Saul And The ‘Evil Spirit’


After King Saul’s slaughter of the Amalekites, we are told that ‘an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him’, 1 Samuel 16:14.

Does this mean that God sent an ‘evil spirit’ to possess Saul?

There is no doubt that this verse, 1 Samuel 16:14 is often taken to mean that God actually sent an evil spirit to take possession of King Saul and this is an idea which is both puzzling and disturbing.

But whenever we encounter difficult or strange statements in the Scriptures, we must bear in mind that, although God inspired the writers in the making of their historical records, they had to cope with the limitations of human language. This means that often they were faced with the serious problem of trying to explain divine actions in human terms, and that could never be easy.

We, also, sometimes experience a problem of a similar nature. For example, how would you describe snow to people who have never seen snow? or how would you explain to an Eskimo, who has never seen a sheep, that the Lord Jesus is ‘the Lamb’ of God? Whatever explanation you offer, you will only succeed in presenting a partial picture of the truth.

Therefore, when we encounter a verse such as 1 Samuel 16:14, we should not ask, how does this statement look to me? but, what lies behind this statement? What is it meant to convey? what does God want us to understand? The only way of determining this is by looking at the circumstances in which the problem statement is found.

The question mentions Saul’s defeat of the Amalekites

Notice that our problem verse is connected with this event recorded in 1 Samuel 15. King Saul had been given a plain command by God, a command which he had quite deliberately disobeyed. This wasn’t his first act of disobedience, 1 Samuel 13:8-14. He had already been warned!

The consequence of this later offence was that God rejected him as King of His people, and, as evidence of his rejection, ‘the Spirit of God left him’.

It’s at this point that we are told that ‘an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him’.

There are two questions I think we should ask

1. What is meant by ‘an evil spirit’? and

2. ln what sense was it ‘from the Lord’?

But, first, think about the event which brought this matter to a head. Saul’s failure to obey God in the matter of the Amalekites, because this piece of Old Testament history has long discomforted Christians and delighted unbelievers, even though, it should be noted, this is the only time that such a command was ever issued. In other words, God meant it to be recognised as a singular, special and serious event.

For God to have commanded the destruction of both Amalekite life and property has embarrassed even those who probably appreciate that the wickedness of the Amalekites, constituted a danger to His people and also to the purpose He planned to accomplish through them.

But, someone asks, would it not have been sufficient simply to destroy the Amalekite’s army? Must everything be declared, ‘herem’, that is, placed under a ban and utterly destroyed? We must understand that this command meant that the Israelites were not ordered to engage in an ordinary conflict, but were called by God to execute an act of divine judgment.

To make this absolutely clear, contrary to what would normally have happened in time of war, they were forbidden to retain as the spoil of battle anything that belonged to the Amalekites.

In those days, a battle in which the victors did not plunder the defeated was remarkable and unusual indeed, and would certainly be recognised as a significant event. This unusual behaviour would prove to Israel’s neighbours that the purpose of the action really was punitive and not the seizure of property.

However, when the rest of the Canaanite tribes learned what King Saul had done, in disobeying God by keeping the best of the spoil, a quite different message was sent out. It appeared that Israel had committed a blatant act of aggression against the Amalekites, merely for the purpose of self-gain, and this reflected badly not only on the Israelites themselves but also on their God.

It was after this act of disobedience which misrepresented God, that Saul was judged unworthy to remain king and God rejected him. When Samuel was sent to anoint David, to succeed the kingship, ‘the Spirit of God came upon David’, and ‘an evil spirit’ came upon Saul.

What, then, was this ‘evil spirit’?

I think it is clear from the events which followed that, deprived of the help of the Spirit of God and abandoned by Samuel the prophet on whose support he had relied, 1 Samuel 15:31-35, something terrible happened to Saul. That expression, ‘an evil spirit’,

refers to physical or mental illness and it is such an illness, which afflicted Saul.

He became mentally ill and began to suffer from a mental depression, which rendered him unstable and caused him to suspect and distrust everyone around him. His ailment also brought attacks of panic, in which no one was safe. This was not ‘demon-possession’,

as some have supposed because the passage doesn’t say that he was ‘possessed by an evil spirit’.

1. We are told that an evil spirit ‘troubled him’.

The word ‘baath’ means ‘to terrify’. In other words, Saul began to suffer from mental depression that brought on terrible panic attacks which caused him to ‘rave’, 1 Samuel 18:10.

2. At first, these attacks were spasmodic and his condition could be soothed by David’s music.

Saul’s attendants who suggested the music cure recognized this. Consequently, when David played, the King was ‘refreshed’ and ‘made well again’, 1 Samuel 16:16 / 1 Samuel 16:23. This hardy suggests demon possession!

3. But gradually, and no doubt influenced by his deepening sense of isolation, Saul’s condition deteriorated to the point where the music of David failed to calm his troubled mind and he became increasingly unreasonable and violent, 1 Samuel 18:10-11.

Saul lost all affection for David and began to see him as an enemy, 1 Samuel 18:29. He was angry, jealous and fearful of David and so matters came to a head when it became obvious to David that, by attending the King, his own life was in grave danger, 1 Samuel 19:8-10, and he decided it was unsafe for him to take his usual place at the king’s dinner-table, 1 Samuel 20:24-27.

The psychological nature of Saul’s illness is proved by the fact that, although he had three times tried to kill David, he was genuinely surprised and puzzled by the young man’s absence! yet, when Jonathan tried to offer an explanation, Saul became so angry that he tried to kill his own son.

But in what sense was Saul’s condition ‘from the Lord’?

It wasn’t ‘from the Lord’ in the sense that God deliberately afflicted Saul with insanity, but only in the sense that, when God so emphatically withdrew His endorsement and support of him, Saul became more and more depressed. The medical word which describes his condition exactly is ‘melancholia’, which is defined as an ‘emotional mental disease marked by depression and ill-grounded fears’.

This is what the Scriptures reveal in the case of Saul.

Saul began showing such great promise He had so much ability and was blessed with so many advantages, having the help of the Spirit of God and the fatherly guidance of Samuel the prophet. The highest possibilities were within his reach.

But his life ended in depression and despair because he failed to appreciate that God looks for obedience in His people. That is the tragedy of King Saul. Even today,

‘To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.’ 1 Samuel 15:22



"For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."