The warning from the Lord to Saul came because the Lord knew what was in Saul’s heart. The occasion described in this chapter is a lesson to all people that the word of the Lord should be taken at face value. The command given to Saul (v 3) is quite explicit but it is apparent that Saul interpreted it with a measure of liberality for his own honour among the people.
When challenged regarding his failure to “heed the voice of the words of the Lord” Saul’s response was “I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (v 13). It appears that he genuinely believed that he had obeyed the command of the Lord. However, this is not the Lord’s assessment. Saul did not take the words of the Lord literally but interpreted them to suit his own agenda which was to exalt himself in the eyes of the people.
The evidence for this is plain to see. Saul did not kill king Agag but brought him back to parade him before the people to hear their praise. Secondly he did not kill all the livestock as commanded. On the pretense of offering them to the Lord he brought back the best of the flocks and herds. Parading them before the people would also result in him receiving the praise of the people. They could now feast long on the spoils of war. Thirdly, Saul built a monument to himself at Carmel (v 12). Saul had used the gifts of God and the command of God for his own glorification. This would be the root of his jealousy of David when the women sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (18:7; 21:11).
This is still common among people who claim the name of Christ in our day. The really sad part of this is that, like Saul, most do not realise they are doing this. Saul apparently believed that he had obeyed the Lord (vv 13, 20) and did not understand why Samuel was accusing him of not doing so.
Throughout history men have sought to steal the glory that belongs only to God. We see it repeated frequently in the Bible, in church history and in the church today. Such people may put on a pretense that the glory is God’s but the reality in the heart is quite different. Saul was able to deceive the undiscerning but he could not deceive the Lord.
The problem lay in his heart attitude toward God. The consequence to Saul was that he lost the kingdom and the enabling of the Holy Spirit (16:14). It also meant that none of his descendants would ever rule God’s people.
When Samuel said, “to obey is better than sacrifice” he was saying that to obey by taking God’s word at face value is better than any other option. Not taking God at His word is to say that we know better than God. Woe to the person who fails to take God at His word literally. This is one of numerous occasions in the Bible where this truth is brought out.