When people hear the word “atheist,” they normally think of someone who intellectually denies the existence of God. However, theologians and philosophers over the years have used the term in a number of different ways:
- Intellectual Atheism: As mentioned above, this form of atheism pertains to people who formally deny God’s existence for some sort of intellectual reason. These people deny that God exists at all.
- Practical Atheism: This type of atheism refers to people who believe that there is a God, but they live their lives in such a way that they act like God does not exist. They do not fear God’s judgment for their sins and live as though they are not responsible to God’s moral law.
- Wrong God Atheism: This form of atheism applies to people who believe in a god, but it not the one, true God of the Scriptures. Paul talked about these sorts of people in Ephesians 2:12 when he described the Gentiles as being “without God in the world” (literally “atheists in the world”). Certainly, most Gentiles in Paul’s day believed in a god, perhaps in many gods, but they did not have a knowledge of, or a relationship with, the true God of Israel.
- The Gods Turn their Backs on a Person: There is one other form of atheism that ancient philosophers such as Sophocles describe. This form of atheism takes place when the gods themselves turn their backs on an individual. In this scenario, the gods refuse to have any interaction with a person due to a problem in their relationship.
Of these different types of atheism, the last one should cause us the most concern. Intellectual atheists can change their minds and become believers in God. Immoral people can change their behavior and become godly. Pagans can come to know the one true God. Obviously, in each case God’s grace must work this sort of change in a person’s life. However, if the last form of atheism applies to a person, there really is no hope for that individual. If the deity himself turns his back on a person, there is nothing that individual can to do to bring about a right state of affairs.
We encounter this last form of atheism in 1 Samuel 28’s account of Saul. Saul finds himself in almost the same situation as Esau, who “found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17). Some of the saddest words in the Bible are found in 1 Samuel 28:6, which tells us that “when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.” Saul found himself to be an atheist in the worst possible way. God had turned his back on Saul and refused to hear any of his prayers or communicate with him in any way. This is a desperate situation indeed. As a result, Saul will do the unthinkable and turn to witchcraft for a solution.
Our passage opens with a short but important editorial remark: “Now Samuel had died, and Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land” (v. 3). We already know that Samuel is dead (1 Sam. 25:1), but we did not know that Saul had rid the land of people practicing the black arts. These seemingly unrelated remarks will dovetail together in a remarkable fashion in this chapter.
The immediate occasion for the events of our story is an invasion by the Philistines into Israel. David is with the Philistine army (vv. 1-2), and we are still waiting to see if David will fight against Israel. But we will have to wait to find out the answer to that question. The once great Saul, who had been chosen as king to “fight [Israel’s] battles” (1 Sam. 8:20), stood cowering in fear (v. 5).
Saul tried everything he could get gain some insight from God as to what he should do, but he had been cut off from God’s throne room (v. 6). Part of this was of Saul’s own doing. After all, he had slaughtered the priests at Nob back in 1 Samuel 22, which made consulting the priesthood rather difficult (the Urim belonged to the priests). Having found no recourse through the God-ordained avenues of finding God’s will, Saul turns to witchcraft.
Saul’s quest to find a witch was an about-face from his previous policy of ridding Israel from those who were involved in the occult (v. 3). More significantly, Saul’s decision to consult a medium was a direct violation of the clear teaching of the Mosaic law. Consider the following passages:
Leviticus 19:31: Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 20:6: If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.
Leviticus 20:27: A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.
Deuteronomy 18:10-14: 10There 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, 12for 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. 13You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14for 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.
There are a number of important truths in these passages that have bearing on our present chapter. First, God explicitly condemns consulting a medium. Second, God will set his face against those who consult mediums (Lev. 20:6). This portion seems especially applicable to Saul’s situation. Third, God forbade his people to consult those who would try to summon people from the dead (Deut. 18:11). Saul will violate this commandment as well. Finally, the Law states that those who practice such things were an abomination to the LORD and worthy of death. This fact explains Saul actions earlier in his reign and the witch’s fear of Saul when he comes to her (v. 9). It also has bearing on Saul’s ultimate fate (cf. 1 Chron. 10:13-14).
