Obedience is better than sacrifice
for background to this post please read: First Samuel Fifteen and the Book of Esther
Listening to a recent Father Day’s message on Mordecai and the book of Esther I was given a piece of the puzzle I hadn’t had before—the knowledge that Mordecai was from the royal line of Saul, the first King of Israel.
Let me share what this means to me.
As the book of Esther revolves around a princess named Hadassah, a secret Jewess who becomes the Queen of the Persian empire, the critical plotlines of the story involve the colliding orbits of two mighty princes: Mordecai from the royal line of Saul, king of the Israelites; and Haman from the royal line of Agag, king of the Amalekites. The Israelites and Amalekites were inveterate enemies.
Let’s look at some of the history of this: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.’ And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD is my banner [Yahweh-nissi], saying, ‘A hand upon the throne of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation’” (see Exodus 17:8-16).
A further prophecy concerning the Amalekites: “Amalek was first among the nations, but shall be last until he perishes” (Numbers 24:20).
Also from the Torah: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
Then in First Samuel Fifteen we read: “And Samuel said to Saul, ‘The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”
Well, as we read through First Samuel Fifteen, the Israelites do defeat the Amalekites, However, in defiance of the Word of God, “Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them.”
Then the LORD sent Samuel to Saul, “And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, ‘Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD.’ And Samuel said, ‘What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and lowing of the oxen that I hear?’ Saul said, ‘They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the LORD your God…’ Then Samuel said to Saul, ‘Stop! I will tell you what the LORD said to me this night… The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission and said, ‘Go, devote to destruction the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, obedience is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”
Then Samuel, the Prophet of Yahweh, “hacked Agag to pieces before the LORD.”
Because of the rebellion of Saul and his people, we now have Purim and the story of Esther, Mordecai and Haman. Clearly, Saul’s men of war did not eradicate the Amalekites in their entirety, for there arose in time a Haman, an offspring of Agag.
What is one of the lessons I take from this? When we choose to disobey the Word of God—there may be through the course of time unforeseen and utterly devastating consequences. To obey God is better than rationalizing your rebellion as sacrifices of worship to the LORD!
Haman had designs for a Jewish Holocaust. But the unseen Hand in all of this worked out a sudden reversal. The godly wisdom and timing of Esther brought Haman to his knees and then to his end. The King of Persia, full of wrath, on returning from the palace gardens observed that cursed Agagite falling for mercy upon Esther’s couch. The king spoke, “Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?” As the word left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face, then hanged him on the gallows he had constructed for Mordecai. Mordecai, like Joseph and Daniel, rose to second in rank to the king.
I take encouragement from how Mordecai directed his people in the slaughter of their enemies to lay no hands on the plunder (Esther 9:16), the very thing that God had directed Mordecai’s forefather Saul to observe.
Christian kings and queens of the Most High God, this is what these stories mean to me: we can by the power of God’s hand be instrumental in correcting the sins of our fathers, in reversing the rebellion of past generations.
I had a former pastor who often leveraged this saying, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” He employed this phrase in the context of manipulating congregants toward the pursuit of his own ends. I’m certain he meant well, however, what he was unwittingly doing in this misappropriation of Scripture was coercing us with a double bind.
What was the pastor saying in this? I suspect most people assumed he was quoting a Scripture that spoke to the moment, that we’re called to obey the Pastor as he directs. Personally, knowing the context of the quote, I felt what he was doing was quite slippery.
I remember one sparsely attended service where people had found seats from the front pews on toward the back pews of the sanctuary. At some point the pastor graciously asked everyone who was sitting behind a certain so-and-so who was sitting in a middle pew to take seats at or forward of him or her, and then he capped off his request with, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”
The double bind and implication (as found in the context of Scripture) is this: if someone fails to come forward, then he or she is in rebellion against God. Even if he or she felt most comfortable in the last pew, or needed to be back there to be close to the ladies’ room or whatever, to fail to respond to the pastors request left them in assumed judgement.
I personally think that *ideally* a church gathering is a gathering of *kings*. Individuals who are prophets, priests, and kings all in one. That includes males and females. And to really make an extended analogy, where in history do we see gatherings of kings? On battlefields. So if everybody can hold their own, biblically and doctrinally, then anyone who tries to lord it over anyone else in some off-the-mark way is in for quite a test of strength.
I quote ct to emphasize a certain reality. Many of the leading kings and queens there, although possessing at least one or more bibles, one or more swords, Still, many of them were unfamiliar with their bibles, they did not know how to properly wield or interpret the Word. They’d repeat things they heard from the pulpit, or from TBN, and although there were some profoundly mature exceptions within our church, many were woefully ignorant.
As a young member there I taught in their Bible Academy. And one Purim evening as I began the first class of Biblical Hebrew with approximately 30 members—mostly leaders within the church—I wanted to take a moment to connect Haman of the Book of Esther to the “Obedience is better than sacrifice” context of First Samuel Fifteen. I had meant only to take a minute with this connection. But when I asked if anyone had read Esther only two hands went up. I looked over at the lady who headed up Christian Education, and even she had not read the story.
On a happy note: I do want to recognize the two who did raise their hands. Our beloved librarian Mrs Jane Weathers—a remarkable woman I loved as if she were my own grandmother. And then, and I’m not exactly certain for this was over a decade ago, the other hand was Deacon Howard Fuller.