Without doubt, this is one of the most mysterious and difficult chapters in the Bible to deal with. Samuel was dead and buried (1 Samuel 28:3), yet he reappeared to seal Saul’s doom. Here is a startling record unparalleled in the creations of the greatest masters of fiction. Lord Byron said of the narrative of the Witch of Endor—
I have always thought this the finest and most finished witch scene that ever was written or conceived, and you will be of my opinion if you consider all the circumstances of the actors of the case, together with the gravity, simplicity and density of the language. It beats all the ghost scenes I have ever read.
The actors of the cast are Saul the king, the witch, and Samuel the prophet—surely a most unusual trio! Saul about to join the dead; the Witch and her traffic with the dead; Samuel, brought back from the dead.
In God’s portrait gallery there is no more tragic figure than Saul, the son of Kish who, in his early days was “the glory of Israel.” What physique and personality were his! Physically and morally he was head and shoulders above his fellowmen, and when anointed by Samuel as the first king of Israel, the people had high hopes of his prosperous reign. But corrupted by power, sin and murder and jealousy reduced this wonderful specimen of a man to a physical and spiritual wreck. At last, facing the hosts of Philistines, Israel’s ancient foes, Saul was scared and felt that his hour of retribution was near and that unless help came from God he must perish. But he cried to heaven in vain for God would not answer the doomed ruler “by Urim, by prophets, or by dreams.” Driven by despair, Saul sought the ghost of the prophet who by his prudence and piety had prevented the ruin of Israel during Saul’s reign.
Like a drowning man trying to clutch a straw, Saul came to countenance what he had so strongly condemned. He had issued orders that all who seek to traffic with the dead should be destroyed. “Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.” But what fearful pathos there is about Saul driven by despair, hastening to consult “the crooked crone who peeped and muttered in the caves on the height of Endor.” As he looked at the huge camp of the Philistines “he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly,” and his fear was a premonition of his approaching doom. Although full of dread, there was no sign of repentance in Saul and thus when he cried to the Lord, “the Lord answered him not.” By his dark sins he had severed himself from all divine influences, and as a last desperate resort disguised himself in the garb of a common soldier. He then leaves God to consult a witch for any ray of hope she may be able to bring about by producing the departed spirit of Samuel whose past counsel Saul had spurned.
Jewish tradition affirms that the nameless spiritualist medium was the mother of the great Abner. Whether this is true or not, certainly this witch of Endor has a distinction all her own in that she had a king of Israel for a consulter, and a prophet of God for an apparition. This well-known female at Endor, introduced to Saul by his servants, had a “familiar spirit,” that is, the supposed possession of a gift to induce or compel a departed spirit to revisit the world and submit to questioning. This aspect of the “black arts” was one of the things the Israelites copied from the original inhabitants of Canaan but the Mosaic command respecting those who practiced these arts is clear and decisive: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27).
The manifold shapes of witchcraft had prevailed among the people and is given under a variety of names as “enchantments,” “sorceries,” “familiar spirit,” “wizard,” “observer of times,” “dreamer of dreams,” “diviners,” “charmers,” “necromancers,” or “consulters of the dead.” The New Testament speaks of “seducers,” “seducing spirits,” “unclean spirits, working miracles,” all of which are associated with arts of the devil. Those having intercourse with the unseen world were put to death, and all who sought the offices of such people were defiled (Leviticus 19:31). Idle curiosity and concern in the unseen world leading to a sinful interest in trifling with matters so awful was strictly forbidden (Deuteronomy 12:30-32). The Witch of Endor knew that the practice of dark arts was a capital offense still punishable by death. Thus she told Saul—although her professed power to contact the other world did not include the ability to recognize Saul in his disguise—that a snare was being laid to expose and kill her as the law demanded. But assured by Saul’s oath that nothing would happen to her, she asked him whom he wanted to have reappear from the dead.
Although this woman was a witch—the equivalent to a female medium in present day Spiritism or Spiritualism—yet the Bible does not depict her as a despicable character. Hers was not the gamut of illusions and tricks often practiced in séances. She actually indulged in forbidden communication with the unseen world of spirits. No obvious deceit was hers, and natural, feminine virtues were still prominent, for when she discovered Saul’s identity and heard Samuel pronounce his doom, she tried to assist and comfort the distracted king prostrate on the ground before her after hearing of his fate. She demonstrated her sympathy for Saul by having his servants lay him on her own bed, and insisting that he eat, prepared an abundant meal for him and his servants. Yet in spite of her good points, she had sold herself to Satan. One wonders what level of spiritual achievement she might have attained had she wholly followed the Lord instead of her black art.
