by Al Maxey

Issue #466 ------- December 2, 2010
I entirely appreciate loyalty to one's
friends, but loyalty to the cause of
justice and honor stands above it.

Theodore Roosevelt {1858-1919}

To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice
A Reflective Analysis of 1 Samuel 15:22-23

In my previous issue of Reflections (#465) I discussed the phrase "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." This phrase, which comes from Hosea 6:6, was used by our Lord Jesus Christ in His confrontations with the legalistic ceremonialists of His day. For those of you who may be new subscribers to my weekly studies, or who may have missed my previous article, I would urge a careful examination of that reflective essay in preparation for this week's study. There is much more involved with that statement of divine preference (theologically and spiritually) than one might initially surmise. I am further convinced that the message Jesus intended to convey by His quote from Hosea is just as much needed by the rigid religionists today as it was during the time of the Old Testament prophets and during the time of the Word's bodily manifestation among men. In every era men have failed to perceive the divine desire for their lives. Thus, in their spiritual nearsightedness, they seek to focus only upon the externals of their religion, rather than delving deeper into the eternal Truths that should be defining their purpose for being and providing guidance for the evolution of an increasingly intimate relationship with their Father.

In the days that followed the publication of my last Reflections, several readers contacted me and asked why I had failed to mention 1 Samuel 15:22. One writer suggested that "this text is actually the root of all the other references" that I mentioned in my article. Another brother wrote implying that perhaps I had intentionally left this passage out of my previous study because I have rejected (in his view) the importance of obedience to God's commands, and seek to promote instead an unrestricted, unregulated "feel good" approach to our worship of and service to God (falsely characterizing it as "grace" -- promoting license under the banner of liberty). Therefore, several felt I unintentionally overlooked this passage, while others saw something more sinister in its omission. Neither happens to be true.

If the passage in question (1 Samuel 15:22) was indeed "the root of all the other references," then I would indeed have included it in my previous study, and would have given the text its rightful place as the source of all future such declarations. However, I am personally not convinced it serves as that source! Yes, the wording is somewhat similar, but the point made, and the circumstances that prompted it, are dissimilar to the contexts in both the prophecy of Hosea and in the NT gospel accounts. The more I examined the passage in 1 Samuel, and the more I compared and contrasted it with the statement found in Hosea, which was later quoted by Jesus, the more I became convinced that the primary message of the former was not the same as the latter! Jesus, after all, could have quoted from 1 Samuel, but chose rather to quote from Hosea, and I believe there was good reason for that selection. The message the religionists of His day needed to hear, and the message that the people of Israel needed to hear, was best constructed in the wording of Hosea. The message conveyed by the wording in 1 Samuel 15:22 simply would not have adequately addressed the concern that both Hosea and Jesus had with the people of God. The wording of the passage in 1 Samuel, however, did address the situation with King Saul. Yes, there is certainly a message for us today in what was said to Saul, but it was/is a different message than that conveyed in the verses reviewed in my last Reflections. Thus, I chose not to mention it in the context of that study, but to focus on it in a separate study (which is the focus of this current issue). 1 Samuel 15:22-23 (NIV) reads as follows (Samuel is speaking to Saul):

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as
much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better
than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance
like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the
word of the Lord, He has rejected you as king.

To truly understand the message of this passage, one must first grasp the greater context -- that which led Samuel to make this statement to King Saul. These words don't exist in a vacuum; they address a specific situation. In 1 Sam. 15:3 we find Samuel informing Saul of a great task the Lord desired for him to accomplish. The Amalekites (the people of the city of Amalek) had committed great wrongs against God's people, therefore God was determined to punish them quite severely. This extreme punishment was to be inflicted by Saul and his army. "Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." The Lord could not have been any clearer in what He expected of Saul. Nothing was to be spared; everything was to be destroyed. So, Saul set out to obey this explicit command of the Lord God. He completely defeated the Amalekites and "utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword" (vs. 8b). Unfortunately, Saul chose not to follow God's instructions completely. "He captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive" (vs. 8a), contrary to God's stated will in the matter. Thus, "Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed" (vs. 9).

