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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Samuel 28

 

 

Introduction

A Spiritually Bankrupt Saul Seeks To Demonic Sources For Assistance Because Nothing Else Is Left To Him (1 Samuel 28:3-25).

Having briefly summed up the situation from the Philistine point of view, the writer now switches to Saul’s situation as the king who had learned that his country was about to be invaded by an army much more powerful than his own. He had become aware of the large scale mustering of a massive Philistine army (1 Samuel 28:1), something clearly much different from a border raid, and the question was, what was he to do? But when he turned to the sources from which he expected to obtain answers to his questions he received no response. YHWH was not answering him. That was why in desperation he determined to turn to forbidden sources. If God would not answer him he would try to contact Samuel through a necromancer.

This was one great difference between Saul and David. In such a situation David would have flung himself down before YHWH in tears, pleading to be shown where he had gone wrong, and repenting deeply. In the face of YHWH’s silence Saul rather preferred to turn to necromancers. He was lacking depth of soul.

We note that in this extreme situation it was to Samuel, the mentor of his youth, that he determined to turn, even though Samuel had been the instrument of his rejection. He apparently saw Samuel as a kind of back door to God. Samuel would no doubt know what was best for him to do. But Samuel was dead, and thus to contact him would involve him in the forbidden area of necromancy (necromancers purportedly contact the dead through familiar spirits).

The description of what follows inevitably leaves us with unanswered questions, simply because it is dealing with matters beyond our knowledge, for the thing that surprises us is that it appears that he was in fact actually able to contact Samuel. It should, however, be noted that the medium was equally as surprised as he was. She had not expected to see Samuel. She had expected her own ‘familiar spirit’. So what happened appears to have been outside her experience as well as his. It would seem probable therefore that God had in this case determined to act uniquely in order to again pronounce judgment on Saul and exalt David, a judgment which resulted from Saul’s earlier gross disobedience, a disobedience in respect of which he had never truly repented. And it was in fact God’s previous sentence on that disobedience that had preyed on his mind and had made a major contribution towards his illness, even though part of it probably resulted from traumas in his childhood. Now he was to be reminded of that disobedience again. It is a dreadful warning to us all that if we do not truly repent from our past sins and seek God’s forgiveness while we can, we too may end up in a state of hopelessness in which we are simply reminded of our past sins, and with our hearts hardened.

We should also note that it did not bring Saul what he was really seeking. What it brought home to him was not how to fight and win his battles, but rather the certainty of his forthcoming defeat and death. It was information that he would have been better without. Had it been left to the necromancer, of course, he would probably have received a comforting message. But in his case YHWH intervened. It reminds us that even at its best necromancy can only offer false comfort, for it never results in genuinely true benefit, even though initially it might appear to do so. It causes us to rest on false hopes.


Verses 3-19

Saul Consults A Necromancer And Samuel Appears To Him (1 Samuel 28:3-19).

Having been unable to obtain any response from God, Saul, in desperation, determined to turn to a necromancer. It would, however, only be in order to receive bad news. For Samuel’s message to him would be that his case was hopeless. Thus instead of receiving help he would learn of coming failure and death. It is a reminder that those who treat God lightly can be sure that one day they will reap what they have sown, and that when they need Him they might well not find Him. We must seek Him while He is yet speaking to us. ‘Now is the acceptable time. Now is the Day of Salvation’. Tomorrow may be too late.

Analysis.

a Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and encamped in Shunem (1 Samuel 28:3-4).

b And Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped in Gilboa. And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul enquired of YHWH, YHWH did not answer him, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets (1 Samuel 28:5-6).

c Then said Saul to his servants, “Seek me out a woman who has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Look, there is a woman who has a familiar spirit at En-dor.” And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night, and he said, “Divine to me, I pray you, by the familiar spirit, and bring me up whoever I shall name to you” (1 Samuel 28:7-8).

d And the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who have familiar spirits, and the wizards (‘knowing ones’) out of the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” (1 Samuel 28:9).

e And Saul swore to her by YHWH, saying, “As YHWH lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing” (1 Samuel 28:10).

d Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up to you?” And he said, “Bring me up Samuel.” And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice, and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” (1 Samuel 28:11-12).

