In 1 Samuel 28, we find the account of King Saul going through a medium to try and contact the dead prophet Samuel. This is one of those stories that is very easy to misinterpret unless we understand some essential truths about how mediums work and where people go when they die. What we will find in this story is not an example of a dead man being brought back to life against his will, but an example of God’s supremacy over all things. It is also the chilling last chapter in the life a man who was eternally cut off by God.
SAUL IS ANOINTED AS KING
When Israel insulted Yahweh by demanding a human king, He responded by selecting a Benjaminite man named Saul to be her first monarch. Saul was the sort of man who immediately impressed people, for he stood a whole head taller than anyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). Now at the time Saul was anointed, the elderly Samuel was the main prophet in Israel. God’s original plan for His people was that He would be their only King, and that He would communicate His will to them through priests and prophets. Priests and prophets also acted as judges in the land, so there was no need for some silly monarch. But the Israelites hated Yahweh and found Him very unsatisfying. They were jealous of the human kings that other nations had and as the prophet Samuel became older and slower, the people demanded a human king. Samuel was against the idea at first, but Yahweh instructed him to accommodate the little brats and He chose Saul to be the first king over Israel.
Now there’s nothing easy about being the first king of a nation that’s never had one before. Saul was terrified and actually tried to hide on the day he was to be introduced to the people (1 Sam. 10:22). We can certainly sympathize with how intimidating his calling must have seemed to him at the time, but God supported him by causing the hearts of certain people to feel loyal towards him (1 Sam. 10:26). He then helped Saul spank some of Israel’s enemies on the battlefield, saving his citizens from a crisis, and the rest of the nation aligned with their new king (1 Sam. 11:15).
But then things start to go downhill. It turns out that our new king isn’t very devoted to Yahweh in his heart. And while his physique might be impressive, his character is sorely lacking. The man is a jerk, and his ugly colors really come out in the way he abuses his men on the battlefield.
As Israel’s king, Saul was expected to go out with his army and be on the battlefield with them—not just kick back in the royal palace. This was how all the nations operated in Bible times: rulers led their men in battle. But Yahweh had laid down special rules for how the Israelite army was to be run. Before any battle started, the commander was to excuse any men who were feeling overcome with cowardice. Also, men who were engaged were to be excused so they could have a chance to marry before getting killed. Because Yahweh is so kind, He had outlined several reasons why men in certain life situations should be excused from the dangerous job of fighting for their country (see Deut. 20). But Saul didn’t pay any attention to these rules. He was one of those nasty commanders who tells his men to suck it up and shows no concern for their welfare. And while he was mistreating his men, he was showing contempt for Yahweh. Strike one.
Now remember that the whole notion of a human king is a big insult to Yahweh already. Just because He’s allowing a king to reign doesn’t mean He’s stepping down as Israel’s main Leader. Israel was never supposed to launch an attack without obtaining Yahweh’s permission and blessing first. Only an authorized priest could offer up the right kind of sacrifice. Samuel was both a prophet and a priest and on the day Saul wanted to attack the Philistines, he had to wait for Samuel to come and present an offering first. Well, Samuel didn’t show up for a whole week. God often delays on purpose just to test our priorities. Saul should have been concerned about the delay and not have dared to proceed without Yahweh’s blessing. But instead, he threw together some sloppy offering himself, ignoring the fact that he was not qualified to present offerings to Yahweh. Strike two. And after Saul had shown everyone how shallow his reverence for God was, Samuel showed up to ream him out.
Samuel said to Saul, “You have been foolish. You have not kept the command which Yahweh your God gave you. It was at this time that Yahweh would have permanently established your reign over Israel, but now your reign will not endure. Yahweh has found a man who is loyal to Him, and Yahweh has appointed that man as ruler over His people because you have not done what Yahweh commanded.” (1 Sam. 13:13-14)
Yahweh isn’t about to be publicly dishonored by this new king without retaliating. It is at this point that a very acrid dynamic is formed between Saul and Yahweh—one in which Saul keeps rebelling against God and refusing to repent.
And then comes the Amalekite issue. Once again, Saul is given specific instructions from his Commanding Officer: Yahweh. Before Saul goes to attack the Amalekites, Samuel tells him that God wants everything to be slaughtered: men, women, children and animals. Everything is to die. Why? Because God says so. He has His own beef with the Amalekites who have been spitting in His face for centuries. Now He wants them dead. So He dispatches His human king to do a simple job and what happens? Saul once again decides to blow off God’s instructions. He kills the people, but he keeps a lot of the animals out of sheer greed. Remember that these are agricultural nations, and a good looking ox or ram represents a nice chunk of change. Saul sees all that money walking around on four legs and he decides that it would be nonsensical not to line his own pockets. This is strike three.
