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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 28

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-25


1 Samuel 28:1. “Know thou assuredly.” Some expositors regard these words of Achish as designed to try David: others think they express the entire confidence which the king placed in him.

1 Samuel 28:2. “Surely thou shalt know,” or Assuredly, or Therefore thou shalt know. Evidently David found himself in a dilemma and gives an ambiguous answer. “Keeper of mine head,” i.e., “captain of my body-guard—an office of great trust and high honour.” (Jamieson.) The narrative here breaks off and is continued in chapter 29, the historian meanwhile turning aside to relate the effect which this Philistine invasion had upon Saul.

1 Samuel 28:3. “Saul had put away,” i.e., long before the event about to be recorded. He had expelled them from his kingdom, but the Levitical law was, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27.) The strong deuunciations uttered by God against these people seem to afford a strong proof that they were not simply deceivers of the people, but were really in direct and close communication with the spirits of evil.

1 Samuel 28:4. “Shunem.” Now called Solam or Sulem, a village situated on the southern declivity of the so-called Little Hermon, which forms the northern boundary of the valley of Jezreel. “Gilboa,” a mountain range on the opposite side of the valley. “The Philistines clung as usual to the plain, which was most suitable for those war chariots of which their military armament principally consisted, and they took up an advantageous position for the free and effective use of that force in action. That of the Hebrews was badly selected.” (Jamieson.) “The ground slopes down gradually from Shunem to the very base of Gilboa at the fountain, while the hillside rises steeply from the plain. The Philistine had all the advantage of the gentle descent in their attack—both front and flank of the Israelites were exposed to their onset, and the prospect of flight almost completely cut off by the steep hill behind.” (Porter.)

1 Samuel 28:6. “Neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.” “In the order of arrangements of these three vehicles of revelation there is a progression from the less to the greater, since in the Old Testament a subordinate position is certainly assigned to the dream as the medium of Divine influence on the inner life, which in sleep loses the power of self-manifestation, and sinks into a state of the extremest passivity. Urim is the abbreviation of Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30; Numbers 27:21), which, as the high-priestly medium, of inquiring the Divine will, stands between the revealing dreams and the prophetic testimony. But since the murder of the priests in Nob, the external apparatus, the Ephod with the [Urim and Thummim had been in David’s camp (see 1 Samuel 22:20; 1 Samuel 23:6; 1 Samuel 30:7), and nothing is anywhere said of another high priest than Abiathar, who had fled to David. Thenius thence concludes that this section contradicts the narrative of chap. 23 … but after the catastrophe at Nob, Saul may well have had a new Ephod with Urim and Thummim prepared (Keil), and this is the more natural from Saul’s independent mode of procedure in matters of religious service, and the probability that in his heated theocratic zeal he did not suffer the public service at the tabernacle to cease after the murder of the priests.… Intercourse between Saul and the prophets had doubtless been broken off since the beginning of Saul’s persecution of David (chap. 19), while it continued between David and the prophets so far as circumstances permitted (1 Samuel 22:5 sq.) But in his anxiety and despair Saul had now again turned to them for aid. Proof that application was made to prophets not only in great theocratical matters, but also in personal affairs, is found in chaps. 1 Samuel 9:6 sq.; 1 Kings 14:1 sq.; 2 Kings 1:3.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 28:7. “A woman that hath,” etc.; literally “a woman, a mistress of Ob,i.e., of “a spirit by which the dead are conjured up.” (Erdmann.) “Ob signifies properly a leathern bottle, and is applied in several passages of Scripture to magicians, because, being possessed by an evil spirit, and swollen by inhalation of some gaseous substance, which made them pant and heave, they spoke with a soft hollow voice, as out of a leathern bottle.” (Jamieson.) “Endor.” On the northern declivity of Little Hermon, so that the Philistine camp lay between it and Gilboa. Dr. Thomson remarks, “Poor Saul! It was a fearful ride that dark night.… He probably kept to the east of Jezreel, crossed the valley below Ain Jalûh, and thence over the shoulder of this Jebel-ed-Dûhy (Little Hermon) to Endor, but it must have been perilous in the extreme, and nothing could have induced Saul to venture thither but the agony of despair.”

