The Whole Duty of Man

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 39 of 107

“And Samuel said, Hath 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 hearken than the fat of rams”

1 Samuel 15:22

WSC 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?

A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.1

1Mic 6:8; 1 Sam 15:22

The first king of Israel was Saul. Samuel had anointed Saul as king because he was getting on in years and could no longer rule effectively. The people took the opportunity to demand for a king like the surrounding nations. God had planned for the people to have a king after His own heart. But his time was not yet. So when the people were too impatient to wait, God decided to let them have a man who, by human reckoning, would make a good king. He was a handsome young man who stood a head taller than any of the people (1 Sam 9:2). And He appeared to be quite modest and magnanimous at first.  The people liked him. Samuel was pleased with him.

But by the direction of God, as soon as Samuel anointed Saul, he made an appointment for them to meet at a place called Gilgal. You may remember that Gilgal was where, about 350 years earlier, the new generation of Israelites under the leadership of Joshua was circumcised.

We read of the appointment in 1 Samuel 10:8:

“And thou shalt go down before me to Gilgal; and, behold, I will come down unto thee, to offer burnt offerings, and to sacrifice sacrifices of peace offerings: seven days shalt thou tarry, till I come to thee, and shew thee what thou shalt do.”

We are not told anything else about this appointment. We know that Samuel is not referring to the event in the next chapter when he proclaims the kingship of Saul to the people. We know this because on that occasion, Saul accompanies Samuel to Gilgal (1 Sam 11:14-15), and so he does not have to wait for him.

Most likely, then, Samuel is referring to another time, perhaps two years later, when Saul must gather the people to fight against the Philistines. Whatever the case, we know that Saul understood what he was to do. He was to gather the people at Gilgal and wait for Samuel to come down to him to offer sacrifices unto the LORD. He was to wait for him for seven days!

The time for the appointment finally arrived in chapter 13. Israel was at war with the Philistines at that time. Saul had gathered an army of three thousand men. Two thousand were with him at Michmash, whereas a thousand were with his son, Jonathan, in Gibeah. Both of these places are about 10 km West of Gilgal.

As it happened, Jonathan led an assault on a Philistine garrison and infuriated the Philistines. Saul took the opportunity to rally the Israelites to battle by giving the impression that he was the one who defeated the Philistine garrison. He called for the people to gather at Gilgal.

The Philistines likewise gathered their army. They had three thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen and an uncountable number of foot soldiers. They descended on Michmash, where Saul was located.

But when they saw the intensity of the Philistine response, many of the Israelites chickened out and fled across the River Jordan. Only the foolhardy stayed with Saul.

This is the time that Samuel was referring to. Saul is to wait for Samuel seven days to offer sacrifice and apparently to seek the LORD’s help in the battle. But things are looking terrible for Saul’s army. They are greatly intimidated by the Philistine army. Many hide themselves in caves, rocks and bushes. They are hard-pressed. They are greatly distressed. Many more are tempted to desert. But Saul must learn to wait upon the Lord.

Initially, Saul waits quite patiently. But with each passing day that Samuel fails to turn up, Saul’s anxiety increases as his patience decreases. Finally, the seventh day arrives. It is the day that Samuel is to come, but the day wears on, and Samuel is nowhere to be seen.

Eventually, Saul decides to take things into his own hands. He goes ahead to offer the burnt offering himself. But just as he completes the sacrifice, Samuel appears.

He is not pleased. “What has thou done?” he asks. Saul starts to give his excuse, 1 Samuel 13:11-12:

“Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash; Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering.”

Samuel is not impressed. He rebukes Saul for his foolishness. “Thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God,” he says. And he tells him then that his kingdom will not continue down the generation because he kept not God’s commandment. Instead, God will seek a man after his own heart to be a king, and He shall establish his kingdom forever.

This event has exposed a weakness of Saul. But is it a one-time lapse and misjudgement? Or is it a systemic problem with his heart and attitude? Well, to make things very clear, Samuel gives Saul another test.

This occurs sometime later in chapter 15. Samuel summoned Saul and gave him a message from God. He must muster his army and obliterate the Amalekites because they way-laid the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. He is to slay both man and woman, children, ox and sheep, camel and ass. They are to be utterly destroyed. They must not take any spoil from this battle. The instruction is explicit.

Saul rallies his troops. This time, he has twelve thousand men. That is a sizeable army. They fight against the Amalekites, and they win the battle!

