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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:The LORD confirms His rejection of Saul in the house of a witch
Text:1 Samuel 28:15-19 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Justice

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 34:1,2

Psalm 86:1,2

Psalm 13:1,2,3

Psalm 86:4

Psalm 2:3,4

Read:  1 Samuel 28;  Hebrews 10:19-39

Text: 1 Samuel 28:15-19

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The events of 1 Samuel 28 is a dreadful story.  The king of Israel, the one who had been anointed king over God’s covenant people turned to the dark powers of evil in a desperate attempt to hear from a dead prophet of the LORD.

It is a dreadful story, but it is also a strange story.  For can a witch communicate with the dead?  Did Samuel’s spirit really rise from the dead at the command of a witch?  Was this the Lord speaking, or the devil?

I do not believe that a witch can normally communicate with the dead.  Perhaps she can communicate with demonic forces, for demons are real and the power of evil is real.  But she can not raise the dead or communicate with the spirits of the dead.  The souls of the dead depart either to heaven or to hell, and there they will remain until the last day.

But what about the witch of En Dor?  Even though the witch could not have brought up Samuel from the dead, did the LORD intervene and have him speak to Saul?

Traditionally many Reformed Bible commentators have said No.  Since the LORD had not answered Saul by dreams or prophecy, He would not have answered Saul in the house of a witch by bringing up the spirit of Samuel.  That would have been an abomination.  Further, God did not need to tell Saul anything new:  Samuel had already told him that the kingdom would be taken from him and why that was so.  And so the LORD would not disturb the heavenly rest of Samuel and cause him to speak to Saul through a demonic witch.  Instead, what perhaps happened is that the witch had the power to read Saul’s mind; or perhaps it was a demon whom the witch saw – and that God forced the demon to speak His Word of judgment.

But more recent commentaries tend to say Yes, it was Samuel himself who spoke with Saul.  God has the power to raise the dead, and He did so at other times. Further, the woman screamed in fear when she saw Samuel, which suggests that she herself was shocked to see that Samuel really did appear.  The Bible story assumes that it really was Samuel and it records the event as a conversation between him and Saul.  And the prophecy that Saul and his sons would die and Israel would be defeated did come to pass.

So was it really Samuel who spoke to Saul in chapter 28 or was it not?  I think there is room for us draw our own conclusion on this.  What we do have to agree on, however, is that 1 Samuel 28 was written from the perspective of Saul, what he saw and what he observed.  Saul firmly believed that he was speaking to Samuel and it was the LORD’s will for him to believe that this was so.  And in this way, Saul received a prophetic word of condemnation.  And these words of Samuel are written for us too, so that we might understand the LORD’s rejection of Saul and His choice of David as the new king of Israel. 

I preach to you the word of the LORD under the following theme:

The LORD confirms His rejection of Saul in the house of a witch.

This rejection is declared through:

1. His silence

2. His judgment

3. His promise

1. This rejection is declared through His silence.

1 Samuel 28 is a dreadful story where Saul, the man anointed to be king over God’s people feels abandoned by the LORD and spends the last evening of his life listening to a witch and eating her food.  A dreadful end to what in God’s eyes was a dreadful kingship.  Saul was the peoples’ choice of king: one who was big and strong and able to lead them in their battles like the kings of the nations around them.  But at the end of his life, Saul was anything but big and strong.  Instead we see him in great fear, lying full length on the ground in the house of a witch.

How did it come to this?  How could Saul, a man who had started out so well, end up in the embrace of evil, eating food in the house of a witch?

The book of Samuel began with there being no king in Israel, but everyone doing what was right in his own eyes.  They needed a king, one who would teach them the ways of the LORD and call them to obey Him.  And Saul started out quite well: he even put the mediums and the spiritists out of the land, calling the people to serve the LORD alone.  But Saul was not a king after God’s own heart.  He was instead a king like the nations around Israel.  He was proud and arrogant.  He did not humble himself before God.  He failed to fear the LORD, he failed to serve Him and to obey His voice.  And so in chapter 13, Samuel declared that the kingdom was to be taken from him and given to a king whom God would choose.  

But Saul did not change his ways.  In chapter 15, when he was commanded to attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy them, he did not listen to the LORD but chose to listen to the people instead.  And so Samuel told Saul in chapter 15:26,

“. . . [Y]ou have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”


That was the beginning of the end for Saul.  From that day on Samuel no longer went to see him.  Saul had rejected God and so God rejected him.  The Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, an evil spirit came upon him, and he descended into the darkness of a life outside of the presence of God.

