In desperate times, many people turn to desperate measures.
It was April 1945 – near the end of World War 2. The telephone rang in Adolf Hitler’s bunker. It was the Minister of Propaganda on the line, Joseph Goebbels.
He spoke to Hitler and he was ecstatic. Although the Allies were pressing from the West, the Russians from the East and soon Berlin itself would fall – none of that mattered.
He told Hitler that the stars foretold that the last half of April would be better than the first, and indeed a turning point.
Unfortunately for Goebbels’ horoscope, Hitler committed suicide on 30 April and Germany surrendered. Goebbels succeeded Hitler as Chancellor. He served one day in this post. The following day, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.
Facing ruin, people will sometimes turn in their desperation to any resource that they think will give them hope.
Goebbels turned to the horoscopes.*
In 1 Samuel Ch. 28 King Saul turned to a medium to consult the dead.
The Philistines were gathering their army to go to battle against Israel (v1).
David is among the enemies of God’s people, the Philistines. David had been anointed king to succeed Saul and is now fraternizing with the Philistines to escape death.
We are reminded that Samuel has died (v3). No prophet means no Word of God and no guidance for Saul.
In a rare show of obedience, King Saul had previously put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land (v3) as God forbade the practice of communicating with the dead. Cf. Deuteronomy 18:10-12
Communicating with the dead
The Bible teaches that there is a supernatural realm, a spiritual world, made up of God and his angels and Satan and the demons.
The Bible also teaches that there is no communication with the deceased and the living. In Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we learn that once people have died and crossed over to the other side, there is no coming back. Cf. Luke 16:19-31
If there is no coming back, who do sangomas, mediums and diviners consult with?
This is one of the reasons God so vehemently forbids this practice. People are unknowingly communicating with evil spirits (demons) who disguise themselves as spirits of the deceased in order to create false hope, a false belief system and a false view of the afterlife.
There is power in the occult, but it is demonic power.
Back in Ch. 28 Saul is terrified.
v4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.
When faced with an overwhelming problem, Saul (like most people, even irreligious people) turns to the Lord for help.
v6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.
The darkness of being abandoned by God
The Lord did not answer Saul because Saul rejected God as king. In fact, we discover later in the chapter that the Lord had become Saul’s enemy (v16).
Saul is terrified and does not know what to do.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, at least according to Saul.
v7 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.”
We note Saul’s spiritual degeneration and deterioration. He started his career by disobeying God’s word (Ch. 13 & 15) and ends his career with witchcraft. He started with compromise and ends with the occult.
Often for those who reject God’s word, God simply hands them over to their own sinful desires. Saul’s sin is almost a natural outworking of his previous sin. Sin begets sin and it’s a dangerously slippery slope.
Saul disguises himself, finds the medium and instructs her to call up whichever spirit he asks for (v8).
The woman fears for this illegal act and Saul promises that no punishment will come to her (v10).
v11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 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.”
This account does not go into detail as to how the medium called up Samuel (lest the reader try it), but she does.
The woman cries out in alarm and fright as this occultic summoning is different from the séances she has performed before. It seems that the spirit of Samuel did actually come to her. This was not a disguised, evil spirit as her previous séances, but the Prophet Samuel himself.
How can this be?
Ordinarily there is no crossing over between the spiritual world and this world, as per the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
However, God may – when he so determines – do whatever he wants. If God so chooses, God may allow the departed to communicate with the living.
For example, on the Mount of Transfiguration Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah. Cf. Mark 9:4
God, unexpectedly, allows Samuel to cross over and the medium freaks out (v12).
She immediately recognises King Saul, probably because Saul is so tall (therefore quite distinguishable) and because Saul and Samuel were at one time very close.
Saul bows with his face to the ground in respect for Samuel (v14).
The irony is thick: Saul is bowing down in respect for the prophet of God who speaks the Word of God while in the midst of an act of witchcraft, which the Word of God forbids.
Saul says to Samuel:
“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.” (v15)
Samuel deals with Saul’s third concern first – because that is most important.
Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy?”(v16)
In other words, “because you turned away from God, God has turned away from you and become your enemy. Moreover, if God is your enemy, no one can help you, not even me.”
In the beginning of Ch. 28, David finds himself among the enemies of God; here Saul discovers he is an enemy of God – which is infinitely worse.
The darkness of disobedience
Samuel does not give Saul any guidance, he simply states again that Saul’s rejection of and disobedience to God’s Word is the reason for God’s rejection of Saul (v16-19).
Not only that, but Samuel says that Saul and his sons would be with him the next day. They would die.
The darkness of judgement
Saul falls to the ground full of dread and is exhausted because he hasn’t eaten for a day (v20).
The medium offers to make Saul a meal fit for a king – but Saul refuses. He later gives in and listens to the medium’s and his servants’ words and accepts her hospitality (v23).
This is also ironic: Saul has always refused to listen to God’s word, but he now listens to the words of a medium. Not only does he consult a medium; the doomed King of Israel is now enjoying hospitality in the medium’s house.
How far from the Lord can one get?
How the king has fallen.
The chapter ends on an ominous note:
…Then they rose and went away that night (v25).
In the Bible, darkness and night is often a picture of judgement.
The events of the next day are recorded in Ch. 31
The Philistines attack and Saul’s three sons are killed. Saul is wounded and commits suicide.
In Ch.28 he sought life, in Ch. 31 he seeks death.
Saul experienced the darkness of God’s abandonment and judgement because he rejected God’s word.
The New Testament picks up on this theme of night and darkness.
It was the last supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his execution. Jesus had identified Judas Iscariot as the one who would betray him.
John 13:30 says,
“So, after receiving the morsel of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night.”
Darkness. Dread. Abandoned. Judgement.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas, like Saul, killed himself.
Mark Ch. 15 describes the crucifixion of Jesus:
And when the sixth hour (midday) had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. (3pm) And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice… “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (v33-34)
Saul was a king who disobeyed God’s word and rejected God as King. Saul was rightly abandoned by God and justly experienced God’s judgement.
Jesus was a king who always obeyed God and submitted to God as Father. Yet, Jesus experienced the darkness of God’s judgement and abandonment.
What comes as a marvelous surprise it that the Bible tells us that Jesus experienced the darkness of God’s abandonment and judgement so that those who trust him never have to.
We are more like Saul than we like to think. We too tend towards disobeying God’s Word and compromise.
God in his kindness sent Jesus as the Obedient King to die in the dark so that those who trust in him can escape the darkness and live in the light.
No matter your spiritual state, while you still have breath, there is still time to turn to Jesus and obey the gospel. Cf. John 3:36
* Thanks to Dale Ralph Davis for this illustration in his commentary on 1 Samuel