Tuesday, June 6th, 2023
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers Ellicott's Commentary
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 15". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ ebc/ 1-samuel-15.html. 1905.
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 15". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
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(1 Samuel 15:1-35) The War with Amalek.—Saul’s Disobedience to the Will of God in the matter of Sparing the King and the Choicest of the Plunder.—The Last Meeting in Life of Saul and Samuel.—The Prophet reproaches the King.—Death of Agag at the hands of Samuel.
EXCURSUS G: ON THE CONDUCT OF AGAG, KING OF AMALEK, WHEN SAMUEL SLEW HIM BEFORE THE LORD (1 Samuel 15:0).
Although, on the whole, we prefer the usual interpretation of this scene, which the English Version clearly suggests—viz., that Agag, finding that the warrior-king had spared him, ceased to have any apprehensions any longer for his life, and that when summoned into the presence of the old prophet, came in a comparatively happy and joyous state of mind, imagining that he was only to be presented in a formal manner to the chief religious official in Israel—still, there is another and most interesting interpretation of this singular scene, which has the support of the distinguished scholar and expositor, Ewald. This interpretation of the original understands that the conquered Amalekite monarch was fully aware that the summons into the presence of the dread seer meant a summons to death, and that, conscious of his impending doom, he braced himself up as a warrior-king to meet his end heroically with a smile. Agag then met his fate “with delight” (this is the word rendered in English delicately), and cries out, moved by a lofty, fearless impulse, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” This willingness to die on the part of the royal captive was regarded by the people as a happy omen; and possbfy, if we adopt this interpretation of the episode, this was one of the reasons which had preserved the circumstances of the incident with such exact detail, for there was a deeply rooted persuasion among the ancients that if the victims resisted when led to the altar, the incident was one of evil omen.
Compare the words which Æschylus, in the Agamemnon, puts into Cassandra’s mouth before her death. If we understand the words of Agag in the sense suggested in this Excursus, the captive Trojan princess met her death in a similar spirit.
Cassandra. I will dare to die . . . I pray that I may receive a mortal blow—and without a struggle . . . that I close my eyes.
Chorus. . . . If thou really art acquainted with thy doom, how comes it that, like a divinely-guided heifer, thou advancest so courageously to the altar?—Agamemnon, 1261-1269
(1 Samuel 15:1-3) Samuel also said unto Saul . . .—The compiler of the history, selecting, no doubt, from ancient state records, chose to illustrate the story of the reign and rejection of Saul by certain memorable incidents as good examples of the king’s general life and conduct. The incidents were also selected to show the rapid development of the power and resources of Israel at this period.
The sacred war with Amalek is thus introduced without any “note of time.”
The Lord sent me to anoint thee.—The account of the Amalekite war is prefaced by the solemn words used by the seer when he came to announce the Eternal’s will to Saul. They are quoted to show that the war was enjoined upon Israel in a general official way by the accredited prophet-messenger of the Most High.
(2) That which Amalek did to Israel.—The Amalekites were a fierce, untameable race of wanderers, who roamed at large through those deserts which lie between Southern Judea and the Egyptian frontier. They were descended from Esau’s grandson, Amalek. Not long after the exodus from Egypt, they attacked and cruelly harassed the almost defenceless rear-guard of Israel in the desert of Rephidim. They were then, at the prayer of Moses, defeated by Joshua; but, for this cowardly unprovoked attack, solemnly doomed to destruction. In the prophecy of Balaam they are alluded to as the first of the nations who opposed the Lord’s people. During the stormy ages that followed, the hand of Amalek seems to have been constantly lifted against Israel, and we read of them perpetually as allied to their relentless foes.
