I Samuel 28

1. Now it happened in those days that the Philistines gathered their armies together for war, to fight with Israel. And Achish said to David, “You assuredly know that you will go out with me to battle, you and your men.”

Now it so happens that the Philistines in those days gather their armies together and prepare for war, getting ready for another fight with Israel. Their war with Israel has been going on for a long time, going all the way back to before the time of Samson the judge. This is just another battle in the ongoing war. Yet David is now caught on the wrong side!

Achish plans to take David, his new servant, with him to the battle. Remember, he thinks that David has been killing Israelites all the time he has been with him, so he does not figure that this will be much of a step for David. Yet the reality is that David has not been attacking Israel at all, but rather has been attacking Israel’s enemies and doing good for his own people. Yet Achish does not know this, and so naturally thinks that David will be eager and willing to join him in the war.

Achish informs David that he expects him and his men to join him in the battle. Now David is caught in his own lie. He can have no excuse for not wanting to fight his own people, since he has lied to Achish and told him that he is already doing that. If he says anything now, the truth will come out that he has not been attacking his own people at all. Yet if he goes along with Achish, he might be forced to fight with his own people after all, and that was the last thing David wanted to do. Thus David’s plans and schemes to hide among the Philistines, all without the LORD’s advice and guidance, have now brought him to the brink of disaster. If he fights with the Philistines against Israel, his own people will know it and consider him a traitor. Their likelihood of ever accepting him as king then is very small. The LORD must step in to help David, or he will have planned himself right out of the throne.

2. So David said to Achish, “Surely you know what your servant can do.”
And Achish said to David, “Therefore I will make you one of my chief guardians forever.”

David is caught in his lie. He has little choice but to agree to Achish’s demand. He answers non-committally that Achish already knows what he, his servant, can do. Achish takes this as an affirmative, and proclaims that he is ready to make David one of his chief bodyguards. We must wonder if Achish’s trust in David pricked his conscience at all when he considered the deception he had been playing upon him? Surely David must have felt that the undeserved trust this king showed towards him was a rebuke against him for his falsehood.

The word “forever” here is not the Hebrew word olam, but is actually the word yom, which means “day.” He may mean that he will make David his bodyguard from this day forward, or else for all days to come.

3. Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had lamented for him and buried him in Ramah, in his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the spiritists out of the land.

Now the Bible record gives us some background for the strange story we are about to study. First of all we are reminded that Samuel was dead, as we read it back in I Samuel 25:1. This reminds us of the opening of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, wherein he writes, “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Well, Samuel was dead. We cannot doubt this in the slightest, for all Israel had gathered together to the funeral of this, the last and greatest of their judges, and had buried him in Ramah, his hometown. He was dead, and he was buried. No one had any doubts about this.

Moreover, we are told that Saul had put the spiritists and wizards out of the land. Probably this had been in a great show of zeal for Jehovah, which zeal Saul often showed but never really felt. When it says he put them out of the land, this probably means by executing them, for this is what the law commanded in Leviticus 20:27.

27. ‘A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.’”

The word “medium” here is the same as in I Samuel 28:3, and the words “who has familiar spirits” come from the same Hebrew word as “spiritists” in I Samuel 28:3. The command here is that all such shall be put to death, and this is doubtless what Saul had done to them.

4. Then the Philistines gathered together, and came and encamped at Shunem. So Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped at Gilboa.

Now the Philistine armies are gathering together for the war, as we read in verse 1. They pitch their camp at Shunem, which means “Double Resting Place.” This was a town in the tribe of Issachar, north and east of the land of the Philistines. Shunem might perhaps be best known to us from two notable Bible women who lived there. First of all is the young woman Abishag, who nursed David during his old age in I Kings 1:3-4. Secondly would be the noblewoman who befriended Elisha, as we read in II Kings 4:8. Yet at this point, the city is overrun by the Philistines, who make it their base of operations. They had pushed quite far into Israel to set up their base here!

Saul of course must respond to this invasion, so he gathers all the army of Israel together. He takes them and sets up his own camp in Gilboa. Gilboa means “Swollen Heap,” and was a mountain in Issachar. We are not told a town name, so perhaps there were several towns there that he was using to quarter his soldiers.

5. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.