God sent word to Samuel, saying, "I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not carried out My commands" (vs. 11). Samuel was so distressed that he "cried out to the Lord all night." He then made his way to the location where Saul was camped. Saul met Samuel and said, "I have carried out the command of the Lord." Samuel replied, "What then is all this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the sound of the oxen which I hear?" (vs. 13-14). Saul's explanation consisted of blaming the people -- "they have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen" (vs. 15) -- and seeking to justify their action by saying they were just doing it for God -- these animals would be used to "sacrifice to the Lord your God." I find it interesting, and rather revealing, that Saul more than once on this occasion refers to the Lord as "your God." Saul had become so wrapped up in doing his own will that he had no time for fulfilling God's will. In a very real sense, he had committed the sin of supplanting his Sovereign with self. Indeed, in 1 Sam. 15:23 we find the sin of Saul characterized as nothing less than "rebellion." "You have rejected the word of the Lord." Saul had not merely sought to define the parameters of God's silence -- he had rebelled against a specific command. When God speaks, we are to listen ... and obey. This Saul had refused to do.

Therefore, Samuel informed Saul of what he should already have understood (but clearly did not) -- "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams." Saul's effort to cover his rebellion by saying the best of the spoil was kept as an offering to God was a pitiful attempt at misdirection. The only offering God was interested in that day was of a fully devoted heart; one committed completely to honoring His word. That offering was withheld ... and the blood of sheep and oxen was a poor substitute. In this particular situation it wasn't the lack of mercy or compassion that was the problem (as it had been with those to whom Jesus spoke) -- indeed, some might argue that Saul had shown mercy by sparing the life of Agag -- rather it was rebellion against the explicit command of deity! With the scribes and Pharisees, they were overly scrupulous in the specifics of their religious duty, but they had no concept of love, justice, mercy and compassion. Thus, the passage in Hosea 6:6 was more suited to the needs of Jesus than the statement in 1 Sam. 15:22. Yes, in both cases it wasn't the sacrifices that God ultimately cared about -- it was the heart of those who sought to offer the sacrifices. The nature of the heart of the two groups was different, however, and thus called for a different emphasis at the beginning: one needed to be merciful, the other needed to be obedient.

Does God expect us today to obey His clearly stated commands? Yes, He does. If we refuse ... if we rebel ... no amount of "right rituals performed in right ways at right times" will avail to deflect divine displeasure. You see, it's not about "getting it right" with respect to our performance. It never has been. It is about being right with God in our hearts! It is not religion that our Father seeks of His children, it is relationship. Our "offerings" to Him mean little if they aren't motivated by a heart filled with love. And, yes, if we truly love Him we will indeed do as He commands; and if we truly love Him, we will manifest His nature (love, mercy, compassion, etc.) in our daily dealings with others. Loving compliance with His will, and evidencing the fruit of His Spirit in our lives, will always count for infinitely more than any offering or sacrifice we might perform. This is not to say that the latter don't have their place; it is just that their place is not in the realm of the redemptive, but rather the responsive: such acts reflect our response to His grace, they don't merit it.

Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, observed, "It is much easier to bring a bullock or a lamb to be burnt upon the altar than to bring every high thought into obedience to God and the will subject to His will" [e-Sword]. This reflects the condition of Saul's heart. It was not in submission to the will of his Sovereign. Thus, no amount of sacrifices or offerings could compensate for open rebellion to God's clearly stated commands. "No profession of religion; no self-denial in surrender of choice property; no conformity with venerable customs, or obedience in other particulars, will for a moment be accepted in lieu of full and implicit obedience to the clear commands which God lays on man both in relation to Himself and mankind" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4, p. 273]. Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann rightly notes: "A mechanical worship without true loyalty of the heart is not acceptable to Him ... and should be considered most carefully by all those whose churchgoing is a matter of mere routine" [Popular Commentary of the Bible: The OT, vol. 1, p. 480]. The ancient Egyptians (hundreds of years prior to the time of King Saul) astutely asserted, "More acceptable is the character of one upright of heart than the ox of the evildoer" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 677].

