Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 28

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-2

David’s return to Philistia 27:1-28:2

This section records David’s relocation to Ziklag in Philistia, his raids of southwestern Canaan from Ziklag, and the Philistines’ preparations for war against Saul. Philistia is where David spent the final stage of his "outlaw" career.

Verses 1-2

The Philistines’ preparations for war against Israel 28:1-2

David’s response to Achish was deliberately ambiguous. He did not promise to fight for the Philistines but gave the impression he would (1 Samuel 28:2). Achish interpreted David’s words as a strong commitment to him and rewarded David with a position as his bodyguard for life.

David continued to be a blessing to Israel as he obeyed God in Ziklag, without giving any real help to Israel’s enemy, the Philistines. This plan of David’s, while yielding some positive benefits, involved him in deception and lying, plus leaving him vulnerable to Achish if the Philistine king learned what was really happening.

This whole pericope illustrates that, when opposition from ungodly people persists, God’s people should continue to pray and trust Him for protection rather than taking matters into their own hands. If we initiate a plan without seeking God’s guidance, we may remove one source of aggravation and danger only to find ourselves in another. Such plans may result in some good, but they may also put us in situations where we find it even more tempting to disobey God (cf. Jacob). We should, instead, remember God’s promises (e.g., 1 Peter 1:3-9; 2 Peter 1:2-4) and pray for His guidance (cf. Philippians 4:6-7).

Verses 3-7

The threat of Philistine attack 28:3-7

Samuel’s death and the mention of Saul’s commendable removal of mediums and spiritists prepare for what follows (cf. Leviticus 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-11). Mediums are people who communicate with the dead, and spiritists are those who communicate with evil spirits. The terms always go together in the Old Testament, indicating the close relationship that exists between these activities. The Mosaic Law prescribed death for mediums and spiritists because God promised to give His people all the information He wanted them to have about the future from prophets (Deuteronomy 18). It was unwise, even dangerous and therefore forbidden, for them to seek more information from these other sources.

Shunem stood on the south side of the hill of Moreh, which occupied part of the eastern end of the Jezreel plain in Issachar’s territory. Gilboa lay opposite it farther south and was really the name of a mountain ridge. This was the same area where Gideon had routed the Midianites (Judges 7). Endor (1 Samuel 28:7) stood on the north side of the hill of Moreh, on the other side from that on which the Philistines camped.

"The wording of this introduction (1 Samuel 28:4 f.) is notable, for it is strongly reminiscent of two other fateful confrontations between Saul and the Philistines, the first at Michmash/Gilgal (1 Samuel 13:5 f.), the second at Socoh/Elah (1 Samuel 17:1 f., 11)." [Note: Gunn, The Fate . . ., p. 108.]

Saul again feared the Philistines (1 Samuel 28:5). If this enemy succeeded, they would cut Israel in half geographically. God gave Saul no guidance in response to his prayers. Since Saul had refused to listen to God in the past (chs. 13 and 15), God now refused to listen to him (cf. 1 Samuel 28:18). He gave the king no revelation about how to proceed. Normally when people refuse to pay attention to the word of God, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to hear the word of God (cf. Jeremiah 7:13-16).

1 Samuel 28:6 says that God did not answer Saul by Urim. Abiathar, the priest, had taken the Urim and Thummim and joined David some time before this event (1 Samuel 22:20; 1 Samuel 23:6-12). So Saul did not have access to it now. Perhaps this verse means that even when Saul did have access to it God did not answer him. One writer suggested that Saul may have made a new Urim and Thummim, and that they are in view here. [Note: Wood, Israel’s United . . ., p. 167]

Saul then proceeded to try to obtain information about the future, specifically about his imminent encounter with the Philistines, from another supernatural source. Publicly Saul was against these diviners (1 Samuel 28:3), but privately he now sought one out. This is hypocrisy.

". . . Saul’s attempts at inquiry were of so unworthy a nature that it would be an abuse of language to speak of him as really ’inquiring of Jehovah.’" [Note: John W. Haley, An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, pp. 359-60.]

