A Ghost Story

I Samuel 28, 31

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
January 2021

Everyone loves a good ghost story. Are ghosts real?  Is it possible to communicate with someone who died?  Is it wrong to try to contact a loved one who died?   What does it say about the Bible say about the occult?

Today, we are going to finish the book of I Samuel.  It has been a huge blessing to study for me personally.  What is in these chapters may be new to you, because these chapters are hardly ever preached in church.

They deal with the topic of the occult and the afterlife.  We are also going to look at how these chapters apply to us today and what lessons we can learn.  I Samuel 28 is one of the strangest stories in the Bible. What is so strange about it?

A Strange Story

1) I Samuel 28 is strange because it has a WITCH in it

There are not too many stories in the Bible about witches. This is a story about one of the most famous witches in history, the Witch of Endor.  She is not really a witch. The Bible does not call her a witch. A witch deals in magic or casts spells. The Bible calls her “a medium” (I Samuel 28:7).

Mediums are people who try to contact the dead.  Since she has been known as “The Witch of Endor,” that is what we will call her. Why is God communicating through a witch?  God can use a magician (three magi).  He can use a witch (Witch of endor).  He can use a donkey.  He is completely sovereign.

2) I Samuel 28 is strange because it has a GHOST in it

It was Samuel’s ghost or spirit.  This story does not just have a ghost in it.  It has a scary ghost.  It completely scared the Witch of Endor and she was used to seeing strange things.  When she sees it, she does not just scream; she screams loudly, at the top of her voice (I Samuel 28:12). This story is perfect for Halloween.  It is spooky.

3) I Samuel 28 is a little strange because it has a SEANCE in it

Saul has a séance.  The night before a big battle, Saul has a séance with a witch.  The ghost of Samuel suddenly appears and speaks.  Saul gets a message from Samuel beyond the grave.

It is the only time in the Bible where someone who died came back with a message.  Jesus came back from the dead with a message but he was no longer dead.  Samuel was still dead.  This is the only time in the Bible where someone who died appeared with a message to someone on earth[1]

These are dark and gloomy chapters.  I Samuel 28 describes Saul’s darkest hour.  Last week, we saw David’s darkest hour.  This week, we see Saul’s darkest hour.  This is Saul’s last night on earth.  It is his last supper on earth. It is like his last meal on death row.

Saul has a big problem.  He has a crisis on his hands.  It is a military crisis and he needs some answers but is not getting any, so he turned to a witch and he got some answered.  It worked.  Saul was able to contact the Prophet Samuel after he died, and Samuel talked to him.

Saul got one final conversation with Samuel.  Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have one final conversation with someone who died (a parent, a loved one, a friend, a spouse)?  Saul got that opportunity.

He turned to Samuel for some help.  All Samuel tells him is that that he has only twenty-four hours to live and his sons have only twenty-four hours to live.  How would you feel if you received that message?  How would you feel if God told you that by tomorrow, you would be dead?

This is a disturbing section.  A desperate king commits a desperate act and receives a disturbing message from a dead prophet and then dies a disgraceful death and is publicly humiliated by his enemy.

Three Background Events

Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land. 

4 The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. (I Samuel 28:3-5 NIV)

The story begins with three important background events.  This story would not have taken place unless these three things happened.

First, the prophet Samuel dies. He died earlier in the book but his death is part of the background to this story.

Second, Saul gets rid of all of the mediums and witches from the land.  People who practiced the occult were kicked out.

Third, the Philistines prepared for war.  They did not plan for a border raid (like David was doing) but full-scale war, as Frutchenbaum points out.

This army was much larger than the Jewish army.  We know from I Samuel 13:5 that the Philistines had chariots. They had a massive army and better technology.  Saul’s army was smaller, and he knew that he did not stand a chance.

The best Philistine killer was David and he was no longer in the country.  In fact, he joined forces with the Philistines along with six hundred of his men.

Saul did not know if they were going to fight against him. The Prophet Samuel was also dead.  In the past, when Saul had a problem, he could turn to Samuel for counsel.  Now, Samuel is dead.  He killed all of the priests.  He has no spiritual leader to turn to and Saul is afraid.

