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Bible Commentaries

Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Samuel 28

Introduction

A Spiritually Bankrupt Saul Seeks To Demonic Sources For Assistance Because Nothing Else Is Left To Him (1 Samuel 28:3-25 ).

Having briefly summed up the situation from the Philistine point of view, the writer now switches to Saul’s situation as the king who had learned that his country was about to be invaded by an army much more powerful than his own. He had become aware of the large scale mustering of a massive Philistine army (1 Samuel 28:1), something clearly much different from a border raid, and the question was, what was he to do? But when he turned to the sources from which he expected to obtain answers to his questions he received no response. YHWH was not answering him. That was why in desperation he determined to turn to forbidden sources. If God would not answer him he would try to contact Samuel through a necromancer.

This was one great difference between Saul and David. In such a situation David would have flung himself down before YHWH in tears, pleading to be shown where he had gone wrong, and repenting deeply. In the face of YHWH’s silence Saul rather preferred to turn to necromancers. He was lacking depth of soul.

We note that in this extreme situation it was to Samuel, the mentor of his youth, that he determined to turn, even though Samuel had been the instrument of his rejection. He apparently saw Samuel as a kind of back door to God. Samuel would no doubt know what was best for him to do. But Samuel was dead, and thus to contact him would involve him in the forbidden area of necromancy (necromancers purportedly contact the dead through familiar spirits).

The description of what follows inevitably leaves us with unanswered questions, simply because it is dealing with matters beyond our knowledge, for the thing that surprises us is that it appears that he was in fact actually able to contact Samuel. It should, however, be noted that the medium was equally as surprised as he was. She had not expected to see Samuel. She had expected her own ‘familiar spirit’. So what happened appears to have been outside her experience as well as his. It would seem probable therefore that God had in this case determined to act uniquely in order to again pronounce judgment on Saul and exalt David, a judgment which resulted from Saul’s earlier gross disobedience, a disobedience in respect of which he had never truly repented. And it was in fact God’s previous sentence on that disobedience that had preyed on his mind and had made a major contribution towards his illness, even though part of it probably resulted from traumas in his childhood. Now he was to be reminded of that disobedience again. It is a dreadful warning to us all that if we do not truly repent from our past sins and seek God’s forgiveness while we can, we too may end up in a state of hopelessness in which we are simply reminded of our past sins, and with our hearts hardened.

We should also note that it did not bring Saul what he was really seeking. What it brought home to him was not how to fight and win his battles, but rather the certainty of his forthcoming defeat and death. It was information that he would have been better without. Had it been left to the necromancer, of course, he would probably have received a comforting message. But in his case YHWH intervened. It reminds us that even at its best necromancy can only offer false comfort, for it never results in genuinely true benefit, even though initially it might appear to do so. It causes us to rest on false hopes.

Verses 1-2

David Becomes A Petty King of Ziklag And Carries Out successful Raids To Obtain Booty, Thereby Consolidating His Position with The King Of Gath Who Thought That He Was Raiding Israel/Judah (1 Samuel 27:5 to 1 Samuel 28:2 ).

We need not doubt that there was far more to the discussions between Achish and David than we are told. It seems very probable that David was feeling constricted both physically and spiritually in Gath and that his men were possibly chafing through inactivity. There may also have been conflicts with local Gittites who objected to their presence. David may well therefore have proposed to the king that he and his men could achieve more by having their own city to operate from, a city ‘in the country’, that is, in a less occupied area from which raiding operations could be carried out.

Achish clearly saw the sense in this and gave David the city of Ziklag, with its environs, which was probably sparsely occupied at the time. Ziklag was in the far south, in the Negeb. (That it was near Beersheba is suggested by Nehemiah 11:28). There its surrounding area was especially vulnerable to attacks from the warlike tribes that roamed the Sinai peninsula. Achish may well therefore have seen this as a means of making that area, which was under his control, secure. And from there David in his turn attacked these tribes and obtained from them much booty, including large quantities of cattle, sheep and goats. Achish would receive his share of it, being informed erroneously that it had been obtained by attacking Israelite towns. Some of it was also distributed among the hardpressed people of Judah, to their eternal gratitude, so that they began to look on David with favour. He was a good neighbour to have.

Analysis.

a And David said to Achish, “If now I have found favour in your eyes, let them give me a place in one of the cities in the country, that I may dwell there. For why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?” (1 Samuel 27:5).

b Then Achish gave him Ziklag that day, which is why Ziklag pertains to the kings of Judah to this day. And the number of the days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a full year and four months (1 Samuel 27:6-7).

c And David and his men went up, and made a raid on the Geshurites, and the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for those nations were the inhabitants of the land, who were of old, as you go to Shur, even to the land of Egypt (1 Samuel 27:8).

d And David smote the land, and saved neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the clothing, and he returned, and came to Achish (1 Samuel 27:9).

c And Achish said, “Against whom have you made a raid today?” And David said, “Against the South of Judah, and against the South of the Jerahmeelites, and against the South of the Kenites” (1 Samuel 27:10).

b And David saved neither man nor woman alive, to bring them to Gath, saying, “Lest they should tell of us, saying, So did David, and so has been his way all the while he has dwelt in the country of the Philistines.” And Achish believed David, saying, “He has made his people Israel utterly to abhor him, therefore he shall be my servant for ever” (1 Samuel 27:11-12).

a And it came about in those days, that the Philistines gathered their hosts together for warfare, to fight with Israel. And Achish said to David, “Know you assuredly, that you will go out with me in the host, you and your men.” And David said to Achish, “Therefore you will know what your servant will do.” And Achish said to David, “Therefore will I make you keeper of my head for ever” (1 Samuel 28:1-2).

