“But Samuel replied: ‘Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’” 1 Samuel 15:22

As Christians, we are called to worship our God and hold Him above all others. And through the ages, sacrifices of many kinds have been used as a way to express devotion to the Lord.  For instance, the writer of Hebrews urged, “let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise…”

It’s important to remember, though, that He looks first for a heart that is truly seeking to follow Him. This verse from 1 Samuel states just how important our attitudes and motivations are to God.

What "Obedience is Better Than Sacrifice" Means

The dictionary defines obedience as ‘dutiful or submissive compliance.’ For a believer, that means surrendering our will to God. To sacrifice is to ‘to give up, renounce, or destroy, especially for an ideal or belief.’ It’s releasing something to the Lord that is valuable to us.

Both of these are decisions we can make to express passion for God, and each has an effect on our faith and how we live. But of the two, 1 Samuel tells us to make obedience our top priority. Then, whatever sacrifices we give will come out of reverence for our Heavenly Father. Passages throughout the Bible share this same principle:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6

“To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” Proverbs 21:3

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Psalm 51:16-17

“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’you would not have condemned the innocent.” Matthew 12:6-7

The Tony Evans Bible Commentary says it this way: "In other words, the Lord calls people to submit to his agenda, not to attempt to honor him with their own agendas."

As we can see, choosing to obey first displays our priority and motives. "Saul was either blinded by a partial and delusive self-love, or he was, in his declaration to Samuel, acting the part of a bold and artful hypocrite. He professed to have fulfilled the divine command, and that the blame of any defects in the execution lay with the people. Samuel saw the real state of the case, and in discharge of the commission he had received before setting out, proceeded to denounce his conduct as characterized by pride, rebellion, and obstinate disobedience. When Saul persisted in declaring that he had obeyed, alleging that the animals, whose bleating was heard, had been reserved for a liberal sacrifice of thanksgiving to God, his shuffling, prevaricating answer called forth a stern rebuke from the prophet. It well deserved it--for the destination of the spoil to the altar was a flimsy pretext--a gross deception, an attempt to conceal the selfishness of the original motive under the cloak of religious zeal and gratitude." (Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible)

The Israelite's Heart towards Sacrifice

To understand this idea better, it helps to take a look at the Old Testament definition of sacrifice, and how it got corrupted. After God led His people out of Egypt, they showed Him honor and asked for His favor with sacrifices of animals, birds, grains and even wine. Giving an offering was part of everyday life, as a way to keep God first in their thoughts.

“‘Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.’” Exodus 20:24

When the young Israelite nation first heard this command, the people vowed to heed it. But as time went on, the standards they held began to lower. Distracted and drawn in by other religions around them, they eventually let their festivals and rituals be compromised.

Rather than pursue His Ways, the Israelites chased after the ways of the world around them. Many became less concerned with integrity and justice, and more with status and pleasure. God saw the people’s hypocrisy every time they came to worship.

“The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.’" Isaiah 29:13

Finally, the Lord spoke a stern rebuke, hoping to stir them to repent.

“‘The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.’" Isaiah 1:11-14

The Israelites returned to God, but not for long. In fact, they fell into a repeated pattern of straying from God’s commands in their daily life yet still bringing Him gifts and words of praise. And each time, God was offended by their insincere worship. 

“‘I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs!’" (Amos 5:21-23)

The Context Of 1 Samuel 15

Chapter 15 describes a defining moment in the Kingship of Saul, in around 1020 B.C. God spoke through the prophet Samuel, directing Saul to lead a campaign of vengeance against their enemies the Amalakites. And His instructions for the raid were very specific.

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’" 1 Samuel 15:2-3

Saul’s initial response was right. He gathered troops from Israel and Judah--over two hundred thousand men in all, and set up an ambush outside of Amalek. But as the attack unfolded, the king veered off God’s course, and the end result fell short.

“He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.” 1 Samuel 15:8-9

God sent Samuel to condemn Saul’s disregard of His order. As he looked for Saul, Samuel learned the king had built an altar and planned to sacrifice the cattle and sheep from Amalek that the army had spared. Saul defended himself, saying that he saved the animals to be given on the altar because he knew it would please God. But Samuel saw the pride and arrogance in Saul, and that he had offended the Lord instead. 

God lamented putting Saul in power because of his rebellious spirit. Samuel soon told Saul that he would be replaced, and though the king begged forgiveness, Samuel was adamant about the prophecy. They parted ways that day, and did not see each other again. In time, God anointed David to become king, and Saul was killed in battle.

Why Does The Lord Delight In Obedience?

In Exodus 20:5, God proclaims, “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,” in the first of the Ten Commandments. Obedience is the response God seeks from us, because it shows that He is first in our lives, above all others. It is an expression of our love and trust in Him as well.

Some people have trouble making this step because of an independent nature or a  prideful spirit. I confess that as a young and more selfish Christian, I thought that letting God have control would mean giving up on everything I wanted. So, like Saul, I partially obeyed.

But as I learned more about God’s character, I realized that He desires our obedience for good reasons. Quite simply, following Him will bring blessings to us and others. Surrendering to the Lord invites Him to love us and lead us into our best lives. We’ll find a deeper connection to Him, one that equips us to share in His work of reaching the world. 

An obedient heart allows Him to:

Stay close to us. God isn’t looking just to display His power. He wants us to submit so He can guide us to live rightly. Then we’ll begin to reflect Him to others.

“The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.” Zephaniah 3:17

Show us His goodness. God really is concerned about all of our circumstances. He bids us to lean on Him to provide just what we need. And we’ll start helping those around us.

“And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19

See our love. God notices and delights in every bit of praise, thanks and joyful noise we lift up. He encourages us to enjoy His presence. When we do, worship becomes a joyful celebration that others can join.

“Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his ; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.” Psalm 100:2-4

What This Verse Means For Us Today

We certainly don’t offer the same kind of sacrifices today as in Old Testament times. The often-used phrase “time, talents and treasures,” describes our modern version. But God still expects an obedient heart behind every offering. 

Living in obedience to God starts with a decision to put Him first and to give Him authority over our lives. Then we need to be sure we are truly aligned with His Will. And 1 Samuel offers some cautions as we strive to be true followers.

1. We need to ask for God’s leading. 

Saul carried out the Lord’s mission, but with his own agenda. 

2. We need to listen carefully to God’s instructions.

Saul responded to the Lord quickly, but didn’t heed all the specifics of the plan.

3. We need to respect God’s desires.

Saul sought the Lord, but he made assumptions about what he heard. 

People can place more importance on outer appearance than inner character. But God has always searched deeper within, and makes it clear that our gifts and offerings must be motivated by a heart that is fully committed to Him. Then what we give Him will truly be worship.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Javier Art Photography

Heather Adams is an author, speaker, and singer living in Connecticut. Heather’s passion is to equip and encourage believers to seek more of God’s truth and to experience more of His joy each day. Her book, Bow Down: The Heart of a True Worshipper is a practical, 30-day devotional about worship based on the writings of King David. Heather's blog, Worship Walk Ministries, offers weekly Scripture passages and insights to ponder. A native New Englander, Heather is settling into her home in the South, trying out local foods and watching for the alligators that live nearby! You can connect with her on her website: heatheradamsworshipwalk.com