(3) Smite Amalek, and utterly destroy . . .—For “utterly destroy” the Hebrew has the far stronger expression, “put under the ban” (cherem). Whatever was “put under the ban” in Israel was devoted to God, and whatever was so devoted could not be redeemed, but must be slain. Amalek was to be looked upon as accursed; human beings and cattle must be killed; whatever was capable of being destroyed by fire must be burnt. The cup of iniquity in this people was filled up. Its national existence, if prolonged, would simply have worked mischief to the commonwealth of nations. Israel here was simply the instrument of destruction used by the Almighty. It is vain to attempt in this and similar transactions to find materials for the blame or the praise of Israel. We must never forget that Israel stood in a peculiar relation to the unseen King, and that this nation was not unfrequently used as the visible scourge by which the All-Wise punished hopelessly hardened sinners, and deprived them of the power of working mischief. We might as well find fault with pestilence and famine, or the sword—those awful instruments of Divine justice and—though we often fail to see it now—of Divine mercy.
(4) In Telaim.—Identical with Telem (Joshua 15:24), a place on the south border of Judah, near the region where the Amalekites chiefly dwelt.—Kimchi Telaim, however, signifies “lambs;” probably “Beth,” house of, is to be understood. Thus it was no town, but the “place or house of lambs”—some open spot, where, at the proper season, the lambs were collected from the pastures in the wilderness.—Dean Payne Smith.
Ten thousand men of Judah.—Again the numbers of this great tribe are out of proportion to the numbers furnished by the rest of the tribes. (See Note on 1 Samuel 11:8.)
(5) A city of Amalek.—Better rendered, The city of Amalek: no doubt, their principal place of arms.
And laid wait in the valley.—Better, in a torrent bed, then dry (Arabic, “Wady”). There is a strange tradition in the Talmud that Saul’s mind misgave him when he came to this “torrent bed;” thus he called to mind the command of Deuteronomy 21:4 to slay an heifer at a torrent in expiation of a murder, and determined not to carry out the stern charge of Samuel, but to spare rather than to slay.
(6) And Saul said unto the Kenites.—The Kenites, like the Amalekites, were a nomad race of Arabs, but seem to have been ever friendly to the Israelites. This kindly feeling sprang up soon after the departure from Egypt, and was, no doubt, in the first instance owing to the fact of Hobab, the father-in-law of Moses, belonging to this people.
(7) From Havilah until thou comest to Shur.—The Havilah here alluded to cannot be now identified. Shur, which signifies “wall,” probably refers to the wall which crossed the north-east frontier of Egypt, extending from Pelusium, past Migdol, to Hevo. Ebers suggests that this wall gave to Egypt the name of “Mizraini,” the enclosed, or fortified.
(9) Agag, and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen.—It would seem that Saul carried out the awful curse to the letter (with the exception that he spared the king) in the case of the human beings and the less valuable of their beasts. But covetousness seems to have suggested the preservation of the choicest cattle, and pride probably induced the Hebrew king to save Agag alive, that he might show the people his royal captive.
(10) Then came the word . . . —Very likely in a dream.
(11) It repenteth me . . . —“God does not feel the pain of remorse (says St. Augustine in Psalms 131:0), nor is He ever deceived, so as to desire to correct anything in which He has erred. But as a man desires to make a change when he repents, so when God is said in Scripture to repent, we may expect a change from Him. He changed Saul’s kingdom when it is said He repented of making him king.”—Bishop Wordsworth.
And it grieved Samuel—“Many grave thoughts seem to have presented themselves at once to Samuel, and to have disturbed his mind when he reflected on the dishonour which would be inflicted upon the name of God, and the occasion which the rejection and deposition of Saul would furnish to wicked men for blaspheming the invisible King of Israel . . . For Saul had been chosen by God Himself from all the people, and called by Him to the throne; if, therefore, he was deposed, it seemed likely that the worship of God would be overturned, and the greatest disturbance ensue.”—Calvin, quoted by Keil. Abarbanel tells us respecting Samuel’s grief that he was angry and displeased, because he loved Saul for his beauty and heroism, and as his own creature whom he had made king; and that he prayed all night because God had not revealed to him Saul’s sin, and he wished to know why sentence was pronounced against him.
