Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why Obedience is the First Law of Heaven

During Saul's tenure as the king of Israel, he received a command to commit genocide against the Amalekites. For the most part, Saul fulfilled this commandment, killing "man and woman, infant and suckling" (I Sam. 15:3). However, he failed to kill "ox and sheep, camel and ass," sparing the "best" Amalekite livestock for a burnt offering to God (I Sam. 15:3, 15). Not interested in the sacrifice of animals he'd commanded Saul to slaughter, the Lord sent Samuel to relieve Saul of the kingship for his disobedience with this memorable phrase: "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (I Sam. 15:29).

This verse, one of just twenty-five Old Testament verses that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages its juvenile Sunday School students to memorize, sends a very clear message: obedience is the first law of heaven. If you're not obedient, then it doesn't matter what other good qualities you might have, what other goods deeds you might do; to paraphrase Paul, "though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, , so that I could remove mountains, and [act not obediently], I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body too be burned, and [act not obediently], it profiteth me nothing" (I Cor. 13:2-3). In chastising Saul, Samuel makes it very clear that God values obedience above all else. What he doesn't explain is why obedience matters so very much. From my own mortal perspective Saul's sacrificial intent sometimes seems like a good--or at least a thoughtful--idea. So why, exactly, is strict obedience the first law of heaven?

Samuel doesn't do a great job of explaining the logic behind the Lord's decision to depose Saul, but a later prophet's words shed some light on the matter. Hosea complains that Israel, "like men, have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me" (Hosea 6:7). In response, God expresses his displeasure by repeating and paraphrasing the explanation Samuel gave to Saul: "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6). Hosea's words echo Samuel's but with one key difference: he replaces obedience with mercy (or charity). Hosea's substitution might seem to substantially alter the original sense of Samuel's injunction to obey, but during his mortal ministry Jesus Christ--speaking here to Hosea as Jehovah, so he would know--explained the connection between obedience and mercy or charity, between Samuel's words and Hosea's.

On a Sabbath walk through a field of grain Jesus' disciples "were an hungered, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat" (Matt. 12:1). The Pharisees complained to Jesus that his followers had broken the Sabbath, and Jesus replied that "if ye had known what [Hosea] meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt. 12:7). The Pharisees take Samuel's position--'Obedience above all else!'--and Jesus responds by suggesting that the Pharisees have missed the point of Samuel's emphasis on obedience, that they have failed to understand Hosea, who explains why obedience is the first law of heaven. Christ demonstrates Hosea's meaning by healing a blind man on that very same Sabbath and asking, "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?" (Matt. 12:11). We reflexively interpret this scripture as a justification for hauling our own sheep out of the mire on Sunday--but that's not Christ's point at all. The point is that he--the creator of the Sabbath day--has used it for its original purpose, to bless the lives of his sheep. As he explains in a parallel account of the same incident, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The Joseph Smith Translation of these verses adds that "the Sabbath was given unto man for a day of rest; and also that man should glorify God, and not that man should not eat" (JST Mark 2:26).

From God's perspective the purpose of our obedience--the why behind Samuel's stern words to Saul--is a desire to bless us, to act with mercy towards us. If the Pharisees had recognized the merciful intent of his command to honor the Sabbath and to rest on that day, Jesus suggests, they would not have construed it as an injunction to refrain from eating "food . . . prepared with singleness of heart" (Doctrine & Covenants 59:13). Obedience is the first law of heaven because obedience is the only way we can qualify ourselves for the mercies Jesus Christ desires to bestow on us, because "[t]here is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated--and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:20-21). The Lord desires mercy and not  sacrifice, obedience and not self-appointed suffering, because only our obedience will allow him to (justly) dispense the blessings he desires us to have.

If Saul had only understood the rationale behind Samuel's explanation, he probably wouldn't have needed to hear it.


Alana said...

I liked how you tied it together with Christ's comments about mercy and obedience with the D&C scripture. Good post.

Alana said...

If we could only get our children to understand this obedience principle...