What Then Is This Bleating I Hear?

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Sometimes God rejects those who decide to sin rather than obey. This includes, apparently, even those He initially chooses. It is clear from Scripture that our choices have consequences when we choose sin over obedience to God. Here is the classical story about how King Saul fell from God’s favor. I find it instructive in many ways when trying to understand the actions of adulterous spouses and God’s heart toward marriages ravaged by such sin.

The story is found in I Samuel 15. I have excerpted pertinent verses from this passage (ESV) below:


And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”  (vv 1-3)

The word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. (vv 10-11)


And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the Lord. I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” And Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?”  (vv 13-14)


Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” (vv 24-26)

Fidelity in marriage is at a very low and basic level of expectation. And it is a clear commitment.

Most traditional marriage vows explicitly state this exclusivity expectation as “forsaking all others” and then close the vows with “until death do us part.” It is clear, simple, and upfront on the first day of the marriage. The whole congregation is witness to this expectation for lifelong exclusivity. And both spouses are to expect this from each other.

Such is the clarity we see in today’s passage: No mystery remains about what God expects from King Saul. The commandment given to King Saul is crystal clear: kill and destroy all. And, yes, this includes the sheep.*

Even with this clear commandment, King Saul fails to execute and then boldly lies to a prophet of God!

A true prophet of God, Samuel, does not accept Saul’s lies and attempt to blame shift on to the people (“Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of theLord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice.’” -I Samuel 15:24, ESV). Instead, he reminds Saul that the evidence is right there bleating in their ears.

King Saul chose sin over obedience to God’s clear word.

Then he comes and delivers the judgment of God. God rejects King Saul for rejecting His word. 

Oddly, I find this story comforting. It makes me think that God gives us choices, and relational evil can be avoided if people decide to obey God’s word.

But we have to decide to obey and accept full responsibility for our choices. 

While I may be a little too generous in my opinion (or naive as some may say), I like to think my first marriage started as King Saul’s initial tenure with God’s people began–i.e. it started full of hope and promise. God did not tell me not to marry her. So, I went ahead and did so. We had much hope for a future of serving God together.+

I offer this to those who are struggling with the marriage narrative: How could something start with such promise end so horribly? Do I have to believe the marriage narrative that it was doomed from the start? Could my adulterous (ex) spouse have never chosen otherwise?

I believe adulterous spouses could have chosen otherwise. This is why I believe Samuel grieved angrily for Saul as many of us have grieved over our spouses choosing adultery (I Samuel 15:11). It need not have ended this way. They were given clear instructions not to commit adultery on their wedding–i.e. they freely chose to say the vows espousing lifelong exclusivity.

Yet, they chosen sin over obedience to God just as King Saul did.

And like this story, I see how God sometimes chooses to reject those who have chosen to reject Him. In other words, God chooses to honor the sinner’s choice to serve another. He is willing to reject those who reject His clear commandments. I think this is true in marriages as well.

Marriage is a gift from God just as our health is a gift. We do not earn it. However, we can ruin it through our poor choices just as we can ruin our health. Adultery is one way to destroy that gift. Divorce acknowledges that it is destroyed and provides a merciful ending for the faithful spouse (e.g. Jeremiah 3:8).

This principle of God honoring our choices is found at the end of Deuteronomy:

If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…. – Deuteronomy 30:16-19, ESV

God is unequivocal in His expectation for fidelity in marriage throughout the Bible (e.g. Deut 5:18, 22:22, Ex. 20:14, Mt 19:18, Heb 13:4, etc.). To expect this in a marriage is godly and proper.

Furthermore, God is clear through Prophet Samuel’s example not to accept blameshifting from those who have obviously transgressed God’s obvious commandment.

The one who sins is responsible for the sin.

The adulterous spouse alone is responsible for the adultery.

May more straight-shooting  “Samuel”s arise in our churches willing to call adulterous spouses to account for their sins!

And may we be a holy people who choose life over death.

Obedience over sin.

And fidelity over adulterous betrayal.


*This commandment to kill all from God might struck us as barbaric today. However, this was a common practice for the peoples in the area. They would kill all as an offering to their deity. Similarly, we would probably consider it  barbaric to take literal “an eye for an eye.”

+ Here’s another lesson I learned: Be careful not to interpret God’s silence as approval or encouragement to take a course of action.