c And the king said to her, “Do not afraid, for what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see an elohim (other world being) coming up out of the earth.” And he said to her, “Of what form is he?” And she said, “An old man comes up, and he is covered with a robe.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. And Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disquieted me, to bring me up?” (1 Samuel 28:13-15 a).

b And Saul answered, “I am sore distressed, for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answers me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams, therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do” (1 Samuel 28:15 b).

a And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask of me, seeing YHWH is departed from you, and is become your adversary? And YHWH has done to him (God’s adversary), as he spoke by me, and YHWH has rent the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your compatriot, even to David, because you did not obey the voice of YHWH, and did not execute his fierce wrath on Amalek. Therefore has YHWH done this thing to you this day. Moreover YHWH will deliver Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow will you and your sons be with me. YHWH will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 28:16-19).

Note that in ‘a’ Samuel is dead and the Philistines are threatening, and in the parallel the Philistines will triumph, and Saul and his sons will join Samuel beyond the grave. In ‘b’ YHWH does not answer Saul by any means, and in the parallel that is precisely what Saul tells Samuel. In ‘c’ Saul seeks out a woman who has a ‘familiar spirit’, and in the parallel the woman whom he has found seeks to call on her familiar spirit. In ‘d’ the woman thinks that these strange men are seeking to entrap her, and in the parallel she thinks that that is precisely what Saul has done. Centrally in ‘e’ Saul swears by YHWH that she will not be punished.

1 Samuel 28:3

Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.’

“Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city.” For these words compare 1 Samuel 25:1. Then it had introduced a situation where the second person whom Samuel had anointed (David) was going from triumph to triumph because his trust was in YHWH, and was continually revealing his obedience to YHWH. Now it introduces a situation where the first person whom Samuel had anointed (Saul) was in a hopelessly lost condition because of his gross disobedience to YHWH. He had previously retained for himself what had been ‘devoted to YHWH’, a crime of huge dimensions in the eyes of all who lived in those days. (Men would have spoken of it in hushed tones). And even though given a ‘second chance’ he had not repented. Rather he had allowed himself to be hardened by his sin, and had decided that he could carry on without Samuel’s blessing.

“Those that had familiar spirits (ob), and the wizards (yid‘oni - ‘those who know” by means of contact with spirits).’ An ob was a spirit, known to the medium (a familiar spirit), through which mediums claimed to contact the dead. The Scripture makes quite clear that it is sinful to use such ‘mediums’ and ‘knowers’ (Leviticus 19:31), and that they should be put to death (Leviticus 20:27). See also Deuteronomy 18:9-22. In obedience to the Law Saul had put all such out of the land in one way or another. It was a sign of his increasing degradation and despair that he would now turn to them.

1 Samuel 28:4

And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and encamped in Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped in Gilboa.’

The third item in the equation was that the Philistines had gathered themselves together and had come in massive force to encamp in Shunem. So the situation is laid bare. Samuel the prophet of YHWH was dead, all who claimed to consult the dead were no longer available, and the Philistines had gathered for the kill. This was a Philistia at the height of its power facing a bankrupt Saul.

Shunem was in the territory of Isacchar near Jezreel. It was on the south west lower slope of Mount Moreh opposite Mount Gilboa. The Philistines probably hoped to engage in battle in the plain of Esdraelon where their chariots would be most effective. They had learned that dealing with the Israelites in the mountains was a much more difficult proposition (compare 1 Kings 20:23). By taking up this position they had cut Saul off from the northern tribes, while at the same time occupying Israelite territory. (Compare how 1 Samuel 31:7 speaks of the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley. With the Philistines encamped where they were they were unable to reach Saul).

For the description of the gathering of the Philistines compare 1 Samuel 17:1. Then that gathering had a different outcome because of one man, a YHWH inspired David. But now David was no longer with Saul, and YHWH had deserted him. He was on his own.

Saul meanwhile had little alternative but to react to Philistine belligerence and to send out to the tribes the call to arms in order to gather the armies of Israel together, for Israelite territory had been occupied. It was in accordance with treaty obligation under YHWH’s covenant with His people that in times of trouble all the tribes who could would muster in order to assist their fellow tribesmen, and this was even moreso now that they had a recognised King (melech) and Warleader (nagid). But not all could reach him in time (1 Samuel 31:7).

