Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 28

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1


"In those days the Philistines gathered their forces for war, to fight against Israel. And Achish said to David, "Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army." David said to Achish, "Very well, you shall know what your servant can do." And Achish said to David, "Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life."

"Philistines gathered their forces ... to fight against Israel" (1 Samuel 28:1). This was far more than an ordinary mobilization for war, because, "On this occasion they sent to all their confederates that they would go along with them to the war."[1]

"Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army" (1 Samuel 28:1). This order from the king of Gath was addressed to David, whose duplicity and deception finally caught up with him; and he found himself in the position of being ordered to go to war against Israel. It was the providential help of God himself, and that only, which got David out of the dilemma that confronted him.

We cannot presume to justify David's actions during those years he was with Achish; but, "He was living in highly perilous circumstances; the Bible gives the record but pronounces no judgment."[2]

"Very well, you shall know what your servant can do" (1 Samuel 28:2). This was David's reply to the king's order; but, "This reply was ambiguous. There was no promise that David would assist in the war against Israel ... Judging from his previous actions, it would have been against his conscience to fight against his own people."[3] It was a special providence that caused Achish to accept David's words here as a pledge of loyalty to the Philistine king. The second special providence was in the fact that the contemporaries of Achish overruled his order for David to accompany them (1 Samuel 29:3-5).

Verse 3


"Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the wizards out of the land. The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, "Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her." And his servants said to him, "Behold, there is a medium at Endor."

"Samuel had died ... Saul had put the mediums and wizards out of the land" (1 Samuel 28:3). This information was prerequisite to the understanding of what is next related. Saul's putting the wizards and mediums out of the land had evidently occurred in the early years of his reign when he was sincerely trying to do the will of God.

"Wizards and mediums" (1 Samuel 28:3). "From Isaiah 8:19; 19:3, it may be inferred that the oracles procured from such sources were uttered in a squealing voice, by means of ventriloquism."[4] "The Hebrew word for `mediums' here is [~'oboth], which is the plural of [~'ob], meaning `leather bottles.' It is generally taken to refer to the distended belly of the conjurer, into which the summoned spirit of the dead was supposed to enter, and thence speak."[5]

It is impossible to imagine anything any more fraudulent, any more evil, or any more founded absolutely upon falsehood than the profession of such followers of the devil as the mediums and wizards; one of the best known of those persons was the notorious Witch of Endor who is featured in this chapter.

Note the following from Deuteronomy: "There shall not be found among you any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, an augur, a sorcerer, a charmer, a medium, a wizard, or a necromancer ... Whoever does such things is an abomination to the Lord." (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).

"When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid" (1 Samuel 28:5). Saul's crisis of fear was aggravated by the new strategy of the Philistines, who, instead of fighting Israel in the hill country, on this occasion marched into the plain of Jezreel where their chariots of iron would give them an advantage. "This maneuver threatened to cut off Saul from the support of the northern tribes"[6]

"The Philistines at Shunem ...Israel at Gilboa" (1 Samuel 28:4). It was at Gilboa that Saul greatly trembled. "This was the spring by which Gideon and his men camped. It was called the `Spring of Trembling' (Judges 7:1, KJV). Saul here camped beside the same spring, and `trembled greatly.'"[7] "The two armies here confronted each other near the eastern end of the plain of Esdraelon."[8]

"The Lord did not answer him ... by dreams ... by Urim ... or by prophets." "How strange that the man who hated and persecuted the prophets Samuel and David expected to be answered by prophets, and that he who had slain eighty-five priests with all of their wives and children, including even the High Priest, expected to be answered by the Urim, and that he who had sinned away the Spirit of God expected to be answered by heavenly dreams! God is not mocked![9]

"Behold, there is a medium at Endor" (1 Samuel 28:7). "Endor is the modern Khirbet es-Safsafe about four miles south of Mount Tabor ... Psalms 83:10 indicates that Barak and Deborah defeated Jabin and Sisera in this area."[10] The fact that Saul had said to his servants, "Find me a woman who is a medium" indicates that the great majority of such persons were indeed women, even as it is today with fortune-tellers, palm-readers, crystal-ball gazers, etc.

Verse 8


"So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments, and went, he and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, "Divine for me by a spirit, and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you." The woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death"? But Saul swore to her by the Lord, "As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing." Then the woman said, "Whom shall I bring up for you"? He said, "Bring up Samuel for me." When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.." The king said to her, "Have no fear; what do you see"? And the woman said to Saul, "I see a god coming up out of the earth." He said to her, "What is his appearance"? "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe." And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance."

