Text; 1 Samuel 28:3-25
‘Strange but true’
The Bible contains a number of ‘strange but true’ stories:
- A talking donkey (who talks more sense than its master, Num 22).
- A message in the stars (that leads a bunch of pagan astrologers to Israel’s new-born King, Mt 2).
- A mountain-top meeting between Jesus and Moses and Elijah, both of whom had departed this life hundreds of years earlier (the Transfiguration, Mt 17; Mk 9; Lk 9).
1 Samuel 28 relates another of these ‘one-off’ incidents.
King Saul is scared out of his wits. He’s looking across the valley at the mighty Philistine army. He’s thinking, “I don’t know what to do.”
Without God (who isn’t speaking to him), or David (who has defected to the other side, or so it seems), or Samuel (who is dead), what can he do?
“If only Samuel was here – he’d know what to do.”
Saul knows that all attempts to communicate with the dead are absolutely forbidden. In fact, in one of his better moments, he has banished all the mediums and spiritists from the land, v3.
All bar one, as it turns out. And “desperate times require desperate measures,” he reasons.
So, in disguise and under cover of darkness, he makes his way to Endor.
“Bring up Samuel from his grave,” he tells the medium.
Now comes the ‘strange but true’ bit. To the obvious shock of the woman herself, v12, Samuel does indeed appear! But he has no words of guidance or reassurance for Saul. It’s just the same old message: “You have defied the living God, and he has rejected you as king. Your kingdom will be handed over to David; tomorrow you will die.”
Desolate and defeated, Saul is persuaded to eat supper – his last supper. Then he disappears into the night. Everything that Samuel has told him will come true.
It’s a disaster. But, as with any disaster, whether it’s a train crash, a major fire or a pandemic, there must be a thorough investigation, and lessons must be learned.
1. No, God may not always reply to your messages
How about you? Are you are more of a victim, or a culprit, when it comes to not replying to messages? I remember a student of mine confiding, “I keep send texts to my dad, but often he completely ignores them.”
What about God? We are told that ‘God always answers prayer, either by saying, ‘Yes’, ‘No’, or ‘Wait’.
But, according to v6, – Saul ‘inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him.’
There are other, very different, occasions when God has seemed distant and unresponsive. In Psa 22, David cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And Jesus repeats those very words from the cross (Mt 27:46).
In Saul’s case the words of Isaiah (59:1f) apply: ‘Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.’
Are you on speaking terms with God? If not, why not? And what do you think you can do about it?
2. It’s not all about you (or me)
In v15, Saul complains to Samuel: “I am in great distress. The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”
Did you notice: it’s ‘me, me, me’!
What a contrast with David. 1 Sam 17:45 – ‘David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”’
No-where is this contrast seen more clearly when they have done wrong. Saul’s repentance (ch. 15) is full of excuses and blame-shifting. He’s like a child who says, ‘Sorry!’ but doesn’t really mean it. David committed some terrible sins. But Psa 51 shows him taking responsibility for them and wholeheartedly seeking reconciliation with God:
‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.’
For Saul, it was all about saving his own skin. For David, it was about knowing and honouring and loving God.
Do we desire God merely as an insurance policy, or for himself? Are we interested in Jesus just for the personal benefits he confers, or because we long for his name to be honoured? Do we seek the Holy Spirit because we want a comfort blanket, or because we want to be holy, just as he is holy?
However you cut the cake, the order is always the same in Scripture – whether it’s the Ten Commandments, or the two greatest commandments, or the Lord’s Prayer – God first, others next, yourself after that.
JOY – Jesus first, then others, then yourself.
3. We do not have all the time in the world
According to Acts 13:21, Saul reigned for 40 years.
That’s a lot of time to learn from your errors.
But his life was one of repeated disobedience. He disobeyed the Lord at Gilboa, ch 13, then again at Gilgal, ch 15. He slaughtered God’s priests, ch 22. He drove David to distraction, and in the process neglected to be a proper king to his people. He ignored the warnings of that faithful prophet, Samuel. And, in the middle of all this mayhem, he built a monument to himself.
In the end, time ran out for him. He had left it too late.
Scripture underlines the importance of ‘Today’. ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts….Now is God’s acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.’
Jesus had some stern words about not leaving it too late. Lk 12:20 – ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you!’
Two criminals were put to death at the same time as Jesus. One was saved, so that no one may despair. But only one, that no one may presume.
Someone has said, ‘some expect to repent of their sin at the eleventh hour but die at 1030.’
So don’t delay. ‘All the while thou delayest, God is more provoked, the wicked one more encouraged, thy heart more hardened, thy debts more increased, thy soul more endangered, and all the difficulties of conversion more and more multiplied upon thee, having a day more to repent of, and a day less to repent in’ (George Swinnock).
4. There is another story you can step into
This story of Saul interrupts that of David, the ‘king after God’s own heart.’. In fact, v2 had left the reader with a cliffhanger regarding what would happen to him.
But let me jump directly to the story of ‘great David’s greater Son.’
For there was another tragic character whose mind was set on evil, who sat down to eat supper with his friends, and then left to betray his Master. Jn 13:30 – ‘As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.’
But there was another story going on at the same time. For, at that very moment, the story of Jesus was approaching its climax.
Within a few short hours
- he himself would experience darkness, so that we might be brought into God’s marvellous light;
- he would be forsaken by God, so that we might be reconciled to God.
- He would die and rise again, so that we might die and rise with him.
There is a way back to God.
- However far you may have strayed, there is a way back;
- Wherever you now find yourself, there is a way back;
- No matter how many times you have tried to amend your ways, there is a way back;
- However long you have left it, it is still not too late, there is a way back.
All we, like Saul, were ‘without hope and without God in the world’, but now those who are in Christ have been brought near through his blood. (Eph 2:12f)
And that’s the most wonderful ‘strange but true’ story of them all.
[As usual, I benefited from the writings of a number of faithful scholars as I prepared this message. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the work of Dale Ralph Davis in pointing out the similarity between Saul’s behaviour that of Judas, as mentioned under point 4, above.]