And now, at the end of his life, Saul was about to face the Philistine enemy one last time.  Saul had of course fought with the Philistines many times in the past, but this time it was different.  The Philistines lived on the coastal plains of the South, close to the land of Judah.  Most of the battles between the Israelites and the Philistines took place in that region and they were often relatively small battles, more like border skirmishes than an all-out war.  But in 1 Samuel 28 the Philistines gathered their armies together for a major offensive.  They marched to the north and then deep into the heartland of Israel until they came to the town of Shunem, southwest of the Sea of Galilee.  Every available soldier of the Philistines would have been there, ready to fight the greatest battle of that time.

And when Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.  (1 Samuel 28:5)

Here was Saul: a man head and shoulders above the rest of the people, chosen by the people to be a king like that of the nations around them, a king to go before them in battle.  But Saul the king was dreadfully afraid. 

And we might wonder why Saul was so afraid, for if the LORD had been on his side, the size and strength of God’s army would have made no difference.  Who could forget the time that Barak and Deborah had defeated Sisera with his 900 chariots of iron not so far from where Saul had now gathered his troops?  Who could forget Gideon, the man who defeated the Midianites with just 300 men?  And then there were the wars that Saul himself had been a part of such as the time when Jonathan and his armour bearer killed a whole garrison of Philistine soldiers or when David had killed Goliath with a sling and  a stone. 

But now in 1 Samuel 28 it was different.  And the difference was this:  Saul could not rely on the LORD to help him win this battle against the Philistines for the LORD had rejected him. Verse 6 –

“And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets.”

In Old Testament times the LORD did speak to His people through dreams.  He also spoke to them through His prophets and in the past Samuel had spoken to Saul and told him what to do.  And God also commonly made His will known by means of the Lot, the Urim and the Thumim.  The Urim normally refers to the two stones that the priest kept in his ephod.  By means of these stones the LORD told His people what to do in certain situations.  Now Saul did not have access to the Urim of the Tabernacle, nor the high priest’s ephod, since he had killed all the priests and Abiathar had escaped to bring this ephod to David.  And now God’s word was silent. Samuel was dead, Saul was getting no message from the LORD by means of the Lot, and God did not reveal His will in a dream.  And Saul was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.  He wanted to know what to do, but the sound of God’s silence weighed heavily upon him.

But how come God was silent?  Why didn’t the LORD answer when Saul called upon him?  If the LORD has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, why didn’t He forgive Saul, tell him that things would be OK, that He would lead the way in battle and that the Philistines would be defeated?

This is a hard question but an important one.  For if this is what happened to Saul, what about us?  We read from Hebrews 10.  Verse 26 of Hebrews 10 speaks of “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fiery indignation.”  And verse 31 says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”.  And then when we read those verses in the context of what happened to Saul, and when we read that God had departed from Saul and he did not answer him anymore, then what about us?  What can we expect?  Will God also turn His back on us? 

Sometimes we may wonder and be afraid that the LORD has rejected us.  Sometimes when we pray to God, He does not seem to hear us.  Sometimes when the burden of the guilt of sin begins to crush us, some of us do not even feel able to pray.  Sometimes we may tremble at the thought of His anger for we know that we have sinned.  And then when it feels as though God has abandoned us, what hope do we have?  Does God also punish us by His silence?  Will our end be the same as the end of Saul?

But why did the LORD reject Saul?  Did Saul truly turn to the LORD?  Did he really seek the LORD?  Isaiah 55:6,7 says,

6 Seek the Lord while He may be found,

Call upon Him while He is near.

7 Let the wicked forsake his way,

And the unrighteous man his thoughts;

Let him return to the Lord,

And He will have mercy on him;

And to our God,

For He will abundantly pardon.

But God did not have mercy on Saul and He did not abundantly pardon him because Saul did not truly seek Him.  Saul did want to hear from the LORD, but he had no intention of forsaking his wicked ways. He wanted to hear from the LORD because he was afraid of the Philistines, but he did not want to hear from the LORD in order to be told Who to serve.  He did not return to the LORD in true repentance, nor did he humble himself before Him.  And that is why the LORD was silent. 

But Saul was afraid and he did want to know what to do about the Philistines.  And so he tried to force the LORD to answer him.  He went to a medium, a witch who communicated with the dead, and commanded her to call up Samuel.

