Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 28

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary


A.M. 2948. B.C. 1056.

The conference between Achish and David, 1 Samuel 28:1 , 1 Samuel 28:2 . The preparation of the Philistines, and the distress of Saul, 1 Samuel 28:3-6 . He applies to a woman that had a familiar spirit, to raise Samuel, 1 Samuel 28:7-11 . Samuel appears, and foretels his defeat and death, 1 Samuel 28:12-19 . Saul faints, and is with difficulty persuaded to take any sustenance, 1 Samuel 28:20-25 .

Verse 1

1 Samuel 28:1. The Philistines gathered their armies together Sir Isaac Newton judges that they were recruited about this time by vast numbers of men driven out of Egypt by Amasis. This probably was one reason why they resolved on a new war with Israel, to which, however, Samuel’s death and David’s disgrace were doubtless additional motives. Achish said to David, Thou shalt go out with me to battle Achish formed this resolution in consequence of his knowledge of David’s merit, and the thorough confidence he had in his fidelity.

Verse 2

1 Samuel 28:2. David said, Surely thou shalt know what thy servant can do He answered ambiguously, as he did before. Achish said, Therefore will I make thee keeper of my head That is, he promised to make him captain of his life-guard, which, we find by the sequel, he accordingly did. Achish evidently understood David as promising that he would do his best to serve him. Delaney thinks that David gave Achish a doubtful answer, because he would not resolve upon so extraordinary a step without consulting God, either by his priest or his prophet. And that, as he proceeded so far as to attend Achish to Aphek, the place appointed for the assembling of the Philistine forces, there is no reason to doubt that he went thither with honest intentions toward his protector, and that he did it by the divine permission.

Verse 3

1 Samuel 28:3. Now Samuel was dead, &c. This was observed before, 1 Samuel 25:1, but is repeated here again to show that Saul was now sensible of his loss, wanting his advice in a time of great distress. Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits According to the divine command, Leviticus 20:27, which perhaps he had executed in the beginning of his reign, when he was directed by Samuel.

Verse 5

1 Samuel 28:5 . His heart greatly trembled When he saw their numbers, their orders, and their appointments, he judged himself to be greatly overpowered, and fell into great terror upon the prospect. Had he kept close to God he needed not to have feared all the armies of the Philistines.

Verse 6

1 Samuel 28:6. When Saul inquired of the Lord This seems to contradict what is affirmed 1 Chronicles 10:14, that he did not inquire of the Lord, which is assigned as the reason why the Lord slew him. But Rabbi Kimchi, and others, thus reconcile these two places. That since he did not continue to inquire of him, but went to a diviner, it was all one as if he had not inquired at all; for he did it faintly, coldly, and indifferently. A learned Jew, Samuel Laniado, remarks here: “He whose heart is perfect with God, lifts up his eyes unto him, and fixes them on him; hoping in him, though he doth not presently hear him; and perseveres in his expectation and confidence, firmly setting a resolution to wait upon him. But so did not Saul, who was remiss and negligent, saying in his heart, If God will not hear me, I will go and consult a familiar spirit.” The Lord answered him not Nor is it to be wondered that he should not answer a man of such a disposition. Neither by dreams By which perhaps he prayed that God would inform him. Nor by Urim It appears by this, that, Abiathar having fled to David and taken the ephod with him, Saul had set up another high-priest, and made an ephod in imitation of the sacred one, not considering the peculiar sanctity of that which God had appointed, and by which alone he had promised to manifest himself. Nor by prophets A school of whom, no doubt, was still remaining at Ramah, over which Samuel had presided.

Verse 7

1 Samuel 28:7. Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit That converses with evil spirits, or hath power to call up, or make to appear, the spirits of dead persons, in order to answer questions, or give information of what may be inquired of them: see on Deuteronomy 18:10-11. Saul mentions a woman rather than a man, because the weaker sex were most addicted to these practices. In this he acted like a distracted man, who now approved what he had before condemned. He had partly cut off, and partly frighted away wizards, sorcerers, and such as had, or professed to have, these familiar spirits, and now he seeks unto them! What will not fear and folly force men to! How such a practice as this came to be used at first, and on what pretence, we cannot now say; but it appears to have been very ancient, because we find express laws against it in the books of Moses. It is probable it had its rise in Egypt, where an over-strained search after, and pretence to knowledge, made many fall into the strangest absurdities and impieties that ever entered into the human heart. And in all likelihood, not only the Israelites, but the heathen, who, we find, in general used this practice, were first infected with it from thence. In all probability, those who pretended to this power were generally impostors, who only deceived those who consulted them by delusive tricks; yet we may draw this important conclusion from it, that it has always been a prevailing notion among all people, that the soul of man still subsists in another state after the body is dead; for this practice evidently supposes, and indeed was built on this belief.