Then the word of Yahweh came to Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from following Me and has not carried out My instructions.” (1 Sam. 15:10)
God says these words to Samuel when the prophet is nowhere near the king. God sees everything. He knows what that little twerp Saul is up to—once again dishonoring God before all of the Israelite army. This is the last straw. In the morning, Yahweh sends His prophet over to confront Saul, who of course lies his face off.
When Samuel came to him, Saul said, “May Yahweh bless you. I have carried out Yahweh’s instructions.” (1 Sam. 15:13)
It isn’t enough that Saul disrespects God, he now treats Him like a blind fool who doesn’t know what he’s been up to. Of course Samuel calls Saul out on the fact that he kept all the animals he was supposed to destroy. Saul then comes up with another fat lie: he was only keeping them for Yahweh’s benefit. Yeah right.
Saul answered, “The troops brought them from the Amalekites and spared the best sheep and cattle in order to offer a sacrifice to Yahweh your God, but the rest we destroyed.”
“Stop!” exclaimed Samuel. “Let me tell you what Yahweh said to me last night.”
“Tell me,” he replied.
Samuel continued, “Although you once considered yourself unimportant, have you not become the leader of the tribes of Israel? Yahweh anointed you king over Israel and then sent you on a mission and said: ‘Go and completely destroy the sinful Amalekites. Fight against them until you have annihilated them.’ So why didn’t you obey Yahweh? Why did you rush on the plunder and do what was evil in Yahweh’s sight?”
“But I did obey Yahweh!” Saul answered. “I went on the mission Yahweh gave me: I brought back Agag, king of Amalek, and I completely destroyed the Amalekites. The troops took sheep and cattle from the plunder—the best of what was set apart for destruction—to sacrifice to Yahweh your God at Gilgal.”
Then Samuel said: “Does Yahweh take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying Yahweh?
Look: to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and defiance is like wickedness and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of Yahweh, He has rejected you as king.
Saul answered Samuel, “I have sinned. I have disobeyed Yahweh’s command and your words. I was afraid of the people, and I did what they said. Now, I beg you, forgive my sin. Come back with me so I may worship Yahweh.” (1 Sam. 15:15-25)
Don’t think this is sincere repentance, because it’s not. Saul knows that it’s bad news to have the main prophet of Israel cut him off. He wants to keep on good terms with Samuel for political reasons, and because Samuel represents a source of Divine blessings. The way Saul has been disrespecting God, it’s clear he isn’t serious about worshiping Him. God sees right through the little twerp’s hypocrisy and responds with ice.
Samuel replied to Saul, “I will not return with you. Because you rejected the word of Yahweh, Yahweh has rejected you from being king over Israel.” When Samuel turned to go, Saul grabbed the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “Yahweh has torn the kingdom of Israel away from you today and has given it to your neighbor who is better than you! Furthermore, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not man who changes his mind.” (1 Sam. 15:26-29)
Now Samuel’s a bit off here, because Yahweh does reserve the right to change His mind anytime He feels like it. But when it comes to rejecting Saul, Yahweh isn’t going to change His mind. At this point, God views Saul as His enemy—someone who He will eternally reject. This is terrifying stuff and it only gets worse when the Holy Spirit withdraws His Presence from Saul and sends a demon to torment him instead. Yikes! And while many foolish Christians today try to pretend that God has nothing to do with demonic activity, Saul’s servants model a far better understanding of God’s sovereignty.
Now the Spirit of Yahweh had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from Yahweh began to torment him, so Saul’s servants said to him, “You see that an evil spirit from God is tormenting you.” (1 Sam. 16:14-15)
Notice these men aren’t trying to say it’s the devil’s world, nor are they trying to pretend God has nothing to do with evil. God controls both good and evil—the sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we will progress in the faith.
Now this demonic harassment is going to be with Saul for years, reminding us that just because God gives a man up doesn’t mean He instantly throws that soul into Hell. In the case of Saul, God tortures the man with the reality of his spiritual crisis for a good long time before finally killing him. When Saul tries to pray to God, God refuses to answer. The prophet Samuel refuses to come near him. Saul is in a horrific place of spiritual darkness and he has no one to blame but himself. Don’t be thinking you can spit in God’s face and get away with it. God doesn’t owe anyone mercy and grace.
