The Witch at Endor, Saul and God’s Will

by John Beeson

Do ghosts exist? Do we have access to the spirit world? If so, what does that mean for our spiritual life?

Not long ago I was asked by a congregant to make sense of the bizarre story of Saul and the Medium at En-Dor.  This story is understandably confusing, and one of the strangest in scripture.

At the heart of this text is a critical question: will you obey God?

Here is the story:

 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”

So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. (1 Sam. 28:4-14)

Desperate for guidance, Saul disobeys the law and seeks out a medium. Witchcraft and mediums are clearly forbidden in scripture  as the represent pagan worship (Lev. 19:31). The deceased prophet Samuel appears. Samuel then, sounding very much like himself, grumpily chastises Saul because of Saul’s disobedience: “the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam.28:19).

Many questions surface from this text. Is this really Samuel? It sure sounds like him. This does not seem to be a false word from the mouth of Satan (as one might suspect). In fact, the prophecy comes to pass, but there is no other place in scripture (except, perhaps the Transfiguration) where dead people are summoned to appear. So, is this a demonic presence? If it is, then why would a demonic presence speak words of truth and warning that sound so much like what Samuel would say?

Wise and godly minds fall on both sides of this debate. On the one side, we have the possibility that this is a demon controlled by God to deliver this message to Saul. On the other side, we have the possibility that this is actually Samuel whom God uses to speak truth to Saul. Given the numerous times (especially during Jesus’ ministry) that demons speak through humans counterbalanced with the lack of times we see people speak from the dead, it seems more likely to me that this is a demonic manifestation, though I don’t completely disregard that this could be Samuel. Regardless, it is clear God is intervening to warn Saul.

Saul pays a dear and dire price for his disobedience:  his very life.  “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.”  (1 Chronicles 10: 13-14)

While most of us are probably not in jeopardy of disobeying God’s commandment to consult a medium (please don’t!), many of us are in danger of what led Saul to this place: an over the top longing for God’s direction.

What could be bad about wanting God’s guidance? Isn’t that a good thing? It doesn’t seem like there would be any danger in seeking after what God wants for your life. And yet, can danger lurk here anyway.

Saul first seeks God’s guidance through prayer, then through dreams, then through Urim (a way God spoke to the priests), then through the prophets. God did not answer Saul. Only then does Saul turn to the Medium at En-dor.

What Saul’s quest belies is that Saul cares more about what God can provide than God himself.

Saul is gripped with the fear of the Philistines, not the fear of the Lord.

How are we like Saul? We are more concerned about God’s will for our vocational life: “Lord, should I take this job?” We are so worried about whether God wants us to have children: “God, why can’t we get pregnant?” We feel lost about what school to go to or whether we should go to school at all. Or “God, is this person I’m dating the one you want me to marry?” These healthy questions become unhealthy to us when getting an answer becomes bigger than the Giver of that answer.

We pray, we churn, we beg for God to give us clarity. We feel forgotten in his felt silence.

Why would God do this? Why would he leave us high and dry? Doesn’t he care?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us not to be anxious. He points us to the lilies and the sparrows and to the fact that we can entrust ourselves to our sovereign and compassionate God. As he closes, Jesus urges us that instead of focusing on our anxieties, we should look to God and his kingdom, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). In other words, attend to the Gift Giver, not the gifts.

Why would God not respond to our pleas for clarity? Perhaps it is because he is not interested in being a cosmic GPS, telling us what our next turn is. Perhaps it is because he wants us to turn from wanting his provision to wanting a relationship with Him. Perhaps it is because he wants us to worship him simply for who he is regardless of our circumstances. Perhaps he’s calling us deeper into trust, perseverance, and long suffering.

Are your prayers consumed by trying to shake free from God an answer about his direction for you? There is nothing wrong with asking God for his will in a situation. But if he doesn’t answer, remember Saul. Are you willing to forsake seeking other gods to stay locked on God even if he seems silent? Used by permission.

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