Saul’s Demon

The question came from the other side of the living room. I had just finished a lesson in my small group on Samuel’s anointing of David as Israel’s next king, when one of my group members said, “I want to know how you interpret the next passage.” I looked at the next passage and because I had not studied it for the lesson I asked if I could take a look at it and come back with a lesson on it later. By the way, that’s a smart move in dealing with a question like that. It avoids an “off the cuff” answer.

The passage in question was about the evil spirit that tormented King Saul, found in I Samuel 16:14-23. The passage begins, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from the Lord began to torment him, so Saul’s servants said to him, “You see that an evil spirit from God is tormenting you” (I Samuel 16:14-15, HCSB). Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, was the first king over Israel. He came into power with much fanfare and celebration. God’s Spirit was upon him from the time of his anointing (I Samuel 10:9-10). Saul won major victories against the enemies of Israel. He was just what the people wanted so that they could be just like the nations around them. Then, things started to go bad.

King Saul sinned. Displaying a lack of faith, he offered sacrifices before battle in direct violation of Samuel’s instructions. He acted rashly toward his own son Jonathan by threatening to kill him. Saul also violated God’s instructions to completely destroy the Amalekites by sparing their king. The pattern of Saul’s life and kingship seems to be freelancing. Even though God’s spirit is with him, Saul doesn’t seem committed.

One of the saddest phrases in the Bible is in verse 14, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul.” When God’s Spirit left, Saul was left open. He is tormented by “an evil spirit.” The Jewish writer Josephus said, “But as for Saul, some strange and demoniacal disorders came upon him, and brought upon him such suffocations as were ready to choke him” (Antiquities 6.8.2). Could the manifestation of evil spirit have produced a suffocating depression upon Saul? The evil spirit produced psychotic behavior in Saul, as demonstrated by the incident in which Saul tried to put a spear through David (I Samuel 18:10-11). However, the music of David eased Saul’s tensions (I Samuel 16:23). There is a connection between music and the relief of depression symptoms. Judging from the Psalms, many of which were written by David, the songs on David’s playlist were uplifting.

There is another phrase in those first two verse which, at first glance, seems troubling. The evil spirit was “sent from the Lord.” But, when the example of Job is brought into the picture, the passage can be brought into proper focus. God permits Satan to inflict troubles on Job, but under strict controls. The same dynamic seems to be in operation here. The evil spirit is allowed to torment Saul by God’s permission and under God’s ultimate control.

The skeptic might ask if God is the author of an evil act. But, the answer must be no. I think it can be demonstrated that God has two morally justifiable purposes for allowing the evil. First, Saul could have repented from his acts and his disregard for God. Also, David was brought into Saul’s presence by the court ministers, thus giving David, the future king, an inside seat and primer on the kingship.

Perhaps David’s repentance after his sin with Bathsheba was informed by the experience of Saul, the evil spirit, and his depression. That may be the lesson for us. There are consequences for sin which plague us if left unresolved. However, repentance and restoration is always available for us, just as it was for Saul.

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