Note that in ‘a’ David had found favour in the eyes of Achish, and in the parallel that favour is clearly demonstrated. In ‘b’ we learn of the limited period for which David dwelt in the land of the Philistines, and in the parallel Achish mistakenly thought that he had him as his servant for ever. In ‘c’ we are told the names of the tribes which David raided, and in the parallel the names of those that he claimed to have raided. Central in ‘d’ is the fact that Achish received much tribute, thus enhancing David in his eyes..

1 Samuel 27:5

And David said to Achish, “If now I have found favour in your eyes, let them give me a place in one of the cities in the country, that I may dwell there. For why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?” ’

Whatever the reasons David approached Achish and asked to be given a city some distance from Gath so as to avoid cramping the royal city. This probably indicates that many of the Gittite aristocracy were somewhat put out by the presence of David and his men, and were in some way expressing their hostility, claiming that this was the royal city of Gath, a place in which such a foreign element were not welcome. If this was so Achish would be aware of it and might well have seen David’s suggestion as very wise. He had little to lose and much to gain by giving to David a sparsely populated town guarding the approach from the south, especially if David was able to keep the surrounding area safe and use it as a base from which to carry out his foraging expeditions (compare 1 Samuel 13:17), thus enhancing Achish’s wealth. It does, however, illustrate the confidence and trust that Achish had in David. He saw him as someone reliable.

1 Samuel 27:6

Then Achish gave him Ziklag that day, which is why Ziklag pertains to the kings of Judah to this day.’

So that day Achish gave Ziklag and its surrounds to David, for him to rule as a petty king over an independent city state under Achish’s suzerainty. That is why when David became king of Judah the city would become conjoined with Judah (with Achish still seeing David as his loyal vassal), and the city became seen as a Judean city under the control of whoever was king over Judah at the time. Thus anyone who ruled Judah, even if as a part of Israel, ruled Ziklag by right of the fact that it had been given to David and had been conjoined with Judah. It had, of course, always been seen as in Judah’s (and Simeon’s) territory (Joshua 15:31; Joshua 19:5) by the Israelites. That it was near Beersheba is suggested by Nehemiah 11:28.

There is no reason for suggesting that this phrase pinpoints the date of authorship of the final book, for all kings from David onwards were ‘kings of Judah’, and it was by virtue of this rather than as kings of Israel/Judah that they ruled Ziklag.

1 Samuel 27:7

And the number of the days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a full year and four months.’

This may indicate the length of time that David was in Gath prior to moving to Ziklag, after which on moving to Ziklag he was seen by the writer as living in an independent city which was in territory allocated to Judah, even if Achish saw it differently. As far as the writer is concerned David was a patriot who was to be seen as having lived among the Philistines for as short a time as possible.

David appears to have ruled the city and its surrounds as an independent city state, while acknowledging Achish as his overlord. The terms on which he received the city would have been laid out in a suzerainty treaty. It would include the obtaining of booty, a proportion of which would be given to Achish, as a result of raids on ‘foreign territory’ (which Achish would see as including Judah), and an expression of willingness to serve Achish directly as mercenaries when called on. To this city and its environs flocked many who were disaffected by Saul’s rule, in order to serve under David who had once been a popular Israelite commander (1 Chronicles 12:1-7; 1 Chronicles 12:20-22). From it he sent ambassadors to Judean cities gaining their friendship (1 Samuel 30:26-31). He was founding his own small kingdom and it was giving him great experience for the future, with an influence that Achish never dreamed of.

1 Samuel 27:8

And David and his men went up, and made a raid on (advanced militarily on) the Geshurites, and the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for those nations were the inhabitants of the land, who were of old, as you go to Shur, even to the land of Egypt.’

From Ziklag David made raids on fierce and warlike tribes in the Sinai peninsula. It appears that the Geshurites and the Girzites, of whom little else is known (but see Joshua 13:2), were similar to the Amalekites, and somewhat like modern Bedouin, although they may have been more settled than the nomadic Amalekites, in desert cities and oasis encampments. They no doubt constantly raided the Negeb of Judah, and the Negeb of the Philistines, and it is possible that these raids on Philistine territory were one reason why Achish was glad to place Ziklag as a buffer between them and Philistia. These tribesmen had been there in the Sinai peninsula up to the borders of Egypt for as long as men could remember, and they were seen as a constant threat to the more settled peoples of the Negeb, swooping down unexpectedly on unprotected areas and people, seizing both their cattle and flocks, and their people to sell into slavery.

We know that the Amalekites had been responsible for attacks on the children of Israel shortly after leaving Egypt (Exodus 17:8-16), the kind of act for which they later came under God’s curse (1 Samuel 15:2-3; Deuteronomy 25:19). And while Saul had wiped out one of their prominent tribes they were very numerous and separated into a number of different tribes, some of which had escaped his intentions. The Geshurites and Girzites may well therefore have also been seen as coming under that general curse. David’s action would, in fact, partly be a retaliation for raids made on what he now saw as his territory.

1 Samuel 27:9

And David smote the land, and saved neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the clothing, and he returned, and came to Achish.’

Wherever he could find them David, in defence of his territory, sought out these warrior tribes, smiting the land where they could be found, and slaughtering them all, including both men and women. And in the process he took away their sheep, oxen, asses, camels and clothware, most of which they themselves would have obtained by the same method. David’s policy of mass slaughter no doubt sounds harsh to us today, but it is doubtful if those who heard of it then thought the same. All knew that any Amalekites who were left alive would simply join up with other similar tribes, strengthening them for further raids on innocent people, while their womenfolk would be seen as wild, insular, and useless as wives, and likely producers of more raiders once they connected up with other tribes. They were probably as fierce as the men. Harsh as it may seem eradication was therefore seen as the only way of dealing with them (we can compare them with the pirates of later times who preyed on anyone and everyone and were subject to none). Any other route simply resulted in further problems of a particularly vicious kind.

David would then come to Achish bringing his spoils so that Achish could receive his no doubt generous share, and the remainder would be divided up among David’s men.

1 Samuel 27:10

And Achish said, “Against whom have you made a raid today?” And David said, “Against the South of Judah, and against the South of the Jerahmeelites, and against the South of the Kenites.” ’

Achish was naturally interested in where David had been carrying out his raids, and was erroneously informed that it had been ‘against the Negeb of Judah, and against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites, and against the Negeb of the Kenites.’ These areas were far enough off and remote enough for Achish not to be aware of what was going on there, and they would anyway no doubt constantly experience raids of one kind or another. That was a consequence of living in such places, which was no doubt why Samuel had earlier sent his sons to act as war-leaders and judges there (1 Samuel 8:2). There was also probably some truth in his statement. No doubt when he heard of Amalekite raids on those areas he entered them (with the consent of their elders) in order to deal with the Amalekite invaders within those territories.

“The Negeb” was a fairly vague term covering a large area of the dry south, with its lesser rainfall, which extended into the Sinai peninsula. Thus what David said was a half truth. He is not depicted as actually saying that he had attacked the peoples themselves, only their area. He may well have found Amalekites wandering in those areas. And there were Amalekite ‘cities’ in the Negeb.

The Jerahmeelites were a semi-independent clan similar to the Kenites, who had friendly relations with Judah, and gradually became Judeans by adoption (compare 1 Chronicles 2:9 ff). The Kenites had been spared by Saul when he had slaughtered the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:6), and had previous associations with Judah (Judges 1:16). They had assisted Israel on their journey through the wilderness. The Negeb may well have been at this time a fairly fruitful area as a result of careful use of what rainwater it experienced, which was cleverly used for irrigation, but it depended heavily on oases and springs. It was also an area suitable for grazing large flocks. It would thus be seen by the nomadic tribesmen (and by Achish) as a very suitable area from which to obtain booty.

1 Samuel 27:11

And David saved neither man nor woman alive, to bring them to Gath, saying, “Lest they should tell of us, saying, ‘So did David, and so has been his way all the while he has dwelt in the country of the Philistines’.” ’

The writer now tells us that one reason why David never left any living witnesses to his attacks was so that no one could inform on his activities. The only purpose for taking some alive would be to sell them as slaves, something which David forbore to do. However, we must not discount the fact that he also knew that they were under YHWH’s curse and therefore dealt with them accordingly. But it was clearly essential for him that none should be able to counteract what he had told Achish. The only alternative was to sell them as slaves, for simply letting them go would have meant that they were free to join up with a similar tribe and continue the attacks on innocents, or to produce those who did so. It would have been storing up trouble for the future. But had he turned up with only Amalekite, Geshurite and Gerzite slaves for sale it would have been a real give-away. Achish would have asked, where were the Judeans and Kenites?

He could ,of course, simply have let them go in which case they would never have had any connection with Gath, but that would then have left them free to attack innocent people again. So we must probably see his harsh measures as going beyond just preventing Achish from finding out the truth, and as tying in with the carrying out of YHWH’s curse on them, as a result of the fact that God had declared them worthy of the death sentence (Genesis 9:6) because of their savage behaviour.

To us, of course, all this killing is rightly abhorrent. But then most of us live in a society where there is an adequate police force, and where there are organised prisons. We do not live on our wits, faced with constant attacks from merciless tribesmen, with no one to protect us but ourselves. The sentence of death on them was the consequence of the fact that they were seen as regular murderers who would never learn their lesson and therefore needed to be finally dealt with in the only way possible to render them harmless, death (at a time when for all people death by violence was an everyday occurrence for their households, to be constantly warded off by killing others, especially in the Negeb).

1 Samuel 27:12

And Achish believed David, saying, “He has made his people Israel utterly to abhor him, therefore he shall be my servant for ever.” ’

Achish believed David’s half-truths, and gloated. He considered that by turning his own people and their allies against him it would mean that David for ever remained faithful to those who had not been turned against him, his employers. In other words, they would serve Achish faithfully, as bound to him, into the distant future. They had nowhere else to look.

1 Samuel 28:1

And it came about in those days, that the Philistines gathered their hosts together for warfare, to fight with Israel. And Achish said to David, “Know you assuredly, that you will go out with me in the host, you and your men.” ’

However, inevitably the day arrived when what David had probably constantly feared came about. A full scale invasion of Israel was planned by the Philistines, in contrast with mere border raids. This was not to be merely for booty. The time had come when the five lords of the Philistines wanted vengeance for past defeats, to re-subjugate Israel, and to expand their territory even further. This may partly have been initiated as a result of Saul’s activities in the valley of Jezreel by which he was cutting off the Philistine trade routes. With this in mind they had built up their strength and trained their troops, and now they mustered their whole armies, which would involve the muster of Canaanite farmers to bolster their numbers, and of course, any mercenaries. It was for activities such as this that mercenaries were mainly hired. Along with the Philistine standing armies they would be the core of the fighting strength, trained fighters who lived for nothing else but warfare. So it is not surprising that Achish called on David and his men and told them to stand ready. They would be required to go out with the Philistine host as part of his contribution to that host.

