[K:NWTS 20/2 (Sep 2005) 12-22]

The Road to Endor

1 Samuel 28

Bill Wielenga

Saul and the witch of Endor. It's a dark story. One of Israel's darkest moments. A rather intriguing story. Aren't we somehow strangely drawn to this dark story? We would like to peer into the dark cave over the witch's shoulder—"What's going on, witch?" If only to satisfy our curiosity. That's how many actually get drawn into the world of darkness and the occult. Just to satisfy my curiosity. Try these drugs; try that fortune-teller. Just have to see for myself. Down, deep into the darkness—dark slavery.

Strange, isn't it, how in this very thing the Word of God just does not really satisfy our curiosity. Of all the texts to leave us wondering . . . . What are we to think? How are we to understand it all? The appearance of Samuel in the witch's cave leaves a big question mark. Or a few question marks. What happened? What does a spiritist, a medium, do to make this happen? What did she see exactly? Did it really happen? How did it happen? Can it even happen? Does this sort of thing happen? Channellers today—is that for real, then? And then, of course, the question: what does this text mean for God's people, for us?

The history of interpretation of this text leaves us with a variety of opinions. And not completely satisfying answers. One commentator says this; another says that. No, it cannot happen; it was all mind-games between Saul and the medium. Yes, it did happen; by a special providence. No, it was not Samuel at all. It was a demon; it was a ghost. So, what are we to think? Perhaps there will be no definite answer.

What Can We Say?

Nevertheless, there are at least a couple of things we should say up front. Up front, because we do have to decide how to approach the text. Even if we can't nail down an insight into all the details. First, of all there is this: the Word of God in the text does not itself raise any questions or doubts about what went on in the witch's cavern.

God's Word does not itself make a problem of this event. So, do we need to make a problem of it? The way it reads is: this is what happened—and that's what happened. Even though our curiosity is not satisfied, there is no indication in the text that says: no, but it didn't really happen the way the woman says it happened. The LORD apparently wants us to read it like this is what happened. Can we do that?

There is, in fact, very good reason to do just that. Consider what happened afterwards. What Samuel said to Saul happened exactly as it had been told Saul in the cave. "The LORD will give Israel into the hands of the Philistines," said Samuel. The LORD did exactly that (chapter 31)! Samuel is a true prophet of the LORD. Also in the text—also in the cave—also in his death! Saul and his sons were dead, next day, in battle against the Philistines. Israel given over by the LORD. Scripture clearly links together Saul's battlefield death and this event—namely, the LORD's Word through Samuel in 1 Samuel 28.

Second, we should consider this: Scripture interpreting Scripture is very important for this text. There is a text at the beginning of 1 Samuel which reminds us very much of this one. It's a crucial link—decisive. It's in 1 Samuel 3. 1 Samuel 28 is like the inside-out, upside-down version of 1 Samuel 3. Samuel was a young boy in the service of the Lord at the tabernacle in Shiloh, serving under Eli—corrupt priestly house. The word of the LORD was scarce in those days. The LORD called Samuel three times in the night—mysterious call, disturbing him. The LORD gave Samuel a word of judgment about the end of Eli's house. Samuel had to tell Eli. Soon enough, sure enough, Eli and his two sons were dead. Dead at the hands of the Philistines, who defeated Israel and took away the ark—the glory departed. Doesn't that remind us of this text? Samuel, now old, dead (!), under Saul's corrupt kingship. Samuel now called in this night when the revelation of God was scarce—no prophet, no Urim, no dreams. Samuel giving a word from the LORD about the end of Saul's corrupt house. Samuel had to tell Eli then . . . Samuel has to tell Saul now. And sure enough, soon enough, Saul and his sons are dead. At the hands of the Philistines. And Israel, defeated.

