Now the Lord’s spirit had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. Saul’s servants said to him, “Look, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. If our master just says the word, your servants will search for someone who knows how to play the lyre. The musician can play whenever the evil spirit from God is affecting you, and then you’ll feel better.”
Saul said to his servants, “Find me a good musician and bring him to me.”
One of the servants responded, “I know that one of Jesse’s sons from Bethlehem is a good musician. He’s a strong man and heroic, a warrior who speaks well and is good-looking too. The Lord is with him.”
So, Saul sent messengers to Jesse to say, “Send me your son David, the one who keeps the sheep.”
Jesse then took a donkey and loaded it with a homer of bread, a jar of wine, and a young goat, and he sent it along with his son David to Saul. That is how David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked David very much, and David became his armor-bearer. Saul sent a message to Jesse: “Please allow David to remain in my service because I am pleased with him.” Whenever the evil spirit from God affected Saul, David would take the lyre and play it. Then Saul would relax and feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him alone. (Common English Bible)
In the realm of God, everything seems upside-down. Those who are first are last, and the last are first. The rich are really poor, and the poor are actually rich. People of low position are the highest in God’s realm, while those at the top are really at the bottom. The religious insiders, appearing close to God, are on the outside; and the outsiders, seemingly far from God, are really the insiders and close to the Lord.
If we judge circumstances according to human standards of fair-play and what seems right to us, God’s ethics might not make much sense. There are two extreme responses to this reality of God’s odd working in the world.
One response is to try and nail down everything we don’t understand, to create a black and white world where every question has an answer, and all things are certain so that we know exactly how God works, all the time.
The opposite response is to never try answering anything about the mysterious working of God, saying, “whatever will be, will be.” Somewhere in the middle of the extremes is probably a good place to be – working to know God better and how divinity operates in the world, while being comfortable with mystery and discerning we will never completely understand everything in this life.
There are times we feel confident of what God is doing. Other times, maybe most of the time, we are clueless as to how God is working. We do not have all the answers to God’s activity. Yet, there is still a lot we know about God. The Lord worked in quite different ways with Saul than with David.
The difference in the two characters, Saul and David, hinges upon the presence and absence of God. God withdrew divine presence from Saul. King Saul’s deliberate and consistent disobedience of God’s direct commands led to the divine absence. Not only did God leave Saul, but an evil or bad spirit from the Lord tormented him. That reality might be something way off your understanding of how God works with people. God departed from Saul and put him in a situation of inflicting pain.
Bear in mind, in a biblical worldview, there are not two equally opposing forces of God and Satan. Rather, Lucifer is a created being who aspired to be like God and fell from heaven. God stands alone as the one sovereign Being who controls all things in heaven and earth.
Saul is not an isolated occurrence of experiencing a bad spirit. For example, God hardened the heart of Pharaoh so that he acted harshly against the people of Israel (Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10). From a strictly human perspective, it seemed God was kicking the can down the road, pushing off the people’s deliverance. Yet, the Lord was orchestrating deliverance from bondage, and a redemption far beyond what the Israelites could have ever imagined.
Sometimes, we are privy to God’s working. For example, in the days of the Judges:
Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. But God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the lords of Shechem; and the lords of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech. This happened so that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might be avenged and their blood be laid on their brother Abimelech, who killed them, and on the lords of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers. (Judges 9:22-24, NRSV)
In whatever way we understand an evil spirit from God in the life of Saul, the point to grasp is that God is aware and in control – whereas Saul is a disturbed man due to his own bad choices. Some ancient interpreters of the story view this as an act of mercy on God’s part, by not just eradicating Saul altogether, but, instead, giving Saul an opportunity to turn his life around and again experience the presence of God.
Keep in mind, just because someone experiences mental or emotional pain in the form of depression or anxiety or other disorder, does not necessarily mean there is a bad decision behind it. To go down that route is to take the extreme position of living in the black and white world of trying to be certain of everything. We only need consider the life of Job to know that pain, even extreme pain and horrible circumstances, does not necessarily mean sin is at the root of it all. (Job 2:7-10)
On the other extreme, those embracing only mystery simply say to people in pain to trust God and accept your situation because God has a plan (not helpful, even hurtful). So, what is helpful?
The servants of Saul knew what was helpful. They asked the king to put out an ad for a music therapist. And the best one they could find was David. The problem of Saul’s anguish needed the answer of a good harpist.
Saul got some relief from pain, got a chance to perhaps come back to God, and David (already the next anointed king) got to learn the job of leading first-hand from the bottom-up by being in Saul’s service.
David needed to learn lowly service before becoming an exalted king. God could have simply knocked Saul off the throne and did away with him (which would make sense to a lot of people). Instead, God graciously gave young David time to observe the duties of a king.
God isn’t off his rocker. God knows what he is doing. God knew both Saul and David, inside and out. And, the Lord intimately knows each person, family, faith community, nation, and people group. If anyone claims to know precisely what God is doing and should do, they are a spiritual huckster speaking from ignorant pride. Conversely, if anyone throws up their arms in exasperation, mumbling how nobody can know God’s working, they are spiritually immature and irresponsible.
How we act or not act, what we say and do not say, is all a function of our theology – our real view of God. So, what might we take away from this story?
- The mystery of God and the certainty of people do not mix well. Claiming to always know what God is doing is delusional and just doesn’t help anyone.
- The clarity of God through divine commands, and the apathy of people to them, is a bad situation. Claiming to never know what God is doing is a cop-out (because God has spoken clearly about a lot of things, like the Ten Commandments).
- Unlike Saul, do the best you can in the circumstances before you. Many situations we cannot avoid. However, in every situation we can control our response.
- Like David, be an agent of comfort, healing, and blessing to others. Most of the psalms were written in times of doubt, distress, and disturbance. We can take those psalms and pray them directly to God in the midst of our own discomfort.
We are in God’s hands, all of time. There is never a time when we are outside of God’s sight or ability to work. The Lord’s arm is not too short to accomplish good purposes. God is our strong tower and mighty fortress for every life circumstance.
**Above painting: David playing the harp for King Saul, by German painter, Januarius Zick, 1750