“The public face of the [Secret] Service is one of steely professionals in impeccable suits, wearing discreet earpieces and packing even more discreet weapons,” Calvin Woodward recently wrote for the Associated Press. “Agents are expressionless except for their ever-searching gaze, lethal automatons ready to die for a president.
“By reputation, stoked by Hollywood myth and the public’s fleeting glances at dark-windowed motorcades, they are anything but party animals. But what happened in Colombia didn’t stay in Colombia.”
Indeed not: The Secret Service wasn’t able to keep its own sins secret, and a prestigious arm of the government is now paying a heavy price in prestige. Agents are learning that to sin is one thing; to be found out is another. As Mark Twain once said, “A sin takes on a new and real terror when there seems a chance that it is going to be found out.”
Terror of Sin
The terror of sin is a common theme in Scripture. In 1 Samuel 10, for instance, Saul is chosen to be king under the watchful eye of Samuel, Israel’s final Judge. In 1 Samuel 13, after a series of military victories, an impatient and defiant Saul usurps Levitical law by offering a sacrifice, an act that amounted to treason against the Lord. Therefore, Samuel informs Saul that his kingdom shall not continue and will be given to a man “after [God’s] own heart.”
Now in 1 Samuel 15:1-3, Samuel has new instructions for his flawed protégé, and they are crystal clear:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”
Because of Amalek’s sin against Israel in the time of Moses, Saul is commanded to wipe them out completely.
Such a death sentence sounds harsh, even horrific, to our 21st-century ears. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, faced the same issue when the Lord announced the destruction of Sodom. Aghast, Abraham could barely stammer, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25) We are far from the first generation to question the goodness of God.
Yet is such punishment unjust? Only if you doubt the utter wickedness of sin. Sin is not mere ignorance or an honest mistake. Sin is high-handed rebellion against the true Sovereign of the universe. Sin is saying “My will be done,” rather than “Thy will be done.”
So Saul executes all the Amalekites he can find . . . but spares their king, Agag, and “all that was good of what they had.” Perhaps Agag had begged for mercy. Perhaps he had even promised a bribe. Whatever the case, Saul stopped short of complete obedience.
In verses 1 Samuel 15:10-16, Samuel receives word from the Lord about Saul’s disobedience: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” Incomplete obedience is disobedience.
Early the next morning, Samuel meets Saul at Gilgal. Rather than admitting what he has done, Saul tries to cover it up—-terrified, as Twain said, of being found out: “Blessed be you to the LORD,” he says to Samuel, attempting to paper over his sin with religious jargon. “I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
Of course, like certain Secret Service agents, what happened in Amalek didn’t stay in Amalek. Samuel’s bitter reply is priceless: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”
Saul quickly shifts blame to the people, saying they “spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the LORD your God.” Samuel stops his protégé in mid-explanation. “Stop!” Samuel commands him.
Then Samuel asks two piercing questions: “Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you pounce on the spoil and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?” Why has he not obeyed God’s command (”thy will be done”) and instead “pounce[d] on the spoil” (”my will be done”)?
At this point, the game is over, but Saul, like the son who said he would do his father’s will but didn’t, resorts one last time to a tired cover-up. Samuel, however, pronounces judgment:
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.
The poetry contrasts religious ritual—-which Saul said he was upholding—-with obedience, which is much more important in God’s sight. Jesus himself said we can and sometimes must make distinctions between two forms of good, that there are “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23) that come first.
Then Samuel’s poetry compares evils. Rebellion and divination both involve rejection of God and his Word. Neither one trusts God but strikes out on its own dark path. Presumption is defined as “a behavior or attitude that is boldly arrogant or offensive; effrontery.” While Israel’s king tried to cloak his audacity in religious language, the Lord saw it for what it was—-iniquity and idolatry.
At the end of this poem, Samuel speaks for the Judge whose holy standards have been flouted:
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has also rejected you from being king.
The judgment is fair. Those who reject the Word of the Lord—-or who purposefully obey only part of it—-will be held accountable. Saul’s kingdom will go to David, then to the divine Son of David—-who, instead of killing God’s enemies, will die for them.
Is there a part of God’s law we are rebelling against in secret? Are we men or women after God’s own heart? Or are we in the habit of doing what Saul did—-rejecting God’s standards to pounce on our own spoil? Remember, what happens in Colombia will not stay in Colombia—-or in Gilgal, Chicago, or wherever we happen to be.