Looking back to the interview between Saul and Samuel, after the first public transgression of the former, we cannot fail to be struck by terms in which the prophet administers his rebuke: “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee.”
Now it probably may strike many readers that “foolishness” is not exactly the term they would have employed in characterizing the conduct of the king. They would have thought of “presumption,” of “self-will,” of “distrust,” and other like terms—but scarcely of “foolishness.” But the prophet’s word is the right one after all. It goes to the root of the matter. Saul had acted foolishly. And why? Because he had not obeyed the voice of the Lord his God. The prophet knew very well that there are many foolishnesses in the heart of man; but in his view, and in that of all the sacred writers, the lowest depths of human foolishness—its most astonishing and incredible manifestation—was in disobedience to the Lord’s commandments. There are two kinds of fools prominently noticed in Scripture—the fool who denies that there is any God—“the fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” a text which suggests the remark that if he is a fool who says this “in his heart,” how much greater fool is he who utters that foolish thought. This is one. There is another—the fool who does not obey God, though he does not deny his existence. And yet, after all, these are but one. If we probe the matter closely, we shall find that there is scarcely more than an impalpable film of real difference between the foolishness of the man who says in his heart there is no God, and that of the man who does not render him obedience. One may as well believe there is no God, as not to obey him. Indeed the man who does not offer him true and heartfelt obedience, has no such real—no such practical—belief in his existence, as is of any use or value, or as will aught avail him at the last day. There are few, perhaps, who really believe all they suppose themselves to believe. There are none of us who distrust the existence of God—not one who would not shudder at the thought of saying, even in his heart, that “there is no God.” This is well. Granted that this is believed—what then? Devils also believe this, and are not saved—they only tremble. That which even devils believe without profit, will be of small advantage to us, if we believe it as devils do. Theirs is a cold and barren—barren, or fruitful only in fears—assent of the understanding. If ours be no more, we believe just as the devils do. In religion nothing is accounted real that is not vital. Men, no less than trees, are known by their fruits, and if a man’s belief in the existence of God be a real and living thing, it will be manifested by the fruit of obedience. It is impossible for any one to realize a distinct, and therefore a vital, and because vital true, conviction “that God is, and that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him,” without the understanding, the will, and the active powers being brought into a condition of submission and obedience to his will. The reality of our conviction must be tested by the degree of our anxiety to ascertain the will of the Lord, by our patience in awaiting its disclosure, and by the entireness of our obedience to it.
The foolishness of the man who denies that there is a God, is therefore more nearly allied than people are apt to think, to the foolishness of the man whose spirit is not in a state of obedience to his will.
To appreciate the intense foolishness of the disobedience of Saul, we should bear in mind the peculiar position in which the Lord stood to Israel. Whoever was king or judge—so long as the Mosaical constitution lasted, and so long as recognized means existed, whether by prophet, by priest, by Urim and Thummim, of learning his will on every national matter—He was the real sovereign of Israel. Now there were few, if any, ancient monarchies, the sovereign of which did no exact implicit, unreasoning obedience to his mandates. They might be obviously preposterous or mischievous—yet they were to be obeyed. Now, if a human king—a fallible mortal—expected this, if the ideas of the East acknowledged his right to this degree of submission—how much more might the Divine King of Israel expect in everything the most ready and cheerful obedience. There was here nothing to try or render difficult the obedience which wise and conscientious men must often have felt in rendering submission to earthly kings. The Lord could not, like them, have any special objects or interests to promote. It was impossible for him to have any other object in view than the essential welfare of his people. That might be true of many human kings, but they might err greatly in the measures taken to carry out their good intentions; and a well-meaning monarch, by his blunders in execution, might do more serious mischief than one of evil purposes and dispositions. But the Israelites had, or ought to have had, under all circumstances, the conviction not only that the Lord’s purposes towards them were good, but that his power of effecting these purposes was boundless, and that he could not err in the measures dictated by his infinite wisdom in giving them effect. There could be no ground for doubt, hesitation, or questioning, in regard to any of his counsels or mandates. They must be good—they could not be otherwise than best; and obedience became not only an imperative duty, but a most exalted and happy privilege, and distrust or disobedience beyond all conception “foolish.” Hence the great stress which is laid on the necessity of implicit obedience to the Lord’s commands, on the privileges of entire submission, and on the absurdity and wickedness of disobedience. The most eminent men in Scripture are those who entered most into this spirit. Look at the obedience of Abraham, of Moses, of Joshua, of whom it is emphatically remarked—“As the Lord commanded Moses his servant, so did Moses command Joshua, and so did Joshua; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord commanded Moses.” Jos_11:15. Look also at David. Eminent as were among men his personal qualities, it was not these, but his disposition to entire reliance upon the Lord, and of carrying out the designs and true principles of the government, by the most implicit obedience to his declared will—that rendered David “the man after God’s own heart.” He, more perfectly than any in high place, before or after, realized in his public, and indeed in his private capacity, the true duty and real privilege of submission and obedience; and it was on account of this more than with regard to his private character, which, with all his faults, was very lovely, that he was honored with this high distinction. The difference between him and Saul was that his heart was right—his public principle was right—though more than once, being still but dust, he fell into crime, and committed grievous mistakes; whereas Saul was wrong in public principle—wrong at heart, although his career was not altogether wanting in honorable actions, just sentiments, and heroic deeds.
But let us not think that obedience is less imperative to us, than it was under the old law. It is far more so; and disobedience, passive or active, is still greater foolishness than it was in the time of king Saul. God has now evinced the unfathomable depth of his love towards us, by yielding up his own dear Son to die upon the cross for our redemption. In this we have the pledge—the complete assurance—that he who spared not his own Son, will not fail to bestow upon us freely all things that are for our good, that he will forbid nothing but what would harm us, and command nothing really hard or difficult—nothing but what we should ourselves most intensely desire, were our eyes wholly purged of earth, to see as he sees. Let us, therefore, with willing hearts obey all his commands, and cheerfully submit to all his appointments. In the annihilation of self-will, and in the temper of implicit devotedness, may we, as to every duty, say, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” And as to every event—“Here I am; let him do what seemeth him good.”