Why did God send an evil spirit on Saul?

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When my wife asks a question, that needs to be of utmost priority, eh what (as we say in England)?! While reading her Bible she came across what can be a troublesome text in I Sam, 16:16 where we read: Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from the Lord began to torment him.” Since this question came from my wife I wanted to take a deep breath, pray for wisdom, and take an extra close look at what the Scriptures say.

It is rather awe-inspiring if not unnerving to read that after Barnes Notes links I Sam. 16:16 (and its “evil spirit”) with I Kings 22:22 (and its “lying spirit” approved of God) the commentator admits: “The difficulties which attach to this passage are considerable.” He is right in his obvious assessment that both are most puzzling passages about how an evil or lying spirit can come from God.

How do we interpret and explain such passages? First and foremost, we must begin with the context. We have to look at Saul (first king of Israel) and his situation as well as Ahab (later king of Israel) and his brother-in-law Jehoshaphat (later king of Judah). Saul started off great but finished ignominiously in defeat and death. As Robert D. Bergen points out:  “Saul had lived a life of chronic disobedience to God, and therefore had opened himself up to demonic oppression.”

In the latter case, King Ahab of Israel (the northern kingdom after the split) wanted his brother-in-law King Jehoshaphat of Judah (the southern kingdom) to join him in a war against an enemy; however, Jehoshaphat wanted to know that God blessed this campaign. Ahab called on his 600 pagan prophets who assured him of victory, while the one godly prophet Micaiah answered the king with “two parabolic visions.” The latter vision deals with the lying spirit speaking through false prophets that Ahab wanted to believe. Since Micaiah refused to cooperate with Ahab he was imprisoned while Ahab went off to defeat and death.

When Saul shut God out of his life through his own prideful and willful disobedience, we can well understand why the Spirit of God had no place in Saul’s heart, soul, mind, and body. However, it is not so easy to understand an evil spirit not only entering him but coming from God. As we read in Holman’s The Apologetic Bible, “such passages must be understood within the framework of the Bible’s teachings about God. Scripture affirms that God is completely righteous, hates evil, and never does anything unjust.” 

The writer also reminds us that we must factor in that God allows certain things to happen that are warnings and lessons. Also, the evil spirit was used by God as were pagan rulers as instruments of justice and judgment. Of course, there was the element of being instruments of redemption. We read “in light of Saul’s disregard for God’s moral order, it (the evil spirit) was also intended to drive him to repent and turn back to the Lord God, who is Master of all the created order, will use even demons, against their will, for redemptive purposes.” 

There is an additional observation to be made. Ronald Youngblood in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states: “That God used alien spirits to serve him is taken for granted in the OT (cf. esp. II Sam. 24:1 with I Chron. 21:1).”  We pause here to reflect on the verb “used.” Does God act directly or indirectly, in a micro-managing manner or a macro-managing manner – that of allowing such activity within His sovereignty.  Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. reminds us that “according to the Hebrew thinking (and way of communicating), whatever God permits he commits.” He also writes most poignantly: “God may and does occasionally impel sinners to reveal the wickedness of their hearts in deed” – as was most clearly seen in the case of Ahab who so wanted to believe lies so he could do as he pleased.

Scholars Austel and Patterson, in their commentary on I Kings, describe how God knew that “false prophets, possessed by a lying spirit, would feed Ahab’s ego by assuring him of victory in the projected battle.” In conclusion Kaiser is most helpful when he writes: “God used the false declarations of the false prophets (with lying spirits) that Ahab was so enamored with as his instruments of judgment the same way he might use a heathen nation to chastise Israel (that is to say, his use of Assyria in punishing Israel, Is. 10:5; or his use of Babylon for similar reasons, Hab. 1:2-11).

We can affirm without hesitation or qualification that both the willful Saul and wicked Ahab had opened themselves up to evil spirits which God allowed in order to bring an end to their evil reigns either by repentance or judgment. In hindsight, this was their time of judgment – that only came after a time of grace and pleadings from godly prophets to repent of their sins and return to God.

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