In 2005 the famous director Ridley Scott made a movie called ‘Kingdom of Heaven.’ In it Scott depicts what it was like to on the inside of the medieval crusades in Jerusalem that were waged against Islam. In between the main characters there is another character who has always intrigued me. The priest, the spiritual guide for the leaders of the crusades. This priest is the exact opposite of what you’d hope him to be. He is shrewd, unmoved by his own faith, and clearly operating for the sake of personal profit among the people. When it comes near the end of the movie and it’s clear that the crusaders will lose, he goes into a frightful panic running here and there trying to gather up his belongings before he flees. In his hurry to leave he bumps into someone who cries out, “What are we to do priest?” He rashly and quickly says, “Convert to Islam, repent later.” Clearly, this priest’s true character is revealed and most evident when he is under great pressure and distress.
In our passage today we find a similar scenario. The Philistines army has come and from the looks of it they will win easily, and Saul goes into his own frightful panic and does what we’d never expect, goes to visit a witch for guidance. By doing so, we get a first hand glimpse of true character of king Saul. Let’s turn to our text. It’s 1 Samuel 28, listen as I read the Word of God. We’ll take this chapter a few verses at a time:
It may seem strange to begin a new section with a repetition of Samuel’s death in v3a. We heard of it already in 25:1 and we may wonder as to why we hear of it again here in 28:3, but as we go throughout the story you’ll see why a reminder of Samuel’s current whereabouts is important. We get more details for this scene in v3b-4. In an effort to run the kingdom in line with God’s commands Saul, at some time in the past…probably early on in his reign, had put away all the necromancers and mediums from the land and made it illegal to practice sorcery. This was God’s command from Deut. 18:9-12 where the call to remove necromancers, sorcerers, mediums, and fortunetellers is crystal clear. Though this practice was widespread among the people of Canaan, God had made it clear that these things were not to be found among His people because God gives them His Word through His prophets. God created them, God had redeemed them, and God had brought them into the promise land, so God could decide how to guide and give wisdom and knowledge to His people. To reject God’s ordained means of communicating His revelation to them and seek out divine wisdom or guidance for life from a witch would have been blatant disregard for God and His ways. So when we read in v3b that Saul put away all these mediums from the land, it lets us know the poor condition of Israel before Saul was made king, as well as letting us know the good intentions Saul had to lead God’s people…at first.
In v4 Saul hears that the Philistines had come out for war and had camped at Shunem. So he got all Israel and camped close by at Gilboa. When he saw the massive numbers he was up against it says his heart ‘quaked’ or ‘shuddered’ in v5. We are almost surprised when we see that Saul’s first reaction is to inquire of the Lord. He hasn’t done this in the past few chapters, yet here he does. And it says he tried 3 different ways of seeking God before he did anything else. He tried being sensitive to any dreams or visions from God to guide Him, but none came. He tried the priests and their Urim and Thummim to guide him, but that didn’t work either (remember he had slaughtered almost the entire priesthood back in chapter 22, so it makes sense that this didn’t work). He also tried the prophets, but none came to give him a Word from God to guide him. Though it does surprise us to see him seek God’s guidance in these three ways, it doesn’t surprise us to see God remain silent when sought by Saul. Remember, God had rejected Saul as king for his disobedience, He had sent an evil spirit to torment Saul, and even after continuing in his disobedient ways Saul still seeks after God for guidance? Despite what Saul believes about God, we as readers clearly see Saul’s efforts in v6 as the futile exercises they are. Saul has seemed to forget that God will not bless what God condemns.
Then we see a new low for Saul. Even though the downgrade of Saul’s morality hasn’t stunned us throughout the back half of 1 Samuel, his actions do stun us here. If God won’t answer him in the ways God has ordained to be sought out, Saul has made sure he will find a way to get the wisdom he needs as king – even if it’s a way God hates. So he wrongly asks for what he once rightly denounced…he asks for a medium. And rather than being shocked themselves and knowing full well that at one time Saul kicked all the mediums out of the land, Saul’s servants immediately knew where to find one…’there’s one in Endor.’
So wearing disguises, under the cover of night, off they go to see the witch. That they had to go to these lengths in order to see this witch should’ve been enough to remind Saul and his servants that this wasn’t a holy endeavor. They arrive, they ask her to use her skills in divination in order to bring up whoever they ask her for. In v9 the witch immediately expresses worry about doing so thinking that it’s a trap to kill her. She knows Saul has outlawed such practices and that if she would die if she were caught doing this thing. Matthew Henry’s says at this point, “Providence ordered it so that Saul should be told to his face of his edict against witches, at this very time when he was consulting one” for the purpose of pointing out his sin. Saul was un-phased by a reminder of what he had once condemned and gave her some reassurance saying in v10, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” You cannot help but think – how far Saul has fallen! Not only has he been ignoring his duties as king by chasing David around the whole country in a murderous and jealous rage, but now he’s seeking out a witch for guidance when God won’t answer him, and even goes as far to promise her security by invoking the name of God, even though God has said numerous times that He condemns such actions. Again, God will not bless what His Word condemns.
Their actions of disguising themselves and sneaking away at night to seek this witch provide us many illustrations on the nature of sin: Sin is always easier to do in secret. It loves to be hidden. It loves to be in the dark. Not only so, but that they had to do this deed in secret shows to some degree they knew what they were doing was wrong. If you’re here today and you’re not a Christian, I bet you’ve seen this in yourself. Even though you may deny the truths we hold dear, you still know what is holy and what is sinful and when you act wrongly you show this by the very fact that you feel ashamed. There’s a challenge for you Christians here too – not only have we seen how easy committing sin can be when its hidden, but do you see that once you’ve committed sin, using religious language, and even God’s holy name, to justify your sin also becomes easy. Be warned, sin is crouching at the door, it’s desire is to ensnare us, we must fight it.