And in this we see the true state of Saul’s heart.  The LORD’s silence was evidence of His anger against Saul for Saul’s disobedience.  What Saul should have done was repent and humble himself before the LORD.  He should have pleaded for His mercy, and if he had done this, the LORD would have answered him.  But he did not do this.

But what then should we do when God is silent, when He seems distant and does not appear to be hearing us when we cry to Him? 

We sang from Psalm 13.  In Psalm 13 David begins with the complaint,

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?

How long will You hide Your face from me?


But then David does not turn away from God to find his own way out of his difficulties.  Instead he goes back to God, pleading that God might consider and hear Him.  And the psalm ends in verse 5,6 by saying,

5 But I have trusted in Your mercy;

My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.

6 I will sing to the Lord,

Because He has dealt bountifully with me.

Saul rebelled against the LORD; he did not truly repent of his sin and so he could not depend on the grace and mercy of God.  But when we turn to the LORD in repentance we can be sure that He will listen to us and He will not keep silent forever.  As we also read in Hebrews 10, we can draw near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  We may hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.

2. This rejection is declared through His judgment.

Turning to witchcraft is a terrible thing to do. The LORD had explicitly told the people of Israel in Leviticus 20:6,

“And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.”

The LORD hates the sin of witchcraft.  Whether or not it works is not the point:  witchcraft is idolatry, it is worshipping Satan and bowing down to his powers instead of loving and serving the One True God. 

But when you have turned your face away from the LORD, you end up turning your face somewhere else.  Saul had rejected the Word of the LORD and so now he no longer received the word of the LORD.  And without a new word from the LORD, Saul turned to get help from a witch.

Saul should never have done that.  He should have repented, because it was his rebellion and his rejection of the Word of the LORD that caused the LORD to remove His special Word from him.  In 1 Samuel 15, when he had not listened to the command of the LORD, Samuel had told him in verse 23,

“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.  Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.”

And now Saul’s rebellion indeed turned to witchcraft.  Saul’s departure from the LORD was complete.  He crossed over to the dark side, and asked his servant to find him a witch.

And his servants, instead of telling Saul not to do such a wicked thing, knew just where to find one.

“In fact there is a woman who is a medium at En Dor.”  (1 Sam. 28:7)

En Dor was a small town to the north of where Saul and his army were camped.  It belonged to the tribe of Manasseh, but Joshua 17:12 says that the Canaanites were not all driven out from there.  So it is likely that the witch of En Dor was a pagan Canaanite.  But Saul went to her and asked that she perform a séance on his behalf and raise up the prophet Samuel.

What this séance consisted of the Bible does not tell us, but from other pagan stories it is possible that this took place in one of the caves that were around En Dor.  There is a story of a pit being dug in such a cave, in which gifts were placed.  Sometimes a sacrificial animal was also placed in that pit; or a silver ear to indicate that one wanted to hear from the dead, or a small ladder, indicating that one wanted a dead person to climb up from the underworld.  The witch of En Dor may have used such techniques in her séance when she called for Samuel to speak to her.  And then, whatever it was that happened, the woman screamed and suddenly she recognized not just Samuel but Saul. 

That scream of a witch in the dark must have been horrible!  But Saul was not to back away now.  “Do not be afraid” said Saul, the man who himself was filled with fear.  “What do you see?”  And the woman said,

“An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.”  And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down.  (1 Samuel 28:14)

And so for a last time Saul heard the true word of the LORD.  The LORD confirmed his rejection of Saul in the house of a witch.  The LORD had departed from Saul and become his enemy.  The LORD had done what He said and had torn the kingdom out of Saul’s hand and had given it to David.  And then in verse 19 Samuel spoke the words that Saul dreaded to hear:

19 Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. And tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”

Judgment was coming and that judgment would strike down Saul, his sons and the army of Israel.  Saul and his sons would be with Samuel.  No, this does not mean they would join his soul in heaven, but they would join his body in the grave.  The Death Sentence had been pronounced.  But Israel too would be punished.  The Israelite army would be defeated.   In this way the LORD would punish not just the house of Saul, but also the nation of Israel.  They too would feel the burning wrath of His anger, for it was their choice of a king that had resulted in this dreadful situation.  Saul, the king after the peoples’ own heart, had rejected the LORD.  He would now be removed from the throne.  And for Saul there was nothing left but death and hell.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  When a child of God rejects His authority and deliberately turns from His ways in high handed sin, when he tramples the blood of the covenant underfoot, there is no sacrifice for sins left. 

