By Samuel Ridout
Saul and the Witch of Endor
1 Samuel 28.
We might put as the heading of this chapter Samuel's solemn words to Saul when he had spared the spoil of Amalek in disobedience to the commandment of the Lord, "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft." The two parts, so widely separated in time and outward character, are really one. Well does the old proverb say, "Respice finem" ("Consider the end"). Little did Saul think, in the day when he failed to extirpate Amalek, that the spared cattle "to sacrifice unto the Lord" — in disobedience to His word — would develop into the incantations of one who had a familiar spirit. We do not realize the unity that underlies all evil; and when one link of obedience to God is cut, it means that the soul puts itself into the hands of Satan. Thus it was with our first parents. To disobey God is to listen to Satan.
Saul had been particularly zealous in seeking to eradicate those who had trafficked in familiar spirits. It is frequently the mark of a self-righteous person to have greater punctiliousness in matters of detail than the children of God. There may be two reasons for this. The Christian is at rest as to his acceptance and eternal security. The question of outward acts as merit has in that sense been eliminated. Conscience is purged, and he has boldness in the presence of God. Alas that such matchless grace as has been thus shown should be neglected, or abused; but it is a fact that the very rest of conscience, which is the believer's portion, is succeeded at times by an indifference as to matters of walk. Far be it from us to say one word that would intimate it is to be expected, or that it is unavoidable. Such is not the case. Where the love of Christ is known, it constrains the soul to walk in obedience but let divine things lose their brightness and freshness, and the very grace of God ceases to have power in the practical life.
And is there not divine wisdom in this? Is not our God so jealous that the apprehension of divine grace should be ever fresh in our souls, that He allows the outward life to show when the freshness is lost, thus recalling the soul to Himself by the very fact of its failures? It is in this sense — may we not say? — that "Moab is my washpot." God uses the workings of the flesh to bring the Christian face to face with his declension, and thus to cast him upon the Lord.
But with the legalist everything has a certain value as merit. He is seeking to accumulate a store of good works which should at last secure for him the favor of God. True, he never reaches the point where he can say he has secured that favor, and often an appearance of humility is manifested in connection with the lack of assurance, which, if traced to its true source, would be found to rest in spiritual pride. But this desire to accumulate merit to establish one's own righteousness leads to a greater punctiliousness, especially in minor matters, where no great sacrifice is involved — the tithing of mint, and rue, and anise.
This will explain Saul's activity in seeking to clear those who had familiar spirits out of the land. He would regain the favor forfeited by his failure as to Amalek through fresh zeal against spiritists — not, of course, that spiritism should have been condoned or allowed in the land, nor that a faithful king would not cut off, as David says, speaking prophetically of the true Messiah, "all wicked doers from the city of the Lord."
Everything, however, depends upon the motive from which the action springs, and God would ever recall to us the fact that it is only the good tree which produces really good fruit. Saul's action with regard to spiritists illustrates this, at one time casting them out, and at another time seeking their counsel.
The case of the Gibeonites is even clearer. Here, in an exaggerated zeal, he would break the compact into which Joshua and the princes of Israel had solemnly entered. They had made a covenant, which could not be broken, that the Gibeonites should be spared. It was, of course, self-sufficiency on the part of Israel which made them forget their need of divine guidance for every step. They were ensnared by the wiles of the Gibeonites. Yet this covenant must be respected and while the Gibeonites were made hewers of wood and drawers of water, their very presence was a reminder of a failure to seek the mind of God for everything, and a warning that, for the future, greater care should be used.
Saul, however, would ignore the solemn covenant, and act as though he were at the head of a victorious army who had just entered upon their inheritance, with no governmental limitations. He would tacitly ignore all failure, and, in figure at least, acted as those do who seek to purify fallen man to make him acceptable with God.
We are living in a day when it is the fashion to ignore the fall and proceed as though we were still in the garden of Eden. Some of us, through grace, have learned the futility of this, and the fact that the fall is a solemn reality, whose consequences must be accepted. This is what turns the heart to Christ.
As has been said, we are not condoning the presence of spiritism, but rather seeking to point out that the power which can cast out demons at any time is the power of Christ, and that one who has allied himself with Satan cannot cast him out.