Achish now had no doubt about David’s faithfulness. Why, had he not already proved his willingness to despoil his own countrymen? Why then should he hesitate in taking part in an exercise that would bring him even more booty and reward?

1 Samuel 28:2

And David said to Achish, “Therefore you will know what your servant will do.” And Achish said to David, “Therefore will I make you keeper of my head for ever.”

When David was called on he assured the king that he ‘would know what David his servant would do’. To Achish this was an assurance of total loyalty and an indication of a desire for battle. To those who knew David better it might have appeared to be somewhat of an evasive answer. But Achish was satisfied, and assured David that it was because of his dedication and faithfulness that he would make him the permanent ‘keeper of his head’. In other words, David and his men would be his personal bodyguard and his constant protector. He knew that they were the toughest of his troops.

It is possible that the writer deliberately used a phrase which was ironical. We remember, as the writer did, how David had kept Goliath’s head and had taken it to Jerusalem as a trophy (1 Samuel 17:54). But Achish was not to know that one day David would be his archenemy, so that he would never have dreamed of such an interpretation to his words.

Verses 3-19

Saul Consults A Necromancer And Samuel Appears To Him (1 Samuel 28:3-19 ).

Having been unable to obtain any response from God, Saul, in desperation, determined to turn to a necromancer. It would, however, only be in order to receive bad news. For Samuel’s message to him would be that his case was hopeless. Thus instead of receiving help he would learn of coming failure and death. It is a reminder that those who treat God lightly can be sure that one day they will reap what they have sown, and that when they need Him they might well not find Him. We must seek Him while He is yet speaking to us. ‘Now is the acceptable time. Now is the Day of Salvation’. Tomorrow may be too late.

Analysis.

a Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and encamped in Shunem (1 Samuel 28:3-4).

b And Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped in Gilboa. And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul enquired of YHWH, YHWH did not answer him, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets (1 Samuel 28:5-6).

c Then said Saul to his servants, “Seek me out a woman who has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Look, there is a woman who has a familiar spirit at En-dor.” And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night, and he said, “Divine to me, I pray you, by the familiar spirit, and bring me up whoever I shall name to you” (1 Samuel 28:7-8).

d And the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who have familiar spirits, and the wizards (‘knowing ones’) out of the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” (1 Samuel 28:9).

e And Saul swore to her by YHWH, saying, “As YHWH lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing” (1 Samuel 28:10).

d Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up to you?” And he said, “Bring me up Samuel.” And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice, and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” (1 Samuel 28:11-12).

c And the king said to her, “Do not afraid, for what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see an elohim (other world being) coming up out of the earth.” And he said to her, “Of what form is he?” And she said, “An old man comes up, and he is covered with a robe.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. And Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disquieted me, to bring me up?” (1 Samuel 28:13-15 a).

b And Saul answered, “I am sore distressed, for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answers me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams, therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do” (1 Samuel 28:15 b).

a And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask of me, seeing YHWH is departed from you, and is become your adversary? And YHWH has done to him (God’s adversary), as he spoke by me, and YHWH has rent the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your compatriot, even to David, because you did not obey the voice of YHWH, and did not execute his fierce wrath on Amalek. Therefore has YHWH done this thing to you this day. Moreover YHWH will deliver Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow will you and your sons be with me. YHWH will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 28:16-19).

Note that in ‘a’ Samuel is dead and the Philistines are threatening, and in the parallel the Philistines will triumph, and Saul and his sons will join Samuel beyond the grave. In ‘b’ YHWH does not answer Saul by any means, and in the parallel that is precisely what Saul tells Samuel. In ‘c’ Saul seeks out a woman who has a ‘familiar spirit’, and in the parallel the woman whom he has found seeks to call on her familiar spirit. In ‘d’ the woman thinks that these strange men are seeking to entrap her, and in the parallel she thinks that that is precisely what Saul has done. Centrally in ‘e’ Saul swears by YHWH that she will not be punished.

1 Samuel 28:3

Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.’

“Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city.” For these words compare 1 Samuel 25:1. Then it had introduced a situation where the second person whom Samuel had anointed (David) was going from triumph to triumph because his trust was in YHWH, and was continually revealing his obedience to YHWH. Now it introduces a situation where the first person whom Samuel had anointed (Saul) was in a hopelessly lost condition because of his gross disobedience to YHWH. He had previously retained for himself what had been ‘devoted to YHWH’, a crime of huge dimensions in the eyes of all who lived in those days. (Men would have spoken of it in hushed tones). And even though given a ‘second chance’ he had not repented. Rather he had allowed himself to be hardened by his sin, and had decided that he could carry on without Samuel’s blessing.

“Those that had familiar spirits (ob), and the wizards (yid‘oni - ‘those who know” by means of contact with spirits).’ An ob was a spirit, known to the medium (a familiar spirit), through which mediums claimed to contact the dead. The Scripture makes quite clear that it is sinful to use such ‘mediums’ and ‘knowers’ (Leviticus 19:31), and that they should be put to death (Leviticus 20:27). See also Deuteronomy 18:9-22. In obedience to the Law Saul had put all such out of the land in one way or another. It was a sign of his increasing degradation and despair that he would now turn to them.

1 Samuel 28:4

And the Philistines gathered themselves together, and came and encamped in Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped in Gilboa.’

