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.
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “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.” And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 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.”
Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night. – 1 Samuel 28:8-25 ESV
The scene that takes place in this chapter is fascinating and difficult to understand. Saul had long ago lost access to God’s guidance because of his disobedience. God had removed His Spirit from Saul.
Now the Spirit of the LORD had left Saul, and the LORD sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear. – 1 Samuel 16:14 NLT
Now, when Saul finds himself facing the threat of war with vastly superior Philistine army, he is at a loss as to what to do and decides to seek God’s advice and help. But God is not talking. And not only that, Samuel, the prophet of God, is dead. To make things even worse for Saul, Abiather, the sole remaining priest who had escaped Saul massacre of the all the priests of Nob, had taken the high priest’s ephod with him and was not residing with David. The ephod contained the Urim and Thummim, which was used to seek God’s will (1 Samuel 23:6-12). So Saul was out of luck and out of options. Which led him to do the unthinkable and unholy. He sought out a medium or a witch. While Samuel had been alive, he had persuaded Saul to remove those who practiced witchcraft, divination and sorcery from the land. God had given the people of Israel very clear orders concerning these matters when they had entered the land of promise:
When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 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 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 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. – Deuteronomy 18:9-12 ESV
God knew the danger of these practices and had forbidden them among His people. He had other plans for them. He was to be their only source of wisdom and direction.
“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 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.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen…” – Deuteronomy 18:13-15 ESV
But once again, Saul disobeyed God. He sought out a medium, in an attempt to get divine help in his time of need. He was desperate and allowed his fear to get the best of him. But not wanting everyone to know what he was doing, Saul disguised himself and went to visit the medium or witch at night. He attempted to cover his actions through deceit, not wanting the people to know what he was doing. And when the medium was reticent to assist him out of fear for her life, Saul assured her that nothing would be done to her – in direct defiance of God’s command.
What is very fascinating about this story is that the woman was actually able to conjure up Samuel from the dead – or so it would appear. This passage does not validate the practice of necromancy or communication with the dead. It would be wrong to use this story as a proof that seances really do work. What this woman and those like here really were doing was conjuring up evil spirits. Their practice was demonic. But in this case, God supernaturally intervened and allowed the spirit of Samuel to appear. Even the woman was shocked at what she saw. “When the woman saw Samuel, she screamed” (1 Samuel 28:12 NLT). Whatever appeared before her was unexpected and disturbing to her. Even she couldn’t believe her eyes. That the vision she saw was Samuel, the dead prophet, was clear to her and to Saul. And the message Samuel gave was clearly from God.
What Samuel had to say to Saul was not good news. If this had been an evil spirit, it would have lied to Saul, telling him what he wanted to hear and giving him false counsel. But Samuel told Saul exactly what was going to happen, and it was anything but comforting.
“Why ask me, since the Lord has left you and has become your enemy? The Lord has done just as he said he would. He has torn the kingdom from you and given it to your rival, David. The Lord has done this to you today because you refused to carry out his fierce anger against the Amalekites. What’s more, the Lord will hand you and the army of Israel over to the Philistines tomorrow, and you and your sons will be here with me. The Lord will bring down the entire army of Israel in defeat.” – 1 Samuel 28:16-19 NLT
This was clearly a case of too little, too late. While Samuel had been alive, Saul had ignored his counsel. He had repeatedly refused to accept the prophet’s advice, instead choosing to disagree with God’s word concerning David and stubbornly attempting to derail what God had ordained. It is vital to note that there is no remorse or repentance associated with any of Saul’s actions. When he found himself faced with the overwhelming threat of annihilation at the hands of the Philistines, he did not call out to God in repentance. He did not confess his sins. Oh, he fell on his face, but only out of fear over what he had heard the prophet say. At no point does Saul admit his wrong and beg God to forgive him. He is stubborn to the end. He wanted God’s guidance and protection, but remained unwilling to live his life according to God’s will.
How often do we find ourselves in difficult circumstances and forced to call out to God? The very One whom we have refused to show proper honor and respect in the good times becomes our go-to source in the bad times. We get in trouble and suddenly our prayer lives take on a whole new significance. We cry out. We beg God to save us. And there is nothing wrong with crying out to God. In fact, we are commanded to call on God in times of trouble. But it is important that God desires for us to come to Him humbly and with a heart of repentance. Saul knew this. He had heard those very words from the mouth of the prophet years earlier.
“What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22 NLT
Years later, when David had become king, and after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba, he would write the following words:
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.
You do not want a burnt offering.
The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.
You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT
Saul would find himself face down in the dirt, but his prideful heart would remain unrepentant and stubbornly unwilling to confess his disobedience toward God. Sorrow over sin is not the same as repentance. Fear of the circumstances facing us is not the same as a reverent fear of God. Saul wasn’t seeking a relationship with God, he simply wanted deliverance from his problems by God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.