or being uplifted by great singing. If you’re not listening to what God actually says it’s not worth squat.


Faith means listening to God’s voice. And the heart of sin is failing to listen to God’s voice.

And just in case you were in any doubt, failing to listen to God is as bad as conjuring up evil spirits. Actually, in later chapters you see that by the end of his life Saul was conjuring up evil spirits. But it all started here. This is Saul’s great sin. Not listening to God’s voice.

And so, the prophet pronounces God’s judgment on Saul.

Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king.”

You might still be asking at this point: Was Saul really all that bad? Surely he got it mostly right, didn’t he? Surely getting a few details wrong don’t really matter?

I am not an accountant, or the son of an accountant. But being here at church in Neutral Bay, I meet many accountants. And one of the things I have learned to love about accountants is that they notice the details. They find little discrepancies. Numbers that don’t add up. They grab those discrepancies and chase after them like a dog with a bone. Why? Is it because they’ve got pedantic personalities? )(Well I can’t speak for everyone!) But the details can be important. Sometimes, a seemingly small discrepancy can point to a much bigger problem. Deep corruption is usually exposed by somebody picking away at the details. A travel claim. A few dollars here or there. Or hundreds of dollars. Or thousands of dollars… Or millions…

And that is what is happening here. The devil is in the detail. It’s not that Saul did the best he could to keep God’s word and accidentally neglected something. No. He kept the political prize, and the best of the spoil, for himself and his troops. Those details prove he had fundamentally failed to keep God’s word.

What about your sins? Are they just minor peccadillos, small blips in an otherwise pretty good life? Or do they point to something deeper?

Saul had rejected the word of the LORD. And so the LORD had rejected him from being king. This is a terrible pronouncement. But Saul still has a choice. He still has the opportunity to repent, to admit his sin, to ask for forgiveness. What’s he going to do?

He starts by seeming to repent.

Now a brief moment of honesty. The fear of man is what was driving him, not the fear of the Lord. “I gave in to them”. Literally the original says, “I listened to their sound”. Their voice. Not God’s voice. It’s all been spin. The self-deception. The PR. He was just doing and saying whatever it took to be liked by the people.


That sounds good, doesn’t it? But notice something. He is not asking for forgiveness from God, is he? Only from Samuel. He just wants to be on Samuel’s good side. He says he’ll “Worship the LORD”. But the word “worship” can mean a physical act of bowing down to God, not true worship.

Samuel turns to go. Saul grabs Samuel’s cloak and tears it—which is symbolic of the tearing of the kingdom away from Saul. Samuel proclaims:


This is the problem. This is the issue that exposes Saul’s heart. Saul is treating God like a human being who can be manipulated.


Has Saul repented of his fear of man? No. He seems only interested in doing a PR deal with Samuel. “Samuel—the people respect you. If you go through the motions for me, I’ll go through the motions for you.”

And in fact there is something far, far worse. Do you see it? Where is God in Saul’s thoughts?

He says, “I have sinned”—against who? No mention of God. The Lord is just Samuel’s God, “your God”. God is now completely absent from Saul’s thoughts. He really doesn’t believe. He believes in human honour and shame, but nothing more. He may look religious, but he’s a functional atheist.

And this, friends, is the beginning of the end of Saul’s life. Samuel the prophet has to make up for Saul’s failure and execute Agag.

And Saul is now as good as dead…


How do you feel about Saul’s story? It’s a tragic farce, isn’t it?

And yet… isn’t Saul like you and me?

How often do you listen to the sound of other things rather than listening to the voice of God?

Have you ever tried to shift the blame for your wrongdoing? “It’s not my fault… It’s my parents, It’s my circumstances, It was the alcohol. Of course I got angry, it was the stress and the pressures of work. That affair was what I needed, I was weak, I couldn’t say no.”

Have you ever tried to cover up your failure to listen to God’s word by pointing to a positive outcome? “I cheated on my taxes… so I could give more to my family and to church”. “I was just greasing the wheels of commerce”. “That porn addiction is just what I need to keep going in life”

It’s not that bad, is it? Yes it is. This is rebellion. Like the sin of divination… The devil is in the details. This is arrogance. Arrogance to think that really you’re OK before God. That you can just rock up to him and say you’re fine. Your minor peccadillos don’t really mean anything.

Hear the sound of the words of the LORD. When your sin is exposed, you will not be spared.

1Sam15-19And that, friends, is why we desperately, desperately need Jesus. We are trapped in a farce of our own doing. We need a king. We need Jesus, the king whom God never regretted or grieved he had made king. Whose sacrifice was a perfect one. We need to listen. To listen humbly. To come to him in sincerity. And to beg for forgiveness–not from the priest, not from the prophet, not from the preacher–but from God himself.

Have you done that? Have you come clean? Have you truly admitted your corruption? Your need, your great need, for mercy and grace? Mercy is available. Complete, free, wonderful, perfect forgiveness is available for you in Jesus. But if you think you’re OK—you’re not going to take it, are you?

1Sam15-20Don’t make a farce of your life.

Published in1 SamuelBible talks

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?
  • Bible and the horizon. Photo by Aaron Burden on UnsplashRejoicing in the blessing of others (Ephesians 1:11–12)
    Although the Bible is always relevant to us, not every sentence is directly about us. When we realise this, we can rejoice in God’s blessings even more.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor