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Bible Commentaries

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary

1 Samuel 28


David in the Army of the Philistines. Attack upon Israel. Saul and the Witch of Endor - 1 Samuel 28

The danger into which David had plunged through his flight into the land of the Philistines, and still more through the artifice with which he had deceived the king Achish as to his real feelings, was to be very soon made apparent to him. For example, when the Philistines went to war again with Israel, Achish summoned him to go with his men in the army of the Philistines to the war against his own people and land, and David could not disregard the summons. But even if he had not brought himself into this danger without some fault of his own, he had at any rate only taken refuge with the Philistines in the greatest extremity; and what further he had done, was only done to save his own life. The faithful covenant God helped him therefore out of this trouble, and very soon afterwards put an end to his persecution by the fact that Saul lost his life in the war.

Verses 1-2

In those days,” i.e., whilst David was living in the land of the Philistines, it came to pass that the Philistines gathered their armies together for a campaign against Israel. And Achish sent word to David that he was to go with him in his army along with his men; and David answered (1 Samuel 28:2), “ Thereby (on this occasion) thou shalt learn what thy servant will do.” This reply was ambiguous. The words “what thy servant will do” contained no distinct promise of faithful assistance in the war with the Israelites, as the expression “ thy servant ” is only the ordinary periphrasis for “ I ” in conversation with a superior. And there is just as little ground for inferring from 1 Samuel 29:8 that David was disposed to help the Philistines against Saul and the Israelites; for, as Calovius has observed, even there he gives no such promise, but “merely asks for information, that he may discover the king's intentions and feelings concerning him: he simply protests that he has done nothing to prevent his placing confidence in him, or to cause him to shut him out of the battle.” Judging from his previous acts, it would necessarily have been against his conscience to fight against his own people. Nevertheless, in the situation in which he was placed he did not venture to give a distinct refusal to the summons of the king. He therefore gave an ambiguous answer, in the hope that God would show him a way out of this conflict between his inmost conviction and his duty to obey the Philistian king. He had no doubt prayed earnestly for this in his heart. And the faithful God helped His servant: first of all by the fact that Achish accepted his indefinite declaration as a promise of unconditional fidelity, as his answer “ so ( לכן , itaque , i.e., that being the case, if thy conduct answers to thy promise) “ I will make thee the keeper of my head ” (i.e., of my person) implies; and still more fully by the fact that the princes of the Philistines overturned the decision of their king (1 Samuel 29:3.).

Verses 3-25

Saul with the witch at Endor. - The invasion of Israel by the Philistines, which brought David into so difficult a situation, drove king Saul to despair, so that in utter helplessness he had recourse to ungodly means of inquiring into the future, which he himself had formerly prohibited, and to his horror had to hear the sentence of his own death. This account is introduced with the remark in 1 Samuel 28:3 that Samuel was dead and had been buried at Ramah (cf. 1 Samuel 25:1; וּבעירו , with an explanatory vav, and indeed in his own city), and that Saul had expelled “ those that had familiar spirits and the wizards out of the land ” (on the terms employed, oboth and yiddonim, see at Leviticus 19:31). He had done this in accordance with the law in Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:27, and Deuteronomy 18:10.

1 Samuel 28:4-5

When the Philistines advanced and encamped at Shunem, Saul brought all Israel together and encamped at Gilboa, i.e., upon the mountain of that name on the north-eastern edge of the plain of Jezreel, which slopes off from a height of about 1250 feet into the valley of the Jordan, and is not far from Beisan. On the north of the western extremity of this mountain was Shunem, the present Sulem or Solam (see at Joshua 19:18); it was hardly two hours distant, so that the camp of the Philistines might be seen from Gilboa. When Saul saw this, he was thrown into such alarm that his heart greatly trembled. As Saul had been more than once victorious in his conflicts with the Philistines, his great fear at the sight of the Philistian army can hardly be attributed to any other cause than the feeling that God had forsaken him, by which he was suddenly overwhelmed.

1 Samuel 28:6

In his anxiety he inquired of the Lord; but the Lord neither answered him by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets, that is to say, not by any of the three media by which He was accustomed to make known His will to Israel. בּיהוה שׁאל is the term usually employed to signify inquiring the will and counsel of God through the Urim and Thummim of the high priest (see at Judges 1:1); and this is the case here, with the simple difference that here the other means of inquiring the counsel of God are also included. On dreams, see at Numbers 12:6. According to Numbers 27:21, Urim denotes divine revelation through the high priest by means of the ephod. But the high priest Abiathar had been with the ephod in David's camp ever since the murder of the priests at Nob ( 1 Samuel 22:20., 1 Samuel 23:6; 1 Samuel 30:7). How then could Saul inquire of God through the Urim? This question, which was very copiously discussed by the earlier commentators, and handled in different ways, may be decided very simply on the supposition, that after the death of Ahimelech and the flight of his son, another high priest had been appointed at the tabernacle, and another ephod made for him, with the choshen or breastplate, and the Urim and Thummim. It is no proof to the contrary that there is nothing said about this. We have no continuous history of the worship at the tabernacle, but only occasional notices. And from these it is perfectly clear that the public worship at the tabernacle was not suspended on the murder of the priests, but was continued still. For in the first years of David's reign we find the tabernacle at Gibeon, and Zadok the son of Ahitub, of the line of Eleazar, officiating there as high priest (1 Chronicles 16:39, compared with 1 Chronicles 6:8 and 1 Chronicles 6:53); from which it follows with certainty, that after the destruction of Nob by Saul the tabernacle was removed to Gibeon, and the worship of the congregation continued there. From this we may also explain in a very simple manner the repeated allusions to two high priests in David's time ( 2 Samuel 18:17; 2 Samuel 15:24, 2 Samuel 15:29, 2 Samuel 15:35; 1 Chronicles 15:11; 1 Chronicles 18:16). The reason why the Lord did not answer Saul is to be sought for in the wickedness of Saul, which rendered him utterly unworthy to find favour with God.

1 Samuel 28:7-14

Instead of recognising this, however, and searching his own heart, Saul attempted to obtain a revelation of the future in ungodly ways. He commanded his servants (1 Samuel 28:7) to seek for a woman that had a familiar spirit. Baalath-ob: the mistress (or possessor) of a conjuring spirit, i.e., of a spirit with which the dead were conjured up, for the purpose of making inquiry concerning the future (see at Leviticus 19:31). There was a woman of this kind at Endor, which still exists as a village under the old name upon the northern shoulder of the Duhy or Little Hermon (see at Joshua 17:11), and therefore only two German (ten English) miles from the Israelitish camp at Gilboa.

1 Samuel 28:8

Saul went to this person by night and in disguise, that he might not be recognised, accompanied by two men; and said to her, “ Divine to me through necromancy, and bring me up whomsoever I tell thee.” The words “bring me up,” etc., are an explanation or more precise definition of “divine unto me,” etc. Prophesying by the Ob was probably performed by calling up a departed spirit from Sheol, and obtaining prophecies, i.e., disclosures concerning one's own fate, through the medium of such a spirit. On the form קסומי ( Chethibh), see at Judges 9:8.

1 Samuel 28:9

Such a demand placed the woman in difficulty. As Saul had driven the necromantists out of the land, she was afraid that the unknown visitor (for it is evident from 1 Samuel 28:12 that she did not recognise Saul at first) might be laying a snare for her soul with his request, to put her to death, i.e., might have come to her merely for the purpose of spying her out as a conjurer of the dead, and then inflicting capital punishment upon her according to the law (Leviticus 20:27).

1 Samuel 28:10-11

But when Saul swore to her that no punishment should fall upon her on that account ( יקּרך אם , “ shall assuredly not fall upon thee ”), an oath which showed how utterly hardened Saul was, she asked him, “ Whom shall I bring up to thee? ” and Saul replied, “ Bring me up Samuel,” sc., from the region of the dead, or Sheol, which was thought to be under the ground. This idea arose from the fact that the dead were buried in the earth, and was connected with the thought of heaven as being above the earth. Just as heaven, regarded as the abode of God and the holy angels and blessed spirits, is above the earth; so, on the other hand, the region of death and the dead is beneath the ground. And with our modes of thought, which are so bound up with time and space, it is impossible to represent to ourselves in any other way the difference and contrast between blessedness with God and the shade-life in death.

