Saul begins to reap the deadly benefits of religion without relationship.
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1 SAMUEL PART#27. Chapter 28
Remember all that we have learned about king Saul. One of the most important things we discovered is that he was a religious man, but not a man of faith. Time after time, when he felt he could somehow use or exploit God, he did so. But when he was confident in himself, or when he felt that God had nothing to offer him, he ignored God. He had the trappings of religion and he used them to control others and manipulate God. But he did not live in a day to day walk of faith, trusting God in all things, relating to him, loving him. The depths of Saul’s spiritual poverty are revealed in 1 Samuel chapter 28.
Saul, having no real trust in God, was terrified when he saw the Philistines. Now consider something. Every time Saul was involved in a battle with the Philistines up to this point, God saved the Israelites. The Lord used Jonathan in chapter 13, and David in chapter 17, and several other times. But none of that seemed to make any difference to Saul. He was just as scared and faithless as he had always been.
I want to pause and say something about that here. Sometimes we think that if God just did a miracle for us, then we would really trust him. If we saw the Lord do something really great, then we wouldn’t doubt, then we wouldn’t disobey or draw back in fear. But that wasn’t the case with Saul. God’s previous miracles didn’t matter. The same was true with the first Israelites who came out of Egypt. They saw many miracles. Their food and water were daily miracles. And yet it did not help them to have faith and surrender to the Lord.
Jesus addressed this issue in his own ministry. Though he did many miracles, often people came and demanded miracles on the spot – basically asking him to prove himself to them. Jesus addressed this Luke 11:27-29:
27 As He was saying these things, a woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “The womb that bore You and the one who nursed You are blessed! ” 28 He said, “Even more, those who hear the word of God and keep it are blessed! ” 29 As the crowds were increasing, He began saying: “This generation is an evil generation. It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. (Luke 11:27-29, HCSB)
John records that many miracles (‘signs’) still did not convince people who did not want to be convinced:
37 Even though He had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in Him. (John 12:37, HCSB)
In another place, Jesus told a story about a poor man named Lazarus, and a rich man. At the end of the story, the rich man found himself in hell. He begged that someone be sent from heaven to tell his family the truth about the afterlife. Jesus concludes the story like this:
31 “But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:31, HCSB)
When people in the New Testament say “Moses and the Prophets” they mean “the bible” since that was as much Bible as they had at that time. What Jesus is saying is this: if you don’t trust God’s word and the promises in scripture, no amount of miracles will cause you to trust.” The problem can’t be fixed by a miracle. That is both hard and good for us to remember. Seeing is not believing. With God, believing is seeing.
So Saul, in spite of all that he has seen God do, is a religious pretender, not a man of real faith. Therefore, now, facing the Philistines, he is quaking in fear. It says that he inquired of the Lord. As before, Saul doesn’t go to the Lord unless he thinks God can do something for him. So now, he inquires of the Lord only out of fear and a desire to manipulate God. It doesn’t tell us what Saul was asking God. I think it is most likely that he made an animal sacrifice to the Lord, and was hoping for some prophecy that God was pleased with the sacrifice, and would give Saul the victory. But he didn’t hear anything by way of the “sacred dice” (the urim and thummin) or through prophets, or in dreams. Basically, Saul is demanding another sign here, before he will really trust God. He has had God’s help all his life, but he still won’t trust the Lord without some kind of additional sign.
God has been working on Saul all of his life. Remember how he called him to be king? Remember how he gave him the victory at Jabesh Gilead? Remember how even after Saul proved to be useless to God, God kept pursuing Saul’s heart, sending him a troubling spirit to get him to turn to the Holy Spirit for relief? Saul has had decades to surrender his heart to the Lord. The Lord has never quit trying to win him over. I think this lack of a sign is one more chance for Saul to surrender his heart. The Lord has put him in a crisis where he has the same two choices he has always had: 1. Trust God, or 2. Manipulate God and other people to control his own destiny, and get the outcome he wants. Before this, Saul has always chosen #2. He doesn’t know it, but this will be his last chance to give his heart to the Lord.
Tragically, Saul once again chooses to try to control his own life and outcomes, rather than trusting God. When he doesn’t hear from the Lord, trust is not even an option. Saul simply must find some way to manipulate God into saying what he wants to hear, or doing what he wants God to do. So he seeks out a medium, or witch, or spiritist, or whatever you want to call it.
Deuteronomy 18:9-14 says this:
10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.
These practices were part of the reason for Holy War, which Saul failed to carry out as king. Not only were the people of God not supposed to do these things, they were supposed to wipe out those who did. Such things separate people from God and put them under the influence of hell. Saul did make some attempt to stamp out the practice of the occult, but obviously he wasn’t entirely successful. And now he is willing to deliberately abandon faith in God, abandon his previous laws against these things, and seek help from the dead.
