To Obey Is Better Than To Sacrifice

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, July 20, 2008

          And Samuel said, “Has 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.” (I Samuel 15:22)

In the Word, “hearing” or “hearkening” signify obedience. These words have a far greater depth of meaning than simply receiving and interpreting sound waves. In the Word, to “hearken” means to hear the truth with the ear, receive it in the understanding, and immediately pass it on to the will where it becomes a part of your life. To see with the mind is to understand truth abstractly, but to “hearken” is to receive truth into the will itself, and make the truth a part of life, to understand, to will, and to act simultaneously. Hearkening is how the Lord’s will may become our own:

“It is the nature of the hearing to transfer what any one is speaking from his own thought into the thought of another, and from the thought into his will, and from the will into act” (AC 5017).

The story of Saul’s battle with Amalek is an example of a person who is able to “see” the truth with his understanding, but who has no desire to hearken to it, that is, to put the things that he knows into effect in his life.

The Heavenly Doctrine tells us that when the children of Israel insisted on being led by a king instead of being led by the Lord through the agency of the prophets and judges, they stopped being a “nation,” and became a “people.” This is not merely a matter of semantics, but has an important effect on the spiritual sense, for a “nation” represents a group of people who are in the state of charity, while a “people” represents a group who are in faith. Their choice to be led by a king instead of being led by the Lord, represents their desire to turn away from the life of charity and Divine leadership to a life of faith without charity, and being led by their own self-intelligence.

The Lord told Samuel to tell Saul to attack the Amalekites and to utterly destroy them. We wonder why He would give such a bloodthirsty command.     The underlying spiritual reason is revealed by the internal sense.   All Canaanite nations represent our various hereditary evils.   The nation of Amalek represents the cold, calculating falsities of interior evil. These are serious, deep falsities, quite unlike the milder falsities that are the result of ignorance.   The Heavenly Doctrine describes people in interior evil in this way:

“They who are in such evil study by every method and art to hide and hoard it under the semblance of what is honorable and just, and under the semblance of the love of the neighbor; yet still they devise nothing else within themselves than how they can inflict evil, and so far as they can, do inflict evil by means of others, taking care that it should not appear to be from them; they also color over the evil itself, that it may not seem like evil. The greatest delight of their life is to meditate such things, and to attempt them in concealment. This is called interior evil” (AC 8593)

It was the insidious, hidden nature of this interior evil that caused the Lord to command Samuel to tell King Saul and the people to utterly destroy Amalek, saying

“utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (1SA 15:3).

Even the apparently innocent elements of that evil had to be wiped out because they would serve as the seeds of the re-infection of interior evils. Thus, what appears to be a heartless, revengeful command can be seen as the only hope for destroying interior evil – to wipe it out completely. Thus, it is a command from the Lord’s Mercy and Divine Providence, for it looks to our eternal salvation.

King Saul was a fierce and powerful warrior. He had been commanded by the Lord to utterly destroy Amalek, and he had been warned by Samuel to hearken to the Word of the Lord. He fought hard, and it appears that he may have even taken delight in literally obeying the commands that seem so horrible to us, the destruction of even the women and children. However, when it came to destroying valuable animals, he could no longer compel himself to obey the Word of the Lord.

“But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were unwilling to utterly destroy them. But everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed” (1SA 15:9).

In general, animals represent delights.   Here, they represent the delights of doing things that are interiorly evil. The story is telling us that those who are in interior evil continue in their evil ways because of the delights they feel.

Because he was looking within himself for guidance, Saul was unable to understand that if he had followed the Lord’s commandments completely, his reward would have been far greater than a few sheep and oxen. The simplest delights of heaven are far greater than the greatest delights of the natural world.

Self-intelligence is a trap that catches us all from time to time because it can only see natural rewards. It take spiritual wisdom to see spiritual ends – which is why we need the Word. Self-intelligence affects us when we decide to turn away from God’s path and begin to blaze our own trail to heaven. Instead of shunning our evils as sins against God, we begin to pick and choose among them, shunning only those that can be easily given up because they are not that much fun, but making no attempt to shun the evils that bring us our greatest delights. Instead, we attempt to hide them, or try to make them look like they are somehow not evil at all by giving them innocent sounding names.

It’s not “adultery” – it’s an “affair.”   It’s not “stealing” it’s “creative accounting.”   It’s not “murder” it’s “termination with extreme prejudice.” And so forth.

The Lord told Samuel that Saul had not obeyed His Word completely, and Samuel grieved for his people, for he knew there would be a great punishment as a result of this failure to hearken to the Lord. Samuel went to Saul to carry his message from the Lord and to his astonishment. Saul greeted him by saying,

“Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord” (1SA 15:13).

Saul said this to Samuel with the din of the very animals that he had been ordered to kill ringing in his ears! Samuel confronted him with this evidence of his failure to obey the Lord, and the excuses began to flow. First, Saul said that he had saved the animals so he could sacrifice them to the Lord. He justified his disobedience with his self-intelligence. He said that since he had a good reason to disobey, it was not therefore disobedience. This is how interior evil tries to turn the truth inside out.   Samuel then asked Saul,

“Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do evil in the sight of the Lord?” (1SA 15:19)

It appears, from the letter, that Saul realized at this point that he had been caught in his lie, and he attempts to deflect the blame onto others.

