It was the pragmatic thing to do. Given the situation, it was the best way forward. There was an enemy army at hand. There was a battle to be fought. And his army was becoming increasingly agitated by waiting to get in the game, some even “scattering from him.” He had to engage his men or he feared losing his men. But before he could do that, there were boxes to be checked. One of those was honoring the LORD and invoking His favor. And though that was to be done by another, given the reality of the situation Saul took matters into his own hands. He offered the burnt offering. And, says the Spirit through Samuel, he had done foolishly.
He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel. But Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people were scattering from him. So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the peace offerings.” And he offered the burnt offering. As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came. And Saul went out to meet him and greet him. Samuel said, “What have you done?” And Saul said, “When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the LORD.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you.”
(1Samuel 13:8-13a ESV)
Who’s gonna argue with Saul’s reasoning? He wanted to see the right thing done. He even knew it should be done in the right way. So, he waited for Samuel — for seven days! But when Samuel didn’t show, and as his men were increasingly going AWOL, it was time to get ‘er done! And so, he did what he thought was the practical thing to do. And the right thing was done, but in the wrong way. And it was foolishness.
The danger of noodling on the compromise of pragmatism is that you get labeled as a legalist. That you’re seen as a “letter of the law” guy and not a “freedom of the Spirit” guy. But despite the “danger”, as I hover over this passage, I can’t help but think there is direct instruction here about obedience. Doing what God says in the way God says it should be done. Not aiming for close enough because it’s good enough given that the circumstances make it seem enough in light of the realities of a situation.
The way of the Spirit is the way of faith. And it would have taken faith, dependence on God, for Saul to have waited for Samuel to arrive and do the right thing in the right way. Saul’s pragmatic reasoning and response was a reflection of a greater trust in himself than in His God. It showed he had a skewed view of the efficacy of burnt offerings — that somehow, they had value in and of themselves rather than as a reflection of the heart of the burnt offering offerer. Obeying God by doing the right thing in the right way is reflection of a heart tuned to God’s heart.
“But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after His own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”
(1Samuel 13:14 ESV)
A man after God’s own heart is a man who obeys God’s commands. Not to earn favor, but to exhibit faith. Not because it’s necessarily practical, but because it relies on God’s power. Not because it guarantees that things will play out as we think they should, but because we believe it will play out as God has sovereignly determined they should.
There’s a place for pragmatism. A place for discerning reality and determining a logical path forward for success. But not when it comes to matters were God has specifically revealed how to accomplish God’s work in God’s way. Not that the work won’t get done, or the victory won’t be won — for God is faithful and His grace is overflowing. But that, in our pragmatism, in our wisdom concerning how we think the God of heaven should do things given the reality around us, we end up being foolish. The work done, but our efforts wasted. The battle won, but the prize forfeited.
Father, give me clarity on those things I’m called to do in a way which You have determined. Keep me from leaning to my own understanding of how, practically, they can best be accomplished. Create in me a heart after Your own heart that I might walk in Your ways after Your way. Keep me from foolishness.
By Your grace. For Your glory.