Yes, God Instructed Saul to Kill Infants and Children…

Saul has been spiraling out of control. His sin has been compounding. We have noticed the pattern of degeneration in his life. In the last passage, we were reminded that God chose Saul to deliver Israel from the Philistines and that, through Saul’s war campaign, God was inflicting punishment on the Canaanite nations because their sin had long grown to maturity. In fact, the Canaanite’s sin had been full-grown for 500-600 years by the time of Saul (cf. Genesis 15:13).

The passage this morning is a particularly troubling passage for anyone who considers him or herself to be a moral person. This passage is the reason some accuse God of being a moral monster or a genocidal egomaniac. Like every other passage that we have seen, I simply want to break down this part of the story. I want to see what is really going on. I want to arrive at the correct interpretation of the passage. I want to make proper application. We will see if these accusations against God have any real foundation without plucking a single verse out of context and importing our presuppositions to the text. Is God a good Creator who patiently endures with His creation for the good of His people, or is He malevolent and genocidal?

1 Samuel 15:1-9

Then Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; now therefore, listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord 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 utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Then Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, 200,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 men of Judah. Saul came to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the valley.  

Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, go down from among the Amalekites, so that I do not destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the sons of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.

So Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt. He captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed 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 were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.

God’s command (v. 1-3)

Then Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you as king over His people, over Israel; now therefore, listen to the words of the Lord.

Samuel reminds Saul that he was chosen and anointed by God. Saul was not entitled to his position. He was not entitled to any blessings that might have come from God. God was not obligated to him. I think, maybe, we are often fooled into thinking that God is obligated, in some way, to us. So, we feel entitled in our relationships with Him. We picture such a reality in which God is working for us or working things out according to our plans and desires. We want church music to be a certain way. We desire control. We don’t like for our things to be changed. The Bible consistently gives us a different message. God owns Saul. God is sovereign. God gives and takes away according to His own plan. We are obligated to Him. Samuel instructs Saul, “…therefore, listen to the words of the Lord.” Since God is sovereign, all people are obligated to Him, to hear His words. We often want God to hear us, but how often to we take the time to really listen to Him? How often do we take the time to understand what He has revealed in His own word rather than read ourselves into the text? How often are we trying to defend our own thoughts about theology and morality rather than simply learning from our Lord? He is not obligated to us. We are obligated to Him. We fall short. That is why I am so glad God does not depend on us but delivers a people for Himself in spite of them according to His own will. 

Thus says the Lord 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.

In the previous passage, we saw why Saul was inflicting punishment on the Canaanite nations. God appointed Saul to deliver Israel from the Philistines, one of the Canaanite nations. God’s punishment upon the Canaanites traces all the way back to Genesis 9:25, when Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed and it was prophesied that Canaan would be under Shem’s hand. The Israelites are descended from Shem (Genesis 11:27). In Genesis 15:16, we saw God predict to Abraham, a descendent of Shem, that his descendants would come and receive the land of the Canaanites for themselves because the sin of the Canaanites would be complete. God’s bore with the Canaanites for 400 more years before the Israelites came out of Egypt and entered that promised land. It has been 900-1,000 years since God made this promise to Abraham at the current juncture in the story, and God is still bearing in some way with the Canaanites. But, the sin of the Canaanite nations was complete. They rejected God and generation after generation had grown in their own religion and worship of false gods. God was faithful in spite of the Canaanites’ unfaithfulness.

I want to expand on this for our purpose today, that we might gain a fuller grasp of what is going on. In Exodus 17:8-16, we saw the Amalekites come out to make battle against Israel after Israel escaped from Egypt and was in the wilderness. Perhaps they were aware of the prophecy God spoke to Abraham in Genesis 15 and wanted to proactively extinguish the threat to their existence. Instead of repenting and surrendering to God, they made war against God’s chosen nation. Of course, we know that the Amalekites have been cursed from the time of Noah. In Exodus 17:15-16, God spoke through Moses declaring that He would have war against Amalek from generation to generation. So, it was not only one generation of Amalekites who were cursed, but every generation was a reprobate generation—the explicit enemies of God in every generation following Noah’s curse against Canaan. When we get to Deuteronomy 25:19, God commanded Israel to, after she settled in the land of Canaan, blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Everything of Amalek was to be destroyed because the nations’s sin against God was full grown (cf. Genesis 15).

Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

Let me ask. Do you have a problem with this verse? Do you have any reservations when you read about God commanding the death of women, children, and infants? I do. Why would a loving and good God command the obliteration of an entire nation—men, women, and children? This verse is why so many people accuse God of being a genocidal egomaniac.

First, we remember that God has given the Amalekites almost one-thousand years to repent and turn to Him. He predicted that the sin of the nation would continue to increase despite His extended mercy during this span of time. Second, we recognize that the Amalekites actually initiated physical war against Israel even though God first predicted and ordained the destruction of the Amalekite nation as early as Genesis 9 (cf. Exodus 17). Third, we recognize something about God. He is covenantal in the way that He relates to His creation. His relationship to His creation is based on His declarations and achieve His glory alone. Remember, God is not obligated to people. People are obligated to God. This biblical doctrine, God’s covenantal relationship with His creation, helps us to understand so much about why God does some of the things that He does. It logically follows from the truth that God speaks all things into existence and sustains them by His word alone. Even the different sorts of relationships people have with Him are the result of God’s own declaration. There is not other feasible alternative if God speaks creation.

God mentions this through Moses in His Ten Commandments. Look with me at Exodus 20:4-6.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.

