Saul reigned over Israel for 42 years. While his kingship began with great fanfare and early military success, its latter years were dominated by Saul’s jealous pursuit of David. The quality of his leadership declined sharply. Rather than focusing upon the welfare and management of Israel as a whole, King Saul instead spent a considerable amount of time and resources chasing David. Saul prioritized his own personal vendetta above the concerns of his nation and all of Israel suffered as a result.
After almost 10 years in zealous pursuit, Saul finally gave up the chase. David had escaped from Israel and had settled safely in the land of the Philistines. Saul was hesitant to cross over into Philistia, because they were a strong and formidable adversary. The king’s decade-long quest to capture and kill David had failed, which left Saul feeling even more disgusted and unsatisfied than before.
This morning’s message is the 10th installment of our current sermon series called “The United Church - A Study of Ancient Israel”. At this point in our study, we are nearing the end of Saul’s reign over Israel. David has found refuge in Ziklag and has earned the favor of the Philistine King Achish. The renowned prophet Samuel has died and been buried in Ramah. Saul has returned to his home in Gibeah to rule over his people.
The sermon this morning highlights the issue of witchcraft or sorcery. Today’s passage describes a seance in which King Saul seeks out and speaks with a medium. This story is the most detailed and developed one of its kind found in the Bible. While it won’t answer every question we might have about the spirits and communicating with the dead, there are several lessons we can learn from this intriguing chapter.
I. THE WITCH OF ENDOR (1 Samuel 28:1-14)
Once again the Philistine army was threatening Israel. They were camped in Shunem while the Israelite forces were gathered closeby at Gilboa. King Saul observed the size and strength of the Philistine military and grew very afraid. He called out to God, hoping to receive some direction, but the LORD did not answer him. The king tried various methods of contact, but God remained silent. Finally, he decided to consult a medium.
Earlier during his kingship, Saul had outlawed the sinful practice of witchcraft and sorcery in Israel. However, because he was desperate, Saul violated his own decree and sought out a witch. The king disguised himself and came to the woman at night. He asked her to conjure up the spirit of Samuel, but she initially refused citing that it was illegal and she might get into trouble. The man in disguise promised that he wouldn’t tell anyone and that no one would find out, so the medium complied with his request and the seance began.
All forms of witchcraft and black magic were violations of the Mosaic Law and were condemned severely. Those who practiced such things were to be put to death by stoning. Even today, these behaviors are still considered to be sins and should be avoided. Saul knew this was wrong, as evidenced by his earlier decree outlawing sorcery, yet he still chose to involve himself in it. We often do the same thing by choosing to take actions that we know are sinful.
II. THE SPIRIT OF SAMUEL (1 Samuel 28:15-19)
As the woman began summoning up the spirit of Samuel, she realized that the man in disguise sitting across from her was actually King Saul. He reassured her that it was okay to continue and then asked her what she she saw. The medium proceeded to describe an old man rising from the earth who was dressed in robe. Saul bowed his face to the ground paying homage to the deceased prophet.
After being raised from the grave, Samuel’s spirit wondered aloud why it had been disturbed. Saul explained that the Philistines were waging war, that God wouldn’t answer him, and that he needed some wise advice. Samuel reminded the king that God had rejected him and become his enemy. God had given the kingdom of Israel over to David because Saul had disobeyed Him regarding the destruction of the Amalekites. Samuel concluded his rebuke by confirming Saul’s worst fears. He bluntly told the jittery king that both he and his sons would be killed by the Philistines in the looming battle.
From ancient times until the present, curious people have longed to speak with the dead. Many want to contact lost family members or friends to express certain feelings or sentiments that were never said while their departed loved ones were alive. Others simply want to know what it is like in the afterlife. Whatever the reason, communing with the dead is foolish and dangerous. Notice that Samuel’s spirit was not pleased about being disturbed. Fortunately it did not act out in violence, but other spirits might of. If Samuel’s spirit was upset, it is certainly possible that a less righteous person’s spirit might have been furious. The wisest course of action is to leave the spirits of the deceased alone.
III. THE REACTION OF SAUL (1 Samuel 28:20-25)
When King Saul heard Samuel’s dire warning, he was paralyzed with fear. He had eaten nothing all that day or night and was completely devoid of strength. Seeing that he was greatly distressed, the medium quickly ended the seance and offered Saul something to eat. She could tell that he was completely terrified by the message that he’d heard. Frozen in fear, King Saul refused to eat anything even as she urged him to do so. Finally the servants who were with Saul that night persuaded him to eat something.
The woman got up and went to prepare a small meal for the king. She slaughtered a fattened calf and baked some unleavened bread from flour. She brought the food to Saul and his servants and they ate it. Afterwards, they arose and departed during the night. Saul was stilled rattled by the ominous message that he’d received from Samuel.
In 1st Chronicles 10:13-14 the Bible plainly says that God put Saul to death because he consulted a medium. Though his death won’t actually take place for a few more chapters, even now Saul is already consumed with fear. It seems that nothing good comes from consulting with the dead or involving oneself in sorcery or witchcraft. It is a fool’s game.
Our culture is fascinated by the spooky, strange, morbid, and macabre. Many of our most popular television shows and movies depict witches, vampires, zombies, evil spirits, and so forth. There is an entire industry of people who make their living hunting ghosts or trying to communicate with them on behalf of their paying customers. In other less developed societies, black magic and voodoo are still practiced openly. While some of these practices are nothing more than an elaborate hoax, I do believe that there is a spiritual realm that coexists with us.
I’ll admit that I’m not an expert in the area of the occult or sorcery. This is because I chose not to dabble in it. Just as I have never been drawn to alcohol or illegal drugs, likewise I’ve never had much interest in witchcraft. It simply doesn’t appeal to me. I have several vices, but this isn’t one of them. The Bible says that divination is sinful and should be avoided - that’s good enough for me!
Samuel died prior to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was a godly man who had a saving faith. Therefore when Samuel died his spirit descended into Abraham’s Bosom (which is also called Paradise). This was the region of Sheol that was reserved for righteous, redeemed saints. The Bible describes Sheol as the grave, which would explain why the witch saw Samuel’s spirit rising up from the earth. After Jesus’ resurrection, the inhabitants of Abraham’s Bosom were carried away with Jesus into heaven. This portion of Sheol is now vacant.
While I can’t be absolutely certain, I would argue that the dead who remain in Sheol cannot be conjured up. The only spirits who still abide there are those of unrepentant sinners that have been confined to Hades. They are restricted by Almighty God from communicating with the living. Meanwhile, the spirits of the redeemed who’d formerly been there are now present with Christ in heaven and are also inaccessible to those of us on earth. While consulting with the spirit of a deceased saint might have been possible in Old Testament times, I don’t think that it is today.
I believe that those who seek to communicate with the dead can stir up spirits, but they are not those of deceased human beings. On the contrary, they are demonic spirits who often pose as departed people in order to entice curious seekers.Their allure draws people deeper and deeper into sin and further and further away from God. The Devil exploits a person’s fascination with the dead in order to lead them astray. This is the slippery slope of sin.
The LORD desires that we seek Him alone for the answers to our questions and the comfort for our hurts. When we seek something or someone else, we are placing them before God. This is a clear violation of His divine law. Saul was wrong to consult a medium, and we are too if we involve ourselves in witchcraft.