The Witch of Endor, 1-25

As Woodhouse observes, we find Saul in this chapter in a state of hopelessness.  This is analogous to the state of Gentiles, who, whether they feel it or not, have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph 2:12).

28:1 In those days the Philistines gathered their troops for war in order to fight Israel. Achish said to David, “You should fully understand that you and your men must go with me into the battle.” 28:2 David replied to Achish, “That being the case, you will come to know what your servant can do!” Achish said to David, “Then I will make you my bodyguard from now on.”

According to 1 Sam 27:4, Saul knew that David had joined the Philistines.

“You should fully understand that you and your men must go with me into the battle” – It seems (according to Woodhouse) that David had overplayed his hand.  In gaining the trust of Achish, David is now expected to join him in attacking his own people.

“You will come to know what your servant can do!” – This is probably deliberately ambiguous, given David’s dilemma.  David’s ‘OK, watch what I do’ is taken as a ‘Yes’ by Achish.

“I will make you my bodyguard from now on” – Showing the complete (and gullible) trust that Achish is willing to put in David.  This trust was not shared, however, by the other Philistine leaders, and so David was not allowed to fight for them (1 Sam 29:1-11).

As Woodhouse remarks, a bodyguard is, lit. ‘one who guards the head’.  There is deep irony, then, given what happened to another Philistine’s head (1 Sam 17:51,54)!

28:3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had lamented over him and had buried him in Ramah, his hometown. In the meantime Saul had removed the mediums and magicians from the land. 28:4 The Philistines assembled; they came and camped at Shunem. Saul mustered all Israel and camped at Gilboa. 28:5 When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was absolutely terrified. 28:6 So Saul inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him—not by dreams nor by Urim nor by the prophets. 28:7 So Saul instructed his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her.” His servants replied to him, “There is a woman who is a medium in Endor.”

Verse 2 has left the reader with a cliffhanger.  What will happen to David?  The narrator suddenly turns to Saul.  And this is all the more curious, since the events of 29:1-11 occur before those of the rest of ch. 28.  (This is according to Davis, who concludes this from the geographical notes in 28:4 and 29:1).

As Davis notes, the narrator begins with three pieces of background information: (a) Samuel’s death; (b) Saul’s removal of the mediums and magic-workers from the land; and (c) the imminent threat posed by the Philistine army.

If the previous chapter has documented David’s rise, the present passage records Saul’s further descent towards total loss and failure.  The key outcome is, while seeking illicit guidance on whether he should fight the Philistines of not, he is told of his own imminent death.

Samuel had died – ‘The repeated mention of Samuel’s death and burial (cf. 1 Sam. 25:1) shows Saul deprived of the great prophet’s guidance, which in any case he had earlier disregarded.’ (Baldwin)

Saul had removed the mediums and magicians from the land – This statement is significant because it shows that what Saul is about to do violates his own edict.  It also shows, once again, that he was a man capable of noble intentions but so often incapable of seeing them through.

‘This note establishes Saul’s clear understanding that it was forbidden for Israelites to consult these individuals, a fact necessary for understanding the severity and speed of the punishment meted out to him.’ (Bergen)

Matthew Henry conjectures: ‘Perhaps when Saul was himself troubled with an evil spirit he suspected that he was bewitched, and, for that reason, cut off all that had familiar spirits.’

Matthew Henry again: ‘Many seem zealous against sin, when they themselves are any way hurt by it (they will inform against swearers if they swear at them, or against drunkards if in their drink they abuse them), who otherwise have no concern for the glory of God, nor any dislike of sin as sin. However it was commendable in Saul thus to use his power for the terror and restraint of these evil-doers. Note, Many seem enemies to sin in others, while they indulge it in themselves. Saul will drive the devil out of his kingdom, and yet harbour him in his heart, by envy and malice.’

The Philistines were camped at Shumen, located towards the north of Israelite territory but south of Galilee.  Evidently, their strategy was to fight on level ground, in order to make best use of their chariots, to control the trade route that ran through the area, and to cut off Saul’s northernmost tribes, in Galilee.

‘The land of Israel, it seems, was ill-guarded, when the Philistines could march their army into the very heart of the country. Saul, while he pursued David, left his people naked and exposed.’ (MHC)

When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was absolutely terrified – His son Jonathan, on the other hand, knew that with the Lord’s help a battle against few or many could be won (1 Sam 14:6)

‘Had he kept close to God, he needed not have been afraid at the sight of an army of Philistines; but now that he had provoked God to forsake him his interest failed, his armies dwindled and looked mean, and, which was worse, his spirits failed him, his heart sunk within him, a guilty conscience made him tremble at the shaking of a leaf. Now he remembered the guilty blood of the Amalekites which he had spared, and the innocent blood of the priests which he had spilt. His sins were set in order before his eyes, which put him into confusion, embarrassed all his counsels, robbed him of all his courage, and produced in him a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.’ (MHC)

Saul inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him—not by dreams nor by Urim nor by the prophets – There was, for Saul, a famine of the word of God.  He had deprived himself of the acceptable methods of determining God’s will.