The Witch of Endor

He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. 7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.” “There is one in Endor,” they said. (I Samuel 28:6-7 NIV).

Saul turns to a witch.  He breaks his own law.  He turns to a medium to solve his problems, the Witch of Endor.  Since he could not get any answers from earth or heaven, he tries to get some answers from hell.

Saul takes two men with him, puts on a disguise, takes off his kingly robes, and visits a witch at night.   He had to walk about eight miles to get to her.  He also had to walk around the Philistine army to get to this witch.  He put himself in danger to get to her and the witch put herself in danger by meeting with Saul, since her occupation was illegal.

She is a little mysterious.  She only appears once in the Bible and never again.  She has no name.  Who was she?  We don’t know but Jewish tradition (e.g., Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer) says that she was the mother of Abner but there is no evidence for that.

Saul’s Final Act of Rebellion

Saul lived a life of rebellion against God and it culminates in one final act of rebellion, the sin of divination.  So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.” (I Samuel 28:8 NIV)

Samuel said, “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry” (I Samuel 15:23 NIV).  Divination was something that God hated.  He called it an abomination.  In the OT, it was not just a SIN; it was a CRIME.

It was a crime punishable by DEATH in the Law of Moses.  Exodus 22:18 says, “Do NOT allow a sorceress to live” (NIV). Leviticus 20:27 says, “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you MUST be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads” (NIV).

Saul commits the sin and a day later he is dead, but the witch continues to live. What was the witch’s reaction to Saul’s visit? She was suspicious.  She didn’t trust him.  She wanted to make sure that this was not a sting operation.

But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?” (I Samuel 28:9 NIV).   Saul promised to protect the witch, the very witch God commanded to be executed.

Notice what Saul said.  Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As surely as the Lord lives, you will NOT be punished for this” (I Samuel 28:10 NIV).  God said in the law that they were to be punished by death.  Saul swears by God that she will not be punished.  He takes up the name of God and swears that he will not do with he is commanded to do in Scripture.

He asks her to call up Samuel and she does.  When he appears, she is shocked.  She screams.  Apparently, she didn’t expect it. Saul asked what he looked like and when she told him, Saul knew it was Samuel.

Then, Samuel starts to speak to Saul.  He does not speak through the medium.  He speaks directly to Saul and Saul speaks to him (I Samuel 28:15-19) and the woman was not part of the conversation.

According to Jewish tradition, the Witch of Endor saw Samuel, but did not hear his voice.  Saul heard Samuel’s voice, but could not see him.  That is what the text seems to say.

 Was this Samuel or a Demon?

Did Samuel actually appear to Saul or was this Satan in disguise, as Matthew Henry suggests. Was this a demon?  Can we know for sure?  R.C. Sproul said it is impossible to know the answer [2].  Is he right?  That is what most people think.  The fact is that it is very easy to know which view is correct

The text is very clear. There is nothing in the chapter about a demon or evil spirit.  It says very clearly that the woman SAW SAMUEL (I Samuel 28:12).  It does NOT say that she saw a demon or evil spirit that looked like Samuel.

In fact, five times in the passage we see the words SAMUEL SAID (I Samuel 28:12, 14, 15, 16, 20), not “a demon said.”  What conclusions can we draw?

The text says that it was Samuel, not a demon. What Samuel says here is consistent with what he said to Saul earlier in the book (I Samuel 13; 15) and the prophecy came true just as Samuel said it would. That was the test of a true prophet in the Bible.

Samuel’s Final Prophecy

Samuel utters his final prophecy.  He utters his final prophecy after he died.  He is the only one to give a prophecy after he died and while he was still dead.  He gives a final sermon.  That would be like if our pastor died and then his spirit appeared and uttered one final message from the grave.

What kind of prophecy does he utter?  It is a prophecy of judgment.  It was all negative.  It was also very specific.  It was not general and vague, like some prophecies today.  He said to Saul, “I am dead.  Tomorrow, you will be dead.  You and your sons will be dead, and David will be king.”

It is very interesting if you compare Samuel’s first prophecy and his last prophecy.  Samuel’s FIRST PROPHECY was that the high priest Eli and his two sons would die on the same day (I Samuel 3).

