Wednesday, 14 April 2021

An Evil Spirit from the Lord?

In 1 Samuel 16:14, 16; 18:10; 19:9, the LORD’s Spirit departed from Saul, and an “evil spirit from the LORD” troubled him (KJV, NASB, NIV, N/RSV). The Hebrew word translated “evil” in these English versions is rah, used in a variety of ways in the OT. Sometimes it describes moral evil but is also used in the sense of “distressing” (NKJV) or “harmful” (ESV) or “unpleasant” or “bad” or “miserable” (e.g., Gen. 47:9; Num. 14:37; Josh. 23:15; 1 Sam. 29:7; Psa. 112:7; Prov. 15:10; Eccl. 1:13; 4:8). In Judges 9:23, “God sent an evil [rah] spirit” between Abimelech and Shechem (CSB, ESV, NASB, N/KJV), i.e., he “stirred up animosity” between them (NIV). In Isa. 45:7 God does not create moral evil but takes responsibility for calamity or misfortune (circumstantial evil?) as a consequence of human sin. At the very least he has established the law of cause and effect. 

If God is sovereign and in control and allows certain things to happen (even bad things), in scripture he accepts accountability (cf. Isa. 53:4; Matt. 6:13; Rom. 1:20-28) but also holds human beings responsible for their own thoughts and actions (cf. Jas. 1:12-16). While the sovereign Lord is never completely uninvolved, it is not the case he is always the direct cause. 

In 1 Samuel, King Saul defiantly disregarded the law of God (13:13; 15:20-24; 18:8-9). As a result the Lord withdrew his favor and protection, leaving Saul susceptible to his own mental torment, fear, jealousy, rage, paranoia, and insanity. Whether the troubling spirit was actively sent by God as a punishment or merely allowed by God as the inevitable consequence of Saul’s actions, Saul was ultimately to blame.

--Kevin L. Moore

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Image credit: from Ernst Josephson’s painting “Saul och David,”

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