And he cried unto the Lord all night.—This was, no doubt, that “piercing shrill cry” peculiar to Samuel. With this strange cry he seems to have on many a solemn occasion spoken with his God. He is often in this book represented as thus “crying unto God.” (See Stanley’s Lectures on the Jewish Church, Vol. I., 1 Samuel 18:0)
(12) And when Samuel rose early . . .—After the revelations of that sad night, the prophet rose, and at once went to seek the guilty king. He was told Saul was come to Carmel, identical with Kurmul in Judah, to the south-east of Hebron; there the victorious monarch had erected a monument of his victory, literally, a hand. In 2 Samuel 18:18, Absalom’s Pillar is styled Absalom’s Hand (yad), not “place,” as in the English Version. It has been suggested that very likely these victory cairns or columns erected by the Hebrews had a hand engraved upon them.
(13) Blessed be thou of the Lord.—Saul must have been fully conscious that he had failed to carry out the will and command of the Eternal King of Israel. In the late war, undertaken for the definite and solemn purpose of exterminating a wicked and bloodthirsty people, whose continued existence worked terrible evil upon the adjacent countries, he, disregarding the express instructions of the prophet of the Lord for his own covetous purposes, had not destroyed all, but reserved some of the living spoil for himself. Conscious of all this, he still dared to come forward, and to congratulate the prophet upon the fulfilment of the Lord’s command. But Saul’s words of self-gratulation were evidently feigned; in his heart he knew he had been faithless.
(14) What meaneth then this bleating? . . .—“Saul is convicted of falsehood by the voices of the animals which he has spared, contrary to God’s command. Samuel’s mode of citing them against him by the question, ‘What meaneth these voices?’ has an air of holy humour and cutting irony.”—Lange.
(15) The people spared the best of the sheep . . .—At once the king understood the drift of his old friend’s words; still more, perhaps, the stern, sorrowful look of reproach which accompanied them, “Yes, I understand your meaning. This bleating and lowing certainly does come from the captured flocks and herds of Amalek, but this reservation, which you condemn, was insisted upon by the people; and their object, for which you blame me for acquiescing in, was to do special honour to God in a great sacrifice.” There seems something strangely cowardly in this trying to transfer from himself to the people the blame of disobedience to the Divine commands. It is unlike Saul’s old character; but covetousness and vanity invariably lead to moral cowardice.
(16) Stay, and I will tell thee . . .—The king was probably turning away, desirous of closing an interview which to him was full of bitterness, when he was arrested
by the solemn words, and probably by the commanding gesture, of his old friend and counsellor, who now addressed him with the majesty and power of an accredited servant of the Most High.
(17) When thou wast little in thine own sight.—Kimchi’s rendering of the Hebrew here is singular: “Though thou seemest to thyself too little and weak to curb the people, yet wast thou the head, and shouldest have done thy duty;” but this, as Lange observes, would imply that Samuel had accepted Saul’s excuse that it was the people’s will to reserve the choicest spoil. The prophet’s words, however, were simply to remind Saul that the Lord, whose clearly expressed will he had disregarded, had raised him in bygone days from a comparatively humble station to the proud position he was then occupying as chief of Israel. The old counsellor reminds the king that there had been a time when he judged himself unequal to this great work to which his God summoned him; but now, how strange the contrast! Flushed with success, he was trusting alone in his unaided strength, and openly disobeying the Divine commands.
(18) The sinners the Amalekites.—This briefly rehearses the charge of the Most High, which Saul had deliberately disobeyed. It is noticeable that the Amalekites are expressly called “sinners,” thus indicating the reason of the Divine wrath against them. The men of Sodom (Genesis 13:13) were styled “sinners before the Lord.”
(19) Didst fly upon the spoil.—The expression used evidently includes the idea of greedy eagerness, as though Samuel detected a spirit of grasping covetousness at the bottom of this disobedient act of Saul’s.
(20) Yea, I have obeyed . . .—These and the words which follow are simply a repetition of the king’s former excuse for his act: but they show us what was the state of Saul’s mind: he evidently disbelieved in the power of the Eternal as a heart reader. If he could justify himself before Samuel, that was all he cared for. He asserted his own integrity of purpose and his great zeal for the public sacrifice to God, knowing all the while that low earthly reasons had been the springs of his conduct. He reiterated the plea that what he had done was in accordance with the voice of the people, conscious all the while that the plea was false.