1 Samuel 28:11-19. Biblical students take three different views of the event here narrated. Some regard the whole as a mere deception; others think that Samuel really appeared, while many believe that an evil spirit was permitted by God to assume the appearance of the prophet. We accept the latter view, but subjoin the arguments used in favour of the other two. Dr. Chandler says: “The more thoroughly I consider it, the more thoroughly I am convinced that there was no appearance of any kind of spirit, or phantom, at all, and that Samuel was not consulted nor gave any answers … indeed, there are so many marks of imposture and deceit, that may be observed throughout the entire relation, as that I have no doubt but that this conference was entirely carried on by Saul and the old witch, without the help of any spirit whatever.… This affair was transacted by night, the time most proper to manage deceptions of this kind—when persons are most liable to be impressed by fear and imposed on by their own imaginations.… Also, even Samuel himself doth not seem to have known anything of God’s raising him from the dead, for he saith nothing about it … but expressly blames Saul for disturbing him and bringing him up.… If he had known that God had brought him up, he would not have complained of being disquieted by Saul. Now as Samuel knew, as well as Saul, that consulting the dead was absolutely unlawful, surely it became the prophet to reprove him for doing it, and to let him know that, though he appeared, it was not by virtue of her art, but by the immediate power of God.… Instead of this, he shows himself displeased with Saul for doing it, and thereby excludes God from having any hand in it.” Dr. Chandler further points out that no third person was apparently present at the interview between Saul and the woman, and that Saul himself saw nothing, and only concluded that it was the prophet from the description given by the woman, who had no doubt been acquainted with Samuel’s appearance during his life. He argues that she must have known who her visitor was before she consented to employ her incantations, and that she merely concealed her knowledge for a time in order that she might appear to have gained it from Samuel; also, that there was nothing in her reply to Saul that his own account of himself would not have suggested. Notwithstanding these and other objections, many modern expositors agree with Jewish commentators, and with Origen, Ambrose, and others, in supposing that Samuel did really appear to Saul “This view,” says Dr. Hengstenberg, “is in harmony with the narrative. For

(1) the author says, in 1 Samuel 28:14, that Saul perceived, not fancied, it was Samuel.

(2.) The words which are put into the mouth of the apparition are fully worthy of Samuel, and quite unsuitable for an evil spirit.
(3.) The appearing one foretells things which no human acuteness could have foreseen.” Archbishop Trench, and others, in adopting this view, consider the appearance of Samuel in answer to enchantments as a fulfilment of the threat afterwards uttered, “Everyone of the house of Israel which separateth himself from Me, and setteth up his idols in his heart, and putteth the stumbling-block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to a prophet to enquire of him concerning Me, I the Lord will answer him, by Myself.” (Ezekiel 14:7.) But notwithstanding the considerations which seem to favour this view, we agree with Luther, Grotius, and other theologians of the Reformation, in believing that it was Satan himself, or one of his agents, who appeared to the woman and spoke to Saul. For, as Dr. Erdmann remarks (though in support of a different opinion), “it is expressly said in 1 Samuel 28:6 that God answered Saul no more, and that for this reason, he turned from God to a sorccress. An immediate Divine miracle is assumed, which is to be brought into union with the anti-godly attempt of the sorceress and an open act of godlessness or God-forgetfulness on the part of Saul. Support would thus be given to the superstitious opinion that departed spirits may be summoned, while the fundamental view of the Old Testament everywhere is that a return of the dead to the land of the living is not possible.” He further remarks that such an appearance—if God had really been willing to permit it—could no longer have had any religious ethical end, seeing that the means for rousing Saul to repentance were exhausted, nor any theocratic end, seeing that Saul’s rejection as king had already been repeatedly announced. On the other hand there can be no doubt of the intimate connection between witchcraft or sorcery and the spirits of evil. The stern denunciations of God against it prove that it was not a fancy but a fact. The damsel who brought her masters much gain by soothsaying, mentioned in Acts 16:16, is said to have been possessed by an evil spirit, and miraculous deeds of a certain kind are, in the Bible, attributed to such servants of Satan, as in the case of the Egyptians (Exodus 7:11-22. In the New Testament it is said that “Satan fashioneth himself into an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), and his working is declared to be “with all power and signs and lying wonders” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). The reproof given to Saul is no argument against the speaker being an evil spirit; we know the Devil can quote the Word of God to serve his purpose (Matthew 4:6), and he only did to Saul what many a wicked man has done to a fellow-creature whom he has tempted and brought to ruin—taunted him with the fruit of his evil deeds. Neither to our mind does the fact that the Scripture narrative says Samuel spoke affect the argument, as Old Testament writers often simply describe things as they appear to be.

