1 Samuel 28
Have you ever prepared to read or listen or watch a story and before it started, there was a caution about the content possibly being too intense or disturbing for some audiences?
Well, this next story from the book of 1 Samuel – contained in chapter 28 – ought to come with just such an advisory label or warning.
In today’s passage from scripture, things are about to get very dark, very fast, and what happens will be more than a little unsettling.
But it’s a scary story, not for the reasons we first perceive.
As 1 Samuel 28 interrupts the story of David and shifts the focus to King Saul, the narrator is going to take us into the abyss – the inevitable destination when we insist on repeatedly and defiantly living life our way instead of God’s way.
Saul is about to, for all intents and purposes, put the nail in his own coffin.
Let us then consider ourselves so advised – forewarned – as we are about to hear, about to dive more deeply into one of the most frightening and tragic stories from the Bible.
However, let us also take heart as this cautionary tale doesn’t leave us without any hope or encouragement.
Amid all the terror that will follow, we also will discover yet again how persistently available and ready-made for us the grace of God truly is – if we have the good sense to embrace it – to surrender our very lives to it.
Let’s hear from 1 Samuel, chapter 28, starting in verse 3.
And please keep those Bibles open as we’ll be considering the whole chapter.
We’ve all had one of those days when absolutely everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
King Saul is having one of those moments.
Today is turning out to be arguably the worst day ever of his life.
“In those days the Philistines gathered their forces to fight against Israel…” – 1 Samuel 28:1
Armed to the teeth with iron weapons and chariots, the Philistines aren’t preparing for a brief border raid or skirmish but for a full-scale, all-out invasion of the northern part of Israel.
War is coming.
With their ancient version of “Shock and Awe,” the Philistines are aiming to gain control over the Jezreel Valley a vast, agriculturally rich plain in Israel that goes as far east as the Jordan River.
Such a prize would not only enlarge the Philistine’s territory; it also would bring the people of Israel to their knees in subjugation and service.
“When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.” – 1 Samuel 28:5
As the king’s scouts inform him of staggering size and strategic location of the Philistine army amassed around his border, Saul realizes he is looking down the barrel of a gun that is about to unload with a level of force his troops cannot defend against and won’t likely survive.
To add insult to injury, the word on the street is David and his 600 men – have gone over to the other side. They are fighting alongside the Philistines.
Saul managed to chase David out of Israel and right into the hands of their most formidable enemy.
Outgunned. Outmanned. Feeling isolated.
King Saul suddenly but not surprisingly finds himself some good ol’ “foxhole religion.”
Previously content to ignore or deny divine direction, Saul now decides it’s an emergency – and so he breaks the glass and sounds the prayer alarm.
But the sound of the alarm goes unanswered.
“He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.” – 1 Samuel 28:6
Despite numerous efforts to inquire of God, the Lord remains silent – not answering or returning Saul’s call.
Saul mechanically followed all standard Torah protocols for making a divine connection so that the Lord would have little choice but to communicate with him and give him what he sought.
Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? We go to church. We pray. We sing a few songs. We read our Bibles. We listen to a sermon. We tithe. We come to the table. We decorate our lives with all the markings of being God’s people.
And then, the Lord is supposed to answer. We expect the Lord to give us what we want when we believe we need it. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
The presumption that our Creator is our beck and call God quickly gets shattered when we painfully discover the Lord doesn’t march to the beat of our drum.
But contrary to Saul’s perception and possibly our way of thinking, God’s silence here is itself an answer.
After all, Saul previously has made it clear that he wanted to be free of the commands of God – repeatedly choosing to ignore or even defy the Lord’s counsel and direction.
So now, God gives Saul what he wanted.
The Lord keeps His mouth shut. God is no longer telling Saul what to do.
Hasn’t the Lord has said enough already?
YHWH many times before explicitly told Saul where all his disobedience and rebellion against him would lead – and it is right here – reaching the end of all that Saul can do on his own and finding himself still staring death in the face.
God is silent because there’s nothing more to say that hasn’t already been said.