THE MEDIUM AT ENDOR
Now that we understand the background between Yahweh and Saul, we can skip ahead to 1 Samuel 28 to learn about the medium at Endor. Yahweh detests all forms of humans seeking contact with spiritual beings other than Him, and His Old Covenant Law demanded that mediums, witches and sorcerers be executed. In 1 Samuel 28, we learn that Saul has done a recent purge of mediums and spiritists from Israel and that he has a standing order to kill anyone who is caught dabbling in these dark arts. By now, the great prophet Samuel has died, and David—the man God has chosen to replace Saul—has run off and joined the Philistines. The Philistines are now massing together to attack Israel, and now that they have the mighty David on their team, Saul is terrified. He sees the size of their camp and he just starts shaking uncontrollably. Desperate for some word from Yahweh, he tries to consult God through prophets and priests but God refuses to answer him.
Under the Old Covenant, the high priest carried two special lots in his breastplate (or ephod). These lots were like two-sided coins. One was called Urim and the other was called Thummim. These lots were tossed as a means of ascertaining what God’s will was in a particular situation. Yahweh set up this system of casting lots back in Exodus 28:30, and whenever we find a reference to the Urim being used, it means a priest was tossing these two special coins to see what God wanted. But Yahweh set up the lots in a way that they could indicate silence, as well as a yes or a no answer, and silence is all Saul gets when he tries to consult Yahweh through this method.
So what do you do when God won’t talk to you? You try to go around Him of course. You try to go suck up to His enemies. Saul sends his servants out to search through the land in hopes that there is still some active medium who escaped execution. They find one: a woman who is channeling demons in Endor. Oh, good. Saul sets out disguised as a regular citizen and hopes that maybe this woman can conjure up the prophet Samuel to tell him what to do.
So let’s think about this: God isn’t talking to Saul. Prophets are only useful if they carry messages from Yahweh. So Saul is hoping to use demons to contact Samuel so Samuel can give him a message from Yahweh. How much sense does this make? None. If God won’t talk to you directly, do you really think He’s going to talk to you through demons? Wow. Saul just keeps digging that hole deeper and deeper.
Now the medium at Endor is more than a little nervous when a new customer accompanied by two friends comes to pay her a visit one night. After all, what if it’s a trap?
Saul said, “Consult a spirit for me. Bring up for me the one I tell you.”
But the woman said to him, “You surely know what Saul has done, how he has killed the mediums and spiritists in the land. Why are you setting a trap for me to get me killed?”
Then Saul swore to her by Yahweh: “As surely as Yahweh lives, nothing bad will happen to you because of this.” (1 Sam. 28:8-10)
Now this is classy: Saul is swearing by Yahweh’s holy Name to protect a woman who is sinning against Yahweh with her demonic rituals. How irreverent.
“Who is it that you want me to bring up for you?” the woman asked.
“Bring up Samuel for me,” he answered. (1 Sam. 28:11)
Now can mediums really contact souls from the other side? Of course not, and neither can demons. When it looks to us like the dead are being conjured up from the grave, what’s really happening is a demon is appearing in costume. Demons know all about what your dead Aunt Sally looked and sounded like. They know what outfit she was buried in and it’s a cinch for them to appear as her ghostlike replica. Because we humans are such dunces, we readily believe our senses. If it looks, sounds, and acts like dead Aunt Sally, it must really be her, right? WRONG. We must get very clear on this point: God and God alone controls the realm of dead human souls. He is the One running Heaven and Hell and no one takes field trips without His permission.
Now in the Bible we find a couple of incidents of dead souls making some brief appearances on earth. It’s quite interesting to note that in these cases, the only souls God allows to participate in such activities are souls who have gone to Heaven. Here we’re about to see Samuel speaking to Saul. Later on in the Gospels, during the Transfiguration, the disciples will see Moses and Elijah chitchatting with Jesus. Let’s remember that in Heaven, it’s all about God, and when He sends messengers to earth—either humans or angels—He’s going to be sending ones whose loyalties are firmly on His side.
Now our demon woman is used to channeling evil spirits and probably has a whole routine worked out in which they seize control of her and make her talk in weird ways. But this time it’s different. When she tries to go into her usual act, God boots her usual demon hosts out of the way and takes over. Suddenly Samuel—the real Samuel—is rising up out of the ground and the woman instantly realizes she is no longer in control. (She was never in control with the demons, either, but they love to give us the illusion of control when we play their foolish little games.)
When the woman saw Samuel, she screamed, and then she asked Saul, “Why did you deceive me? You are Saul!” (1 Sam. 28:12)
Notice how Yahweh blows Saul’s cover by identifying him to the woman. God is always in control.