But sadly, we are told in verse 8 that Saul decides to take the king of the Amalekites, Agag, alive, contrary to God’s command. And not only so, but he spares “the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good.”

Everything that is worthless or sick, they destroy utterly. But everything else, they keep alive.

The LORD is very displeased and sends Samuel to confront Saul. Remarkably, when Samuel arrives, Saul greets him by saying: “Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (v. 13).

But Samuel knows better. “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Samuel asks.

Saul has been caught red-handed again!

Samuel tries to get Saul to see his sin, but is unsuccessful. “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD,” Saul insists (v. 20).

It is then, with patience wearing thin, that Samuel says those classic words which are our text for our meditation today:

“Hath 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 hearken than the fat of rams. 23  For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.”

With these words, Samuel essentially tells Saul that the LORD has rejected him as king and will no longer own his kingship or be with him.

He will no longer have God’s blessing in his rule. His sons will not rule after him. What a sad conclusion to the rule of the first king of Israel!

But what may we learn from Samuel’s words and from Saul’s bad example? Let me propose three things: (1) God delights more in obedience than sacrifice; (2) God requires wholehearted and absolute obedience to His revealed will; and (3) There can be no valid excuse for disobedience.

1. God Delights More in Obedience than Sacrifice

This is clear from the words of Samuel: “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” This is a rhetorical question. The answer intended is clearly no! God does not have as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD.

But what exactly is the difference between sacrifice and obedience? Doesn’t the Lord also command sacrifice?

To understand the difference, we must realise that a person can offer a sacrifice or an act of religious worship without being required to do so. In fact, he can offer the sacrifice contrary to the expressed will of God.

On the other hand, obedience can never be contrary to the expressed will of God. To go against God’s expressed or revealed will is essentially disobedience, or rebellion, as Samuel puts it.

But here’s the catch. It always feels better to the flesh to sacrifice than to obey. When we sacrifice, we give something. While it is true that it is more blessed to give than to receive for the saint, giving gives the flesh a reason to feel proud, an occasion to boast, and a basis to bargain. The same is true with sacrifice and worship for the flesh. Sacrifice and worship give the flesh a reason to feel proud, an occasion to boast, and a basis to bargain.

Thus, we see how Saul chooses to sacrifice rather than obey at Gilgal. Samuel had required him to wait, and the law of God forbids him from performing sacrifice without the appointed priest. But Saul chooses to disobey in order to sacrifice.

Then again, at the city of Amalek. This time, it is a little bit more complicated. We are unsure if Saul indeed kept the best of the animals to sacrifice unto the LORD. But this is the excuse that he gives to Samuel. Apparently, Saul feels that sacrifice and worship are so noble and worthy that they should more than compensate for any wrong done to achieve that end. The end justifies the goal.

It is like a little boy who wants to give his father a birthday present, but can not afford it. He decides to steal it. He reasons in his heart: If Daddy finds out I stole it, I will just tell him I did it because of my great love and respect for him. I was forced to do so by my love and respect for him!

As I said, we don’t know if Saul was actually intending to use the animals for sacrifice. But he understood that it would be a great excuse! Samuel probably did not believe him. Nevertheless, he took the opportunity to show Saul his heart. Saul had got it all wrong. Even if he had intended to offer the animals in sacrifice, he was still wrong! To obey is more important than sacrifice. God delights more in obedience than in sacrifice.

God had instructed Saul to destroy everything. This was God’s revealed will for him. The revealed will of God is His law for His subjects. So this was his duty. To take any initiative for any reason─ including worship─that may involve a violation of the will of God for him is rebellion.

But what has this got to do with us? None of us, after all, have ever been in a situation like Saul. Well, I will put it to you that there are at least two ways in which this truth that “God delights more in obedience than sacrifice” affects us.

The first is that our worship is hateful to God unless we walk in obedience. Solomon says this in Proverbs 28:9: “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination.”

To turn away your ear from hearing the law is essentially to disobey God. If you do so, your prayer, your worship, will be abominable to God. It will be hateful and disgusting to God.

Secondly, the Scripture also teaches us that we must worship God according to His appointment. You see how worship and obedience are tied together. If we worship God according to our own opinions and ways, then it is an abomination to God, for it is disobedience before worship. Paul calls such worship “will worship,” i.e., worship according to human will rather than God’s will.