Sometimes when it feels like the Lord is silent in our lives, we need to honestly ask whether the problem is on our end or His.
Is God not picking up when we call or has God been speaking all this time – trying to connect with us – but we just don’t like or want to hear what the Lord is saying?
The answer of God’s silence is unacceptable to Saul.
And so, true to form, he resumes his typical approach in his relationship with the Lord as he immediately looks to work around God to get what he wants – to acquire a bit divine wisdom.
Saul becomes convinced he needs to talk with Samuel, the prophet of the Lord, who previously advised him on all things divine.
The only problem is, well, Samuel is dead and buried.
“Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah.” – 1 Samuel 28:3
But that doesn’t stop a man who has power like Saul as he decides he’ll just find a medium or necromancer
“Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.” – 1 Samuel 28:7
– someone who can communicate with the dead – to serve as his radio transmitter for calling Samuel up from beyond the grave.
Back then, people believed the dead – no longer being conformed to the time and space of this life – had information on the future.
And if you wanted to get the advance, inside scoop, you needed someone who could bring up the dead.
“Bringing up” in the sense that the dead were thought to live underground in an underworld.
Therefore, if you wanted to communicate with the dead, they had to be brought up to the world above the ground – usually against their will – hence the need for a specialist.
But again, Saul has a problem.
During his tenure as the king of Israel, he expelled all the mediums and spiritists and their practices from the land.
“Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.” – 1 Samuel 28:3
This action was a high mark of Saul’s kingship because this was something the Lord explicitly directed Israel NOT to do like the surrounding nations – not get involved with those who mess around with trying to speak to the dead or to contact other spirits.
The Lord promised to give His people all the information He wanted them to know about the future through His word, His prophets.
The irony of this situation now becomes clear.
Saul, in his despair, turns toward that which he knows is wrong – something he, as the king, outlawed in Israel.
Saul is attempting to gain divine wisdom by a means that God specifically invalidated it as being both wrong and dangerous.
Rather than being disturbed by all this, we might chuckle at the superstitious mind of our ancestors in the faith.
And yet, aren’t the very same practices alive and well today? Aren’t we, like Saul, tempted to explore alternative routes to divine wisdom? Fortune tellers. Horoscopes. Tarot cards, Seances. Ouija boards.
Some people view these as novelties — as harmless as playing a board game – whereas others are much more serious and fixated on shaping their lives based on any sketchy and ambiguous information they can get from these sources.
For we who profess to believe in Jesus, indulging any or every single one of these practices makes us no different than Saul as it represents nothing more then an attempt to work around rather than to rely solely upon and trust in the Lord’s direction and leading.
Despite his previous expulsions of all the necromancers from the land, Saul manages to locate a witch living in Endor.
“There is one in Endor,” they said.
“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.” – 1 Samuel 28:7-8
Under cover of night, Saul goes out to see her.
He comes disguised so as not to be recognized as the king – the same king who had formerly banished those of this woman’s kind.
Saul’s treachery knows no bounds as he swears to this fearful woman in the Lord’s name
“Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this.” – 1 Samuel 28:10
that she will not be punished for doing something that he, again as the king of Israel, knows full well is forbidden by God’s Law.
But eventually, Saul proves unable to hide his hypocrisy as the witch recognizes him for who he is – the king of Israel.
“When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” – 1 Samuel 28:12
Her realization of this, however, comes in the conjuring up, of the dead prophet Samuel from beyond the grave.
It’s vital to notice that there is no indication that she did anything to make Samuel appear before Saul.
She speaks no magical words. There are no special effects – like fire or smoke.There is no performance whatsoever of an occult ritual.
Saul merely asks to speak with Samuel, and suddenly there Samuel was.
The witch herself is as surprised as Saul when this happens – suggesting this is not how things typically work when she is trying to communicate with the dead.
All of this points to the appearance of Samuel as being solely the Lord’s doing – and not the medium’s.
God breaks His silence to try – one last time – to get through to Saul.
