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The miserable King Saul is now approaching the very end of his life, and he is terrified. In that terror, he casts about for a word of certainty, but what he is given provides no comfort for him.
“And it came to pass in those days, that the Philistines gathered their armies together for warfare, to fight with Israel. And Achish said unto David, Know thou assuredly, that thou shalt go out with me to battle, thou and thy men . . .” (1 Sam. 28:1-25).
Summary of the Text
The chapter begins with a Philistine determination to go to war with Israel (v. 1). Achish invites David to go, and David agrees. Achish then says that David will be his personal bodyguard (v. 2). We are then reminded that Samuel had died, and was buried. Further, Saul had suppressed the mediums and the necromancers (v. 3). The Philistines mustered their forces, and Saul gathered all his troops on Mt. Gilboa (v. 4). When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was terrified (v. 5). Saul then inquired of the Lord, but did not hear back—neither by dreams, nor by the Urim, nor by prophets (v. 6). So Saul asks his servants to find him a medium, and he is told that there is one at Endor (v. 7). So Saul took off his royal robe, disguised himself, and came to her and asked for her services (v. 8). The woman suspects a trap (v. 9). So Saul swore in the name of the Lord that she would be safe (v. 10). So she asked who she should summon, and Saul replies that Samuel should be brought up (v. 11). When the woman saw Samuel, she realized that her client was Saul (v. 12). Saul reassures her, and asks what she had seen. She replies she had seen a judge (lit. gods) coming up from Sheol (v. 13). When she describes him and his robe, Saul prostrates himself (v. 14). Samuel asks why he has been disturbed, and Saul tells him his dilemma (v. 15). “Why ask me?” Samuel asks (v. 16). The Lord is going to do what He spoke through me before (v. 17), only this time David is mentioned by name (v. 18). This all goes back to Amalek (v. 18). Within the next day, Israel will be defeated, and Saul and his sons will be with Samuel (v. 19). Saul collapsed at this information (v. 20). The witch appeals to him, asking him to eat (vv. 21-22). Saul initially refuses, but she and his servants prevail upon him (v. 23). She prepared a meal for them, they ate, and then departed (vv. 24-25).
David is being set up—and it looks as though he might be in a really bad jam. But he is nevertheless trusting in the Lord. Saul is also in a dilemma. He tries to get help from the Lord, on his own terms, but when that fails, he turns away. The Lord did not speak to him by kingly means (dreams), or by priestly means (the Urim), or by prophets. These were lawful means of getting guidance and direction. Throughout Scripture, God gave Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Solomon dreams—but for Saul nothing. And Saul had no access to the ephod, which was with David in Ziklag, and he had murdered all the priests of Nob. He used to have a prophet, Samuel, but would not do what Samuel said. Saul takes off his kingly robe in order to meet a dead Samuel, dressed in his prophetic robe. Samuel tells him that his kingly robe will be removed for good within a day.
The Bible and Magic
Saul had rightly suppressed the practice of witchcraft in the land (v. 9). But there was still a demand for their services—they were still around. The law clearly forbade this kind of thing (Lev. 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:10-12; 1 Sam. 15:23). But what kind of thing was it? Mediums consulted the dead, and necromancers spoke on behalf of the dead. The two went together (Is. 8:19). There was a great deal of spookaloo special effects involved— Isaiah speaks of wizards who “chirp and mutter.” So the indications are that the “familiar spirit” that this woman had was simply a demon who impersonated the dead. When she got the real deal Samuel, she was astonished.
But Samuel here was a prophet—one who foretold the future when he was alive and when he was dead. He was identified by his robe, the robe that Saul had torn as a sign that he was going to have the kingdom torn from him.
In our rejection of this prohibited wizardry (which must be a robust rejection), we must not make the deadly mistake of thinking that it is a choice between occult miracles on the one hand and the natural laws of Jeffersonian Deism on the other. Moses split the Red Sea. Moses had a staff that turned into a snake that could eat other staves turned serpents. Elijah made meal and oil last way past their natural limits (1 King 17:16). Jesus turned water to wine, walked on water, and raised the dead. What should we call that? Certainly not magic in one sense—but certainly magical in another.
What is the distinction? The basic distinction is between autonomy, rebellion, disobedience and manipulation on the one hand, and obedience and wisdom on the other.
Point of No Return
Earlier in this series we considered the possibility that Saul was saved. He certainly wrecked his life and his reign through his disobedience, and he got to the point where he could not hold things together. He was a tyrant, and he never escaped the consequences of his sins. But there is another hint here—Samuel tells him that within a day, he and his sons will be with Samuel (v. 19). This could simply mean that he will be dead like Samuel. But Samuel came up out of the earth, indicating he was from Sheol (Hades). If Samuel was in “Abraham’s bosom,” then there is a possibility that Saul would join him there among the forgiven.
Saul ended his life trying to “hear” from Samuel, and then he partook of a table of demons. His attempts to manipulate and control came to a sorry end. He took an oath “as the Lord lives,” telling a medium that he would not obey the law of God in her instance. The result should not be surprising. Thus always to compromisers.