Every now and again when reading the Bible the inescapably supernatural character of Christian faith is thrust right in front of your nose. You can’t miss it or avoid it. And when that happens there’s a very obvious head-on collision with the secular humanist, materialist assumptions that underlie so much of the public discussion in our society. Any notion that the material world is all there is crashes head-long into the Bible’s world view that’s framed by the reality of creation and recreation, heaven and hell, angels and demons, death and resurrection. One such head-on collision passage is what we’re looking at this evening.
My title is ‘Saul and the Medium’. My passage is 1 Samuel 28.3-25. Last week Jon Teasdale took us through the latest episode in the young warrior David’s evasion of the murderous attentions of King Saul. We learned from the pitfalls of David’s profound weariness after being on the run and in danger of his life for so long. Jon left us on a cliff-hanger, but now the action cuts away from David and we zoom back in to a close up view of what’s going on with King Saul. And it’s not a pretty sight.
You’ll see from the outline that I want to begin with an overview of what happens here in chapter 28, so that we can see the lie of the land. Then I’ll make three points about Saul drawn from how he behaves and what he experiences here: that Saul wilfully does what he knows to be wrong; that Saul’s faith has become twisted and false; and that Saul will reap what he has sown. And as we go we’ll think about what the warnings are for us as we navigate our way through this natural and supernatural existence.
By way of introduction, then, let me begin by summing up the sequence of events in 1 Samuel 28, from v 3. It’s too long for me to read out the whole thing. So here goes.
The great judge and prophet– almost father of the nation – Samuel had died. Think Nelson Mandela in South Africa only more so. All Israel mourned. Because of what follows, we need to know that King Saul had previously banished all mediums and necromancers from the entire land of Israel. To be clear, a medium is someone thought to have the power of communication with the dead. A necromancer is someone who seeks to influence events through such communication.
The Philistines – the deadly enemies of Israel – are massed and encamped for war. Saul has gathered the forces of Israel and encamped nearby. Saul sees the intimidating Philistine army and he is very afraid. His attempts to get guidance from the Lord have come to nothing. Whatever he did, the Lord didn’t answer him.
Saul said to his servants, “find me a medium”. And they did. In disguise, by night, Saul asks the woman to bring up from the dead whoever he wants. She’s well aware of the ban and asks Saul why he’s leading her on a course that will see her put to death. Saul swears by the Lord that she won’t be punished, and asks her to bring up the dead Samuel.
Samuel appears. When the woman sees Samuel, she cries out, and also realises who Saul is – the King in disguise. Saul tells her not to be afraid, and asks her what she sees. “An old man in a robe,” she tells him. Saul knows that this is indeed Samuel, and he bows down in homage to the great man.
Samuel asks Saul why he’s disturbed him. Saul tells Samuel that God has turned away from him, so he’s consulting him, Samuel, instead. Saul asks Samuel what he should do in the face of the Philistine threat. Samuel says, “Why ask me if God has become your enemy?” And he tells Saul that the Lord had done what he said he’d do. The Lord had warned Saul about this through Samuel when Samuel was alive. The Lord had torn the kingdom out of Saul’s hands and it would be given to David. Samuel told Saul that the reason for God’s silence was that Saul had not obeyed the Lord’s clear commands to him. And now Israel would be defeated, and Saul and his sons would be killed – on the next day.
On hearing this Saul falls on the ground filled with fear, and remains in a state of collapse, refusing to eat. The woman tells him that she obeyed him, and now he must obey her, and eat, and go. At first Saul continues to refuse. But then he agrees to eat. She cooks a fattened calf. Saul and his men eat and go.
That’s the bare bones of it. Let’s try and put some flesh on that. So:
First, SAUL WILFULLY DOES WHAT HE KNOWS TO BE WRONG
This encounter between Saul and the dead Samuel inevitably throws up into our minds all kinds of questions. For some of them we simply don’t have answers from Scripture, which means they can’t be as important as we think. But let me touch on some of the questions that this amazing and disturbing incident raises.
