“And Samuel said, ‘Has 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 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.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Saul’s excuse for disobeying the Lord’s clear command to destroy everything related to the Amalekites especially including all the spoils of war, was that he was going to offer a celebratory sacrifice to God. Now, this was probably mostly a lie because he’d gotten caught, but at least it sounded good right? I didn’t obey you, Lord, because I was going to give you a gift. What Saul reflects in this excuse is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character and identity of the Lord. It’s a misunderstanding that Samuel moves immediately to correct.
The kind of sacrifice and offering God wants from us is a sacrifice of obedience; an offering of faithfulness. This is what made the religion of Israel so different from all of the other religions around at the time. While theirs included some of the same rituals, the character of their God and the necessary state of their heart were fundamentally different.
With the worship of Baal or Dagon or Molech, what you actually believed was irrelevant. As long as you offered the right sacrifices in the right way you were fine. If you disobeyed the god, as long as you offered a sacrificed to appease him, things were going to be okay. This is because the religion was the only thing that mattered. Those other gods weren’t interested in a relationship at all. They only needed people as slaves to provide their food for them.
When it came to the worship of Yahweh, the religion was only the vehicle for establishing and maintaining a relationship. The relationship was the key thing. Sacrifices were offered not as a generic, checkbox appeasement, but as a way of restoring the relationship. And, like with any relationship, if your heart’s not in it, the other person (namely, God) is going to know immediately and the relationship won’t be restored. You can’t throw a bone at someone you’ve hurt or offended and expect things to be okay.
It’s even more serious than it sounds, though. Treating God like some false god of the nations wasn’t just an “oops” or an “oh-well” issue. It was a serious, grievous sin. God equates disobedience and presuming on God’s will with the sins of idolatry and divination. Those were widely recognized as sins which could get you kicked out of the nation, and God put them on the same level as disobedience. Talk about raising the bar!
Here’s the truth for us: We still worship this same God today. He wants our hearts and the functions of the Christian religion are a vehicle to help us give them to Him. But, when we start treating them as ends in themselves, when we starting treating Jesus like an object or some false god, we’re not only not giving Him our hearts, we’re actively offending Him. Religion isn’t unimportant, but if we bungle the religion part and still sincerely put our hearts in His hands, we’ll be doing okay.
God wants our hearts; He created us to be in a relationship with Him. That’s His first priority. Everything else comes after. When we forget that and treat Him as if a relationship doesn’t really matter, we can’t expect to receive from Him the benefits of a relationship. Give God your heart. It’s the thing He wants most.