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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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 reubenbredenhof.com
 
Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Looking for Answers in the Wrong Places
Text:1 Samuel 28 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Revelation of the Gospel
 
Preached:2021
Added:2021-10-31
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 113:1,2                                                                                     

Ps 12:1,4,5

Reading – 1 Samuel 28

Ps 19:3,4,6

Sermon – 1 Samuel 28

Ps 119:4,5,6

Hy 48:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, some years ago I saw a sign out front of a church. The sign read: “There are Some Questions that Can’t Be Answered By Google.” It’s a good point. Because where do you turn for answers to your questions? Many turn almost automatically to Google. If we want information, or directions, or inspiration, that’s the place to turn.                    

What about different kinds of answers? What if you’re trying to find out what you should study after school? Or trying to decide on a new path? Or you’re wondering about your real purpose and why you’re here? We get anxious to have clear answers.

It’s something everyone has in common, wanting guidance. And perhaps the hunger for direction is stronger today than it’s even been. Apparently one of the most common questions asked of Google is, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ And among the 1.5 billion results, you can probably find an answer that you like. For almost everyone wants to hear a voice of authority in their life. We wait to hear a good word from somewhere, a word that will be decisive.

Maybe you leave it up to your parents, and what they say—they’re the final authority: “If my Mom says so, it must be right.” Maybe we follow the lead of the culture around us: “If it’s popular, it must be OK.” Or perhaps we assume that science is always correct.

For a lot of us, it’s probably our feelings that carry a real authority. We say: “If I feel this way, then it must be right. If my heart is telling me ‘yes,’ then I’ll say ‘yes.’” This is what happens whenever people reject God’s Word. When we start turning from the truth, we’re far more likely to accept falsehood, to listen to the wrong voices.

We see it also in 1 Samuel 28, the chapter when Saul visits the witch of Endor. First, some context: for the last number of chapters in 1 Samuel, David has been running from King Saul. Saul is insanely jealous of this newly anointed future king, and he’ll do anything to destroy David. And in the previous chapter, David decided to flee to Philistine territory. He knows that Saul won’t dare pursue him here. Once he arrives, David links up with Achish, the king. David gains his trust by making raids on other nations.

Thinking that David is now firmly on his side, Achish concludes that the time is right for another attack on Israel. He thinks David has now turned his back on his homeland: “You assuredly know that you will go out with me to battle, you and your men will” (28:1).

And so the Philistines gather their forces to invade Israel. In response to the threat, King Saul assembles his own army. We don’t know how big each army was, and whether this was a fair match-up or not. But Saul’s confidence is very low. When he “saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly” (v 5). Saul knows that he has lost the people’s favour, that they’ve come to look to David. But David of course, is nowhere to be found.

Saul is so frightened at this moment because he knows, deep down, that he doesn’t have God’s blessing. He’s rejected God’s will for the kingship. Now, in a crisis, Saul is terrified. He realizes again how hopeless it is to try anything without the Lord’s favour.

Still, Saul is going to try. He will face the Philistine threat. But at this moment, he really needs guidance. What should he do about these enemies? Attack them before they attack him? Call for a truce? Make a strategic retreat? On his own, he feels utterly lost. In times past he would’ve asked Samuel, the LORD’s prophet, for some direction. Samuel would know what to do. But Samuel is dead, and he has been for a couple years. So in verse 6 we read, “Saul inquired of the LORD…by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets.”

A few different ways of seeking the Lord’s will, finding the voice of authority, are mentioned here. First is by dreams. God had said in Numbers 12:6, “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.” So Saul asks God for a dream. But no dreams come. There was probably a false prophet or two hanging around, but none had a message to share.

Besides asking a prophet, Saul could consult a priest. We know that, because verse 6 mentions how he tried to use the Urim. The Urim and Thummim are the special stones that the LORD had given to confirm messages from God. We see them being used in the Old Testament for exactly this kind of situation, when a king wanted to know whether to go out to battle. These special stones were kept in the breastplate of the priest.

Now, some time ago Saul had killed many of the LORD’s priests at Nob. But at least one priest stayed with Saul—perhaps he was forced to. Yet Saul was fooling himself if he expected an answer from God in this way. For we know that the true Urim were with a different priest, Abiathar. A few chapters ago, we are told that Abiathar had joined up with David after what happened at Nob. David was the man in line for the throne, so this tool of divine revelation would stay with him.

What Saul had near him then, was probably an imitation version of the Urim. Think of it: he was so desperate to hold onto power, and so self-deceived, that he faked a tool for divine revelation. So would these stones really give God’s answer to Saul’s pleading? Of course they wouldn’t. The battery was dead, you might say. The connection was broken. As our text says, “The LORD did not answer him.” The prophets, the stones, the dreams—they all said nothing.

That’s a pretty terrible thing. It almost sounds wrong, that God did not answer Saul. For we say that God is the one who always hears and answers when we call to him. We believe that God will never ignore his children when we pray. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7). Or in James, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (5:16). We know that—and for Jesus’ sake, we pray in that sire confidence! God’s fatherly ear is open to our cries. The LORD is inclined to our whispers; He hears our complaints and our petitions.

