1 Samuel 15:23 – “For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”
Most are familiar with King Saul, the first King of Israel. He was a man who at first glance would have seemed to be a perfect fit for this position. He came from a wealthy family, was a man of high stature, and apparently good looks. Perhaps he was the Kennedy of his day. Despite all those outward qualities, his life was full of continued rebellion against God’s commands, ultimately resulting in his demise as the King and subsequent suicide.
1 Samuel 15:23 strikes right to the heart of what seemed to constantly derail King Saul, namely the sin of rebellion, an attitude we all quite often fall prey to if we were honest. In this post, I will explore what rebellion looks like, how it is related to the equally nefarious attitude and practice of divination, with particular attention paid to how we can fight against this perniciously sinful attitude.
First, let’s take a second to define the term of rebellion as used in 1 Samuel 15:23. The word used in 1 Samuel 15:23 is translated as rebellion. It is the Hebrew noun mĕriy meaning simply “rebellion.” To grasp what this term means, we can look at the root word from which it is derived, namely the Hebrew verb marah, meaning “to be contentious, be rebellious, be refractory, be disobedient towards, be rebellious against; to show rebelliousness, show disobedience, disobey.” Marah was used to describe the waters that came forth from the rock at Meribah when Moses responded to the grumbling and contentious attitude of the Israelites by striking the rock. One can quickly see what rebellion is all about, specifically the attitude of grumbling and disobedience to one in authority.
When looking at the life of King Saul, this spirit of rebellion becomes quite apparent. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for King Saul came when he once again disobeyed God’s clear command. The particular situation noted in 1 Samuel 15 is when King Saul refused to eliminate the Amalekites included their livestock completely. He took it upon himself to skirt God’s commands by sparing the life of the Amalekite king as well as the choicest of their livestock. He compounded his sin by lying to Samuel, a combination of actions that resulted in God turning His face from Saul. There is no sadder situation that to find yourself rejected by Almighty God.
Another interesting element of 1 Samuel 15:23 is the statement that “rebellion is as the sin of divination.” Essentially, Samuel is equating rebellion as being no different than divination, sometimes translated as witchcraft. The word translated as divination or witchcraft is the Hebrew qecem meaning “to practice divination, divine.” What is being “divined” is guidance from an authority other than God or His Word. For King Saul, his rebellion was nothing more than divining guidance based on selfish motives. Apparently, he believed that obeying God’s commands was unnecessary if done for the “right reason.” Saul figured he would be able to cover his blatant disobedience by offering the spoils he kept as a sacrifice to God, an action God completely rejected. What God desired was obedience rather than sacrifice. Instead, of having a heart after God; Saul had a rebellious heart, one that yearned to be THE ultimate authority, an attitude that comes from the Enemy who himself is permeated within by the spirit of rebellion against God. Ronald Youngblood aptly notes, “Selfish refusal to submit to the commands of the sovereign Lord results in slavery to malign forces in the demonic realm.”
God was blazingly clear to the people of Israel as to His approach to those who practiced divination. Since rebellion is noted as being like divination, it is important to emphasize what God said about this practice.
The following passages provide a sampling:
“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer” (Deut. 18:10)
“And they caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and soothsaying, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger.” (2 Kings 17:7)
“And the LORD said to me, “The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart.” (Jer. 14:14)
It is quite clear from these passages that the practice of divination was an abomination to God.
Rebellion also receives chastisement from God throughout Scripture. One passage in particular that describes the spiritual condition of those who dwell in the spirit of rebellion is Psalm 68:6 which states:
“God sets the solitary in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity; But the rebellious dwell in a dry land.”
The Psalmist paints a rather vivid mental picture in this passage noting the life led in rebellion against God is the same as living in a dry land. The concept of a dry land as outlined in this passage specifically refers to a place that has been scorched where no growth or essence of life resides. Such a life is in stark contrast to the life of the righteous noted in Psalm 1:3:
“He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper. “
Unlike the one with a rebellious spirit who rejects God’s commands, the righteous man delights in the law of the Lord. It is this delight in the word of God that results in a life that is planted by rivers of water and that bears fruit. What is this river of water one may ask? We can begin to find out what this means by looking at John 7:38 – “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” So first off to have rivers of water flowing from your life requires a faith in Christ. The wicked then are those who live in the dry land.