1 Samuel 28:23. “The bed.” Rather the divan—a cushioned bench, extending along the wall of the room still found in the East.

1 Samuel 28:24. “She hasted,” etc. “The cookery was performed with singular despatch.… But this was not uncommon (see Genesis 18:7-8; Judges 13:1; Luke 15:27-29), and is still practised in the tents of the Bedouins. A sheep or calf is brought and killed in the presence of the guests, and then, having been thrust into a large cauldron swung over the fire, the contents are taken out and placed on an immense tray, and served up amid a mass of roasted corn, boiled rice, and curdled or sour milk.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 28:1-2 will be considered with the next chapter.



I. The day of grace has its limits. It is a day. Our Lord spoke to the people of Jerusalem of a day, or a season, of God-given opportunity, which when He addressed them was gone to return no more (Luke 19:42). When the rich man “Lifted up his eyesand said, Father Abraham, have mercy upon me,” the answer that came back to him was: “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed” (Luke 16:22-26). And some men by constant rejection of Divine commands and invitations create such a gulf on this side of death—a gulf only to be filled up by true repentance, for which, alas! they have no inclination.

“Try what repentance can; what can it not?
Yet what can it when one cannot repent?”

Saul was a man to whom God had given a grand opportunity to lead a noble and blessed life, by raising him to a high social position and endowing him with special gifts to discharge its duties; but he had now outlived the day of God’s gracious favour, and is an illustration of that most terrible of Divine threatenings: “Because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh” etc. (Proverbs 1:24-28).

II. If men refuse the light of God’s truth they will be given over to the darkness of spiritual delusion. The word of God and human history unite in declaring that he who does not become God’s free servant will, in some form, be enslaved by Satan. Saul had long ago, by disobedience to God, laid himself open to such a dominion of the evil one as showed itself in his malice towards David, and now, in inspired language, his “deceived heart hath so turned him aside that he cannot deliver his soul nor say. Is there not a lie in my right hand” (Isaiah 44:20), and he seeks counsel and comfort through the instrumentality of a witch. Those who rejected the Incarnate Son of God, and the truth taught by His apostles, became an easy prey to the false messiahs and prophets who followed (Matthew 24:24; 1 John 4:1), and Paul tells us that God would send to those who believed not the truth “strong delusion, that they should believe a lie” (2 Thessalonians 2:11). This has been the portion of the rejectors of God’s revealed will, both in ancient and modern times. If Saul had taken heed to the “Word of the Lord spoken by Samuel” when the prophet was alive, he would not have desired or thought it possible to speak to him now by means which God had declared to be “an abomination,” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) and those who in modern times are willing to walk by the light of the same word spoken in “these last days by the Son of God” (Hebrews 1:1.) do not feel any wish or need to receive instruction or consolation by means of spirit-rapping, and so become the dupes either of false men or lying spirits. To all such the message of God is “Behold all ye that kindle a fire, that compass yourselves about with sparks; walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of mine hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow. (Isaiah 50:11.)


1 Samuel 28:3-5. Even the worst men may sometimes make head against some sins. Saul hath expelled the sorcerers out of the land of Israel, and hath forbidden magic upon pain of death. He that had no care to expel Satan out of his own heart, yet will seem to drive him out of his kingdom. That we see wicked men oppose themselves to some sins, there is neither marvel nor comfort in it. No doubt Satan made sport at this edict of Saul: what cares he to be banished in sorcery, while he is entertained in malice? He knew and found Saul his, while he resisted; and smiled to yield thus far unto his vassal. If we quit not all sins, he will be content we should either abandon or persecute some.

