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Did God Cause Saul to Be Possessed? (1 Samuel 16)

In 1 Samuel 16, we begin to see the gradual transition of power from King Saul to the king-to-be David. God superintends over this process, and as we see the events play out across the pages of the Old Testament, we notice that He chose not to take the band aid off quickly. The process is slow and it’s painful, but it’s also decisive and God’s intention is clear.

In verse 14, the Bible tells us that, at this point in the story, the Spirit of God departed from Saul. Why did Saul have this “Spirit of God,” and why did it depart from him? These events might seem strange to us today, but they’re completely in step with life under the Old Covenant. We know that, during the church age, the Holy Spirit has come down to directly indwell all believers. This blessing began in Acts 2 and it continues to this day. And while we usually consider the implications of what this means for living Christians, it also serves as a reminder that, prior to Acts 2, believers (saved or not) didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Now this is a truth that yields profound consequences, but for the purposes of today’s discussion, we’ll limit our scope to Saul.

Now don’t misunderstand here, just because the Holy Spirit did not take up residence in all believers in Old Testament times, that doesn’t mean He was not active in people’s lives. The Holy Spirit was just as fully God and fully active back during the times of the Old Covenant as He is today, He just didn’t indwell all believers. However, this doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t indwell anyone. The Old Testament offers several examples where a person was mentioned to experience a temporary indwelling of the Spirit. Saul was one of those people, as was David (1 Samuel 16:12-13, Joshua (Numbers 27:18), and others. For Saul, as Israel’s first king, God sent the Holy Spirit to temporarily indwell him so that he could more effectively lead the people. However, due to his sinfulness, God would take away Saul’s power and turn the reins over to David, and that process started with the Spirit leaving Saul. The Bible is silent on the matter, but an interesting exercise to work through is whether Saul even realized that this happened. It is likely that he had no idea that the Spirit had left him, and like a freshly shaved Samson, he didn’t yet realize what had happened.

From the perspective of the modern reader, the story up to this point is untroubling and largely a matter of logistics. Oh so there were situations of temporary indwelling? How interesting. And Saul lost this privilege due to his sin? How sad for him. However, when we get to the second half of verse 14, things become a little more focused. The Bible tells us that after the Holy Spirit left Saul, “an evil Spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Now our interest is piqued. Why is God sending evil spirits to people? How does this align with the nature of a holy God?

The truth is, there’s not an easy answer to these questions. Many people have offered many different explanations as to what exactly was going on with this swapping of spirits in Saul, but when one considers the greater context of the rest of the Bible, only one possibility is satisfying. The author who wrote these words was likely engaging in some economy of language since the main focus of the story is the fall of King Saul, and not the logistics involved behind the scenes. The evil spirit entering into Saul was certainly part of the Lord’s plans. It served to show that Saul had fallen from the Lord’s favor, and it opened up the opportunity for David to be brought into the royal court to help sooth Saul’s terrors with music. However, while this evil spirit may have been part of God’s plans, it was most likely NOT God who directly afflicted Saul. Instead, God did what we see Him do in so many other passages of Scripture. After giving a sinning individual chance after chance after chance to repent and turn to Him, God gives them over to their own depravity.

In the story of Job, we see Satan lobbying God for the chance to attack one of His greatest followers. It’s not a stretch to picture, up to this point, Satan and his demons on the sideline, licking their lips as they stared at Saul, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. God, in His providence, most likely withdrew His protection of Saul and allowed Satan to do what he had been trying to do all along. Such an action does not contradict God’s nature, and it fits perfectly with many other examples from Scripture. The author of 1 Samuel simply distilled all of these nuances into simple wording to capture God furthering His plans.

So that’s the story of the temporary indwelling of Saul, and the subsequent demonic possession that would help guide him in the pages going forward. It’s an interesting story, but it’s also a scary story. Even the most devout followers of God realize that we still rebel against Him and sin on a daily basis. Does Saul’s story mean that we are in danger of sharing a similar fate? Can we sin enough so that God decides to remove the Holy Spirit from us and in its place send an evil one? The consequences of such an event are staggering, but fortunately for us, not a possibility. Since we are living in the church age, and the Holy Spirit has come to indwell all who are born again, we do not have to worry about becoming Saul. In this dispensation, the indwelling of the Spirit is a permanent thing because it’s here to serve a different purpose inside of us than it did back in Saul’s time. As noted above, the Holy Spirit indwelled Saul in order to help him effectively guide the nation of Israel, and once that role began to be passed on to someone else, the Holy Spirit left him. Today, the Holy Spirit comes to indwell believers, not so that we can lead Israel as her first king, but to act as a seal, permanently marking us as having received salvation (Ephesians 1:13).

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