“Tormenting spirit from the Lord” 1 Samuel 19:9 What’s Up With This?
A friend asked me a question about King Saul having a “tormenting spirit” from the Lord….My first observation was that even the Lord’s Holy Spirit, at work convicting us in our conscience can be a “tormenting spirit” when our own spirit is resistant to the refining work of the Holy Spirit, battling for authority in our soul….. when we are not inclined toward obedience. It can make us quite miserable. So we shouldn’t get too wrapped around the notion of God sending a “demonic spirit” on someone (although as the Sovereign Creator of all things, even they are certainly under his authority!) But the character of God would preclude such conduct for malevolent purposes. God is more likely to simply withdraw his hand of protection from someone who is disobedient and allow the torment of an evil spirit or our own double-mindedness and deceitful hearts….which we see numerous times in Scripture.
As I continued to think about it, I found the verse, read it in context, and read a few commentaries. I agree with Erwin Leutzer’s comment that the word here for “spirit” (ruach) can have a number of meanings….the Holy Spirit, an evil spirit, or a disposition or attitude of one’s own rational mind. ( each of these 3 is a “spirit” ). One commentary noted “the meaning of the Hebrew word ruach is “breath,” or “wind,” or “spirit.” In Scripture, the word is applied both to human beings and to God. Depending on the context, ruach can be talking about a person’s emotional state of being, or their soul or spirit, and is sometimes used as an idiom, as in “a mere breath.” When coupled with one of the names of God, ruach refers to the Holy Spirit.” This spirit that comes upon Saul, though it is “from the Lord” (or by God’s permissive will or by God’s withdrawal of his restraint or protection), it does not appear to be the spirit OF THE LORD. This may be David’s “wake up call” that Saul intends harm to him, resulting in David taking evasive action, though it seems David never takes similarly evil or malicious action against Saul. This represents a significant contrast in the heart/spirit of the two men.
I also like John Wesley’s matter of fact response: “David’s successes against the Philistines revived Saul’s envy, and the devil watched the opportunity, as he had done before.”
Recall that even when Jesus shut down satan in the wilderness in the three temptations presented to him by reciting Scriptures, ( in Luke 4 ) when the devil had finished every temptation, he left Him until an opportune time. Satan never gives up but continues “prowling”. Anything that continues to hound or harass or press in upon our spirit, even temporarily, preventing us from being at peace, can be a “tormenting spirit”. Inclinations like sadness, anger, depression, irritability, discontent, etc. have been, in times past, attributed to evil spirits…although we know more about such matters today and would not describe such moods that way, as a rule!
1 Samuel 19:9
1.) From Erwin Luetzer: https://www.gotquestions.org/evil-spirit-Saul.html
The evil spirit was “from” the Lord in that it was allowed by God to harass Saul. Ultimately, all created things are under God’s control. It is likely that this evil spirit was part of God’s judgment upon Saul for his disobedience. Saul had directly disobeyed God on two occasions (1 Samuel 13:1–14; 15:1–35). Therefore, God removed His Spirit from Saul and allowed an evil spirit to torment him. Likely, Satan and the demons had always wanted to attack Saul; God was now simply giving them permission to do so.
Second, the evil spirit was used to bring David into the life of Saul. This account is recorded immediately following David’s anointing as the future king of Israel. The reader would be wondering how a shepherd boy would become king. First Samuel 16 reveals the first step in this journey. When the king’s servants saw the torment Saul was enduring, they suggested, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better” (1 Samuel 16:15–16).
One of the king’s servants referred David to the king, describing the youth as a great harp player, among other things (verse 18). Saul called David to come and found him to be a great comfort: “David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, ‘Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.’ Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Samuel 16:21–23).
It is important to note that this evil spirit that troubled Saul was only temporary. The final verse notes that the evil spirit came on multiple occasions to bother Saul, but also it departed from him.
