Last week I wrote about some difficult parts of 1 Samuel 15. Well, chapter 16 has some interesting bits as well, so today we’ll take a closer look. I often don’t get a chance to look at these difficult passages in a sermon because most of the time fleshing out interesting tidbits is beyond the scope of a traditional message. That being said, I enjoy “digging deeper” into these potentially confusing parts of scripture, and if you do too, read on.
The tricky bit of 1 Samuel 16 comes in verse 14: “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Even on the surface, this verse rubs us the wrong way, because the thought of God sending a harmful spirit on anyone is rather off-putting. Why would God send a harmful spirit on a person? And where does God get these harmful spirits from? How can a harmful spirit come from a good God?
First of all, what is a harmful spirit? Unfortunately, the text doesn’t help us much. The older NIV translation says the spirit was “injurious” rather than harmful, and the most recent NIV translation goes even further to say that the spirit was actually “evil.” The ESV translates the word as “harmful.” Was it a demon? Possibly.
Some have sought to reason away the perceived problem by stating that the “harmful spirit” that came upon Saul was not a demonic figure, but was actually some sort of illness, perhaps even a mental illness. This is why Saul could be soothed simply by hearing some calming music from his personal minstrel, David (1 Samuel 16.18-23). For instance, if the harmful spirit were an affliction of anxiety, it’s certainly possible that some calming music would do much to help with Saul’s battered mental state. The same would be true if the “harmful spirit” were some sort of physical malady that could be treated with music therapy.
Regardless of the form of the spirit’s manifestation in Saul, one thing is certain: the “harmful spirit” had a divine origin that was observable even by Saul’s servants: “And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you’” (1 Samuel 16.15). Whatever was happening, it was clear to everyone who saw it that God was involved.
But that just brings us back to our initial question: how can a good God send “harmful spirits?”
No matter how off-putting you and I might find the notion of God sending a harmful spirit upon Saul, we should note one thing: it doesn’t bother the author of first Samuel. We know this because he offers us no justification or reasoning in the text. He simply states it as a fact, as though such things were regular occurrences. To him, the idea of God sending a harmful spirit was not off-putting and did not cause him to question his faith. It was simply a fact of life.
The reason for this, I believe, is that the author of 1 Samuel had a robust understanding of God’s sovereignty, and especially his sovereignty over evil. To the author of 1 Samuel, it’s perfectly natural for God to send a harmful spirit upon Saul, because God is the Lord - even the Lord over evil.
James 2 says that demons believe in God, and they shudder at the thought of him. Why do they shudder? Because they are subject to his authority. In other words, God is Lord even over the demons. In Luke 8 Jesus is confronted by a man inhabited by many demons. These demons recognize Jesus’ authority and beg him not to send them into the abyss. Rather, they suggest, allow them to inhabit a herd of pigs. Luke 8.32 says that Jesus “gave them permission.” Jesus didn’t force them to go into the pigs or into the abyss. Instead, he used his authority to give the “harmful spirits” of Luke 8 permission to do what they suggested. If the “harmful spirit” that Saul had was a demon, it was only afflicting him by God’s allowance, according to God’s authority.
Likewise, if the harmful spirit that afflicted Saul was a physical or mental malady, this is also a result of God’s permission. “‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” (Exodus 4.11) Similarly, God either allowed or afflicted numerous people with ailments throughout scripture for his sovereign purposes.
Whether God intentionally afflicted Saul with a harmful spirit (such as in Exodus 4.11), or whether he allowed the harmful spirit to torment him (such as in Luke 8.32), the end result is the same: the harmful spirit came from God. And for whatever reason (and there was a good reason, even if we don’t know it in full), God either caused or allowed some evil, harmful spirit to attack Saul.
But this should not cause us to despair, or to question God’s goodness. For we are sure that although God is the Lord over evil, he is not the author of evil. God uses sin sinlessly. That is, he can remain Lord over sin and use it for his purposes without sinning.
In the case of Saul, God used the “harmful spirit” to introduce David onto the scene and prepare him for his future reign, as well as to ignite the bitter strife between Saul and David that would go on into the future. Perhaps God used this harmful spirit to further enflame Saul against David, making his condemnation all the more just.
Regardless, as we stated earlier, the notion of the harmful spirit coming from God did not concern the author of 1 Samuel, and nor should it concern us. We should be encouraged that even “harmful spirits” come from God. They don’t run amok of their own accord, doing whatever they please. No, they have a Lord; they have a Master. And that Master uses all things - even harmful spirits! - for his glory and our good.