So what’s happening to Saul? How can God forsake him? Saul isn’t seeking the LORD in humility. His spirit isn’t contrite. Saul might realize he’s in deep trouble, but he’s not turning to God in faith. He has done his own thing for way too long, and now he cannot do otherwise. God is leaving Saul in his misery.

Beloved, we should realize that God doesn’t answer the prayers of just anyone. He’s not so desperate to hear from someone, anyone, that He’s just happy if a person calls out to him. No, God answers those who belong to him. God listens to those who are his children by faith, those who truly depend on him, who are actually walking with him.

Scripture actually warns us that we should not expect God’s answer if we are living in sin and apart from him. God won’t respond to the faithless. Consider what it says in Psalm 66, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened to my prayers” (66:18). Yes, the Lord is near to those who rely on him—thank God for this great mercy! But God will be distant from those who make a habit of ignoring him. You could say it this way: If you don’t listen to God from day to day, why should God listen to you? So Saul inquires of God, but receives no reply.

What happens next reveals how desperate a person without God can become. For Saul says to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her” (v 7). Literally, Saul’s looking for a “woman who is in control of a spirit.” This is someone able to communicate with another realm. It’s sometimes translated as ‘wizard,’ or even ‘a witch.’

“Is there such a person around?” Saul asks. There is, at Endor. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t want us to overlook the sad irony of what’s taking place. For only a few verses before, the author reported that, “Saul had put the mediums and spiritists out of the land” (v 3). This was  something that had occurred much earlier in Saul’s reign.

For God had said in his Word, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them” (Lev 19:31). Again in Deuteronomy 18, God had condemned “witches,” right along with those who sacrifice their children, who practice divination, who interpret omens or cast spells, and those who consult the dead (vv 10-11). In better times, Saul obeyed these words. But now we see how far Saul’s fallen. He is desperate, he wants answers, so he thinks nothing of going directly against God’s Word!

He goes to Endor, a town just a few kilometres from where the two armies were facing off. The witch probably practiced her craft in a cave. First, a cave was a good hideout; but it was also underground—where the spirits of the dead were thought to roam.

Saul first puts on a disguise. When he meets the woman, he assures her that no harm will come to her. Then the reason for his visit: that she might call up the spirit of Samuel. Remember again what we were told at the beginning of the chapter: Samuel was long gone.

But Saul puts in his request, “Bring up Samuel for me” (v 11). One last chat with the prophet at this critical hour! Some direction and wisdom when it’s most needed. And guess what? Samuel appears! Notice the reaction of the witch: she screams. It’s like she wasn’t used to this kind of success.

At the very same time, she concludes that it must be King Saul using her services. Who else would call up this old prophet? But Saul asks her to describe what’s happening, “What did you see?” It seems like Saul isn’t able to see what the witch can see. She is probably in another section of the cave, perhaps around a corner.

As the woman watches, the spirit comes up out of the ground. The spirit even looks like Samuel, wearing a “mantle” or robe, like the prophet used to. Hearing this, “Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down” (v 14). So he was going to get some guidance after all.

At this point we need to stop and ask: Was it really Samuel, back from the dead? Was the old prophet actually there in that cave of Endor? There’s been a lot of debate over this question. And it’s not easy to answer. The heart of the matter is whether someone can actually talk to a dead person. Will the dead ever come back with a message for us?

There have long been shows and movies about things like ghosts and zombies and spirits. It fascinates people, the idea that the dead can return to a form of life and that spirits can haunt us. Yet God’s Word says there’s a very real separation between the dead and the living. Once you’re dead, it’s over, completely and permanently. That is, you can’t come back to earth—unless, maybe, the Almighty God chooses to send someone back.

So did the LORD allow it this time? That might appear to be the case. Remember that the witch screamed, for she saw something very real! And yes, it says that “the woman saw Samuel” (v 12). ‘She saw him.’ Whenever we read the Scriptures, we want to take it literally. Unless we have good reasons to do otherwise—like if it’s a metaphor, or poetry—we strive to accept the plain meaning of the text. And the text plainly says that she saw Samuel. So that’s that.

Yet I don’t think that it was him. Why not? If we say that it really was Samuel who appeared, there are a few serious things to consider.

First, would God ever cooperate with witchcraft like this? God would not break his own law so that He could send a message to earth. To me, that seems very unlikely.

Second, I wonder whether God would really make the spirit of Samuel leave his heavenly rest. Samuel was his loyal servant, faithful and beloved. Would God send him from heaven in order to visit such a wicked atmosphere?

Third, we know that the LORD had nothing more to say to Saul. Saul had already tried the usual and accepted channels, and he had received no answer. So why should he get an answer now, through a forbidden means like this?

