Saul, and the Evil Spirit from God

Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul,

and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

(1 Sam 16:14)

The supernatural has always intrigued man; diving into the unexplained and allowing the imagination to wander. For some, the thought of the unknown realm of spirits and demons is terrifying, yet there are others who don’t even give it a second thought. While it remains a mystery today, and much debated on what the role and even the existence of spirits and demons in our modern world, we hardly can deny their existence in the Old Testament. The subject here are the times we see God “send an evil spirit upon” a person, particularly the life of King Saul.

            It is important to first gather the context. It is evident that God placed the Holy Spirit upon Saul with the anointing to be king as he also did for David. Yet, we see time after time Saul resisting what would be good choices and allowing his emotions to lead him. It is clear through the life of Saul that he was continually overwhelmed by anger and jealousy. One author would say: “Instead of repenting to have regarded himself as an ill-used man, and given himself up to despondency, until he became a prey to melancholy, and his mind was overclouded.”[1] In essence, Saul continually rejected the hand of God working in his life, and the Holy Spirit left him—he grieved the Holy Spirit. The same can be seen in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you” (Eph 4:30–32). Saul did not allow this transforming work to be active in his life, and therefore God left him to his own demise. What does this look like? A man succumbed to his anger throwing javelins across the room attempting to pin a young man to the wall.

            The question must be asked then, “was this simply a sign and behavior of a mental illness?” I tend to think there was more at work here than that. I don’t agree with some that say Saul was completely taken over by Satan.[2] Yet there seems to be some depravity taking place. What we have to keep in mind is that the Spirit of God was upon Saul to do good work in and through him. The same can be seen in a more personal way in the New Testament when one has the Spirit dwelling in them with the purpose of transforming them. However, if Saul had rejected the Holy Spirit, he would not only be left to his own, but also to the torment of the adversary, not to mention the very darkness and depravity of being alienated from God. I think we often neglect to imagine what such a place would be like. I think we most often assume that with God not working in us, life may go on just fine—but it won’t. Many times, we read about a darkness outside and away from God. This same darkness is what Saul experienced when God left him.

            It was because of the hardness of his heart. The same hardness that drove the Israelites far from God and into captivity. The same hardness of heart that drove the pharisees to have such darkened minds to want to torture and crucify Christ. The same hardness of heart we see in Romans 1:18–32; because they rejected God, they were left to their own shameful desires and depravity. In these moments of such darkness, not only do our own minds become our enemy, the adversary, also called Satan, will make that darkness become darker. And this depravity was a sign of hardness of heart which God had given Saul up on account of his impenitence.[3] As we see in Romans, this was a punishment upon Saul. Furthermore, this is why the text says the evil spirit was “from God.” Being vacated by God and left to be prey to the adversary was a punishment for Saul. It was the consequence of first rejecting the Holy Spirit. Once again, we underestimate the repercussions of being apart from God. It’s a very dark place—a very dangerous place.

            Saul had rejected God and his working in his life on multiple occasions. Scriptures make it clear that God in turn lifted his Spirit from him. If we understand that the Holy Spirit is the hand of God at work in a person’s life, then we must also assume that the adversary at work is what we may expect early writers to call, “an evil spirit.” When Saul rejected God, He not only gave himself over to his own brokenness, but gave foothold to the adversary to do great damage in the fragile mind of Saul. When Paul writes to the church in Ephesus to not grieve the Holy Spirit, just a few verses earlier, they are urged to “not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:27). What seems evident from both the Old Testament text and from the writings of Paul is that God desires to work in his people, and we call that the work of the Holy Spirit. However, if we grieve the Holy Spirit, and he leaves, the adversary is quick to take a foothold and bring us to ruin.

Did Saul have a mental illness? Perhaps, but I think it is feasible to see the hand of God at work, and also to see what the enemy is capable of when God is absent. However, it is fascinating to see what kind of man God replaced Saul with. Not only is First Samuel 16 the first account of God’s Spirit leaving Saul, it is also the introductory chapter to a young boy we know as David. We know that David sinned, but what is important is to see David’s desire for God to never leave him, and to always remain at work in his life. When King David sinned, he later was confronted by Nathan, the prophet. David, with a penitent heart, cries out: “Do not cast me from your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me” (Psa 51:11). God desires men and women who will allow him to actively work in their lives. He urges us to resist the devil and allow his Spirit to transform us more and more each day into his very own image.

[1] H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, eds., The First Book of Samuel, The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 297.

[2] J. Vernon McGee, History of Israel: First and Second Samuel (Nashville: Nelson, 1991), 95.

[3] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, The First Book of Samuel, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 195.