Ghosts and Mediums in the Bible

I have had several ghostly experiences in my life. When I was little, we lived in a house my dad built. One night I heard someone playing the piano beautifully in our sitting room; My mom called it her “frufru” room. The sound was loud enough to wake me from sleep. I tiptoed to the sitting room to see who was playing our piano. Sitting there was a ghostly figure, the likeness of my great, great grandma Mary Baker on my mom’s side who passed away the year I was born. I never met her, and I was about 10 years old when I thought I saw her ghost. I can still see the picture clearly when I close my eyes today. She was wearing a yellowish garment with some kind of print, and I could see through her to the piano. After I snuck in to see who was playing, she turned to look at me and smile. I felt so much comfort—a warmness that came over me. 

I’m not sure what you believe about such things. I’m also not sure whether I was dreaming, awake, or having one of those weird waking dreams. In today’s text, we see Samuel’s ghost conjured up by a medium at Saul’s request.

1 Samuel 28:10-25

Saul vowed to her by the Lord, saying, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”

Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.”

The king said to her, “Do not be afraid; but what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the earth.”

He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage.

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do.”

Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary? The Lord has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the Lord will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!”

Then Saul immediately fell full length upon the ground and was very afraid because of the words of Samuel; also there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day and all night.

The woman came to Saul and saw that he was terrified, and said to him, “Behold, your maidservant has obeyed you, and I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to your words which you spoke to me. So now also, please listen to the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you that you may eat and have strength when you go on your way.”

But he refused and said, “I will not eat.” However, his servants together with the woman urged him, and he listened to them. So he arose from the ground and sat on the bed. The woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly slaughtered it; and she took flour, kneaded it and baked unleavened bread from it. She brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they arose and went away that night.

The conjuring (v. 10-14)

Saul vowed to her by the Lord, saying, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”
Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.”
The king said to her, “Do not be afraid; but what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the earth.”
He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage.

We recall that Saul has outlawed divination, the work of mediums and spiritists, in the land (Cf. 6:1-3). God’s Law forbids divination (Cf. Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10-11). I am not going to, here, make a statement about the validity of any gift relating to the work of divination—the ability many claim to have to sense or communicate with the dead. It will suffice to say simply that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should or that it honors God. Just because we have a certain ability does not mean using it in certain ways honors God.

The witch of En-dor seems to have the ability to conjure up the spirits of those who have passed on. There is no indication, here, that the witch is pulling off some elaborate scheme or doing the work of a mentalist. She calls for Samuel, and a spirit that has the appearance of Samuel comes up. There are many theories about what supernatural experiences might actually be. I have a confession to make. I love television shows about supernatural phenomena. In my own community, spiritualism, from witchcraft to communication with the other side, is an accepted and sought after practice. There are many Christians who know that God’s Law forbids such practice and stop there without considering a biblical view of the nature or veracity of the practice.

Samuel’s spirit is actually conjured up for Saul; There are some interpreters who will, here, because their theology doesn’t allow for the existence of ghosts, spirits of people, outside of Heaven or Hell or Hades, claim that Samuel could not have actually appeared to Saul. There is one major problem with insisting that this is not a real appearance of Samuel; Holy Scripture plainly describes Samuel’s actual appearing in spiritual form. To my knowledge, Scripture says what it means. God is not a deceiver that His word should incorrectly or inaccurately describe any event. Further, we do great damage to our understanding of God’s word when we read things into the text that are not there. Biblically, then, there is a connection between the place of the dead and the place of the living—so close a connection that a spirit can appear in the place of the living. Whether there is some place out in the cosmos where ghosts dwell or some ether here on the earth is unclear from this text.

By the Second Century BC, such a theology had developed insisting that the disembodied souls of the Nephilim (Cf. Genesis 6), children of fallen angels (the watchers), roamed the earth as evil spirits. You can find the account in the pseudepigraphal work of 1 Enoch in Chapter 15, a work referenced by the apostles (Cf. 1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Enoch 1:9; 12:4-5; 13:3; Jude 14-15). The thought that disembodied souls of some kind roam the earth and interact with the living is not novel.

Samuel’s spirit comes up out of the earth, not down from heaven; This is an interesting detail in the story. Samuel was a man of God, His prophet. He was elect, raised by God, and faithfully preached God’s word to Israel from a very young age. Yet, he comes up from the earth. Why isn’t Samuel coming down from heaven? Why is his dwelling place not in the presence of God in heaven? In the First Century AD, Jesus will tell the story of a rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Some theologians equate Jesus’s story to parable while others take it literally. An argument can be made for both, but only from inference. In Jesus’s story, both the rich man and Lazarus die and go to the place of the dead with one difference; The rich man goes to Hades while Lazarus goes to Abraham’s side—one a place of suffering and the other a place of rest. In Jesus’s story, communication between the two places was possible but visitation was not. However, the rich man requested that Lazarus be able to visit his living brothers so they could escape the torment of Hades. Abraham did not say it was impossible, but denied the request. Later in the gospel account, Jesus told the thief that the thief would be with Him in paradise, a place different from Abraham’s side (Luke 23:43). Something changed at the moment of Jesus’s crucifixion. It is Jesus’s crucifixion that permits us to be in the dwelling place of our Lord. Before the crucifixion, when Samuel died, it seems was a resting place at Abraham’s side in Sheol.