The third item in the equation was that the Philistines had gathered themselves together and had come in massive force to encamp in Shunem. So the situation is laid bare. Samuel the prophet of YHWH was dead, all who claimed to consult the dead were no longer available, and the Philistines had gathered for the kill. This was a Philistia at the height of its power facing a bankrupt Saul.

Shunem was in the territory of Isacchar near Jezreel. It was on the south west lower slope of Mount Moreh opposite Mount Gilboa. The Philistines probably hoped to engage in battle in the plain of Esdraelon where their chariots would be most effective. They had learned that dealing with the Israelites in the mountains was a much more difficult proposition (compare 1 Kings 20:23). By taking up this position they had cut Saul off from the northern tribes, while at the same time occupying Israelite territory. (Compare how 1 Samuel 31:7 speaks of the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley. With the Philistines encamped where they were they were unable to reach Saul).

For the description of the gathering of the Philistines compare 1 Samuel 17:1. Then that gathering had a different outcome because of one man, a YHWH inspired David. But now David was no longer with Saul, and YHWH had deserted him. He was on his own.

Saul meanwhile had little alternative but to react to Philistine belligerence and to send out to the tribes the call to arms in order to gather the armies of Israel together, for Israelite territory had been occupied. It was in accordance with treaty obligation under YHWH’s covenant with His people that in times of trouble all the tribes who could would muster in order to assist their fellow tribesmen, and this was even moreso now that they had a recognised King (melech) and Warleader (nagid). But not all could reach him in time (1 Samuel 31:7).

Possibly had he had wise advice he would have withdrawn his army to the hills, where they would have had a far better chance of defeating the Philistines. But that would have meant leaving good portions of the lowlands of Israel open to the ravages of the Philistines, a price tougher generals would have been willing to pay. But it would have put Saul in a bad light before many of his countrymen and have diminished his popularity. They had got used to the idea of Saul confronting their enemies on the border. No wonder that he did not know what to do.

1 Samuel 28:5

And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.’

Surveying the Philistine hosts from his position on Mount Gilboa (and no doubt by means of scouts) Saul was able to assess the size and weaponry of this massed Philistine army which clearly meant serious business. He did not like what he saw and was afraid. He knew that his own army was no match for them in view of their numbers, their skill in warfare and their superior iron weapons. Thus he was afraid, and his heart beat loudly. Perhaps he even began to wish that he had David with him. David was a skilled general and would surely have known what to do. We must not think that Saul was a coward. It was simply that he recognised the odds against him. What he needed was the good old-fashioned intervention of YHWH. Indeed he recognised that otherwise the cause was lost. For a long while now he had relied on a superficial relationship with YHWH. He had ‘done all the right things’, without really becoming too personally involved. YHWH had not very often entered his thoughts, partly because the Philistine menace had not been so great. But now that he wanted His activity as never before, he was to learn that God could not just be sidelined and then called on to be available when wanted. Rather He is near to those who are continually of a humble and contrite spirit (Isaiah 57:15). And that was what Saul was not. Furthermore such an attitude could not just be manufactured at any time for the sake of convenience. It was one that had to be developed

1 Samuel 28:6

And when Saul enquired of YHWH, YHWH did not answer him, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.’

Saul turned in desperation to YHWH, because he had nowhere else to turn. He ‘enquired of YHWH.’ He did it by every known means, but none worked. None of his dreamers and visionaries could have the right dreams. When he consulted the Urim and Thummim through the high priest and the ephod he obtained the message, ‘No answer’. The lot went against him. Even the prophets whom he called on informed him that they had no message from YHWH. Saul grew desperate. If only, he thought, Samuel had been here. He would have been able to obtain a word from YHWH. He would have known what to do.

We inevitably feel sorry for Saul. But we must recognise that he had chosen his own way, and when rebuked had shrugged off the rebuke rather than turning in deep repentance towards YHWH. He had also refused to become reconciled with Samuel, even though he had had a secret admiration for him and had feared to act against him. He had thus chosen his own road. Now he was to discover that he was on the road to destruction. He was to learn that, ‘God is not mocked. What a man sows, that will he also reap’ (Galatians 6:7).

Indeed the darkness in which he found himself was so intense that his thoughts turned to the forbidden way. Perhaps, he thought, if he consulted a necromancer he could get in touch with Samuel. Surely Samuel, who had once been his mentor, would be able to help him. The very fact that he could think in this way was an indication of the condition of his heart. It was typical of Saul’s religion. When it appeared to fail he did not turn in genuine repentance towards YHWH. Rather he tried some other method to get round it. His view was that YHWH could be manipulated. And he was to learn that he was wrong.

1 Samuel 28:7

Then said Saul to his servants, “Seek me out a woman who has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Look, there is a woman who has a familiar spirit at En-dor.’

So he called on his servants to seek out a woman who had a familiar spirit, a medium, one who had contact with the spirit world, so that he might go and enquire of her. Once again we see the superficial nature of Saul’s attitude towards YHWH. He was hoping to obtain advice from YHWH by using means forbidden by YHWH. He does not seem to have considered the fact that such a method was self-defeating. He should have known that the YHWH Who had delivered Israel would never stoop to working through such means (just as Christians today should know that to become involved in the occult is an act of gross disobedience to God).

It is possibly significant that his servants knew where to find such a medium. The days when Saul was thorough in obedience to YHWH were long past. Even though they were still forbidden, mediums had gradually crept back into the land. Thus his servants were able to inform him that in fact there was such a woman not far away, in En-dor (‘fountain of the dwelling’). We should note in passing that this woman was not a witch. She made no claim to be involved in magic. Her claim was to be able to contact the dead.