The temptation to engage in will worship has afflicted God’s people not only today but throughout the ages. Think of Moses words in Deuteronomy 12:31-32:

“Thou shalt not do so [thou shall not follow the example of the nations to do as] unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32  What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”

Can you see how the Israelites of old might be tempted to offer their children to the LORD? Those who fail to understand that God delights in obedience more than sacrifice may be tempted to do so. If the pagans are willing to show their love and sincerity toward their gods to the point of offering their own children, how much more, we who know the living and true God?

But you see, this is a very wrong and wicked reasoning, for God has appointed that we should worship Him only according to His revealed will. Now, we will see more of this when we come to study the Second Commandment, but for now, can you see why the Regulative Principle of Worship is important? God delights in obedience more than sacrifice.

But let us learn, secondly, that God requires wholehearted obedience to His revealed will.

2. God Requires Wholehearted Obedience to His Revealed Will

This is, of course, related to our first point, but it drives deeper.

You see, when we know the importance of obedience, then we will usually try to obey, or at least, to obey to the degree that our conscience can be satisfied.

This was what Saul did! Saul did not blatantly disobey God. In the first instance in Gilgal, he did wait seven days for Samuel. In the second instance, he did destroy the Amalekites as Samuel instructed. Saul had gathered 12,000 men at Talaim. Then he smote the Amalekites from Havilah to Shur by the border of Egypt (v. 7). He utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. And he utterly destroyed a lot of life stock as instructed.

So what is the problem? The problem is that he did not obey completely. Yes, he did wait seven days, but he was supposed to wait until Samuel arrived on the seventh day! Instead, as soon as he could say that he had already waited seven days, he took things into his own hands. Yes, he did smite the Amalekite, but he spared their king! Yes, he did destroy the livestock as instructed, but he spared the best of them, his excuse that he intended to use them for worship notwithstanding.

Saul obeyed only partially. His was not a wholehearted obedience. He was only willing to meet God halfway. He was only willing to obey as long as it suited him.

But beloved brethren and children, partial obedience is disobedience. Indeed, partial obedience to God is rebellion.

But we are all very familiar with this malady, aren’t we? We see it in our children. Tell your children, “Pack up your room, ensure everything is tidy and then we can go out.” Five minutes later, the room is spick and span. That is, until you open the cupboard—if you dare risk the avalanche.

But this is not only the case with children.

God made known His will to Saul. At Gilgal, God’s revealed will for Saul was to wait for Samuel. At the City of Amalek, it was to destroy everything. Saul disobeyed both commandments by partial obedience.

Has God also made known His will for us? Yes, as he spoke to Saul, He has spoken to us. He spoke to us not only through Moses, but directly. His voice shook the mountain of Sinai when He spoke. Now, Samuel teaches us: “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” Do we hear what God has said on the mount?

Think of how many are willing to worship Jehovah as Christians, but at the same time remain superstitious or even syncretistic.

Think of how many are willing to worship without images, but not willing to sing the Psalms or to give up the high places of Christmas and Easter.

Think of how many will not take the name of God in vain in their lips but allow their minds to wander during worship so that they take God’s name in vain in their heart.

Think of how many are willing to come for worship, but not willing to observe the Sabbath.

Think of how many are willing to provide for their parents, but are not willing to be respectful towards them. 

Think of how many will not murder, but are filled with hatred and anger against their neighbour for their unreasonableness.

Think of how many will not steal outrightly, but will have no qualms about violating copyrights.

Think of how many will not tell lies, but will utter half-truths to protect their reputation.

Think of how many will not covet after the riches of their neighbour, but murmur about their own poverty.

I don’t know about you. But when I think of these half-hearted, partial obedience, I think of myself. O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death?

Beloved brethren and children, remember that God requires wholehearted obedience to His revealed will.

Partial obedience is no obedience. Disobedience is rebellion and stubbornness. And rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.

And make no mistake: there can be no valid excuse for disobedience.

3. No Valid Excuse for

This is our third point, and it follows directly from the previous point.

You see, Saul not only disobeyed, he actually thought he obeyed. At least he thought he could get away with his failure, so he gave excuses. He was seeking to minimise blame or reduce his guilt in both instances.

In the first instance, in 1 Samuel 13, Saul tried to exonerate himself by shifting the blame to Samuel. “You did not come within the days appointed!” he implied. I believe Samuel did come within the appointed days, only that he came towards the end of the day. And notice how Saul shifted blame to God, too: “I have not made supplication unto the LORD.” The LORD needs the sacrifice before He will help us, you see. Furthermore, notice how Saul sought to make himself a victim: “I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering!” I had no choice!