The very first time Samuel prophesied reminds of this, the very last time that Samuel prophesied. Of course, the scenes are drastically different, opposed, contrasting. Yes, this is the inside-out upside-down version. There Samuel, a young inexperienced boy, was called out of a barren womb, and summoned 'before his time' (a young boy!) in the LORD's house where the ark of God was. Here Samuel, an old dead man, is called out of the grave, summoned 'after his time' (he's dead!) in a witch's cave. The contrast could not be greater. There Samuel was summoned from above, from God's exalted throne. God calling up a new prophet from before the ark. Here Samuel is summoned from below, from Saul's self-destructing throne. Saul, through a witch, calling up a dead prophet from a hole in the ground. Parallel events, parallel revelation, though very much a contrasting parallel. It seems that this connection, this relation between passages in the same Bible book, warrants us taking seriously the text exactly as we read it. In light of 1 Samuel 3 we would say about 1 Samuel 28: Yes, this was God's last task for Samuel. And however it happened, and however many details are left unanswered for our curiosity, God got it done. Samuel: a prophet of judgment at the very beginning and at the very end of his prophetic career. Yes, Samuel who also had the blessed task of bringing in David, Jesus, God's new man, in the middle, at the climax, of his career.

Which raises the question: Why would God do this in the witch's cave? Why would we meet God here, through Samuel, with Saul in the cave? To teach us, to teach his people, something about Saul. Saul was our man; is our old man. Saul: he is the king we wanted when God wasn't good enough anymore. Look what you get, says God. Look at your man. See your old Adam, your rebellious Adam, go down, down into darkness: communing with the dead! Darkness—from which he will not, cannot, rise again; by God's decree, through the prophet's word. See, says the LORD, and be warned. Be warned of the way of sin. It goes this way.

But then we also remember this: God has his new king for us in the wings, waiting. David—Jesus: he's all around the text. The David story is the cushion around this text, for us who go into this text, into the cave with Saul. David/Jesus in whom we must be found: he's there already—thank God! David, Jesus, who must be our new man.

Covenant with Death

As we now listen more closely to the story of the text, we could capture the message of 1 Samuel 28 in this theme: God's rejected king makes a covenant with death. As he does this, we see first that Saul's nature is exposed as he consults a medium, and then that Saul's future is disclosed as he hears from Samuel.

It was dark in Israel. So dark that David, the LORD's anointed, was forced into exile—out of the land. The beginning of chapter 28 reminds us—looking back to chapter 27. Chapter 29 reminds us again. David, because of Saul, because of sin, our sin collected in Saul, was forced to play the role of a Philistine. David: a virtual Philistine—counted among the transgressors, the enemies of God's people. His, Christ's, humiliation. A thorough-going exile while the old king, sin personified, ran his course, exhausting himself. There, in his exile, the LORD kept David for the kingdom. David doing kingdom things in his exile (chs. 27, 29-30)!

Here is Saul, then, doing his thing, running his course—walking in darkness. Darkness in God's land, on God's earth. See sin, our sin, exhausting itself. It has to. There is no future for sin under God's sun. God's light has gone out from him. He walks in darkness—no prophet, no Urim, no dream, no Word of God. Watch sin in fear and terror go creeping off into the night—without God. Watch sin come to a virtual standstill, broken, exhausted, trembling, prostrate, in the witch's cave. Sin has no future in the land, on God's earth. King Saul goes to meet the dead, and as he does, he undergoes a virtual burial.

There are three things that characterize the chapter as a whole. Three things by which to read Saul. First, Saul is afraid at the beginning of the chapter. He is terrified at the end. Saul can't shake fear; fear shakes him. Fear has no place in God's anointed. Saul feared; he was terrified. Sin does that. And when sin looks for its own way out of fear, fear only turns to terror. That's what happens in 1 Samuel 28. Watch Saul's fear. It turns only to terror. He went to the witch to get his fear undone. It doesn't work—it's terror now. Second, Saul conducts his mission by night. It is night at the beginning of the chapter. It is still night at the end of the chapter. Like Judas, Saul who has betrayed kingship, must work at night. Sin works in darkness. Sin is darkness. Watch Saul walk in darkness. Third, Saul spends a lot of time lying on the ground in this chapter. He's falling on the ground or lying on the ground. Watch sin fall on the ground, dust to dust. Sin goes down like that. Watch Saul fall headlong into his grave. That's Saul: fear, darkness, and on the ground. See, says God, look: sin has no future. The Word of God warns us. Let God make this picture of sin for our instruction. Watch Saul: our sin collected together into one sorry, very doomed man.

