Beyond the Philistines, Israel had other enemies during the reign of King Saul. At some point, Samuel came to Saul and informed him that the Lord’s command to him was to “go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have” (15:3a). Because Amalek “opposed Israel along the way Israel came up from Egypt” (15:2a), when God was in the process of delivering His people from exile to exodus, the order to Saul included “Don’t spare them. Put them to death---man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike” (15:3b). Obviously, God wanted to get the attention of this king, with a clear demonstration of what would ultimately happen when one stands against the Lord and against His people. By speaking this way, and making mention of so much destruction, there seems to be an intent to cause Saul to be reminded, yet again, of the curses to be found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pronounced by God towards His own people, and applied to them if they stood against Him by forsaking Him for idols.
Ironically, this situation becomes the cause of Saul’s downfall and the Lord’s rejection of him as king for His people. Why? Was it because he did not fully carry out the orders of complete annihilation? On the surface that seems like a reasonable conclusion, but Israel’s history is littered with failures (beginning with Abraham), so this hardly seems like the reason for God responding to Saul in this way. We read that “He captured King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but he executed all Agag’s people with the sword. However, Saul and the army spared Agag, along with the best of the flock… as well as everything else that was of value. They were not willing to slaughter them. But they did slaughter everything that was despised and worthless” (15:8,9a,c). The Lord’s response, following the presentation of this information, is “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned away from Me and has not done what I told him to do” (15:11a). Well, that seems pretty clear. Saul was instructed to wipe out all of Amalek, including their king and their animals, but he failed to do so, and therefore, that is the reason for God’s regret.
A bit later, however, when challenged by Samuel in regards to this partial sparing, we hear from Saul as he says, “I have done what the Lord said… the army spared the best of the flocks and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord our God. But everything else we slaughtered… I have obeyed the Lord! I went on the campaign the Lord sent me on. I brought back King Agag of the Amalekites after exterminating the Amalekites. But the army took from the plunder some of the sheep and cattle---the best of what was to be slaughtered---to sacrifice to the Lord your God in Gilgal” (15:13b,15b,20b-21). It’s altogether possible that Saul thought that he was doing what was right, and little reason to suspect that he was engaging in open rebellion. Besides, if God’s anger was aroused simply by the fact that the king and some animals had not been put to death, then the situation was easily remedied, and indeed, we see that such is the case when “Samuel hacked Agag to pieces there in Gilgal before the Lord” (15:33b). So there must be something more.
There must be a more substantial reason for God declaring that Saul has turned away from Him and not done what He was told to do, and it must be in connection with the larger issue of Saul’s role as king and deliverer for God’s people. We find that reason in verse twelve of this chapter. The morning after the Lord speaks to Samuel and informs Samuel of His regret about Saul, we read that “Samuel was informed, ‘Saul has gone to Carmel where he is setting up a monument for himself’.” (15:12b) This sounds like the beginnings of idolatry, and for Saul, this is what brings about his exile from the kingship. This position is reinforced when Samuel asks Saul, “Is it not true that when you were insignificant in your own eyes, you became head of the tribes of Israel?” (15:17a) Now though, Saul is setting up monuments for himself, in what seems to be a desire to have the people look to him. More than anything else, based on what we know of the God of Israel, along with His plans and purposes for His people, within this story of exile and exodus---of blessing and cursing in connection with their idolatry or the lack thereof, it is this creeping into self-adulation that has Samuel telling Saul, “You have done what is wrong in the Lord’s estimation” (15:19b).
Saul’s response to this, noted earlier, completely misses the point, as his exile begins to take shape, thus causing Samuel to speak of “obedience that is better than sacrifice” and “paying attention,” that “is better than the fat of rams” (15:22b). Samuel speaks of Saul’s wider rebellion, especially in the face of the reminder of his role as deliverer in the context of the Deuteronomic curses presented at the outset of this incident that could be applied to anyone that stood against the Lord, saying “rebellion is like the sin of divination, and presumption is like the evil of idolatry” (15:23a). Samuel brings the issue of idolatry, of which Saul is either painfully unaware or is hoping is being overlooked, front and center in the situation. Indeed, Samuel says, immediately following the mention of idolatry, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,” which, more than anything else in the history of Israel to that point had to do with fleeing idolatry so as to enjoy God’s blessings and to avoid the cursing and exile associated with the same, “He has rejected you from being king” (15:23b). For Saul, exile was now at hand.