Fourth, pay attention to what the “spirit of Samuel” says. Though Saul is busy committing a terrible offense against God’s law, Samuel doesn’t rebuke him for his sin, like you would also expect from the Lord’s prophet.

Rather, this ‘Samuel’ begins with a vague question, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (v 15). It’s an open-ended question, one meant to get Saul talking. I’ve never visited a fortune-teller, but apparently this is what they do too, “Tell me, what’s on your mind today?” Once they’ve listened to you for a bit, and taken a read of your mood, they are ready to start feeding you vague messages about the future.       

So Saul describes his plight. He tells Samuel how the Philistines are attacking, how God has turned away, and how he needs answers. Simply bouncing Saul’s words back to him, the spirit responds. And the spirit doesn’t even need to see into the future.

For notice how in what it says, there actually is nothing new! “The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey voice of the LORD nor execute his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you today” (vv 17-18). This was not some special revelation, but it was obvious. Everyone knew Saul was going to lose the kingdom to David. The spirit simply confirms Saul’s fears. It also wasn’t a bold prediction to say that the Philistines would defeat the Israelites, and that Saul and his sons would be killed. The odds were against them. Few would’ve expected them to win.

In light of all this, my own view is that Samuel’s spirit definitely wasn’t there at Endor. It just goes against so much of the rest of God’s Word. It contradicts his own law and the LORD’s normal way of doing things.

So if it wasn’t Samuel, what was it that appeared that day? I think it was a spirit, but not one from heaven. Here we should remember the work of Satan’s realm. The text doesn’t speak explicitly of Satan, but there is Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 11:14, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” Satan sometimes tries to pass himself off as one of God’s servants. Satan can disguise himself in order to lead people astray. And that’s likely what’s happening here.

Saul had drifted so far that God was giving him over. If Saul would ignore the source of real answers, then he will be deceived completely. God sometimes lets sin run its terrible course. And we see this in what follows. Saul is shattered by the message he’s heard, and lies on the ground. This is probably the lowest point in Saul’s life. He couldn’t be farther away from God. Then he goes to the frontline, where he and his sons are killed the very next day.

So what do we learn from this chapter? As we think about what it means, it’s good that we be cautious. We’re not King Saul. He was in the darkness, even feeling Satan’s hot breath on his face. In God’s justice, Saul was being hardened in his sin. We’re not King Saul, thankfully. Yet everything in Scripture is given by God, and is useful for us—also this chapter about a witch, spirits, and mysterious events.

And in this way, the Bible opens our eyes to what’s happening around us. We said there’s lots of interest today in things like witches and magic and the occult. Those are obvious dangers. Perhaps none of us are tempted by such things to stray from the Lord. But we should know that they’re part of a larger movement that Jesus once told us about. He said in the last days, there will be a movement away from truth. But whenever God’s Word is rejected, people will be ready to believe anything, ready to accept anything. They are searching.

Meanwhile, Satan is always on the hunt for those who are ready to be deceived. And he has a real persuasive power. Scripture says he is the father of lies, because he’s very good at telling them. So we too, have to be warned. We do this by discerning the times that we live in.

In practical terms, we need to know that there is indoctrination going on in this world. The church is teaching the truth, and parents, and your teachers at school. But there is other teaching going on all around us. Think for a moment about what you watch online, and the books you read and the songs you listen to—they are never value-free. They all propose a direction that you should take; they all encourage a certain style of life. They’re giving answers to people, because they know people are searching.

So listen wisely. Listen carefully. Think of those familiar words from 1 John, ‘Test the spirits.’ That verse takes on new meaning when we read our chapter. Who was this spirit, speaking to Saul? Was it a spirit from God, or from the devil? And who are the spirits, busy speaking to us? Where have they come from? Do we hear the spirits of darkness, or the Spirit of God? Test the spirits.

There’s another important lesson, more positively. We must know beyond any doubt that our God does speak to us. The LORD God comes near to us, and with living words He tells us his will. He doesn’t leave us without direction and without a voice of authority in this life. God speaks to us, and directs us in what we’ve got to do.

The Father speaks to us, not through strange and mysterious signs, nor through our feelings and dreams. But God speaks through the Scriptures. These are God’s Words, spoken to us in Christ and by his Spirit. His words are true. They are real. They are unchanging in power. You can read these words every day, words of comfort, wisdom and hope.

And yes, God sometimes says things that are hard: He calls us to repent from our sins, to put away our greed, or our envy, to repent of our pride or our lack of forgiveness. He calls us to obey Jesus as Lord. Those are the same things King Saul didn’t like about God’s Word. The LORD called him to do hard things, and he turned away.

But there’s a better path for us to follow. It’s the way loving the Word of God, and living out the Word of God. Through the Word, we are blessed. Through it, we can walk in the light. Through the Word, we keep our way pure. In the Word we learn about the Saviour who laid down his life for us. He went to the grave, and then Christ came back from the dead, so that He could save us forever! Christ’s words for us are truth and love. So let his Word fill you and guide you. Beloved, the LORD God is speaking to you—so listen to him!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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