1 Samuel 28:8

And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night, and he said, “Divine to me, I pray you, by the familiar spirit, and bring me up whoever I shall name to you.” ’

So Saul divested himself of his royal robes and put on some common clothing. He wanted to ensure that he was not identified, otherwise he knew that the woman would not help him. Had he appeared as Saul he would have met a barrier of total silence. Then, sufficiently disguised, and taking two of his men with him, he set off by night and came to where the woman lived. The phrase ‘by night’ is pregnant with significance. He was walking into the darkness.

It was in fact a courageous act carried out by a desperate man, for the Philistines were nearby in large numbers, no doubt with their scouts out, and En-dor was not far from the Philistine camp. But it was also a disreputable act. By it he was demonstrating why YHWH would not help him. It was because his heart was not set towards righteousness and towards truth. He wanted YHWH with no strings attached, and by whatever means. And God is not available on those terms.

On reaching the woman, who did not recognise who he was, he called on her to contact her familiar spirit and raise up for him the one whom he named. He wanted her to enable him to contact his only hope, Samuel.

1 Samuel 28:9

And the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” ’

But the woman was wary. She knew of far too many of her fellow-mediums who had betrayed themselves in response to such a request. And so she replied that in the light of Saul’s treatment of mediums and ‘knowers’ she would not even admit that she could do so,. And she charged them with wanting to entrap her into suggesting that she was a medium. Did they not recognise that for someone to admit that they were a medium in Saul’s Israel, was to court death?

Her question brings out the depths of Saul’s hypocrisy. He who was supposed to be the champion of YHWH, and had to some extent been so, was now taking the way which was in the opposite direction to the will of YHWH. It is almost inconceivable that he did not realise how foolish he was being by expecting an answer from YHWH’s servant when he was using means which were condemned by YHWH. The only thing that does make it conceivable is the incredible way in which so-called Christians today can behave in a similar manner and yet convince themselves that there is no harm in it. The truth is that if we are not careful, when it comes to God we try to manipulate Him into being what we want Him to be, and then persuade ourselves that it is so.

1 Samuel 28:10

And Saul swore to her by YHWH, saying, “As YHWH lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.” ’

Saul took the only step that he could think of in order to convince her. He swore ‘by YHWH’ that ‘as YHWH lived’ no punishment would come on her. At this point his foolishness is seen to have reached its greatest height, for this was a contradiction in terms. The truth was that if he thought that YHWH truly lived he should have been casting this woman from the land in accordance with the covenant Law. He should not have been consulting her. It once again emphasises his religious superficiality.

However, the strength of his oath was such that it convinced the woman. She recognised that such an oath was to be taken seriously and was clearly binding. To go against it would have been to make an attack on the very life of YHWH. And she knew that no one who was here on behalf of Saul, and intended her harm, would have made such an oath. The oath had made her inviolable.

1 Samuel 28:11

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up to you?” And he said, “Bring me up Samuel.” ’

So she asked the stranger who it was that he wanted to be called up, and Saul eagerly replied, ‘bring me up Samuel.’ This was not the give-away that it might seem to us because Samuel was famed as a giver of advice and it did not necessarily therefore mean that she was involved with Saul’s men.

1 Samuel 28:12

And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice, and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” ’

It was only when she actually saw Samuel that she became aware of the truth. This would most probably have been because some gesture of Samuel’s on rising made clear that he was aware that he was facing the king. Thus when she saw the gesture she knew that Saul must be the king because the gesture was one that would only have been made towards the king. That then was when she recognised that this stranger in front of her must be Saul. Turning to Saul in great distress she asked him bitterly why he had deceived her so utterly.

It should be noted that at this time she still did not realise that the figure who had come up was Samuel as her subsequent remarks make clear (‘I see an elohim -- an old man in a robe’). What must therefore have shaken her also, as well as her recognition of Saul, was that that this was not the usual image that she was used to seeing. This figure was unlike any that she had previously experienced, and was totally unexpected. This counts against any suggestion that she really could raise up genuine people.

1 Samuel 28:13

And the king said to her, “Do not afraid, for what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see an elohim (spirit, other world being) coming up out of the earth.” ’

Saul, however, told her not to be afraid and asked what she saw. It is clear from this that the figure was invisible to all but the woman. She then described the figure as ‘an elohim’ (or ‘one of the elohim’). While elohim is plural it is clear from what follows in 1 Samuel 28:14 that she was speaking of only one figure, and that Saul recognised that fact. Thus it would appear to have been a recognised term used for an individual spirit (‘one of the elohim’). The word ‘elohim’ is used of angels (‘sons of the elohim’) and of God (Elohim). It is also very occasionally used of those who represent God (Psalms 82:6; John 10:35). Here it clearly meant an ‘other world figure’, someone not of this world. And she describes him as ‘rising from the earth’. He was clearly not strictly physical, for Saul could not see him (and possibly never did) and his non-physical nature is confirmed by his rising from the earth. And yet the woman discerned his form and shape, and saw him as clothed. It is vain to speculate further.

(We may, of course, compare this with the visit of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-11), except that there they appeared in glory, and the appearing of angels in a similar way to the appearance here, which was visible to Elisha, and then to his servant, but clearly not visible to most human beings (2 Kings 6:17). It was not, of course, a strict resurrection of the dead. In this case it was a rather shadowy appearance arranged by God in order to rebuke Saul. All it tells us is that God can do what He will when He will).

