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1 Samuel 16:14-23 – Saul’s Evil Spirit

Summary

David, whom God had chosen, will continue to rise to the throne of Israel. Saul, whom God had rejected, will continue to decline.

Analysis

Just what this "evil spirit" sent by God to "torment" (better: "terrify") Saul is, remains in obscurity. There is no lack of educated guesses, however, which usually revolve around some form of paranoia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. Suffice it to say that Saul was ill.

Theologically speaking, we are on slightly firmer ground. For example, the word "evil," which here modifies "spirit" (vv. 14, 23), does not necessarily denote "wicked, demonic, or hellish." Saul's "tormentor" may be as innocuous as a "bad mood" or a "gloomy disposition." It definitely has negative connotations, but it need not be supernatural and certainly is not satanic at this time in Israel's religious development.

Besides the irrecoverable nature of Saul's mental health, two points stand out in this passage:
  • Saul's suffering is sent by the Lord (v. 14). However, this is not to be seen as vindictive, since all things beyond human control come from God in Israel's conception of God's all-embracing will.
  • Together with verse 13, verse 14 is the theological pivot point of 1 Samuel. The rest of the narrative will depict the contrast between Saul and David. Just as David received the spirit of the Lord in verse 13, now we see Saul experiencing the loss of that spirit and the beginnings of the devastating effects of the "evil spirit" that will continue to plague him. God has abandoned Saul, leaving him bereft of the spirit; his kingship is over, and he will continue to decline without these two necessary aspects of rule, even as David, God's chosen and the recipient of the spirit, will continue his rise to the throne of Israel.

1 Samuel 16:14-23

David Plays the Lyre for Saul

14 Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. 15And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’ 17So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.’ 18One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilful in playing, a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.’ 19So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, ‘Send me your son David who is with the sheep.’ 20Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 21And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. 22Saul sent to Jesse, saying, ‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favour in my sight.’ 23And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

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10 February 2011

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