In this section of 1 Samuel 15, Israel’s first king, Saul, was given the high privilege of fulfilling a prophecy made in the days of Moses, that of annihilating the Amalekites (Exodus 17:14–16; Numbers 24:20). With this special opportunity came special responsibility, and unhappily Saul proved unwilling to carry it out faithfully.
It serves as an object lesson of how seriously God reacts to willful disobedience.
The story begins with the elderly prophet Samuel approaching the king to issue a startling command. The importance of the command is highlighted by the formal introduction given to it. Before revealing the Lord’s command, Samuel first emphasized his credentials: “The Lord sent me to anoint you as king over his people Israel. ” Second, the prophet emphasized the divine origin of the message he was now communicating to the king: “Now, listen to the words of the Lord. ” This phrase is always used by a prophet to introduce an authoritative revelation.
God was giving Saul the awesome responsibility of fulfilling these prophecies in Exodus and Numbers. The command required Saul to “attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them.” This total destruction was practiced only against peoples who had come under the Lord’s severest judgment. It required the destruction of all people and possessions captured in battle.
The task was a solemn and holy one since those Israelites who carried it out functioned as the Lord’s agents of judgment. The soldiers were not to profit from their assignment. They were to receive no compensation for their efforts other than the satisfaction of having fulfilled a divinely mandated mission.
210,000 men was the second-largest battle force under Saul’s command mentioned in the Bible——was brought together for this solemn duty. Saul readied his troops for a frontal attack on the major Amalekite settlement as well as an attack on the Amalekites attempting to escape the main Israelite force.
Before initiating an attack, however, Saul warned the nomadic tribe, Kenites, to evacuate the area, which they did. Saul’s consideration for the Kenites was motivated by their “kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.”
This massive, widespread, sweeping attack was successful, and since no prisoners were to be taken, “all” Amalekites who were caught were “totally destroyed with the sword”—all, that is, except Agag, the Amalekite king.
Though Agag was only one man, Saul’s decision to “spare” him represented a flagrant violation of the Lord’s command. Saul’s violation was so significant that the writer reported it twice.