Samuel’s LAST PROPHECY was that King Saul and his sons would die on the same day (I Samuel 28).  The poor man had to be the instrument of bad news to people.  Prophets did not get to choose their message.  They said whatever God told them to say.

Samuel was the instrument of bad news when he was a little boy and he was the instrument of bad news after he died.  Many so called prophets today have a message of nothing but good news to people.  They said that Trump will be re-elected and it will be good.  None of them said that Biden will be elected and it will be bad.

The Wicked King and The Good Witch

Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel’s words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and all that night. (I Samuel 28:20 NIV)

The Witch of Endor did good to the one who tried to get rid of all the witches in the land.  She was kind.  She was compassionate.  She comforted Saul.  She showed hospitality.  She does not just offer him food.  She insisted on it and would not take no for an answer.

Apparently, she was a good cook.  She killed the fatted calf.  Saul ate the fatted calf just like the Prodigal son did (Luke 15:22-23).  She cooked him a big meal, which must have taken some time.  There was no microwave back in the day.  This witch cooked Saul his last meal and it was not a TV dinner.

The woman had a fattened calf at the house, which she butchered at once. She took some flour, kneaded it and baked bread without yeast. 25 Then she set it before Saul and his men, and they ate. That same night they got up and left. (I Samuel 28:24 NIV).

Four Truths about the Afterlife

This story about Samuel and the Witch of Endor tells us a lot about the afterlife.  Notice four facts from this story.

1) There is life after death

The afterlife is real.  Some say that when you die you cease to exist.  That is what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach.  It is called annihilationism but that is not what we see here.  After Samuel dies, he does not cease to exist.  He is still alive.  His body is dead, but his spirit is alive.  It appears.  People can see it and Samuel speaks to people.

2) The righteous go to a better place after death

Notice how Samuel rebuked Saul when he called him up.  Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” I Samuel 28:15 NIV).  Samuel was at a place of peace after he died.  He did not go to Hell.  He did not go to Purgatory.  He was at peace.  After he died, he went to a better place than earth.  He did not want to come back to earth.

3) You do not lose your personal identity after death

“What does he look like?” he asked. “An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said. Then Saul knew it was Samuel (I Samuel 28:14 NIV).  Samuel was recognizable after death.  Samuel does appear as an old man.  There will not be any old people in heaven, but this is also before the cross and before the resurrection.

Jesus had not died yet.  Samuel is not in heaven yet.  He is in Hades or Sheol.   He came “up from the ground” (I Samuel 28:13), not “down from Heaven.  What is important here is that he was recognized by others after he died.   You will be recognized after you die.  You won’t lose your identity.

4) After death, you will know much more than you know now

The Bible says that in heaven we will know even as we are known (I Corinthians 13:12).  Samuel knew what would happen the next day to Saul and his sons.  Bible teacher S. Lewis Johnson used to say that a child in heaven will know more in five seconds than the greatest theologians on earth know now.

Three Powerful Lessons

How does all of this apply to us today?  How does Saul apply today?  How does the Witch of Endor apply today?  What can we learn from this story?  I want to look at three lessons from a disobedient king.

1) If we do not listen to God, don’t expect our prayers to be answered

When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. 6 He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. (I Samuel 28:5-6 NIV)

Saul tried to hear from God.  He reached out to God and God was silent.  Why didn’t God answer him?  He was living in deliberate rebellion to the Word of God.  He did not truly repent, even though he claimed to twice.  There was absolutely no change in his life.

One thing we hear preachers say a lot is that God speaks to people.  They are right.  They are absolutely right.  Of course, it is also true that sometimes, God will not speak to people.  Sometimes, he refuses to speak to people, even if they reach out to Him.

28 Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, 29 since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord.30 Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke (Proverbs 1:28-30 NIV)

Could God ever stop speaking to us?  Yes.  The Bible says that if we live with unconfessed sin and pray, God will not hear us.  If we do not listen to him, He will not listen to us.

If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18 NIV)

But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear. (Isaiah 59:2 NIV)

2) If we choose to live in rebellion to God, we can expect to suffer.

