What right did Samuel have to indict Saul with the declaration, “To obey is better than sacrifice?” That may seem like a very odd question: the context clearly says that the word of the LORD descended upon Samuel; he spoke with the authority of the LORD. But the Law itself, in Deuteronomy, states that prophecies must be tested. Even if a “prophet” predicts an event that comes true if he then attempts to draw people away from the Lord then he is a false prophet. A true prophecy must be consistent with previous precedent. Where then can the precedent for Samuel’s jarring statement be found? Does Samuel’s indictment minimize the God-ordained system of worship, the sacrificial system that permits a holy God to reside with an unholy people?
The clearest precedent for Samuel’s prophecy, I believe, is found in the Levitical laws for the peace offering in Leviticus 7:11-18. There are three types of peace offerings: the thanksgiving offering, the votive offering in fulfillment of a vow, and the freewill offering. The last, the freewill offering, is occasioned by the worshiper’s desire to share a fellowship meal with his LORD. He is under no obligation to make this offering. It is motivated simply by a desire to express love to God. The regulations for the freewill offering detail which portions of the meal belong to the worshiper and which to the LORD. The meal may last two days; whatever is left on the third day must be roasted with fire. “So if any of the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offerings should be eaten on the third day, he who offers it will not be accepted, it will not be reckoned to him. It shall be an offensive thing, and the person who eats of it will bear his iniquity” (18).
So, even a well-motivated, worshipful sacrifice becomes sin if the law for that sacrifice is not obeyed. Sacrifice can be a sin if not shaped by obedience. Obedience is the priority. Thus, the precedence for Samuel’s prophetic claim, “To obey is better than sacrifice,” is found in the laws of sacrifice.
This is just one (relatively obscure) example of the beauty of Scripture, its internal consistency and coherence. And, it provides an example for our method in reading the Scriptures: looking in later parts for references or allusions to earlier ones. This is especially important for those of us who profess to be Christians. We must see how Christ fulfills the Old Testament scriptures in detail.