Why is this happening? In short, because Saul stopped being God's man. Willfully. Don't feel sorry for Saul. We do. Because he was our choice for King. We have a natural inclination for him. We must break that. This chapter of God's Word helps us. Look at Saul and don't feel sorry. Why not? He rejected God—willfully, repeatedly. Therefore God rejected him. Therefore God left him. Therefore God did not speak to him. And when God leaves, what's left? Fear, and darkness, and death—taken upon oneself. Saul turns from God to the only bitter alternative, which is no alternative: he makes a covenant with death. He communes with the dead.

But Saul, like us, does not want to be known for this. He disguises himself. Ironically, in doing that he un-kings himself. Trades in his royal garb . . . for something that makes a witch's cave more accessible. Dressed not as a king. Dressed for death, to meet death. There is however, an ironic twist. "Saul had removed from the land those who were mediums and spiritists." We are told right up front. We don't know when Saul did this. It was certainly a good thing he did, according to God's Word—Deuteronomy 18. But what does this say about Saul in this event? It's very clear. The Word of God is telling us: Saul knew very well what he was doing going off to the witch. He himself had once removed mediums and spiritists from the land, according to God's Word. Because of that, he now has to disguise himself against his own policy. Saul has to work hard to evade Saul's own public policy! Imagine that. See that. Think hard on that. Saul becomes a walking contradiction! Which is exactly what sin does. Sin knows the truth and has to evade it. We make plans to evade, though the truth stares us in the face . . . . The witch put it in Saul's face. The woman at Endor makes a point of bringing this up again. But, you know, she says, Saul has outlawed mediums and spiritists. As if the man in front of her did not know . . . ! Saul's former good Word-of-God policy rubbed right in his face by the witch.

And what does Saul do? He walks on, right over God's Word, the K(k)ing's policy of the land. He goes right against it—willfully. With the name of the LORD he makes an oath. "As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing." See that! Using the name of the LORD to defend someone from the punishment which the LORD had assigned to this sin. See how bizarre it gets in the grip of sin? What a tangled web we weave . . . . Saul in disguise, using the name of the LORD in an oath, to defy one of God's own policies, which Saul himself had enforced in the land. What blasphemy, Saul! See? Do not pity Saul. He knows what he is doing. Sin always does. Saul holds fast his sin which has gripped him.

And then the final irony, the greatest contradiction of all. Saul, who is on this so-secret mission to get an illegitimate word from Samuel, he gets exposed in the very act. The moment Samuel appears, Saul is exposed.

It's quite unexpected and completely unexplained. But there it is. Even the woman was caught off-guard; the woman cried out with a loud voice. Something throws her off. And she said to Saul: You are Saul! Yes, Saul, God can find you out anywhere, anytime, anyhow. There is no cover in sin. There is no darkness, no disguise, no name of God, that can protect. Saul is exposed. Saul would not listen to God. So God left him. What does this leave Saul? With nowhere to hide! The road of paganism leading into the grave: and exposed in the very act.

David Versus Saul

Look at David in chapter 27. David is there as a virtual Philistine: sent into exile because of Saul. Taking on the role of a Philistine. And God hides David very, very well right there in Philistia. Achish is blinded by God, doesn't have a clue about David. God hides David. Now look at Saul: the one who had once sent mediums and spiritists into exile, cut them off from the land, is now disguised in the night while protecting a medium in the land and in the name of the LORD. And using her services. And Saul cannot hide. In the darkness, through the disguise, the woman sees!! "But you are Saul!" Saul exposed.

