There is hardly any nation which has not had some especial public enemy—generally a near neighbor, which it was held to be a peculiar duty of patriotism to hate and to destroy. We need not name instances. It were difficult to find exceptions; and the reading and observation of every one will supply examples. Such sentiments between nations have generally their origin in bitter wars and ancient wrongs. Israel had many ordinary enemies, but the one marked out in this distinctive manner as the public enemy, were the Amalekites. This people had some kinds of settlements in the Sinai peninsula, and in the country south of Palestine and west of Edom; and being a people of semi-nomad habits, they appear to have been in the habit of wandering with their flocks over the intervening countries. With this location they came much in contact with the Israelites, always hostilely, during the forty years’ wandering. They opposed the Israelites after they had crossed the Red Sea, on their march to Sinai. They opposed and repulsed them also when they advanced to enter the Promised Land on the south; and, besides these recorded instances, there was probably a long succession of aggravating petty contests between them during the long intervening period of wandering, respecting which we have no account. It is, therefore, not wonderful that, according to ancient usage, the people of Israel solemnly doomed the Amalekites to utter destruction, whenever they should be able to wreak upon them all the fierce wrath which fired their hearts. This was in fact the same doom upon a nation which we have formerly seen inflicted upon a town in the case of Jericho.
This doom, incurred by the Amalekites in presence of the miracles, and the manifest tokens of the Divine presence which attended Israel’s march of mystery through the wilderness, had been not only unprovoked assaults upon Israel in the time of their weakness, but such acts of defiance of the Power by which they were seen to be protected, that the honor of his own great name, no less than his official guardianship of the chosen people, procured the Lord’s sanction of this devotement. It had not yet been executed. The Amalekites still kept up their ancient hostility to the Israelites; they had not by repentance sought to avert the execution of the sentence which hung over their heads, but rather derided the impotent hatred which had so long left unexecuted the threatened doom. They had thus kept their sentence alive—had not suffered it to sleep by lapse of time. The silence of the Scripture, which is, from great conciseness, confined in all that relates to foreigners to great demonstrative results, conveys an aspect of harshness to the seeming revival of an old and forgotten quarrel, and the punishment of ancient crimes upon new generations. It is more than probable, and more natural, that the Amalekites themselves had never suffered this hostility to sleep, or their doom to be forgotten. That they were forward, on every occasion that offered, to join in any aggressive warfare against Israel, we know. It is also easily understood that they allowed little peace to the southern Israelites settled on their borders, or to those who travelled, or were out with the flocks. Observation upon the occasional meetings and intercourse of adverse races in the East, will also suggest with all but the absolute certainty of written fact, that an Amalekite and Israelite seldom met without aggravating altercations. It seems to us as if we heard the Amalekite launching forth into such language as this: “Five hundred years ago, ye doomed us to utter destruction. Yet here we are. We are still alive—still we flourish under this terrible doom. Where is the great God of whom ye boast? His arm, it seems, is too short to reach unto us. We have not done aught to turn His fierce wrath aside. We have not bent the knee to you or to Him. We have done nothing to mollify you; rather we hate you, as much now as of old, and are as ready now as then to root you up. Think ye to appall by your curses the strong men your arms cannot subdue. We do defy you and your idle doom. Do it, do it.”
The time of long-suffering—in this case very long-suffering—had at length passed, and the time of accomplished doom was come. It might have been executed by famine or pestilence; but although the Israelites might have ascribed this form of judgment to the proper source, the neighboring nations would not, and therefore judgment of extermination was committed to the sword of Saul, who, as king, would at once be recognized as the authorized fulfiller of the ancient devotement.
Some years had passed during which Saul had distinguished himself in the field by a series of always successful operations against the hostile nations around, whom he taught to respect the power of Israel, though he did not bring them under subjection. It would appear that in all these proceedings he acted much as an independent sovereign, without the required indications of his dependence upon the Divine King of Israel.