“And Saul said to Samuel, ‘But I have obeyed the voice of the Lord, and gone on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and brought back Agag king of Amalek; I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the plunder’” (1SA 15:20, 21).

We see here in Saul’s actions the perfect example of the interior evil represented by Amalek. Saul clearly knows what he is supposed to do, but he did not really want to do it. He then began to use his own intelligence to weave a web of deceit, to make what was evil appear to be good. He carefully restates the command so that it sounds like he was supposed to save Agag alive. When that track failed, he began to twist the truth even more, and attempted to put the blame on the people. The people, we must remember, were Saul’s subjects, and, theoretically, he could have prevented the looting if he had wished to. He did not wish to, and then when it appeared that he might suffer a punishment for it, he tried to put the blame solely on them.

Whatever excuses Saul could come up with for his actions, he was going to be judged by the Word of the Lord as represented by Samuel.   A direct command from the Lord in the letter of the Word is not open to interpretation, no matter how much Saul might wish it – or how much we might wish it.

Then Samuel said:

“Has 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 you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.”   (1SA 15:22, 23)

Saul erred when he was faced with a situation beyond his understanding and he acted according to his selfish desires, ignoring the clear commandment of the Lord. He was no longer willing to be led, trusting in the Lord’s Divine Providence. He would not allow the Lord’s will to become his own by simply obeying the command from Samuel, and keeping his own desires out of it.

We all do this to some extent when we try to make simple things complex, and then reason around in them until they take on a form that can no longer be recognized as being from the Lord, but do suit our particular needs.

We are taught in the Heavenly Doctrine that influx is according to the receiving vessel. That means that if we shun evils as sins against God, and live according to the Word we can change our vessel and then the Lord will flow in with the appropriate good. We are taught that if we would only hold ourselves in order when we know from the Word that we should, the Lord will flow in in secret ways to change our loves, to build a new will in our elevated understanding; that we will eventually find ourselves loving to do the good that we had once had to force ourselves to do. All Saul had to do was obey, to destroy an enemy nation that he held totally in his power. Yet, he refused, and in refusing, lost everything. All we have to do is shun evils with the power that the Lord has given us over them. If we refuse this little thing, then we too will lose everything.

Saul did not hearken to the Lord’s word. He would not allow it to come into his will and thus into act. This then, is the key: that when we approach the Word of the Lord we must be aware that to be obedient we must not only “see” with our understanding, but also “hearken” to allow the Lord to speak to our understanding and will. If we, like Saul, try to live by truth alone, we will be judged by the truth alone. No one can stand innocent in the light of the Divine Truth untempered by the Divine Good. By Divine Truth alone, we are all condemned, but by the Divine Good, we can be lifted up.

“Salvation is of mercy, thus from the Divine Good; but damnation is when man refused mercy and thus rejects himself from the Divine good; wherefore he is left to the judgment of truth” (AC 6148).

To follow the letter of the Word alone is represented by making a sacrifice. That may have been sufficient for a representative of a church, as the Jewish Church was, but it is not enough for us. The Lord tells us that we are to hearken, to open our minds and hearts to the Lord’s will, for

“to obey is better than to sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (text). AMEN.


First Lesson: Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. {32} He spoke this word openly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. {33} But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” {34} When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. {35} “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. {36} “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? {37} “Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? {38} “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

Second Lesson: AC 3869 (port.)

  1. …Sight in the interior sense means the understanding and in the internal sense faith in the understanding…; and the reason why it has these meanings is that the essential nature of things comes to be seen by means of one’s internal sight and with the aid of this comes to be grasped by a kind of faith, though such as exists only in the understanding. When however things that are heard penetrate to the interior parts they too are converted into something similar to sight, for things that are heard are then seen interiorly. Consequently that which is meant by the sense of sight is also meant by the sense of hearing; that is to say, that which is of the understanding and also that which is of faith is meant. But the sense of hearing at the same time convinces a person that the thing is true, for it has an influence not only on the understanding part of a person’s mind but also on the will part, and so reaches more interiorly. That is to say, it reaches the will and causes that person to will that which he sees. This is why ‘hearing’ means the understanding of a thing and at the same time obedience, and why in the spiritual sense it means faith in the will.

[2] It is because these two – obedience, and faith in the will – lie thus within ‘hearing’ that these attributes are also meant in everyday speech by the phrases hearing, listening to, and paying attention to; for a person who ‘hears’ is one who is obedient, and ‘listening to’ somebody also means obeying him. For those entities which exist interiorly within something are sometimes included within the actual expressions a person uses when he speaks. These occur there because it is a person’s spirit which thinks and which grasps the meaning of the expressions used by others when they speak; and his spirit is in a way in contact with spirits and angels among whom the first beginnings of verbal expressions exist. What is more, the whole range of man’s experience is such that whatever enters in through the ear and eye, or hearing and sight, passes into his understanding, through the understanding into the will, and from the will into deed. So it is with the truth of faith. This first becomes the truth of faith present within knowledge, then the truth of faith within the will, and finally the truth of faith in deed, and so finally charity….

Copyright © 1982 – 2008 General Church of the New Jerusalem.
Page constructed by James P. Cooper
Page last modified September 27, 2009

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