As we move into the next chapter of I Samuel, we encounter a very unusual and disturbing event.
We last encountered David in the land of the Philistines where he had fled to escape King Saul. In the 28th chapter of I Samuel, we learn that sometime after David was living there, the Philistines mustered their army to go after Israel. Achish, the king, wanted David to be his personal bodyguard but the other Philistines didn’t trust David so in the end, David and his men were sent home.
When word reached King Saul that the Philistines were assembling for war, he was terrified. He went to seek the Lord but the heavens were closed to him. Remember that the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul and his murderous rampages in pursuit of David only further removed him from the path of righteousness. So what did Saul do?
Though he had earlier decreed that all mediums and spiritists be banished from the land, now that he hears nothing from God, he sends one of his attendants to go find a medium – a fortune-teller! More liberal-minded commentators opine that it was unfair of God to refuse to answer Saul first and therefore Saul should not be blamed for seeking out guidance from a fortune-teller.
The prophet Isaiah puts that argument to rest very clearly. Why does God sometimes not respond? “Your sins have hidden His face from you so that He will not hear.” (Isaiah 59:2) Notice that it does not say God can’t hear but that He won’t hear. Big difference!
The prayer that God ALWAYS hears and responds to is the prayer of repentance. But if we are trying to seek Him for answers to situations or problems, but have refused to consider our own ways, He may at times delay His response. It is as if He is saying, ‘I’ve been trying to get through to you about__________(whatever sin or habit we may have that is displeasing to Him and/or against His Word) and you haven’t been listening to me.
If Saul had repented of the murder in his heart towards David; if he had repented of his continued disobedience to God; if he had repented for having slaughtered all the priests who stood by David; if he had repented from throwing a spear even at his own son, God’s response would have been totally different. But we’ve yet to see any regret or remorse expressed by Saul about his actions and his attitudes.
Too often we have prayed for deliverance from situations long before we pray for deliverance from our own sinful ways. And we wonder why God has not granted us a miracle!
How perplexing that Saul sends a messenger to find him a spiritist – one of the people he himself had expelled from the Land! Or at least said he was going to. Apparently his officials had not carried out his order to evict all the mediums from Israel which brings up another interesting principle. When a leader doesn’t take God seriously, the people won’t take his leadership very seriously either. Think about that for awhile!
The Torah, which Saul knew very well, forbids spiritists and mediums (Deut. 18:10-12) In his early days, Saul had obeyed God’s Word but as his fleshly desires increased, his devotion to God decreased and brought him to the point that he sought after the very thing he knew was forbidden.
We can fall into the same trap. Have you ever prayed and asked God to help you give up smoking, for example? He does – you do – and a few months later, you find yourself picking up a pack again? Or have you recognized that you’re wasting too much valuable time on social media and determined to set yourself a daily time limit – say 30 minutes? You do well for a couple of weeks and then find yourself slowly increasing the time to 45 minutes, then an hour and before long, it’s consuming half of your day again? Unless we are diligent about maintaining our priorities, our senses and our carnal desires will trip us up every chance they get. As fleshly interests and inclinations increase, our devotion to God and His Word decreases. It’s a principle.
Saul’s attendant knew exactly where to find a medium. The king, in disguise, traveled to the village of Endor and asked the spiritist to call up the spirit of Samuel. Now – conversation with the dead is also forbidden in the Word of God! But catch God’s humor in this moment.
I Samuel 28:12 “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!”
The witch about jumped out of her skin. Being a medium, she no doubt expected a demonic imitation of Samuel but when she recognized the spirit of the prophet, she was terrified. Why? Because she also knew that her lifestyle was against God’s word and most likely feared she was about to die on the spot!
Saul should have been terrified but he wasn’t. After the witch recovered from her initial shock, he asked her what she saw. ‘…an old man wearing a robe…’ Then Saul knew it was Samuel and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. (vs. 14)
How did Saul know it was Samuel? He didn’t see him – only the witch did. Her description no doubt brought up vivid memories of all the times Saul had seen Samuel in a robe and you may remember that back in I Samuel 15:27, Saul had grabbed the prophet’s robe and torn a piece from it. When I read this, I sometimes wonder if Saul asked the witch, “Is there a small tear in the robe?”
It is very important to understand that this was an exceedingly rare moment and not a precedent. God, for His own reasons, allowed Saul a momentary vision of Samuel to call the king to account. Just because Samuel was dead, the words from God that he had spoken to Saul were not! This was a unique case and a unique situation. It in no way suggests that we conclude it’s acceptable for us to try to interact with our loved ones who have passed away or anything of the sort.
I believe that the actual reason for this very unusual intervention by God is revealed to us in verses 17-19 in which the spirit of Samuel says:
The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors – to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and yours sons will be with me.
Indeed only a few days later, Saul and his sons were dead, slain on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa.
At sundown this very evening, Jews around the world will gather in synagogues around the world to observe the most solemn day of the Jewish year – Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It climaxes a period of forty days in which the major focus has been repentance. Though unplanned ahead of time, it was so interesting to me that this week’s study, on the very eve of Yom Kippur, included a strong message about repentance and the dire consequences of not repenting, as we saw in Saul’s experience.
The most important line of this week’s lesson – the one I hope all of us take with us – is this one: The prayer that God ALWAYS hears and responds to is the prayer of repentance. This is the hour to cease from procrastinating if God is speaking to you about something He wants you to change in your life – some habit he wants you to break, some attitude He wants you to change, or some behavior He wants you to adopt, etc. Today is the day to listen to His voice, submit willingly to His correction, repent of our waywardness and renew our commitment to follow Him at all cost.