How those with spiritualistic tendencies take shelter in this episode of the apparent recall of Samuel from the dead! It is advanced as Biblical proof for the clairvoyance. But modern Spiritualism, which is merely a rehash of the Israelitish abomination, is spiritually and morally wrong, and still under divine condemnation seeing the Mosaic law against it has never been abrogated—even though witches are no longer burned. The question we now face is, Did God work through a spiritualistic medium, and through a witch satisfy Saul’s request? Was it actually Samuel who appeared? Having sternly forbidden any traffic with witches, did God deign to use what He had condemned?
On the genuine appearance of the departed Samuel there has always been a great diversity of opinion. Some commentators believe that his supposed appearance was a deception practiced by the witch and was most effective with Saul because of his distraught, nervous and excited condition. Others say that it was an evil spirit who impersonated Samuel, or that it was a phantasm or semblance of the prophet that appeared, even as the figure of a man we have known may appear to us in a dream or vision, and not the man himself. Satan and his ministers are able to transform themselves into the appearance of angels of light, and they may also have represented the saintly prophet. But what are the actual facts of the case?
Saul said to the witch, “Bring me up Samuel,” and the issue is plainly stated, “The woman saw Samuel.” “Then said Samuel,” and “Saul was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel.” The woman described the God-like, majestic and mantled form she saw, and Saul perceived that it was Samuel. Thus by some “hidden dispensation of the divine will, the prophet allowed himself to be thus made use of,” says St. Augustine, “even as our Lord Himself in the days of His humiliation submitted to be taken by Satan, and set by him on the pinnacle of the Temple.” It has been suggested that Samuel was sent by God to the consternation of the witch herself as she was about to have recourse to her usual arts; thus God Himself intervened to answer Saul by the prophet Samuel.
Further, the overpowering effect the apparition had upon Saul, the rebuke he received, and the prophecy of his death and of his sons the next day, all imply the reality and genuineness of Samuel’s appearance. Evil spirits are not permitted to forestall God’s decrees, thus no witch was able to make the prediction Samuel did. We therefore believe that as God allowed Moses and Elias to return to comfort Christ in view of His cross (Matthew 17), so He allowed Samuel to return to warn Saul of his doom. Bishop Wordsworth explains what happened in that cave at Endor in this way—
God designed that the spirit of Samuel should be recognized by human eyes and how could this have been done but by means of such objects as are visible to human sense? Our Lord speaks of the tongue of the disembodied spirit of Dives in order to give us an idea of his suffering; and at the Transfiguration He presented the form of Moses in such a garb to the three disciples as might enable them to recognize him as Moses.
As Samuel appeared, Saul told his woeful tale, but was reminded that God could do nothing for him because of his blatant sins. The prophet reminded the king of his past wickedness and its effects upon the nation, and then heard the solemn announcement: “Tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me,” and this sentence of death was executed on Mount Gilboa. Yet it would seem as if mercy rejoiced over divine judgment for note well what Samuel said, “Tomorrow shalt thou ... be with me.” Where was Samuel in the unseen world? Not in the realms of eternal woe that is sure. As the Saviour said to the dying thief, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise,” so to the stricken, and it may be, now fully repentant Saul there came the message, “Thou and thy sons shall be with me.” Tomorrow with Samuel in the abode of bliss! What a comforting thought that must have been for Saul’s troubled heart! Charles Wesley asked—
What do these solemn words portend?
A ray of hope when life shall end.
Thou and thy sons, though slain, shall be
Tomorrow in repose with me.
Not in a state of hellish pain,
If Saul with Samuel do remain.
Not in a state of damned despair,
If loving Jonathan be there.
Our God is One who delights in mercy, and the gospel hymn states it—
Whilst the lamp holds out to burn
The vilest sinner may return.
Hardened, reprobate, and self-condemned as Saul was, if on that dark night in the witch’s cave he heard God’s voice as Samuel spoke, and on that last day of his life flung himself upon divine mercy, then his end was not one of unrelieved gloom. We would like to believe that ere Saul went out to be slain in battle, he set the house of his heart in order. Augustine wrote that Samuel’s word “Shalt thou be with me” does not refer to an equality in bliss, but to a like condition of death. Samuel himself was very much alive, although his body was in the graveyard at Ramah. If Samuel had said to Saul, “Tomorrow thou shalt be among the damned,” that would have crushed him completely, and likely hardened him to his impenitence. By using the gentler expression, with me, Samuel mildly exhorted Saul to repentance even at the end of a somewhat tragic life.