Since all people are obligated to God, God is rightly jealous. To follow after other things is iniquity against Him. We idolize many different things. When people worship things other than God, their sin impacts their children’s covenant relationship with God. Furthermore, our worship is not specifically about what we do. It is about our sincere affection. We either love God or hate Him. We see this in the regression of the Canaanite people. With Israel, we have seen God’s covenant faithfulness in action. When Israel strays and begins to worship idols, God brings them back to Him because Israel is His elect nation. Their love for God through the generations is the work of God. They love because He first loved them and chose them. God keeps is covenant on both ends through the generations. This does not mean that all those who are under God’s covenant of wrath are reprobate. Rahab was saved out of Jericho and married into the tribe of Judah. She became an Israelite and an ancestor of King David. Similarly, the physical covenant people of God are not all elect. The sons of Eli and Saul are reprobate according to the narrative in 1 Samuel. We consistently see God working in a covenantal way throughout the Biblical narrative. If parents are truly faithful to God, it is normative that their children will also be faithful to God because God preserves His people in a covenantal way. If parents are unfaithful to God, it is normative that their children will also be unfaithful to God because God is a rightly jealous God. God can and does break the cycle of iniquity because He is merciful. I always think it interesting that parents will want their children to believe in God but are not, themselves, devoted to God or active participants in Christ’s church. Parents will often idolize personal beliefs or works or money or rules or security or busyness, and are surprised when their children do not love Christ. It is, most often, because they did not really love Christ even if they referred to themselves as being somehow “Christian.” The faithfulness of a parent matters for children because God is a covenantal God. He preserves His people through the generations, preserving His elect from generation to generation despite our depravity. The good news is that even when parents fail or fall, God has the authority to save children according to His own purpose and plan.

This is why Paul can write in 1 Corinthians 7:14, 

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.

This doesn’t mean that an entire household is saved. It simply means that God shows His lovingkindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments. God relates to His creation in a covenantal way, according to His own declaration. Though this does not speak explicitly to the practice of paedobaptism (infant baptism), it is important for us to understand that this is why some (e.g. presbyterians) baptize their babies—to indicate that their children are part of the covenant people of God (i.e. His visible church). It does not indicate election to salvation. It indicates that the parents believe they are faithful, that they are active parts of Christ’s body in the local church, and that God has promised His lovingkindness to their children and that their children are sanctified (part of the covenant community) in the sense of 1 Corinthians 7. This differs from the official view of the Roman Catholic church in the sense that the baptism of infants grants membership in the church catholic and, therefore, grants salvation to the infant from God’s treasury of merit, to which the catholic church claims to hold the key. Nothing in Scripture, though, depends on baptism. That would be works based righteousness. So, we disagree entirely with the official Roman Catholic view. We do not contend against the presbyterian view, though we don’t see paedobaptism in Scripture as a sign of God’s covenant relationship with His visible church. We simply trust the words of Scripture. God loves those who love Him to the thousandth generation and visits the iniquities of those who hate Him on the third and fourth generation.

Saul’s war (v. 4-6)

Then Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, 200,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 men of Judah. Saul came to the city of Amalek and set an ambush in the valley. Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart, go down from among the Amalekites, so that I do not destroy you with them; for you showed kindness to all the sons of Israel when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.

Contrasted with the Amalekites who waged war against Israel during the Exodus, the Kenites were helpful. They became Israel’s allies and allies of God. The Kenites lived in Median and sheltered Moses, Moses married a Kenite and had a Kenite father-in-law named Jethro who offered sage advice (cf. Exodus 18:1-27, Judges 1:16). God did not wage war against the generations of Kenites as He did the Amalekites. Again, we see God’s covenantal relationship with His creation in action. He shows His lovingkindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Him. Again, this does not mean that every Kenite was elected to salvation. It means that the nation was shown lovingkindness from God as a nation through the generations following the Exodus.

Saul’s disobedience (v. 7-9)

So Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as you go to Shur, which is east of Egypt. He captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed 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 were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed.

Saul does not keep God’s command. He captures the king instead of killing him. He keeps the spoils of war even though those spoils were dedicated by God. Saul cares more about the progress, financial well-being, and provisions of his kingdom than about honoring the plan of God that has been in motion since Genesis 9 (or Genesis 1:1). Saul only destroys what he hates. We will see the same sort of covenantal relationship present when Saul and his sons are slain in 1 Samuel 31, even Jonathan who loves the Lord. Thus, we discover an important distinction about God’s covenantal relationship with His creation. Even when the idolatry of the parents is visited upon the children, it is not necessarily the case that the children are reprobate. In the same way, just because God’s lovingkindness is visited upon the children of those who love Him does not necessarily mean that the children are elected to salvation. God can be trusted with those results.

The type of physical warfare we see in this passage was particular only for the Amalekites in order to reveal what we have discovered about God. This isn’t necessarily transferable to other nations. This was in the works for a long time. We cannot apply this by screaming for America to straighten up or else God will strike! That is not a proper application of this text. The Amalekites were particularly set aside from Genesis 9 as God’s enemies. 

Instead, we make an appeal to grandparents, parents, and those who will one day be parents. This cannot be a works-based application either. We can’t say, “Do the right stuff and teach your children a certain way and things will be good.” That is not the Biblical message. Instead, we simply ask these questions, knowing that we can only love because God loved us first (cf. 1 John 4:19). It is not about our merit or about what we are doing specifically. It is about the object of our sincere affection.

  • Do you love God?
  • Is God your priority?
  • Are you dedicated to participating in the things of God because you love Him, not out of some sense that you might get something from Him?
  • Are there idols keeping you from following God as part of His true church?
    1. An idol is anything else that makes it onto our priority list with God and participation in the things of God.
    2. Not all local churches represent the true church. Some are addicted to lesser things like programs, music, personalities, numbers, or the works-based doctrines of men.
  • Are you discipling your children and grandchildren from a position of grace through faith, not works?

God is a rightly jealous God, and our whole hearts belong to Him alone.

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