Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. 1 Samuel 16:14
This is a verse that often troubles Christians: how can a pure and holy God send “an evil spirit” upon King Saul, however badly he had failed in his kingship?
We know, of course, that God is the Lord of all creation, including the powers of darkness, and nothing happens but by his permission. So he can, if he chooses, use even evil spirits for his purpose. But still the words “an evil spirit from the Lord” strike a somewhat jarring note.
The simplest explanation is that the word “evil” doesn’t mean what it often means in the New Testament when speaking about “spirits” – that is, malicious and wicked messengers of Satan. Several commentators suggest alternatives which are much less loaded: “injurious” or “harmful”, perhaps, rather than “evil”.
One Old Testament expert says: “What seems to happen is that Saul is afflicted from now on by a nasty spirit…” Another points out that ever since Saul was confronted by the prophet Samuel for his disobedience to God, he began to show signs of what today would probably be called a depression-type illness, with fits of extreme irrationality.
Some modern Bible translations reflect this way of taking the text. The Message translates: “a black mood sent by God settled on him” (though I’m not sure that the word “black” is very good in our modern world). The English Standard Version has “a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him”.
In other words, when we read in the New Testament about “evil spirits” we are in effect reading about the devil. But in Old Testament passages like 1 Samuel 16 there may be no moral tinge to the word – in essence it just means “bad”, a word which may carry moral implications, but not necessarily.
If, for example, we refer to “a bad man”, that obviously does imply moral judgment. But we might also talk about a bad free kick (“rubbish!”) or a bad smell (“ugh!”) or a bad dream (“disturbing!”) or bad weather “(oh no!”) or a bad headache (“pass the paracetamols!”) which don’t. That little three-letter word is very good at multi-tasking!
I think it helps too to notice the immediately preceding verse in 1 Samuel 16 – verse 13: “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him [David] in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David.”
We are reading about an act of transfer by God: the Spirit of God is given in a special way to David – but this involves the withdrawal of the Spirit from Saul. It’s as if God is saying, “Sorry, Saul, but you lost your way, so now I am transferring my favour to David.”
I think this way of understanding verse 14 makes good sense.
Having said all that, though, we might still feel that a bit of a problem remains: why would God afflict anyone with something bad, even if it’s not to be understood in demonic terms?
The answer, I think, can only be this: if, as result of our disobedience, we forfeit the mercy of God, then as a sign of his judgment he allows us, so to speak, to stew in our own juice. That doesn’t mean he no longer loves us, or that we are cast off eternally, but is God’s way of bringing us to our senses. (Sadly, it would seem that that never happened in the case of Saul – the rest of his story describes him sinking into ever-deeper estrangement from God.)
This thought seems to be confirmed by other Bible passages. Paul, for example, in Romans 1, three times states that God “gave over” to sin those who refused to submit to the truth of God (verses 24, 26 and 28). Is that pretty much what happens to Saul? Another parallel can be found in 1 Corinthians 5:5, where Paul tells the Christians of Corinth to “hand over to Satan” the man guilty of sexual immorality – though (notice this, please!) “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord”.
I wonder, then, if Saul from his earliest days suffered with some form of depression which God protected him from when he made him king. But now that Saul has shown himself unfit for kingship, God, by withdrawing his grace, allows his weakness to re-assert itself.
Whatever, the fate of Saul is sobering and challenging. May such a grim punishment never befall us! Remember the warning of 1 Corinthians 10:12: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”
Lord God, you are a holy and just God, perfect in all you do. And you love us enough to discipline us when we fall short. Help me, then, never to take your grace for granted, but to live a life of daily obedience. Amen.
I am grateful to my friend Sue for suggesting this topic. If there is a topic or verse you would like to suggest, just let me know. No promises! – but I’ll do my best.