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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 28

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1


1. The Philistines gathered their armies These inveterate enemies of Israel had hitherto been unable to regain the dominion which they lost in the time of Samuel’s rule, (see note on 1 Samuel 7:13,) though they made repeated efforts to do so all the days of Saul. Now, however, they are about to enjoy a momentary triumph.

Thou shall go out with me to battle This demand was placing David and his men in a difficult position, for how could they take up arms against their own nation and kindred?

Verse 2

2. Surely thou shalt know what thy servant can do This was an ambiguous reply, and capable of being construed for or against Achish. The king, however, understood it in a favourable sense.

Keeper of mine head Guard of my person; chief of my life-guards. How David was providentially delivered from his difficult position we learn in chap. 29.

Verse 3

3. Samuel was dead This fact had been already recorded, (1 Samuel 25:1,) but is repeated here for the purpose of introducing the narrative that follows.

Saul had put away Of this act of Saul’s reign we have no record elsewhere, but it was probably done soon after he received the kingdom, and by the advice of Samuel. It was required by the law. Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27.

Familiar spirits The primary sense of the Hebrew word אוב is a skin bottle. Compare Job 32:19. Furst defines the word as “the hollow belly of conjurers, in which the conjuring spirit resides, and speaks hollow, as if out of the earth.” Persons of this craft were supposed to possess a divinity or spirit within them by which they were enabled to hold intercourse with the realm of the dead. The Septuagint renders the word by εγγαστριμυθος , a ventriloquist; in reference, probably, to the manner in which some of these conjurers uttered their responses.

Wizards See on Deuteronomy 18:10-12.

Verses 3-25


Saul’s interview with the witch of Endor has ever been regarded as a subject beset with peculiar difficulties, and variously has it been explained.

Justin Martyr and Origen held that by the incantations of the witch the spirit of Samuel actually appeared and conversed with Saul. Modern spiritism also affirms that the witch was a medium through whom the king of Israel received communications from the spirit of Samuel. But the majority of the older expositors, and some few moderns, believing it absurd for a holy prophet to be raised from the dead by the arts of witchcraft, regard the supposed apparition of Samuel as Satan personating that prophet. This opinion, however, has not been generally received by later commentators; and the present prevailing opinion seems to be, that not by the arts of the witch, but contrary to her expectations, and by the express permission and command of God, the deceased Samuel actually appeared and spoke to Saul.

It is usually assumed that the expressions, “The woman saw Samuel,” 1 Samuel 28:12; “Saul perceived that it was Samuel,” 1 Samuel 28:14; “Samuel said to Saul,” 1 Samuel 28:15-16; “the words of Samuel,” 1 Samuel 28:20 necessarily imply the actual presence of the deceased prophet. And this conclusion cannot well be avoided if we take this narrative of Saul’s interview with the witch to be an actual communication of the Holy Spirit to the writer of the books of Samuel. But was it thus divinely communicated to the sacred writer? or is it the report of the two men (1 Samuel 28:8) who accompanied Saul to Endor? Inasmuch as the greater portion of these books is a compilation from pre-existing documents often the reports of eye-witnesses of the events recorded, (see Introduction,) we are perfectly safe in taking the ground that this narrative originated with those who were eye and ear witnesses of the interview, and who reported the matter just as it appeared to them. Perhaps one of them was the king’s scribe. See note on 2 Samuel 8:17. It is, therefore, a most natural supposition that Saul and his two attendants believed that the witch had really brought up Samuel from the dead, and, so believing, they would naturally report the matter just as it is here recorded. Hence such expressions as “Samuel said to Saul,” may be legitimately explained in this case as the manner in which the witnesses understood and reported what they heard. See, further, the notes on 1 Samuel 28:14-15.

We are driven to this view of the subject by the insuperable difficulties that attend the belief that Samuel actually appeared. Admitting this belief, we are forced to admit, also, not only that he was at least apparently brought up by the instrumentality of the witch, but also, according to 1 Samuel 28:15, that he was disturbed, and forced up against his will. For, assuming the real appearance of the prophet, it is idle to say, as some do, that the witch did not bring Samuel up, but that he appeared, to her great surprise and terror, before she had yet resorted to her incantations. 1 Samuel 28:11-12 most clearly imply that she was instrumental in causing Samuel to appear, and the alarm of the witch, as her own words show, (1 Samuel 28:12,) was not at suddenly seeing the prophet, but at recognising Saul. Here, then, appears an insuperable difficulty we might well say, an utter absurdity to suppose that after Jehovah had refused to answer Saul by urim, by prophets, and by dreams, and had also, in his law, denounced the heaviest punishments against all forms of witchcraft, and had forbidden all resort to such as had familiar spirits, he would yet send Samuel from heaven to communicate with Saul through the agency of a miserable witch!

