The curious case of King Saul and the medium

King Saul’s visit to the medium at Endor (1 Sam. 28) is the most detailed account of necromancy in Scripture. It exposes the fraudulence of those who claim to traffic in communication with the deceased, and it warns about the consequences of those who seek to cross a line God has drawn in the sand.

Simply stated, a medium is one who claims to connect the living with the dead. As we read of King Saul’s encounter with the woman of Endor, we learn that Saul is in desperate straits. Samuel the prophet has died, and the king hears nothing but silence from the LORD. Even though Saul has banned necromancers from the land, he instructs his servants to seek out “a woman who is a medium,” literally, “a woman controlling, or mistress of, a divining demon” (1 Sam. 28:7).

Saul understands how necromancy is believed to work. A demon must mediate between the necromancer and the spirit of a deceased person. Saul is willing to go this route in order to contact Samuel because the late prophet and judge was unmatched in knowing God’s mind and future events.

When Saul makes contact with the woman at Endor, he assures her that no harm will come to her, even though she operates an unlawful business. His need to seek Samuel’s counsel overrides the shady nature of their exchange.

Setting the scene

In Biblical Demonology, Merrill Unger sets the scene: “The woman doubtless began to make her customary preparations, expecting, as usual, to lapse into a trance-like state, and be used by her ‘control’ or ‘divining demon,’ who would then proceed to impersonate the individual called for.”

But things take a startling turn. The occult procedure involving a demon and a willing human medium is cut short by the appearance of the spirit of Samuel. The medium is traumatized, screaming in terror when she perceives that God has stepped in and, by His power and special permission, sent Samuel’s disembodied spirit to deliver a message to the king.

As Unger explains, “The medium’s terrified conduct, and her complete loss of poise at the appearance of a real spirit of a deceased person, constitutes a complete and irrefutable Scriptural disclosure of the fraudulency of all spiritistic mediumship.”

There is no doubt the woman had the power to communicate with wicked spirits, as do modern mediums. These deceiving demons represent themselves as spirits of the departed dead. But the messages do not originate with the deceased. Rather, they come from the demons, who are lying spirits, masterfully impersonating the dead.

Unger states, “Evil spirits may impersonate the dead, but they cannot produce them. Only God can do that, as He did in this case. Moreover, the incident is the only example in all Scripture where God permitted a deceased person to come back, as a spirit, to hold communication with the living.”

Others have come back from the dead, though not as spirits but as resuscitated beings — the widow of Nain’s son, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus of Bethany, for example. Of course, they all went on to experience death after their resuscitation, and they await resurrected bodies one day.

A possible exception is the appearance of Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-9). Some commentators, like Unger, believe the Old Testament figures appeared in their glorified bodies, but it seems to make more sense that they are like Samuel and other O.T. figures in their disembodied states. After all, Jesus must be the first to receive a glorified body, and He has not yet died and been resurrected.

Jesus is unique in that He came back from the dead in a glorified body. That’s why Paul depicts Jesus as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep — the first to be raised from the dead in an incorruptible body that will never again experience death (1 Cor. 15:20).

Exposed as a fraud

Back to the event at Endor. After Samuel appears and delivers his message — that Saul and his sons are finished and will die in battle the next day, with their spirits joining him in Sheol — the medium is exposed and her craft is laid bare as fraudulent.

At first, the spirit of Samuel is seen only by the medium, who declares that she sees “a god (elohim) coming up out of the earth (1 Sam. 28:13). In this instance, the Hebrew word elohim, most often applied to God, is used to depict a person inhabiting the unseen realm. Elohim also is used to describe false gods and angels.

After the medium’s further description of Samuel as an old man, coming up, covered with a robe (v. 27), Saul seems to have glimpsed the spirit of Samuel, for he bows to the ground in respect. Now, the conversation takes place directly between Saul and Samuel.

In severe terms, Samuel announces that the LORD has taken the kingdom from Saul, and that the next day Saul and his sons would die (vv. 16-19).

A teachable moment

What does this story teach us today? First, Scripture forbids us from engaging in necromancy, also known as “divination,” “sorcery,” and “spiritism” (Lev. 19:26; Deut. 18:10; Acts. 19:19; Gal. 5:19-20). There are at least two reasons for this.

First, necromancy involves demons and opens up those who engage them in demonic attacks. Second, necromancy seeks to bypass the LORD in order to obtain information. God has revealed everything we need for life and godliness in His word. That means He also has decided – with good reason – to withhold some information from us. God always speaks the truth, while demons always lie, so we imperil ourselves and others when we reject what God has truthfully told us in order to seek additional information.

The Christian website puts it this way: “The idea that dead people’s spirits can be contacted for information is false. Those who attempt such contact inevitably contact demonic spirits, not the spirits of dead loved ones. Those who die go immediately to heaven or hell — heaven if they believed in Jesus as Savior, and hell if they did not. There is no contact between the dead and the living. Therefore, seeking the dead is unnecessary and very dangerous.”

Finally, consider a lesson from the account Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31. Unger states, “If the persuasive pleading of the rich man in Hades could not affect the sending back of the spirit of Lazarus to the earth to warn his brothers, how can a medium, through the agency of a demonic power, prevail upon spirits of the dead to return? And what need is there for our communication with the dead? We have Moses and the Prophets, yes, and Christ and the Apostles, with a full revelation concerning the circumstances of both the saved and the unsaved dead. If the episode of Saul’s recourse to occultism has any lesson at all, it shows the folly and duplicity of traffic with necromancers.”