The well-known phrase
“obedience is better than sacrifice” comes from 1 Samuel 1. In this part of the Bible, the prophet Samuel is confronting King Saul who seems to be ignoring God’s full commands.
1 Samuel 15:22 says: “And Samuel said, Has Jehovah delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, As in hearkening to the voice of Jehovah? Behold, obedience is better than sacrifice, Attention than the fat of rams.”
The Good News Translation puts it this way: “Samuel said, “Which does the Lord prefer: obedience or offerings and sacrifices? It is better to obey him than to sacrifice the best sheep to him.”
What Does Samuel Mean by ‘Obedience Is Better Than Sacrifice’?
The historical context of this verse is the kingship of Saul. He is the first king of Israel, and was known for his victorious battles against the enemies of Israel, including the particularly hostile Amalekites: “And he did valiantly and struck the Amalekites and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them” (1 Samuel 14:48). Around this time, Samuel came to anoint Saul and to bring him “the words of the LORD” (1 Samuel 15:1). God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites, not keeping anything for themselves.
Instead, “Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction” (1 Samuel 15:9). When Samuel confronted Saul on this disobedience, Saul shifts the blame to the people while saying that he allowed the saving the good things in order to sacrifice them to God as an offering. Samuel was not taken in by this rationalization. Instead, it is here that he said the words quoted above, with the main point that: “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). After this, Samuel and Saul separated, never to see each other again, “but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:34).
What Does the Bible Say about Obedience and Sacrifice?
The themes of obedience and sacrifice are found throughout Scripture. Animal sacrifice began in Genesis 3:21 when God clothed Adam and Eve with the skins of animals in order to cover their nakedness and foreshadow the way that Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice would cover sinners (see Genesis 3:15). Animal sacrifices were often part of making a covenant, including the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis, where we are told that God promised childless Abraham offspring that numbered more than the stars, “and [Abraham] believed the LORD, and [the LORD] counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
After giving the ten commandments in Exodus 20, God says to his people: “‘An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen’” (Exodus 20:24). Despite this expectation of sacrifice for the atonement of sin, God is frequently recorded elsewhere telling the Israelites that they were missing the point that these sacrifices were not an end in themselves. Indeed, the idea of sacrifice is internalized in many passages in both Old and New Testaments, making it nearly synonymous with the various aspects of obedience to God:
Psalm 51:16-17: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Proverbs 21:3: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”
Hosea 6:6: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Matthew 9:13: “‘Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
Philippians 2:17: ”Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.”
Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Hebrews 13:15: “Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.”
1 Peter 2:5: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Why Is Obedience So Important to God?
Obedience is very important to God. Jesus said to his disciples the book of John: “‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Elsewhere, John says: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2-3). God’s commands are given because he loves us. Sin promises power or peace but leads only to pain. But how is it possible to walk in obedience? Because of sin, this is impossible on our own. And even the sacrifices provided in the Old Testament to atone for sin were not enough to truly take it away:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4).
But when Jesus came, he offered himself once as a perfect sacrifice “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). While “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins…when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:11-14).
Because of Jesus’ work and the sending of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God at work in believers, a life of obedience to God’s commands is now possible and is summed up by “love.”
Ephesians 5:2: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
1 John 5:1-4: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
Obedience is very important to God because it implies a right relationship with him as our loving Father. But obedience is impossible for humans because of sin. Ever since the garden of Eden, God has been simultaneously reminding his children about the seriousness of sin but giving them a substitute in the form of sacrifice. Sacrifices were never meant to be an end in themselves but pointed to the foretold coming of Jesus, who through his perfect life and sacrificial death would once for all make atonement for sin and empower those born of Him to love, which represents the sum total of obedience to God’s commands and is also the means by which we obey them. Because of his obedience, we can obey, offering our very lives as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” as our “spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
A Prayer to Be Focused on Obedience
Father, my spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak. I say I want you to lead me, but often in the past, when You revealed Your will, I moved forward in half-hearted obedience or in disobedience. I know this did not please You, Father.
Please continue to transform my thinking as I spend time in Your Word and apply its truth to my life. Show me how I can obey You to the praise of Your glory. Give me greater discernment and a stronger desire to commit to Your plans. Make me more like Jesus in obeying You. I pray this in His name. Amen. (by Dawn Wilson, Prayers for Discerning God’s Will)