This entry is part 15 of 101 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
1 Sam 16:14 – ‘Now the Spirit of the LORD had turned away from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.’
Bergen describes this as a very unusual form of expression: unique, indeed, in the OT.
It could equally be translated, ‘troublesome’ spirit.
It was a condition which (as Bergen notes) Saul himself was unable to deal with. It was his attendants who ‘diagnosed’ it, and they who suggested an effective treatment.
1. Some think that the explanation of demon possession is at least plausible:
‘All circumstances, good and evil, pleasant or unpleasant, were seen as coming from the all-powerful Lord. The evil spirit in this instance is as likely to be a bad temper as some supernatural intervention. However, given Saul’s later uncontrollable or at least uncontrolled fits, the explanation of demon possession would be understandable.’ (Evans, UBCS)
In her BST commentary, Evans stresses that nowhere is the evil spirit held responsible for Saul’s behaviour. He himself is responsible.
This interpretation goes back at least as far as Josephus:
‘But as for Saul, some strange and demonical disorders came upon him, and brought upon him such suffocations as were ready to choke him.’ (Cited by Kaiser, HSB)
Kaiser also quotes Keil and Delitzsch, who say that:
This ‘was not merely an inward feeling of depression at the rejection announced to him, … but a higher evil power, which took possession of him, and not only deprived him of his peace of mind, but stirred up the feelings, ideas, imagination, and thoughts of his soul to such an extent that at times it drove him even into madness. This demon is called “an evil spirit [coming] from Jehovah” because Jehovah sent it as a punishment.’
William Taylor (David: his Life and its Lessons) supports this view, adding: ‘He that will do evil of his own choice is ultimately given over to evil as his master.’
Klein (WBS) appears to assume, without much theological analysis, that this is what the author meant.
But this need not refer to a demonic spirit. The word lit. means ‘a tormenting spirit’, and this may refer either to the character of the spirit, or to its effect on Saul.
2. For Bergen (NAC) this was, perhaps, an angel of judgement:
‘it is possible—and perhaps preferable—to interpret the text not to mean that the Lord sent a morally corrupt demon but rather another sort of supernatural being—an angel of judgment (cf. 2 Kgs 19:35)—against Saul that caused him to experience constant misery.’
3. Payne (NBC) insists that, while Saul, because of his disobedience, lost God’s Spirit, nevertheless his state of mind was still under God’s control:
‘The biblical writer is making the point that as David (the future king) gained the Spirit of Yahweh, so Saul (the rejected king) lost it; and God so controlled events that Saul’s loss led him to need music, and Saul’s own courtier led him to David. In that sense Saul’s evil spirit, his anxious state of mind, was under God’s control.’
‘The Torah was a path of life, and obedience to the Torah resulted in life and blessing. To disobey Torah requirements was to leave the path of life and enter into the realm of judgment and death. Through his repeated disobedience to the Torah requirements Saul had entered into a living, personal judgment that God brought against him. This punishment was carried out by a divinely created agent of judgment, “an evil [or “troubling”] spirit from the LORD.”’
‘That God uses alien spirits to serve him is taken for granted in the OT (cf. esp. 2 Sa 24:1 with 1 Ch 21:1). On occasion God’s people “were not very concerned with determining secondary causes and properly attributing them to the exact cause. Under the divine providence everything ultimately was attributed to him; why not say he did it in the first place?” (Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Hard Sayings, 131; cf. also Archer, 180: “Saul’s evil bent was by the permission and plan of God. We must realize that in the last analysis all penal consequences come from God, as the Author of the moral law and the one who always does what is right [Gen 18:25]”’
Klein agrees that
the OT frequently ascribes evil or temptation to the hand of Yahweh (e.g. Deut 13:2–4; Amos 3:6; 2 Sam 24:1; 1 Chr 21:1). God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem (Judg 9:23) and a lying spirit in the mouth of the false prophets at the time of Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19–22).
Kaiser, perhaps, attempts greater theological precision than the text allows:
‘All this happened by the permission of God rather than as a result of his directive will, for God cannot be the author of anything evil. But the exact source of Saul’s torment cannot be determined with any degree of certitude. The Lord may well have used a messenger, or even just an annoying sense of disquietude and discontent. Yet if Saul really was a believer—and I think there are enough evidences to affirm that he was—then it is difficult to see how he could have been possessed by a demon. Whether believers can be possessed by demons, however, is still being debated by theologians.’
D.A. Carson has a helpful discussion of the ‘ultimacy’ of God’s purposes in OT teaching:
The Old Testament writers do not shy away from making Yahweh himself in some mysterious way (the mysteriousness of which safeguards him from being himself charged with evil) the ‘ultimate’ cause of many evils.
The following are just a few instances of this:
- Micaiah’s description of the heavenly courts and the selection of a lying spirit whose success is guaranteed (1 Kgs. 22:19–22; 2 Chr. 18:18–22),
- the inciting of David to evil purpose (2 Sam. 24:1),
- the selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen. 50:20),
- the sending forth of evil spirits to their appointed tasks (e.g. Judg. 9:23ff.; 1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10),
- the prologue of Job,
not to mention the specific remarks of the prophets (e.g. ‘Does evil (rā‘āh) befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?’ Amos 3:6; cf. Isa. 14:24–7; 45:7), all clamour for attention.
(Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility, p28f, bulleting added)
Most (but not all) of these relate to divine judgement. According to Calvin:
‘The spirit of the Lord that troubled Saul is called “evil” because the sins of the impious king were punished by it as by a lash [1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10].’ (Institutes, I, xiv, 17)
‘The impure spirit is called “spirit of God” because it responds to his will and power, and acts rather as God’s instrument than by itself as the author.’ (Institutes, II, iv, 5)
Matthew Henry comments:
‘The devil, by the divine permission, troubled and terrified Saul, by means of the corrupt humours of his body and passions of his mind. He grew fretful, and peevish, and discontented, timorous and suspicious, ever and anon starting and trembling…This made him unfit for business, precipitate in his counsels, the contempt of his enemies, and a burden to all about him.’