Another difficulty is the character of the communication which is pretended to come from Samuel. It contains nothing worth sending a sainted prophet from heaven to tell; nothing which the witch might not, under the circumstances, have naturally and easily devised to awe and terrify the king. Its language, too, savours more of the spirit of witchcraft than of the spirit of divine revelation. See notes on vers. 15 to 19.

The manner of Samuel’s appearance is also of a strange and suspicious character. He comes up out of the earth, not as one from heaven; he bears the marks of decrepitude and age, and apparently wears the cast-off garments of his earthly life. All this agrees well enough with the superstitions of ancient necromancy, but is hardly in keeping with that lofty conception of the glorious appearing of a sainted spirit which other parts of the Scriptures suggest. How different from Moses and Elijah, who appeared “in glory!” Luke 9:31. This is the more noticeable when we observe that the witch is the only one who sees Samuel. She alone sees the gods ascending; she alone sees the old man with the mantle; and it is not until after she tells her pretended vision that Saul understands and is convinced that it is Samuel. See note on 1 Samuel 28:14. So, then, Saul did not see Samuel; he only heard, as he supposed, the words of the angry prophet.

In view of all these difficulties we feel obliged to reject that interpretation which assumes an actual appearance of Samuel.

There are two other methods of explaining this subject, either of which is beset with fewer difficulties. According to one theory the witch of Endor had known Samuel in life, had often seen him, and had heard some of his oracles. His venerable form and mantle were familiar to all Israel. His last words to Saul, predicting the ruin of his house and the transfer of the kingdom to David, were also known throughout the land, and would be particularly remembered by one who was devoted to the arts of divination. The witch, also, knew Saul, and had reason to believe that the hour of his ruin was at hand, for the field of his last battle was near her home, and she may have known the position, plans, and prospects of both armies. She not only recognised the king as soon as he came into her presence, but at a glance discerned the anxiety of his soul, and the real object of his coming; and all her words and actions on the occasion were in perfect keeping with the arts of witchcraft, and designed to awe and overwhelm him.

It is impossible successfully to controvert the above suppositions, for they are not only possible but probable; and if any one has doubts of the ability of a professional witch to apprehend a person’s thoughts and feelings, and utter some surprising oracles, he will do well to ponder the following observations of a distinguished medical writer:

“A person of close observation and great shrewdness can acquire a degree of skill in furnishing communications purporting to be spiritual, which can hardly be appreciated by one who has not given much thought to the subject. This is a kind of acquirement not sought for, except by those who mean to use it for deception, and therefore by most persons is but little understood. Let an individual of proper capacity make it a business to study the significance of every slight movement, intonation of voice, and expression of countenance, as criteria of concealed thoughts, and let this pursuit be prosecuted for years, under the incentives afforded by the love of gain or applause, or the fear of detection, and the tact thus acquired will be likely to develop results that appear almost incredible.” Dr. Austin Flint, (in Quart. Jour. of Psychological Medicine, July, 1869.)

There is another, and, to our mind, more complete exposition of this subject, which we present in these notes. It assumes that the woman of Endor was a superior clairvoyant. All the parts of the narrative are so happily explained on this hypothesis as to evidence its probable correctness and worth. Careful and continued investigations in clairvoyance have, within the last century, shed much light on the mysteries of magic. We know that men have charmed serpents and serpents have charmed men. Man, too, can charm man; and it has been shown beyond successful contradiction that, in accordance with certain occult laws of our being, one person can so fascinate another, and place himself in such sympathetic rapport with his soul, as to become sensible of what he feels or imagines. This power, however, exists in different persons in different degrees. Some persons it seems impossible to mesmerize at all, while others are highly susceptible to mesmeric operations, and are easily thrown into a clairvoyant state. Others, again, have the unusual power of spontaneously inducing upon themselves the clairvoyant state, and, by coming into contact or association with the soul of another, the superior clairvoyant becomes cognizant of the feelings and emotions of that soul. By the power of an inner vision he appears to see in that soul the thoughts and impressions that are deeply fixed in the imagination or the memory.

We assume, then, that the witch of Endor was a clairvoyant who could spontaneously place herself in mesmeric intercourse with the souls of those who came to inquire of her; and that with this power she united the practice of lying and deceit as she found occasion to serve her own dark purposes. We hope to show, by fair and worthy criticism, that upon this hypothesis the narrative before us is capable of a happy and consistent interpretation, and is relieved of the difficulties which attend the assumption of the actual appearance of Samuel.