As Saul lays himself prostrate on the floor,
“Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” – 1 Samuel 28:14-15
Samuel appears before him nothing like a magical genie seeking to grant his master’s wish and more like that of an agitated, bellowing spirit as Samuel begins by questioning Saul – demanding to know why he is being disturbed like this.
“I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has eparted from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.” – 1 Samuel 28:15
And as Saul tries to make his case to Samuel, one wonders if Saul even hears what he is saying out loud.
Sharing his fear of the impending Philistine invasion as well as his mounting frustration due to God’s silence, Saul manages to admit with a straight face that he’s trying to use Samuel as some sort of back door to the Lord – to get some divine direction.
Samuel responds to Saul with yet another question – pretty much asking what kind of answer Saul expects from the Lord given his prior actions.
“Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me.” – 1 Samuel 28:16-17
If after all this time – Saul had proven again and again to be unwilling to seek, listen, and follow the Lord – why would he expect God to say anything different from what’s already been said?
Samuel’s point to Saul is nothing surprising is going on here.
This is precisely what the Lord told you was going to happen because of your persistent disobedience and rebellion – you inevitably would lose the kingdom, and you would lose your life.
The only additional clarity Samuel brings is to confirm Saul’s worst fears.
“The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” – 1 Samuel 28:19
Tomorrow is the day of reckoning.
Tomorrow, Saul will be defeated by the Philistines.
Tomorrow, the kingdom of Israel will fall.
Tomorrow, Saul is going to die on the field of battle.
Tomorrow – in a matter of hours – the Lord’s judgment will come upon Saul.
The final picture we are given of Saul this chapter is terrifying and sobering.
“Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel’s words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and all that night. …He refused and said, “I will not eat.” – 1 Samuel 28:20, 23
Here is a person who had it all.
Chosen by the Lord to be the first king of Israel.
Empowered by God’s Spirit to lead a people into at last becoming a nation.
Supported with the divine wisdom and guidance of the word of God through the prophet Samuel.
Protected and defended by the Lord in the face of outside attacks.
Nearly everyone believed Saul could be the best of the best.
Saul, who began with such promise, Saul, who once stood head and shoulders above most people, is now flat on his back, filled with dread, greatly shaken – unable to move and unwilling to eat.
Let us look carefully for the picture that we are left with is the true reflection of who Saul has become – after all the illusions surrounding his sin have been stripped away.
In our day to day lives, we often look and see people surrounded by all the trappings of power and success, that even when we perceive their brokenness – their pride and self-centeredness and violence – we still fail to see their true state, who they really are inside.
Because, by all appearances, they look to have it all, we imagine them happy, and successful, and content – even rationalizing their flaws, their sin, as the price of fame and fortune.
But here in 1 Samuel, the Lord in his providence, through the telling of this story, enables us to see Saul for who he has become – unfiltered and unmasked of all the perceived earmarks of success and achievement.
All the pomp and circumstance, all the military might and royal treatment – the appearance of Saul the mighty king is stripped away and we are left here with the reality of Saul, the broken and sinful man.
Here we see Saul for what he has become – living on his own terms, apart from, in defiance of the way of the Lord.
He is isolated and alone. He is helpless and afraid. Left with nothing but the utter darkness of despair and the inevitability of his pending death, Saul is without hope.
Beloved, we look away from this haunting picture to our peril.
For this is what Saul’s sin indeed looks like – the net effect, the end result. This is what Saul’s sin has made him into.
This is the reflection of where our sin – all human sin – left unchecked, left defiantly indulged, ultimately takes us.
The stereotypical view of the execution of God’s judgment upon human sin is the Lord throwing down bolts of lightning or smiting us with some terrible plague, natural disaster, or some violent, snuffing out of our lives.
But here, we learn that the exercise of the Lord’s judgment is much less theatrical and inarguably much more inherently logical and fair.
God’s judgment upon Saul in light of his repeated disobedience and continued unrepentance is to give Saul over to his desires – to let Saul take hold of everything he persisted sinfully grasped at.
To put this even more simply, the Lord’s judgment upon our sin is to let us reap what we sow.