Possibly had he had wise advice he would have withdrawn his army to the hills, where they would have had a far better chance of defeating the Philistines. But that would have meant leaving good portions of the lowlands of Israel open to the ravages of the Philistines, a price tougher generals would have been willing to pay. But it would have put Saul in a bad light before many of his countrymen and have diminished his popularity. They had got used to the idea of Saul confronting their enemies on the border. No wonder that he did not know what to do.

1 Samuel 28:5

And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.’

Surveying the Philistine hosts from his position on Mount Gilboa (and no doubt by means of scouts) Saul was able to assess the size and weaponry of this massed Philistine army which clearly meant serious business. He did not like what he saw and was afraid. He knew that his own army was no match for them in view of their numbers, their skill in warfare and their superior iron weapons. Thus he was afraid, and his heart beat loudly. Perhaps he even began to wish that he had David with him. David was a skilled general and would surely have known what to do. We must not think that Saul was a coward. It was simply that he recognised the odds against him. What he needed was the good old-fashioned intervention of YHWH. Indeed he recognised that otherwise the cause was lost. For a long while now he had relied on a superficial relationship with YHWH. He had ‘done all the right things’, without really becoming too personally involved. YHWH had not very often entered his thoughts, partly because the Philistine menace had not been so great. But now that he wanted His activity as never before, he was to learn that God could not just be sidelined and then called on to be available when wanted. Rather He is near to those who are continually of a humble and contrite spirit (Isaiah 57:15). And that was what Saul was not. Furthermore such an attitude could not just be manufactured at any time for the sake of convenience. It was one that had to be developed

1 Samuel 28:6

And when Saul enquired of YHWH, YHWH did not answer him, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.’

Saul turned in desperation to YHWH, because he had nowhere else to turn. He ‘enquired of YHWH.’ He did it by every known means, but none worked. None of his dreamers and visionaries could have the right dreams. When he consulted the Urim and Thummim through the high priest and the ephod he obtained the message, ‘No answer’. The lot went against him. Even the prophets whom he called on informed him that they had no message from YHWH. Saul grew desperate. If only, he thought, Samuel had been here. He would have been able to obtain a word from YHWH. He would have known what to do.

We inevitably feel sorry for Saul. But we must recognise that he had chosen his own way, and when rebuked had shrugged off the rebuke rather than turning in deep repentance towards YHWH. He had also refused to become reconciled with Samuel, even though he had had a secret admiration for him and had feared to act against him. He had thus chosen his own road. Now he was to discover that he was on the road to destruction. He was to learn that, ‘God is not mocked. What a man sows, that will he also reap’ (Galatians 6:7).

Indeed the darkness in which he found himself was so intense that his thoughts turned to the forbidden way. Perhaps, he thought, if he consulted a necromancer he could get in touch with Samuel. Surely Samuel, who had once been his mentor, would be able to help him. The very fact that he could think in this way was an indication of the condition of his heart. It was typical of Saul’s religion. When it appeared to fail he did not turn in genuine repentance towards YHWH. Rather he tried some other method to get round it. His view was that YHWH could be manipulated. And he was to learn that he was wrong.

1 Samuel 28:7

Then said Saul to his servants, “Seek me out a woman who has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Look, there is a woman who has a familiar spirit at En-dor.’

So he called on his servants to seek out a woman who had a familiar spirit, a medium, one who had contact with the spirit world, so that he might go and enquire of her. Once again we see the superficial nature of Saul’s attitude towards YHWH. He was hoping to obtain advice from YHWH by using means forbidden by YHWH. He does not seem to have considered the fact that such a method was self-defeating. He should have known that the YHWH Who had delivered Israel would never stoop to working through such means (just as Christians today should know that to become involved in the occult is an act of gross disobedience to God).

It is possibly significant that his servants knew where to find such a medium. The days when Saul was thorough in obedience to YHWH were long past. Even though they were still forbidden, mediums had gradually crept back into the land. Thus his servants were able to inform him that in fact there was such a woman not far away, in En-dor (‘fountain of the dwelling’). We should note in passing that this woman was not a witch. She made no claim to be involved in magic. Her claim was to be able to contact the dead.

