As the world focuses on goblins, witches, death, and cemeteries, we find in the Word a lesson for the season….
Double, double, Saul in trouble/Flew to Endor on the double.
The year was about 1007 BC. When our story in 1 Samuel 28 opens, the prophet Samuel has died and King Saul has removed all the fortunetellers and mediums from the land—one of his few obedient acts.
When his enemies, the Philistines, assembled at Shunem in the north part of Palestine, King Saul cobbled together an army. As he camped with his troops at nearby Gilboa, the size of the Philistine force left him quaking. By all accounts they had the manpower to take out Israel.
Saul had known all along that the kingdom would eventually go to David. And because at this time David lived among the Philistines, Saul had even more reason to think, “Maybe this is it for me.” So he sought some divine reassurance about his military plans. But God remained silent. All the usual means of knowing His will dried up—the Lord didn’t speak through dreams or the Urim or through the prophets.
So did King Saul put on sackcloth and ashes and fast? Did he pull an all-nighter in prayer? Did he wait on God? Of course not. He did what he always did—he took matters into his own hands. This time he told his servant to find him a medium so he could ask her what to do. How ironic. This king who, in one of his few acts of obedience to the Lord had outlawed mediums (according to Lev. 19:31; 20:6, 27), sought to know God’s will through a medium. Interestingly, Saul’s servant knew just where to find someone versed in the dark arts. Hm-m-m. Why would he know that?
So Saul’s servant told the king about a woman who lived near where Gideon and Barak experienced their victories—in Endor.
Now, since Saul had (rightly) decreed that being a medium was a capital offense, he couldn’t exactly show up at the witch’s door wearing his kingly garb. So he disguised himself and took two of his men to Endor. When he arrived at the medium’s house, he told the woman, “Use your ritual pit to conjure up for me the one I tell you.” (A ritual pit was what magicians used to conjure up underworld spirits.)
But she protested. Reminding him that the king had outlawed mediums, she asked, “Why are you trying to trap me?” Why should she risk her life for these strangers?
That question alone should have given Saul pause. But instead of reflecting and repenting, he made her promises. In a pathetic gesture of assurance, he did more than merely swear an oath. He did so in the name of Israel’s God: “As surely as Yahweh lives, you will not incur guilt in this matter!”
Doesn’t that give you the chills—and not in a good way? Saul used the name of the one who is holy, holy, holy to promise that no harm would come to one who violated God’s commands by seeking to communicate with the dead.
So she conceded. “Who do you want me to conjure up?” she asked.
The Hebrew text here wastes no words. The next line says, “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out loudly” (vs. 12). The appearance of the actual prophet told her that her client was King Saul himself.
Some say the one who appeared was not really Samuel, but rather a demon posing as Samuel. Yet the text gives no such indication, treating the one who appeared as the actual deceased prophet. The fact that the woman discerned the identity of her client as soon as the prophet appeared suggests to me that she was usually a fake. At the very least, something out of the norm for her was happening.
Saul assured the medium that she should calm down and tell him what she had seen.
Her reply? “I have seen one like a god coming up from the ground!”
“What about his appearance?” Saul asked further.
“An old man is coming up! He is wrapped in a robe.”
The text in other places tells us that Elijah wore a mantle, which was like a large cape (2 Kings 2). And something about the woman’s description signaled to Saul that the figure was indeed Samuel. So the king responded with respect: “He bowed his face toward the ground and kneeled down” (28:14).
But Samuel was none too happy. Why? One possibility: he felt unhappy about getting yanked out of paradise. But a more likely option is that he especially disliked being a part of situation in which his very presence stemmed from others’ disregard for God’s Word. Whatever his reason, he asked Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
Saul replied by explaining about God’s silence and how terrified he was—how the Philistines were ready to wage war in overwhelming numbers.
“Why are you asking me, now that Yahweh has turned away from you and has become your enemy?” Samuel demanded. Even if God had not already determined to kill Saul, He had promised to set His face against anyone who sought a medium (Lev. 20:6). In another touch of irony, in seeking safety Saul had increased the risk. Besides, if God Himself had refused to speak, why would Saul think he’d get any assurance from a lesser source?
Do you suppose the doom Samuel pronounced was the response that the already-terrified Saul expected?
Not one to mince words, Samuel continued: “Yahweh has done exactly as I prophesied! Yahweh has torn the kingdom from your hand and has given it to your neighbor David!” (28:18). Saul went on to predict destruction for Israel. “Yahweh will hand you and Israel over to the Philistines! Tomorrow both you and your sons will be with me. Yahweh will also hand the army of Israel over to the Philistines!” (v. 19).
Some understand Samuel as saying, “Rejoice. You’ll be in paradise tomorrow.” But more likely, he was saying, “I’m dead. And you too are a dead man—and not just you, but also your sons.”
The revelation sent Saul over the edge. He threw himself full length on the ground and shook for fear. As he had gone without food and made a nighttime journey, he already had no strength when he arrived. The bad news only added to his weakened condition, draining him of what little energy he had left.
The woman, seeing how terrified Saul was, had a heart. She basically said, “I did what you required. Now it’s my turn to give orders.” Then she insisted that he let her feed him. But he refused.
When the king’s servants and the woman pressed further, however, he got up from the ground and sat on the bed. Meanwhile, the woman killed her fatted calf, made some unleavened bread, and fed Saul and his servants.
And the next day Saul and his sons were killed in battle.
So what do we learn from this story?
Believe God is sovereign. In the larger context surrounding this narrative, the people to whom the story is addressed receive a reminder of how God always had His hand on their nation, even in the bad times. Despite a disobedient king, God accomplished His purposes.
Seek God’s will in God’s ways. Saul wanted to know the future, but God didn’t want him to know. So Saul took matters into his own hands and demanded an answer in a way that displeased God. Do you think he felt any better once he found out?
Know that God keeps His promises. Years earlier God had promised to turn against all who sought mediums. And he had promised to put David on the throne of Israel. By the time the story ends, He has fulfilled both promises. He does what He says He’ll do.
Trust the one who is Lord of life and death. The God who allowed a spirit to be brought back from paradise later brought about the pivot-point of history in a sealed tomb. He is the God of the living—the one who raised Lazarus, Dorcas, and Jairus’s daughter. And only He can raise the dead. Why would anyone waste time with those who claim to conjure up spirits when our God has power over both spirits and bodies? And He offers new life to all who trust His resurrected Son.