According to 1 Chron 10:14, Saul died precisely because he ‘did not inquire of the Lord’.  That is, he received no guidance from the Lord.  Youngblood explains that ‘although 1 Chronicles 10:14 states that Saul “did not inquire” of the Lord, a different verb (drš) is used. In addition, “it may be correctly remarked that Saul’s attempts at inquiry were of so unworthy a nature that it would be an abuse of language to speak of him as really ‘inquiring of Jehovah’ ”’ (Quoting Haley).’

Not by dreams – there was no personal message from God.  His own sins had put him at too much of a distance from the Lord to whom he had given such scant regard.

This method of guidance would involve ‘incubation rituals in which the inquirer sleeps within a sanctuary or near a sacred object in order to receive a dream from a god.’ (IVPBBCOT)

Nor by Urim – the priestly oracle, Ex 28:30; Num 27:21.  But Saul had killed off the priests, 1 Sam 22:17-19.  The one remaining priest, who retained the ephod, had fled to David.

It would seem that the Urim and Thummim were objects that were used to provide yes-or-no answers.  Perhaps the user relied upon them giving the same answer multiple times.  If so, this evidently did not work for Saul.

Nor by the prophets – Samuel, of course, was dead.  Although he had founded a school of prophets, 1 Sam 19:20, their support had been lost when Samuel declared that Saul’s kingship was over.  It is unlikely that any true prophet was accompanying Saul at this time.

The oft-repeated claim that ‘God always answers prayer (by saying, “Yes”, “No” or “Wait”) is not supported by Saul’s experience here.  See also 1 Sam 8:18; 14:37.

Baldwin remarks that Saul ‘had already received the guidance that was appropriate in his circumstances. No amount of further requesting could change the information he had already been given.’

‘Why didn’t the Lord answer Saul’s plea for help? The Bible teaches that people who consistently reject God’s leadership in their lives, and refuse to follow the guidance he has already provided, should not expect him to deliver them from trouble resulting from their poor choices (Job 27:9; 35:12; Pr 1:23–28; Is 1:15; Jr 11:11; 14:12; Ezk 8:18; Mc 3:4; Zech 7:13; Jms 4:3). Saul had consistently disobeyed God (1 Sam 13:13–14; 15:11–23), even going so far as to kill the Lord’s priests (22:17–19). He had created vast problems for himself and his nation. The Lord was not going to promise the king supernatural deliverance from those problems, even though Saul earnestly sought his help. Instead, God would use the Philistines as the instrument of judgment against Saul.’ (The Apologetics Study Bible For Students)

‘When God does not answer by any of the means he has himself designated (28:6, 15), this does not constitute warrant for defiance of God, but for repentance, perseverance, and patience. There is something dismally pathetic about seeking God’s counsel while happily taking action that God himself has prohibited.’ (Carson, For The Love Of God, Vol 1)

Here in this chapter ‘we find the culmination of Saul’s self-destruction. When he disobeyed God by failing to wipe out the Amalekites (chap. 15), he sealed his fate and became God’s enemy (28:16–19). From that time forward until 28:6, there is no record of Saul’s consulting the Lord; he never even had another audience with Samuel during the prophet’s lifetime (15:35). Neither did he receive divine revelation, except for the occasion when God overwhelmed him with his Spirit and turned him into a prophet for a day in order to protect David (19:23–24). Saul eventually killed the Lord’s priests at Nob, apparently with no concern that he was cutting himself off from the divine revelation they could provide (cf. 22:10, 13, 15). Indeed, the one priest who did escape, Abiathar, later used an ephod to mediate divine revelation on David’s behalf (23:9–12; 30:7–8). When fearful Saul finally does inquire of the Lord, it is quite appropriate that the Lord refuses to answer (28:6).’ (Chisholm)

Ezekiel 14:3 “Son of man, these men have erected their idols in their hearts and placed the obstacle leading to their iniquity right before their faces. Should I really allow them to seek me?”

Why Saul could not expect to be answered

Saul could not expect to be answered, for,

‘1. He enquired in such a manner that it was as if he had not enquired at all. Therefore it is said (1 Chr. 10:14), He enquired not of the Lord; for he did it faintly and coldly, and with a secret design, if God did not answer him, to consult the devil. He did not enquire in faith, but with a double unstable mind.

2. He enquired of the Lord when it was too late, when the days of his probation were over and he was finally rejected. Seek the Lord while he may be found, for there is a time when he will not be found.

3. He had forfeited the benefit of all the methods of enquiry. Could he that hated and persecuted Samuel and David, who were both prophets, expect to be answered by prophets? Could he that had slain the high priest, expect to be answered by Urim? Or could he that had sinned away the Spirit of grace, expect to be answered by dreams? No. Be not deceived, God is not mocked.’ (MHC)

“Find me a woman who is a medium” – ‘He wrongly turned to what he had rightly prohibited’ (Davis)

It is unclear why Saul specified a ‘woman’: perhaps most mediums were female in those times, or perhaps he felt less threatened by one.