1 Samuel 28:12

The woman then commenced her conjuring arts. This must be supplied from the context, as 1 Samuel 28:12 merely states what immediately ensued. “ When the woman saw Samuel, she cried aloud,” sc., at the form which appeared to her so unexpectedly. These words imply most unquestionably that the woman saw an apparition which she did not anticipate, and therefore that she was not really able to conjure up departed spirits or persons who had died, but that she either merely pretended to do so, or if her witchcraft was not mere trickery and delusion, but had a certain demoniacal background, that the appearance of Samuel differed essentially from everything she had experienced and effected before, and therefore filled her with alarm and horror. The very fact, whoever, that she recognised Saul as soon as Samuel appeared, precludes us from declaring her art to have been nothing more than jugglery and deception; for she said to him, “ Why hast thou cheated me, as thou art certainly Saul? ” i.e., why hast thou deceived me as to thy person? why didst thou not tell me that thou wast king Saul? Her recognition of Saul when Samuel appeared may be easily explained, if we assume that the woman had fallen into a state of clairvoyance, in which she recognised persons who, like Saul in his disguise, were unknown to her by face.

1 Samuel 28:13

The king quieted her fear, and then asked her what she had seen; whereupon she gave him a fuller description of the apparition: “ I saw a celestial being come up from the earth.” Elohim does not signify gods here, nor yet God; still less an angel or a ghost, or even a person of superior rank, but a celestial (super-terrestrial), heavenly, or spiritual being.

1 Samuel 28:14

Upon Saul's further inquiry as to his form, she replied, “ An old man is ascending, and he is wrapped in a mantle.” Meïl is the prophet's mantle, such as Samuel was accustomed to wear when he was alive (see 1 Samuel 15:27). Saul recognised from this that the person who had been called up was Samuel, and he fell upon his face to the ground, to give expression to his reverence. Saul does not appear to have seen the apparition itself. But it does not follow from this that there was no such apparition at all, and the whole was an invention on the part of the witch. It needs an opened eye, such as all do not possess, to see a departed spirit or celestial being. The eyes of the body are not enough for this.

1 Samuel 28:15-17

Then Samuel said, “ Why hast thou disturbed me (sc., from my rest in Hades; cf. Isaiah 14:9), to bring me up? ” It follows, no doubt, from this that Samuel had been disturbed from his rest by Saul; but whether this had been effected by the conjuring arts of the witch, or by a miracle of God himself, is left undecided. Saul replied, “ I am sore oppressed, for the Philistines fight against me, and God has departed from me, and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; then I had thee called (on the intensified form ואקראה , vid., Ewald, §228, c.), to make known to me what I am to do.” The omission of any reference to the Urim is probably to be interpreted very simply from the brevity of the account, and not from the fact that Saul shrank from speaking about the oracle of the high priest, on account of the massacre of the priests which had taken place by his command. There is a contradiction, however, in Saul's reply: for if God had forsaken him, he could not expect any answer from Him; and if God did not reply to his inquiry through the regularly appointed media of His revelation, how could he hope to obtain any divine revelation through the help of a witch? “When living prophets gave no answer, he thought that a dead one might be called up, as if a dead one were less dependent upon God than the living, or that, even in opposition to the will of God, he might reply through the arts of a conjuring woman. Truly, if he perceived that God was hostile to him, he ought to have been all the more afraid, lest His enmity should be increased by his breach of His laws. But fear and superstition never reason” (Clericus). Samuel points out this contradiction (1 Samuel 28:16): “ Why dost thou ask me, since Jehovah hath departed from thee, and is become thine enemy? ” The meaning is: How canst thou expect an answer under these circumstances from me, the prophet of Jehovah? ערך , from ער , signifies an enemy here (from עיר , fervour); and this meaning is confirmed by Psalms 139:20 and Daniel 4:16 (Chald.). There is all the less ground for any critical objection to the reading, as the Chaldee and Vulgate give a periphrastic rendering of “enemy,” whilst the lxx, Syr., and Arab. have merely paraphrased according to conjectures. Samuel then announced his fate (1 Samuel 28:17-19): “ Jehovah hath performed for himself, as He spake by me ( לו , for himself, which the lxx and Vulg. have arbitrarily altered into לך , σοί , tibi (to thee), is correctly explained by Seb. Schmidt, 'according to His grace, or to fulfil and prove His truth'); and Jehovah hath rent the kingdom out of thy hand, and given it to thy neighbour David.” The perfects express the purpose of God, which had already been formed, and was now about to be fulfilled.

