Witches, Kings, and First Ladies
Preached by Jason Abbott
In today’s passage, we meet Saul in a desperate situation. The Philistines are knocking at his kingdom’s door looking for a fight. To complicate matters for Saul, he doesn’t know how to navigate this situation—Samuel, the prophet, has died; and, when he goes to other prophets or procedures to get a word from the Lord, there’s only silence. Thus, in desperation Saul turns to a witch for help.
If you’re like me then you immediately pass silent judgment on this strategy of Saul’s. We think: How naïve and uncivilized and unenlightened this picture is. We moderns would never do something like that. That is until we do precisely that. Like when there’s the worst recession since World War II in Italy and Italians begin spending “£5 billion a year seeking financial advice . . . from . . . fortune tellers and astrologers.”1 Or like when there’s a fortunetelling boom throughout the US, during our own fiscal recession, making it really difficult for government officials to control the soothsaying industry’s rapid growth in our country.2
In fact, it doesn’t matter how civilized, educated, or modern we think we are. When we’re desperate, we’ll often turn to anyone who claims they can help us. Like astrologer Joan Quigley, whom Nancy Reagan began consulting with in 1981 after John Hinckley’s failed assassination attempt of then Pres. Ronald Reagan. Just listen to the former First Lady’s reasoning for doing it:
Very few people can understand what it’s like to have your husband shot at and almost die, and then have him exposed all the time to enormous crowds, tens of thousands of people, any one of whom might be a lunatic with a gun . . . I was doing everything I could think of to protect my husband and keep him alive.3
Perhaps we’re more like Saul in this passage than we’d first like to admit—desperate times can lead anyone (fools, kings, and first ladies) to do what’s stupid and even sinful. Can’t they? Don’t they?
Well, let’s read the passage and pray that God would teach us about his ways of navigating the desperate situations in life with both faith and wisdom.
1 Samuel 28:3-25
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.
15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 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. 18 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. 19 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.”
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, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 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. 22 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.” 23 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. 24 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, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.
To dig into this passage we’ll need to see that (1) Saul has a convenient god, and, because of this, that (2) Saul has a silent God. Let’s look at each in turn.
1. A convenient god (vv. 7-15, 20-25)
We have no way of knowing the true heart of Saul’s reasoning for rightly clearing the kingdom of mediums and necromancers (cf. Deuteronomy 18:19-22). However, I would guess that Saul did it mostly because it was convenient for him. This seems likely when we see how quickly he goes to visit this witch at En-dor after he initially fails to get a word from God. He rather eagerly commands:
“Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants [rather quickly respond], “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor” (v. 7).
Look—if Saul’s actually concerned with God’s command to purge the land of mediums then it’s really quite surprising that his advisors can so quickly tell him where one, whom he has not driven away, lives.
Think about it, if you asked me how to score drugs, I wouldn’t know how. And, let’s be very honest, that’s precisely the answer you want from your pastor. Because, if you asked me that same question, and I quickly told you exactly where to score drugs—with locations and names and passwords—then that knowledge would witness against me. Wouldn’t it? You’d think: He knows from experience! Or you’d think: My pastor is a drug dealer!
Something like this, I believe, is being revealed about Saul and his advisors when it comes to the commands of God. They value the law when it’s convenient to do so; they enforce the law when it’s politically beneficial to do so; they believe in the law when it’s popular to do so.
Saul and his top advisors waffle when it comes to the commands of God. They’re something like politicians dusting off their Bibles to win religious votes during election season. Hey Israel look how godly and devout we are by getting rid of all these soothsayers. But all the while secretly visiting them!
Yet this isn’t a thing that’s foreign to us; is it? We feel pressure to waffle when it comes to the commands of God; don’t we? It’s easy to like God’s laws when it’s convenient or beneficial or popular to do so. But it’s not often convenient or beneficial or popular to do so today; is it?!
Clichéd examples are really easy to find—like Christians preaching fidelity in marriage when their marriages are going well but very quickly pursuing divorce when they’re not going well. But let’s move beyond the clichés for a moment. Let’s dig deeper. Let’s dig into the uncomfortable.
- Jesus equates simply looking at someone other than your spouse lustfully with adultery.4 If so, how many of us who have never physically cheated are adulterers? How many of us are simply for convenient fidelity?