‘When God remains silent…instead of asking what in his life may have caused this, Saul turns to a medium, specifically a necromancer (28:7). Saul is not concerned with repentance or a relationship with God, but only with rescue.’ (Gospel Transformation Bible)

Saul’s ‘decision to seek help from a medium is a measure of his moral exhaustion, his despairing faith, his failed life.’ (Brueggemann)

‘In doing [this], he was both a deliberate sinner and a hypocrite. The fact that some of his servants knew where a spirit medium lived suggests that Saul’s clean-up campaign wasn’t too thorough and that not all of his officers agreed with him. Some of them knew a medium Saul had overlooked.’ (Wiersbe)

It is a sobering thought that holy decisions (Lev 19:31; 20:6; Deut 18:10–11) may come to be regretted by someone who is becoming increasingly mired in sinful disobedience.

‘The OT laws attack the practice of consulting the dead (necromancy) (see Lv. 19:31; Dt. 18:9–14) and Saul had upheld such laws. It was a sign of his desperation that he now consulted a medium, and that to do so he had to go as far north as Endor, a journey to the far side of the Philistine camp.’ (Payne, NBC)

‘The existence of mediums in Israel further indicates the syncretism that plagued Israelite religion during the nation’s history. Necromancy of this type was still flourishing in the reign of Manasseh (2 Kgs. 21:6).’ (Evans, UBCS)

‘When God answered him not, if he had humbled himself by repentance and persevered in seeking God, who knows but that at length he might have been entreated for him? but, since he can discern no comfort either from heaven or earth (Isa. 8:21, 22), he resolves to knock at the gates of hell, and to see if any there will befriend him and give him advice’ (MHC)

Endor was a few miles away, and dangerously close to where the Philistines were camped.  Josh. 17:11f attests to a persistent Canaanite presence there.

28:8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothing and left, accompanied by two of his men. They came to the woman at night and said, “Use your ritual pit to conjure up for me the one I tell you.”

Saul disguised himself and put on other clothing – It is ironic that the still-living king makes himself unrecognisable in his ‘mufti’, but the dead Samuel is instantly recognised, appearing in his familiar robe (v14)!

‘The absence of royal clothing and jewelry insulated him from scrutiny by Philistine soldiers patrolling the roads in the area and shielded his true identity from the medium. In order to reduce the journey’s risks even further, Saul waited until after the sun had set to begin the trip, and he was accompanied by two bodyguards.’ (Bergen)

Saul came ‘furtively, like a criminal’. (Baldwin)

Baldwin comments:

‘Despite the finality of Saul’s last confrontation with Samuel (1 Sam. 15:10–35), Saul still longed for the word of the Lord which he had received through the prophet who first anointed him and proclaimed him king. He must have hoped that Samuel would somehow reverse the judgment which he had pronounced, in much the same way as some of our contemporaries refuse to take seriously the dark side of the word of God.’

They came to the woman at night – Probably to evade notice.  But it is also likely that necromancers tended to do their work at night.

As Youngblood notes: ‘Saul’s earlier rebellion against the Lord had been so heinous that Samuel had compared it to the “sin of divination” (1 Sam 15:23). Nevertheless, Saul is now commanding a diviner, a necromancer, to “bring up” for him (v. 8; cf. vv. 11, 13, 15) one who dwells in the “realm of death below” (Dt 32:22)’

The ritual pit was a place from which the spirits of the departed could be magically summoned.

‘There is no indication in these rituals that the practitioner was possessed by the spirit or that the spirit spoke through her, and so she was not a medium in the modern sense.’ (IVPBBCOT)

Greek, Mesopotamian and (especially) Hittite literature supplies the following details: ‘(1) done at night, (2) after the spot is divined a pit is dug with a special tool, (3) a food offering (bread, oil, honey) or the blood of a sacrificial animal is placed in the pit to attract spirits, (4) an invocation ritual, including the spirit’s name, is chanted, and (5) the pit is covered to prevent spirits from escaping after the ritual is concluded. Both practitioner and client had roles to play in the procedure. The spirits who emerged were in human form and generally were able to communicate directly with the client. In Mesopotamian necromancy incantations, only the practitioner could see the spirit. This was accomplished through ritual ointments smeared on the face.’ (IVPBBCOT)

28:9 But the woman said to him, “Look, you are aware of what Saul has done; he has removed the mediums and magicians from the land! Why are you trapping me so you can put me to death?” 28:10 But Saul swore an oath to her by the LORD, “As surely as the LORD lives, you will not incur guilt in this matter!” 28:11 The woman replied, “Who is it that I should bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up for me Samuel.”

“You are aware of what Saul has done” – ‘Her words should have struck a cord of conscience with Saul. His own policy was testimony to the Law of God, which he was now flagrantly breaking.’ (Woodhouse)

‘Providence ordered it so that Saul should be told to his face of his edict against witches, at this very time when he was consulting one, for the greater aggravation of his sin.’ (MHC)

‘She considered what Saul had done, not what God had done, against such practices, and feared a snare laid for her life more than a snare laid for her soul. It is common for sinners to be more afraid of punishment from men than of God’s righteous judgment.’ (MHC)

Saul solemnly swears that “as surely as the Lord lives” she will be safe.  He swears by the God whose command he is just then defying.  ‘For all his degeneration Saul is orthodox to the last’ (Davis).  It is awful hypocrisy.  Such is Saul’s last recorded mention of the name of the Lord.

