What is the evil spirit in 1 Samuel 16:14–15?
The passage in question reads:
Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you.”1 Samuel 16:14–15
To understand what is going on here we need to remember a little of the context. Previously, in chapter 8 we read that the children of Israel expressed their desire for a king so as to be “like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:5). That is, they were unsatisfied with the government that the LORD had instituted for them. In spite of this, the LORD agreed to anoint a king over them because He would use this failure to eventually bless them with the provision of the faithful King-Priest, the Lord Jesus. His righteous rule will be realized in the Millennial kingdom of this Son of David.
Saul, however, was initially given to them to satisfy their desires as seen in chapters 9 and 10. The Spirit of God was given to Saul (1 Sam. 10:9) for the sake of his administrative responsibilities as king of Israel. Some commentators have suggested that Saul was a believer based on this gift. But, I disagree. I think the Spirit was given to Saul strictly as a gift for the sake of his position as king. His responsibility was to be faithful to the LORD in this position. I believe his behavior later in life proves his lack of a true relationship with God. See for example 1 Samuel 22:17–19 and 1 Samuel chapter 28.
The event that precipitated the removal of the Spirit of the LORD in the verses we are considering is the plain disobedience described in the previous chapter. In chapter 15 verses 26 through 28, Samuel tells Saul that the LORD had removed the kingdom from him. In chapter 16, Samuel anoints David to be king over Israel. Since David was now officially king, the Spirit would leave Saul.
Now, what about the evil spirit? Would the LORD send an evil spirit upon Saul? Or, is this a poetic way of saying that Saul was plagued by depression? We sometimes say of a person “he has a melancholy spirit” or “he is mean spirited.” So, it is not unreasonable to think that this was Saul’s condition. However, we do have in Scripture examples which do not seem to allow this interpretation. The issue really is whether God actually sends an evil spirit to harass a person. Some feel that God cannot do so because it conflicts with His nature as being good. God’s nature constrains what He does (Num. 23:19; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18); God is love (1 Jn. 4:16), and God is light (1 Jn. 1:5).
A skeptic would argue that if God could send an evil spirit then that shows that he is not a good God. This is used to deny the Scriptural portrayal of God’s nature. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it puts man in the place of being the judge of God’s actions. But, we can only learn of God through Scripture (Ps. 119:160) and nature (Rom. 1:20). So, we must find the reasons for God’s actions there.
Scripture affirms that God is both perfectly good (and righteous) and can send evil. Some examples show that whatever we might think of the superficial aspects of these actions they are always good or righteous (God is light) and have an overriding good effect for mankind (God is love).
One of the most striking examples is Pharaoh. Skeptics complain that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he was not really responsible for his actions and that God’s judgment upon him was therefore unjust. But, a closer examination of this whole story gives a fuller and instructive history (Rom. 9:14-18).
First, God did tell Moses in Exodus 4:21 that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. This was obviously a personal revelation to Moses for his encouragement that whatever the appearances would be God would bring about the accomplishment of the deliverance of Israel. At this point, Pharaoh’s actions were completely his own responsibility. Later we read, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened” (Ex. 7:13, 22; Ex. 8:15, 19, 32; Ex 9:7.) It was not until Exodus 9:12 that we read of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. This latter is sometimes called “judicial hardening.” It is obvious that this only occurs when it is inevitable that the person will not turn (repent) of his path. Why does God allow or do this? (It might be debated whether this results from an actual imposition of God or is simply an expression of God’s allowance. In either case, we accept is as being “of God.”)
The answer to this important question is seen in the consequences of the news of the resulting judgments upon Egypt. We later read of the salvation of Rahab who eventually was named in the lineage of king David and consequently the Lord Jesus (Matt. 1:5). When Israel was entering the land of Canaan, Rahab by faith (Heb. 11:31) hid the spies who were investigating the city of Jericho. She told them “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:9–11). It is important to consider that Rahab was only one example. We have no idea how many people were “saved” by the news of miraculous judgments upon Pharaoh and Egypt.
The lesson here is that God will ensure that “all things work for good.” See Psalms 76:10 with Romans 8:28 and Romans 9:17. Some other interesting verses along this line are: Job 2:10; 1 Ki 22:19-23; Amos 3:6; and Isa. 45:5-7. So regardless of the identity of the evil spirit that afflicted Saul, God sent it to accomplish His purposes.
Ridout, Samuel, King Saul: The Man After the Flesh, (Accessed 8/21/2021).