Disobedience was something characterized the general course of Saul’s life, and Saul defies the Scriptures once again and makes his way to the medium. Saul does two things that should have given him pause in going forth with his plan: (1) he has to disguise himself, and (2) he goes at night. While it is true that part of Saul’s motivation in disguising himself and going at night was to avoid detection by the Philistines (Endor was approximately 2 miles from the Philistine camp), no doubt part of his motivation was that he did not want to be seen doing that which was clearly wrong. This inference seems justified by the fact that he tried to keep his identity from the medium as well. It is common practice for people to try to hide their sinful actions under the cloak of darkness (cf. Prov. 7:6-23).
When Saul gets to the medium, he asks her to summon someone from the dead (v. 8). The medium responds with hesitation, probably feeling out the situation to make sure she is not being set-up in some kind of sting operation. It is likely that she suspects that the man before her is Saul. After all he is the tallest man in Israel, so his disguise was probably not that effective. It should have pricked his conscience when she asked: “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?” The medium reminds Saul of his previous obedience and gives him an opportunity stop what he is doing. Yet Saul persists and even has the audacity to reassure the medium by swearing in the name of the Yahweh (v. 10). It is important not to miss how bad this oath is. Saul swears in the name of the LORD that he will not do what he should do to the medium in light of the LORD’s commandments in the Law. He obligates himself in the name of the LORD to disobey God’s word. It is remarkable how Saul can have the name of the LORD on his lips while he sits before a witch. This behavior is a clear indication that Saul’s devotion to the LORD was superficial at best.
Having been assured that she will not be killed for her actions, the medium asks Saul who it is he would like to have brought back from the dead. Saul tells her he would like to speak with Samuel (v. 11). The woman goes through her incantations and brings up Samuel (v. 12). Samuel’s appearance results in the woman knowing that her client was Saul. David Tsumura suggests that Samuel addressed Saul by name when he appeared (The First Book of Samuel, NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], p. 624). Samuel is described as “a god coming up out of the earth” and as “an old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe” (vv. 13-14). Apparently, Saul could not see Samuel and had to rely on the medium to tell him what she was seeing. However, Saul was able to carry on a conversation with Samuel.
Saul must have thought that speaking with Samuel, his closest spiritual advisor, would help him in some way. Samuel’s response to Saul would quickly reveal that this would not be the case. Clearly irritated with Saul’s request to have him come back, Samuel asks, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This question is reminiscent of two other occasions where Samuel questioned Saul’s sinful behavior (1 Sam. 13:11; 15:14) and is more of an accusation than a question. Samuel is pointing out the sinfulness of Saul’s actions. Saul does not pick up on Samuel’s ire and goes on to explain why he has summoned him: “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do” (v. 15). Samuel does not give Saul any advice for the upcoming battle but rather answers with another accusatory question: “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy?” Saul wanted Samuel to help him, but Samuel would not and could not do this because God was Saul’s enemy and Samuel was on God’s side. Samuel simply reiterates what God had already told Saul through Samuel, namely, that the kingdom had been taken from Saul and given to David because of Saul’s disobedience (vv. 17-18). Samuel message does transition from a reminder to a prophecy in verse 19. He predicts the outcome of the impending battle with the Philistines: “Moreover, 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.”
Samuel’s answer was not what Saul wanted to hear. Samuel predicted that Saul and his sons would be with him the next day, that is, they would be dead. He became emotionally distraught and paralyzed with fear. The witch felt sorry for Saul and prepared a meal for him to help him regain his strength. This would ultimately be Saul’s last meal as far as we know. He would die in battle the next day, just as Samuel had said.
One of the most discussed questions in Israel’s history is the appearing of Samuel in this passage. Throughout church history there have been a number of views advocated about what is actually happening in this passage. For a helpful discussion of the issues involved in this passage, see John J. David & John C. Whitcomb, Israel: From Conquest to Exile (Winona Lake, IN: BHM Books, 2002), pp. 254-58. Here are the major views:
- The appearance of Samuel was not a literal one, but merely the product of psychological impressions. Variations of this view include the use of hypnotic drugs and the like.
- A demon or Satan impersonated Samuel. This was the view of Matthew Henry and Merrill Unger. Advocates of this view seek to protect Samuel from being summoned by a witch.