‘Saul swears, As the Lord lives, that she will be safe, while he himself endeavours to reverse the word of the same living Lord, pronounced against himself.’ (Baldwin)

Bergen puts it bluntly: ‘Saul’s oath invoked the Lord to grant immunity to one who broke the Lord’s command—it turned God against himself. Such an oath was not only foolish but actually blasphemous.’

Woodhouse quotes Alter: ‘The irony of Saul’s doing this in a negotiation with a conjurer of spirits is vividly caught by the Midrash: “Whom did Saul resemble at that moment? A woman who is with her lover and swears by the life of her husband. ”’

“Bring up for me Samuel” – One of many ironies in this passage is that Saul wishes to consult the dead Samuel, to whom he paid scant regard while still living.

‘It seems likely that the last person a woman such as this would expect anyone to ask her to conjure up would be the great prophet of the Lord who had forbade inquiring of the dead.’ (Woodhouse)

‘Many that despise and persecute God’s saints and ministers when they are living would be glad to have them again when they are gone.’ (MHC)

28:12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out loudly. The woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” 28:13 The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid! What have you seen?” The woman replied to Saul, “I have seen one like a god coming up from the ground!” 28:14 He said to her, “What about his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up! He is wrapped in a robe!”

There is no description of any techniques or formulae that the woman might have used.  As Matthew Henry observes, sometimes, to describe sin is to teach people how to sin.

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out loudly – We are not told what, if anything, the woman did to ‘bring up Samuel’.  But it seems clear from her shocked response that she was not expecting events to unfold like this.  She shows every sign of shock and surprise.

‘The woman now found herself in the presence of the king who had enforced the Law of God against her practices and the prophet who was God’s mouthpiece. Her terror was completely understandable.’ (Woodhouse)

“Don’t be afraid!” – More irony: ‘Saul, previously afraid because of the Philistine threat (v. 5) and soon to be afraid “because of Samuel’s words” (v. 20), tells the necromancer not to be afraid (v. 13).’ (Youngblood)

“What have you seen?” – We cannot tell how or why it is that the woman could see Samuel, but not Saul.  But he will hear him soon enough.

“I have seen one like a god coming up from the ground!”lit. ‘I saw gods arising from the earth’.  The word is elohim, variously translated here ‘a spirit’, ‘a ghost’, and so on.  But the woman’s language is also consistent with the pagan view that a dead person became a ‘god’.  Perhaps the apparition came up from a pit in the ground – dug for the very purpose of necromancy (Bergen).

‘She speaks the language of the heathen, who had their infernal deities and had them in veneration.’ (MHC)

She sees “an old man…wrapped in a robe!” – Clothing was often a status marker in the ancient world.  This description seems vague enough, but is suggestive of the prophetic robe, the tearing of which had symbolic importance the last time the two men met (1 Sam 15:27f).

It would seem that the woman saw Samuel, but did not hear him; whereas Saul heard him but did not see him.

Then Saul realized it was Samuel, and he bowed his face toward the ground and kneeled down. 28:15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul replied, “I am terribly troubled! The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He does not answer me—not by the prophets nor by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what I should do.”

“Why have you disturbed me?” – This suggests that the deceased prophet had been enjoying a post-mortem life of restfulness.  For other OT examples of death being likened to sleep, see see Job 3:13; 14:12; Ps 13:3; 90:5; Jer 51:39, 57.

‘Samuel’s complaint that he has been disturbed ties in with what we know of the early understanding of the fate of the dead. There was no real belief in ongoing life, but because nonexistence was incomprehensible they were seen as inhabiting the underworld, Sheol, in a kind of shadowy nonlife comparable to sleep.’ (Evans, UBCS)

Did Samuel visit from the grave?

1 Samuel 28:7 Saul instructed his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her.” His servants replied to him, “There is a woman who is a medium in Endor.”
28:8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothing and left, accompanied by two of his men. They came to the woman at night and said, “Use your ritual pit to conjure up for me the one I tell you.”
28:9 But the woman said to him, “Look, you are aware of what Saul has done; he has removed the mediums and magicians from the land! Why are you trapping me so you can put me to death?” 28:10 But Saul swore an oath to her by the LORD, “As surely as the LORD lives, you will not incur guilt in this matter!” 28:11 The woman replied, “Who is it that I should bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up for me Samuel.”
28:12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out loudly. The woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” 28:13 The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid! What have you seen?” The woman replied to Saul, “I have seen one like a god coming up from the ground!” 28:14 He said to her, “What about his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up! He is wrapped in a robe!”
Then Saul realized it was Samuel, and he bowed his face toward the ground and kneeled down. 28:15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”

Did Samuel actually appear, or just some evil spirit pretending to be Samuel?