Verse 4

4. Shunem The modern Solam, on the southwestern declivity of Jebel Duhy, (Little Hermon,) and on the eastern border of the great Plain of Esdraelon. Joshua 19:18.

Gilboa On the mountains of this name, which lie just south of Shunem. From these heights Saul could have seen the assembling hosts of the Philistines. Here Gideon and his host once encamped. Judges 7:1.

Verse 5

5. He was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled He was a skilful and far-sighted general, and he felt that the Philistines had every probability of victory. He was also probably deeply affected with the feeling that Jehovah had forsaken him. Jehovah’s Spirit came not now mightily upon him as in former years; no cunning player on the harp was with him to charm away the evil spirit.

Verse 6

6. The Lord answered him not Which showed that the divine anger was against him.

By dreams This may mean that he had prayed God to give him some significant dream, but no such dream had been granted him; or it may refer to the prophets, who neither by vision nor by dream (Numbers 12:6) had recently received any communication for Saul.

By urim On the breastplate of the high priest. See Exodus 28:30. But what high priest did Saul resort to after the murder of Ahimelech? Most probably another had been immediately appointed by Saul, and a new ephod had been made for him. It is in no way likely that Saul sent away to David’s camp to inquire by the priest Abiathar.

By prophets Some of the most distinguished of Samuel’s school, whom Saul had with him in the camp.

Verse 7

7. Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit He finds that God has utterly forsaken him, and with full purpose and that impulsive rashness which was ever his easily besetting sin, he rushes into still greater evil. Swept down by the raging cataract of accumulating woes, he still, like a drowning man, grasps at a straw. What wonder that God allowed him to be imposed upon by the arts of necromancy!

Endor This place lay about three miles south of mount Tabor, and about seven northeast of Shunem, so that to reach it from the heights of Gilboa, Saul and his two men must have partly compassed the Philistine encampment. They probably passed down the northeastern slope of Gilboa to the valley of the modern Jalud, and thence northward, along the eastern slope of the Little Hermon. See note on 1 Samuel 28:25. The village is overhung by a mountain declivity which is full of caverns, and it is probable that in one of these the witch concealed herself.

Verse 8

8. Disguised himself So as not to be recognised by the woman.

By night The only time when it would be at all safe for him to venture so far in the rear of his enemy, and perhaps the only time when he could go at all, for the morrow might require his presence with his army, and the battle might drive him far from Endor.

Divine unto me Saul made known his errand in language such as any one who inquired of a necromancer would naturally use.

Verse 9

9. Wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life We have seen (note introductory to 1 Samuel 28:3) that according to some interpreters the witch knew Saul as soon as he came into her presence, and her words to him are but a device to deceive him and secure herself. The possibility of this cannot be denied. She might have recognised his stately form though in disguise, or possibly some secret sympathizer with her craft might have advised her of the king’s approach. But it is more in harmony with the narrative to understand that she knew him not until she entered the clairvoyant state. Her words in this verse virtually charge Saul with a purpose of convicting her of sorcery that he might bring her to capital punishment.

Verse 11

11. Whom shall I bring up She assumes to be, and the whole narrative implies that she was, the instrument and medium of all the spiritual phenomena and communications of the occasion.

Verse 12

12. When the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice As soon as he said whom he wished to consult, she proceeded, by her peculiar arts, to place herself in a clairvoyant state, and as soon as she came in sensational rapport with Saul’s soul, she saw imaged there the venerable form of the mantled Samuel. She saw him just as he appeared to Saul the last time, and just as his stern and threatening form had haunted that monarch’s soul for years. But Saul and his two men supposed and reported that she saw Samuel actually arise. She discerned, also, the many harrowing fears of defeat that took shape and form in Saul’s imagination, and thus became aware that her consulter was no less a person than the king of Israel. Excessively alarmed at her discovery, she came suddenly out of her clairvoyant state, and said to Saul, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul. Observe that her alarm is not at the sight of Samuel, but at finding that the very monarch of Israel who had put away all wizards out of the land (see 1 Samuel 28:3) had himself detected her in her sorceries. Those interpreters who affirm that Samuel really appeared, and frightened the witch by his unexpected coming, are at a loss to tell how she learned so soon that her guest was Saul. Some say she inferred it from the venerable appearance of Samuel; but how this should be when Saul had asked her to bring up Samuel, does not appear. Others say she learned it from something that Samuel said; but as yet Samuel had not spoken. Keil well says, though he teaches that Samuel actually appeared: “Her recognition of Saul may be easily explained if we assume that the woman had fallen into a clairvoyant state, in which she recognised persons who, like Saul in his disguise, were unknown to her by face.”