David sent out; the priests of Nob slaughtered; and paganism given a home with Saul. David is a virtual Philistine—in exile; the priests of the LORD are dead; and Saul is a pagan, a Canaanite. For this the Canaanites were sent out of the land, said God in Deuteronomy 18. Who is out of the land now? David. Who is in the land? Paganism has a home with Saul. Not only in his land. But in his heart. This is where Saul's sin brought him. He is a Canaanite at heart. And he cannot hide. He is exposed. His sin will find him out. This is why he cannot and will not remain. For the sake of God's people. For our sake. We cannot have him for our king. Our old man: we must reject him. Let him be exposed. That we may see him and flee. May God deal decisively with him. Please LORD, let it end! Let Saul end. Let sin end.

Saul's End

And God does hear. Saul's future is disclosed there in the cave. There are two main things that happen next. With a third thing following, which seals it all. See first how the LORD in the middle of Saul's sin, brings him a Word from the LORD. That is something only God can do. Saul is sinning like a hardened, confirmed pagan, bringing up the spirits of the dead. And right there, God is speaking a Word to him through Samuel. The darkness is not dark for God. He can and does work on. For his purpose. For his glory. For his people, for us. Samuel explains what is going to happen and why. Saul, you rejected the Word of God. God gave the kingdom to your neighbor, tore it from you. Saul, you did not obliterate Amalek. You did not listen. Therefore the LORD has sent you down this pagan path of darkness. God letting Saul go in his sin. God letting Saul's sin go to its bitter end—fear, a dark cave, on the ground, at the mercy of a witch. God does that. God tells Saul right there in the dark cave. Saul, you are here, sinning like this, why? Because God let you go in your sin. Yes, God is that serious about sin, that he meets Saul right there in his sin and lays it out for him once more. This is happening to you because you are a sinner and you love it. Scary, terrifying, to meet God right in your sin. That is the first thing that happens. God himself, through Samuel, meets Saul in his sin. To give the punishment which sin deserves. Death—you and your sons with me, says Samuel. That is: join me in the realm of the dead. You will join the dead. Death is coming. Covenantally: your house will go down tomorrow. You and your sons. Your house, sin's home, must go. Death is coming covenantally: the LORD will give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines. Israel must go down with its king which Israel chose. Your king: your destiny! Yes, in order that Israel may come up again with the new King whom God chose—one after his own heart. Samuel mentions him by name: David/Jesus. God's replacement king is here already. Thank God!

Then comes the second thing that happens. At the word of Samuel, Saul fell immediately full length on the ground. He became virtually dead. Reminds us of Eli—hearing news of Israel's defeat, the ark's capture, he fell over dead. Saul is here already experiencing a living death. The Word of the LORD through Samuel is true. Saul knows it. Sin knows it. His body feels it. No strength left in him; he had eaten nothing. Sin and God's judgment floor Saul. He wasn't living anymore. Sin saps strength; life grows dim. God's judgment knocks sin flat.

Finally, there is the third thing. The witch, and Saul's servants (great servants, by the way, aren't they—watch who your friends, your men are . . . !) impress on him the need to eat. Very remarkable in this section of the text is the theme of listening. Remember, listening to God is where Saul fell away, rebelled. Listening to God is not where sin goes, not where sin wants to go. But listen carefully now in the witch's cave. A remarkable exchange. Behold, your maidservant has obeyed you, I have listened to your words which you spoke to me (v. 21). So now please listen to the voice of your maidservant (v.22). First Saul refused (v. 23). Then, after their urging, he listened to them. Saul whose life's theme has been: I will not listen to God, listens now to this . . . witch. He does it against his will. But now he cannot resist the lure of sin and death! In the grip of sin. The result: Saul dines with the witch. The woman ate; and she gave to the man who was with her, and he ate . . . (Gen 3).

