Dealing with a Difficult Passage: Samuel Speaks from the Dead in 1 Samuel 28
Dealing with difficult passages requires that we keep four hermeneutical principles in mind:
- Principle #1: Interpreting difficult passages starts with understanding what the text says.
- Principle #2: Difficult passages must be interpreted in light the immediate context.
- Principle #3: Difficult passages must be interpreted in light of clearer passages.
- Principle #4: Difficult passages must be interpreted in light of the overall biblical context.
So let’s take a look at 1 Samuel 28 where a medium from Endor sets up a conversation between living Saul and dead Samuel. We will begin by exploring what the text says, making special note of what the author communicates in the immediate context.
The Setting: The Threat of the Philistines, vv. 1–5
At this stage in Saul’s career, he is about to go into battle, but he is far from God and unable to hear from God. The author points out three important points. First, Samuel was dead (v. 3). Second, consulting the dead was prohibited in Israel. Those who did would be put to death (v. 3; Deut 18:10–12). Third, Saul was deathly afraid of his upcoming battle with the Philistines (vv. 4–5).
Saul’s Problem: The Silence of God, v. 6
God had chosen Israel as a nation, and yet at this time, He was not speaking to her king. Verse 6 tells us that Saul tried to hear from God through dreams, through the priests, and through the prophets. But none of them worked.
Why was God not speaking? The answer comes in the broader context. We see that Saul had already made it a pattern of his life to ignore the prophets (e.g., 1 Sam 15) and the priests. Not only did he ignore the priests, when he learned that the priests at Nob helped David, he had them all killed (1 Sam 22:9–23).
The problem of silence was not on God’s side. God had spoken many times before. Saul was reaping what he had sown (Gal 6:7–8). He had sown the seeds of ignoring and rejecting God and here in 1 Samuel 28 he was reaping the harvest of God’s silence.
Saul’s Solution, vv. 7–8
Saul was determined to know the outcome of this upcoming battle. Saul would not be ignored. Whatever it took, Saul was going to hear from God. The unexplored option that he chose to pursue was necromancy, which was prohibited by God (Deut 18:10–12) and by Saul himself (1 Sam 28:9).
Ironically, Saul was the one who had removed mediums from the land. And yet he was able to track one down in Endor. Longing for a word from God, he travelled to Endor through the Philistine territory in the cloak of night (v. 8).
Saul’s Blasphemy, vv. 9–10
Saul convinced the medium to speak to dead Samuel. I call this blasphemy because Saul promised her safety using the phrase, “as the Lord lives.” Saul was invoking God to go against Himself. This is madness. He was essentially saying, “Even though God commanded you not to speak to the dead (Deut 18:10–12), let God die if he judges you for bringing up this spirit.” She reluctantly complied to his demand.
The Medium Makes Contact with Samuel, vv. 11–14
Amazingly, the medium successfully connected with dead Samuel. But how could this be? Maybe it was a demon disguising himself as the spirit of Samuel. Before we try to explain this away as fantasy or as an imagined story, we need to consider one thing from the broader context and four things from the immediate context. In the broader context, we know that necromancy was prohibited (Deut 18:10–12), which implies that it was possible. In the immediate context, we see everything pointing to the idea that this is actually the spirit of Samuel:
- Samuel was recognized as Samuel by the woman and by Saul (vv. 13–14)
- Samuel referred to real conversations that he and Saul had had (vv. 17–18, cf. 15:28)
- The author refers to him as Samuel (v. 15; cf. Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matt 17:3–4), not as “the demon that appeared like Samuel” or something else
- Everything Samuel said was true
John Whitcomb notes that if the voice of Samuel were actually a demon then we would expect the news to be appealing to Saul. But instead, Saul heard Samuel speak a prophecy of judgment (the opposite of tickling his ears).
What a great treachery! Saul was so far away from God and so corrupt that he engaged in one of the most detestable practices possible, speaking to the dead. He did it in order to force God to speak to him about his upcoming battle.