Well, the witch was apparently eased by Saul’s words and agreed to do it. They then asked her to bring Samuel ‘up’ for them. Let’s see what happens.
There must have been some time between v11-12 to give her time to do her witchy work, but we don’t get any of those details. Does that frustrate you? Do you wonder at this? Perhaps some of you expected a detailed account of what she did in order to bring up Samuel. Was she hovering over a large cauldron while stirring it with an old wooden spoon saying ‘double, double, toil and trouble?’ Or did she simply twinkle her nose like Samantha did on all those episodes of Bewitched? We don’t know, and there’s good reason we don’t. The silence of Scripture between v11-12 is purposeful so that we do not learn the depths of Satan or gain knowledge of the mysteries of sin. Church, by not giving us these details, God is protecting us from things we have no business delving into. Here’s what we do know: when we read v12 we find that she quickly becomes horrified because of a sudden insight that had dawned upon her: the only one who would’ve wanted to speak with the prophet Samuel was king Saul himself. Which explains her fear of impending doom when she screams out in v12, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” And Saul, thinking nothing of his deception, immediately tells her to not be afraid but to describe what she sees. She responds in v13-14 saying she saw an old man who looked like a ‘god’ coming up out of the earth, dressed in a robe. As you can imagine, people have all sorts of opinions of what’s really happening here. Some think this wasn’t Samuel but the devil who was dressed up like an angel of light resembling Samuel. Others think it was a trick the woman performed, and nothing was really happening, it was just smoke and mirrors. Still others believe (and I believe) what the text seems to be implying – that the soul of Samuel did indeed rise up to converse with Saul…and that God allowed this witch’s magic to work so that Saul could hear his doom pronounced.
Saul then does what he should’ve done back when Samuel confronted him all those times before and bows low to the ground before Samuel to show his respect. What follows is a rare conversation, even for the Bible. Samuel asks why he has been disturbed, Saul tells him of the large armies of the Philistines coming to crush Israel and that God has ceased answering him to give him guidance. Let’s read Samuel’s response once again: “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 neighbor, 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.”
Yikes…Saul went to Endor to gain advice for the battle because God had forsaken him, and all he gets from Samuel is confirmation of condemnation, that God really had left him, that God really is his enemy, and that God will allow the Philistines to capture him and kill him tomorrow. Saul’s reaction to such news is appropriate. v20-25 says, “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, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.”
1 Samuel 28 is a sad ending to a sad story. Saul had began his promising career as the king of Israel with a special meal prepared by Samuel in chapter 9-10. Now Saul is about to finish his career as the king of Israel by having another meal, probably his last meal, prepared by a witch.
What on earth do we make of this strange chapter? Take away these few reminders home with you:
a) Be warned by v15:
Saul was the king, and in a normal situation the king would’ve gained guidance and clear direction from God about battles and how to win them. But for Saul, he has rejected God’s Word time and time again and replaced it with his own wisdom. Saul and Samuel had this as a recurring disagreement. Saul thought he needed to reinterpret God’s commands, Samuel said he was rebelling against them. Saul thought he had acted prudently or wisely in doing what he did throughout his reign, Samuel said he had been proud and wicked. Samuel consistently pointed Saul in the right direction, and Saul consistently chose the wrong direction. As a result of this God no longer answers him or guides him in anything. Saul can only hear the shouts of eager Philistine warriors in the enemy’s camp. Here he is facing a crisis, possibly the largest crisis in his life and all he hears for guidance is, “God has turned away from you and will not answer you any longer…”
This sobering realization first given in v6 and then expanded in v15 is a warning to us today. If you and I despise and reject God’s Word long enough He will, as Romans 1 says, give you what you so long for and hand you over fully to your sin so that it consumes you and sends you to hell forever. Let Saul be a lesson to you, let him be an example of what not to do. Do not lean on your own understanding, fear the Lord and follow Him.
b) Do Not Miss Saul’s True Need:
Saul said he came to seek Samuel because God no longer answered him in matters of national interests. Samuel responds to Saul with a sharp word in v16, “Why are you asking me when God has turned from you and become your enemy?” Samuel was in effect saying to Saul, ‘You came for information from God, what you really need is communion with God. You came for relief from foes, what you really need is repentance and faith. You came to gain guidance…what you really need is the Guider. You came to get the results of God’s favor, what you need is God’s favor itself.’ Do not miss what Saul really needed: he needed God.
So why have you come to church today? Have you come to get information? Have you come to get relief? Have you come for guidance? Have you come to get the results of God’s favor? Do not be mistaken – you need communion, you need repentance, you need the Guider, you need God’s favor itself. I am aware that some of you have a lot of problems right now, problems that are real, problems that have wreck you or will wreck your life if they’re not solved sometime soon. Often times when we are in a rut and even in times of great agony and distress we can misunderstand our plight, and can have misdirected desperation. I wouldn’t ever want to downplay the hard events of anyone’s life today, but I do want to remind you of your greatest need: God.
c) Learn from v15
Saul was cut off from God, hopeless, desperate. I wonder if any of you feel like that today? That you are hopelessly cut off from God, that you are hopeless, or desperate for help spiritually but do not feel that God will accept you. There’s bad news for you and good news for you today. The bad news is bad: you’re right. In our natural condition, from the womb, we are cut off from God and we are hopeless. But the good news is good: God made a way when there was no way. He sent His Son to do what we could never do, to give us what we do not deserve. Salvation. Therefore, the gospel extends to you and I today. If we repent and believe in Jesus Christ, we never need fear v15, we never need fear the plight of Saul because we know the power of God to save sinners like us.