Verse 13

13. Be not afraid: for what sawest thou She probably, at first, after returning from her clairvoyant state, refused, in her fear, to hold any more intercourse with the king; but after he had allayed her fears, perhaps by further oaths, (compare 1 Samuel 28:10,) she answered:

I saw gods ascending out of the earth Neither the sacred historian nor his interpreter is responsible for the truth or falsehood of these words of the witch. But whatsoever of truth they may contain, we regard them as a part of those devices by which she sought to awe, and impose upon, both Saul and his servants. She probably alluded to the ghostly pictures which she saw passing, like so many shadows, over his excited imagination. What she saw in that one vision of Saul’s soul was a sufficient basis for her to devise and utter the responses that follow.

Verse 14

14. What form is he of He uses the singular, תארו , his form, though the witch had spoken in the plural of gods. But having seen the image of the mantled prophet in his soul, she proceeds to describe it just as it was pictured there.

An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle Saul vividly remembered Samuel in connexion with that mantle the skirt of which he had laid hold of and rent at Gilgal, when the prophet uttered against him the last bitter oracle of judgment, (1 Samuel 15:27;) and a clairvoyant might see his mantled form just as it was imaged in the soul of Saul.

Saul perceived that it was Samuel Observe, it is not said that he saw Samuel. He formed his opinion from the woman’s words. She described the form of Samuel just as he appeared in the memory of Saul an old man wearing a mantle; and from this description, not from actual sight, he knew or understood ( ידע ; Septuagint, εγνω ; Vulgate, intellexit) that it was Samuel. There is no evidence in the whole passage that Samuel was seen by any one except the witch.

He stooped Made obeisance, for he believed that Samuel was there.

Verse 15

15. Samuel said to Saul Did, then, Samuel actually speak? We understand that as the witch did all the seeing for Saul, so also she did all the speaking to him. She was the medium both of sight and sound. The Septuagint version calls her a ventriloquist; and she may have caused her voice to sound from some dark corner, so that Saul and his attendants believed it to be the voice of Samuel. But it is not necessary to suppose this. Any one who sought unto the dead in this way, even though he saw and heard the necromancer utter the words with her own lips, if he believed that the communication came from the person sought, would naturally speak of it in this way. So when Saul’s servants afterwards reported this affair, they would naturally say, “Samuel said to Saul,” not “the woman said;” for though they may have known that the woman was the medium of the sound, they doubtless believed that the communication itself came from Samuel.

It should here be observed how perfectly noncommittal the sacred historian is in recording this mysterious transaction. He records the whole matter precisely as it was reported by the two eye-witnesses, and these witnesses reported it precisely as it appeared to them. They believed that Samuel had spoken to their king; but the sacred historian expresses no opinion in the case. He may have believed their report, as they did, but he does not say so. And it is noticeable that none of the sacred writers commit themselves to any explanation of the mysteries which they record. The magicians of Egypt are represented as working actual miracles in opposition to Moses; but no attempt is made to explain the nature of those miracles. So here the sacred writer records a mysterious event just as it was currently reported and believed, but attempts no explanation.

Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up This utterance is unworthy of a holy prophet sent on a mission of God from heaven. He charges Saul with forcing him up from the grave against his will. The common interpretation affirms that Samuel rose from the dead by special permission and express command of God; but how absurd, in the light of Christian truth, to imagine the sainted Samuel coming thus from the world of spirits, and angrily complaining to Saul that he had disturbed him! Can it be aught but a pleasure for any of the saints in light to obey Jehovah’s orders? Or, if the order involve a painful duty, would it not be rebellion for the servant to complain? The words are rationally explicable only when regarded as a device of the witch to awe and terrify the soul of the king. They strongly savour of witchcraft.

Verse 16

16. Wherefore then dost thou ask of me It required no prophet from heaven to suggest this question to the God-forsaken king, and if we regard it as any thing more than another device of the woman to increase Saul’s terror and impose upon him, we involve ourselves in the absurdity of supposing that after Jehovah had in his law condemned all seeking unto necromancers, and after he had refused to answer the king by urim and by prophets, he nevertheless disturbed a holy prophet from his rest in heaven, and suffered him to rise from the dead, apparently as if forced up against his will by the arts of witchcraft!

Verse 17

17. The Lord hath done to him Rather, for himself, as in the margin; that is, for the accomplishment of his own purposes. The Septuagint and Vulgate have thought to correct the text by reading to thee, instead of to him.