Verse 8

1 Samuel 28:8. Saul disguised himself Both because he was ashamed to be known, or thought guilty of this practice, and because he suspected the woman, if she knew him, would not practise her art before him. And he went In all haste that very night, stripped of his regal apparel, and attended only by two companions. How nearly allied are infidelity and impiety to superstition; and what will not they do who will not confide in and obey God! But a few hours before he was too haughty to profess himself the servant of the living God, and to observe his laws, and now he is the slave of his fears and follies! “The most infidel man,” says Delaney, “that I ever conversed with, was, by the accounts of those who best knew him, the most superstitious.”

Verse 11

1 Samuel 28:11. He said, Bring me up Samuel As he had formerly experienced Samuel’s kindness and compassion, so now he expected it in his deep distress.

Verse 12

1 Samuel 28:12. And when the woman saw Samuel The particle when, which our translators have inserted here, and which is not in the original text, embarrasses the sense, and is calculated to give the reader a wrong idea of this transaction, leading him to think that some space of time intervened between Saul’s request and Samuel’s appearance, during which the woman was employed in practising her art. Whereas the Hebrew implies no such thing. It is literally, And he (Saul) said, Bring me up Samuel; and the woman saw Samuel, and cried with a loud voice, &c. The true state of this affair seems to have been, that as soon as Saul had signified whom he wished to have brought up, the woman was about to proceed to her charms and incantations, “designing,” says Dr. Dodd, “either to put some trick upon Saul, by producing an accomplice to represent Samuel; or, may we not believe that evil spirits, really assisting on such occasions, might, and did come in to the aid of execrable wretches, sold to their service like this woman!” Be this, however, as it may, contrary to all her expectation, the moment Saul had mentioned the name of Samuel, the woman saw a venerable figure before her, which made her shriek out with astonishment, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul She knew this appearance was not owing to any contrivance of her own, or her associates. It was what she in no wise expected; and she immediately concluded, that it could be no less a person than the king of Israel that this venerable person was really sent to. From all the circumstances of the relation, it appears that the woman herself was convinced, as the Egyptian magicians were upon another occasion, that this was the finger of God. To suppose that the woman herself, by her familiar spirit or spells, raised Samuel, or any evil spirit that personated him; or that she put a trick upon Saul, by causing one of her associates to appear as Samuel, is so contrary to reason, and the circumstances of the story, that no unprejudiced mind can well, upon an attentive perusal, take it in any such light. Indeed, the credit of the historian is implicated in this relation. He expressly says the woman saw Samuel, and if we believe that she did not see Samuel, but only an evil spirit personating him, we must call in question either the ability or integrity of the sacred writer: we must conceive either that he did not know what he wrote about, or that he designed to deceive his readers. Supposing then that both the woman and Saul might be deceived by an impostor in Samuel’s guise; yet we ask, Was this author deceived? Or did he mean to deceive us, when he gives us to understand, that the woman saw Samuel, and was frighted at the sight!

Verse 13

1 Samuel 28:13. The woman said, I saw gods ascending The original word here used is elohim; and is with equal propriety rendered God, a god, or gods; when spoken of Jehovah it is translated God in the Scriptures; but when meant of the false gods of the heathen, of angels or of magistrates, which it sometimes is, it is generally rendered in the plural number. As it is plain the woman saw and spoke only of one person, it should evidently be translated a god here, that is, a divine or glorious person, full of majesty and splendour, exceeding not only mortal men, but common ghosts. Dr. Waterland renders it, a venerable person, and Mr. Locke says, it here signifies an angel or a judge, and that in the singular number. The same word certainly means magistrates, Psalms 82:1-6.