1 Samuel 28:18-19

The reason for Saul's rejection is then given, as in 1 Samuel 15:23: “ Because ( כּאשׁר , according as) thou ... hast not executed the fierceness of His anger upon Amalek, therefore hath Jehovah done this thing to thee this day.” “This thing” is the distress of which Saul had complained, with its consequences. ויתּן , that Jehovah may give (= for He will give) Israel also with thee into the hand of the Philistines. “To- morrow wilt thou and thy sons be with me (i.e. in Sheol, with the dead); also the camp of Israel will Jehovah give into the hand of the Philistines,” i.e., give up to them to plunder. The overthrow of the people was to heighten Saul's misery, when he saw the people plunged with him into ruin through his sin ( O. v. Gerlach). Thus was the last hope taken from Saul. His day of grace was gone, and judgment was now to burst upon him without delay.

1 Samuel 28:20

These words so alarmed him, that he fell his whole length upon the ground; for he had been kneeling hitherto (1 Samuel 28:14). He “fell straightway ( lit. he hastened and fell) upon the ground. For he was greatly terrified at the words of Samuel: there was also no strength in him, because he had eaten no food the whole day and the whole night,” sc., from mental perturbation or inward excitement. Terror and bodily exhaustion caused him to fall powerless to the ground.

1 Samuel 28:21-22

The woman then came to him and persuaded him to strengthen himself with food for the journey which he had to take. It by no means follows from the expression “ came unto Saul,” that the woman was in an adjoining room during the presence of the apparition, and whilst Samuel was speaking, but only that she was standing at some distance off, and came up to him to speak to him when he had fallen fainting to the ground. As she had fulfilled his wish at the risk of her own life, she entreated him now to gratify her wish, and let her set a morsel of bread before him and eat. “ That strength may be in thee when thou goest thy way ” (i.e., when thou returnest).

This narrative, when read without prejudice, makes at once and throughout the impression conveyed by the Septuagint at 1 Chronicles 10:13: ἐπηρώτησε Σαοὺλ ἐν τῷ ἐγγαστριμύθῳ τοῦ ζητῆσαι, καὶ ἀπεκρίνατο αὐτῷ Σαμουὴλ ὁ προφήτης; and still more clearly at Ecclus. 46:20, where it is said of Samuel: “And after his death he prophesied, and showed the king his end, and lifted up his voice from the earth in prophecy, to blot out the wickedness of the people.” Nevertheless the fathers, reformers, and earlier Christian theologians, with very few exceptions, assumed that there was not a real appearance of Samuel, but only an imaginary one. According to the explanation given by Ephraem Syrus, an apparent image of Samuel was presented to the eye of Saul through demoniacal arts. Luther and Calvin adopted the same view, and the earlier Protestant theologians followed them in regarding the apparition as nothing but a diabolical spectre, a phantasm, or diabolical spectre in the form of Samuel, and Samuel's announcement as nothing but a diabolical revelation made by divine permission, in which truth is mixed with falsehood.

When Saul and his servants had eaten, they started upon their way, and went back that night to Gilboa, which was about ten miles distant, where the battle occurred the next day, and Saul and his sons fell. “Saul was too hardened in his sin to express any grief or pain, either on his own account or because of the fate of his sons and his people. In stolid desperation he went to meet his fate. This was the terrible end of a man whom the Spirit of God had once taken possession of and turned into another man, and whom he had endowed with gifts to be the leader of the people of God” ( O. v. Gerlach).

Copyright Statement
The Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary is a derivative of a public domain electronic edition.
Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. 1854-1889.