Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Sermons, by Rev. William G. Neville (published 1908).
“To obey is better than sacrifice.” — I Sam. xv. 22.
Samuel, the prophet, addressed these words to Saul, after Saul’s victory over the Amalekites. God issued this command to Saul: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” Saul obeyed a part of this injunction, but not all. He marched against the Amalekites, as he was commanded to do, and gained a complete victory over them; but he did not utterly destroy them and their goods, as he was commanded to do. He destroyed everything which he considered vile and refuse; but the choice things he saved. The record says: “But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.”
God now says to Samuel: “It repenteth me that I have set Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commands.” Let us bear in mind, just here, as has been said by Matthew Henry, that “repentance in God is not, as it is in us, a change of his mind, but a change of his method or dispensation. He does not alter his will, but he wills an alteration. The change was in Saul.” God can never change. He is immutable.
Samuel was very much grieved over the disobedient course of Saul. After spending a whole night in crying unto the Lord, he went to Saul. “And Saul said unto him, Blessed be thou of the Lord; I have performed the command of the Lord.” Then Samuel put to him this heart-searching and heart-crushing question: “What meaneth, then, this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Saul replied by saying: “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.”
“Then Samuel said unto Saul, Stay, and I will tell thee what the Lord hath said to me this night. And he said unto him, Say on.” Then Samuel reproves Saul for disobeying the command of God. But Saul, strange to say, professed to have followed the command of God. He said unto Samuel: “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and have gone the way which the Lord sent me, and have brought Agag, the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal.”
You see from this, that Saul attempts to place his sin of disobedience upon the shoulders of the people; and then he tries to justify his wicked act by saying that those things which had been reserved were to be sacrificed unto the Lord. Thus it is seen to what subterfuges a guilty conscience will resort in order to exonerate or justify itself.
Samuel replies to this device of Saul by saying: “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” “To obey is better than sacrifice.” Obedience is more acceptable to God than sacrifice. Why is this so?
I. Because obedience alone acknowledges God’s right to reign over us. That God has such a right cannot be questioned, except by the most avowed infidel and skeptic. From what we know of God in nature and revelation, this right is grounded in the highest justice and righteousness. He has the absolute right to reign over us and over all we have. This involves God’s right to all our service; and this involves our duty to render a cheerful obedience to all of God’s commandments. If we belong to God in the highest and truest sense, as the Bible says we do, then God has the right to command us, and it is our duty to render unto him the homage and service of our hearts.
The person who has a sincere desire in his heart to obey the commandments of God, and who puts this desire into execution in his life, recognizes in the best possible way, God’s right to reign over him; and in this way he puts his endorsement upon this right.
He who refuses to obey God’s commandments, denies by this very act, the authority which God has to reign over him. He antagonizes the government of God in the world, and in this way is guilty of the great sin of rebellion against God. Without obedience you cannot be a loyal subject in the government of God. Obedience acknowledges God’s right to sit upon the throne of the universe; but disobedience would dethrone God and demolish the very principles upon which his government is founded. Obedience says that God has the right to command, and that his commandments are right; but disobedience says that God has no such right, and that his commandments are unjust, and, therefore, tyrannical. Thus it will be seen that anything less than obedience to God’s commandments is subversive of all true religion. True obedience is the very essence of all true religion. Without this, all religion is a mere sham. Yea, without this, true religion is impossible. A man may have a show of religion without this, as Saul had; but the essence of the matter will be altogether lacking in the heart. Saul pretended to make a show of religion by maintaining that the spoils which he had reserved, contrary to divine command, were to be offered in sacrifice to God. The Lord had ordered him to destroy everything which he might take from the Amalekites. But he reserved the best of the spoils. And when Samuel reproved him for his disobedience, he tries to justify himself by saying that these things were to be sacrificed unto God. In refusing to follow the commandment of God, Saul ignored God’s right to reign over him. More than this, he seemed to act as though a man could pay his way in religion. Although he had violated God’s commandments, and in this way, had thrown contempt upon God’s authority to govern him; yet, he expects, by his sacrifices, to appease the wrath of God which had been caused by his disobedience. He acted just as though he had the right to contravene the commandment of God, provided he would go through with a little religious service in offering a few sacrifices to God. In other words, he acted just as though the approval of God was something which was for sale, and that all a man had to do to secure it was to offer a few sacrifices. But Samuel told him that sacrifice could not possibly take the place of obedience in the sight of God. “To obey is better than sacrifice.”
No sacrifices can be acceptable in the sight of God without obedience. Yea, all sacrifices that are intended to take the place of obedience are abominations in the sight of God.
Yet, how many men there are like Saul, who try to cover their meanness with the cloak of religion! In the name of religion, they commit their sinful deeds; and they expect to atone for their sins by the service which they render in the cause of religion. Every man is duty-bound to follow the commandments of God with implicit trust and confidence. A man’s motives may be ever so good, yet this fact cannot possibly justify him in going contrary to God’s commandments. The fact that Saul expected to offer in sacrifice to God the spoils which he had reserved, could never justify him in his disobedience. The very first step in all true religion is absolute submission to God’s absolute sovereignty over us. Without obedience, therefore, it is impossible to please God. Just to the extent that we obey the commandments of God, just to that extent do we approximate the standard of discipleship held up to us in the Word of God.
One of the chief elements in every sin is disobedience. “Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” Had there been no disobedience, there would have been, there could have been, no sin. If we would please God and render unto him an acceptable sacrifice, we must obey his commandments.
II. Again, obedience is better than sacrifice in the sight of God, because obedience acknowledges God’s superior wisdom in reigning over us. When we obey the commandments of God, we express our confidence in the wisdom of these commandments. By this act, we not only say that God has the right and the authority to enforce these commands, but we also say that there is intrinsic righteousness in the commandments themselves. Obedience not only acknowledges the righteousness of God’s reign, but also the wisdom of its administration.