"They went ... and came to the woman by night" (1 Samuel 28:8). "This was a perilous journey of some seven or eight miles from Saul's camp at Gilboa to Endor, and it involved skirting the Philistine encampment."[11]

"There is something unutterably pathetic in this yearning of the disanointed king to exchange words with the friend and counselor of his youth, perhaps thinking that if he was destined to hear the words of his doom, he would prefer to hear them from no other except Samuel."[12]

"When the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice ... Why have you deceived me? ... You are Saul" (1 Samuel 28:12). Did the witch of Endor actually see Samuel? If she could see Samuel, why could not Saul also have seen him? Had she indeed failed to recognize Saul, the tallest man in all Israel? What was the reason for that cry with a loud voice? Had the prophet Samuel actually appeared, much to her surprise, thus causing her to scream out in terror? What is the sense in supposing that her allegedly "seeing" Samuel had revealed to her the identity of Saul? These are only a few of the very difficult questions that rise as one contemplates what is here said. Is there any way that the possible meaning of the clause, "When the woman saw Samuel" might actually be, "When the woman pretended to see Samuel"? Note also that the ancient versions render the words of 1 Samuel 28:13 with the plural for "gods," "I saw gods ascending out of the earth." What, if anything, did she actually see?

If she actually saw him, was Samuel brought back from the dead by God Himself?. Or, is it possible to suppose that a wicked persons such as the witch, called in Deuteronomy 10:12 "an abomination to the Lord," could indeed have had the power to bring back from the dead one of the righteous prophets of God. The discovery of the truth about what is written here depends upon the manner in which a number of these questions are answered.

Before attempting to give an answer to what this writer considers one of the most difficult problems in the entire Bible, we shall consult some of the things that able men of other generations have said about it.

As for the witch's pretending not to recognize Saul, R. P. Smith noted that, "When she saw the tallest man in all Israel and heard him request that she bring up Samuel, she must have been dull indeed not to know who her visitor was."[13]

Keil has this: "It was not at the call of the idolatrous king, nor at the command of the abominable witch, nor was it merely by divine permission. No! It was by the special command of God that Samuel left his grave."[14]

Fred Young pointed out that: "The view of the ancient rabbis was that the spirit of Samuel actually appeared, a view supported by the Septuagint (LXX) rendition of 1 Chronicles 10:13b, "And Samuel the prophet made answer to him." and by Sirach 46:20. The same view was held by Augustine, Origin and Justin Martyr."[15] However, these last named scholars were wrong about many things, especially Justin Martyr in his views regarding the millennium; and, although Martyr did write that, "The soul of Samuel was called up by the witch as Saul demanded,"[16] he was not addressing the questions which we raise here but was making an argument that men have a soul that survives after the death of the body.

Methodius, another of the Ante-Nicene Fathers also wrote that, "When Samuel appeared, it is clear that, being seen, he was clothed with a body."[17] He also was using the passage as light upon the question of the type of body that will be raised from the dead.

Others of the Ante-Nicene Fathers did not hesitate to label this alleged appearance of Samuel as a cleverly contrived fraud. For example, Tertullian discussed the episode as follows:

"In the extravagant pretensions of their art, the ancient ventriloquistic spirits even claimed to represent the soul of Samuel, when Saul consulted the dead after losing the living God. They can do so under cover of a lying wonder (2 Thessalonians 2:9). God forbid, however, that we should suppose that any saint, much less the soul of a prophet, can be dragged out of its resting place in Hades by a demon. We know that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) - much more into a man of light - and that at last he (Satan) will show himself to be even God (2 Thessalonians 2:4) On the aforementioned occasion, Satan affirmed himself to be a prophet of God, and especially to Saul, in whom he was then actually dwelling.

"You must not believe that he who produced the phantom was one, and that he who consulted it was another. No! It was one and the same spirit both in the sorceress and the apostate king which easily pretended an apparition of that which it (the spirit of Satan) had already prepared them to believe as real.

