Read the passage here.
When we last left off in the book of Samuel, we reviewed the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail. If we recall, this is the second (or middle) of three stories in which David has the opportunity to take revenge against his enemies (the first and third stories involve king Saul, who is seeking to kill David). And we proposed that in these stories, David is learning (or is presented as having learned) that justice belongs to God alone – and so in each story, he refuses to take revenge for himself, but leaves it up to God.
Now we are skipping the third of these stories – his second encounter with Saul. And that brings us to another set of stories. Now obviously, the structure or organization of these stories is up for debate. But in short, what we get is:
The story of David hiding among the Philistines (ch. 27). David takes his men to Gath (which, we’ll remember, is where Goliath is from). And he tells the ruler, Achish, that he will serve him (it’s not immediately clear whether David’s true identity is hidden from Achish, though we read later that Achish finds out at some point).
Now there are a number of questions that arise out of this situation. Why did David go to the enemies of Israel? Well, to a certain degree this makes sense – David hid where Saul wouldn’t follow. Why did David present himself to Achish? Why didn’t he just hide? Well, perhaps it’s because David had 600 men, and it would have been difficult to keep a low profile with such a contingent.
Of course, there are other questions. But what we read is that David, in serving Achish, was actually deceiving him. David made the pretense of attacking Israel, but in fact, David was attacking David’s enemies. But right at the end of this sequence, which is the beginning of chapter 28, we find out that Achish wants to face Israel in battle, and he wants David and his men to accompany him. This obviously puts David is a precarious situation.
That brings us to our story today (which I’ll go over in more detail soon). The narrative shifts to Saul. And Saul, being afraid of his situation (that is, facing the Philistines), consults a witch, or medium, at Endor. Again, we’ll examine this more later, as it’s our passage for today, so I’ll leave that here for now.
Chapter 29 returns the story to David. And it tells us that David was released from his predicament (the predicament being the possibility of having to attack his own people, Israel). Long story short, Achish’s men aren’t sure they can trust David (it’s clear they know who he is at this point), so Achish releases David from his service.
Now chapter 30 is interesting and worth discussing in more detail. But the gist of the story is that David and his men return to their home to find that it has been attacked by the Amalekites. And without going into detail, what I want to suggest is that here, we get a story demonstrating how David seeks the word and will of God and seek to serve God only. But more on that later.
But in short, one possibility of this sequence of stories is that we are getting a comparison between how David and Saul each act in a precarious situation.
And this is important (I feel) because, as we’ve said on numerous occasions, one of the things we see in Samuel is the relationship (narratively speaking) between Saul and David. Again, David is presented to us in scripture as a man after God’s own heart (though not, by any means, a perfect person). Saul very much functions as a foil – against whom we can compare and contrast David. So inasmuch as we see in Saul, the first king of Israel, one who failed his calling, turned his back on his anointing, we see in David one who seeks to live according to the purposes to which he has been called by God.
So, our passage today (chapter 28:3-25) tells us one final story of how Saul has failed God (the next time we see Saul is at his death). He has failed to follow God, to acknowledge God, or to trust God for the kingdom. With all that in mind, let’s turn to the passage.
The story itself is pretty straightforward. Saul, was afraid of the threat posed by the Philistines, who had assembled against the Israelite army. He tried to ask God what he should do, but did not receive an answer from God. When he doesn’t receive an answer, he decides to go to a medium – one who can communicate with the dead. And initially, Saul has to hide his identity from the medium because he himself has condemned such practices (more on that in a moment). At Saul’s request, the medium calls up the spirit of Samuel, from whom (presumably) Saul wants to get guidance on his current situation. However, instead of telling Saul how to get out of his predicament with the Philistines, Samuel tells Saul that this is part of God’s judgement on Saul for his lack of faithfulness (and it will turn out to be the final judgement). In closing the passage, in a somewhat strange act of compassion, the medium comforts Saul by providing food for himself and his men.
Now the primary narrative moment – that is, Samuel’s confirmation of Saul’s judgement (vv. 17-29) – should not surprise us because we know that God’s favour has left Saul. And this is because Saul has repeatedly disregarded God in his quest to build his own kingdom, a kingdom for himself. We should remember, from 1 Samuel 15:
22 But Samuel replied:
“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices1 Samuel 15: 22-23
as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.”
What might surprise us, however, is that given this knowledge (that Saul has been rejected by God), why does Saul seek God’s guidance here at all? We’ve seen repeatedly through 1 Samuel that Saul doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in knowing God, in honouring God, or in seeking God. So are we seeing some sort of repentance here? Has Saul turned around? Given the seriousness of his situation (with the Philistines), has he suddenly remembered how desperately he needs God?
And in case it’s not immediately obvious, I don’t think that’s what’s happening at all. I don’t think that Saul has repented and has decided to sincerely seek God after a lifetime of rebellion. And this is made immediately clear in the following verses. Because, when he doesn’t get a response from God, his next action is to seek guidance from another source – he goes to a seer at Endor (also called a medium, or the ‘witch’ at Endor).
4 The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. 6 He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. 7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”1 Samuel 28: 4-7
I wanted to read the entire paragraph simply to underscore that Saul’s actions in seeking the medium follow immediately after his failed request of God.
Now the text has also told us that this is a detestable course of action. And more to the point, Saul knows that this is a detestable course of action. In v. 3, the text has set up the rest of the story with this:
3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.
And we also read:
8 So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”
9 But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?”
10 Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this.”1 Samuel 28: 8-10
Now as a bit of an addendum, we should note that Saul’s expulsion of the mediums and spiritists were like because of the law, which we read in Deuteronomy.