James Macdonald used to say, “Choose to sin; choose to suffer.”  The Bible says that “the way of the transgressor is hard” (Proverbs 13:15 KJV).  Saul sinned and he suffered badly.  Saul came under divine judgment in these chapters.  What happened to him?  The next day, eight terrible things happened.

a) The nation of Israel lost a military battle (I Samuel 31:1)

b) Three of Saul’s four sons were killed in battle (I Samuel  31:2)

c) Saul was mortally wounded in battle by an arrow (I Samuel 31:3)

d) Saul commits suicide, rather than be tortured by the enemy (I Samuel 31:4)

e) Saul was beheaded after death (I Samuel 31:8-9)

f) Saul’s dead body was publicly displayed on a wall (I Samuel 31:10)

g) Saul’s armor was placed in a pagan temple (I Samuel 31:10)

h) The Philistines invaded the country of Israel (I Samuel 31:7)

Judgment did not happen to Saul immediately.  It took years before it went into effect.  Saul had many sins.  Jewish tradition mentions four sins of Saul (Lev. Rabbah 26:7).  When Saul visited the Witch of Endor, when he committed the sin of divination, that completely sealed his fate.  That was the sin that did him in.

Saul received three prophetic words of judgment from Samuel.  He received one in I Samuel 13.  He received one in I Samuel 15 and he received one in I Samuel 28.  Each one of those words came after Saul had sinned.  Saul did not get the message the first time.  Sometimes, God has to say things to us several times before we get the point.

Saul’s sin did not just affect him, it affected his kids.  They suffered as well. You are never better off if you do things your way instead of God’s way.  You always lose in the end.

Does God judge people today?  Does he judge believers today?  We don’t know if Saul was saved but he believed in the true God. He was not a pagan.  He was not a Philistine.  He was an Israelite, and he was under divine judgment.

God judges believers today for sin.  He judged Ananias and Sapphira in the NT (Acts 5).  They were members of the first church in Jerusalem.  This is not talked about too much in church today because it is not popular.  No one wants to hear this message.

3) If you participate in the occult, you are playing with fire

Saul gets what he wants in this chapter.  He contacts the dead Samuel through a medium.  Does this chapter encourage you to dabble in the occult?  Does it encourage you to try to contact dead loved ones?   Does it encourage you to call the psychic hotline?  No.  Several things are clear here.

1. The Bible expressly forbids all occult activities.

Scripture prohibits going to a medium or trying to contact the dead (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:9-12).  When someone tells you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19 NIV)

In fact, there is a story of some who came to faith in Ephesus while Paul was there.  After they got saved, they burned all of their occult books (Acts 19:18-20).  This is a clear teaching of the Bible.  The Bible does not encourage witchcraft.

2. The Witch of Endor did not bring Samuel up.

God brought Samuel up, not the witch.  That is why she was so shocked and surprised.  That is why she screamed at the top of her voice.  She did not expect it to happen.  If the witch brought Samuel back, she would not be surprised to see him.

God brought Samuel up in spite of the witch, not because of her [3]. Jesus is the only one who has the keys of Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).

3. Visiting a witch did not help Saul.

It only hurt Saul.  He did not get any comfort.  He did not get any encouragement.  He did not get any advice.  He did reach Samuel, but he did not help him.  It only made him more afraid and depressed.

Samuel did not give him any good news.  He only gave him bad news.  He just told him that he would be dead in twenty-four hours.  It would have been better if Saul never went there in the first place.

If you were going to die in a terrible car crash in one day and some of your family would be killed and there was absolutely nothing you could do to prevent it, would you want to know that the day before?

You might want to take care of things the day before, but all that news would do is to make you completely depressed.  Sometimes, it is better to be ignorant.  The Bible says to live one day at a time and not worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34).

[1] Elijah and Moses appeared at the Transfiguration.  They were still dead and appeared in Mark 9:4. They could be seen by people but they just talked to Jesus.

[2] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/did-saul-talk-to-the-spirit-of-samuel-or-a-demonic-impersonation/

[3] Norman Geisler & Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask, 168.

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