1 Samuel 28:8

And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night, and he said, “Divine to me, I pray you, by the familiar spirit, and bring me up whoever I shall name to you.” ’

So Saul divested himself of his royal robes and put on some common clothing. He wanted to ensure that he was not identified, otherwise he knew that the woman would not help him. Had he appeared as Saul he would have met a barrier of total silence. Then, sufficiently disguised, and taking two of his men with him, he set off by night and came to where the woman lived. The phrase ‘by night’ is pregnant with significance. He was walking into the darkness.

It was in fact a courageous act carried out by a desperate man, for the Philistines were nearby in large numbers, no doubt with their scouts out, and En-dor was not far from the Philistine camp. But it was also a disreputable act. By it he was demonstrating why YHWH would not help him. It was because his heart was not set towards righteousness and towards truth. He wanted YHWH with no strings attached, and by whatever means. And God is not available on those terms.

On reaching the woman, who did not recognise who he was, he called on her to contact her familiar spirit and raise up for him the one whom he named. He wanted her to enable him to contact his only hope, Samuel.

1 Samuel 28:9

And the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” ’

But the woman was wary. She knew of far too many of her fellow-mediums who had betrayed themselves in response to such a request. And so she replied that in the light of Saul’s treatment of mediums and ‘knowers’ she would not even admit that she could do so,. And she charged them with wanting to entrap her into suggesting that she was a medium. Did they not recognise that for someone to admit that they were a medium in Saul’s Israel, was to court death?

Her question brings out the depths of Saul’s hypocrisy. He who was supposed to be the champion of YHWH, and had to some extent been so, was now taking the way which was in the opposite direction to the will of YHWH. It is almost inconceivable that he did not realise how foolish he was being by expecting an answer from YHWH’s servant when he was using means which were condemned by YHWH. The only thing that does make it conceivable is the incredible way in which so-called Christians today can behave in a similar manner and yet convince themselves that there is no harm in it. The truth is that if we are not careful, when it comes to God we try to manipulate Him into being what we want Him to be, and then persuade ourselves that it is so.

1 Samuel 28:10

And Saul swore to her by YHWH, saying, “As YHWH lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.” ’

Saul took the only step that he could think of in order to convince her. He swore ‘by YHWH’ that ‘as YHWH lived’ no punishment would come on her. At this point his foolishness is seen to have reached its greatest height, for this was a contradiction in terms. The truth was that if he thought that YHWH truly lived he should have been casting this woman from the land in accordance with the covenant Law. He should not have been consulting her. It once again emphasises his religious superficiality.

However, the strength of his oath was such that it convinced the woman. She recognised that such an oath was to be taken seriously and was clearly binding. To go against it would have been to make an attack on the very life of YHWH. And she knew that no one who was here on behalf of Saul, and intended her harm, would have made such an oath. The oath had made her inviolable.

1 Samuel 28:11

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up to you?” And he said, “Bring me up Samuel.” ’

So she asked the stranger who it was that he wanted to be called up, and Saul eagerly replied, ‘bring me up Samuel.’ This was not the give-away that it might seem to us because Samuel was famed as a giver of advice and it did not necessarily therefore mean that she was involved with Saul’s men.

1 Samuel 28:12

And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice, and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” ’

It was only when she actually saw Samuel that she became aware of the truth. This would most probably have been because some gesture of Samuel’s on rising made clear that he was aware that he was facing the king. Thus when she saw the gesture she knew that Saul must be the king because the gesture was one that would only have been made towards the king. That then was when she recognised that this stranger in front of her must be Saul. Turning to Saul in great distress she asked him bitterly why he had deceived her so utterly.

It should be noted that at this time she still did not realise that the figure who had come up was Samuel as her subsequent remarks make clear (‘I see an elohim -- an old man in a robe’). What must therefore have shaken her also, as well as her recognition of Saul, was that that this was not the usual image that she was used to seeing. This figure was unlike any that she had previously experienced, and was totally unexpected. This counts against any suggestion that she really could raise up genuine people.

