I Samuel 28. Saul in Panic
Key Notes: Trying to understand a Medium. Samuel brought back from his rest.
The story of Saul calling on a medium is full of puzzles but it is told by the narrator with care and sensitivity, if not sympathy for Saul. The role of mediums and wizards, their functions and credibility, and the status of Saul as God’s erring servant are in question. The status of the righteous dead in the OT is another issue. Although in the past, the whole episode has been dismissed as a deception or a fabrication, we will take it at face value.
28:1–3 The chapter begins with the prologue to chapter 29, the Philistines gathering to battle Israel and David preparing to go with them. That created tension which David will have to resolve later. Meanwhile, Saul, on the other side of the Philistine offensive, was faced with a quite different issue. The Philistines had previously penetrated across the land nearly to the Jordan in Judah, with a garrison at Bethlehem, for example. Now they are apparently planning to strike across the north at the level of the sea of Galilee, cutting Israel off from the trade routes to the north-- Mesopotamia, Asia and Europe.
28:4–6 Saul was faced with a Philistine army that made him lose confidence. He needed help, although he was a brave military commander and had defeated the Philistines and other enemies many times. (14:47–48). We are told four things in the preface.
*Samuel was dead. We have heard that before (25:1) but it is important here.
*Saul had driven out mediums and wizards out of Israel.
*The Philistines were massing an army too great for Israel.
*Saul was alone, afraid, trembling.
28:7–14 Saul found a medium in Endor, near Nazareth. He went in disguise with two of his men and asked her to call up a spirit. She thought she was in a trap because Saul had all but eliminated the mediums and wizards from Israel. He promised (”as the Lord lives”) that she would not be punished. At once she would understand that only one person—the king--could make such a statement. Saul called for Samuel. When she saw Samuel, she knew her client was Saul. She saw a god ("elohim") rising from the earth, an old man wrapped in a robe. (The word Elohim, one of the names for God, is also used for the rulers and judges of Israel. (Psa.82:6). Saul fell on his face in worship.
28:15–19 Whether Saul could see Samuel we are not sure, but what he heard was enough.
Samuel asked why he had been disturbed and Saul replied that God had turned away from him and Samuel was his only hope. Samuel offered him no hope.
*Samuel was God’s spokesman still, and God had turned from Saul and become his enemy.
*The kingdom has been torn from him and given to David.
*He was being punished for disobeying the Lord in regard to Amalek.
*God will give him and his army up to the Philistines. The next day he and his sons would be dead, in the grave with Samuel.
28:20–25 This was a nightmare. Who could endure such a bitter verdict? Saul could not. He fell on his face. He was petrified, prostrate on the ground and limp from hunger. Now the medium went to work. She was thoughtful, even maternal. She had taken her life in her hands to listen to him and grant his petition. Now he must listen to her and eat something. He got up from the ground and sat on the bed. She made fresh veal and unleavened bread. Saul ate with his servants. Then they went out into the night.
I feel sorry for Saul. He had come to the end of his rope and it had been cut. He was doomed. To his credit, he went on into the battle anyway. It was his duty and he went down fighting. Let us see if we can understand what God was doing.
Was Saul wrong to go to a medium?
“Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them; I am the Lord your God.” (Lev.19:31. Also Deut.18:10–11))
“A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones, their blood shall be upon them.” (Lev.20:27)
But wasn’t this medium kind? And was she not serving God’s purposes?
Common grace is given to believers and unbelievers alike. Cyrus of Persia is another who served God without understanding. (Isa.45:1–6). The wicked are not without love and generosity, religious and civic responsibility.
Did Saul know God? Saul spoke of God perhaps‘ times.
Twice he prayed “O Lord God of Israel” (I Sam.14:41)
He used the word “God” repeatedly. ((9:7,8; 14:18; 28:15)
Twice he swore “as the Lord lives”. (19:6, 28:19)
He spoke of “The Lord who saves Israel” (14:19) and used the name “the Lord” in other places (13:12; 15:20; 17:37, 24:19,21)
He confessed sin of not doing what God commanded. “I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words.” (15:24)
In the presence of Samuel he deferred to “the Lord your God.” (15:15,21,30)
Was God not with Saul? Four times the Spirit of God came upon him.
Samuel had prophesied that “you shall…be turned into another man.” (I Sam.10:6),
“God gave him another heart”. ( I Sam.10:9).
“The Spirit of God came mightily upon him, and he prophesied among them” (a band of prophets.) (I Sam. 10:10).
When he was confronted with the Ammonite threat, “…the Spirit of God came mightily upon Saul…and his anger was greatly kindled.”
Then why did God leave Saul? After Saul’s first and second disobedience (offering sacrifice; Amalek), he was rejected as king over Israel. With David’s anointing, the Spirit of God left Saul and he was tormented by his jealousy of David. (16:14, 23;‘:10;’:9)
Did Saul deserve such severe punishment?
His sin in the Amalek affair is called “rebellion” and “stubbornness”. We know that he made a monument to himself (15:11), suggesting that he was very proud of his achievement. He protested that he had done at he was told to Amalek but Samuel disagreed. (15:15–21). We are not clear about his attitude toward Samuel and God, but he had already been rejected as head of a dynasty for his disobedience at Gilgal. (13:8–15)
Many other kings have done worse, but Saul’s record was not good.
Saul slaughtered the Gibeonites. (IISam.21:1) with whom Joshua had made a treaty of protection. hundreds of years before.
Saul slaughtered 85 members of Eli’s priestly family and their wives and children—an atrocity—by the hand of an Edomite servant. ((22:17–19)
He tried nine times to murder David and broke his oath not to harm him. (19:6)
Was Saul doomed?
“The Lord has turned from you and become your enemy”. (28:16)
What lesson can there be for us in this sad story?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt.7:21)
Since the appearance of Samuel after his death is a Old Testament event unique for its clarity and detail, we might ask what we can learn from it.
*The medium was frightened by Samuel. She was in foreign territory, a unique experience for her. She may never have seen the real thing before.
*Samuel came up from the grave, not down from Heaven. He was not resurrected.
*He had been resting comfortably, apparently conscious, and he was not pleased to be disturbed.
*He looked as he did during his life, an old man in his usual clothes. His mind had not disintegrated, although his body was aged.
*He looked like a god, a man of power, not like a disembodied ghost. There was nothing vague about him and no misunderstanding of who he was.
*He remembered his life as a servant of God and still spoke for God with clarity and force. He knew Saul’s past and his future exactly, as we expect a prophet could.
We are not free to ignore this unique event, especially in view of other text descriptive of the grave (Sheol), notably Ezekiel 32:17–32. Other notes on life after death in the OT are found in Job, “Afterlife.”