Saul Expresses his Fears, v. 15
When Saul got a chance to speak to Samuel, he expressed four concerns: The Philistines were looming; God had departed; God was silent; and he lacked wisdom. Noticeably absent from his concerns was a desire to see God’s name revered. The main thing that Saul seemed to be concerned about was saving his own skin.
Samuel’s Response, vv. 16–19
Samuel challenged Saul’s deceptive scheme (v. 16). He showed Saul that he was seeking wisdom from the wrong person. He should have been on his face before God. Isaiah’s challenge to Judah some 300 years later fits very well with Saul, “When they say to you, ‘Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isa 8:19).
If Saul was really concerned about God and hearing Him speak, why was he so resistant to the clear revelation he already had from God? If Saul was going to seek God properly, he would have had to humble himself and repent of his sins. He was seeking wisdom from God apart from repentance. Not only did he not seek peace with God, he made things worse by committing this great abomination of speaking to the dead. Saul wasn’t concerned about the departure of God and His voice. He was concerned about the departure of God’s gifts.
Samuel reminded Saul of God’s coming judgment on him—specifically, judgment that would result in his death, “You and your sons will be [in the grave] with me” (v. 19). We learn from the broader context of Scripture that part of this judgment of death came as a result of Saul’s disobedience regarding the Amalekites. But it was also because of Saul’s abominable sin in Endor. 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 reads, “So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the LORD, because of the word of the LORD which he did not keep [i.e., not killing all the Amalekites in 1 Sam 15]; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, and did not inquire of the LORD. Therefore He killed him and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse.” The news from Samuel is more than Saul can bear (vv. 20–25).
Meaning and Application
This text is extremely difficult to understand, primarily because we don’t come across the practice of necromancy very much in the Scriptures. The author of Samuel makes it clear that the person who spoke a prophecy of judgment to Saul was in fact the spirit of Samuel.
The point of the story seems to be that Saul was happy to seek the wisdom of God as long as he could do it on his own terms and as long as he could spend it on his own pleasures.
We can learn from Saul’s negative example. If we sow unrighteousness, obstinacy, and regular rejection of God’s clear revelation, we should not be surprised when we reap a harvest of God’s silence. While we may desperately seek the wisdom of God, we must never do it on our own terms. The wisdom of God is not an end in itself. It is a means to magnifying His glory. So when we seek it, we should do so using God’s means. This requires that we come with humility, not harboring sin or making demands so that we can spend his gifts on our own lusts.
It doesn’t have to be this way. God is there. He is loving and compassionate. He opposes the proud, but promises to give grace to the humble. If we will humble ourselves before God, we will find mercy and grace. How would Saul’s story have been different had he chosen to humble himself even after all the sin he had committed previously?
Well seen and well said.
Excellent treatment but the one part of the text you didn’t deal with is why does Samuel imply that he had been disturbed from his rest? I struggle to square that with what happens when a saint dies., regardless of being an OT saint he was not asleep in any literal sense. I don’t believe soul sleep is biblical. I Would love to hear more on that!
Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Prior to this event, I understand Samuel’s body to have gone to the grave (1 Sam 25:1), while his soul went to Sheol. That is, he was in the intermediate state, “the period of conscious existence between physical death and the resurrection” (McCune). When Samuel is described in v. 15 as being disturbed from his sleep, I understand the text to mean that Samuel was temporarily brought back from the intermediate state, having his time of rest and comfort interrupted.
Yes, but why did God answer Saul through a means He condemned both before and after doing so.
Good question. We could ask the same question about the first sin, couldn’t we? Why did God allow Adam and Eve to sin when He clearly prohibited it before it happened and clearly condemned it after it happened? Certainly there is a lot that is left to the mystery of God’s plan when we think about the first sin and Saul’s godless act of speaking to the dead (we are moving into the problem of evil discussion). But in an ultimate sense, God must have allowed both of those things in order to honor His name. He honors Himself through Adam’s sin by being and sending our Savior. Regarding Saul’s speaking to the dead, perhaps God honored Himself by helping the readers of Samuel to learn from Saul’s negative example. Or perhaps it was to show that God can accomplish good even through terrible acts of evil.