This post is written by Matt Stewart and is published as a companion to Unit 10, Session 3 of The Gospel Project for Adults Vol. 4 (Summer 2022): From Unity to Division.
Have you ever watched an edition of SportsCenter’s “Top Ten” plays of the week? The sports broadcaster highlights the best plays from around the world over the past seven days. To make it on their top ten list is a big deal, to say the least. But the list you don’t want to end up on is their “Not Top Ten” plays of the week. This list of clips features the worst, strangest, and most humiliating moments in sports in the last week. However, even the greatest athletes end up on the list every so often. They’re only human after all.
#1 “Not Top Ten” of King Saul
You might say that 1 Samuel 13–15 features several “Not Top Ten” moments in the life of Israel. More specifically, the great King Saul (a king “as all the other nations have”) commits several major errors that bring shame, not only on himself, but also on his family and the throne of Israel. For starters, when the Philistines threatened to pummel the Israelites, Saul’s “troops were gripped with fear” (1 Sam. 13:7). Rather than waiting for Samuel to arrive to offer the burnt sacrifice and intercede to the Lord for instructions, Saul grew impatient and offered the sacrifice himself. Of course, this was a direct violation of God’s law, and it revealed that Saul feared people more than he feared God. As Samuel stated, Saul had been “foolish” (1 Sam. 13:13), with the result that his throne would not endure, for God had already found another “man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). Of course, things usually don’t end well when we act on our own efforts, rather than heeding God’s Word. This is “Not Top Ten” play number one.
#2 “Not Top Ten” of King Saul
Saul’s second “Not Top Ten” play occurs in 1 Samuel 15:9. God commanded Saul and the Israelites to annihilate the Amalekites because they had opposed Israel on their way to the promised land after the Lord delivered them from Egypt (1 Sam. 15:2-3). Nothing was to be spared. Nevertheless, “Saul and the troops spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and choice animals, as well as the young rams and the best of everything else. They were not willing to destroy them, but they did destroy all the worthless and unwanted things” (1 Sam. 15:9). In other words, their greed got in the way of keeping God’s commands. Rather than obeying the Lord, Saul followed his own heart and the voices of his troops (1 Sam. 15:24). Once again, Samuel traveled to Gilgal to confront the disobedient king, who tried to convince the prophet that he had carried out the will of God. “Then what is this sound of sheep, goats, and cattle I hear?” Samuel asked pointedly (1 Sam. 15:14). In other words, if Saul really had obeyed the Lord, then there should have been no noises or voices. Instead, Agag and the best of the plunder were kept back for Saul and the troops. Saul made excuses after excuses, but Samuel was not having any of it. In no uncertain terms, Samuel declared:
“Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the LORD?
Look: to obey is better than sacrifice,
to pay attention is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and defiance is like wickedness and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king” (1 Sam. 15:22-23).
Only after Saul realized the consequences did he confess his disobedience. But such “worldly grief” doesn’t please God (2 Cor. 7:10). What God wanted from Saul wasn’t religious observance or free-thinking. No, God wanted Saul’s undivided devotion. God wanted Saul’s heart. As Dale Ralph Davis puts it, “All the smoke and fat on Gilgal’s altar would never replace the pleasure God could have had from the living sacrifice of Saul’s will.”
God Desires Obedience
The same is true for you and me. What God desires is a life of obedience, flowing from a heart filled with love for the Lord and His ways, and a mind that is being transformed by His truth. On the one hand, it’s pretty simple. We make living for God much more complicated than it needs to be sometimes. On the other hand, it’s impossible apart from receiving a new heart. We must be “born again” (John 3:3) if we are to bear fruit and so prove to be Jesus’ disciples (John 15:8).
Thankfully, Jesus never failed to carry out His Father’s commands, no matter what others said. Jesus always did what was pleasing to God. Yet, He suffered and died to atone for the sins of people like you and me. Through His death, we are forgiven. Through His obedience, we are counted righteous. And by His Spirit, we are empowered to live for Him, so that, “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:23-24).
No matter how many “Not Top Ten” plays you’ve made in your life, God can redeem your brokenness. Stop trying to impress Him or making excuses for your sins. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
 Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 159.
Matt Stewart is the pastor of teaching and care at Christ Community Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, and a ThM candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he also earned an MDiv. Matthew and his wife, Courtney, have six children.