(22) Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.—In this answer it would seem that the Spirit of the Lord descended upon Samuel, and that he here gave utterance to one of those rapt expressions which now and again in the course of each of these Hebrew prophets’ lives these famous men were commissioned by the Divine power to give out to their fellows. The words of Samuel here were reproduced, or at least referred to, by other prophets and teachers of the old dispensation; for example, see Psalms 50:8-14; Psalms 51:16-17; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 6:20; Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 6:6. Our Lord himself, in His words recorded in Matt. ix, 13, if not actually referring to this passage, makes substantially the same declaration.
Irenæus, Haer. 4:32 (quoted by Wordsworth), sees in this great saving of Samuel’s a plain intimation that the day would come when the burnt offerings enjoined on Israel would give place to a simple worship of the heart. Wordsworth also quotes a weighty comment from St. Gregory (Moral. 35:10): “In sacrifices (per victimas) a man offers only strange flesh, whereas in obedience he offers his own will.”
(23) For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.—Witchcraft, more literally soothsaying or divination, was a sin constantly held up to reprobation in the Old Testament. It was the greatest of all the dangers to which Israel was exposed, and was in fact a tampering with the idol-worship of the surrounding nations. Impurity, and an utter lack of all the loftier principles of morality which the one true God and His chosen servants would impress on the peoples of the East, characterised the various systems of idol-worship then current in Syria and the adjacent countries. And Samuel here, in this solemn inspired saying, briefly gives the grounds of the Lord’s rejection of His Anointed: “Rebellion,” or conscious disobedience to the express commands of the Eternal, in the case of Saul, God’s chosen king, was nothing else than the deadly sin of idol-worship, for it set aside the true Master of Israel, and virtually acknowledged another. The next sentence still more emphatically expresses the same thought: “Stubbornness,” or “intractableness,” is in the eyes of the pure God the same thing as worshipping idols and teraphim. The Hebrew word aven, rendered iniquity, literally signifies “nothingness;” it is a word used in the late prophets for an idol (Hosea 10:8; Isaiah 66:3). The word in the original translated in the English Version “idolatry,” is teraphim. Teraphim were apparently small household gods or idols, venerated as the arbiters of good and evil fortune. In Roman life we find similar idols under the name of “Lares.” Teraphim is derived from an unused root, taraph, signifying “to live comfortably;” Arabic, tarafa: compare the Sanscrit trip, and the Greek τρέΦειν. These idols appear to have been small human figures of various sizes. The image in 1 Samuel 19:13 was probably nearly life-size. These teraphim were made generally of silver or of wood. It has been suggested that the teraphim which Rachel stole were images of her ancestors. (See Note on Genesis 31:19, and Mr. Whitelaw’s comment on ib. in the Pulpit Commentary.)
(24) I have sinned.—The grave condemnation of the prophet appalled the king. The grounds of the Divine rejection evidently sank deep into Saul’s heart. Such a thought as that, in the eyes of the Invisible and Eternal, he ranked with the idolators and heathen sinners around, was, even for one sunk so low as Saul, terrible.
Because I feared the people.—He, with stammering lips, while deprecating the Divine sentence, still seeks to justify himself; but all that he could allege in excuse only more plainly marked out his unfitness for his high post. He could, after all, only plead that he loved the praise of men more than the approval of his God; that he preferred—as so many of earth’s great ones have since done—the sweets of transient popular applause to the solitary consciousness that he was a faithful servant of the Highest.
(25) Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin.—But, after all, the sorrow of Saul was rather for the immediate earthly consequence which he feared might follow the Divine rejection. He foresaw his power in Israel would sensibly decrease, so he intreats the great prophet not to desert him.
(26) I will not return with thee.—Samuel too clearly sees what are the true springs of Saul’s repentance, and refuses at first. It was only, as C. a Lapide forcibly urges, a fear on the part of the king, of losing the kingdom and of incurring public disgrace. The prophet for reply again repeats the terrible Divine sentence of rejection.
