Read the Passage: 1 Samuel 28
Consultation of a Medium (28:3–11)
At 1 Sam. 25:1 it was reported, “Samuel died; and the Israelites gathered together and lamented for him, and buried him at his home in Ramah.” This event happened after the first occasion on which David spared Saul and before his taking of Abigail as wife. On account of more than 40 years of ministry, the lamentation for Samuel was great. Here at 1 Sam. 28:3 we are again told of Samuel’s death, which had occurred several months earlier, and of his burial in Ramah. We also learn that Saul had cast out the occult mediums from the country. This event is not recorded earlier in the book, however it would have been expected, as the Israelites were told not to seek mediums (cf. Lev. 19:31), to put them to death (cf. Exod. 22:18; Lev. 20:27), to drive them from the land (cf. Deut. 18:9–12), and God had warned the Israelites that He would cut off those who seek mediums (cf. Lev. 20:6).
One of the reasons why we are again told of Samuel’s death is that it was likely a reason for the Philistines’ attack that is narrated beginning in 1 Sam. 28:4 and continues through the end of this book. The Philistines likely understood that the secret to prior Israelite victories during Saul’s reign was Samuel’s intercession and David’s leadership. Since Samuel was dead and David was estranged and residing with the Philistines (cf. 1 Sam. 27:1–28:2), it was a prime time to attack. The text reports that Saul sought advice from the Lord, but did not receive an answer. This is because Saul had cut himself off from God by his sinfulness and lack of true repentance (cf. Prov. 21:13; 28:9). Saul’s foolish recourse was to try and contact Samuel through a medium. Note that Saul had not had any contact with the prophet since Samuel had announced his rejection by God (cf. 1 Sam. 15:35).
It is interesting that when Saul asked to speak to a medium, his advisers knew right away where to find one (cf. Prov. 13:20; 1 Cor. 15:33). It seems that rather than fill his court with prophets and priests—Saul had earlier slaughtered many of the priests (cf. 1 Sam. 22:6–19)—Saul chose to keep company with those familiar with mediums. Note that En Dor, the location of the medium, was in Philistine controlled territory. It is recorded that the Philistine army was in Shunem (cf. 1 Sam. 28:4), which is 15 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. En Dor is 2–3 miles northeast of Shunem, so Saul would have had to sneak past the Philistine army in order to consult the medium. The purpose of Saul’s disguise, then, was both to evade the Philistines and to deceive the medium. It is ironic that Saul swears by the Lord (cf. 1 Sam. 28:10) that the medium would not be harmed, yet God’s Word stipulated that she should be put to death.
Message of Samuel (28:12–19)
The text reports that the medium was able to contact Samuel. Some readers believe that she actually conjured a demon, which would have been her usual practice, yet the text clearly states four times that it was Samuel whom appeared (1 Sam. 28:14, 15, 16, 20). It seems best, then, to view this event as miracle facilitated by God. Indeed, the woman seems alarmed that she was able to contact Samuel, and she is immediately aware of Saul’s ruse. Samuel’s message to Saul was threefold. First, Samuel reiterated the fact that God was Saul’s enemy and that the kingdom had been taken from him (cf. 1 Sam. 13:14; 15:26). Second, Samuel said that God had given the kingdom to David, a fact Saul already knew (cf. 1 Sam. 13:14; 23:17; 24:20). Third, Samuel said that Israel would lose the battle to the Philistines and that Saul and his sons would die. Note that this was the only new information.
Reaction of Saul (28:20–25)
The reaction of Saul to Samuel’s message is quite dramatic, but predictable. Saul had shown fear when chosen to be king (cf. 1 Sam. 10:22), when the Israelites faced Goliath (cf. 1 Sam. 17:11), when the Philistines gathered at Gilgal (cf. 1 Sam. 13:11–12), when he was aware of God’s blessing on David (cf. 1 Sam. 18:12), and when the Philistines gathered at Shunem (cf. 1 Sam. 28:5). Thus, when he learned of his impending death, Saul lost his strength and presumably collapsed. Saul’s condition was exacerbated by his not having eaten anything for a day. The narrative reports that upon the urging of the medium and of his own men, Saul eventually had a meal. He strength returned enough for he and his men to depart that very evening. While Saul was gifted in many ways for leadership and had some practical success as king, it seems that pressure continually revealed his true character.
- Why is the Old Testament law harsh toward witches, mediums, and those involved in the occult (cf. Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:9–12)?
- Given that the Israelites had been fairly successful in fighting the Philistines during Saul’s reign, why was he so fearful?
- Why would Saul cast out the mediums from the land and then later seek out a medium with whom he could consult?
- Do you think that the medium was actually able to conjure Samuel for Saul? Can modern occultists channel the dead (cf. Luke 16:27–31)?
- Why was Saul constantly afraid when faced with trials? What is the secret to overcoming trials? How do you react when under pressure?