Verses 3-25

Saul’s attempt to secure divine guidance from a medium 28:3-25

The story involving Saul’s meeting with the "witch" of Endor is one of the best known in 1 Samuel. It contains some unique events that have troubled Bible students for many years. Again the spotlight of revelation turns back to Saul from David. We see here Saul’s insensibility due to his departure from God.

"This visit to the medium of Endor is cited by the Chronicler as proof positive that Saul deserved the judgment that fell on him at Gilboa (1 Chronicles 10:13)." [Note: Gordon, I & II Samuel . . ., p. 192.]

Verses 8-14

Saul’s conversation with the medium 28:8-14

Evidently Saul knew the woman would not cooperate with him if she knew who he was, so he disguised himself (1 Samuel 28:8). He further hid his hypocrisy by visiting her under cover of darkness. Saul sank so low as to swear to the woman in the Lord’s name that he would not punish her for breaking the Lord’s Law (1 Samuel 28:10). This too was hypocrisy. He wanted to give a public impression of upholding the Mosaic Law, but really he broke it by seeking her out. Saul asked her to bring Samuel up from Sheol, the place of departed spirits.

I think it is most likely that God allowed Samuel, or perhaps a vision or apparition of Samuel, to appear, as the text states (1 Samuel 28:12; 1 Samuel 28:15-16), with still another prophecy (post-mortem!) from the Lord (1 Samuel 28:16-19). The woman also saw who Saul really was, and this surprise terrified her because she discovered that her life was in danger. Some interpreters have concluded that a demon who impersonated Samuel came up. However, what this being proceeded to say in 1 Samuel 28:16-19 argues against this view. It was a message from God. Others have suggested that the woman tricked Saul into thinking that the person he saw was Samuel, but he was not. However, her own surprise argues against this view (1 Samuel 28:12). [Note: See ibid., pp. 194-95; and Archer, Encyclopedia of . . ., pp. 180-81.] Evidently she expected contact with a demon posing as Samuel, but, to her amazement, God really permitted Samuel, or a vision of him, to appear. This seems to have been a divine revelation to Saul, the last one God gave him. [Note: See Keil and Delitzsch, pp. 265-69.]

"The incident does not tell us anything about the veracity of claims to consult the dead on the part of mediums, because the indications are that this was an extraordinary event for her, and a frightening one because she was not in control." [Note: Baldwin, p. 159.]

Mediums and spiritists do not have access to the dead but communicate with evil spirits posing as people who have died. That is why these spirits are called "lying spirits" (1 Kings 22:22). This passage does not say that the witch brought up Samuel from the dead. God revealed Samuel to Saul.

Saul assured the medium that she did not need to fear him. Any supernatural guidance he could obtain with her help was worth her life to him. She described Samuel as a divine being (Heb. elohim, lit. strong one). This is, of course, a common name of God in the Old Testament. However it also describes the judges in Israel who were divine beings in the sense that they served as judges under the Great Judge (Psalms 82:6; cf. John 10:35). Perhaps the woman meant that the man she saw looked like a judge or like a divine being because he was imposing. Samuel was one of the judges in Israel. She saw Samuel, or his apparition, coming up out of the earth (i.e., the netherworld). The ancients connected the area under the surface of the earth with the place of departed spirits because they buried people under the surface of the earth.

The writer identified Samuel as old and wrapped in a robe (1 Samuel 28:14). This is an interesting detail since Saul had previously torn Samuel’s robe when Samuel announced that God had rejected Saul from being king (1 Samuel 15:27). Samuel had told Saul, "The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today" (1 Samuel 15:28; cf. 1 Samuel 24:4). Saul recognized Samuel and bowed before him out of respect. This too was hypocritical since he had not previously obeyed Samuel nor was he about to act on the warning that Samuel would soon give him.

Verses 15-19

Saul’s conversation with Samuel 28:15-19

Samuel’s soul had been at peace in the place of departed spirits, but now Saul had disturbed that rest. Saul described his reason for doing so. He wanted to obtain divine guidance concerning the Philistines from Samuel, since he could not get it from the Lord through other means. Samuel replied that Saul was wrong in thinking that Samuel would tell him what strategy to use since the Lord would not. The prophet was, after all, simply the mouthpiece of God. The Lord had become Saul’s real adversary, more so than the Philistines, since the king had refused to obey Yahweh. Samuel repeated God’s judgment on Saul: ". . . the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David" (1 Samuel 28:17; cf. 1 Samuel 15:27-28).