Here is the final proof of Saul’s internal condition. Religion is just something to be used and manipulated, and if one approach doesn’t work to accomplish his aim, he’ll try another. So he and a few of his men disguise themselves and go to the witch. The disguise is actually pretty pathetic. The woman lives not far from the battlefield. Her visitor is the tallest man she’s ever seen, and he wants to talk to the ghost of the prophet Samuel. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out it is Saul. So at first she thinks it is a trap. Then when she is convinced, she pretends that the ghost of Samuel told her who Saul was.
Now it is natural to wonder, what really happened here? Was the woman a charlatan who made it all up? Was there really a spiritual presence there? And if so, was it really Samuel?
To answer that, we need to consider what the Bible says about life after death. Certainly, the entire New Testament teaches that at the end of time, there will be a judgment day. Those who rejected Jesus will be thrown into a lake of fire with the devil and his demons. Those who receive him will be physically resurrected to an eternal, joyful existence.
But there is that period of time in between. Samuel was in the period, as is every person who has died up until today (except for Jesus). Some people believe that in that “between-time,” you are unaware of existence until judgment day, at the end of time. Others believe, as I do, that there is a period of time when dead souls are either with Jesus in joy and freedom, or in hell. The presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus in Matthew 17, suggests this very strongly. Jesus painted this picture of life after death in his story of Lazarus and the rich man. Revelation 6:9-11 shows people who have died, yet are aware and are waiting for the final judgment day and the resurrection. Actually several passages in Revelation suggest that there is life with Jesus between death and the physical resurrection that will occur at the end of time.
Therefore in order to believe that it really was the spirit of Samuel, we have to believe that some people on earth – mediums, fortune tellers etc. – have the power to pull people out of the presence of God and back to earth so we can talk to them. I don’t buy it for second.
There is another reason to believe that this was not really Samuel. God chose not to answer Saul when Saul wanted some reassurance. He did not answer through the urim, or through the prophets or in dreams. If God would chose not to speak to Saul through these holy and righteous means, why would he then work through the unrighteous means of a medium – basically rewarding Saul’s wicked behavior?
Even beyond these most significant facts, there are other things in the text which suggest that this was not Samuel. Saul himself could not see the spirit – he had to ask the medium what he looked like. Her reply was very vague: “An old man wearing robes.” That’s pretty much how I picture Samuel myself. Saul accepted this description as true, but there is nothing in it that actually identifies Samuel personally.
Finally, there is the message that Saul got from this apparition. Once again we need to question why God would speak through this illegitimate means after not answering by any legitimate route. But secondly, listen to the tone of the message. It is angry, bitter and hopeless. There is no encouragement. There is not even any opportunity for repentance. Not too long after this, Saul becomes wounded and commits suicide, rather than fight on with courage. I personally believe that his encounter with this evil spirit contributed to that act.
I do believe that there was something spiritual going on here – something creepy and utterly evil. Remember the other Saul, in the New Testament, the one who repented and came to Jesus, and later was known as Paul? He encountered a girl who could tell the future. But it was an evil spirit that gave her the power of limited fortune telling (Acts 16:16-19). I met someone once, who used to be involved in fortune telling, and spirit communication for money. She became a Christian and rejected all that. We asked her what was involved in it. She said that sometimes, she was just tricking people by being observant, and making vague statements combined with educated guesses. But she also told us that sometimes, she was aware of a spiritual presence which gave her information – which she now realizes was a demon.
I personally believe that Saul unknowingly sought (and received) an audience with a demon, masquerading as Samuel. Saul was rewarded with the kind of the thing you would expect from a demon: condemnation and hopelessness. By turning to witchcraft and séance to try and control his life, he was turning his back utterly on God and seeking help from hell. And he got exactly what you might expect from hell.
So where to do we go with this text?
First, if this isn’t too obvious, don’t play around with séances, spirit-guides, mediums, psychics and so on. That stuff comes straight out of the pit of hell, and you are inviting the depths of hell into your life if you fool with it. Saul’s results were dramatic and self-destructive.
I find some reminders here about religion. There are many people like Saul who go to church and talk the religious talk as a way to manipulate God or influence others. It became a way of life for Saul, and ultimately it destroyed him. God never gave up on him, but by his empty religious spirit, Saul took himself out of God’s jurisdiction. I hate religion. I love Jesus, but I hate religion. I think maybe God hates it too. Religion is about appearance and manipulation. Real faith is about surrendering your heart to the One who created you, and cares about you more than anyone else in the universe. Saul had plenty of religion. David had faith.
There is also a caution here about how you view miracles. I’ve seen miracles. I love it when God does them. But my faith does not depend on them, and I know I cannot demand them from God, on my cue. We sometimes think (like Mike and the Mechanics) that all we need is a miracle. Not so. All we need is the Lord, and to get him all we need is faith to believe he is there and to trust him. Miracles are real, and great, but if we make them necessary to trusting God, we are in trouble. Jesus himself warned against that attitude.
I think there are many times when we get ourselves into situations like Saul’s. We come face to face with a problem. We can try to manage and control life ourselves; or we can trust the Lord and surrender to him. I pray that we make the second choice, not the first.
I guess the main message is the same message we hear over and over through scripture: Trust the Lord. Base that trust on his word and his promises, not on anything else.