Can the dead, in fact, come back? We know the answer to that in principle is ‘yes’ – not least from one New Testament example that’s almost the exact opposite of this in its significance. We call it the Transfiguration. We heard the account from Matthew 17. There, Jesus meets with and talks to Moses and Elijah, as Peter, James and John look on.
Remember that when we die we enter an intermediate state while we await the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age when Christ will return. There’s much we don’t know about that state. We do know that in some way our spirit is separated from our body. Evidently it was possible for Moses and Elijah to come and meet with Jesus. In principle, too, Samuel could come to Saul. Does that leave a lot of unanswered questions? Of course. But they’re a distraction.
But can the dead be summoned by the likes of the medium of Endor? There can be no doubt that this is a field in which charlatans and tricksters thrive. But that doesn’t mean that the supernatural doesn’t exist. However, it’s important to note that in fact there is no clear indication that Samuel came at the summons of the medium. She is shocked to the core when she sees him. It’s God not the medium who’s in control here.
So is this real? Is this actually Samuel who comes – or is this either trickery of some sort, or a hallucination or vision that was not in fact the dead Samuel? Every indication is that we should take this as Samuel really and actually present with Saul and talking to him. There isn’t the slightest hint that we are to understand this in any other way.
But however it happens, is it wrong to attempt to summon the dead and communicate with them, and to use mediums? Yes it most certainly is, in any and every situation. What Saul and the medium of Endor are engaged in here is among the most serious of sins. You can turn back to Deuteronomy 18.9-14 to see that :
“When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practises divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who enquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this. (Deuteronomy 18.9-14)
What Saul does is an abomination – utterly and absolutely wrong.
Does Saul know it’s wrong? Yes indeed – and that’s exactly what we’re reminded of in 1 Samuel 28.3, that says …
… Saul had put the mediums and necromancers out of the land. (1 Samuel 28.3)
Saul himself has in the past enforced this very law that he’s so blatantly flouting now.
So why does Saul do it? That is his tragedy. He’s trapped himself in a desperate downward spiral of sin. He is sliding inexorably ever deeper down into the pit.
What, then, are the warnings for us? Two things are clear.
First, don’t ever get entangled in any occult activity. Don’t ever seek to communicate with the dead, by any means whatever. Have nothing to do with those who claim to be mediums or to have such powers. They may be mere tricksters. You might even think it’s just a bit of fun. But the supernatural realm is real. And such practices are deadly dangerous and utterly forbidden under any circumstances whatever.
If this is something you’ve engaged in the past, you need to repent of it, turn right away from it, renounce it, and put your trust in Jesus. When you do that, there is nothing to fear. If you remain worried, you might like to find an older Christian who you trust, and talk it over with them. We need to take this seriously and have nothing to do with it, but with Christ we have nothing to fear.
Secondly, don’t be like Saul and wilfully do what you know to be wrong – in any area of life. Don’t close your ears to the command of God in the Scriptures – however that touches your life and challenges your lifestyle. And if the Holy Spirit is even now using Saul’s example to put a finger on something in your life, then deal with it today. Don’t leave it. Don’t wait. The blood of Christ washes us clean of all sin as we turn from it and put our trust in him – but don’t delay.
That’s point one. Saul wilfully does what he knows to be wrong.
Secondly, SAUL’S FAITH HAS BECOME TWISTED AND FALSE
One of the really striking things about what’s going on here is that, despite the deadly seriousness of his sin, Saul does still have faith. He hasn’t been listening to Richard Dawkins. He’s no atheist. But his faith that once seemed to be a holy and true faith in the God of Israel has become corrupted and distorted. Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. (28.5)
That fear, that could have driven him to his knees before God and therefore back to safety, instead fuels his sinful pursuit of the medium. And the fact is that Saul should not have allowed such fear to get the better of him. Back to Deuteronomy again, this time to 20.1-4:
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And when you draw near to the battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the LORD your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’” (Deuteronomy 20.1-4)
That couldn’t be clearer, or more apt for Saul’s situation. But he’s lost sight of God’s promises, because he’s lost touch with God. He’s turned his back on God and therefore God has turned his back on him, so he had nothing but fear left. His faith, such as it was, was futile and ineffectual.