1 Samuel 28:14

And he said to her, “Of what form is he?” And she said, “An old man comes up, and he is covered with a robe.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.’

Unable to see what the woman saw Saul asked her to describe it, and she replied, ‘an old man comes up and he is covered with a robe’. The word ‘robe’ indicated to Saul the prophet’s mantle, and he thus recognised that what she was seeing as a phantasm was the form of Samuel himself. It was invisible to Saul. We might possibly say that it was an appearance in the light of the woman’s heightened perceptibilities rather than a genuine presence.

But conscious that Samuel must be present Saul bowed his face to the ground and did obeisance. He was not used to dealing with other worldly figures, and was awe-stricken. All this was outside of his experience. And he wanted to win Samuel over.

1 Samuel 28:15

And Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disquieted me, to bring me up?” And Saul answered, “I am sore distressed, for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answers me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams, therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do.” ’

Samuel’s words that follow will now reveal that there was something genuine about the situation. It is clear that God had so arranged it in order that He could speak to Saul through Samuel, rather than through the woman’s familiar spirit. He wanted the lesson to come home.

Samuel’s first words were a word of rebuke. Samuel had been at peace. Why then had Saul disturbed him by bringing him up? It is one of the rare hints in the Old Testament that the truly godly who die are at peace.

Saul’s reply was that it was because he himself was not at peace. Indeed he was sore distressed, because the Philistines had arrived in massive force to make war ‘against him’. We immediately note the difference between Saul’s words here and those of David in 17:26, 36, 45. David had been offended because YHWH had been offended. Saul simply took it personally. It emphasises the difference in outlook of the two men.

Saul then explained that ‘God’ had departed from him. The use of God instead of YHWH illustrated the fact that Saul was far from YHWH. Possibly it also hinted at the fact that instead of Elohim he must make do with ‘one of the elohim’. And he then went on to point out that the result was that he could obtain no answer from Him, neither through prophets or dreams. Compare verse 6. He omitted mention of the Urim, but possibly he felt that to say that the Urim had also indicated ‘no answer’ was too damning against him. That then was why he had called on Samuel so that he could make known to him what he was to do. (Saul appears to have no sense of shame in having called on Samuel in this way. He was probably exultant that it had worked. It is a further indication of his religious shallowness in what was a very religious age).

1 Samuel 28:16

And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask of me, seeing YHWH is departed from you, and is become your adversary?”

Samuel pointed out that he had condemned himself out of his own mouth. If YHWH had departed from Saul and had become his adversary, how could he expect a faithful servant of YHWH to answer him? The idea was ludicrous.

1 Samuel 28:17-18

And YHWH has done to him, as he spoke by me, and YHWH has rent the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your compatriot, even to David, because you did not obey the voice of YHWH, and did not execute his fierce wrath on Amalek. Therefore has YHWH done this thing to you this day.”

What Saul should recognise was that this situation was the outcome of his earlier gross sacrilege when he had taken for himself what should have been devoted to YHWH. As the anointed of YHWH he had failed to obey YHWH in the most sacred of tasks. YHWH was thus simply doing what He had promised at that time through Samuel, He was tearing the kingship out of Saul’s hands and giving it to his compatriot David.

The words ‘to him’ are emphasising the connection with God as Saul’s adversary. It is as God’s adversary that Saul is rejected. (In other words, ‘And God has done to God’s adversary as He spoke by me’).

1 Samuel 28:19

Moreover YHWH will deliver Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow will you and your sons be with me. YHWH will deliver the host of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

Samuel then removed from him all hope. He had had every opportunity to repent and had never done so. Now YHWH was about to deliver Israel into the hands of the Philistines, and the result was that on the morrow both Saul and his soldier sons would be in the after-world with Samuel. The fact that the host of Israel would be delivered into the hands of the Philistines is emphasised twice. It signals that the matter was certain and that nothing could be done about it. Thus instead of receiving assistance, Saul had, by his unforgivable behaviour, simply brought on himself a message of doom that he could well have done without. The one positive aspect of it was that it did, at least theoretically, give him the opportunity to repent.

We may rightly ask why, if Saul was doomed, YHWH had allowed Samuel to come to declare to him his fate. Why had He not just allowed Saul a false assurance from the medium? There can really only be one answer. Saul was still being offered the opportunity of repentance. Had he truly repented, and had he thrown himself before YHWH in tears over his sins and pleaded for mercy he might yet have had a hearing (compare Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:0; Manasseh in 2 Chronicles 33:12-13). But he did not do so. And the reason was because his heart was too hardened. It is a reminder to us that if we would get right with God, and are aware of stirrings within us that lead in that direction, we would be advised not to delay, and especially not to wait until the day prior to our death, for then it might well be too late as it was with Saul.

Verses 20-25

Saul’s Response To What He Had Heard (1 Samuel 28:20-25 ).

Once Samuel had gone Saul’s response to his words are illuminating. It is clear that he had no thought of repentance or of calling on YHWH. Rather he was terrified as he considered the implications of what he had heard. We note again in this an indication of Saul’s surface religiosity. This is further emphasised by the fact that he had been fasting, no doubt in order to obtain some kind of divine help (compare 1 Samuel 14:24). He seemingly thought that thereby he could move the hand of YHWH. But the only actual ‘benefit’ that he obtained from it was that he was in no physical condition to withstand the shock. As Isaiah would declare later, there was no point in fasting unless the heart was right towards God (Isaiah 58:0). Thus Saul gained nothing and was left distraught.