But the king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
“I see a spirit form coming up out of the earth!” the woman answered.
Then Saul asked her, “What does he look like?”
“An old man is coming up,” she replied. “He’s wearing a robe.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed his face to the ground and paid homage.
“Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Samuel asked Saul. (1 Sam. 28:13-15)
Now Yahweh’s really messing with these four fools: the woman, Saul, and his two companions. We need to pause here to really appreciate all the theatrics He’s throwing in. First of all, this business of making Samuel appear to rise up out of the earth is a complete play on the Jewish belief that dead souls all ended up in an underworld called Sheol or Hades which was literally located in the bowels of the earth. In real life, we know that Hell is not down and Heaven is not up—these places are located in totally different dimensions than we are. But Yahweh knows all about our silly superstitions and He’ll often work within the framework of our false beliefs when communicating with us.
The second ridiculous part of all this is that Samuel looks like he did on earth. When we die, we leave our physical shells behind and only our spirits go on to eternity. Our spirits aren’t subject to the aging process, nor do they need to don clothes. Remember that clothing began as a symbol of shame—when Adam and Eve sinned, they suddenly felt embarrassed by their nakedness. Today we still feel embarrassed about being naked, plus God has changed the earth’s climate so that we need clothes to protect us against the elements. But what is spirit Samuel doing wearing clothes and why does his spirit have a body that looks all old and wrinkly? Yahweh is just putting on a show—presenting Samuel in a form that these humans will quickly recognize.
Samuel’s response to Saul is also humorous. “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Like many today, the Jews bought into the foolish notion that the dead are in some kind of perpetual state of sleep or rest. Today we like to chip “RIP” onto gravestones, telling souls to “rest in peace”. This is utter nonsense. No soul rests in peace. They are either active in Heaven or writhing in Hell. But here Samuel is playing along with God’s charade by pretending that he’s been startled out of his death sleep. Notice how he even goes so far as to suggest that Saul brought him up—something that Saul is incapable of doing. Well, now that Saul has started this mess, he’s going to have to finish it.
“I’m in serious trouble,” replied Saul. “The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He doesn’t answer me anymore, either through the prophets or in dreams. So I’ve called on you to tell me what I should do.”
Samuel answered, “Since Yahweh has turned away from you and has become your enemy, why are you asking me? Yahweh has done exactly what He said through me: Yahweh has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor David. You did not obey Yahweh and you did not carry out His burning anger against Amalek; therefore Yahweh has done this to you today. Yahweh will also hand Israel over to the Philistines along with you. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and Yahweh will hand Israel’s army over to the Philistines.” (1 Sam. 28:15-19)
Well, this plan certainly didn’t work out the way Saul was hoping. But what was he hoping? That God would smile on the fact that Saul was trying to go behind His back to talk to a dead guy? Saul just really isn’t wowing us with his smarts here. Instead of getting sympathy from Samuel, he’s been told off and had all of his rebellion thrown back in his face. This man is in an impossible jam. Yahweh has cut him off and there’s just no getting back on His good side.
Don’t be confused by Samuel’s comment that Saul would soon be joining him. Samuel isn’t saying that Saul is going to Heaven—he simply means Saul is going to die. Remember that Yahweh has made Samuel appear to rise up from Sheol—the fictitious catch-all underworld where the Jews thought both the righteous and unrighteous ended up. At this point in time, Hell is not a concept in the minds of the Jews, but it’s real nonetheless, and Saul is going to get the mother of all surprises when he dies and finds himself on the wrong side of God in eternity.
As predicted, Saul is killed in the battle with the Philistines the next day. We read about his death in 1 Samuel 31. Of course the most frightening part of this story is the part that is unwritten: the fact that Saul ended up in Hell. Death on this earth marks only the beginning of a much longer existence in a place that is vastly different from this one. Heaven or Hell: the only two options God places before us couldn’t be more opposite and extreme. Saul’s story serves as a sobering reminder not to take God’s grace for granted. Today He is willing to forgive, but tomorrow, who can say? In the Bible we find multiple examples of God cutting people off before they are dead—we must not treat such horrifying stories lightly. We play a very dangerous game when we start intentionally defying God and clinging to rebellion in our hearts. As Saul’s pathetic attempt to consult a medium demonstrates, there is no way we can go around God. Once we push Him too far, He will condemn us through the mouths of both the living and the dead. There is nowhere we can run to escape His judgment. Don’t mess with the Sovereign King.
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call to Him while He is near. (Isa. 55:6)