St. Gregory "the Great" (540-604) wrote, "In sacrifices a man offers only strange flesh, whereas in obedience he offers his own will." Saul was more than willing to offer up the flesh of sheep and oxen, but Saul refused to surrender his own will to that of his God. By rejecting God in his heart, he was in turn rejected by God as king over His people. The legalists and rigid religionists of Jesus' day were also more than willing to offer up the sacrifices of their ceremonial religion, but their hearts were far from Him. They offered lip-worship, but not heart-worship; they prayed long prayers, and then foreclosed on the houses of the widows. They knew about their religious "sacrifice," but they had no understanding of mercy, compassion and justice. Similarly, Saul was very willing to offer up sheep and oxen as sacrifices to God, but he wasn't willing to offer up himself in obedience to the expressed will of God. In both instances, the desire of deity was completely missed. It's not about the externals, it's about the internals (the heart). May God help us not to miss that truth today, although I fear many of my brethren have done so. Thus, may God help us to help them to "go and learn" what the Lord meant when He declared His preference for mercy and obedience over sacrifice!

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 193 page book by Al Maxey

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution and Extremism

A 230 page book by Al Maxey

Order both books from Publish America at: or (301) 695-1707

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Thank You to Ray Downen

There is a very good, and often fairly lively, Internet discussion group, sponsored by the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University, known as the Stone-Campbell Discussion Group [Click Here to learn more about this group, as well as how to join, if you are interested]. On Monday, November 22, Alan Highers posted some thoughts on "Blogs and Bloggers." Brother Highers, if this is the same Alan Highers I think it is, is a well-respected leader within Churches of Christ, a speaker for many years at university lectureships, editor of The Spiritual Sword, and a judge for many, many years on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, as well as a past president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference. In his remarks, he spoke of both Jay Guin (an attorney and writer) and me, and of our efforts to reach people via our writings. Highers wrote, in part, "Jay Guin's father was a good friend of Guy N. Woods. Jay's grandfather, if I remember correctly, served on the board of Childhaven, a home for orphans that was part of the Non-Institutional controversy. I surmise that Jay's father and grandfather were somewhat more conservative than he is. Interestingly enough, Al Maxey is some distant relation to G. C. Brewer. G. C. Brewer's mother was a Maxey. I have been to the graves of Brewer's parents in Florence, Alabama. Al probably would not agree with much that his kinsman G. C. Brewer had to say, but anything Brewer said or wrote is worth consideration. He was an immensely able man. Guin and Maxey both have their constituency, and they serve them well, but I doubt they are influencing many others who are not already part of their pep squad."

Alan Highers voiced the personal opinion that people were probably not really being reached via such Internet blogging and email mailing lists, but the evidence of independent web tracking services paints a much different picture, as do the responses from around the world that both Jay and I each receive on a daily basis (as do a good many other writers, such as Edward Fudge). For a number of years now, my Reflections and Edward's GracEmails have competed with one another (something he and I talked about at The Tulsa Workshop this past March) for the distinction of being the #1 Church of Christ blog site on the Internet. The "hits" on these two sites from around the world number into the many hundreds of thousands, and the demographic is well beyond the borders of our own faith-heritage. These efforts, and others, are most definitely and verifiably reaching people, and, by the grace of God, they are touching people's hearts and lives. Ray Downen, a friend and writer who lives in Joplin, Missouri, and who is a leader within the Christian Church, challenged Alan's assessment on that same discussion group about four hours later. Following is what Ray wrote, in part, and for which I extend to him my appreciation (Bro. Ray, I hope to see you again in Tulsa this coming spring, by the way):

The 2011 Tulsa Workshop

The 2011 Tulsa Workshop is just around the corner, and I truly hope everyone is making plans now to attend this wonderful annual event. It will be held in Tulsa, Oklahoma from March 23-26, 2011 (a Wednesday through a Saturday), with many staying over through Sunday to assemble together with the brethren who live in that community. The stated goal of this workshop has always been to help inspire the church to perceive the world with the eyes of Jesus --- to focus our hearts and minds on the great importance of the Great Commission. This event attracts thousands of disciples from around the world, and the fellowship experienced with our brethren in Christ during these brief few days is so wondrous and joyous that it's very obvious why so many are drawn every year to this event ... and have been for decades!! I had the honor of speaking three times at last year's workshop, and I have been invited back again in 2011 to present three more talks. The theme of this coming year's workshop is: "Let The Chains Fall Away." My three talks will be:

  1. Breaking the Chains of Rigidity: Part 1 -- Frail Hermeneutics
  2. Breaking the Chains of Rigidity: Part 2 -- Stale Worship
  3. Breaking the Chains of Rigidity: Part 3 -- Narrow Fellowship

A number of specialty classes have also been added to this year's venue, which I believe will prove to be a very popular addition to the schedule. Bro. Terry Rush asked me to participate in one of these, in addition to my three above talks, and I was honored to be asked. There will be four of us who will conduct a "preachers only" session. The topics and teachers are:

  1. For Preachers Only (Part 1): Lessons We've Learned (and
    some we are still learning) by Rick Atchley and Terry Rush
  2. For Preachers Only (Part 2): How to Move Deeper into the
    Word by Al Maxey and Don McLaughlin
There will also be several additional specialty classes offered, including one for those involved with Children's Ministries, one for Worship Leaders, and one for Soul Winners. Needless to say, this is looking like it is going to be an awesome event, and, again, I encourage you all to make plans now to be there. I'm looking forward to meeting a great many of you in Tulsa next March!!

Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in California:

Brother Al, Every morning I send a card (through the regular mail) to the first person who enters my mind, believing that whomever it is comes as a prompting from God to express my gratitude and appreciation. Today, Al, you are that person. I want to thank you for being an inspiration to thousands through your Reflections. Your courage to speak the Truth, and your grace to speak it kindly, are a blessing. As much as I enjoy your weekly article, I am equally blessed by the many letters of gratitude that you include from your readers. So, thank you, my friend, for being such a positive force for me and thousands more! I am proud to be your brother in Christ.

From a Minister in Michigan:

Dear Brother Al, I have to join with many of your readers in saying "Thanks!" Your web site is both a blessing and a curse. I say "curse" because sometimes I have a very hard time stopping reading your articles in your Reflections Archives in order to do some other things I really need to be doing (like getting a good night's sleep). I really appreciate your thorough treatment of the topics you choose. Many online authors do what I call "Drive By's" --- they hodge-podge some thoughts and Scripture together, not working to keep their thoughts organized, not using examples to ensure the reader fully understands their position on or interpretation of the topic, and then just dropping it off for all their like-minded readers to eat up. Your approach is much more thoughtful. You give your readers a well-developed, organized delivery on the subject, with plenty of examples, Scripture references and elaborations on the Greek and Hebrew when necessary --- and you manage to do this on some pretty challenging subjects. Further, you are gracious to those with differing opinions --- even to those who differ with you in rather rude manner. The world could certainly learn a lesson or two from you in online manners (especially Christians, for they can be rather harsh and un-Christian in their comments sent out all over the Internet). Al, I have no doubt that God is using you. Please don't ever stop writing!!

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Brother Al, Oh, how you have spoken a painful truth when you said, "When one abandons the love of one's covenant relationship, and then replaces it with a dutiful performance of deeds, one's life becomes an increasingly hollow and meaningless existence filled with empty and tiresome works!" If the eyes are the window to the soul, how many Christians do you know who have lost that genuine glow of love in their eyes, replacing it with a dead hollowness? Though I once lived such a life, I am thankful that I grabbed hold of that lifeline I found in that first issue of Reflections I ever read, which led me to a thorough reexamination of my own heart. Al, it is men like you who have demonstrated the true meaning of mercy and love. I genuinely wonder if you truly realize the significant positive impact you are having on Christians everywhere!! Thank you, brother, for the gentle reminder in your last Reflections that we all need to "go and learn" just what Jesus meant when He said, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, There are so many members of the Churches of Christ in the clutches of legalism who honestly believe that they are living and worshipping according to the will of God. How can we reach these members of "the church" who sincerely believe what they have been taught all their lives? You are doing your part, and I praise God for your work. However, I can only pray that we, as a brotherhood, can follow your example, and that we too can "go and learn what this means" by reflecting the love of Christ in our lives so that others may see who our Father really is!!