Samuel’s spirit looks like his body did according to Saul’s recollection; When Samuel’s spirit is conjured, Saul is able to recognize his description and confirm that it is, indeed, Samuel. Samuel did not have a body, but he was recognizable.

The revelation (v. 15-19)

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do.”

Samuel’s preference is to remain in his resting place, supposedly at Abraham’s side. Here, it is revealed that Samuel is not in torment but rest. This might be one reason God forbids conjuring up the dead (Cf. Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10-11); In doing so their peace is disturbed and we fail to love them and respect the work God has done in and through their lives. In Leviticus, the Law forbidding divination appears in the context of the set of Laws dealing with love for God and love for our neighbors (Leviticus 19). In Deuteronomy the Law forbidding divination is given because God desires His people seek after His interests and learn from Him, not from those who are dead like the other nations do (Deuteronomy 18:14). Praying to the dead, then, is a form of idolatry. Samuel is disturbed by being brought up, and he asks Saul why Saul has disturbed him by bringing him up. Saul told Samuel his sob story. God did not answer Him. Therefore, instead of honoring God and loving his neighbor, Saul had Samuel brought up from rest in order to seek an answer from him and learn what should be done.

Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary? The Lord has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the Lord will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!”

Samuel reveals that God had already answered Saul’s question. God answered when Saul chose to live a life in rebellion to God—a life of self-will, self-interest, and self-righteousness rather than repentance. Because Saul disobeyed God in Chapter 15, God became his adversary, chose His true king, and promised to tear the kingdom of Israel from Saul’s hand (15:1ff). Samuel reveals that Saul and Saul’s sons will perish in the upcoming battle against the Philistines. He does not tell Saul what to do according to Saul’s hope in this exchange. Instead, Samuel pronounces certain doom. The next day, Saul and his sons will be with Samuel in Sheol; It is not here revealed who will enter rest with Abraham or who will enter the torment of Hades. This consequence is not a result of Saul contacting Samuel through a medium. It is a consequence of his rejecting God and pursuing his own interests and righteousness, a fate announced as far back as Chapter 15 and determined at least as far back as Genesis 49—when the tribe of Benjamin was predicted to be a ravenous wolf in Israel.

We have heard the question, and perhaps we have asked it ourselves; Is anyone ever too far gone? Our immediate reflex is to insist, “No! Of course not. Everyone has hope.” It is certainly true. No one has rebelled against God so much that God is unable to save that person. There is hope. We do not understand this question apart from the doctrine of election. When we consider the doctrine of election, we realize that there is not only hope—God has secured His people from before the foundation of the world (Cf. Ephesians 1:4). There is not only hope but certainty for those whom Christ has atoned. It is also certain, no matter our efforts, that those for whom Christ did not atone will, like Saul, perish in their wretched estate and be separated from God forever. So, we strive to remain faithful to preach the Gospel and honor Christ with our lives; We trust God with the eternal lives of our family members and friends who, at this point, have either not experienced conversion or have experienced a false conversion. The most difficult prayer for us is to say, “God’s will be done.” 

The departure (v. 20-25)

Then Saul immediately fell full length upon the ground and was very afraid because of the words of Samuel; also there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day and all night.
The woman came to Saul and saw that he was terrified, and said to him, “Behold, your maidservant has obeyed you, and I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to your words which you spoke to me. So now also, please listen to the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you that you may eat and have strength when you go on your way.”
But he refused and said, “I will not eat.” However, his servants together with the woman urged him, and he listened to them. So he arose from the ground and sat on the bed. The woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly slaughtered it; and she took flour, kneaded it and baked unleavened bread from it. She brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they arose and went away that night.

It is a fearful thing to come face-to-face with our own mortality. Saul is now at the end of his life. He will meet a painful end. He has rejected God. Since we have already learned that Saul is reprobate (Cf. 1 Samuel 14:24-46), we can deduce that only the torment of Sheol awaits him. There are many who, like Saul, are religious but not repentant and who refuse to sincerely seek after God’s interests rather than their own. They use religion to advance themselves or to get something from God. Like Saul, their resurrection will likely be to torment rather than rest. In the Gospels, Jesus will teach:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26).

Will you repent? Will you die to your self-interests and self-righteousness? Will you gain the life that is only found in Jesus Christ?


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