- Jesus condemned self-righteousness and contempt for religious outsiders in his followers.5 Yet, we often get an inordinate amount of enjoyment when discussing the sin and perversity of the secular culture around us. Don’t we? Oh, we’re all for compassion and mercy for religious outsiders as long as we can make the occasional visit to self-righteous contempt—the occasional visit to En-dor. We’re all for convenient compassion.
- Gossip is categorically forbidden in both the Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, in every single church I’ve been in during forty-two years of life, gossip’s been a destructive and divisive force. How are we doing? Are we waffling with our tongues when it’s convenient to do so?
We need to move on, but before we do, let me show you where Saul’s god of convenience finally takes him. What does pursuit of this easy-way idol get Saul? Well, it gets him a kind of last supper full of despair. Look at what happens:
. . . 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 (vv. 21-25).
Here’s the scene before us. (It’s a pathetic, sad one.) Saul and his disciples—a witch and a couple of foolish counselors—sit on a bed eating one final meal. When Saul leaves, he knows it’s not to glory that he goes but shameful execution. He’s a dead man walking. His god of convenience can’t save him now.
Let’s turn to our second point in order to see why it has doomed him.
2. A silent God (vv. 3-6, 16-19)
I think that this passage is a passage in which we could feel sorry for Saul when we shouldn’t. As the chapter opens up we encounter Saul looking for a word from God and receiving nothing. Let me reread those verses:
The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets (vv. 4-6).
We could think: Poor Saul! Here he is turning to God but God won’t listen. Yet, I really believe that that’s a shallow reading. That’s reading this in a vacuum while projecting onto Saul the purest of motives for seeking God.
If you don’t agree, just consider some details. Our author could have said “. . . when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him . . .” then stopped. But instead he continues with some ways in which Saul tried to hear from God—namely through dreams and Urim and prophets. Yet none work, why?
Well, we don’t know exactly about Saul’s dreams, but if we remember where we’ve been in 1 Samuel then we do know about the Urim and the prophets. We know that this is trouble Saul created for himself. Let me read the explanation which one commentator gives to help us see:
This is completely a problem of Saul’s own making. The Urim was used for guidance and kept in the ephod of the breastplate of the high priest. But Saul has killed all the priests (22:16-19)—only one escaped and he took the ephod to David (22:10; 23:6). That is why God does not answer Saul by the Urim! And God does not answer by prophets because Saul rejected the words of the prophet Samuel, and so Samuel rejected Saul (15:35).6
One way to explain this passage is to say that God won’t listen to Saul; however, another way to explain this passage is to say that God listened carefully to Saul and is now granting him precisely what he asked for—a God who is silent. This is a warning, but it gets more serious still because, in asking for this silence, Saul has asked to remain an enemy of God. So Samuel tells him:
. . . the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy . . . (v. 16).
Often in our time, we like to imagine that we’re all born friends with God. We’re not. The Bible tells us quite clearly that we’re all born enemies of God—we’re born sinners, we’re born rebels against God.
Consequently, we need a peace agreement with God; God must offer us one, or we’re totally without hope. When God chose Saul to be the king of his people, he was truly inviting him into his peace. This calling was a complete act of grace from God to Saul since Saul had done nothing to deserve or earn peace with God. Nevertheless, Saul chose to worship convenience rather than God. Saul chose war with God rather than peace with God.
We must be warned by Saul’s hardness of heart.
We all have to recognize, whether we’re Christians or we’re non-Christians, that our choices are important. They have eternal consequences. They matter. Subsequently, when we spend our lives in pursuit of the path of least resistance, when we worship the gods of convenience at the expense of the Lordship of Christ, we show ourselves to be (at best) believers who have stunted our spiritual health, or (at worst) non-believers who are hardening our hearts to God.
Friends, God has offered us eternal peace with him through faith in Christ. Don’t harden your hearts to Jesus. If you’re his follower, pray that he would renew in you a love for and pursuit of his call upon your life—whether it’s inconvenient for you or not. If you’re not a follower of Jesus, I can only assume that you’re here because God is drawing you. Don’t hold back your questions about faith in Christ. Please ask me or Benjamin or someone who brought you. Don’t harden your heart to God when he offers you peace through his work in Christ Jesus. Amen.