1 Samuel 16:14 says God sent an evil spirit to torment king Saul. What do we make of this?
1 SAMUEL #15. 1 SAMUEL CHAPTER 16:14-23
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Now the Spirit of the LORD had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from the LORD began to torment him… (1Sam 16:14)
When we first read this, it almost feels like one of the most troubling verses in the Bible. I believe, however, when we really understand what was going here, it becomes one more instance for us to thank God for his incredible grace to human beings.
First, let’s remember the context. Saul, since the very first record of him in the Bible, has either ignored God, or considered Him a tool to be manipulated and used. Time after time, Saul betrayed his own securities. Time after time, he refused to trust God, and sought instead to protect his own interests. When he did worship God, it was to get the people to remain in the army, or to try and manipulate God into helping him. Saul represents the very worst in religious leaders – he tries to use religion as a way to exercise power over others, all the while avoiding personal trust in the Living God.
Finally, the Lord told Samuel that he had rejected Saul as king. God simply could not use Saul as His chosen instrument in that generation – Saul wouldn’t let him. After this, God directed Samuel to David – a boy who had given his heart fully to God. David became God’s chosen instrument in that generation. (Remember in those days, Jesus had not come, and so the Lord worked usually only through one or two people at one time. Today, all believers are the given the Holy Spirit. We are all supposed to be his chosen instruments in this generation)
Now, to understand what happens next, to make sense of God sending an evil spirit to Saul, we need to understand this situation completely. God rejected Saul from being king. He rejected him as God’s chosen instrument for that generation. Samuel makes this quite clear (1 Samuel 15:23). But this does not mean that God has given up on Saul as a person.
When I was a child, I remember I desperately wanted a knife. A knife represented power and maturity. It was both weapon and a tool. It was the next logical step in my progression to responsible adulthood. After a lot of powerful legal maneuvering on my part, I got my parents to give me one. Looking back, I realize now that my wise parents gave me a tiny pen-knife, something I couldn’t do much damage with. But back then, after carrying it around for a while, I realized that I wasn’t really using it. Out in our yard we had a clothesline made of rope. I opened my knife and took a swing at it. To my delight the line parted like the waters of the red sea. Later on I examined the metal fly-screen on one of our windows. I wonder if this knife will cut metal? I thought. There was really only one way to find out. It did. I was awed by the power I held.
I don’t remember much about the discipline that followed these incidents. But I do know this: my parents continued to love me and teach me, while at the same time, they took away the knife until I was older. I wasn’t ready for that kind of power. Even so, they loved me, and didn’t reject me. They just rejected the idea of me with a knife.
I think that when they took the knife away, I was probably more upset about losing the knife than I was about the fact that I had done wrong. I don’t remember, but I probably had to be disciplined in other ways so that I could see that what I had done was wrong.
Saul is in this situation. When Samuel tells him that the Lord has rejected him as king, Saul is naturally upset. But to me, it reads like he is upset about losing his position as God’s chosen instrument, far more than he is upset about the fact that he hasn’t trusted God. As we continue through 1 Samuel, we will see that this is in fact the truth.
Now, even though God rejected Saul as king, as His chosen instrument, God does not force Saul to abdicate the crown. He remains king until the day he dies. He just isn’t God’s chosen king. What grace – that God allowed him to continue as king, even when he couldn’t use him.
Second, though he is rejected as king, what 1 Samuel 16:14 means is that God did not leave Saul alone. He was still working on him, trying to bring him to a place of repentance and trust. If God’s plan was just to send Saul to hell, he could have let him be killed soon after. Short of that, he could have simply ignored Saul, and left him to his own selfish insecurities until he died naturally.
Instead, God sent an evil spirit to torment him. Now, we know that those who go to hell will suffer in torment, likely torment augmented by evil spirits. So why did God let it start before Saul even died? Was he just especially vindictive toward Saul? That isn’t the kind of God that the rest of the bible reveals. So why else would God do this?
To bring Saul to true repentance.
There are several other places in the Old Testament where the Lord used evil spirits to accomplish his purposes: Judges 9:23-24, 1 Kings 22:18-23; 1 Samuel 24:1 (combined with 1 Chronicles 21:1); and Job 1:6-12. In each case the picture we get is the Lord allowing an evil spirit to affect a particular person or group. In each case, the evil spirit wants to do the evil, but must get permission from God first. God’s permission seems to be limited to what will accomplish his purpose. In most of these cases, the purpose is to bring judgment, and if possible, repentance.
Therefore, as we look at the whole of the Bible, I think the most accurate way to understand this is that the Lord allowed a demonic spirit to have a certain limited influence on Saul, with the purpose of bringing Saul to repentance and true faith. When we look at what follows, I think the text confirms this.
Saul’s courtiers recognize that at times, he seems to be affected by something evil in heart or mind. They think the problem might be eased by music. Their search for a musician leads them to David – who is now the chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit. They get David, who is still quite young, to come and play and sing for Saul. Listen to the result:
23 Whenever the spirit from God troubled Saul, David would pick up his lyre and play, and Saul would then be relieved, feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. (1Sam 16:23, HCSB)
God allowed the spirit to trouble Saul. But he also gave Saul the means to be free from it. And what freed Saul from the evil spirit was the Holy Spirit, working through David. In other words, even though the Lord couldn’t use Saul as his chosen instrument any more, He was not just abandoning Saul as a person. He gave him a problem that could only be fixed if Saul would trust the Lord, and rely on the Holy Spirit’s work through David. He was trying to teach Saul to have genuine faith.
Do you see what grace the Lord has on Saul? Saul viewed God as a tool, and paid attention to Him only when he could see some benefit from it. And yet the Lord originally chose Saul to be His tool. When Saul could not be used as his tool anymore, the Lord did not just cast him aside. He still worked to get Saul into a true, heart-and-faith relationship with Himself.
There are so many applications here. First, this is a great faith-strengthener for me. I used to view this passage as one of the most troubling in the Old Testament. Now, I can hardly stop praising God for his incredible grace to people like Saul, and me.
I think of the words of CS Lewis:
“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
God wasn’t being mean. He was trying to get Saul’s attention. He was trying to get at his heart. The writer of Hebrews puts it like this:
5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons: My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly or faint when you are reproved by Him, 6 for the Lord disciplines the one He loves and punishes every son He receives. 7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline — which all receive — then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5-11, HCSB)
If you are female, I want to reiterate that you too are a “son.” In Hebrew culture, it was the son that carried the father’s name, the son that inherited from the father. So too, all of us who are in Jesus, whether we are male or female, are counted as God’s chosen people to receive and inherit his grace. Sometimes we have to endure discipline in order to mature and receive it. This discipline is positive, not negative. It is a sign of God’s grace, not of anger or rejection.
If God was still trying to reach Saul’s heart, after all the ways that Saul had rejected him, you can be sure He won’t give up on you either. Turn to him, and receive that amazing grace.
Another thing that strikes me about this passage is the role of music. The Holy Spirit used music to try and reach the heart of Saul. I mentioned this last time as well. Music can be a powerful tool in God’s hands to call to our hearts. Five-hundred years ago, Martin Luther wrote: “He who sings, prays twice.” He was right. Pay attention to the music that speaks to your heart. Let God use it to draw you to Himself.
One other thing that amazes me as I read this passage. Even today, we know some of the songs that gave Saul peace and relief. They were written and played by David, and we have many them preserved for us in the book of Psalms. Many times when my heart is troubled, I find relief from reading the psalms, and even singing some of the modern songs that are made from them. I encourage all of us to do that.
Take a moment to pray and let the Lord speak to you about this scripture now.
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