Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Samuel 16:14

This is a passage which bothers many folks – both believers and non-believers. It seems to make God the author of evil, or at least make him responsible for particular evil outcomes. The verse says this: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

Does God send evil spirits? Is that not what the devil might do instead? And what is meant by an “evil spirit”? These and other questions arise here, and they are well worth discussing in more detail. It can first be pointed out that there are several other occurrences of this phrase, or something similar to it. In this book we have the following:

-1 Samuel 18:10: “The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul.”
-1 Samuel 19:9: “But an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand.”

And we find this even earlier in the biblical record, as in Judges 9:23: “Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.” (KJV). The NIV renders it this way: “God stirred up animosity between Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem so that they acted treacherously against Abimelek.”

SaulAlso in 1 King 22:19-22 we find a similar situation in which a “deceiving spirit” in the mouth of the false prophets is said to come from the Lord in the time of Micaiah. Of course it is important to examine the phrase itself. Some translations, such as the ESV, put it this way: a “harmful spirit”.

Or some say “wicked spirit” such as the Wycliffe Bible; or a “tormenting spirit” such as the Living Bible. Some paraphrases try to perhaps soften all this such as the Message which says: “a black mood sent by God settled on him”.

The Hebrew phrase in question is ruah-ra’ah. David Toshio Tsumura argues that our problem here is really more linguistic than theological. He suggests that we translate this as “a spirit of evilness (or disaster)”. He also suggests “the spirit which brings forth disaster” or “the spirit of Yahweh which brings forth disaster”.

Bill Arnold remarks, “The term can also mean simply an ‘injurious’ or ‘bad’ spirit, as noted by the NIV translators, and may well denote a ‘bad mood’ or ‘gloomy outlook.’ In this way, the spirit from Yahweh represents a foreboding sense that Saul is moving inescapably toward self-annihilation.”

Joyce Baldwin in her commentary agrees that an “injurious” spirit is another possible translation, and reminds us of Job 2:10: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” She writes, “the people of God are encouraged in Scripture to take adversity of all kinds direct from the Lord’s hand (cf. John 9:3; 11:4; 2 Cor. 12:7-10).”

Or as Mary Evans comments, “Everything that happened, good or bad, was seen as coming from God, and in this context ‘evil’ can simply mean ‘harmful’. Saul suffered from these terrible moods and therefore God must in some way be seen as responsible for them.” Daniel Block says this: “a bad spirit of God . . . is ‘bad’ because the effects of his possession are negative and destructive for the object”.

These writers raise an important point, namely that we hear very little about Satan in the Old Testament, and God is seen as sovereign over all things. Satan only gets three brief mentions in the OT: 1 Chronicles 21:1; the first two chapters of Job; and Zechariah 3:1-2.

The surprisingly limited amount of space devoted to Satan shows his relative insignificance. It is God with whom we have to do, not his adversary. The traditional understanding of both Jews and Christians is that God’s purposes ultimately triumph, but he may work through secondary agents (such as Satan).

It is also important to get the background on this. Why had God rejected Saul? We find the answer to this in various places in 1 Samuel. For example, in 1 Samuel 13:13-14 we find this: “‘You have done a foolish thing,’ Samuel said. ‘You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command’.”

And in 1 Samuel 15:11,19 we read: “‘I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.’ Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the LORD all that night. . . . ‘Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?’”

Because of Saul’s wilful disobedience, Samuel goes on to make this famous statement in vv. 22-23:
“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the LORD?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king.”

So a long history of disobedience and rebellion on Saul’s part meant that Yahweh rejected him as king, and chose instead young David. The simple truth is, the Lord abandoned Saul because Saul had abandoned the Lord. Indeed, this is another point worth emphasising. At the end of the day, Saul is responsible for all this.

His long-term rebellion is dealt with by a sovereign God. As Arnold writes, “As we will see, the attacks generated by this injurious spirit are not constant but are periodic. However we are to understand its precise nature, the text is clear. The ruinous spirit comes from Yahweh because of Saul’s persistent and unrepentant stance, and it is the source of his problems, plaguing him throughout the rest of the narrative….

“Though modern readers may resist taking this injurious spirit as coming from God, the point of the text is to link Saul’s illness to his own rebellion against God. His problems from this point on are a result of his refusal to accept God’s authority structures, so that God is justified in sending the injurious spirit.”