1 Samuel 28:13

And the king said to her, “Do not afraid, for what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see an elohim (spirit, other world being) coming up out of the earth.” ’

Saul, however, told her not to be afraid and asked what she saw. It is clear from this that the figure was invisible to all but the woman. She then described the figure as ‘an elohim’ (or ‘one of the elohim’). While elohim is plural it is clear from what follows in 1 Samuel 28:14 that she was speaking of only one figure, and that Saul recognised that fact. Thus it would appear to have been a recognised term used for an individual spirit (‘one of the elohim’). The word ‘elohim’ is used of angels (‘sons of the elohim’) and of God (Elohim). It is also very occasionally used of those who represent God (Psalms 82:6; John 10:35). Here it clearly meant an ‘other world figure’, someone not of this world. And she describes him as ‘rising from the earth’. He was clearly not strictly physical, for Saul could not see him (and possibly never did) and his non-physical nature is confirmed by his rising from the earth. And yet the woman discerned his form and shape, and saw him as clothed. It is vain to speculate further.

(We may, of course, compare this with the visit of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-11), except that there they appeared in glory, and the appearing of angels in a similar way to the appearance here, which was visible to Elisha, and then to his servant, but clearly not visible to most human beings (2 Kings 6:17). It was not, of course, a strict resurrection of the dead. In this case it was a rather shadowy appearance arranged by God in order to rebuke Saul. All it tells us is that God can do what He will when He will).

1 Samuel 28:14

And he said to her, “Of what form is he?” And she said, “An old man comes up, and he is covered with a robe.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.’

Unable to see what the woman saw Saul asked her to describe it, and she replied, ‘an old man comes up and he is covered with a robe’. The word ‘robe’ indicated to Saul the prophet’s mantle, and he thus recognised that what she was seeing as a phantasm was the form of Samuel himself. It was invisible to Saul. We might possibly say that it was an appearance in the light of the woman’s heightened perceptibilities rather than a genuine presence.

But conscious that Samuel must be present Saul bowed his face to the ground and did obeisance. He was not used to dealing with other worldly figures, and was awe-stricken. All this was outside of his experience. And he wanted to win Samuel over.

1 Samuel 28:15

And Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disquieted me, to bring me up?” And Saul answered, “I am sore distressed, for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answers me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams, therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do.” ’

Samuel’s words that follow will now reveal that there was something genuine about the situation. It is clear that God had so arranged it in order that He could speak to Saul through Samuel, rather than through the woman’s familiar spirit. He wanted the lesson to come home.

Samuel’s first words were a word of rebuke. Samuel had been at peace. Why then had Saul disturbed him by bringing him up? It is one of the rare hints in the Old Testament that the truly godly who die are at peace.

Saul’s reply was that it was because he himself was not at peace. Indeed he was sore distressed, because the Philistines had arrived in massive force to make war ‘against him’. We immediately note the difference between Saul’s words here and those of David in 17:26, 36, 45. David had been offended because YHWH had been offended. Saul simply took it personally. It emphasises the difference in outlook of the two men.

Saul then explained that ‘God’ had departed from him. The use of God instead of YHWH illustrated the fact that Saul was far from YHWH. Possibly it also hinted at the fact that instead of Elohim he must make do with ‘one of the elohim’. And he then went on to point out that the result was that he could obtain no answer from Him, neither through prophets or dreams. Compare verse 6. He omitted mention of the Urim, but possibly he felt that to say that the Urim had also indicated ‘no answer’ was too damning against him. That then was why he had called on Samuel so that he could make known to him what he was to do. (Saul appears to have no sense of shame in having called on Samuel in this way. He was probably exultant that it had worked. It is a further indication of his religious shallowness in what was a very religious age).

1 Samuel 28:16

And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask of me, seeing YHWH is departed from you, and is become your adversary?”

Samuel pointed out that he had condemned himself out of his own mouth. If YHWH had departed from Saul and had become his adversary, how could he expect a faithful servant of YHWH to answer him? The idea was ludicrous.

