1 Samuel 15 is a hard chapter of the Bible to read. Not because it's difficult to understand, but because some of what is described therein seems to be so brutal and barbaric that it's hard to think that God condoned what took place.
But he did.
In this chapter of scripture, God gives King Saul a mission: go and completely obliterate the Amalekites - man, woman, child, and animal. This Saul does, albeit not completely. He saves some of the choicest animals and he also saves Agag, the king of the Amalekites, presumably to show him off as a trophy of his victory.
But this is not what God has commanded. Instead, God commanded the complete annihilation of the Amalekites, including their animals, and including their king. In response to what Saul left undone, Samuel himself finishes the job, so to speak: "And Samuel said [to Agag], 'As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.' And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." (1 Samuel 16.33, ESV, emphasis added)
I don't know about you, but hearing that anyone was "hacked to pieces" is enough to make me wince, let alone hearing that it was done "before the Lord." It's a description that is mean to illicit a visceral reaction from us, the readers, and I think it's safe to say it succeeds in doing so.
As I was studying to preach this text recently, I read the same passage in the NIV, and was surprised to find this translation of the same verse: "But Samuel said [to Agag], 'As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women.' And Samuel put Agag to death before the Lord at Gilgal." (1 Samuel 16.33, NIV, emphasis added)
You'll notice that the description of Agag's death in the NIV is much more palatable. It's a lot easier to read that someone was "put to death" rather than "hacked to pieces."
The most literal translation of the original Hebrew follows more closely with the ESV rendering of "hacked to pieces." Why then does the NIV translate the same verse as Agag simply being "put to death"? Clearly this rendering takes our modern sensibilities into account. We don't like to hear about a human being having been "hacked to pieces." It's easier and less messy and creates fewer questions to hear about them being simply "put to death."
But as difficult as it is for us to read, I think we need to retain the language of Agag being hacked to pieces. Is it brutal? Yes. Is it graphically violent? Yes. Does it illicit reactions of shock and disgust? Yes.
And that's the point.
We bristle when we think that God told Saul to wipe out the Amalekites completely, man, woman, child, and animal (1 Samuel 15.3). We put up our defenses, based mostly on our 21st century sensibilities, and we accuse God of over-reacting. Certainly it's not necessary to kill everyone and everything in the nation of Amalek, is it? Even the children? Even the animals? What did they do?
Not long after being released from slavery in Egypt, and right after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites were attacked by the Amalekites (Exodus 17). And not only that, but when the Amalekites attacked, they purposely attacked the weakest people in Israel: the women, children, elderly, and ill (Deuteronomy 25). Like a schoolyard bully picks out the weakest kid on the playground to pick on him, knowing that he won't fight back, so the Amalekites chose the weak, under-nourished, untrained Israelites to pick on right after leaving 400 years of slavery. As a result, God declares holy war upon the Amalekites and promises their destruction (See Exodus 17.14 and Deuteronomy 25.19).
By the time of King Saul, the Amalekites had continued to be a thorn in Israel's side for centuries, and, put simply, their cup of wrath had filled up to the brim. God was merciful to not destroy them outright at the very beginning. Instead he was patient and long-suffering, giving them hundreds of years to repent and turn to him, but they never did. So now the time has come for their sin to be dealt with. And the means of dealing with them that God has chosen is to send in Saul and the Israelites to utterly wipe them out - man, woman, child, and beast.
This is why, I think, it is important to know that Agag, king of the Amalekites was "hacked to pieces" and not simply "put to death." God cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and his punishment must be severe - severe enough to satisfy the justice of a perfectly holy, perfectly righteous God. What does that kind of justice look like? It looks like the total decimation of the Amalekites, and the hacking to pieces of their king. God's justice is more than just a "put to death" kind of justice. It's a "hacked to pieces" kind of justice. Although it might seem harsh and brutal to us, it is just. It is a picture of how grievous sin is to a holy God, and how desperate our need is to be made right with him.
But in actuality, the destruction of the Amalekites and the grisly death of their king is but a shadow of the divine justice of God. It is nothing compared to his wrath upon sin that will be poured out for all eternity in hell. As severe as the punishment of the Amalekites was, and as much as we recoil in horror at the thought of Agag being hacked to pieces, both of these pale in comparison to God's eternal vengeance toward sin, in a place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched (Mark 9.48).
I don't say these things for their shock value, but rather to magnify the glory of the cross. Because you and I are just like the Amalekites. We have spurned God at every possible opportunity, and we deserve the same fate as the Amalekites and that of King Agag. Actually, if we're honest, we deserve worse.
But God did the unfathomable: he sent his Son into the world to suffer that fate for you. Jesus Christ willingly offered himself to be decimated and "hacked to pieces" in my place, himself suffering the eternal vengeance of a holy God on my behalf. "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved - and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2.4-7).
This is why I appreciate the ESV translation of 1 Samuel 15.33, hard as it might be to digest. When the consequences of sin are magnified (like being hacked to pieces), the glorious grace of God in the gospel is likewise magnified.
Time had run out for the Amalekites. Their cup of wrath was full and it was time for justice to be served. But there is still time for you. You don't have to share their fate. You don't have to live in the fear and regret of offending a holy God, because that same God sacrificed his Son to save you from destruction if you will call out to him.