“For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.  And again, ‘The LORD will judge His people.’  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”  (Hebrews 10:30,31)

Saul did fall into the hands of the living God and he was punished for his sin.  But what about us?  Does this warning apply to us also?  Yes, to us also.  Hebrews 10:26,27 -

“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.”

This does not mean that all those who sin have no comfort or assurance of eternal life. Rather, this warning is for those who are deliberate and willful in their disobedience.  It does not speak about believers who struggle with sin.  Not even believers who struggle with persistent sin in their lives.  But it does refer to those who, like Saul, reject God’s authority, who willfully harden their hearts and reject the LORD and the Means of Grace (the preaching and the sacraments) that He graciously gives us.  It does refer to those who reject Jesus Christ, who want nothing to do with the saving work of Christ on the Cross and who willfully resist the Holy Spirit.  To such people there is the fearful expectation of judgment.  But to we who turn to the Lord and cry out to Him in faith, we can be assured that His steadfast love and mercy will endure forever.  For we who are in Christ Jesus, we may be sure that our Lord Jesus suffered the full burden of God’s wrath for us.  And so we go to Jesus Christ in the full assurance that

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  (1 John 1:9)

3. This rejection is declared through His promise.

The events of 1 Samuel 28 is a dreadful story and in it God has a message not just for Saul but for Israel and for us.  But His rejection of Saul also contained a promise.  Instead of Saul, a king chosen after the peoples’ own heart, the LORD would provide His people with a new king, one after His own heart.  For the nation of Israel the words of Samuel to Saul in chapter 28 contained a promise:

“And the LORD has done for Himself as He spoke by me.  For the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor David.”  (1 Samuel 28:17)

David!  The man after God’s own heart would be the new king of Israel.

But where was David?  In the previous chapter we had left him with the Philistines and in chapter 28:2 he was in the terrible position of being expected to fight against the people of Israel on behalf of Achish, the Philistine king of Gath.  David was not a perfect man; he too was a sinner.

But the difference between David and Saul is that David did turn to the LORD.  When all had gone wrong and his own men were ready to stone him, in 1 Samuel 30:6  David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.

Saul did not do that.  Saul did not turn to the LORD, strengthening himself in his God.  Instead he turned to a witch.  And even after Samuel spoke to Saul, he still did not repent.  Rather than seek his strength in the LORD, Saul received it from the witch.

Saul fell full length on the ground, and he was dreadfully afraid because of the words of Samuel.  And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day or all night.  (1 Samuel 28:20)

And then the witch urged him to listen to her and to eat.  The woman hastened to kill a fatted calf and to bake unleavened bread and Saul obeyed her and ate his last meal.  And in this way his fellowship with darkness was complete.  There was for Saul no sacrifice for sins left but only the expectation of a fearful judgment.

Saul’s rejection was complete and his condemnation was complete.  But the LORD did not reject His people Israel.  Instead we see a word of promise in Samuel’s words to Saul.  For the LORD would give to Israel another king, one after His own heart, David.

And so even in this most dreadful story there is hope and a future for God’s people.

And for us the promise in Saul’s rejection is magnified.  For the judgment on Saul and the ascension of David to the throne was a foretaste of the coming of the Great King after God’s own heart.  Jesus Christ who is both the Son of God and the great Son of David is there to provide us a way to be with God the Father forever.

For God to accept and to hear us, it is not just a matter of you being a better person than Saul was.  Remember that David too had sinned.  At the beginning of chapter 28 David was outside of Israel and in deep trouble on account of the weakness of his faith.  But the way for us to go to the Father and to be received by Him is through His Son Jesus Christ.  And when we  come to Him in Jesus Christ, He will not keep silent, He will not forsake us or leave us.  For in our place God rejected and forsook His Son, on Golgotha.  In our place Jesus was left in darkness, hanging on the cross, rejected by both heaven and earth.  In our place Jesus suffered the silence of God and the judgment of God.  He did all of this in our place so that in Him we may be confident that we will never more be forsaken by God.  He is the new and the living way to the Father.  He is the one who cleanses us from all sin and renews us by His Holy Spirit.  And when we trust in Him, we never need to be afraid.  In Jesus Christ we may be strong and of good courage, trusting that the LORD our God is the One who goes before us, trusting that He will never leave us nor forsake us.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2011, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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