- The witch did nor really see Samuel but tricked Saul into believing that her voice was really Samuel’s voice. This was the view of James Orr. Orr suggests that the witch performed something of a ventriloquist act before Saul.
- Samuel actually appeared to Saul. This view takes the passage at face value and holds that Samuel came back from the dead and spoke with Saul.
For my part, the last of these options seems to be the best for a number of reasons:
- If the first view is correct, then multiple people would have had to have the same psychological impressions at the same time. Both the witch and Saul interacted with Samuel, and Saul actually carried on a conversation with Samuel. It seem quite far-fetched to believe that these were merely the result of a drug induced state.
- Those who take the view that this was a demon have considerable difficulties as well. Advocates of this view are put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the idea that demons could predict future events with specific certainty. Samuel’s prophecy in verse 19 includes a number of specific details, including the death of Saul, his sons, and the total defeat of Israel’s army. All of these details actually happened just as Samuel said they would. If God is the only one who knows the future, how did the demon come to know that this information was true? We would be left with the notion that the demon put together the circumstances in such a way that he was able to accurately anticipate what would happen the next day.
- The third option is not all that convincing either since it seems unlikely that the witch would pronounce such a negative outcome on Saul if she was the one speaking. We are also left with the same situation as with the demon view. We have to attribute knowledge of the future in some way to the witch.
- In my view the fourth view has the fewest problems. Consider the following:
- This is the straightforward reading of the passage. The text repeatedly refers to the mysterious figure as Samuel. We are set-up to expect the real Samuel by the opening statement of narrative which clearly refers to the real Samuel (v. 3). Nowhere in the narrative do we have some sort of qualification that this is a “Samuel-like” person.
- The witch seems surprised by Samuel’s appearance. She even shrieks at his appearance and is afraid (vv. 12-13). This reaction suggests that something different was going on here than in her other attempts to summon the dead. She is shocked by Samuel’s appearance.
- The character of Samuel’s words are completely consistent with previous conversations between Samuel and Saul. The use of rhetorical questions is very similar to the other times Samuel confronted Saul over his sinful actions. The outcome of the conversation is the same. We see Samuel acting like we would expect Samuel to act.
- Finally, there is no problem with the prophecy of verse 19 if Samuel is actually the one speaking. As a prophet of God, Samuel would have access to God’s knowledge of the future, even in the details. Samuel had made a similar prophecy to Eli about a previous Israelite battle with the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel prophesied judgment on Eli and his family. He told Eli that all that God had prescribed for him would come to pass. Part of that prediction included the death of both of Eli’s sons in battle on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). That detailed prediction came to pass just as the prophet said. The similarity of this pronounce the other earlier one suggests that this prophecy came from a man of God. Furthermore, the verdict on Samuel’s prophetic life on earth was that “Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” It is consistent with that summation that God would not let Samuel’s words fail in this case.
- This passage is an important reminder for us to live a consistent life of obedience so that sin does not harden our hearts to its presence. Saul had disregarded God’s word so much throughout his life, that it does not occur to him that what he is doing was so terribly wrong. He had gotten to the point when he could easily sin without even thinking twice; his conscience had been seared (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2). We need to be careful that we sin so much that it gets easier for us to sin.
- It is helpful to also consider how important obedience is in every area of our lives. While we might not find ourselves consulting a witch like Saul, our disobedience in other areas is just as bad. In 1 Samuel 15:22-23, Samuel told saw that obedience was better than sacrifice, and rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft. Disobedience is a serious matter no matter what the issue is.
- This passage also reminds us that wickedness often tries to cover its deed under the cloak of darkness. Recognizing this fact can be a helpful tool in recognizing when we might be doing something wrong. If a certain action requires you to hide your identity or sneak around to complete it, you quite likely are about to engage in something that is not right.
- The passage is also a good reminder of the Scriptural truth that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Saul’s transgressions of God’s law resulted in his death. First Chronicles 10:13-14 makes this quite clear: “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.”
- This passage should help us appreciate the privilege we have in prayer. God does not have to listen to our prayers. He could turn his back on us like he did with Saul. Thankfully for those who have put our faith in Jesus Christ, we have a mediator with the Father (1 Tim. 2:5) who always lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25).