Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so.
—C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1941)
The Witch at Endor
God would not answer Saul. Not by prophets or dreams or the priestly Urim and Thummim (1 Sam. 28:6). The Philistines were massing for an attack, and Saul was desperate. He turned to his men and said, “Find me a woman with a familiar spirit; I need her services.”
“Familiar spirit”: a friendly ghost, a spirit guide, an unseen power that could reach out to the dead. The man or woman who kept company with such an entity was called a witch, a wizard, or a necromancer. Today we speak of a medium or a ghost-whisperer.
The task that Saul set his men was a difficult one. God’s law pronounced the death penalty against anyone who practiced necromancy (Ex. 22:18; Lev. 20:6), and King Saul had enforced this law vigorously. He had driven all the wizards and necromancers out of the land (1 Sam. 28:3, 9). Any attempt by court officials to locate a medium would have looked like a trap. And yet somehow his servants quickly came back with a location: “There’s a woman who has a familiar spirit at Endor.”
Saul assumed a disguise and, with two retainers, went by night to enquire of the woman (v. 8). He presented a generic request: he wanted the woman to use her familiar spirit to make contact with the dead. The woman objected vehemently. She didn’t say she couldn’t do such a thing; she said, rather, that such a thing was illegal, that Saul had driven all the wizards out of the land. The Mosaic Law only punished overt acts. Believing in witchcraft or giving it lip service carried no sanctions; practicing magic or necromancy did. “Why are you laying a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” the woman asked (v. 9).
Saul immediately swore by Yahweh that no punishment would fall upon her if she did as he asked. The woman eagerly jumped at the promise of immunity (v. 11). “Whom shall I bring up for you?” she asked. That is, “Who’s the departed love one you want to talk to?”
Saul said, “Samuel.”
Raising Up Samuel
Now Samuel was a prophet, a man of God. Samuel had died in a good old age and all Israel had lamented and buried him (v. 3). Scripture teaches that those who die in the Lord go to be with him (Phil. 1:23). Their spirits are not at the beck and call of mediums. And, of course, Saul already knew Yahweh’s strong disapproval of necromancy. So it’s hard to imagine what he thought he was doing.
The medium, on the other hand, was a true medium. She was in regular contact with a dark spirit. It wasn’t a ghost or a “higher power”: it was a demon, one of Satan’s lackeys. This is how occult scam was supposed to work: the medium would call up her spirit familiar and have it pretend to fetch the spirit of the departed loved one. In reality, the demon would simply act the part. For the souls of the wicked are also out of the medium’s reach: they’re in hell until the Judgment.
Whether or not the woman fully understood the ploy, the text doesn’t say. In any case, the woman set about contacting her spirit. Then everything went wrong—for her. And with her psychic vision the woman saw Samuel, the real Samuel (v. 12).
The woman cried with a loud voice. She turned on the king and said, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!” (v. 12).
Saul tried to calm her. “Don’t be afraid. What did you see?”
The woman said, “I saw a god ascending out of the earth” (v. 13). The word for “god” is elohim. It can refer to the true God, to false gods, or to angels. At least a few times it refers to judges and magistrates, those who bear God’s delegated power in civil matters (e.g., 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps. 82:6). Probably what the woman saw was Samuel in his judge’s robes. At that point she knew that her normal operation had been commandeered by divine power, and she was truly afraid. And she suddenly recognized Saul for who he was. (His stature should have been a dead give away from the beginning.)
When the Dead Speak
Saul couldn’t see what the medium saw. He asked for a description, and she gave it. Saul knew it was Samuel. He stooped to the ground and bowed himself (v. 15). And then Samuel spoke.
Samuel’s presence was clearly a divine miracle. God overrode the séance, hijacked the woman’s psychic powers, and sent Samuel from His very presence to pronounce Saul’s doom. Some have objected that the real Samuel would have offered Saul some hope or pointed him again towards repentance. But, of course, that was all implied in Samuel’s actual presence. Samuel told Saul he would be dead in twenty-four hours, he and his sons. That meant Saul had twenty-four hours to repent of his sins, and Saul knew that. Not many men in earth’s history have had such a gracious, last minute warning.
Saul collapsed. He was terrified and hadn’t eaten since morning. The woman offered Saul food. At first he refused, but the woman and his retainers urged him to accept. He did. So his last supper was with a witch. He died on the field of battle the next day, a suicide. He had become what Israel had wanted: a king like those of the pagan nations round about.
The Bible regards witchcraft, magic, and demon possession as real things. To be sure, the overwhelming bulk of what passes for magic today—and probably in most ages—is trickery, sleight of hand, and confidence games. But what the witch of Endor regularly did involved communication with a demonic spirit. The New Testament also records a numerous cases of demon possession and real occult activity (e.g., Luke 8:26-40; Acts 16:16-18; 19:13-10). And, of course, Jesus saw and argued with Satan himself (Matt. 4:1-11). The prophets and apostles knew that the occult was very real. And there is no explicit statement in Scripture that tells us that occult activity would vanish with the end of the Old Covenant age. Indeed, there is a great deal of eyewitness evidence to the contrary.
On the other hand, Scripture does tell us that, through His death and resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan definitively (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:8; Rev. 12:1-11; 20:1-3). His power is broken; his kingdom is falling. What remains in Yahweh’s war against evil is a mopping-up operation. The powers of darkness fade away in the full light of the gospel.
St. Athanasius gave witness to this at the dawn of the Fourth Century in his short classic, On the Incarnation of the Word. Among the proofs he offered for Jesus’ deity was the silence of the oracles, the disappearance of the demonic spirits, and the evaporation of the magical arts as the gospel spread across the Roman Empire. He wrote, for example: “And demons, so far from continuing to impose on people by their deceits and oracle-givings and sorceries, are routed by the sign of the cross if they so much as try” (8:55). Athanasius remembered a world infested with demons; he knew a world where those same demons were cringing in shrinking shadows.
When the Fires Burn Low
In his preface to The Screwtape Letters (1961), C. S. Lewis writes:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight (3).
In ages given to skepticism and rationalism, the demons conceal themselves; in times of cultural collapse or radical transition, they sometimes put in an appearance—there, just beyond the light of the gospel, out in the lonely places, in the dark shadows of the broken society. So it was at the end of the Roman Empire and again in the Renaissance. We have seen it in the West since the mid-60s as traditional Newtonian rationalism has collapsed. When the fires of Western culture burn low, the encircling eyes appear in the surrounding darkness. We desperately need to stoke the fires.
Saul was a tyrant. He refused to listen to the word of God. He coveted power and tried desperately, even murderously, to hold on to what he had. What he found in the end was power of a very different sort, but a power just as opposed to the God of the Bible as was his own tyrannical reign. There comes a point where the power-State and the power of magic meet, and it’s frightening. But the Christian answer doesn’t lie in fear and paranoia, in endless research into the “depths of Satan,” or in some sort of “spiritual” white magic. It lies in faithful covenant service to Jesus Christ: in hearing the word of God and doing it (Matt. 7:15-29).
For Further Reading:
Os Guinness, “Encircling Eyes,” in The Dust of Death, A Critique of the Counter Culture (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1979).
Gary North, Unholy Spirits, Occultism and New Age Humanism (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1986).
Kurt Koch, Between Christ and Satan (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1971).
Peter Leithart, A Son to Me, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).