Drawing by Patrick Murphy: http://inspiredsketch.blogspot.com/
“To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
This can be a confusing verse. Read one way, it seems God is saying it is better to obey than to sin and need forgiveness. This reading has a certain appeal—until you apply it to Jesus and God’s great salvation through Him. If God prizes obedience over redemption, then the cross isn’t so much a glorious sacrifice of love as it is a second-rate disappointment. If obeying is better than needing sacrifice, then Pharisees are to be commended while anyone who relies on the blood of Jesus is no better than someone who practices the occult—“rebellion is as the sin of divination” (1 Sam. 15:23).
Interpreting the verse this way leads to unsupportable conclusions if we think it through. Still, we tend to read it this way. Deep down, we believe God would be happier if we behaved and didn’t need Christ’s sacrifice (as if that were possible).
But let’s back up to verse 9: “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.” The Lord commanded that the Amalekites and everything they had be annihilated (1 Sam. 15:3). Saul failed to do this. When Samuel confronted him, Saul argued the point: “But I did obey the Lord…. 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” (1 Sam. 15:20, 21). So when the Lord said, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” He wasn’t thinking of a sacrifice made to cover sin. He was thinking of Saul who offered what was good in his own valuation.
The cross decimated us completely (2 Cor. 5:14). God makes no attempt to tease apart the good, bad, or ugly in us. That is a purely human exercise (in futility). The cross was an execution. Imagine prison officials administering a *mostly* lethal injection. Imagine a firing squad shooting someone *almost* full of holes. Imagine a guillotine stopping half-way. Absurd. As absurd as Saul’s “sacrifice.” As absurd as the type of thinking to which we give quarter sometimes. We gladly surrender to God what we despise and consider weak in ourselves. But we are enamored with what we like about ourselves. We prize our gifts and talents. We pat our backs with the good things we do. Surely, the destruction of the cross doesn’t extend to what is best in us. Surely these things should be spared so we can use them to worship God. Not so. Unless submitted to the cross, what is best in us will constitute our deepest rebellion; what is good will lead us to reject the word of the Lord: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23, 24; 1 Sam. 15:23).