The case of this woman with a familiar spirit shows the presence of the witchcraft in Palestine at this time, which had been practiced by the original inhabitants of the land. When this began we cannot say, but doubtless it has been in existence from earliest times, and has manifested itself wherever idolatry has held sway. The essence of all idolatry is the displacing of God; and where He is ignored, we may be sure that Satan exalts himself in God's place. In one sense, man is the creator of his idols; and in another, their slave; for, while an idol is nothing, it is at the same time an embodiment of satanic power. The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God."
It is the practice in some quarters to mock at Satan's power, and to ignore his presence in the world; and, still more, to reject the thought of a multitude of wicked spirits; and yet we cannot read the Gospels without realizing that our Lord recognized them fully, and that their power in His day was widespread and great. In some cases the satanic power seemed simply to manifest itself in inflicting personal injury upon the possessed one. They would be dumb, or subject to spasms, or the mouthpiece for unclean and blasphemous language. So much did these afflictions resemble insanity, that the two have been confounded. But the damsel with a spirit of divination at Philippi was not merely possessed in this way, but gave professed revelations, evidently of a satanic character. All through the centuries the arts of divination have been practiced, in so-called Christian as well as heathen countries; and it is most significant that in these last days, when so much light and truth abound, there has been a revival, under the modern spiritualistic cult, of the witchcraft of former days. Truly man, however cultured and apparently moral, as was king Saul in many ways, is no better than his fathers. The flesh remains unchanged, and will seek those who "peep and mutter" now as well as then.
But we must return to our chapter. Samuel's death is again spoken of as if suggesting the cessation of prophetic revelation from God. As a matter of fact, this revelation had not ceased, except judicially for Saul. David still had maintained uninterrupted communication with God — though, most suggestively, we do not find him availing himself of this unspeakable privilege during the time of his sojourn in the land of the Philistines. Unbelief and communion with God do not consort together.
But for Saul the death of Samuel was a reminder of how he had been cut off from God. The Philistines, so often fought against and apparently overcome, continued to assert their power, and we find them here, at the close of Saul's reign, with undiminished strength. With Saul, on the other hand, there was a sense of weakness and a premonition of defeat which are the sure accompaniments of an evil conscience. In the hour of his terror he turns to God, not in penitence or hope, which always accompanies a true exercise, but in despair.
Long since, he had broken off all connection with God, and launched out on the broad river of self-will which was now bearing him swiftly to the final cataract. He therefore gets no answer in either of three possible ways. Dreams would be the most direct, in which God would come to him in the visions of the night, and convey His message with conviction of its truth. By Urim the mind of God was made known through the priest, in connection with the Urim and Thummim of the breastplate upon the ephod; but Saul had slain the priests, and cut himself off from that source of communication; while the prophet, the human channel of the divine messages, was dead. Thus relations are completely broken off, through personal, priestly, or prophetic channels.
A word now indicates that the initiative of seeking the woman with the familiar spirit came from Saul alone. When the evil spirit from the Lord troubled him at the beginning of his apostasy, it was his servants who suggested that a man be sought for who could charm away the gloom; but here it is Saul who asks them to find him the witch. For some reason or other, the servants are quite familiar with the location of the person desired, which shows that with all his zeal in getting rid of witches, their whereabouts was still known.
So the king disguises himself, and under the cover of night goes down with two companions to the haunt of the evil spirit, finally turning his back upon Jehovah. Thus Jeroboam's wife feigned herself to be another when she came to the prophet. What madness it is to think of God as altogether such a one as ourselves, as though He could be deceived by a disguise! The night shineth as the day to Him.
He demands that the woman shall bring up the spirit of the person with whom he desires to communicate. She, ignorant of his identity, reminds him of his own decree; but Saul undoes all his past by swearing that no guiltiness shall attach to her for what she is about to do. Thus reassured, the woman proceeds with her incantation; but here an awful surprise awaits her. Blinded and duped by Satan, the willing tool of his falsehood, she had been accustomed to receive communications from supernatural sources, but never before had such a vision appeared as that which now greeted her. At once the truth flashes upon her. The man who is seeking and the one who is sought are both before her. "Thou art Saul"; and she needs again his assurance that no punishment awaits her from him. He was, alas, in no position to inflict it. Was not he himself the instigator of her wickedness, which God solemnly thus breaks in upon
Evidently God interposes, and permits Samuel to reappear to Saul. As to details, we are not careful to ask, except that there can be no question that the prophet was personally present, and manifested himself visibly to the woman, who described him to Saul as an old man, who, he perceived, was Samuel.