A related question is, does God send evil spirits to torment people today? There are examples of individuals in the New Testament being turned over to Satan or demons for punishment. God allowed Ananias and Sapphira to be filled with the spirit of Satan as a warning and example to the early church (Acts 5:1–11). A man in the Corinthian church was committing incest and adultery, and God commanded the leaders to “hand him over to Satan” to destroy his sinful nature and save his soul (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). God allowed a messenger of Satan to torment the apostle Paul in order to teach him to rely on God’s grace and power and not become conceited because of the tremendous abundance of spiritual truth he was given (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Cathy Byrd’s addendum: (Even the Apostle Peter was sharply rebuked by Christ with “Get thee behind me, Satan!” for dismissing Christ’s words regarding what would and must happen to him. Such contradictions of the Truth represent a “spirit” that is not in keeping with the Truth, and all such contradictions of the Truth of the Word may be considered as coming from the same source…the Father of Lies!)
The New Testament reveals how God can use the presence of evil spirits to reveal His power. Jesus showed His power over demons on multiple occasions; every time Jesus cast out a demon, it was an affirmation of the Lord’s authority. The account of Jesus’ casting out the demons who entered a herd of pigs indicates that perhaps as many as 2,000 evil spirits were present, yet they all feared the power of Christ (Mark 5:1–13).
If God does allow evil spirits to torment people today, He does so with the goal of our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). And, just as in Job’s case, Satan and his minions can do only what God allows them to do (Job 1:12; 2:6). They never act independently of God’s sovereign and perfect will and purpose. If believers suspect they are being tormented by demonic forces, the first response is to repent of any known sin. Then we should ask for wisdom to understand what we are to learn from the situation. Then we are to submit to whatever God has allowed in our lives, trusting that it will result in the building up of our faith and the glory of God.
Evil spirits are no match for the power of God. As Ephesians 6:10–12 commands, “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
2.) From Apologetics Press.org http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=1278
At least three clarifications are worthy of consideration. First, the Bible frequently refers to acts of deserved punishment that God has inflicted upon people throughout history. For example, He brought a global deluge against the Earth’s population (Genesis 6-9) due to rampant human wickedness and depravity (6:5). God did not act inappropriately in doing so, not only because the people deserved nothing less, but also because He repeatedly warned the people of impending disaster, and was longsuffering in giving them ample opportunity to repent (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5; 3:9). The Bible provides instance after instance where evil people received their “just desserts.” God is not to be blamed nor deemed unjust for levying deserved punishment for sin, even as honest, impartial judges in America today are not culpable when they mete out just penalties for criminal behavior. Retribution upon flagrant, ongoing, impenitent lawlessness is not only right and appropriate; it is absolutely indispensable and necessary (see Miller, 2002).
In this case, Saul was afflicted with “an evil spirit” as a punishment for his insistent defiance of God’s will. He had committed flagrant violation of God’s commands on two previous occasions (1 Samuel 13:13-14; 15:11,19). His persistence in this lifelong pattern of disobedient behavior certainly deserved direct punitive response from God (e.g., 31:4). As Keil and Delitzsch maintained: “This demon is called ‘an evil spirit (coming) from Jehovah,’ because Jehovah had sent it as a punishment” (1976, 2:170). John W. Haley added: “And he has a punitive purpose in granting this permission. He uses evil to chastise evil” (1977, p. 142). Of course, the reader needs to be aware of the fact that the term for “evil” is a broad term that need not refer to spiritual wickedness. In fact, it often refers to physical harm or painful hardship (e.g., Genesis 19:19; 2 Samuel 17:14).
A second clarification regarding the sending of an evil spirit upon Saul is the question of, in what sense the spirit was “from the Lord.” To be honest and fair, the biblical interpreter must be willing to allow the peculiar linguistic features of ancient languages to be clarified and understood in accordance with the way those languages functioned. Specifically, ancient Hebrew (like most all other languages, then and now) was literally loaded with figurative language—i.e., figures of speech, Semitisms, colloquialisms, and idioms. It frequently was the case that “[a]ctive verbs were used by the Hebrews to express, not the doing of the thing, but the permission of the thing which the agent is said to do” (Bullinger, 1898, p. 823, emp. in orig.; cf. MacKnight, 1954, p. 29). Similarly, the figure of speech known as “metonymy of the subject” occurs “[w]here the action is put for the declaration concerning it: or where what is said to be done is put for what is declared, or permitted, or foretold as to be done: or where an action, said to be done, is put for the giving occasion for such action” (Bullinger, p. 570, italics in orig., emp. added). Hence, when the Bible says that the “distressing spirit” that troubled Saul was “from the Lord,” the writer was using an idiom to indicate that the Lord allowed or permitted the distressing spirit to come upon Saul. George Williams commented: “What God permits He is stated in the Bible to perform” (1960, p. 127).
