The Subtlety of Self-Deception

“Samuel went to Saul, and Saul said to him, ‘Blessed are you of the Lord! I have performed the commandment of the Lord.’ But Samuel said, ‘What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?’ And Saul said, ‘They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and the oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.’ Then Samuel said to Saul, ‘Be quiet! And I will tell you what the Lord said to me last night.’ And he said to him, ‘Speak on.’” (1 Samuel 15:13–16)

1 Samuel 15.12 states Samuel, the prophet, rose early in the morning to meet up with Saul, Israel’s first king. Instead, Samuel heard that Saul went to celebrate at Carmel by erecting a monument for himself. Since Saul went to Gilgal instead of Ramah, he was probably attempting to avoid Samuel.

So, Samuel went to Saul for the purpose of confronting him. When they meet, Saul states that he kept the commandment of the Lord. It’s as if he knew that he would have to give an account of himself to Samuel, but he would rather put up monuments for himself than answer to the LORD’s prophet.

Samuel asks, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen I hear?” Samuel knows, but the question is meant to bring conviction upon the king.

Saul responds to the question in a way which shows he is self-deceived. He was commanded to kill the livestock belonging to the Amalekites. The LORD didn’t say anything about keeping the livestock in order to offer the animals for sacrifices.

Saul is very manipulative with his reply. That’s how we are when we don’t want to admit we are wrong. He says that he did destroy the rest of the animals as he was instructed, but the best of the sheep and oxen were saved. Only the best were saved and the rest, the great majority of the animals, were destroyed. Saul also is maintaining that the decision to keep the sheep and oxen wasn’t really his decision, but the people decided to spare them. He was basically saying, “Hey, Samuel, this was really out of my hands.” Saul didn’t see why he was wrong. He was a self-deceived manipulator and didn’t see it.

Samuel has had enough in the text. He tells Saul to be quiet. Samuel had cried out to the LORD all night. Now he will reveal to Saul what the LORD had said to him. Then, Saul replies with, “Speak on.” I will save the rest of what Samuel says for my next entry on this critical chapter in the Old Testament. I want to confine my thoughts here on self-deception. There are four clear warning signs of self-deception in our lives:

Misplaced Confidence

Saul really believed that he had kept the commandment of the LORD. However, his confidence was misplaced. We often display the same sense of misplaced confidence. Are we really putting to death all sin in our lives? We are commanded in the same way by the same God as Saul: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts” (Romans 6.12). Jesus said that if you right eye cause you to sin, pluck it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. That’s how radical we should be about all sinful thoughts and sinful activity in our lives (Matthew 5.29-30). But often, we have the same misplaced confidence that Saul had about sin. We actually believe we’re fine the way we are. We say what Saul said in self-deceit: “I have performed the commandment of the LORD.” It’s amazing to think that we can deceive ourselves into believing that we are doing what we should do and not doing what we shouldn’t. There is really no shame or sorrow for personal sin in our lives because we believe we are doing God’s will. Our confidence is misplaced.

Obvious Inconsistency

The fact that some of the animals were spared should have indicated that Saul is inconsistent. But self-deceit is misleading. The sounds of the animals betrayed him. His disobedience cannot be denied. Yet he does deny it. Samuel could say to you and me: “What then is this worldliness which is rampant in your churches today?” So many of us think we are consistently obeying the LORD. But our focus is temporal. It is on material things and useless information. We are addicted to social media. We squander time away with external activity and leave no time for inward reflection. We might not be involved in terrible sins, but we worry about the mortgage or what people think. We cannot see the obvious inconsistency in us.

Empty Excuses

Saul decided to shift blame on the people. He cannot control them as a leader. As a matter of fact, he says that they are the ones who disobeyed God. “The people took of the plunder” (21) and “I feared the people” (24) indicate that Saul believed he had to go along with them. We offer similar excuses. We obey the whims of people in opposition to the will of God. We run with the crowd and do the same evil they do. Will we offer these empty excuses and really be able to deceive the Lord Jesus at His judgment seat? Self-deceived people offer empty excuses for their behavior.

Powerless Lives

The Lord Jesus was rejected by men; Saul was rejected by God. It’s not up to Saul to decide how to obey God. Nothing was left up to him. We don’t get to call the shots either. If we do, we can expect God will reject us as well. We don’t have liberty to pervert the will and word of God. We are bound to the will and word of God so that we might have freedom over sin. Powerless lives are the norm in our world today. We are so accustomed to a powerless life, we wonder what a powerful life looks like. Verse 23 gives us the final outcome: “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.” What a lonely isolated place for us to be. So far from God and His liberating will for our lives. At first, we believe the voices telling us that our views of God’s commands are too strict and narrow, too difficult to keep. It’s a dangerous thing to dispute God when you’re supposed to obey Him. Our obedience can never go half-way; it needs to go all the way.


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