From a Reader in Alabama:

Dear Bro. Al, Your last Reflections was an excellent lesson on mercy, and I actually appreciate your use of the image of Mother Teresa!! Several years ago when she passed away I was as steeped in "Church of Christism" as just about anyone in our heritage hailing from the southern USA can be. But, as I heard stories about her on TV, and as I learned what a kind and giving person she was, I was motivated to "go and learn" more about her on my own. I read some of her own words, and I found her to be a deeply spiritual woman, and truly sacrificial in her life --- far more than I could hope to be!! This caused me to wonder about the nature of sacrifice and mercy compared to what passes for church doctrine. I made up my mind to honor her, not for being Catholic, but for being an example of sacrifice and mercy, and for being someone who seemed to put the doctrine of Christ to work in her life. At the time, I still did not understand how God could save anyone who was outside of the "Church of Christ" tradition! Yet, even though she was someone with different traditions than ours, and thus "could never be saved," I knew that she was greater in the kingdom of heaven than I. Later on, as I began to shed the legalism I had been educated to believe, I saw that my instinct to pay attention to mercy, and not the outward "sacrifices," had been much more helpful than I realized. I thank her for her example, as well as the examples of many others, for helping me to "go and learn" the true meaning of what God desires = love and mercy. God bless you and yours, and thank you for these lessons!!

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Brother Al, Thanks for using the modern icon of "mercy" -- Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who actually did what most of us only talk about. Your closing comment in your article makes the point.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, Your Reflections article "I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice" was enlightening and convicting. In my opinion, it is one of your finest!!

From a Reader in Washington:

Brother Al, This is no doubt one of your best writings on legalism. You hit the nail squarely on the head! I really appreciate your work. Thank you. Keep it up.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Thank you so much for your very thorough treatment of the issue I raised with you about mercy. As usual, you looked into and examined all aspects of the subject.

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Reflections is a FINE part of my weekly encouragement!! I praise God for you!!

From an Elder in Florida:

Brother Al, This article "I Desire Mercy, Not Sacrifice" is outstanding! Remember the beatitude -- "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commented on that beatitude: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Doesn't this say to us that if we are hard on others, God will be hard on us?

From a Ph.D. in Texas:

Brother Al, This is one of the best articles you have ever written, in my opinion!! Very well thought out and presented. I enjoyed it very, very much!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, I just finished reading your Reflections article on mercy, kindness, love and compassion. May I describe it as just beautiful!! These are certainly attributes to which we all should aspire.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Brother Al, Mother Teresa is an interesting person to consider in context, one of the reasons being that we now know she struggled greatly with her intellectual faith. Which I think makes it all the more compelling that she is noted for declaring that "God does not call me to be successful; He calls me to be faithful." She was talking about trying to help the daunting numbers of destitute people dwelling in India, but I think one could say it also applies to the rightness and wrongness of our actions and beliefs. As you well know, the difficulty legalists face is not in their belief that acting according to correct knowledge and belief is more important than love, but rather that they believe that acting according to correct knowledge and belief IS love. The problem, then, is not one of being unwilling to value and practice love, but of defining love's framework and domain -- their problem is really an inability and/or refusal to view love and knowledge as different things.

From a Reader in Indiana:

Dear Brother Al, I am so thankful for you!! After years of thinking that I was the problem (because I dared to question the CENI method of determining authority), and years of wondering why I had been so fortunate to have won the "spiritual lottery," so to speak, because I was physically born into the religious group that "did church" exactly right, thank God that you and your Reflections ministry have come into my life!! Again, Thank You, brother!!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Brother Al, Our wish for you and Shelly is that you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your family. I, among many, am exceptionally grateful for you and your willingness to share your heart and your scholarship! God bless you!!

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Dear Brother Al, Thanks for all your hard work. Have you come across a lady by the name of Liz Pence? God has truly blessed her with wisdom. Thanks for your concern for our heritage, and for trying to get people to see the grace of God and Jesus.

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