In this second case, God did not directly send upon Saul an evil spirit; rather He allowed it to happen in view of Saul’s own propensity for stubborn disobedience. Gleason Archer commented on this point: “By these successive acts of rebellion against the will and law of God, King Saul left himself wide open to satanic influence—just as Judas Iscariot did after he had determined to betray the Lord Jesus” (1982, p. 179). One need not necessarily suppose that this demonic influence overwhelmed Saul’s free will. Satan can have power over us only insofar as we encourage or invite him to do so—“for what God fills not, the devil will” (Clarke, n.d., 2:259).
It is particularly interesting to note how the Bible links the frequent attempts at subversion by Satan with the redemptive scheme of God to provide atonement through the Christ. David, an ancestor of Christ, had to face Satan in the form of this “evil spirit” that sought to harm him through Saul, even as Jesus Himself had to face Satan’s attempts to subvert Him (Genesis 3:15; Matthew 4:1-11; cf. Matthew 2:16; Hebrews 2:14; Revelation 12:4). Williams went on to observe: “This explains why so many of those who were the ancestors of Christ were the objects of Satan’s peculiar cunning and hatred” (p. 153).
A third consideration regarding the “evil spirit” that came upon Saul is the fact that the term “spirit” (ruach) has a wide range of meanings: air (i.e., breath or wind); the vital principle of life or animating force; the rational mind where thinking and decision-making occurs; the Holy Spirit of God (Gesenius, 1847, pp. 760-761), and even disposition of mind or attitude (Harris, et al., 1980, 2:836). Likewise, the word translated “evil” (KJV), “distressing” (NKJV), or “injurious” (NIV margin) is a word (ra‘a) that can mean “bad,” “unhappy,” or “sad of heart or mind” (Gesenius, p. 772). It can refer to “a variety of negative attitudes common to wicked people, and be extended to include the consequences of that kind of lifestyle” (Harris, et al., 2:856).
In view of these linguistic data, the “evil spirit” that came upon Saul may well have been his own bad attitude—his ugly disposition of mind—that he manifested over and over again. Here is a persistent problem with which so many people grapple—the need to get their attitude straight regarding God’s will for their lives, and the need to have an unselfish approach to life and the people around them. We can be “our own worst enemy.” Such certainly was the case with Saul—and he bore total responsibility for his own actions. He could not blame God or an external “evil spirit.” Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown summarize this point quite adequately: “His own gloomy reflections—the consciousness that he had not acted up to the character of an Israelitish king—the loss of his throne, and the extinction of his royal house, made him jealous, irritable, vindictive, and subject to fits of morbid melancholy” (n.d., p. 185). Indeed, all people ultimately choose to allow Satan to rule them by their capitulation to their own sinful inclinations, desires, and decisions (cf. Genesis 4:7; Luke 22:3; Acts 5:3).
In view of these considerations, God and the Bible are exonerated from wrongdoing in the matter of Saul being the recipient of an evil spirit. When adequate evidence is gathered, the facts may be understood in such a way that God is shown to be righteous and free from unfair treatment of Saul. Like every other accountable human being who has ever lived, Saul made his own decisions, and reaped the consequences accordingly.
3.) John Wesley’s notes on 1 Samuel 19:9 http://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary.php?com=wes&b=9&c=19
“And the evil spirit from the LORD was upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand: and David played with his hand.” ( CBByrd- In the next instant it is noted that Saul threw the spear at David with intent to kill him, it would seem!)
The evil spirit — David’s successes against the Philistines revived Saul’s envy, and the devil watched the opportunity, as he had done before.
Addendum: 5-5-18 One final thought on this scripture – This was likely written by the prophet Samuel. Samuel, as other prophets, would most likely be inclined to view any situation through the lens of God’s sovereignty even, if the plan were not directly God’s own. xx