But when we disobey the commandments of God, we express a lack of confidence in the wisdom of God. We say by this act that we know better than God. Was this not the door through which the great adversary of souls led our first parents, when he tempted them to commit their first great sin? God commanded them not to do a certain thing, announcing death as the penalty attached to the breaking of this commandment. But Satan maintained that he knew better than God, that death would not follow a violation of this commandment. Our first parents yielded to the temptation, and by this course they expressed a lack of confidence in the wisdom of God. They virtually said by this act, that God did not know what he was talking about when he said that death should be inflicted as a penalty for a violation of this commandment. For, if they had believed God as to what was involved in this disobedience, they would certainly never have yielded to the temptation of the wicked one.
All of God’s commandments are founded in the highest wisdom. We may not be able to see this wisdom, but, if we could see things as God sees them, then we could see an infinitely wise purpose in every commandment of God. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to follow all the commandments of God to the very letter. It is true, we may say, as we often do, What is the use? Where is the good? But all such conduct as this expresses a lack of confidence in the wisdom of God. If we are sure the commandment comes from God, we ought so to educate ourselves as to ask no questions whatever in regard to its wisdom. God not only has an infinitely wise purpose in every one of his commandments, but he also knows every possible emergency which may arise in connection with these commandments. It is far better for us to obey, although we do not see God’s reason for the commandment. Saul could not see why God ordered a complete destruction of all the spoils taken from the Amalekites; he thought he knew better than God; so he refused to obey.
We are sinning against God when we question his wisdom in any of his commandments. Although another way may seem better and wiser to us than God’s way, yet we must submit to God’s way, because it is God’s way, and, being his way, it is the wisest.
It matters not how good our intentions may be, if we are in the path of disobedience we are in the path of sin. Perhaps you remember the case of Uzzah, as he and his brother were moving the ark of God. The ark was on a cart drawn by oxen. It seems that the oxen stumbled, and the ark was in danger of being overthrown. Uzzah reached forth his hand and laid hold of the ark to save it from this fall. But for this act God smote him, and he died there by the ark of God. Now, Uzzah’s intentions may have been good in trying to save the ark, but, in doing this, he was going directly contrary to an explicit commandment of God, by which he was forbidden to touch the ark.
In the case of Noah we have a beautiful example of obedience. God told him that he was going to deluge the world with a flood, and directed him to make an ark for the saving of himself and family. God gave Noah all the directions as to how he should build the ark. The record informs us that Noah followed all of God’s directions. Doubtless his contemporaries laughed at him; they told him that such a thing as a flood had never been sent upon the earth, and that such a thing was impossible. But, notwithstanding these scoffs and jeers, and notwithstanding his own judgment in the matter, he followed implicitly the commandments of God.
III. Again, I remark that obedience is better than sacrifice, because obedience alone is a genuine test of our love to God. The man who says he loves God and then deliberately violates the law of God, simply tells what is not so. If a person has no delight in obeying God’s commandments, he may justly have serious cause to doubt whether he is one of God’s children or not. The Bible gives obedience as one evidence of our love to God. Christ says: “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments.” If we truly love God, we will love his commandments, and if we love these commandments, we will obey them. It is mere bosh for us to stand up in the church on the Lord’s day and say that we love God, and then go out on Monday and trample his holy commandments under our feet. There is no better way of proving that we love God than by obeying him. In fact, without this obedience we certainly have poor evidence in the light of God’s Word, to prove that we do love God. “There is an absolute repugnance between love to him and despising his commands. Love inclines the soul to obey all God’s precepts; not only those of easy observation, but the most difficult and distasteful to the carnal appetites.” Love and obedience are necessary concomitants of each other.
IV. Again, Obedience is better than sacrifice, because obedience alone will command God’s blessings upon us. Just as sure as we obey the commandments of God, just so sure will we be rewarded for this obedience. And just as sure as we go contrary to the commandments of God, just so sure will we be punished for this disobedience. The man who deliberately violates the law of God, expecting to escape punishment, is going to be disappointed in the end. God is bound, from his very nature, and from the very principles of his government, to reward the obedient and to punish the disobedient. These rewards and punishments may not seem to be distributed justly in this world; but in the world to come it will be manifest to every one that such is really the ence [sic]. The man who deliberately violates the law of their God, will be blessed to all eternity, and the wicked, who have refused to obey the voice of their God, will be punished to all eternity. Obedience to God’s commandments necessarily brings down upon us the approbation of God; and disobedience to his commandments brings down upon us his condemnation and displeasure. Saul had to suffer for his disobedience — he offended his conscience and lost his throne. All Scripture, all history, and all experience are verifications of this statement. We know it is so, because God’s Word says so; we know it is so, because every case recorded in history says so; we know it is so, because our own experience says so. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” If it is our desire to please God, and render unto him an acceptable service, we must obey his commandments in our daily lives.
Let us notice for a moment, in conclusion, three of God’s commandments, which cover the scope of our obligations to him in this life; and then let us measure ourselves by these commandments and see whether we have reached the divine standard.
1. “And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.” — I John iii. 23. Here God commands us to believe in Christ. This is the first step in the Christian life. Faith saves, unbelief damns. Do you believe in Christ?
2. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you.” — 2 Corinthians vi. 17. Here God impresses on us the duty of making a public profession of our religion, or faith. We must come out and identify ourselves with God’s people.
3. “And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good.” — Deut. x. 12, 13. Here we have service. Our duty to serve God with the whole heart and life. 1. Faith; 2. Profession; 3. Service. How do you stand?