Bible Commentary: 1 Samuel 28:3-25 and Related

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1 Samuel 28:3-25 and Related

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Saul Consults a Medium and Pays the Price

The Philistines move from Aphek, where they had dismissed David (1 Samuel 29), to Jezreel (29:11) to confront Saul and the Israelites. They gather at the town of Shunem, a place we will again read about in the days of the prophet Elisha (see 2 Kings 4:8 2 Kings 4:8And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman; and she constrained him to eat bread. And so it was, that as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread.
American King James Version×
), while Saul pitches his camp at Mount Gilboa, about four miles south (1 Samuel 23:4 1 Samuel 23:4Then David inquired of the LORD yet again. And the LORD answered him and said, Arise, go down to Keilah; for I will deliver the Philistines into your hand.
American King James Version×
).

David had previously stated regarding Saul, "As the LORD lives, the LORD shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish" (1 Samuel 26:10 1 Samuel 26:10David said furthermore, As the LORD lives, the LORD shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish.
American King James Version×
). Saul's time to die is now at hand. It is a very gloomy and depressing time for him. Samuel has died and any appeal to God goes unanswered. God explains to us, "But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear" (Isaiah 59:2 Isaiah 59:2But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.
American King James Version×
). Saul does not have the confidence he possessed when God's Spirit was working with him (compare 1 Samuel 11:6 1 Samuel 11:6And the Spirit of God came on Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly.
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; 1 Samuel 16:14 1 Samuel 16:14But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.
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). The day before the battle (1 Samuel 28:19 1 Samuel 28:19Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shall you and your sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.
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), he becomes fearful and desperate and, instead of true repentance, once again turns away from God—this time by essentially turning to Satan for an answer.

God's instructions to Israel are quite clear in this matter:

"Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 19:31 Leviticus 19:31Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.
American King James Version×
).

"And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people" (20:6).

"There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you" (Deuteronomy 18:10-12 Deuteronomy 18:10-12 [10] There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. [11] Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. [12] For all that do these things are an abomination to the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD your God does drive them out from before you.
American King James Version×
). The original King James Version renders "medium" as "consulter with familiar spirits."

Saul in fact, during his reign, did obey God's instruction in this matter by removing these "abominations" from the land (1 Samuel 28:3 1 Samuel 28:3Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.
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). Evidently, though, there is at least one who evaded detection, a woman of the town of En Dor.

Now we come to a two-part question that many, including many biblical scholars, do not know how to answer: Does the woman really conjure up a spirit? And is that spirit actually the prophet Samuel? Let's look at some facts:

Some would argue that there is no entity really brought up here because Saul does not actually see one himself—he only reasons that Samuel is present from the woman's description. But whether or not the woman is a fraud and trickster, what happens surprises even her (verse 12). And even though Saul does not see anyone, the account says that "the woman saw Samuel" (verse 12). Moreover, there is clearly spoken communication from this "Samuel" (verses 15-16). But is this truly Samuel, the deceased prophet of God? It would not have to be from the wording here. For instance, a person on a hallucinogenic drug might say he saw something that was not really there, and we would consider that he did "see" it—seeing in this context being a matter of perception rather than sensory input from light actually entering the eye. Since the Bible says the entity spoke, something was definitely present. But what the woman sees is not actually visible to the naked eye—or Saul would be able to see it too. This means that the image the woman sees must be projected into her mind through supernatural means. So we ask: Is the prophet Samuel the one doing this?

First of all, the Bible very clearly points to a future resurrection of the dead. Many "orthodox" believers, however, maintain that this is simply the rejoining of a conscious, disembodied soul with a new body. Yet the Bible repeatedly describes the current state of the dead as one of "sleep" (Daniel 12:2 Daniel 12:2And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
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; 1 Corinthians 11:30 1 Corinthians 11:30For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
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; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15 [14] For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. [15] For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.
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; 2 Peter 3:4 2 Peter 3:4And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
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). Ecclesiastes makes it even more clear: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing…. for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:5 Ecclesiastes 9:5For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
American King James Version×
, Ecclesiastes 9:10 Ecclesiastes 9:10Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go.
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). Thus, a dead person is completely unconscious. The resurrection is an awakening—a return to consciousness.

What this means is that there is no such thing as ghosts, as they are commonly defined—the spirits of the dead still wandering the earth. But there certainly are spirit beings who, unable to materialize, can appear as ghostly apparitions (compare Luke 24:39 Luke 24:39Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see me have.
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—where Christ shows His disciples that He is not one of these). The Bible elsewhere calls these beings unclean spirits—or demons. They are fallen angels, spirit beings who have rebelled against God under the arch-demon, Satan the Devil.