One trial more was to be afforded him—one more test of his obedience, before the sentence of exclusion from his dynasty was finally pronounced. He was commanded, through Samuel, to march against the Amalekites, and execute to the letter the ancient doom of devotement—of utter extermination—against them and theirs. If he had power to execute it—and power was given to him—whatever was spared became, according to the tenor of the old vow, as much “an accursed thing,” as in the days of Jericho. Saul undertook the task: but he executed it entirely according to his own judgment of what was expedient and proper. He felt no objection as to any cruelty in the command, for he executed it fiercely upon all the people of the Amalekites who came within the scope of his expedition. He destroyed them utterly with the edge of the sword. But the king Agag, who fell into his hands, he spared—being the very person most obnoxious to destruction, as being, officially at least, the chief offender; and this assuredly not from any sentiment of pity, but for the vain-glory of possessing and displaying so illustrious a captive. So of the spoil: whatever was worthless or immovable was destroyed, but the best and choicest of everything, especially of the flocks and herds, was spared. In this conduct, however otherwise interpreted, Saul assumed to himself such large discretion in the execution of a positive commandment, and was so much in accordance with all his conduct—so manifested the fixed bias of his mind towards autocratic power, that his unfitness to become the founder of a line of theocratic kings could no longer be disputed, and his own doom was sealed.
The vain-glorious character of Saul was further evinced in his homeward march, by his setting up a monument of his exploit at Carmel—thus appropriating to himself all the honor of the success, a thing most offensive under the peculiar principles of the Hebrew government, and such as no other king ever ventured to do. Compare the spirit which this evinces with the constant and heartfelt dependence upon God, and the formal ascription of all honor and glory to Him, evinced in the Psalms and the history of David—a far greater conqueror than Saul.
Yet when Samuel came to join him at Gilgal, on his return, Saul had the confidence to meet him with the assurance that the task committed to him had been perfectly accomplished. “What meaneth then,” asked Samuel, “this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” Without awaiting the answer, the prophet, who saw through the whole transaction, and had received his commission before he set out, proceeded to denounce his conduct, reminding him that “when he was little in his own sight,” he had by the Lord’s free appointment been made heard over all the tribes, and anointed king over Israel. Yet he had become exalted in his own esteem, and in this and other instances had forgotten his fealty to Jehovah, and acted in disobedience to his express commands, But Saul persisted that he had obeyed, seeing that, as he now insinuated, the spoil had only been reserved for sacrifice to Jehovah, This we take to have been a gross attempt to bribe the Lord, under a most offensive misconception of his nature and character, to acquiesce in the exemption he had made. For, although stated as an original motive, it is palpably an afterthought suggested by the stringency of Samuel’s rebuke. This is proved out of Soul’s own mouth; when the prophet met this subterfuge by the indignant and noble rebuke: “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;” the king shifted his ground, and urged that the army would not consent to the destruction of the spoil—that is, would not forego the beneficial interest they had in the distribution of it, which is quite different from the reason previously given. But, had it been a truth, it would, on the view taken by Samuel, have been no extenuation of the offence. The prophet then pronounced the irrevocable sentence: “Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” This brought Saul down from his high tone. He confessed that he had sinned, and without remonstrating against the sentence passed upon him—the justice of which his conscience probably admitted for the moment—he implored Samuel not to suffer the fact of their disagreement to appear, but to turn and take part with him in a public act of solemn worship. Samuel refused, and when the king took hold of his mantle to detain him, and it rent in his hand, the prophet, with great readiness, turned the incident into an illustration of his doom: “The Lord hath rent the kingdom from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbor of thine that is better than thou.” Satisfied, however, that he had discharged the painful duty committed to him—for it was painful, as he had much personal feeling in favor of Saul—he did turn, and worshipped the Lord with him.
Samuel then felt that he had another stern duty to perform. When the Lord’s sentence had passed, it was not for the future kings of Israel to think that they possessed a dispensing prerogative, and the neighboring princes had to learn that there was in Israel a Power higher than the throne, to which even the kings were accountable. This had been far from the thought of king Agag. Since the king had spared him, he thought there was nothing more to fear—the bitterness of death had passed with him. So he intimated, when he was brought before Samuel, who, as judge and commissioned prophet, took upon himself the stern and terrible duty of exacting the long-stored vengeance for Israel which the king had wilfully neglected. Samuel answered: “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.” He was then forthwith stricken down and slain by the sword. The text would intimate that this was done by Samuel’s own hand, and although it is rightly alleged that in Scripture men are often described as doing what they ordered to be done, it is not improbable—having due regard to the habits of the East and the notions of ancient times—that the common interpretation is the right one. Samuel might deem it an honor to execute with his own hand the full judgment which had been neglected by the man to whom the sword had been entrusted. If it be urged that this act is contrary to the idea of Samuel’s character which his previous history has conveyed, the answer is, that mild natures like his are often, when thoroughly roused into high excitement, capable of stronger deeds than men of habitually harsher temper.
Samuel then repaired to his home, and he and Saul never met by agreement again. Saul was left alone from that time. His doom was fixed; and he was left to work it out. Alas, for him!