(27) He laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle.—The king’s passionate action indicates a restless, unquiet mind. Not content with intreating words, Saul, perhaps even with some violence, lays hold of the old man as he turns away, to detain him. What Saul laid hold of and tore was not the “mantle” (Authorised Version), but the hem, or outer border, of the “meil,” the ordinary tunic which the upper classes in Israel were then in the habit of wearing. The Dean of Canterbury, in a careful Note in the Pulpit Commentary, shows that the “mantle,” which would be the accurate rendering of the Hebrew addereth, the distinctive dress of the Hebrew prophets, was certainly not used in the days of Samuel, the great founder of the prophetic order. Special dresses came into use only gradually, and Elijah is the first person described as being thus clad. Long before his time the school of the prophets had grown into a national institution, and a loose wrapper of coarse cloth, made of camel’s-hair, fastened round the body at the waist by a leathern girdle, had become the distinctive prophetic dress, and continued to be until the arrival of Israel’s last prophet, John the Baptist (Mark 1:6).
(28) The Lord hath rent the kingdom.—The prophet at once looks upon the garment torn by the passionate vehemence of the king, as an omen for the future, and uses the rent vesture as a symbol, to show Saul that thus had the Lord on that day rent the kingdom from him.
A neighbour of thine.—It had not yet been revealed to the seer who was to replace the rebellious king, so he simply refers to the future anointed one quite indefinitely as “a neighbour.”
(29) The Strength of Israel will not lie.—This title of the Eternal, here rendered “the Strength of Israel,” would be better rendered the Changeless One of Israel. The Hebrew word is first found in this passage. In later Hebrew, as in 1 Chronicles 29:2, it is rendered “glory,” from the Aramaean usage of speech (Keil). Some, less accurately, would translate it here “The Victory,” or “the Triumph of Israel,” will not lie, &c. In the eleventh verse of this chapter we read of the Eternal saying, “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king,” while here we find how “the Changeless One (or Strength) of Israel will . . . not repent.” The truth is that with God there is no change. Now He approves of men and their works and days, and promises them rich blessings; now He condemns and punishes the ways and actions of the same men; hence He is said “to repent:” but the change springs alone from a change in the men themselves, not in God. Speaking in human language the Lord is said “to repent” because there was what appeared to be a change in the Eternal counsels.
“One instrument,” well says Dean Payne Smith, “may be laid aside, and another chosen (as was the case of Saul), because God ordains that the instruments by which He works shall be beings endowed with free will.” So God in the case of King Saul—in human language—was said to repent of His choice because, owing to Saul’s deliberate choice of evil, the Divine purposes could not in his case be carried out. Predictions and promises in the Scriptures are never absolute, but are always conditional. Still, God is ever the “Changeless One of Israel.” “The counsel of the Lord stands for ever” (Psalms 33:11). “I am Jehovah; I change not” (Malachi 3:6).
(30) Yet honour me now, I pray thee, before the elders.—It was a strange penitence, after all, this sorrow of Saul for his great sin. He was, no doubt, terribly in earnest and in great fear; but his earnestness was based upon a desire to maintain his power and royal state, and his fear sprang from a well-grounded apprehension that if he lost the countenance of Samuel the seer, the revered and honoured servant of the Lord, he would probably forfeit his crown. “If Saul had been really penitent, he would pray to have been humble rather than to be honoured” (St. Gregory, quoted by Wordsworth).
(31) So Samuel turned again after Saul.—The prophet, after the repeated and pressing request of the king, consents publicly to worship the Lord in his company. There is little doubt but that the principal motive which induced Samuel on this occasion not to withdraw himself from the public thanksgiving was a desire to prevent any disaffection towards the monarchy. His known disapproval of Saul’s conduct, and his declining the king’s earnest prayer to stay, would probably have been the signal to the discontented spirits in Israel to revolt, under the pretext that such a revolt would be pleasing to the great seer. Such a revolt in those critical times would have been disastrous to the growing prosperity of the chosen people.
It has been well suggested that many blessings came upon the unhappy Saul and the nation over which he ruled in answer to Samuel’s intercession on this occasion for him.
The result was what might have been looked for. Saul remained in undiminished power apparently; but the will of God, as declared by His servant Samuel, was slowly, but surely, accomplished. The doom of the reigning family pronounced by the prophet on this momentous occasion was irrevocable.