1 Samuel 28:17-18

And YHWH has done to him, as he spoke by me, and YHWH has rent the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your compatriot, even to David, because you did not obey the voice of YHWH, and did not execute his fierce wrath on Amalek. Therefore has YHWH done this thing to you this day.”

What Saul should recognise was that this situation was the outcome of his earlier gross sacrilege when he had taken for himself what should have been devoted to YHWH. As the anointed of YHWH he had failed to obey YHWH in the most sacred of tasks. YHWH was thus simply doing what He had promised at that time through Samuel, He was tearing the kingship out of Saul’s hands and giving it to his compatriot David.

The words ‘to him’ are emphasising the connection with God as Saul’s adversary. It is as God’s adversary that Saul is rejected. (In other words, ‘And God has done to God’s adversary as He spoke by me’).

1 Samuel 28:19

Moreover YHWH will deliver Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow will you and your sons be with me. YHWH will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

Samuel then removed from him all hope. He had had every opportunity to repent and had never done so. Now YHWH was about to deliver Israel into the hands of the Philistines, and the result was that on the morrow both Saul and his soldier sons would be in the after-world with Samuel. The fact that the host of Israel would be delivered into the hands of the Philistines is emphasised twice. It signals that the matter was certain and that nothing could be done about it. Thus instead of receiving assistance, Saul had, by his unforgivable behaviour, simply brought on himself a message of doom that he could well have done without. The one positive aspect of it was that it did, at least theoretically, give him the opportunity to repent.

We may rightly ask why, if Saul was doomed, YHWH had allowed Samuel to come to declare to him his fate. Why had He not just allowed Saul a false assurance from the medium? There can really only be one answer. Saul was still being offered the opportunity of repentance. Had he truly repented, and had he thrown himself before YHWH in tears over his sins and pleaded for mercy he might yet have had a hearing (compare Hezekiah in Isaiah 38; Manasseh in 2 Chronicles 33:12-13). But he did not do so. And the reason was because his heart was too hardened. It is a reminder to us that if we would get right with God, and are aware of stirrings within us that lead in that direction, we would be advised not to delay, and especially not to wait until the day prior to our death, for then it might well be too late as it was with Saul.


Verses 20-25

Saul’s Response To What He Had Heard (1 Samuel 28:20-25).

Once Samuel had gone Saul’s response to his words are illuminating. It is clear that he had no thought of repentance or of calling on YHWH. Rather he was terrified as he considered the implications of what he had heard. We note again in this an indication of Saul’s surface religiosity. This is further emphasised by the fact that he had been fasting, no doubt in order to obtain some kind of divine help (compare 1 Samuel 14:24). He seemingly thought that thereby he could move the hand of YHWH. But the only actual ‘benefit’ that he obtained from it was that he was in no physical condition to withstand the shock. As Isaiah would declare later, there was no point in fasting unless the heart was right towards God (Isaiah 58). Thus Saul gained nothing and was left distraught.

Note that Saul’s growing fear is emphasised throughout the chapter. In 1 Samuel 28:5 he had been greatly afraid and his heart had trembled violently at the sight of the great host assembled against them. It was this naked terror that had driven him to do what he had done. Somehow as he had seen that host in front of his eyes he had probably known that it was the end. And now he was even more terrified, for his certain doom had been announced. And the result of that and the fasting was such that he physically collapsed.

And yet he still refused to eat. Perhaps it was because he clung tenaciously to the only exercise that he felt could bring him assistance in his hour of need, a desperate and superstitious attempt to manipulate YHWH, or perhaps it was because he knew that to accept the medium’s hospitality (thus declaring friendship) was to put him beyond the pale. He would be aligning himself with her. But whichever it was in the end he was persuaded to eat, and did so, probably because he came to the recognition that he could not go on unless he did so. He had reached the end of his tether.