Where there is no place for holy fear, there will be place for the servile. The graceless heart of Saul was astonished at the Philistines, yet was never moved at the frowns of that God whose anger sent them, nor of those sins of his which procured them.—Bp. Hall.

1 Samuel 28:7. This consulting with the witch of Endor on the part of Israel’s anointed king was probably as nearly the sin against the Holy Ghost as it was possible for one under the old covenant, and before the Day of Pentecost, to commit.—Trench.

1 Samuel 28:14. And he stooped with his face to the ground. This is what the devil aimed at; and it is well observed that every one that consulteth with Satan worshippeth him, though he bow not. Neither doth that evil spirit desire any other reverence than to be sought unto.—Trapp.

1 Samuel 28:16-19. I could wonder to hear Satan preach thus prophetically if I did not know that as he was once a good angel, so he can still act what he was. While Saul was in consultation of sparing Agag, we shall never find that Satan would lay any block in his way—yea, then he was a prompt orator to induce him into that sin; now that it is past and gone he can lade Saul with fearful denunciations of judgment. Till we have sinned, Satan is a parasite; when we have sinned, he is a tyrant. What cares he to flatter any more when he hath what he would? Now, his only work is to terrify and confound, that he may enjoy what he hath won. How much better it is serving that Master, who, when we are most dejected with the conscience of evil, heartens us with inward comfort, and speaks peace to the soul in the midst of tumult!—Bp. Hall.

Shall thou and thy sons be with me; i.e. in the state of the dead. Hereby also this old deceiver would persuade Saul that the souls of all men, as well good as bad, go to the same place; seeking thereby to blot out of him all knowledge and apprehension of eternal life.—Trapp.

It is a grievous miscalculation which men make, when, conscious that life is passing on in the neglect of God and duty, they reckon within themselves a certain power which they imagine the approach of death will have to awaken their attention to religious duties, and to bring with it a disposition to attend to religious duties.… There is in such immediate prospects no necessary power to move the heart.… Did Saul’s approaching end awaken his conscience or soften his heart?—Miller.

1 Samuel 28:7-20. All human art has failed to portray, all human history has failed to record, a despair deeper and more tragic than his, who, having forsaken God and being of God forsaken, is now seeking to move hell since heaven is inexorable to him; and infinitely guilty as he is, assuredly there is something unutterably pathetic in that yearning of the disanointed king, now in his utter desolation, to change words once more with the friend and counsellor of his youth, and, if he must hear his doom, to hear it from no other lips but his.… I know not whether the world has anything to show at all so mournful as the spectacle which we have here: namely, the gradual breaking down under the wear and tear of the world, under the influence of unresisted temptations, of a lofty soul … Yet as many among us as are old enough to have been able to watch the development of lives, can hardly have failed to note on the one side some who, giving little promise at the commencement of their career, have yet afterwards risen into clearness of purpose and dignity of aim … while others of much rarer and ampler gifts … have contracted their aims and lowered their standard … What is the explanation … of the Jacobs, who, with many and most serious faults, are yet elevated and exalted into Israel princes with God; and of the Esaus; who, not without a certain native generosity, separate themselves off in the end from all which is highest, and truest, and best? The explanation is not far to seek.… Jacob, with all his faults … had yet a side on which he was turned towards God … which was exactly what Esau had not. Dwell a little, I beseech you on that word … a profane person.… (Hebrews 12:16)—one that is, without a fane, without a sanctuary in his soul; for whom all things were common, common as the outer court of some temple, which, unfenced and unguarded, is trodden and trampled on by the careless foot of every passer by.… Take, I beseech you, the lesson which the Sauls and Esaus have bequeathed us. Build on no good thing which you find in yourselves.… There is only one pledge for the permanence of any good thing that is in you—namely, that you bring it to God, and that you receive it back from God, with that higher consecration that He can give it: not now any more a virtue of this world, but a grace of the kingdom of heaven. Trench.

1 Samuel 28:21-25. Even in a sorceress, with all her deceptions and delusions, her wild and dreadful life, the true woman comes out at the mute appeal of misery. How kindly persuasive her words; how prompt her hospitable labours. We take leave of her, as she took leave of the ruined king, with a pitying heart.—Translator of Lange’s Commentary.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-28.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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