Verse 14

1 Samuel 28:14. An old man coming up Although this appearance of Samuel is represented by the woman as coming up out of the earth, there is no reason to think that it did so in fact. Rather, the woman spoke according to the prevailing notion of both Jews and heathen of those days, that the place of abode of separate souls was under the earth. This opinion was the foundation of necromancy, or divining by the dead; and from a foolish supposition that they could call the dead from their sepulchres to consult them, it is that the Jews in the time of Isaiah are accused of having sacrificed in the gardens, and of remaining among the graves, for their sepulchres were in gardens, Isaiah 65:3-4; and Isaiah 29:4. Covered with a mantle The usual habit of prophets, and particularly of Samuel, 1 Samuel 15:27. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel But if it was not he, but another person, this declaration of the sacred writer is not true. It may be observed further, that the word ידע jedang, here rendered perceived, properly signifies to know, and sometimes to see. And the pronoun הוא hu, himself, which our translators have left out, is also added after the name Samuel. So that the words, literally translated, are, Saul knew that it was Samuel himself.

Verse 15

1 Samuel 28:15. Why hast thou disquieted me? “Houbigant observes very justly, that Samuel complains not of the woman, but of Saul, for disquieting him; from whence it follows that Samuel was not raised up by her magic arts, but by the will of God. Samuel’s disquiet plainly arose from Saul’s hardened impenitence. It was this that grieved and provoked him; and so it should be translated; Why hast thou provoked me, to make me rise up? Why dost thou ask of me, seeing the Lord is departed from thee? But is it probable, say some, that God, who had refused to answer Saul by all the accustomed methods, would, as it were, submit himself to the superstition of this prince, and, to satisfy him, raise up Samuel to apprize him of his destiny? We answer, 1st, That Saul had not consulted God either by Urim or by prophets; for the Urim was with David; and there was probably no prophet then alive to whom God communicated himself either by vision or in any other way; and that in the methods he had employed he had conducted himself hypocritically and without any right impression of religion. 2d, We answer, that Saul, in danger, and anxious about the event of it, applies to a pythoness to assist him by her incantations, and to call up the spirit of Samuel; but before she begins one word of her spells or charms the prophet interposes, frightens her, and pronounces Saul’s doom; and she herself witnesses the truth of his appearance. If the thing is singular, if the event is extraordinary, it does not follow that it is false, much less that it is impossible. God is not so tied down to his own institutions that he cannot at any time depart from them. That God should manifest himself by his prophets, to encourage or countenance what he himself had forbidden, is indeed very unlikely, or, to speak more justly, very absurd to suppose. But that he should interpose to reprove that practice, which was the case at present, is doubtless no way incredible or improbable.” Delaney and Dodd.

Saul answered and said, I am sore distressed, &c. Finding that God would give no answer to him, and being almost in despair, he seems to have foolishly flattered himself that he might be able to obtain some answer to his petitions by means of that holy prophet, whom he knew to have had a sincere regard for him in his life-time. But the prophet, in his answer in the next verse, gives him to know how incapable he was of doing him any service, seeing that the Lord was departed from him and become his enemy. From hence we may see the vanity and absurdity of invoking saints, &c., as their intercession can no way avail us, when by our wickedness we have made God our enemy. One would think this reply of Samuel would be sufficient to convince any Christian of the folly of any such application. Therefore I have called thee, &c. Happy had it been for him if he had called Samuel sooner, or, rather, the God of Samuel. It was now too late; destruction was at hand, and God had determined it should not be stayed.

Verses 17-18

1 Samuel 28:17-18. The Lord hath rent the kingdom out of thy hand, &c. Here the prophet foretels that Saul should that day be stripped of the kingdom, and that it should be given to David. Then follows what nothing but infinite, unerring prescience could predict; an exact, minute, precise account of all the circumstances of the then depending event! Because thou obeyedst not the voice of the Lord Saul’s sin in killing the Lord’s priests, and in seeking to kill David, is not here mentioned, because the decree of taking the kingdom from him was passed before those sins were committed. Delaney asks here, “Would an impostor” (for such this apparition must have been, if it were not Samuel) “have been so very zealous for a strict observance of the law and commands of God; and so rigid in pronouncing divine vengeance upon the violation of them; and in the depth of his cunning have limited that vengeance to time, place, and person; and all this at no greater distance than the next day? These suppositions are too wild to be seriously confuted; they are the very reverse of what should and would have been done on such an occasion, had imposture interfered in it. Every one knows the business of impostors is to flatter, to delude, to deceive, to answer doubtfully; to promise good and put off the evil; it was this woman’s business in a particular manner to act thus. Had she promised Saul victory, and the success had answered, she was sure of considerable advantage. He, who could have no benefit from priests or from prophets, would, doubtless, have had her in high honour, and with good reason. If he died in the battle, all was safe; and even if he escaped and was worsted, what she said would at least have been taken for an indication of good wishes to the king and to his people; and so would be more likely to escape any after inquiry. Whereas, if she prognosticated evil to the royal race, she was sure of destruction, if the event did not at once justify and save her.”