If this is what you insist on having, then have at it but you must bear the consequences of taking what I have told you is not good for you, what I have warned you will, in the end, kill you.
None of this should have been a surprise to Saul. This is Samuel’s point.
The message had been made loud and clear long before the Philistines were positioned to invade Israel.
Long before Saul desperately tried to launch some sort of spiritual signal flare to heaven, multiple messages from God had been sent – through his royal advisors, through prophets and priests like Samuel, through his son, Jonathan, through servants like David
– advising and cautioning Saul that he was headed in the wrong direction, that if he kept going that way, it was going to end badly – tragically.
Deep down, Saul knew where he was headed, what he was becoming.
He felt it.
His God-given, tormented conscience regularly convulsed in his inescapable awareness of a painful reckoning he would not be able to avoid.
In Saul, we witness irrationality that is commonplace to all humankind – particularly in relationship to God.
Deep down, we know the truth – that there is a God and that we should be looking to and following His lead in how we live.
We know, we sense, we hear the inevitable outcome of our disobedience – of living my way instead of the Lord’s way, and yet, like Saul, we persist in blindly going forward – convincing ourselves if we put it out of our minds and continue doing what we know is unwise, what is wrong, maybe God’s judgment will never arrive.
Like Saul, we try to find the loophole and sincerely believing that maybe we can find a way around the Lord’s judgment before it comes.
It sounds so irrational when said out loud but so logical when you try it.
But like Saul, what we fail to recognize is God’s judgment isn’t something we can avoid in the future.
The judgment of the Lord begins here and now.
While God doesn’t force people to follow Him or His ways, the Lord brings His judgment in the present by giving the defiant and unrepentant what they seek in their sin. – allowing us to experience whatever we seek the most – good or bad.
The apostle Paul in his writing to the Romans, affirms this when in the first chapter of his letter, he repeats three times that our Creator’s response to those who have rejected him is to “give them up” to their own sinful desires.
In other words, the judgment of God is experienced in God letting those who demand and insist upon it to experience the full effect of the sin they seek.
Our sin is, in many ways, its own consequence.
St. Augustine, in his Confessions, expressed it this way, “Every disordered soul is its own punishment.”
Our sins – our rebellion and rejection of God – and their consequences are their own penalty.
The disorder and destruction that result from each of us going our own way rather than following the Lord together wreaks enough havoc – enough suffering, pain, and loss that God doesn’t need to add any thunder and lightning.
What is it, what sin threatens us?
What is the sin … the rejection and rebellion against God – that if we’re truthful could most easily consume us – that if we step back and take an honest look,
is already acting like a cancer within us – turning us defensive, forcing us to hide part of ourselves, making us paranoid, causing us to lash out in frustration or anger, filling us with fear borne of guilt and shame?
Where are we resisting – defying – the Lord’s will and direction – while at the same time trying to work around God like Saul to get what we want – even though we know it’s not what God wants for us.
Will we dare to see our sin, our struggle with God, for what it is?
Will we allow the Word and the Spirit of the Lord to strip our sin of all its illusions – of all the lies it tells us?
Will we face, through the example of Saul, this terrifying glimpse of where our sin leads, of what kind of person we become in the end?
When we talk about the judgment of the Lord as giving us over to our ill-conceived and wrongful desires apart from Him, this isn’t God executing some sort of “I’ll give you something to cry about!” justice.
This is our Creator revealing to us and hopefully teaching us the outcomes of the things we seek and long for apart from His will.
If we insist, if we so demand, our Heavenly Father allows us to leave home and go all prodigal – to try and make a name for ourselves, to fashion a destiny apart from His inheritance.
The Lord gives us enough rope to nearly hang ourselves; if that’s what it takes for us to finally realize our true identity – the best version of ourselves that we can become – and the destiny we long for – a full, abundant, and everlasting life – only can be found by coming home to Him – by following His lead.
Something worth noting here in the midst of an otherwise scary story, is that while the Lord declares a word of judgment to Saul; it is not one divorced from the possibility of grace.