9 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. 10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the Lord your God.Deuteronomy 18: 9-13
So we can conclude that Saul knew well that his actions in consulting a medium were wrong, but he was determined to do so anyways. Why? In short, because he didn’t get what he wanted from God. When he didn’t get what he wanted from God – that is, an answer to the Philistine predicament – he went to another source in order to get what he wanted.
So again, that answers the question of why Saul turned to the medium – that is, because he didn’t get what he wanted from God. But if you recall, that wasn’t the original question we were trying to answer. The original question was, given that Saul knew he had been rejected by God, and this because of his repeated unfaithfulness and his determination to seek out his own kingdom, in this latest and most dangerous situation with the Philistines, which as we should know (and is confirmed by today’s passage) is a result of the aforementioned unfaithfulness to God, why does Saul seek God for answers, for guidance, for deliverance?
And what I want to suggest is that Saul seeks God at the beginning of this passage because of an attitude that God exists to serve him. This is why, when he doesn’t get what he wants, he is able to turn to so quickly, so immediately, to another source (a source which he knows is utterly detestable) in order to get what he wants. Because what matters to Saul is getting what he wants. And to him, God exists in order to get him what he wants. Or to put it another way, God only matters if he gives Saul what he wants. So when Saul doesn’t get it from God, he is more than willing to turn to another source.
Now all of this should help us put this story in proper perspective. Or, it should help us understand the function of this story in the overall narrative flow. This story isn’t just an indictment of witchcraft and divination, it’s an indictment of an attitude towards God that treats Him as a means to our ends, an attitude that treats Him as our spiritual servant, genie, or butler, an attitude that places God at our beck and call.
Now really quickly, this should (or at least, can) help us understand the narrative flow of this whole section of chapters. I mentioned that chapters 27-30 (possibly 27-31) may function as a narrative block. And without expanding on this much more, what we see in chapter 30 is that David is faced with a pretty terrible predicament – his home, family, and possessions have been attacked and taken by the Amalekites. But David’s response – again, in contrast to Saul’s – is to seek the will of God and to do what, and only what, God tells him.
So this whole block of stories – this narrative block – may once again serve to highlight the difference between Saul and David. Both find themselves in terrible circumstances. They are each in an apparently unwinnable situation. But where Saul seeks a god who will do his bidding, David seeks God out of obedience. Where Saul is willing to do anything in order to get what he wants, David desires only to do what God commands.
As usual, all that deserves a lot more attention than we are giving it here. We could have (and probably should have) looked at each chapter in a lot more detail. And I can only hope that I am being faithful in interpreting the text, and faithful in communicating it to you.
But with all of that in mind, the question for us is, what is our attitude towards God? How often have we found ourselves in a precarious situation? How often have we thought we were in the midst of an unwinnable scenario?
And in those scenarios, to whom do we call, to what do we look for answers? For help? Or for deliverance?
Do we turn to God? And if it is God to whom we turn, what are we hoping for? Are we hoping for God’s will to be done? For His kingdom to come? Or do we call out to God to fulfill our expectations? To provide for our needs?
Now I recognize that this might be a difficult question to answer. It’s hard to examine ourselves and search our own hearts. It’s hard to admit that we’re prone to selfishness and self-centredness.
But one question I might ask (including to myself) is, when we find ourselves on the precipice, and we cry out to God, and He doesn’t give us the answer or the solution that we ask for, does that cause us to lose faith in God? Or do we seek God more deeply in the unknown?
We might also ask ourselves, is our faith in God based on the reward? Do we seek God for what we might gain? Or do we seek God as a person? Do we seek to enter into and know His being? And can we still have faith in the unknowableness of that being?
Regardless of what our immediate answers to those questions might be, what I would commend to you (among other things), in order to maintain a proper orientation to our God as our Lord, is to remember the story; to enter into the story. And to remember that my story is not the story. It’s part of the story, certainly. But God’s story is more than I can see with my own eyes and grasp with my own hands.
What I mean by that is that we all have the tendency to reduce what’s going on in the world, what’s going on throughout history, to how it affects me. Evangelicalism actually has its part to play in this, as one of the main tenets of evangelicalism (properly speaking – because there is an evangelicalism that has nothing to do with historical evangelicalism); one of the main tenets of evangelicalism is that one’s relationship with God (or one’s salvation) has to be personal. But in the brokenness and sinfulness, we may have a tendency to translate that into some form of theology or understanding that God’s primary salvation work is for me.
At any rate, what I mean to say is that the practice of entering into the story – that is, of immersing ourselves into the biblical story, into scripture – reminds us that God is doing so much more than what merely affects me. God’s salvation work has a much larger scope than my own personal crises. And that doesn’t mean that one’s personal crises don’t matter or that God doesn’t care. It simply means that God is working at such a large scale that sometimes we cannot see all of it. But we are a part of it. We are immersed in it, and we are enveloped by it. And to help us to see clearly that our darkest moments are also a part of God’s redemptive work, even when we don’t get what we think we want, we need to remember that God is still and always working.
And another practice which can help us understand that is to share our stories with one another. That is, to offer up, to listen to, and enter into one another’s stories. By doing so, if we are truly listening, we are able to break out of the myopia that so easily blinds us. By seeing God working in another’s life, we are able to perhaps see God’s work in our own, more clearly.
Of course, the inverse of that is also true. As we hear our own stories reflected back to us through the perspective and experiences of another, we can oftentimes see our selves more clearly and truly.
And all that is simply another way of saying that we need one another to trust God more deeply. We need one another to know God more truly. When we find ourselves in the darkest of nights, the fellowship of brothers and sisters can help remind us that God is faithful, that God is good, and that the love of God can sustain us.