God can break through the barrier which He Himself has erected when His purposes of wisdom demand it; and He can, for the time, send back one who is enjoying the bliss of communion with Himself, to give a message. But the shock given to the witch shows the exceptional character of this action on the part of God. She had been accustomed to traffic with evil spirits; but a divine messenger arising, strikes terror to her soul.
All the so-called revelations from departed spirits which are being made nowadays are, when not impostures, as many of them are, lying messages from an evil spirit with whom the medium is communicating. God does not use unholy channels for the communication of truth; and while it is quite possible for the demon to tell of various events which have taken place in one's past life, or the lives of his acquaintances, and to give "revelations" which are in accord with the habit of mind of the person who has departed, they never emanate from the departed.
This explains why such reassuring messages are returned, professedly from the spirit world, to those who are living in sin. They are assured that the departed are perfectly happy, and enjoying every pleasure, and that God is too loving to punish any, and that they can go on in their course without fear. All of this is so evidently satanic, that it shows how the world instinctively turns to Satan for reassurance.
Quite a different message awaits King Saul. For him there is no reassurance, not even from Satan's power. Saul discloses his consciousness that Samuel must be the medium of any communication which he can expect from God, thus tacitly acknowledging his own wilful madness in having rejected the warnings of that faithful servant. The king prostrates himself before one whom he had so ignored in his lifetime. The prophet asks why his repose has been disturbed from the scene "where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest," and Saul makes his hopeless plaint. The Philistines were at war with him, God had departed from him and would give him no response, and so he had in desperation turned to Samuel.
The prophet, as though indignant that there should have been the least thought that he could say aught if God refused to speak, asks, "Wherefore, then, dost thou ask of me, seeing the Lord is departed from thee and is become thine enemy?" The prophet is one who speaks for God; and surely, if the Master has no message to give, the servant has none to deliver. There is wholesome warning for us in this. Our Lord refused to continue intercourse with those who manifestly had closed their eyes to the light. Thus, when the Pharisees ask Him by what authority He does His miracles, He asks them a question which discloses their attitude toward God. What thought they of the baptism of John? Did they believe that his call to repentance was a message from God, or merely a human word? The Pharisees were not prepared to commit themselves to either horn of this dilemma. Should they declare that John was heaven's messenger, their own responsibility in refusing him was manifested; and they feared to offend the people by declaring that there was no divine element in his call. Our Lord therefore turns from them: "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things." In like manner He had refused to give them a sign from heaven.
When unbelievers manifestly reject the testimony of God as to their sinfulness, and deliberately are refusing to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ, it is a great mistake for the Lord's servants to continue intercourse with them. "Go from the presence of a man when thou perceivest not in him the words of wisdom." But oh how solemn is the thought that a man may thus so effectually break off all intercourse with God that nothing further can be said to him! "Ephraim is joined to his idols; let him alone."
Samuel continues to speak. Jehovah had at last taken the case into His own hands. After all these years of patience, and with no repentance on the part of Saul, the original word which went forth is fulfilled. The language is very similar to that which had been used by the prophet years ago as Saul laid hold of his mantle and sought to detain him. As then, he declares "Jehovah hath rent the kingdom out of thy hand and given it to thy neighbor," who is now mentioned by name.
The cause too is the same — disobedience in failing to execute God's judgment upon Amalek. How solemn it is to remember that though God may long delay execution of a sentence, judgment must fall at last, and for the very sin which originally made it necessary! Indeed, sparing of Amalek is the root of all sin. God's sentence of condemnation upon sin in the flesh by the Cross of Christ declares that nothing short of its absolute extirpation will do. This we know cannot be done by any man whose only excellence consists in that which is natural. The best that could be said of Saul is that he represents human authority, "the powers that be," which are, as executors of God's judgment, declared to be ordained of Him. But mere government cannot deal with the question of the flesh. We are confronted with many illustrations of that. All the laws on the statute books against crimes of every description have failed to do more than impose a certain restraint upon the lawless. Well-meaning efforts, even of Christians, to check, for instance, the drink habit by legal enactment — how futile are human laws to this end!