Some, including Payne and Baldwin, express agnosticism on this question.  So also Evans: ‘we have no way of knowing whether this was a trick, the appearance of some kind of evil spirit or an actual visit from the dead Samuel.’ (DOT:HB).  Youngblood also:

‘My own sympathies lie with the judgment of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was content to leave the text in its ambiguity: “Samuel was raised, or so it seems by the woman having a familiar spirit”.’ (Emphasis not in original)

If we are to go further, and seek a definite answer to the question, we must consider the following possibilities:

  1. A deception on the part of the woman
  2. An illusion or hallucination
  3. An actual appearance of a demon caused by the woman
  4. An actual appearance of a demon caused by God
  5. A demonic deception.  Youngblood quotes the Geneva Bible: ‘“was Satan, who to blinde his [Saul’s] eyes tooke upon him the forme of Samuel, as he can doe of an Angel of light” [alluding to 2 Co 11:14]).’  This view is also taken by Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, and others.  Henry: ‘That the devil, by the divine permission, should be able to personate Samuel is not strange, since he can transform himself into an angel of light! nor is it strange that he should be permitted to do it upon this occasion, that Saul might be driven to despair, by enquiring of the devil, since he would not, in a right manner, enquire of the Lord, by which he might have had comfort.’

Youngblood explores some of these less-than-satisfactory options:

‘Early church fathers, fearful of affirming that the prophet Samuel was a shade in Sheol, that a medium was an appropriate intermediary between the divine and human worlds, and that necromancy is efficacious, “proceeded to undermine the literal text with one of two arguments: either sorcery is just demonic deceit, and what appeared was not really Samuel, but a demon in his guise; or, Samuel was not really in Hades but had been sent by God to announce Saul’s fate”’ (Quoting Cox)

With regard to 1 and 2, ‘we must remember that Scripture describes such practices not as futile but as pagan. Yahweh forbids Israel to use these means not because they do not work but because they are wicked.’ (Davis)

Interpretations 3 and 4 are also unsatisfactory.  This does appear to have actually been a post-mortem appearance of Samuel.  Both Saul and the narrator identify the figure as ‘Samuel’.  This figure speaks directly to Saul (not through the medium).  Furthermore, the message spoken is faithful to the real Samuel.  There is no hint of demonic deception in it.  Indeed, the message contains allusions to Samuel’s previous encounter with Saul.

So, we are left with one of the following:

1. An actual appearance of Samuel by the means of necromancy.   The OT condemns necromancy (Lev 19:31; Deut 18:9–14), but does not say that it is absolutely impossible.  As Bergen says, ‘the Torah prohibits necromancy not because it is a hoax but because it promotes reliance on supernatural guidance from some source other than the Lord.’

The woman’s reaction may suggest that, to her horror, she had indeed brought up Samuel himself.  ‘Her strong reaction also suggests that Samuel’s appearance was unexpected; perhaps this was the first time she had ever actually succeeded in contacting the dead.’

Samuel’s question, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” suggests that he was sent reluctantly

If a godly man such as Samuel could be summoned (presumably unwillingly) from the dead through occult practices, then this would raise serious theological problems and leave us wondering if we ourselves might be similarly manipulated by evil powers and not permitted to rest in peace.  To this prospect, Gerald Bray responds with an emphatic ‘No’ (God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, p368).

2. An actual appearance of Samuel caused by God.  In this case, ‘it was not the skill of the medium but rather a unique act of God that brought Saul into contact with Samuel. The medium did not possess the capacity to disturb a dead saint; but God, as “a sign of his grace,” permitted Saul to have one last encounter with the prophet who had played such a determinative role in the king’s career’ (Bergen).

It was, then, an exceptional occurrence, analogous in a way to God’s use of astrologers to herald the glad tidings of the birth of his Son.

Woodhouse perceptively remarks: ‘It seems [very] likely to me that the Lord sent Samuel to Saul on this evening, just as on a very different occasion he sent Moses and Elijah to Jesus (Matthew 17:3).’

This last appears to be the best interpretation.  It is supported by most conservative commentators.

“God has turned away from me” – and so Saul could scarcely have expected to hear God speak through this medium.  But a desperate and frightened man will turn anywhere for some kind of reassurance.

Saul complains, when he should have repented

‘He complained not of God’s withdrawings till he fell into trouble, till the Philistines made war against him, and then he began to lament God’s departure. He that in his prosperity enquired not after God in his adversity thought it hard that God answered him not, nor took any notice of his enquiries, either by dreams or prophets, neither gave answers immediately himself nor sent them by any of his messengers. He does not, like a penitent, own the righteousness of God in this; but, like a man enraged, flies out against God as unkind and flies off from him: Therefore I have called thee; as if Samuel, a servant of God, would favour those whom God frowned upon, or as if a dead prophet could do him more service than the living ones.’ (MHC)

Abandoned by God

As Davis notes, ‘the most hopeless misery in all of life is to be abandoned by God…[Saul] can hear the shouts of Philistines but not the voice of Yahweh. He faces the crisis of his life and God has nothing to say to him. Some of the saddest words in all Scripture are printed in 1 Samuel 28:15’.