The story of Israel contained in this book shows how the march of events in solemn procession moved onward, every year bringing the ill-fated rebel king nearer the execution of the stern sentence which his own self-willed conduct had called down on him.
(32) Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.—But in the public service of thanksgiving there was one stern act of judgment still to be done. The King of the Amalekites had been sentenced to die. Saul had spared him for selfish reasons of his own; we need not discuss here the apparent harshness of the doom. There were, no doubt, amply sufficient reasons for the seemingly hard sentence on the people of Amalek: such as their past crimes, their evil example, the unhappy influence which they probably exercised on the surrounding nations. Weighed in the balance of the Divine justice, Amalek had been found wanting; and perhaps—we speak in all reverence—this death which was the doom of Amalek was sent in mercy rather than in punishment: mercy to those whom their evil lives might have corrupted with deep corruption—mercy to themselves, in calling them off from greater evils yet to come, had they been permitted still to live on in sin. Their king, whom Saul had, in defiance of the Divine command, spared, could not be permitted to live. From Samuel’s words in 1 Samuel 15:33 he seems, even among a wicked race, to have been pre-eminent. in wickedness. Ewald suggests a curious, but not wholly improbable, reason for Saul’s preserving him alive: “kings, for the honour of their craft, must spare each other.” There are other instances in the Sacred Book of prophets and priests acting as the executioners of the Divine decrees: for instance, Phinehas, when he slew Zimri and Cozbi before all Israel (Numbers 25:8-15); and Elijah, in the case of the slaughter of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:40). It has been suggested that Samuel did not perform the terrible act of Divine justice with his own hand, but simply handed over Agag to the officers of justice to put to death; but it is far more in harmony with other similar scenes in Hebrew story, and with the stern unflinching character of these devoted servants of the God of Israel, to understand the recital in its literal sense, which certainly leaves the impression on the reader that Samuel himself slew the King of Amalek.
The Hebrew word rendered “delicately” is apparently derived from the same root as “Eden,” the garden of joy; the meaning then would probably be “cheerfully, gladly;” another derivation, however, would enable us to render it “in bands or in fetters.” This would give a very good sense, but most expositors prefer the idea of “cheerfulness” or “gladness.” The LXX. must have found another word altogether in their copies, for they render it “trembling.” The Syriac Version omits it—strangely enough—altogether. Another view of the tragical incident is suggested in Excursus G at the end of this Book.
(33) Samuel hewed Agag in pieces.—It has been suggested, with some probability, that these words refer to a peculiar form of putting to death, like the quartering in vogue during the Middle Ages.
(35) Came no more to see Saul . . .—Once more the old friends met together in life (see 1 Samuel 19:24), but the interview on this occasion was not of Samuel’s seeking; nor does it appear then that any communication passed between them. When next the seer and the king spoke together, the seer belonged to another and a different world. “After this, Samuel came no more to him, bearing messages and commands, and giving him counsel and guidance from God. Saul’s kingship, though still one de facto, yet from this time lost its theocratic relation. God’s ambassador was recalled from him; the intercourse of the God of Israel with Saul through His Spirit came to an end, because Saul, sinking step by step away from God, had, by continued disobedience and increasing impenitence, given up communion with God.”—Lange.
Nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul.—The old seer, who had known Saul from the days of his splendid youthful promise, had indeed good reason to mourn. He, no doubt, loved him much, and regarded him as his own adopted child. On Saul he had built up all his hopes for the future of the Israel he loved so well. There was besides so much that was great and noble in the character of that first Hebrew king: he was the bravest of the brave, a tried and skilful general, possessed too of many of those high gifts which belong to men like Saul and David, and which enable them to be the saviours and regenerators of their country. This first great king only lacked one thing: true faith in that God who loved Israel with a peculiar love. Saul through his chequered career never really leaned on the Arm of the Mighty One of Jacob. No doubt, too, Samuel already perceived in the brilliant but headstrong king the first beginning of that terrible malady which over-shadowed the meridian and clouded the latter years of Saul—signs of that dread visitant, insanity, were, no doubt, visible to Samuel when the old man began to mourn for Saul.