Then in verse 6 Saul “enquired of the Lord” – but he got no answer because he wasn’t really prepared to listen.
In verse 10, in his attempt to reassure the medium so she’ll do what he wants, Saul…
… swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” (28.10)
What a terrible irony, that he should call in aid the very Lord who had so utterly forbidden the course of action on which he was embarked. As if God would bless his sin.
In verse 15 Saul says to Samuel, “God has turned away from me…” In other words not only does he know full well that God is real, but without putting it in so many words he blames God for his predicament.
Such is the twisted nature of a faith that starts out real, but becomes self-serving and false. It still uses all the vocabulary of true faith. But if the flame of truth was ever there in his heart, it has long since died out.
What are the warnings for us? Faith with only a partial hearing of God’s word, to suit our convenience; faith without real repentance; faith without obedience – these are fatal. And they’re all too common. What God is looking for is not religious people, but those with true religion – the religion of the cross and resurrection, of whole-hearted faith in Christ and obedience to his word. The world, and indeed the church, are awash with the language of faith that’s hollowed out and false, like the faith of Saul. It is not a matter of any faith - good, atheism - bad. Rather it is true faith – good, false faith (including atheism) – bad. Don’t fall into Saul’s trap. Trust in Christ and obey his word.
So, first, Saul wilfully does what he knows to be wrong. Secondly, Saul’s faith has become twisted and false. Then:
Thirdly, SAUL REAPS WHAT HE HAS SOWN
Saul says to Samuel that he wants to hear from him. So Samuel holds nothing back. This is like the day of judgement for Saul ahead of time. If he was hoping for relief from despair, he should have known better than to do what he did. Because Samuel gives it to him straight. The final verdict on Saul is spelled out by Samuel with surgical precision in verses 16-19:
And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has turned from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done to you as he spoke by me, for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbour, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day.Moreover, the LORD will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The LORD will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.” (28.16-19)
In other words, you’ve already heard from God, Saul, but you haven’t listened. Your display of deep-seated, persistent and settled disobedience – without any real repentance – will have fatal consequences for your kingdom, your life and your family. You are going down to defeat. Tomorrow you and your sons will be killed. You did ask.
And in response to that, Saul’s fear fuels even greater fear. Verse 20:
Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him… (28.20)
The great King Saul’s humiliation is on the way to being complete. As a kind of parable of the loss of his authority he finds himself getting a tongue lashing from this woman who he’d sought to command. And the account ends with the woman feeding him with the fattened calf that she cooks so she can then send him packing. It’s an ironic final royal feast before he goes to defeat and death – almost like the last supper of one who’d become a kind of anti-christ figure.
After all he has literally been trying to kill the christ, the God-anointed one in the person of David, for years. Looking back from the vantage point of the New Testament, we could almost say he’s been through this sort of anti-transfiguration with Samuel, which far from glorifying him as the encounter with Moses and Elijah did with Jesus, has lead to Saul’s utter humiliation. He has own kind of anti-Gethsemane. He is anti-life, anti-truth, anti-the-way-of-God.
All in all he is fearful warning to us. Saul brings home to us that this church business in which we’re engaged is not some kind of spiritual entertainment. Our dealing with God is a matter of life and death. Pay attention to God’s voice in Scripture. Don’t shut God out from ‘no-go’ areas of your life. Throw yourself on God’s mercy in Christ. Keep on repenting. Keep on obeying. And thank God for the true and faithful Christ – the God-man Jesus who …
… humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2.8b-11)