The Medium of Endor (1 Samuel 28)
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 12:08pm
QUESTION: What’s the deal with King Saul’s visit to the spiritist at Endor, recorded in 1 Samuel 28:3-25? Did not God forbid all association with diviners, witches, and spiritists (mediums)? Why did He allow this incident?
ANSWER: You are correct to say that God has forbidden consulting with anyone claiming occult knowledge, occult power, or contact with the dead (Deut. 18:9-14 and many other places). This prohibition is still in force (e.g., sorcery is condemned as a work of the flesh, Gal. 5:20). Occult knowledge includes all forms of ESP, reading omens of any kind, and attempting to divine (predict) the future. Occult power includes all forms of witchcraft, sorcery, and spell-casting. Those who claim to contact the dead are known as spiritists or mediums.
God forbids our consulting anyone who practices these occult arts because it constitutes a lack of faith in God’s own providential care for His people. It is a rejection of the sufficiency of His word and of His grace. Also, God forbids this because such consultation opens one up to the danger of becoming demonized. Some have mistakenly assumed that God detests these things because they are so phony and fraudulent. It is true that some who claim such powers are charlatans and deceivers, but it is also true that some who practice these forbidden arts do have supernatural powers. These powers are derived from demonic spirits who have succeeded in invading these persons’ lives and bodies and are using them as tools of Satan. Those who consult with these demonized people in order to benefit from their satanic powers may themselves become demonized.
The Israelites were all well aware of God’s prohibition of such practices. Even King Saul “had removed from the land those who were mediums and spiritists” (1 Sam. 28:3). At least that was his policy; however, he knew that some were still around. Thus when he was desperate for some advice in the face of the Philistine threat, he instructed his servants to find a medium. They knew where one was (vv. 4-7). Saul then disguised himself, sought the woman, and asked her to conjure up the prophet Samuel (who had recently died).
What happened next, as recorded in 1 Samuel 28, is that Samuel really did appear and speak directly with King Saul. Saul was afraid of the threatening Philistine armies, and pleaded with Samuel to “make known to me what I should do” (v. 15). Samuel confirmed Saul’s awareness that Yahweh had rejected him, and told him that in the ensuing battle Israel and Saul would be conquered and that Saul himself would die (v. 19).
The first question that arises as we read this narrative is this: was Saul sinning by consulting this medium? The answer is a definite YES, and Saul himself knew it (see vv. 3, 9). If this is the case, this raises another question: how do we explain the phenomena of Samuel’s appearance and his message to Saul? Samuel seems to be speaking to Saul with divine authority. Indeed, he predicts the events that were going to happen the next day (v. 19), and God’s word makes it clear that only God knows the future (see Isaiah 40-48). Thus we conclude that God is speaking through this apparition of Samuel. Does this mean that God is somehow endorsing or approving of Saul’s action of consulting a medium, contrary to His own stated prohibition of it?
The answer to this latter question is NO. The inquirer’s query (above) is worded thus: “Why did God ALLOW this incident?” But “allow” is the wrong word. God did NOT “allow” this incident. Rather, He TOOK OVER the whole process and CAUSED the appearance of Samuel, and used him in his role as prophet to speak a message of judgment to Saul.
It is clear that Samuel’s appearance was NOT what the medium expected (vv. 11-12). Mediums in fact do NOT contact “spirits of the dead.” There do seem to be men and women who are successful in their efforts to contact “the spirit world,” but the ones who communicate with them are not spirits of the dead, but demonic spirits who are deceiving the medium and those consulting the medium. Also, mediums who succeed in contacting “spirits” seldom if ever conjure up an actual three-dimensional person (as in the case of Samuel). Rather, the medium goes into a trance, and the demonic spirit speaks through the medium’s vocal apparatus. But that is not what happens here in 1 Samuel 28. The person of Samuel himself appears, and the medium is clearly shocked. This was not her doing, but God’s.
(We should not think that Samuel here was “raised from the dead” in the sense that all believers will be raised at the second coming of Christ. He was, however, given a three-dimensional form just for this occasion, as were Moses and Elijah at Christ’s transfiguration, Matt. 17:3.)
The main idea is that God sovereignly decided to intervene in Saul’s quest by taking over the process and using it for his own holy purposes. Rather than its being a divine approval of spiritism, it is rather an act of judgment upon this evil practice and an act of judgment especially upon King Saul. Gleason Archer, an Old Testament scholar, says this: “It would seem that God chose this particular occasion and setting to give His final word to the evil king who had once served His cause with courage and zeal. No scriptural basis for spiritism is furnished by this episode, nor for necromancy—both of which are sternly condemned as abominations before the Lord (Deut. 18:9-12; cf. Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:26,31; 20:6,27; Jer. 27:9-10)” (from Archer’s “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” [Zondervan 1982], 181).