Saul goes to spy out the Philistine army, and is dismayed by what he finds. Doubtless it is the size of the Philistine hoard that has come against him that puts him in such fear. It must have been much larger than the army he could muster, and so he knew he was in trouble. Thus he was afraid, and his heart, his very inner being, trembled in terror.

6. And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets.

Saul seeks the LORD’s counsel and help in his fright. This in itself is good, and is what he should have done. Yet the problem is that Saul has been apostatizing from the LORD for a long time now. He has alienated the LORD by refusing to obey Him, by seeking to kill His choice for the next king, and by murdering His priests. In all this time he has not really sought the LORD, perhaps because he has not felt he needed to. Yet now he feels himself helpless before this superior Philistine force, and he returns in desperation to the God He has been ignoring. Yet the relationship he once had with the LORD is totally gone, and the LORD is not there for him when he needs him. Saul seeks a dream from the LORD, but does not get it. He seeks to receive an answer by Urim, but the Urim of the LORD is with David, and He will not answer by whatever makeshift Urim Saul comes up with. He will not answer him by prophets, as they receive no word for Saul. Toward Saul, the LORD is totally silent.

Now we should take note here that the LORD would not answer Saul by all the legitimate means of seeking Him. Would the LORD then possibly have answered Saul by means of a medium, a thing that He had expressly forbidden? Certainly not!

7. Then Saul said to his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.”
And his servants said to him, “In fact, there is a woman who is a medium at En Dor.”

Saul is desperate. He realizes his own strength will fail him, and so he must rely on supernatural help. If Jehovah will not give it, he will seek other means. Thus he instructs his servants to find a woman who is a medium, one who supposedly calls up the dead and speaks with them. Yet remember that these were the very women whom Saul himself had tried to rid Israel of these in his brighter days, as we just read in verse 3. Now, he seeks after one himself! For him to do this required him to sacrifice all self-respect and go against the very principles that he had based his kingship on. Yet Saul is afraid to die, and so he sacrifices his self-respect out of fear.

His servants seem to know just where such a woman can be found. They inform him that such a medium is dwelling at En Dor. En Dor means “Fountain of Generation.” It was a city in the territory of Issachar, though the western half-tribe of Manasseh was to possess it, as we read in Joshua 17:11.

11. And in Issachar and in Asher, Manasseh had Beth Shean and its towns, Ibleam and its towns, the inhabitants of Dor and its towns, the inhabitants of En Dor and its towns, the inhabitants of Taanach and its towns, and the inhabitants of Megiddo and its towns—three hilly regions.

It is in this city that this medium resides whom Saul’s servants recommend to him.

8. So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes, and he went, and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Please conduct a séance for me, and bring up for me the one I shall name to you.”

Saul knows he cannot be a popular figure among mediums. Perhaps he was also somewhat ashamed of what his fear was driving him to. Whatever the case, he disguises himself and puts on other clothes than his normal, royal apparel. He then goes to the women, taking with him two of his men. They come to the woman by night. Perhaps again Saul was hoping to hide this shameful deed in the darkness. When they arrive, Saul speaks to the woman of his errand. He wants her to conduct a séance for him, and to bring up the person he will name for her to bring up.

Notice that Saul does not ask her to “bring down” the one he will name. For all his sin and rebellion against God, Saul had a better idea of what happens to a person after death than so-called “orthodox Christians” do today. Saul knew that the one he would call was not “up in heaven.” He was in Sheol, the state of death prior to resurrection, and it was up from there that he would need to be called. If only those who claim to believe the Bible today would realize this!

9. Then the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the spiritists from the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?”

The woman is reluctant to do so, The reason is because she knows that Saul has destroyed women like her, the mediums and spiritists, out of the land. Her best policy would be to stay away from this kind of activity. If she does what Saul requests of her, she may be snared in a trap and die.

What the woman says here is not that her life may be snared, but that her soul may be snared. The Hebrew word is the word nephesh, the word for soul. In this case, she uses the soul for herself, and means that she herself would be caught in a trap.

10. And Saul swore to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”

Saul swears to her by Yahweh that she shall not be punished for doing this thing. How hypocritical it was of Saul to bring in the name of Yahweh here! How could he swear by Yahweh when he was clearly disobeying His law? Yet this is very characteristic of Saul. Even long after he had turned his back on Yahweh, the God Who had placed him on the throne, he continued to speak as if Yahweh was still on his side and he was still His servant. Yet how empty his words were!

11. Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”

The woman, reassured by his oath that he is not someone seeking to trap her and betray her to death, asks who she is to bring up? Saul answers that he wants to see Samuel. It seems in his trouble, he wants to go back to the days when he was in the right with God, and he thinks for some reason that Samuel, the prophet of the LORD who first called him then, will be the one to speak to him and help him now. Of course, since the prophets of his own day would not give him an answer or help him, it was most foolish to think that Samuel would have done so if he had been still alive. Yet Saul is hardly thinking clearly and logically here. His actions are motivated by fear, even as his actions had been the very first time he turned from God when he offered a sacrifice without waiting for Samuel. The only thing Saul was really going back to was his sin.

12. When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!”

The woman sees Samuel and cries out. This does not say that she brought him up, just that she saw him. Apparently this is much more than she bargained for, and she cries out in fear. It seems that what has happened is far more than she has the power to produce. She was going to use her own tricks to try to convince Saul that she really had brought Samuel up, and he certainly was in a state of mind to believe anything. Yet when she really sees Samuel, she realizes that a power is concerned here far beyond her own. Somehow what she sees reveals to her that this is actually Saul who is there visiting her. Perhaps she knew that only the LORD’s anointed, the King over the land, could warrant such a powerful response. At any rate, she accuses him of deceiving her, and reveals that she knows he is Saul himself.

13. And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see?”
And the woman said to Saul, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.”

Saul assures the woman that she need not be afraid. Clearly, he means that he will not harm her. He has not come to trap her and destroy her, but he really wants to speak to Samuel. Thus reassured, she describes her vision as “I saw gods ascending out of the earth.” The New King James Version here has made it “a spirit,” but the word in Hebrew is elohim, which means “gods,” not “a spirit.” It is hard to say why the New King James translators made this change.

What was this woman actually seeing? It is likely that she was infected with the pagan idolatry of the Canaanite nations that still resided in Israel, so the idea of men as gods did not trouble her. Yet if we would go back to the meaning of words, the name of “God” means “Creator” and “Judge.” According to this second meaning, human judges can sometimes be called “gods.” In fact, the LORD Himself does this is Psalm 82, when he calls human rulers “gods.”

1. God stands in the congregation of the mighty;
He judges among the gods.

6. I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are children of the Most High.

Therefore, it could well be that the vision this woman saw was actually of the judges ascending out of the earth. Remember, Saul was the very first king, and before him the rulers of Israel had been Moses, Joshua, and the judges. These men, though they did have their faults (like Samson!) had all remained more or less faithful to the LORD. Certainly, none of them had ever turned from Him as Saul had done. Certainly, none of them had ever sought to a medium for guidance when the LORD would not answer him. Therefore, it could well be that this vision that the woman saw was of the judges who ruled before Saul, rising out of the earth to condemn him for his folly. This would have been most appropriate, for Saul, though he was a king and the LORD’s anointed, did not measure up to the men who had ruled before him, and any one of them could have come forth to condemn him for his unfaithful actions.

14. So he said to her, “What is his form?”
And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down.

Saul asks the woman what his form is. Now this seems strange, for she said she saw gods coming up out of the earth, not a single god. Yet there is some question of what she said here, and it may be that she said she saw “a god” coming up out of the earth, not gods. At any rate, it was most appropriate that Samuel be the one to come up and condemn Saul. He was the one who had known Saul in life, and he was the one through whom Jehovah had anointed him. It was Samuel whom Saul had replaced, a king in the place of the judge. Therefore, it was to Samuel that the job of condemning Saul would fall.

The woman describes Samuel as she saw him coming to speak to Saul. She describes him as an old man covered with a mantle. Remember what we learned of Samuel’s burial, that “the Israelites gathered together and lamented for him, and buried him at his home in Ramah” (I Samuel 25:1). Even David appears to have been there, for he was temporarily safe from Saul at the time after his sparing of Saul in the cave. So if “all Israel” was there, and if even David was there, then certainly Saul was there. Saul would have seen what Samuel was wearing when he was buried, and so he knew that he had been wearing this mantle. “All Israel” meant the representative men, however, so it is highly unlikely that this woman was there or would have known what Samuel was buried in. Thus Saul perceives from this that it really is Samuel. Saul stoops down and bows with his face down to the earth, as the oriental custom was, as Samuel approaches.