Israel’s first king, Saul, is a truly unique character to study. He changes over time from a young man cowering behind the baggage train because of his shyness, to gathering all Israel to pursue and destroy a perceived rebel. Yet throughout his life, one facet receives repeated attention, and it is that of his worship.
In 1 Samuel 13, we find Israel at war with the Philistines once again. Saul was fairly new at this point to being king, and the Philistines had gathered against him in a large force. When the men of Israel saw what they were up against, most of them fled and hid themselves, but those who stayed were “trembling” (1 Samuel 13:6-7). Now the prophet Samuel had previously told Saul to wait for him, for he would come to offer a sacrifice before Saul was to lead the people out to battle (1 Samuel 13:8, 11). As the days continued to pass and Samuel still did not arrive, more and more of the Israelites slipped away and deserted, causing Saul to become more and more impatient and anxious (1 Samuel 13:8, 12). Finally, in desperation, Saul commanded that the sacrifices be brought to him and he would offer them up (1 Samuel 13:9). He knew he had to rally the people to himself, and he also knew that God had commanded the sacrifices to be offered.
There was only one small problem: Saul was not the one to offer the sacrifices. He was from the tribe of Benjamin and he was not an ordained prophet of God, and so he should not have offered the sacrifices. He had grown impatient with waiting for eh promised arrival of Samuel, so he took matters into his own hands, he “forced” himself he later said (1 Samuel 13:12). He treated the offerings as some ritualistic activity that he just needed to rush through to keep the people with him instead of waiting patiently. If he truly desired to obey and honor the Lord, he would have obeyed God’s command in God’s timing.
For Samuel showed up just as Saul was finishing the sacrifices (1 Samuel 13:10). “Saul went out to meet him and to greet him,” almost as if he was expecting a blessing for what he had done (1 Samuel 13:10). Yet Samuel rebukes him, saying, “You have acted foolishly” (1 Samuel 13:13). He rushed through an act of worship in a way that was contrary to the Word of God in a desire to gather the people back to himself, displaying a heart that was not truly turned towards the Lord.
And this was not an isolated incident in his life either. If you flip over a few chapters, we come to the same scenario. The Lord had given Saul a command to destroy the Amalekites, leaving nothing alive, including the animals (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul goes out and attacks the nation, but he does not fully follow the Lord’s command. Instead of utterly destroying the Amalekites, he spares their king and the best of the flocks, justifying his choice by saying they kept them alive to offer them up as sacrifices later (1 Samuel 15:9, 15, 20-21). There was no wiggle room in what the Lord had charged him to do, but Saul and the people thought they knew a better way, a more “worshipful” way to honor God.
Again, Samuel comes and the pattern continues in the same manner. When he arrives, Saul rises up and proclaims, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have carried out the command of the Lord,” then proceeded to ask for a blessing for himself (1 Samuel 15:13, 25, 30). Once again, Samuel rebukes him, pointing out his true disobedience in not fully carrying out what the Lord had commanded (1 Samuel 15:17-19).
Saul tried once more to justify his choice because of the resultant sacrifices they could offer, but the prophet does not let him get away with the excuse. Samuel asks, “Does the Lord have as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Through these two examples in the life of Saul and the subsequent rebukes from Samuel, we see God’s attitude towards pure worship. Saul rushed through what he perceived as a ritualistic act, listened to the voice of the people of what they claimed would be a more spiritual experience, and did all of it with a desire for honor from those around him. But this is not what God calls us to. We do not go through rote, ritualistic activities as if the Lord was somehow pleased by a checklist we mark off each week. No, not at all. He desires an intimate, personal relationship with each one of us. Samuel’s words in chapter 15 show that God is more interested in the heart condition, not just the outward act of what could be termed worship.
David recognized this. When he sinned with Bathsheba, he did not conjure up a list of deeds he had to do, but instead, he pours out his heart in penitent prayer. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” he prays, “and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). In another instance, as he observed the glories of God’s creation, he whispers in awe, “what is man, that You take thought of him, or the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:4). He calls the people of God to praise, saying “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Psalm 96:1). There was no list of mindless actions, no mere liturgy—there was only true worship from the heart that put God first in everything.
This is what Jesus said the Father was looking for. Worship does not depend on being at a special place, but it must be done “in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23). Paul said that true believers “Worship in the Spirit of God,” not simply held to the Mosaic Law of outward conformity (Philippians 3:3). Worship must be heart-felt.
Yet this is not to say that God has not given any commands for worship or how we ought to live. A heart truly turned towards Him will seek to obey what He has commanded in His Word and live a life pleasing to Him. Paul would say in Romans 12 that our “spiritual service of worship” is presenting our bodies “A living sacrifice,” not being “conformed to this world, but [being] transformed” and growing in Christ (Romans 12:1-2). Even in the case of Saul in 1 Samuel 15, he was rebuked for ignoring the Lord’s commands and setting up what he and the people wanted as supreme. The Lord has said that He will be worshipped in Spirit, but that worship is guided by truth from a pure heart.
For if a person does not worship from the heart, it is not really worship at all, Jesus says. He rebuked the Pharisees for only conforming outwardly and making a pretense of praising God. He said, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me” (Matthew 15:8-9). Outward conformity to a set of guidelines (Even good and Biblical ones) does not constitute God-honoring worship. Praise and adoration must come from a pure heart that has turned from sin and is completely given to glorifying God. Nothing must be done for show or for our own honor, but all must be done for Christ. We are His Church, after all. He deserves all of our praise and nothing less. He is the Lord.