One can also talk about the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility here. As always, we have some mystery, and some unanswered questions. But somehow God is directly behind all this, while Saul is also fully responsible as well.

As Robert Bergen comments, “Saul’s tortured state was not an accident of nature, nor was it essentially a medical condition. It was a supernatural assault by a being sent at the Lord’s command, and it was brought on by Saul’s disobedience.”

Or as David Firth states, “It should be borne in mind that the OT is seldom concerned with secondary causation, and since Yahweh is Lord of all, the spirit is seen as coming from him. But the narrative still holds Saul responsible for his actions while afflicted (18:10-11; 19:10), so though this statement is absolute, the wider narrative indicates that a more nuanced understanding is necessary.”

Overall, the biblical message is that God is indeed sovereign, but he is not directly the author of evil. This passage is one of many texts that must be examined in this light. And it serves as a strong warning to us all as well. God may well use a person for his purposes, but it is also possible for that person to reject God, forcing God to reject him.

So let us seek to learn any spiritual lessons that come forth from this admittedly difficult passage. It is not just our heads that need to be engaged here, but our hearts as well.

[1330 words]

9 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Samuel 16:14”

  1. Christians have a difficult time understanding that God created ALL things. God DID create evil…the PRINCIPLE of evil. Evil actions are not the same as the principle of evil. Evil appears to be a consequence of violating God’s commands. There was NO evil in the Garden until Adam violated God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Does that mean that evil didn’t exist? No. Only that it had not been released, God is not the author of evil deeds, only the Creator of the principle.

  2. Not sure I agree here Bill, for in Isaiah 45:7 it says:

    I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things

    And then in Amos 3:6:

    Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?

    These verses do of course create uncomfortable implications for believers and non-believers, but they seem clear enough nonetheless.

    Nick Davies

  3. Thanks Nick. But of course it is not quite that simple. First, as I said in my article, we must carefully determine what the terms in fact mean. The Hebrew word ra used in both passages you cite can also mean calamity, misfortune, trouble, disaster, etc. And we still have the huge theological task (as I also suggested in the article) of discussing such things as whether God simply allows these things, or directly causes them; whether we can speak of secondary causes, and so on. Then there is the interplay between God, man and Satan also to be taken into account, which must be carefully looked at.

    And it should be rather clear that I did emphasise often in my article that God was indeed behind this, even though we may not fully understand what is meant by the evil spirit, and that it also ties in with the choices of Saul. That is why I spent 1300 words on this, but of course entire libraries have been penned on some of these complex topics. So as I quoted one commentator in my piece, some nuance is needed here. Easy, quick and short answers are not always so helpful to large, multi-layered and complex theological questions.

    But thanks for your contribution.

  4. Hi Bill,

    Good points. I was mostly referring to your conclusion that, “God…is not directly the author of evil.”

    But as you point out, entire libraries have addressed this question and perhaps I ought to have prefaced my comment with greater acknowledgement of this fact.

    I only comment out of a desire to create some discussion on both sides of the question.

    Nick Davies

  5. Nick,

    I disagree. The ESV, in my understanding, provides a better translation of Isa 45:7, ‘I form the light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity. I am the LORD who does all these things’ (ESV).

    However, there are some Calvinists who believe God created all evil:

    What so some Calvinists teach on this critical subject of God creating all evil. Take a read of the statements of leading Calvinists, including Calvin, in ‘A Theology in Tension’, http://atheologyintension.wordpress.com/2013/03/21/2376/#_ftn10

    Here are a few of the quotes from that site that quotes these Calvinists:[1]

    John Calvin: ‘Hence we maintain that, by his providence, not heaven and earth and inanimate creatures only, but also the counsels and wills of men are so governed as to move exactly in the course which he has destined’.

    Calvinist theologian James White, in a debate with Hank Hannegraaf and George Bryson, was asked, “When a child is raped, is God responsible and did He decree that rape?” To which Mr. White replied… “Yes, because if not then it’s meaningless and purposeless and though God knew it was going to happen he created it without a purpose… and God is responsible for the creation of despair… If He didn?t [decree child rape] then that rape is an element of meaningless evil that has no purpose.”