Therefore the true David alone, and He by His own death upon the cross, is capable of utterly obliterating the flesh. If Amalek is spared, it means the triumph of the Philistines, not merely because one sin committed makes others possible, but be cause of the typical association of the two nations. The Philistines are but the Amalekites turned religious, with assumption of authority to impose their rule upon the people of God, answering, as we have frequently seen, in its full measure, to Rome, and wherever those principles are accepted. Therefore the Lord must leave one in the hands of a system of carnal ordinances who refuses to accept the sentence of the Cross. At last Saul has to hear the death-knell to all his former greatness. "This day" all was to be fulfilled, and Israel with himself was to be delivered into the hand of the Philistines, "and tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me." This, of course, cannot mean to define the state of those who have died, but simply declares that all should be in Sheol — Hades — the place of departed spirits.
It is hardly the place here to open up the whole question of the place of departed spirits in Old Testament times. Much has been said of a questionable character, and nothing but a sober examination of the entire subject would furnish a proper statement. There can be no question that the souls of the righteous were at rest, and that the souls of the wicked were not. As to the righteous, it has been thought that they remained in an intermediate place until the resurrection of our Lord, who not only came forth from Hades Himself, but brought out a multitude of captives from a place of comparative obscurity and dread into the wondrous blessedness of what He has secured for His redeemed. There are crudities about this, to say nothing of more serious objections. The Christian naturally shrinks from the thought that Abraham, for instance, remained in a place of obscurity as a captive until the resurrection of Christ; and our Lord's mention of him in Luke 16: 22-26 clearly denies this. And when we think that all blessing has been secured through the death and resurrection of our Lord, we would be under the necessity of considering that Old Testament saints did not have forgiveness, and were not born again, until after that work had been accomplished which would furnish the righteous basis on which it could be done. This we know is contrary to Scripture, and compels the conclusion that the souls of the saints in Old Testament days entered into the presence of God and were at rest in the same manner in which believers now depart "to be with Christ, which is far better." Paradise is but another name for the third heaven — God's presence (2 Cor. 12). But we must digress from our subject no further.
When Saul hears the awful message of Samuel, he falls prostrate to the ground. That fall which had been delayed so long comes at last, and the giant tree of the forest is brought low. "The day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up, and he shall be brought low, and upon all the cedars of Lebanon that are high and lifted up, and upon all the oaks of Bashan . . . and the loftiness of man shall be put down, and the haughtiness of man shall be made low."
But what a sight — the king of Israel, the anointed of the Lord, in the house of a witch, fallen upon the earth! Well might David say, "How are the mighty fallen!" But it is not the words of a witch that have prostrated him, but the judgment of God. The outward end, however, has not yet come, and Saul must still face the foe into whose hands he put himself.
Strange ministry indeed is that of the witch, who now comes to afford him what comfort she may, which will furnish him with temporary strength to reach the army and go through the last scene. Saul would at first refuse these ministrations, apparently realizing that the end had come, and with little heart to attempt to sustain nature any further. But the counsels of the woman and his attendants prevail, and he takes the needed nourishment. But how empty it all seems! And as we think of the sinner under sentence for his sins, eking out his few days, or years, with the wrath of God abiding upon him, it is equally futile. Oh that even yet he might cast himself upon the mercy of Him who never fails the repentant soul!
The character of the food given to Saul is a mournful reminder, by way of contrast, of the feast which Abraham spread for the heavenly visitors. In their case it was the feast which faith spread, and in which God could take His part — a typical peace-offering, as the calf might suggest to us. With Saul, to receive the peace-offering at the hands of a witch would be such mockery of divine things that we cannot associate the acts together. With him it was not of faith, but unbelief; of death, not of life of Satan, and not of God.