Verse 19

1 Samuel 28:19. Moreover, the Lord will also deliver, &c. Samuel here predicts three things: 1st, That the Lord would deliver Israel, with Saul, into the hand of the Philistines. 2d, That Saul and his sons (namely, the three that were with him in the camp) should be with him, that is, should, like him, be in the state of the dead, or another world. 3d, That this should take place on the morrow. Now as no evil spirit or impostor of any kind could possibly know these particulars, which were all exactly accomplished next day, nor even Samuel himself, unless he had been divinely inspired with the knowledge of them, it is surprising that any person should imagine that this appearance of Samuel was either a human or diabolical imposture; for it is evident it could only proceed from the omniscient God. And if we consider the whole attentively, we may see a peculiar propriety in it. When Samuel denounced God’s judgments upon Saul he was clad in a mantle, which Saul tore on that occasion. He now came to repeat and to ratify the sentence then denounced; and, to strike him with fuller conviction, he appears in the same dress, the same mantle, in which he denounced that sentence. And since he now again denounced a rending of the kingdom from Saul’s posterity, why may we not presume that the mantle showed now the same rent which was the emblem of that rending? Is it irrational to suppose that when he spoke of this he held up the mantle and pointed to the rent? It is well known the prophets were men of much action in their speaking, and often illustrated their predictions by emblems. It may be observed further, that although Samuel in his lifetime often reproved Saul for his guilt, and told him that God had given away his kingdom from him for that guilt; yet he never told him to whom, nor when the sentence should be executed upon him. How proper, then, to raise from the dead the same prophet who predicted that sentence, to confirm it; to tell him that the kingdom should be taken from him that day; and to name the very person to whom it should be given; to show by whom, and where, and how the sentence should be executed; and that the execution of it was instant, and should be deferred no longer. Was not this an occasion worthy of the divine interposition? The son of Sirach, who probably had as much wisdom, penetration, and piety, as any critic that came after him, is clearly of opinion with the sacred historian, that it was Samuel himself who foretold the fate of Saul and his house in this interview. And it is no ill presumption that his judgment was also that of the Jewish Church upon this head. It has been a question with some, whether the Jews had any belief in the immortality of the soul? This history is a full decision upon that point, and perhaps the establishment of that truth upon the foot of sensible evidence, was not the lowest end of Samuel’s appearance upon this occasion. See Delaney.

Verse 20

1 Samuel 28:20. Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth Struck to the heart, as if the archers of the Philistines had already hit him, at the hearing this dreadful sentence pronounced upon himself, his family, and people; and overcome with astonishment and terror. And was sore afraid because of the words of Samuel Observe, reader, the words of Samuel, says the inspired historian, and not the words of Satan, or any evil spirit personating Samuel. These words, which he now fully believed, and which were the more awful as being pronounced by a departed spirit, sent from the invisible world on purpose to pronounce them, even the spirit of a great and holy prophet, whom he had once highly revered, and to whom, under God, he had owed all his elevation; these words so operated upon his mind, weakened and oppressed with guilt, and upon his body, exhausted with fatigue and fasting, that no strength, or power of motion, was left in him; and he fell at his full length as dead upon the floor. Unhappy Saul! he now reaps the bitter fruits of forsaking God, and of being therefore forsaken by him, and of his many great and aggravated crimes. Vengeance, which had long hovered over him, and waited in long-suffering for his repentance, now advances with large and rapid strides, and his doom approaches. He is deeply sensible of it, and is overwhelmed with horror and dismay on the account thereof.

Verse 25

1 Samuel 28:25. They arose up and went away that night “What remorse,”

says Delaney, “what desolation of mind, what horrors of guilt, what terrors and anticipations of divine wrath haunted him by the way, may no reader ever learn from his own experience!” Some have expressed a hope, that as, no doubt, his past sins were now brought to his remembrance, he felt contrition for them. Of this, however, the Holy Ghost is silent; and considering that at last he was guilty of self-murder we have no reason to think he experienced any repentance that was of any service to his immortal interests.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". Benson's Commentary. 1857.