    W.G.T. Shedd: “Sin is one of the ‘whatsoevers’ that have ‘come to pass’, all of which are ‘ordained’…Nothing comes to pass contrary to His decree. Nothing happens by chance. Even moral evil, which He abhors and forbids, occurs by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God… man’s inability to explain how God can make things certain, but not compulsory… is no reason to deny that [God] can do it or that he has done it.”

    Gordan H. Clark: ‘I wish very frankly and pointedly to assert that if a man gets drunk and shoots his family, it was the will of God that he should do it…” He goes on to assert, “Let it be unequivocally said that this view certainly makes God the cause of sin. God is the sole ultimate cause of everything. There is absolutely nothing independent of him. He alone is the eternal being. He alone is omnipotent. He alone is sovereign.[ Some people who do not wish to extend God’s power over evil things, and particularly over moral evils…The Bible therefore explicitly teaches that God creates sin’.

    John Frame: “The Reformed [Calvinists] agree that God knows what would happen under all conditions, but they reject the notion that this knowledge is ever ultimately based on man’s autonomous decisions. Human decisions, they argue, are themselves the effects of God’s eternal decrees.”

    I do not accept and promote this perspective, but here is not the place to go into detail. See: ‘Did God create evil?’ at: http://spencer.gear.dyndns.org/2011/06/01/did-god-create-evil/.

    In Christ,

    [1] All of these citations from this article are referenced from the writings or debates of these Calvinistic promoters. Check out the website for documentation. Emphases in bold are original to the article, ‘A Theology in Tension’.

  6. Regarding the nature of God and his attributes being likened to both good (tov) and bad (ra), I believe these articles may shed some light. In my opinion they do an accurate job at defining the original Hebrew words in question, and they definitely help to clarify the confusion regarding certain verses about God’s character. I stumbled upon them recently and personally found them very helpful at increasing my understanding of God. After all, if God is sovereign than wouldn’t it go without saying that He has both the power and right to create and destroy according to His will?


  7. A way of looking at these things that has helped me understand this a little is this: Good has evil within it in the sense that good is 100% of all the good things God has made. Only 99% is evil, for that 1% is missing, rendering the result as evil as all good things are no longer complete, there is something missing. So rather than saying good and evil are opposites and thereby 2 integritous entities, evil is simply a lack of good in some way. So total evil would be a total absence of God and what he has made, which of course can’t happen, because God can not be annihilated. But of course God can use this temporary lack of good for his purpose. I guess free will is mixed up in this too because with it we or the angels or whoever has been given free will by God that we, they could then create evil simply by neglecting to obey God in a small thing He has commanded.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  8. God permits evil because he uses it for his own purpose, to bring good out of evil, in the case of Job, in the book of Job.
    or in 1 Cor 5:5 To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
    As in the case of Joseph in Genesis 50:18–20?.
    Joseph’s own flesh-and-blood brothers sold him into slavery As a result, Joseph ended up becoming one of the most powerful men in the history of the nation of Egypt. When he and his brothers were reunited, they were terrified of being punish by Joseph for the terrible wrong they did against him.
    Verse 18 : And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we are thy servants.
    Verse 19 : And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?
    Verse 20 : And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.
    So there can’t be a contradictory paradoxes,
    God creates evil
    God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. 1 John 1:5
    So what do I believe, what the calvinist believe?
    I believe it is men and not God who is at fault here, discrepancies were created in the Scriptures so who is at error here, who is it that makes mistakes and who is it that is imperfect?
    Tragedies in the world continues to go on since Cain killed Abel, did God create that evil? No, but he permitted it.
    It’s a fallen world and who resides in it besides God…Satan.
    Satan creates evil for the meaningless purpose of destruction.
    God uses some of the meaningless purpose of Satan to bring good out of evil for His own purpose.