Samuel also explained that the Lord had ceased speaking to Saul because Saul had stopped listening to God. Specifically, he had failed to obey the Lord by slaying Amalek (ch. 15). Samuel’s final revelation was that Yahweh would hand His people over to the Philistines tomorrow, and Saul and his sons would die in the battle. They would soon be with Samuel in Sheol, the place of departed spirits. Yahweh was still the true king of Israel and would control the destiny of His people, even His king, though Saul always wanted to be the ultimate authority in Israel and to control his own destiny.

The reason God told the Israelites not to consult the spirit world was that He promised to reveal what was best for them to know about the future through prophets (Deuteronomy 18:9-22). There are some things concerning the future about which we are better off ignorant. Samuel had knowledge of Saul’s future, but he was a prophet. Nothing in Scripture indicates that demons know any more about the future than what God has revealed to people. In this case Saul would probably have been better off not knowing he would die the next day. Yet knowing this, he still went into battle evidently convinced that he could alter the will of God, as he had tried to do so many other times in his life. He still had not learned that Yahweh was his sovereign master.

Verses 20-25

Saul’s failure to listen 28:20-25

Why did the writer give us so much information about this woman’s concern for Saul? For one thing, it is another instance of the reversal-of-fortune motif that is so common in 1 and 2 Samuel. Saul should have executed the woman for witchcraft, as the Law commanded, but instead she ministered to Saul. A disobedient medium became a source of blessing for the disobedient king. Saul had departed so far from God that even this woman, through whom he had just learned about his own death the next day, could nourish and refresh him.

Beyond this, the similarity between the woman’s words and Samuel’s is striking. Samuel had said that because Saul had not obeyed God, God had done something to Saul (1 Samuel 28:18). The woman said that because she had obeyed Saul, Saul should do something for her (1 Samuel 28:21-22).

"Saul realizes he has landed in a situation which resembles a covenant with the medium instead of with YHWH." [Note: W. A. M. Beuken, "1 Samuel 28 : The Prophet as ’Hammer of Witches,’" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 6 (1978):8.]

Samuel’s words terrified Saul, but they did not move him to listen and obey. Saul had not eaten and was physically weak. Perhaps he had been fasting to get a word from God. The woman reminded Saul that she had listened to the king’s promise that no harm would come to her, and her conduct reflected her faith in him. She then begged him to listen to her and to eat something since he was so weak, but Saul would not listen to her as he had not listened to God. Only after prolonged entreaty by the medium and Saul’s servants did the king concede to eat. This proved to be Saul’s "last supper." [Note: Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, p. 196.] What a contrast it is with the Last Supper of Jesus Christ, the vice-regent who always listened to and obeyed God faithfully. Saul ate this meal in dread as he anticipated death the next day, whereas Jesus ate His Last Supper at peace with His Father anticipating death the next day.

We would expect that with such a striking warning, Saul would have withdrawn Israel’s army and fled south toward Gibeah and safety, but he did not. He evidently still felt that he could oppose God’s word and succeed. He went into battle the next day and perished. God removed His unfaithful anointed because he proved to be an insubordinate and inattentive vice-regent. He also disciplined the nation Saul represented by allowing the Philistines to defeat Israel.

This pericope helps the reader appreciate the serious consequences of not listening to God’s word and not obeying His will. Saul could not get guidance from God because God had ceased giving His rebellious servant directions. People sometimes cannot get guidance from God because they have been unwilling to listen to God and obey Him. He stops speaking to them. Saul then tried to get guidance from elsewhere. God graciously provided it to him in the form of a final warning, but Saul disregarded that too. He plunged forward to his death. Similarly, Judas received a final warning from Jesus in the Upper Room, but he disregarded it and died within 24 hours. How important it is not to harden our hearts when God speaks to us (cf. Psalms 95:6-11; Hebrews 3:7-8; Hebrews 3:15; Hebrews 4:7)!

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.