Witch's Covenant

Notice how the witch's words impress, indeed impose, on Saul a sort of covenant. I have done this for you—listened to you. Now you should do this for me—listen to me. That's a covenant agreement. Imposed by this woman of darkness and death. And Saul caves in in the cave. He has gone too far. He cannot resist. He will not. Yes, he doesn't really want to . . . . He eats.

It's a meal fit for a king: the fattened calf. And . . . it's an inside-out, upside-down Passover meal: a meal eaten in the night, with haste, unleavened bread. A covenant meal, of sorts, an exodus meal before Saul goes out. But this meal is not an exodus for Saul: it's the seal on his path to death (as such, it is Israel's new exodus). This meal in the witch's cave seals Saul's covenant with death. He will sit down to eat with one who facilitated his bond to death. It is almost like being fed by death. The woman is a medium, a necromancer: death is her business. These are the fruits of her business. Saul does business with her. And now he can't escape her. He eats unto death, fed by the mistress of death. He is enslaved. He must sit and seal this covenant with death against his will. His last meal. It must remind him of his first meal with Samuel—1 Samuel 9: a covenant meal to begin Saul's kingship; now a covenant meal to end it: and what a dark meal now. The king is undone—our man. And then they arose and went away. And it was night . . . .

Old Man/New Man

Saul was our man. Pay attention. Know him well. Identify him. And break with him. Because he will bring us down. He brings all Israel down. That's sin's business. Thank God that he was working in that place. Thank God that the darkness is light for him (Ps. 139). God used Samuel one last time. God speaks to Saul not by prophet, or Urim, or dream, but here in this, in his sin in the cave of the dead. God's word comes in here not to approve sin. But only to defeat Saul at his own game of sin. Sin does not outsmart God. God meets it head-on, on his terms; exposes and judges. And it is a most fearful thing. God brought Samuel in. One more time. For judgment. To bring Samuel's prophetic career full circle. For the sake of Israel's exodus. To bring an end to our old man. To make room for the new.

Thank God that while Saul is self-destructing, willfully in his sin, God has David waiting in the wings. Saul is harboring and living out Canaanitism. Israel, God's kingdom, has no hope in him. He carries in him the seed of death, darkness, destruction. David is in exile, in Philistia; but already from there making new and significant conquests for the kingdom (against Amalekites). Israel, God's kingdom, has in David the seed of new life, even in exile. Saul will go down. That Christ may come. Saul must go down. For Christ must come, the seed of David, God's new man. We need that new man.

And what will we do? We'd rather be with David in Philistia, wouldn't we? It's not easy. Pretty hard to be in exile: being counted with the transgressors. Waiting for what's next. Waiting. Waiting for promises to be fulfilled. But, really, it's the best place to be! Waiting for God no matter what—there is no better way. David is not a slave under Achish. He is Achish's right hand (think of Joseph, Daniel)! But even more: David is still God's man—even a king of sorts with an inheritance in exile: Ziklag. Because he waited for God. That, more than anything, made David, and his own who were with him, ripe for God's kingdom. Waiting for God: it's ripening for glory, for the kingdom, the eternal inheritance. Saul could not wait. Could never wait; would not! Could not obey; would not! Was his own man. And look at him now. He's not his own man at all. He's a weak slave at the mercy of a witch in a narrow cave lying on the ground covenanting with death. A thorough-going pagan, ripening for Philistine conquest, and death, and then the curse of God. He will be hanged (curse) in his death.

What will we do? Will we reject Saul? That's pretty hard, too—we desired him, we loved him. Sin: our old man, our old friend, our old king. How we loved him. Yes, and for the sake of our very salvation, we must put him away. Cut him off—radically. Don't pity; be courageous. Through the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Samuel. The LORD has torn the kingdom from Saul's hand, from sin's grip, and given it to David. Given it to us: in David, in Christ. A kingdom made all new, from David's, from Christ's, exile/cross. A kingdom where there will be no more Saul, no more sin. No more Philistines, no more enemies. No more darkness, no more death, no more fear. Only Christ Jesus, and light, and life, and joy—eternally.

American Reformed Church

Lynden, Washington