  9. The word evil has a broad concept in variations of its definition.

    God said: “I make peace, and create evil.” In order to understand this statement, it must be viewed in coordination with the overall attestations of Scripture relative to the character of the Lord.
    God is absolutely holy ( Isaiah 6:3 ; Revelation 4:8 ), “his work is perfect,” “all his ways are just,” he is a Being of “faithfulness” who is “without iniquity,” and is both “just and right” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Moral evil cannot be attributed to the Creator in any way ( Habakkuk 1:13 ; James 1:13-14).
    Any serious student of language is aware of the fact that words are flexible vehicles of communication. This principle is no less true of the Bible than it is of any piece of literature.
    For example, the term “God” may refer to a Being who is truly divine in nature ( John 1:1), or the same word may be employed of a false object of worship that is void of the essence of deity ( 1 Corinthians 8:4-6) The verb “believed” may reflect nothing more than a superficial emotion (John 12:42) , or it may represent a genuine conviction that is expressed in obedience (Acts 2:41,44). There is none “righteous” (Rom. 3:10), yet Joseph, the husband of Mary was “righteous” (Matthew 1:19). It is wrong to “judge” ( Matthew 7:1 ); it is right to “judge” (John 7:24 ). One cannot be justified by “works” (Ephesians 2:9) yet justification is obtained by “works” ( James 2:24).
    Examples of this nature are almost endless. A word is defined, in great measure, by how it is used in a certain setting — in its context. This is a fundamental principle of language interpretation.
    As with many other words, the term “evil” can have more than one meaning, depending upon the manner in which it is used. The Hebrew word for evil is ra’, which derives from a root meaning “to spoil” or “to break in pieces.”
    Obviously, the term “evil” may be used with reference to sinful activities. Ezekiel rebuked Israel for her worship of idols (20:39), which rebellion was characterized as “evil” (vv. 43-44). Jesus once spoke of “evil thoughts” that produce a variety of ungodly actions, e.g., fornication, theft, murder, etc. (Mk. 7:21-23).
    On the other hand, “evil” may refer to a disaster of some sort. In discussing the punishment that would be visited upon Israel for her wickedness, Isaiah declared:
    “For you have trusted in your wickedness; you have said, ‘No one sees me;’ [but] your wisdom and your knowledge, it has perverted you, and you have said in your heart, I am, and there is no one else besides me. Therefore shall evil come upon you; you will not know the dawning thereof: and mischief shall fall upon you; you will not be able to put it away: and desolation shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know not.” (Isa. 47:10-11; emp. supplied).
    Observe the parallelism in this text. The “evil” of verse 11 becomes the “mischief” and the “desolation” in the latter portion of the passage. The “evil” of which the prophet spoke, actually was the impending Babylonian captivity (see also Jer. 18:8).
    Similarly, when the prophet Amos warned the northern kingdom of Israel of its eventual doom, he referred to that time of temporal judgment as the “evil day,” which, of course, ultimately was the Assyrian invasion (722/21 B.C.).
    Sometimes “evil” can simply refer to physical infirmity. Solomon admonished those still in their youth to remember the Creator in the vigor of those early times of energy, because eventually the “evil” days come and the “years” take their physical toll ( Ecclesiastes 12:1 King James Version). Some of those bodily ailments are then chronicled in the balance of the chapter (see verses. 3-7).
    From the divine view point, therefore, such judgments relating to physical degeneration are characterized as “evil” because all such inevitable human experiences ultimately are the result of humanity’s foolish choices to engage in “evil” (rebellion) against the Maker of men. Natural evils are the result of moral evil — not in every individual situation (consider, for instance, the case of the patriarch Job, and that of Christ as well) — but in a general, ultimate, cause-and-effect sense (Romans 5:12)
    Frequently it is alleged, however, that ultimately God is responsible for “evil” — for had he not created angels and men, the evil they have generated would not exist.
    The logic employed in this objection is flawed.
    No greater compliment could have been paid to man than to have been created in the very image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). A part of that “creation package” was the gift of personal volition, that is, the ability to make moral choices. There are only two logical possibilities — one might be created with “free will,” or without “free will.”
    Now which option is the obvious expression of love (cf.1 John 4:8). The former, of course. The Lord thus endowed human beings granting them the personal power of choice. Once such action was taken, the Creator is not morally liable if the gift of choice is abused, and the possessor there elects to pursue the road that leads to perdition.
    Is the designer or manufacturer of an automobile morally responsible for the drunk driver who runs down and kills an innocent child? And what of the godly mother who made every effort to raise her children in harmony with the Lord’s will; is she accountable for the actions of a wayward offspring who robs a bank or commits murder?

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