Here’s what I mean.
If Saul was doomed – game over – then why did God break His silence and show up to speak to Saul through Samuel?
If, as some perceive, we look to a spiteful, vengeful God, why didn’t the Lord leave Saul to receive a message of false hope and comfort from the medium?
Why not let King Saul hear what he wanted to hear – that everything was going to be okay and that he would live to fight another day?
There can really only be one answer.In the midst of His judgment, God continued to offer Saul grace – the opportunity of repentance – of coming clean, of returning back to the Lord.
Saul already had lost his kingdom. Saul was going to lose his life. But Saul was still being given the opportunity to find – to take hold of something greater than all he was about to lose – his relationship with God – a life with the Lord beyond death.
To the very end, the gift of salvation – reconciliation, redemption, and resurrection – was put before Saul.
Given the grace of God expressed through this unusual final warning, how can any of us doubt that
if Saul had flung himself down before the Lord in tears, confessing where he had gone wrong, repenting deeply, and casting himself on God’s promised mercy, how can there be any doubt that God would have forgiven Saul, that the Lord would not have taken away the consequences of Saul’s sin but would have carried Him through those consequences and into life everlasting with Him?
Beloved, let us pay careful attention to this.
Saul turned in desperation to God, because he had nowhere else to turn.
And this was the right move – the only real move any of us have in this life.
Saul’s problem was that he didn’t follow that move all the way through.
Tragically, to the bitter end, Saul doesn’t repent.
While God’s word spoken through Samuel terrified Saul, it did not move him to listen and obey.
This is because Saul’s religion was to try to manipulate the Lord rather than let his life, his character be shaped by God.
This is because Saul wanted salvation with no strings attached, and by whatever means. And God is not available on those terms.
Grace is free, but it is costly. It is not cheap.
It is not without a price – a price that we can’t pay but a price that we must acknowledge and be claimed by.
Saul, for as low as he had sunk, in looking into the abyss of death and hell, despite every opportunity, he was provided, refused to see where his sin had led him, who he had become and never turned back to God.
For all the grace He was given, Saul gained nothing and just plunged forward to his death.
From Saul’s tragic end, we have much to learn so that we can know a different end and live out of a better hope.
We are all works in progress – students of life learning and growing as we follow Jesus.
We all sin. We all can and will give in to sinful desires to be selfish and rash.
We all can and will attempt to take control in order to get whatever we want or to protect ourselves from what we don’t want to face.
And while God will allow us to go our own way, the Lord will continue to seek to convict and correct us, to caution and reorient us, to turn around and turn back to Him.
Our Heavenly Father repeatedly gives us grace – nudging us, confronting us, and even meeting us in the darkest moments of our human nature – offering us a way out, a way home.
In those moments when we are challenged by God, sorry often seems to be the hardest word.
In response to the challenge of God’s judgment, we can forsake the opportunity of God’s grace by just wallowing in our guilt and shame, by bemoaning and blaming others for where we find ourselves, by trying to cover it up and deceive ourselves by spending more, doing more, and just distracting ourselves with pleasantries.
We can even like Saul, shrug our shoulders, turn a blind eye, and keep choosing to embrace what we know is wrong despite the inevitable consequences.
But the only viable response we have before the simultaneous revelation of God’s judgment and grace is to confess – to come clean in order to be made clean.
We need to repent – to turn around and follow Jesus instead of continuing to face the wrong direction and go our own way.
We need to abide – instead of resisting and fighting against the Lord – we need to lay down our arms and surrender into His.
Our rehabilitation and recovery may not be easy. There will be consequences to face and amends to make along the way. But God is faithful. The Lord will give us all that we need to become everything He created us to be. Beloved, when the world of our own making inevitably falls apart, we need to have the good sense to embrace the grace being offered to us – the grace of God that is able to reach us no matter how far we’ve gone, no matter what we’ve done.
Let us face the brokenness in and around us for what it is and run once more to God our Father – confident and assured that as we do, He will run even faster to meet and embrace us — and to welcome us home. Amen.