The same attitude is repeated in the second instance recorded in our text. Indeed, Saul thought he kept God’s commandments, or at least kept them sufficiently. Remember what he said to Samuel when he came to him in Gilgal? “Blessed be thou of the LORD: I have performed the commandment of the LORD” (1 Sam 15:13).

And then, when Samuel confronted him about the bleating of the sheep and lowing of the oxen, what did he do? He gave excuses again. He thought that they were valid excuses that did not make him disobedient!

“They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (1 Sam 15:15).

Oh, it’s the people! They spared the best of the sheep and the oxen to sacrifice unto the LORD your God. “Well, it is also your God’s fault, for He needed the sacrifice. We are just trying to please Him. But we destroyed everything else.”

Samuel is not convinced:

“Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the LORD, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the LORD?” he asks (1 Sam 15: 19).

But notice how Saul is still insistent that he was obedient, verse 20:

“Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. 21 But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God in Gilgal.”

It is in response to these words that Samuel utters the words of our text: “Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?” (1 Sam 15:22).

Samuel gives no grounds to Saul at all. Whatever his excuses are, he is guilty of rebellion and stubbornness. He has sinned against God as seriously as one guilty of witchcraft and idolatry.

Beloved brethren and children, make no mistake, what was demanded of Saul is demanded of us too. God is perfect and holy. He is of purer eyes than to behold evil. There can be no valid excuse for disobedience.

Try to excuse yourself by saying, “I did not know,” and you will be made to realise that even the world understands that ignorance is no excuse, for even sin of ignorance requires atonement for forgiveness, Number 15:27-29.

Try to excuse yourself by saying, “It was not my fault; I was compelled to make the decision,” and you will be made to realise that you always have a choice. Pilate had a choice to release the Lord. The fact that he did not, makes him guilty of the Lord’s death even though the Jews had a greater sin (Jn 19:11).

Try to excuse yourself by saying that every other Christian you know thinks that it is not sinful, and you will be reminded that broad is the way that leads to damnation, and many who would call Christ Lord at the last day will hear Him say: “Depart from me ye that work lawlessness.”

Try to excuse yourself by saying that you were sincere and meant well, and you will be reminded that the broad way that leads to damnation is paved with the cobbles of sincerity. Saul of Tarsus was walking along that path of sincerity when he persecuted the church. He would have fallen into hell fire except that the Lord pluck him out.


What shall we say to these things? Well, we are actually—in a roundabout way—meditating on the doctrine taught in Question 39 of our Shorter Catechism, which is also the first question in the second section of the Catechism:

WSC 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?

A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to His revealed will.”

This is a straightforward and yet profound statement. It is our whole duty to obey what God has revealed as His will for us. God’s will may be understood from two perspectives. There is the decretive will of God, which is what God has planned for all eternity, which will definitely come to pass. The second is the revealed will of God, which is essentially God’s commandments for us. “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Dt 2:29).

We learn from our text today three important corollaries: (1) God delights more in obedience than sacrifice; (2) God requires wholehearted and absolute obedience to His revealed will; and (3)There can be no valid excuse for disobedience.

How should we respond to these things? Let me suggest three things.

First, let us remind ourselves that if we would please God, we must obey His commandments, and therefore, we must know His commandments and keep His commandments. If we love God, we must keep His commandments, and we must keep His commandments out of love.

Secondly, let us understand that God requires wholehearted and absolute obedience, and there can be no valid excuse for disobedience. Therefore, let us cease to give excuses, but rather confess and repent of our sin, and then seek by the grace of God to keep his commandments. If you are a true believer, you have the Spirit of Christ indwelling you to enable you to keep His commandments cheerfully.

But finally, let us remind ourselves that none of us can keep God’s commandments as perfectly as we ought. Even believers fall short of the glory of God. But thanks be to God for the Lord Jesus Christ. Had it not been for Christ, we would all be without hope, for which one of us is not guilty of thinking we are more righteous than we really are? Which one of us has kept God’s revealed will perfectly? Which of us can say we do not have a King Saul in our hearts?

Thank God for Christ Jesus our Lord. Christ alone kept God’s revealed will for us perfectly in His heart and behaviour.

Let us remember that though God requires of us perfect obedience, we can never be saved by our perfect obedience because we can never obey as we ought to. Therefore, the only way we can have a righteousness that is acceptable to God is to be covered by the righteousness of Christ. Oh, may this demand of the Law shut us up to Christ to believe Him, receive Him and rest upon Him for our salvation. Amen.

—JJ Lim