Davis, again: ‘Nothing is so utterly miserable than finding in the hour of greatest need that you had long ago placed yourself beyond the sound of God’s voice and that you are totally alone.’

Davis discusses the important difference between Saul’s experience of feeling forsaken by God and the feelings that genuine believers sometimes experience:

He quotes Psalm 13:1How long, Lord, will you continue to ignore me? How long will you pay no attention to me?’

‘Notice what happens. What does the psalmist do since he thinks Yahweh has forgotten him, has hidden his face, or, could we say turned away from him? Does he turn to necromancers or check his horoscopes? No. After his “how much longers” he prays: “Pay attention, answer me, Yahweh my God …” (Ps. 13:3). Do you see what is happening? When believers are terrified at God’s absence (Ps. 30:7), they instinctively turn to the God they think has forsaken them and complain to him about forsaking them (Ps. 13:1)—and then they go on having dealings with this God, crying to this God to answer (Ps. 13:3), because they have nowhere else to go and so keep clinging to him. Psalm 88 is almost as bleak as 1 Samuel 28, for that psalm does not have a positive ending with confidence in Yahweh’s deliverance and favor. The faithful man’s anguish is still unrelieved at the end of his prayer (Ps. 88:14–18) but he is still speaking to Yahweh about it. Cool rationalists will never understand it but warm believers do. Eventually they see that the clearest evidence that God has not turned away from them is that even in his “absence” they keep turning to the God who has turned from them (cf. John 6:67–68).’

“I am terribly troubled!” – Saul’s self-absorption is obvious: note the repeated reference to himself.

Cf. 2 Sam 24:17 – ‘When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the LORD, “I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.”‘

“I have called on you to tell me what I should do” – Saul turns to ‘the most insightful man he had ever known’ (Bergen).

He wants to be told what to do; but he is only told what he has done and what will be done to him. (MHC)

‘If anything, Saul’s quest should have been to face Yahweh, not to seek Samuel. His need was not for information but communion, not so much to prepare for battle but to recover God’s presence. Saul, it seems, wanted the results of God’s favor more than he wanted God’s favor.’ (Davis)

‘The pathos of the scene is intense. It was too late. Out of the desperation of the Philistine threat and the Lord’s silence Saul had taken this extraordinary step of trying to get the dead Samuel to tell him what to do. It is striking that he failed to mention either his own disobedience, which lay behind his present predicament, or his nemesis, David, whose presence in Saul’s world had been his undoing. These two omissions would soon be rectified by Samuel.’ (Woodhouse)

‘The contradiction involved in calling up from the dead Samuel, the great prophet of God, when God had turned away from Saul did not seem to bother the king.’ (Woodhouse)

28:16 Samuel said, “Why are you asking me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and has become your enemy? 28:17 The LORD has done exactly as I prophesied! The LORD has torn the kingdom from your hand and has given it to your neighbor David! 28:18 Since you did not obey the LORD and did not carry out his fierce anger against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this thing to you today. 28:19 The LORD will hand you and Israel over to the Philistines! Tomorrow both you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also hand the army of Israel over to the Philistines!”

Saul’s desperation is misdirected (Davis).  There is no new and reassuring message from Samuel.

Matthew Henry (who thinks that this appearance was a demonic deception, comments:

‘Had it been the true Samuel, when Saul desired to be told what he should do he would have told him to repent and make his peace with God, and recall David from his banishment, and would then have told him that he might hope in this way to find mercy with God; but, instead of that, he represents his case as helpless and hopeless, serving him as he did Judas, to whom he was first a tempter and then a tormentor, persuading him first to sell his master and then to hang himself.’

But this is to neglect the fact that Saul’s fate had already been sealed by the words of Samuel.

“Why are you asking me?” – In life (1 Sam 15:22-25) Samuel had given stern warnings to Saul, but had been met with a measure of regret, but not heartfelt repentance.  Saul is only compounding his predicament by attempting what he knew to be forbidden by the Lord.

Praying to the dead?

Commenting on the Roman Catholic belief in praying to the saints, Geisler and MacKenzie comment:

‘The Old Testament condemns all attempts to communicate with the dead along with other condemnations of witchcraft (Deut. 18:10–12; cf. Lev. 20:6, 27; 1 Sam. 28:5–18; Isa. 8:19–20). Those who violated this command were to be put to death. In all of Scripture there is not a single divinely approved instance of a righteous person praying to a departed believer—not one. Indeed, Saul was condemned for his attempt to contact the dead Samuel (1 Sam. 28; cf. 15:23). Given the danger of deception and the lack of faith that the practice of necromancy and idolatry evidence, it is not difficult to understand God’s command.’

(Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, p351)

“The LORD has done exactly as I prophesied! The LORD has torn the kingdom from your hand and has given it to your neighbor David!” – What Saul has been told long ago is about to become a terrible reality.  In fact, Samuel’s language to Saul in 1 Sam 15:28 is repeated verbatim; only now, for the first time, his successor is actually named.