"Furthermore, Our Lord himself has established in the person of his representative Abraham (Luke 16:26) the fact that Hades is not in any case opened for the escape of souls therein. Because of this fact, it must never be supposed that there could be any relaxation of that rule to honor the arrogant pretensions of a sorceress."[18]

Hippolytus also took the same view of this event as did Tertullian. He wrote:

"The question is raised, whether Samuel rose by the hand of the sorceress or not. And if, indeed, we should allow that he did rise, we should be propounding what is false. How could a demon call back the soul of anyone whomsoever? The woman said she saw Samuel, but she also said she saw gods ascending out of the earth! Extraordinary vision!"[19]

In spite of all this, some raise the question that, "If this episode was the work of the devil, how could there have been a prophecy that Saul would die on the morrow, which came true exactly as foretold"? Hippolytus noted in regard to this that, "The prophecy of the demon regarding Saul's death was in error, affirming that it would be `on the morrow,' when, as a matter of fact, it occurred a day later than the prophecy indicated"![20] From this, it appears that the widespread opinion among present-day commentators that this chapter is misplaced because it belongs just prior to 1 Samuel 31 is erroneous. This chapter occurs exactly where it belongs in the Book of First Samuel. The International Critical Commentary makes that clear enough. "It is unfortunate that (some) would displace this section, ranging it between 1Sam. 30,1 Samuel 31 ... We have no evidence that, as a part of the Books of Samuel, it ever occupied any but its Masoretic position."[21] Thus, it must be accepted as a fact that the "alleged prophecy" of Saul's death, "tomorrow" was an error, because it did not happen on the morrow. Therefore, it was not Samuel who uttered that "prophecy" it was an emissary of Satan.

The view that Samuel did indeed appear at the direct commandment of God, as alleged by Keil and many other able scholars has been widely supported for ages by many scholars and theologians; and we respect that view, confessing at the same time that it might indeed be correct. Willis, for example, noted that, "Possibly the witch did not expect any spirit to appear, but when the Lord caused Samuel to appear, she became frightened, because nothing like that had ever happened before."[22] The most important factor supporting this interpretation was cited by Payne, "The narrative strongly suggests that it really was Samuel who appeared, and not a mere apparition or hallucination. The foreknowledge of statements attributed to him also stamp him as genuinely Samuel."[23] (However, it should be remembered, as noted above, that the `foreknowledge' mentioned here by Payne was false.)

Nevertheless, this writer is unable to reconcile that understanding of the passage with the fact of the consummate wickedness of both the witch and Saul. Where is there anything in the Bible that supports the notion that God would have raised a prophet from the dead to speak to such people, especially since they had never manifested the slightest regard for the word of God through his prophets? While confessing that there are ample objections to any view of the passage that may be advocated, the conviction that prevails with this writer favors the view that sees the whole episode as one loaded with fraud and deception.

Verse 15


"Then Samuel said to Saul, `Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up'? Saul answered, `I am in great distress; for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; therefore I have summoned you up to tell me what I should do.' And Samuel said, `Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord, and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.'"

"Samuel said, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up"?" (1 Samuel 28:15). Note that the alleged "Samuel" here does not credit the Lord with having brought him up, but charges Saul with having done it. Such a lie was of Satan, not of God. Saul never, in a million years, had the power through some abominable witch to raise the dead!

The bitter words to Saul found throughout most of this paragraph could not therefore be the true words of the prophet Samuel. R. P. Smith identified them as the words of the abominable witch. "The woman gladly took a bitter revenge on the man who had cruelly put to death nearly all of her contemporary professional mediums. She had recognized Saul as her hated enemy as soon as he entered her place, but professed not to know him till his name was revealed to her by the pretended apparition, in the name of which she reproached him for his crimes and announced to him what everybody in Israel already knew, that God would take away his kingdom and give it to David. In view of Deuteronomy 18:10, we cannot believe that the Bible would set before us an instance of witchcraft employed with Divine sanction for holy purposes."[24]

Verse 20


"Then Saul fell at once full length upon the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, "Behold, your handmaid has hearkened to what you have said to me. Now therefore, you also hearken to your handmaid; let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way." He refused, and said, "I will not eat." But his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he hearkened to their words. So he arose from the earth, and sat upon the bed. Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour, and kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread of it, and she put it before Saul and his servants; and they ate. Then they arose and went away that night."

"So he arose from the earth and sat upon the bed" (1 Samuel 28:23). "The bed" in the ancient houses of that era was a wide bench against the wall, used as a sitting place in the daytime and for sleeping at night.

"She had a fatted calf in the house" (1 Samuel 28:24). This is merely the archaic way of saying that she had such an animal readily available.

The solicitude of the witch for Saul's welfare was understandable. No normal human being could look upon the terrified and distressed king with any other than emotions of pity and compassion. Her hospitality was also a matter of insurance on her part against the possibility that, if Saul survived, he might put her to death as he had done to most of her contemporary practitioners of necromancy.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.