This often quoted and more often misused passage is from 1 Samuel 15:22. I’ve heard it for most of my church life. It’s never been my favorite, but until recently I’ve never given much thought to why. But the recent sting of its use, led me to consider my feelings. I realize now that it’s not the passage I don’t like, it’s how it’s being used. In fact, now that I’ve looked at it in it’s historical context, I find it’s use more disturbing.
Actually, I love the way the prophet Samual uses it historically. Israel’s failing first King, Saul, has been given very specific instructions ahead of battle with Amalek. He is told not to spare anyone or anything. Yet the passage makes clear that Saul was unwilling to destroy the best of the livestock. When confronted by Samuel, he blames the people, and insists that they only spared the best in order to sacrifice to the Lord. That’s when Samuel utters the famous phrase. He uses the statement to expose the folly of Saul’s excuse. We use it to try to get disobedient people to obey, but Samuel used it to get the disobedient King to realize or admit the folly of his disobedience.
Within the redemptive story of God’s grace the answer to man’s disobedience is not to get a disobedient mankind to be obedient. The great struggle is to get the disobedient to realize they are disobedient. And yet, the brokenness of that realization leads us to the mercy seat of God. And in His great mercy we find a better sacrifice; better than the best of Amalek. We find the lamb of God who dies once for all time.
Yes, there was a time when to be obedient was better than repetitive sacrifices. For it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. But now, by one offering, Jesus has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. So let’s not encourage the disobedient in their feeble attempts at obedience. Samuel was talking about the blood of bulls and goats. But the blood of Christ is better, and we are all disobedient.
It may be the most daunting command in all of scripture. Forgive. It causes immediate defensiveness and fretful feelings of inadequacy. We all know just how hard it is to forgive. We all know the pain of wounds inflicted by others. So much of the counsel on forgiveness minimizes very serious offenses. As result, we run in defeat or in defiance from scriptures command to forgive. These feelings will inevitably come while our eyes remain fixed simply on the command. How unfortunate. We miss the grace of God in the command, believing that God is asking us to do what His grace is insufficient to accomplish in us.
If we can move beyond the command to forgive, what we may find is that God has acted in our lives in a way that supplies us with a grace sufficient to forgive. We are called to forgive as we have been forgiven. In this is the sufficiency of God’s grace. The key is not to try to scale the mountain of effort to forgive, but to plumb the depths of the grace that has forgiven. And when the waves of grace wash over you, those who stand in need of forgiveness get caught in its deluge, by virtue of their proximity. Is it really possible to be guilty of a capital offense, receive pardon, and press charges on your brother for a petty crime? Can it be anything but unwillingness, for the power is in the pardon?
I must warn you that this is no formula or recipe for forgiveness. There is no impersonal principle to be applied. This is worship. In this you must deal with God. To plumb the depths of His grace, is to also delve the depths of one’s depravity. We must know the true nature of the forgiveness we have been given. You must let go of the notion that by your efforts you remain afloat in the sea of sin. It is only when we know that we are at the mercy of sins undercurrents, and lost to the safety of the shore, that we will know what it means to have been forgiven in Christ. In this is the truest sense of salvation; to have been rescued. Then, forgiveness of others is simply an appropriate response to how much you have been forgiven. Then forgiveness is what it should be, worship.