Whereas Saul’s words to Samuel is full of self-reference (seven references to ‘I’ or ‘me’), Samuel’s response focuses on the Lord (mentioned seven times).

“You did not obey the LORD”lit. ‘You did not listen to the Lord.’  We have already read the solemn verdict that the Lord has rejected Saul because Saul rejected the Lord; now it is clear that the Lord will not hear Saul’s cries because Saul would not listen to the Lord.

‘In chapter 15 he tailored Yahweh’s command to his own and the people’s preferences. Saul would have called it accommodation; Samuel called it rebellion. Saul thought it prudence; Samuel labeled it stubbornness. Perhaps Saul liked to think he had only reinterpreted Yahweh’s word; Samuel charged that he had simply rejected Yahweh’s word (see 1 Sam 15:22–23). “You did not listen.” That is the explanation for Yahweh’s absence.’ (Davis)

Davis concludes: ‘If you despise God’s word he will take it from you. If you persistently refuse to obey God’s speech you will endure God’s silence. How crucial then are one’s first responses to the gospel, to the initial call to enter the kingdom of God.’

The only news comes in v19, and it carries no reassurance for Saul:

“Tomorrow both you and your sons will be with me” – Saul would be dead, by his own hand, less than 24 hours later.

What does it mean for them to ‘be with’ Samuel?  ‘Sheol’, in the OT, was the place of the dead, and a distinction was not made between the righteous and the unrighteous.

These are the last recorded words of Samuel.

Samuel, the man of God

Youngblood comments on his greatness as a man of God:

‘If Moses is rightly celebrated as Israel’s lawgiver par excellence, so also Samuel is justly heralded as the prototypical prophet (1 Ch 11:3; 2 Ch 35:18; Ps 99:6; Jer 15:1), standing at the head of the prophetic line (Ac 3:24; 13:20; Heb 11:32). Bearing the titles of both “prophet” and “seer” (1 Ch 9:22; 26:28; cf. 1 Sa 9:9, 19), he shared in recording the events of King David’s life (1 Ch 29:29). As priest, judge, prophet, counselor, and anointer of Israel’s first two rulers, Samuel takes his place as one of ancient Israel’s greatest and most godly leaders (cf. the encomium in honor of Samuel in Sir 46:13–20).’

“The LORD will also hand the army of Israel over to the Philistines!” – Saul had been appointed precisely to save the Lord’s people from the hand of the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16).  Now, both he and they were about to be delivered into the hands of their enemies.

A warning, not an encouragement

‘Some people have pointed to this passage as justification for participating in séances or other dealings with spirits and the dead. Yet even if it is possible to communicate with the dead, the Bible very clearly says that attempting to do so is wrong (see Lv 19:31; 20:27; Dt 18:10–12; Is 8:19). The consequences for disobeying God in this matter were sometimes very dramatic. First Chronicles 10:13–14 explains that Saul’s unfaithfulness in this matter ended up costing him his life. As Ephesians 6:12 puts it, we are not in a battle against flesh and blood but rather “evil, spiritual forces.” For the time being, this earth is essentially Satan’s territory. Satan is not to be trusted, as he is likened to a roaring lion on the prowl, looking for easy targets and new victims (1Pt 5:8). By getting involved with witchcraft, Ouija boards, and other demonic practices, we open ourselves up to a world that is much more dark and dangerous than we could ever imagine.’ (Apologetics Study Bible For Students)

28:20 Saul quickly fell full length on the ground and was very afraid because of Samuel’s words. He was completely drained of energy, not having eaten anything all that day and night. 28:21 When the woman came to Saul and saw how terrified he was, she said to him, “Your servant has done what you asked. I took my life into my own hands and did what you told me. 28:22 Now it’s your turn to listen to your servant! Let me set before you a bit of bread so that you can eat. When you regain your strength, you can go on your way.”

Saul…was very afraid because of Samuel’s words – Saul sought Samuel’s guidance because of his fear of the Philistines.  But now he is, if anything, even more afraid.  He has visited the medium as a last resort.  But the hopelessness of his case has not been relieved.

Saul had not eaten anything all that day and night – He had a foolish habit of fasting before and during battles (1 Sam 14:28).  This coupled with the journey of six miles which he had just undertaken, together with his present stress levels, had left him exhausted.

The woman came to Saul and saw how terrified he was – Apparently, she had left (in terror?) Saul alone with Samuel.  Now she returns, to find Saul in obvious terror himself.

“Let me set before you a bit of bread” – ‘Though she could not save him from his fate, she could give him temporary help and comfort to strengthen his fainting spirits.’ (Baldwin)

‘All this was the outcome of Saul’s willingness to compromise with evil in order to escape the word of the Lord. It is hard to envisage a more terrible situation in which to find oneself.’ (Baldwin)

28:23 But he refused, saying, “I won’t eat!” Both his servants and the woman urged him to eat, so he gave in. He got up from the ground and sat down on the bed. 28:24 Now the woman had a well-fed calf at her home that she quickly slaughtered. Taking some flour, she kneaded bread and baked it without leaven. 28:25 She brought it to Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they arose and left that same night.