Analysis.

a Then straight away Saul fell his full length on the earth, and was terrified (sore afraid), because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night (1 Samuel 28:20).

b And the woman came to Saul, and saw that he was very much troubled, and said to him, “Look, your handmaid has listened to your voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have listened to your words which you spoke to me. Now therefore, I pray you, you listen also to the voice of your handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before you, and eat, in order that you may have strength, when you go on your way” (1 Samuel 28:21-22).

c But he refused, and said, “I will not eat” (1 Samuel 28:23 a).

b But his servants, together with the woman, constrained him, and he listened to their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat on the bed, and the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she acted hurriedly, and killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it, and baked from it unleavened bread (1 Samuel 28:23-24).

a And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants, and they ate. Then they rose up, and went away in/into that night (1 Samuel 28:25).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul had not eaten and was terrified, and in the parallel he ate and went out into ‘that night’. In ‘b’ the woman offers him food, and seeks to constrain him to eat, and in the parallel he is constrained and does eat. Central in ‘c’ was his desire not to eat (and possibly break a vow).

1 Samuel 28:20

Then straight away Saul fell his full length on the earth, and was terrified (sore afraid), because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.’

This probably means that he fainted, and when he came to himself was filled with terror at the remembrance of what he had been told. We are then given the explanation for his fainting fit. It was because he had not been eating properly. He had eaten nothing since daybreak. From what we already know of Saul this was probably because he was hoping thereby to ensure victory (1 Samuel 14:28). He was one of those who were superstitious and never learned from experience.

1 Samuel 28:21

And the woman came to Saul, and saw that he was very much troubled, and said to him, “Look, your handmaid has listened to your voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have listened to your words which you spoke to me.”

Not surprisingly Saul was in great distress. The man whom he trusted more than any other had informed him ‘from the other side’ that the cause was already lost, and that there was no hope, at least in the short term. The hope of Israel, the one who might have made a difference, was far away (as this was the night before the battle he was possibly by this time back in Ziklag or chasing the Amalekites (1 Samuel 29-30)).

The woman of Endor was very concerned for him. She pointed out to him that she had listened to his words, and had trusted him, even putting her life in his hands (note the threefold emphasis). Now she appealed for him to do the same for her, to listen to her and act accordingly.

1 Samuel 28:22

Now therefore, I pray you, you listen also to the voice of your handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before you, and eat, in order that you may have strength, when you go on your way.”

Accordingly she begged him at least to listen to her and eat something to revive his failing strength. Soon he would be on his way, and if he was to make it back to his camp some miles away he must have something to eat. ‘Morsel of bread’ was a slight under-exaggeration. She intended to give him a substantial meal.

1 Samuel 28:23

But he refused, and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, constrained him, and he listened to their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat on the bed.’

But Saul refused. He was an obstinate man and his religious inclinations which were based on false premises, were overriding his common sense. So he declared, “I will not eat.” Perhaps he also felt that to accept the hospitality of such a woman would put him in the wrong (such is the self-contradictory nature of human beings).

However, in the end, still lying faint on the floor, he did listen to the combined appeals of his men and of the woman, and agreed to eat. Then he picked himself up and sank onto the cushion-covered bench along the wall.

1 Samuel 28:24

And the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she acted hurriedly, and killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it, and baked from it unleavened bread.’

The woman then hurried out and fetched the fatted calf (a calf kept especially fattened up in case important guests came). Then she killed and cooked it, hurriedly made some unleavened bread (there was no time for leavening). It would be a hastily prepared meal but a substantial one, ‘fit for a king’. The later Bedouin in fact regularly cooked meat immediately after killing an animal, and prepared fresh bread for each meal. It was not therefore something unusual.

1 Samuel 28:25

And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants, and they ate. Then they rose up, and went away in/into that night.’

Then she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they all ate. Considerably strengthened they then went away ‘into that night’. They had come by night and they went out into the night. All was darkness. It was symbolic of their state of heart, and of what was to happen. It was the darkness before a dawn which would have such devastating consequences for Saul and for Israel. And it was symbolic of Saul’s life. Having refused the bread of YHWH he partook of the bread of darkness. By this time he had nowhere else to turn.

This whole incident is given in some detail because in the writer’s mind it summarised Saul’s life and superficiality. He looked for quick fixes without commitment. He was religiously orthodox as regards the externals, until it suited him to be otherwise, but he lacked heart. And he used his religion as a tool in order to obtain favour. However, once his heart was put to the test he failed. He was spiritually shallow. Unlike David he had no real conception of ‘the fear of God’.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-samuel-28.html. 2013.

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