As he spake by me See 1 Samuel 15:18; 1Sa 15:26 ; 1 Samuel 15:28. These words, let it be noticed, were the last oracles Samuel uttered in Saul’s hearing, (compare 1 Samuel 15:35,) and they seem to have been ringing in his ears ever since that last solemn meeting with the prophet. What sufficient reason can be given for Samuel’s coming from the bosom of Abraham to repeat these words to Saul, who already had them deeply imprinted on his memory? If Lazarus could not revisit the world to warn the living of their danger because they had Moses and the prophets, (Luke 16:31,) still less can we suppose that a sainted prophet would be permitted to return and repeat to an incorrigible transgressor the very words of his earthly ministry.

Verse 19

19. The Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to-morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me To take these words as a revelation from Samuel involves the evangelical interpreter in the dilemma expressed by Charles Wesley:

What do these solemn words portend?

A ray of hope when life shall end.

“Thou and thy sons, though slain, shall be

To-morrow in repose with me.”

Not in a state of hellish pain,

If Saul with Samuel do remain;

Not in a state of dark despair,

If loving Jonathan be there.

But if Saul, Samuel, and the “loving Jonathan” find after death the same abode, what matters it that “Saul died for his transgressions,” and especially for the crime of inquiring of a necromancer? See 1 Chronicles 10:13. Universalism may then well comfort the incorrigible sinner, and assure him of immediate “repose” after death with the saints in light!! Such theology may do for the witch of Endor, but not for the holy Samuel. Beholding Saul’s despair and terror, the witch knew that the Philistines had every probability of victory in the approaching battle, and that warriors like Saul and his sons would not be likely to survive defeat. We have, therefore, no evidence of a supernatural communication here. It ought to be noted that there is no evidence outside of this verse that the disastrous battle of Mount Gilboa was fought and Saul slain on the morrow after this interview with the witch. Here she herself, perhaps, made a blunder, for very possibly several days elapsed before the fatal battle in which Saul and his sons were slain.

Verse 20

20. Fell straightway all along See margin. He was completely overwhelmed with fear.

Because of the words of Samuel He believed that the words he had heard were the words of the holy Samuel. The witch was perfectly successful in making him believe that she had called up the holy prophet from his rest in hades.

No strength in him Before his interview with the woman he must have been weak from his long fasting, and now these impressive oracles completely prostrate him

Verse 21

21. The woman came unto Saul During the interview she had been standing at a distance from him, not out of sight, or in an adjoining room, as some have supposed, but a little removed from the king’s presence, so as to be less liable to detection in her arts.

Saw that he was sore troubled Saw how completely her oracles had overwhelmed him with terror and excitement.

Verse 22

22. Let me set a morsel of bread before thee Even the witch neglects not the customs of eastern hospitality.

Verse 23

23. I will not eat Extreme mental anguish takes away all appetite.

Compelled him Constrained him by urgent importunity.

Sat upon the bed The couch or divan beside the table, on which guests are wont to recline at meals.

Verse 24

24. A fat calf in the house At this day cattle are kept stalled in the caves of Endor. Dr. Thomson saw little calves at the mouths of these caves, where they were kept while their mothers were at pasture.

She hasted, and killed it “With the Bedouin it is nearly universal to cook the meat immediately after it is butchered, and to bake fresh bread for every meal.… A sheep or a calf will be brought and killed before you, thrust instanter into the great caldron, which stands ready on the fire to receive it, and, ere you are aware, it will reappear on the great copper tray, with a bushel of burgul, (cracked wheat,) or a hill of boiled rice and leben … It seems that this killing, cooking, and eating in rapid succession is a very old custom. Abraham, and Manoah, and many others, besides the witch of Endor, were expert in getting up such impromptu feasts; and our Saviour has given it a proverbial expression in the fatted calf of the prodigal son.” The Land and the Book; vol. ii, p. 162.

Verse 25

25. Went away that night And returned to his camp on the heights of Gilboa. Some have questioned whether Saul could have travelled from the top of Gilboa to Endor and back in one night, besides holding the interview with the witch. Supposing him to have taken the route indicated in the note on 1 Samuel 28:7, it can be shown to have been by no means impossible. In May, 1852, Dr. Robinson travelled from the Wady Jalud, at the eastern base of Gilboa, to within a mile of Endor, in two hours and forty minutes, besides stopping thirty-five minutes to lunch. Bib. Res., vol. iii, pp. 338-340. Doubtless Saul, travelling probably more rapidly and by well known paths, could have gone down from the top of Gilboa to the same valley, and thence nearly in the route pursued by Dr. Robinson, and have reached Endor in less than three hours. His return could have been effected in the same length of time; and, allowing two hours for his interview with the witch, the whole affair need not have occupied more than eight hours, while it is possible it may have been done in much less time.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/1-samuel-28.html. 1874-1909.
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