Isaiah 44:3 declares “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.” Once again we see this contrast between a land that is dry (a rebellious land) and rivers of water poured out on those to whom God has granted His Holy Spirit.
Isaiah 58:11 continues this them by noting “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” Sustenance and life are found only in the Lord who gives us strength. He is the one who provides us with the life-giving water through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some practical ways we can avoid a rebellious spirit are:
1) Seek after God and His will – Since a rebellious spirit comes directly from the enemy, it is evident that to combat rebellion in our lives and to reject any element of the spirit of divination requires the work of the Holy Spirit, molding and shaping our hearts to yearn after God. Rebellion is devoted to self, the emergence of “I” in opposition to yielding self to God’s perfect will. Dealing with rebellion requires “I” be removed from our spiritual alphabet to be replaced by the word “You” with the declaration “It is you, Lord, I desire to glorify and obey.”
2) Acknowledge God’s sovereignty – “I” desires to be lord in opposition to God’s sovereignty. The child of God must dedicate themselves to what Paul notes in Galatians 5:24:
“those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
The Puritan divine John Owen described this as mortifying the flesh. To belong to Christ means we are in a relationship with a holy God. Rebellion, a construct of the flesh with its God hating passions and desires, must be put off and replaced by a heart that seeks after God. This is accomplished through the work of the Holy Spirit writing God’s word on our hearts. When we acknowledge God’s sovereignty, we see His proper place as Lord of our lives, and in turn, we recognize that we are the Creation, not the Creator. That posture places us in the proper position to be molded and shaped with God deftly removing the sin of rebellion from the clay of our lives. We no longer have a desire to serve other gods because we know the God we serve is THE Lord of all.
3) Put on the Full Armor of God – God provides the believer with armor by which we can resist the wiles and schemes of the enemy. Since the Garden of Eden, the enemy has used the age-old yet effective tactic of rebellion against God. When we don at all times the full armor of God, we can withstand the temptation to usurp God’s authority with “I.” As believers who are engaged in constant and fierce combat with the forces of evil in this world, we must daily put on the complete armor of God. Our Commander in Chief (God) has provided us with the tools by which we can engage the enemy. As with all manner of weaponry, they are only effective when used correctly and in concert with one another.
4) Repent of the Sin of Rebellion and Pray – If you are struggling with a rebellious attitude, it is time to repent and flee that youthful lust and passion. Repentance is far more than saying a quick prayer and then continuing to walk in that dreadful sinful habit. Conversely, repentance requires movement from a particular wrongdoing and movements towards righteousness. This movement towards righteousness cannot take place on your own strength. This is where prayer is so vital. We need God every minute of every day. Rebellion is a tough battle to fight for it is at the very root of all sin. It takes the work of the Holy Spirit replacing a rebellious attitude with love for God and His will to move from that place of darkness (rebellion) to a place of light (obedience). Prayer and the careful study of God’s Word are vital to this process.
5) Assess Your Surroundings – Often a rebellious attitude stems from what influences us. For instance, if you find yourself associating with those who display a rebellious spirit, it is likely time to evaluate those friendships. If you listen to music or watch programming that promotes a rebellious spirit, it is time to evaluate what you set your eyes and ears upon. It is vital to be around fellow believers who will lift you up in prayer, disciple you, and help you walk in the ways of the Lord. Proverbs 13:20 reminds us “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.” Those who are rebellious against God fall into that category of “fools” so find yourself a man or woman of God who is wise, someone who can mentor you and walk beside you.
Rebellion is a work of the enemy. Engaging in a rebellious attitude against God, and His will is the same as saying you embrace the enemy rather than hiding in the shadow of Almighty God. May we reject the sin of rebellion and the many ways it reveals its ugly head in our lives. Seek after the things of God, draw near to Him, read His word, pray, put on the full armor of God, and surround yourself with godly men and women. In doing so, you will be equipped to put off the fleshly desire to thumb your nose at God which is the sin of rebellion.
 Ronald Youngblood. “Commentary on 1&2 Samuel” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol.3: Deuteronomy through 1&2 Samuel. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 677.