Question Box: Council from a "familiar spirit"

Question or Topic Scripture
Council from a "familiar spirit" I Samuel 28

In I Samuel 28 we read the account of Saul seeking counsel from the Lord through a woman with a "familiar spirit". The story seems to imply that the woman was successful in acquiring the requested communication from Samuel, who was dead. How do we explain this account?


To establish some of the background for this story, we are told early in this same chapter: "Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him, and buried him in Ramah, even in his own city. And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land" (I Samuel 28:3).

It is difficult to determine how long before the death of Saul that Samuel actually died. If we follow the story we are first told about Samuel's death in I Samuel 25. It appears that much of the activity associated with Saul's pursuit of David took place after the death of Samuel. Commentators indicate that Samuel died between 4 months and up to 2 years before the death of Saul.

It is worth noting that long before this, we are told in I Samuel 15 that "Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel" (I Samuel 15:35).

During this extended period of time, there is no indication that Saul made any attempt to enquire after the Lord, through Samuel or by any other means. However, in the events related in chapter 28, we read:

  1. I Samuel 28:5,6
  2. And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled.
  3. And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.

Saul was the type of individual that we may know all too well. How often do we wait until the situation is a matter of desperation, before we turn to the Lord in prayer? God did not respond to this belated request by Saul.

His anxiety led him to react in a way that was completely contrary; – against even his own commandment: "Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her" (I Samuel 28:7). (Note in verse 3 that "Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land".) As we examine the account that follows, Saul asks the woman to "Bring me up Samuel" (v. 11).

Imagine this man, who in his pride had refused to seek after Samuel when he was alive, but who now, when desperate and confused, could risk all to seek his advice. We do well to remember the importance of the lesson ourselves. Never wait until you are in trouble. We should seek after the Lord now, while he may be found.

The woman was obviously a fake. We know that communication with the dead is impossible. For "the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Her surprised reaction in this incident is an indication of her deceit. Something was happening in this case over which she had no control. "And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice" (I Samuel 28:12).

There is no indication that Saul actually saw Samuel. The woman was allowed to see him, or at least to describe him to Saul. "And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel" (v. 14).

As the account progresses, it appears that Samuel actually responds to Sauls enquiry. The result is a very sobering prophesy: "Moreover the LORD will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the LORD also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines" (v. 19).

As a side note, it is interesting that this incident provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate another Bible truth. It is clear that the rejected Saul would lie together in the ground with Samuel the prophet. Contrary to what some would like to believe, there is no distinction made between the righteous and the wicked at the time of their death:

  1. Ecclesiastes 3:20
  2. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

What was really happening in this account? Was Samuel actually raised from the dead in a unique application of the power of God? Or did the woman see a vision of Samuel, given for the specific purpose of conveying this prophesy? We know that God at "sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers" (Hebrews 1:1). For example, we are told that the LORD opened the mouth of the Balaam's ass (Numbers 22). Would it be any less likely for him to communicate with Saul by supplying this woman with a vision, which seems to have included the voice of Samuel?

In another incident that may serve to demonstrate the similar use of a dead prophet in the process of a miracle; this one involving a resurrection, we are told: "And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet" (2 Kings 13:21). So it was that even after he was in the grave, God chose to demonstrate that this man was one of his special holy men.

As we look again at the circumstances relating to our question, it may be that this was an ideal application for the principle described in II Thessalonians 2:

  1. II Thessalonians 2:11-12
  2. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
  3. That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Saul certainly had displayed his unrighteousness and had compounded his error by demonstrating his willingness to believe in witchcraft. For Saul, the delusion was the "familiar spirit", a lie that he now chose to believe, as a final act in the process of his own judgment.

The lessons from this story are many. We must not be confused by the medium through which they are communicated. Whatever it was that actually occurred, we can be sure of this one thing, that the power and the glory associated with this vision was exclusively in the hands of God. The woman was merely an unwilling and unwitting instrument.

It would be interesting to know if any of our readers have any thoughts on this account that they would be willing to share. If so please email them to us.


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