This past month, I have been on a roll with the theme of obedience and today I share the lessons I have learnt on obedience by looking at four different biblical characters: Moses, Saul, Gideon, and the unwilling son. For almost a year now, I have been ruminating on the parable of the unwilling son and what the implication of that story might be. And as I have followed the Israelites on their journey to the promised land, this story seems to be more relevant.
The parable of the two sons can be found in Matthew 21:28-32. The gist of the story is of a man with two sons who told them to go work in the vineyard. The first son refused, but later obeyed and went. The second son initially expressed obedience, but actually disobeyed and refused to work in the vineyard. The son who ultimately did the will of his father was the first son because he eventually obeyed. As I have studied obedience from this parable and through the lives of the Israelites, my biggest lesson has been that obedience is about the heart. Actions matter, in fact what we do matter a lot! But the state of one’s heart is even more important than what we do. King Saul, the first king of Israel is a perfect example of this lesson.
God had instructed that all the nations that the Israelites conquered be completely destroyed (people and livestock alike) but when Saul defeated the Amalekites, he decided to spare their king, Agag and keep the choicest animals for sacrifice to God. One might hear this story and think it was noble thing that Saul had done but God was not pleased. He rebuked Saul sternly,
“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams”
The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”1 Samuel 15:22 NLT and 1 Samuel 16: 7b NIV
Apart from the fact that the All-knowing God knew that one day, a descendant of King Agag named Haman would make it his life’s mission to wipe out all the jews from the face of the earth when he demanded the total destruction of the foreign nations, he was more concerned with the state of the heart of Israel’s ruler. A heart of obedience was a prerequisite for a long and fruitful reign (Deuteronomy 17:19). Saul’s grand gesture of saving the choicest livestock and sacrificing them contravened God’s edict and was in direct violation of the priestly mandate. His intentions did not matter, his actions even mattered less- because God saw his heart and he dishonored God in his heart and that cost him a great deal.
Moses was another person who dishonored God in his heart and it cost him greatly. Forty years had passed since the Israelites left Egypt to go to the land that the Lord had promised them. After camping in Kadesh, they ran out of water. When the people complained to Moses and Aaron, the Lord commanded Moses to speak to a rock so that water would miraculously gush from it. Instead of obeying the Lord, Moses chose to deliver an angry lecture to the people and then strike the rock twice with his staff. I have always wondered what was so bad about Moses hitting the rock with his staff when God had asked him to speak to the rock. Surely the Israelites deserved the stern rebuke! Why did his actions cost him the promise land even though the rock produced water? Well, scriptures clues us in that it was not so much about what he did as it was about his heart in that moment. Moses dishonored God in his heart and that spilled over into his angry outburst and actions. That is what God punished… the dishonor.
“…for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes.”Numbers 27:14 NIV
Many times, obedience is perceived with a “do not question; do as you are told” mentality. However, if obedience is more about the heart and less the actions, then there is opportunity to seek clarification and ask questions of God when we do not understand what is being asked of us. Gideon is a good example of this (Judges 6-8). I have been intrigued with the story of Gideon and how he appeared to question all of God’s directions without any repercussions. After carefully analyzing the story of Gideon, I conclude that even though he asked God to prove Himself over and over again, he never dishonored God in his heart through the process. His acts of questioning and clarifying were not acts of disobedience (dishonoring God in his heart) or blatant defiance and were actually welcomed by God. In this story, I see God respond to the frailty of humanity through tenderness. Gideon’s tests were designed to draw him into a deeper understanding of who God is and God indulged him.
An obedient heart may be one that has self doubt but says, “God, can you tell me some more about what you are asking of me?” “Can you show me what I ought to do and how I ought to do it?” An obedient heart may not always do the right thing but is quick to admit its wrongdoings and say “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me.” An obedient heart may not be one that jumps for joy when asked by the Father to work in the vineyard but still goes any way.
My prayer for you and for myself is for a heart of obedience… and as our hearts respond in obedience to the King, may our actions follow suit.