Now, the woman of En Dor is a medium, consulting with, as already noted, "familiar spirits" (1 Samuel 28:7 1 Samuel 28:7Then said Saul to his servants, Seek me a woman that has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that has a familiar spirit at Endor.
American King James Version×
KJV). Are these dead people? No. For we have already seen that there is no consciousness in death. Consider also: Why would God impose the death penalty for communicating with dead friends and relatives if that were really possible? One scholar explains: "The reason the death penalty was inflicted for consulting 'familiar spirits' is that these were 'evil spirits,' or fallen angels impersonating the dead…. God hardly could have prescribed the death penalty for communicating with the spirits of deceased loved ones if such spirits existed and if such a communication were possible. There is no moral reason for God to outlaw, on pain of death, the human desire to communicate with deceased loved ones. The problem is that such communication is impossible, because the dead are unconscious and do not communicate with the living. Any communication that occurs is not with the spirit of the dead, but with evil spirits" (Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection?, 1997, p. 168).

Furthermore, it would be quite odd for God to send a message to Saul through the prophet Samuel when the account very clearly states that God will not answer Saul's inquiries "either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets" (verse 6). And consider that this is because of Saul's disobedience (compare Isaiah 59:2 Isaiah 59:2But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.
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). So why would God now go ahead and answer him in the face of even greater disobedience on Saul's part in the use of a medium? That just does not seem reasonable.

Thus, the being the medium sees ascending out of the earth (1 Samuel 28:13 1 Samuel 28:13And the king said to her, Be not afraid: for what saw you? And the woman said to Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth.
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) is nothing more than a demon. Even "the church fathers [early Catholic theologians] believed that a demon impersonated Samuel and appeared to Saul" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 28:12). Saul only perceives that it must be Samuel. He certainly wants it to be Samuel! The apostle Paul is inspired to write: "And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into [or disguises himself as] an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into [or disguise themselves as] ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works" (2 Corinthians 11:14-15 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 [14] And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. [15] Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
American King James Version×
). So it would not be unusual for a demon to appear as Samuel. And we know from all other scriptures that pertain to this subject that this is not the prophet Samuel speaking.

Let's look at the conclusion of Saul's deed. He certainly doesn't come away with anything profitable. In fact, he is so disheartened that he can barely eat! These scriptures should once again remind us of God's instructions against consulting with the evil spirit realm.

Continuing on, in 1 Samuel 31 and 1 Chronicles 10, we arrive at the very sad conclusion to Saul's reign as king over Israel. Severely wounded, he commits suicide. Yet not only Saul, but also three of his sons, including David's close friend Jonathan, die in this battle. Afterward, in a particularly heinous incident, the Philistines cut off Saul's head and put it on display in the temple of Dagon while his body and those of his sons are fastened to the wall of Beth Shan, at the junction of the Jezreel and Jordan valleys, to advertise their victory.

In a daring move, the men of Jabesh Gilead swoop in under cover of darkness and recover the bodies of Saul and his sons. In our highlights on 1 Samuel 11, we mentioned that Saul may have had ancestral roots in Jabesh Gilead in relation to Judges 21. Furthermore, this was the city that had been rescued from the Ammonites by Saul in his first act as king, and the Jabesh Gileadites apparently had a very fond remembrance and debt of gratitude to him, which they repaid in their recovery and burial of his and his sons' bones and a week of fasting. The bodies they burned—quite unusual among the ancient Israelites and perhaps done because these bodies had been mutilated by the Philistines. Years later, David will have the bones of Saul and Jonathan exhumed and reburied in Benjamin, in the tomb of Saul's father Kish (2 Samuel 21:11-14 2 Samuel 21:11-14 [11] And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done. [12] And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabeshgilead, which had stolen them from the street of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa: [13] And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged. [14] And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulcher of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was entreated for the land.
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).

The account in 1 Chronicles 10 describes the reason for the death of Saul: "So Saul died for his unfaithfulness [or 'transgressions' KJV] which he had committed against the LORD, because he did not keep the word of the LORD, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance. But he did not inquire of the LORD; therefore He killed him [by the circumstances He directed], and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse" (verses 13-14).

One may ask, Did not David also commit transgressions before God?

Yes, all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23 Romans 3:23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
American King James Version×
). The difference is in the heart. When David sins, he has a pattern—a habit—of acknowledging his sins before God and repenting. By contrast, Saul took no responsibility for his actions, seeking to deny his sins or reverse their consequences instead of repenting of them. Moreover, Saul's habit was that of continually seeking his own will. Remember that when Saul did not follow God's instruction, Samuel said, "But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought for Himself a man after His own heart [David], and the LORD has commanded him to be commander over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you" (1 Samuel 13:14 1 Samuel 13:14But now your kingdom shall not continue: the LORD has sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be captain over his people, because you have not kept that which the LORD commanded you.
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).

As for Jonathan's death, we don't know why God allowed it. Perhaps his presence would not have fit into God's continuing plan for David's life. In the same way, we might wonder why God allowed Herod to put James the brother of John to death early in the New Testament era, while Peter was miraculously delivered from Herod. God has not revealed His reasons, but we can always be confident that His decisions are for the ultimate good of His servants (see Romans 8:28 Romans 8:28And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
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).

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