Note that Saul’s growing fear is emphasised throughout the chapter. In 1 Samuel 28:5 he had been greatly afraid and his heart had trembled violently at the sight of the great host assembled against them. It was this naked terror that had driven him to do what he had done. Somehow as he had seen that host in front of his eyes he had probably known that it was the end. And now he was even more terrified, for his certain doom had been announced. And the result of that and the fasting was such that he physically collapsed.

And yet he still refused to eat. Perhaps it was because he clung tenaciously to the only exercise that he felt could bring him assistance in his hour of need, a desperate and superstitious attempt to manipulate YHWH, or perhaps it was because he knew that to accept the medium’s hospitality (thus declaring friendship) was to put him beyond the pale. He would be aligning himself with her. But whichever it was in the end he was persuaded to eat, and did so, probably because he came to the recognition that he could not go on unless he did so. He had reached the end of his tether.

Analysis.

a Then straight away Saul fell his full length on the earth, and was terrified (sore afraid), because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night (1 Samuel 28:20).

b And the woman came to Saul, and saw that he was very much troubled, and said to him, “Look, your handmaid has listened to your voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have listened to your words which you spoke to me. Now therefore, I pray you, you listen also to the voice of your handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before you, and eat, in order that you may have strength, when you go on your way” (1 Samuel 28:21-22).

c But he refused, and said, “I will not eat” (1 Samuel 28:23 a).

b But his servants, together with the woman, constrained him, and he listened to their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat on the bed, and the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she acted hurriedly, and killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it, and baked from it unleavened bread (1 Samuel 28:23-24).

a And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants, and they ate. Then they rose up, and went away in/into that night (1 Samuel 28:25).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul had not eaten and was terrified, and in the parallel he ate and went out into ‘that night’. In ‘b’ the woman offers him food, and seeks to constrain him to eat, and in the parallel he is constrained and does eat. Central in ‘c’ was his desire not to eat (and possibly break a vow).

1 Samuel 28:20

Then straight away Saul fell his full length on the earth, and was terrified (sore afraid), because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.’

This probably means that he fainted, and when he came to himself was filled with terror at the remembrance of what he had been told. We are then given the explanation for his fainting fit. It was because he had not been eating properly. He had eaten nothing since daybreak. From what we already know of Saul this was probably because he was hoping thereby to ensure victory (1 Samuel 14:28). He was one of those who were superstitious and never learned from experience.

1 Samuel 28:21

And the woman came to Saul, and saw that he was very much troubled, and said to him, “Look, your handmaid has listened to your voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have listened to your words which you spoke to me.”

Not surprisingly Saul was in great distress. The man whom he trusted more than any other had informed him ‘from the other side’ that the cause was already lost, and that there was no hope, at least in the short term. The hope of Israel, the one who might have made a difference, was far away (as this was the night before the battle he was possibly by this time back in Ziklag or chasing the Amalekites (1 Samuel 29-30)).

The woman of Endor was very concerned for him. She pointed out to him that she had listened to his words, and had trusted him, even putting her life in his hands (note the threefold emphasis). Now she appealed for him to do the same for her, to listen to her and act accordingly.

1 Samuel 28:22

Now therefore, I pray you, you listen also to the voice of your handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before you, and eat, in order that you may have strength, when you go on your way.”

Accordingly she begged him at least to listen to her and eat something to revive his failing strength. Soon he would be on his way, and if he was to make it back to his camp some miles away he must have something to eat. ‘Morsel of bread’ was a slight under-exaggeration. She intended to give him a substantial meal.

1 Samuel 28:23

But he refused, and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, constrained him, and he listened to their voice. So he arose from the earth, and sat on the bed.’

But Saul refused. He was an obstinate man and his religious inclinations which were based on false premises, were overriding his common sense. So he declared, “I will not eat.” Perhaps he also felt that to accept the hospitality of such a woman would put him in the wrong (such is the self-contradictory nature of human beings).

However, in the end, still lying faint on the floor, he did listen to the combined appeals of his men and of the woman, and agreed to eat. Then he picked himself up and sank onto the cushion-covered bench along the wall.

1 Samuel 28:24

And the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she acted hurriedly, and killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it, and baked from it unleavened bread.’

The woman then hurried out and fetched the fatted calf (a calf kept especially fattened up in case important guests came). Then she killed and cooked it, hurriedly made some unleavened bread (there was no time for leavening). It would be a hastily prepared meal but a substantial one, ‘fit for a king’. The later Bedouin in fact regularly cooked meat immediately after killing an animal, and prepared fresh bread for each meal. It was not therefore something unusual.

1 Samuel 28:25

And she brought it before Saul, and before his servants, and they ate. Then they rose up, and went away in/into that night.’

Then she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they all ate. Considerably strengthened they then went away ‘into that night’. They had come by night and they went out into the night. All was darkness. It was symbolic of their state of heart, and of what was to happen. It was the darkness before a dawn which would have such devastating consequences for Saul and for Israel. And it was symbolic of Saul’s life. Having refused the bread of YHWH he partook of the bread of darkness. By this time he had nowhere else to turn.

This whole incident is given in some detail because in the writer’s mind it summarised Saul’s life and superficiality. He looked for quick fixes without commitment. He was religiously orthodox as regards the externals, until it suited him to be otherwise, but he lacked heart. And he used his religion as a tool in order to obtain favour. However, once his heart was put to the test he failed. He was spiritually shallow. Unlike David he had no real conception of ‘the fear of God’.

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Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/1-samuel-28.html. 2013.