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Human Respect and False Humility

by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem.


After Israel had escaped slavery in Egypt and was wandering through the Sinai peninsula, but before they reached Mount Horeb, the tribe of the Amalekites waged war against them. Because of this, once Joshua had defeated them in battle by the help of Moses’ prayer, God swore He would utterly blot out the memory of the Amalekites from under the heavens.

Later, once the Israelites took possession of Palestine and then on account of their infidelity to God became subject to the natives, these Amalekites joined forces with the Moabites and oppressed the Israelites for nearly twenty years, until they were delivered by the judge Ehud and his disappearing dagger. Again, the Amalekites allied with the Midianites, who also oppressed Israel until they were delivered by the judge Gideon.

And so the plan of God, centuries in the making, was finally coming to completion when Samuel ordered King Saul in the name of God to kill all the Amalekites: man, woman, and child—not even the beasts were to be spared. But Saul did not. He captured the Amalekite king, while his men took the best of the sheep, oxen, and fatlings to offer them in sacrifice, which means they roasted and then ate them.

But Samuel was not amused. “Does the Lord so delight in holocausts and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the Lord? Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams. For a sin like divination is rebellion, and presumption is the crime of idolatry.” And in punishment, God rejected Saul as king and replaced him with David, son of Jesse.

Since the question of obedience is so crucial to the spiritual life, we have to wonder what it was about King Saul that brought about this strange rebellion. Samuel begins to chide him by saying, “Though little in your own esteem, are you not leader of the tribes of Israel?” Somehow, this man, whom Scripture testifies to have been chosen by God Himself and anointed by Samuel, who was the most handsome of the Israelites, head and shoulders taller than them all, who had crushed the enemies of Israel in battle roundabout—somehow this man considers himself of little worth. What was going on?

Clearly, Saul was not paying enough attention to his God-given qualifications for kingship; if he had, then he would have had every confidence to be successful. But in this event, when he permitted his men to be disobedient, and thereby incurred the guilt of all their disobedience himself, he seems to have had his eye on their good pleasure: feasting and triumph. He must not have thought himself great and strong enough to curb their desires and so suffer their displeasure, though his physical stature was to be a sign of his exalted authority and virtue.

So, by looking not to God but to men, he feared to lose their honor and respect by denying them a sacrificial banquet. When pressed, Saul admitted as much: “I feared the people and obeyed their voice.” This he then rationalized by accounting himself less powerful than God actually made him; he seems to be humble, but in fact is not. And so he neglected his flock’s true spiritual good, which was not in offering unwanted sacrifices but in obeying God’s command to take long overdue vengeance.

Samuel is justifiably angry with Saul, and himself takes Agag, the captured Amalekite king, and hews him to pieces before the Lord. On the whole, however, Samuel clearly loves Saul, showering him with affection and grieving over his rejection by God. Saul, on the other hand, gives the impression of respecting Samuel and needing his assistance, even after his death, but never of having heartfelt love for the man of God. One man’s love was giving, the other’s was selfish.

Therefore, the love of human respect leads to self-deception and false humility, which shrink in fear from the greatness to which God calls us, and that in turn concludes in disobedience to the commands of God, becoming indifferent to love shown us in favor of using others to our own advantage.

So if we find ourselves saying “Woe is me!” about some task our superiors have laid on our shoulders, or are overly concerned about what those under us think about us, we ought to take heed to the example of King Saul and not slide down his slippery slope. Even more so, should we catch ourselves rationalizing what appear to be trifling disobediences, rather than ruin some overarching plan of God’s providence, may we willingly subject ourselves to God in our superiors and so merit to see the saving power of God.

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