Partial obedience

A lazy cat

"For whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10)

So often we hear people say: "I have done my best. God can surely accept that. None of us is perfect." This seems quite reasonable to men as a whole, but we know that Adam and Eve transgressed the only commandment that God had given to them, and death entered into the world.

Centuries later the children of Israel, in their desire to be "like all the nations" (although this was contrary to God's intentions, since He had chosen them to be a peculiar people for Himself), came to Samuel with the request for a king, who would fight their battles and judge their cause. In spite of Samuel's warnings, they persisted in their demand: "Nay; but we will have a king over us" (1 Samuel 8:19).

We know how the newly appointed king appealed to the people. He was tall and handsome, and even modest and self-effacing at first, but he had to be put to the test. Samuel came to the king and reminded him that it was a divine commission that had put him on the throne. Now he has another message direct from the Lord Himself. God remembered how the Amalekites had laid wait for the children of Israel on their way from Egypt. Now this guilty nation had to be punished. Samuel's message was clear:

"Hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD."

Nothing was left to Saul's imagination. Amalek had to be exterminated, and nothing was to be left over to remind the nations round about that Amalek had existed. Not only the men of war, but the whole nation, and even their flocks and herds, were to be destroyed.

Saul went out, and smote the Amalekites, after first warning the Kenites to separate themselves from the doomed nation, since they, at least, had taken pity on the children of Israel when they were attacked by Amalek. Nevertheless, Saul was only partially obedient. He spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, and encouraged his followers to preserve the best of the sheep and oxen that they found there. We read that "everything that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed," but the best of the sheep and oxen they would not destroy. No wonder God said to Samuel: "It repenteth Me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following Me, and hath not performed My commandments."

Saul was not the only one to be "partially obedient," though really there is no such thing. To be partially obedient is to be disobedient. How often we may think that we are being obedient to the Word of God, when we have only carried out a portion of the clear commandment of God. Other portions of Scripture remind us that "God hath spoken;" "He left not Himself without witness." More specifically we read that He commands all men to repent. To the believer the commandment is given to "love one another," "give none offence," 'seek those things which are above." In each of Paul's epistles, after the doctrinal outline, we have practical directions about putting the doctrine into operation, with such warnings as "lie not one to another," "fathers, provoke not your children to wrath." So often we may dismiss a commandment that comes too close to us by saying: "That is only Paul speaking," forgetting that Paul himself writes: "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37).

Saul seems to have no idea that he had failed in his task. When he returned to Samuel, he said: "I have performed the commandment of the Lord." He expected Samuel to congratulate him on his obedience, but Samuel said to him: "What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?"

Saul is ready with his answer: "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." Samuel's response is often quoted: "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" (1 Samuel 15:22). He went on to point out that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness ("self-will," J.N.D.) is as iniquity and idolatry. For this reason, Saul was no longer regarded as the true king of Israel. God had a man in view, David, who would rule over God's people in the fear of the Lord.

Saul, as we read, was ready to confess his sin, and asked to be pardoned, but we read that he "feared the people, and obeyed their voice," thus pleading "extenuating circumstances," as we should call it now, and so he pleaded with Samuel to go with him as if nothing had happened. It is to be feared that Saul was but a "profane person," as was Esau, who sought forgiveness without true repentance.

To go back in history, we are reminded of Aaron and Moses, of whom we read in Numbers 20, when they were almost within sight of the promised land. At the beginning of the wilderness journey, while Moses was in the mountain receiving details of the tabernacle and the worship of God, Aaron, like Saul, listened to the people, and fashioned a golden calf, and encouraged the children of Israel to worship the idol. Moses later tells us how "the Lord was very angry with Aaron to have destroyed him: and I prayed for Aaron" (Deuteronomy 9:20), and Aaron's sin was forgiven. When, however, Moses took his rod, and smote the rock at Kadesh, Aaron did not restrain his brother, and so participated in his disobedience. For this reason, Aaron and Moses were not allowed to enter the promised land. We understand that the rock was a type of Christ, who would be smitten once for all. Moses had smitten the rock at the beginning of the wilderness journey. At Kadesh he was told to speak to the rock, but he was disobedient. We should think that the idolatry of Aaron was much more sinful than the hasty action of his brother, but again we are reminded that "self-will" is as the sin of idolatry, since we are pleasing ourselves rather than God.

We have been reminded of Samuel's words to Saul: "The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbor of thine, that is better than thou" (1 Samuel 15:28), but we must not think that David was always obedient to his God. We know how grievously he sinned in breaking the tenth and sixth commandments. We know that Nathan, the prophet, was sent to him with the parable of the poor man and his ewe lamb. When David rose up in wrath at the injustice of the rich man and said to Nathan: "The man that hath done this thing shall surely die," he heard the solemn words: "Thou art the man." There is no doubt that David was truly repentant, and God forgave his grievous sin, but the history of his reign from that time reveals that this one sin had undermined his influence for good and given the enemy an occasion to triumph. In the summing up of David's life in 1 Kings 15 we read: "David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord and turned not aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite" (verse 5). What a sad epitaph! It reminds us of the words of the apostle to the Galatians: "Ye did run well; who did hinder you, that ye should not obey the truth?" (Galatians 5:7). May it not be with us that our testimony should be spoilt for the sake of being only "partially obedient"! We have proved that the Lord is gracious, but we must not presume on His grace. We know that there was only One who "did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth." Nevertheless, we are called to follow Him, and we are reminded in the Scriptures that we have been called to obedience. May it then be true of us, as was said of Joshua and Caleb, that we wholly follow the Lord.

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