He refused, saying, “I won’t eat” – Suggesting again that he had vowed to fast in the run-up to the inevitable battle with the Philistines.

The woman had a well-fed calf at her home – According to Youngblood, such an animal was probably stabled within the house.

‘Any meal that included meat was special in ancient Israel, but one that included meat from a stall-fed animal was truly exceptional—a feast “fit for a king” (cf. Amos 6:4).’ (Bergen)

‘Like a condemned prisoner on death row dining on steak and champagne the night before his execution, Saul eats the fatted calf.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘It was a meal fit for a king. The trouble was, it was eaten by a man not fit to be king.’ (Woodhouse)

Baldwin describes this midnight feast:

‘In the middle of the night, in the dwelling of a woman who consulted the dead, Saul got up from the earth floor, sat on the bed, and watched all the familiar homely processes of preparing a meal, from the killing of the calf to the kneading of dough for baking (cf. Gen. 18:6–8). If the meal and its preparation were conducive to a feeling of normality (for it was a dinner fit for a king), that in itself was sinister, because Saul was soon—in a matter of hours—to be king no longer.’

They arose and left that same night – ‘Josephus here much admires the bravery and magnanimity of Saul, that, though he was assured he should lose both his life and honour, yet he would not desert his army, but resolutely returned to the camp, and stood ready for an engagement. I wonder more at the hardness of his heart, that he did not again apply to God by repentance and prayer, in hopes yet to obtain at least a reprieve; but he desperately ran headlong upon his own ruin.’ (MHC)

Into the night

‘They ate. Then they arose and left that same night.’

As Davis says, this reminds us of another gifted but tragic man, who at a morsel and then disappeared into the night:

John 13:30Judas took the piece of bread and went out immediately. (Now it was night.)’

But there was yet another who entered the darkness:

Mark 15:33fNow when it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  Around three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’

Davis concludes:

‘The glory of the gospel is that God’s Son went through the darkness of God’s absence for us, the darkness and agony of God-forsakenness. Is not Jesus’ cry of Mark 15:34 very much like “God has turned away from me and answers me no more” (v. 15 RSV)? At the Battle of Golgotha Jesus has walked out into the outer darkness in order that you might walk in the light of life. Now the question presses upon you: Have you yet been seeking this One who has endured the darkness for you?

1 Chron 10:13f draws a clear line from Saul’s behaviour as recorded in this chapter and his death in the next:

10:13 So Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD and did not obey the LORD’s instructions; he even tried to conjure up underworld spirits. 10:14 He did not seek the LORD’s guidance, so the LORD killed him and transferred the kingdom to David son of Jesse.

Payne (NBC) summarises:

‘The intention of this story is to emphasize Saul’s hopelessness—and to show how low he had sunk, when even a criminal helped to comfort him. For the woman was a criminal, by Saul’s own laws.’

Looking back over Saul’s life, Baldwin comments:

‘He did not realize that there is in all valid human leadership the need to be subject to a higher authority, ultimately that of God himself, and that this is a relief rather than a humiliation.’

Baldwin again:

‘Even after his death, the prophet Samuel speaks. ‘Neither cavern nor tomb, neither space nor time, limits the effective power of God’s word …’, but Saul receives the very message he had already heard. In the end, he had to do what he would in any case have done—face the enemy. The additional information, that within twenty-four hours he and his sons would be dead, was no help at all to his morale. Indeed he would have been better without it. He did himself no good by doing what he had decreed to be unlawful. God’s word stood and could not be altered. He should have believed it instead of thinking that by further consultation he could reverse its judgment. The Lord did not answer him, because there was no more to be said.’

Wiersbe concludes:

‘We can’t help but feel sorry for Saul, and yet at the same time, we must admit that he brought his plight on himself. Had he obeyed the Lord he wouldn’t have lost the kingdom, and had he stopped pursuing David and invested his time developing his army, he would have been better equipped to meet the Philistines at Jezreel. In spite of all the blessings God gave to Saul, and all the opportunities to grow spiritually, Saul was unprepared to lead, unprepared to fight, and unprepared to die.’

Dishonouring God leads to ruin

‘How far Saul has fallen! His royal career began with a special meal prepared by Samuel, after which Saul went forth to become king (1 Sam 9:19, 24; 10:1). Now he eats his last meal, prepared by a witch, and goes forth to certain death (1 Sam 28:19, 24–25). A lifetime of dishonoring (“underweighting”) God can lead only to ruin (cf. 1 Sam 2:29–30). By contrast, David, though flawed and sometimes failing, honors God by living in genuine relationship with him, and in return God gives him weight and rescues him (1 Sam 29:6–11). Without such a relationship, one is, like Saul, without God and without hope in the world (Eph. 2:12), but “for those who love God” and, like David, “are called according to his purpose,” “all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28).’ (Gospel Transformation Bible)