If you want to have a pure life and therefore a clear conscience, you have to deal with remaining sin. The question is, how? I want to borrow an illustration or analogy from the Old Testament that may help give us a vivid picture.
Look at 1 Samuel 15. This great story is meant to teach us the seriousness of sin and the righteousness of God’s holy wrath against it:
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Yahweh sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; so now, obey the voice of the words of Yahweh. Thus says Yahweh of hosts, ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, infant and nursing baby, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’…
So Saul struck the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he seized Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword. 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 they were not willing to devote them to destruction; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.” (1 Samuel 15:1-2, 7-8)
Now, Saul was chosen because he was head and shoulders above the people. The Lord agreed to let them have the man they wanted, but there was a caveat. If he was going to step into this role, he would be in a position where he was ruling the people of God, and therefore needed to listen to God, their true sovereign.
Now, God’s command to Saul regarding the Amalekites was very clear. Saul was to kill not only the men but all the women, the children, the babies, and then he was to kill all their animals. The whole tribe was to be utterly and mercilessly taken out of existence. No hostages were to be taken, and the implication is no spoils either. Now the question immediately arises: Why would a God of infinite love, and mercy, and grace mete out such a severe judgment on a pagan tribe?
Let me see if I can answer that question for you. The Amalekites were an ancient nomadic tribe that occupied southern Canaan. They were descendants of Esau and thus out of the line of promise, as Genesis 36:12 indicates. They were the perennial enemies of the Jews. Remember when the Jews approached the land of Canaan initially, they were afraid to go into the land? In fact, they balked and disobeyed God because they were so intimidated by the frightening ferocity of the Amalekites They were the same tribe who had, as is alluded to here, attacked Israel at Rephidim. This was shortly after the famous battle in Exodus 17 when Aaron and Hur had to hold up the arms of Moses so that victory could come.
And they had engaged in the war against the Israelites in a very cowardly way. As we’ll read about later, they attacked the rear of this mass that was moving out of Egypt into the promised land. They attacked the stragglers. Old people, little children, pregnant women, crippled people, anybody weak. They had ambushed Israel, massacring all of the stragglers and working their way up until finally battle was engaged. It was an expression of their viciousness, their hatred of God. And God delivered Israel that day. The Amalekites fled into hiding. And in the conclusion of the battle, in Exodus 17:14, God swore this to Moses: “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” He was so committed to this that He made this vow a part of the Mosaic Law in Deuteronomy 25.
And when you come to 1 Samuel 15, God says now that Israel has a king, it’s time for the action to take place. Saul and his armies were to be the instrument through which God would carry out this holy execution. But Saul’s obedience was only partial. Motivated by covetousness, by the love of money, they kept all the best animals and possessions. They didn’t even do a thorough job of executing the Amalekites. And worst of all, they spared Agag, the king.
Why would Saul be so blatantly disobedient? Well, it wasn’t just materialism; in this case it was pride. Here was a marauding monarch of this tribe, known to everybody as the greatest fighter, warrior, and victor. Saul was going to show his mighty power by holding up the trophy Agag and saying, “Look who I defeated.” It was an evil heart on Saul’s part to blatantly disobey God. But the sin was so serious that God immediately deposed Saul and all of his descendants forever from the throne.
Now go down to verses 32-33:
Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag near to me, the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him in chains. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death has departed.” But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before Yahweh at Gilgal.
It’s a rather sickening scene, isn’t it? It was God who commanded it to be done. Samuel was no soldier. Samuel was a priest. But unlike Saul and the rest of the Israelites, Samuel carried out the Lord’s commands.
This is a tremendous insight into God’s attitude toward sinners, and His holiness and wrath against sin. But I want to use it as an analogy of the sin that remains in the believer’s life.
When you and I were saved, there was at that moment a crushing defeat of sin. From one end to the other, east to west, north to south. But we still have remaining sins. We all have our Agags. And though there was a triumphant defeat at the time of our salvation, it is necessary that the remaining sins be hacked to pieces. Or, they will revive; they will plunder our hearts and sap our spiritual strength. We cannot be merciful with the Agags of our life. There is remaining sin residing in our unredeemed humanness, and it has to be followed up, found and destroyed. Until we do that, we’re never going to enjoy what Paul experienced in his bold confidence with a holy, sincere conscience.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1993, titled “Hacking Agag to Pieces.” In addition to serving as the pastor of Grace Community Church and the voice of Grace to You, Dr. MacArthur is the chancellor of The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. You can learn more about TMU at www.masters.edu.
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