Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?

In First Samuel it says that God sent an evil spirit to Saul to torment him.  I know what it’s like to go through depression and anxiety, and I don’t understand why God would do that to him. (Other places in the Bible mention similar occurrences of God sending evil:   Isaiah 45:7, Judges 9:23, and Jeremiah 6:19, among others.)

Interpreters differ about what this expression means precisely.  Some say that the so-called “evil spirit from the LORD” is an actual spirit-being that God allowed to trouble Saul as a punishment for his disobedience.  God is not the author of evil and does not tolerate evil in his presence, so if this is the correct interpretation, we shouldn’t think of God having evil spirits waiting around to do his bidding.  Rather, the spirit would be “from God” in the sense that its freedom to trouble Saul was a judgment from God.

But this is not the only way to understand the expression.  The Hebrew word that describes a spirit-being, ruach, can also be applied to the human spirit.  We see the supernatural meaning in Eliphaz’s opening speech in the book of Job, “A spirit glided past my face, and the hair on my body stood on end.”  We see the natural, human meaning in Psalm 51, “Create in me a pure heart . . . and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

In addition, the Hebrew word often translated as “evil” means more generally “bad” or “harmful.” It’s the word used, for example, when Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and not trouble?” (NIV). Some versions translate this as “evil,” but I don’t think that’s correct, since God is not the source of evil.  In the other passages you mentioned, the NIV translates this term as “disaster” (Isaiah and Jeremiah) and “animosity” (Judges), which I think fairly captures the sense—not “evil.”

So the actual meaning of the phrase about Saul could be “a bad spirit from the LORD,” signifying not an actual spirit-being, but rather a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit, reflecting the break in Saul’s relationship with God.

A couple of times earlier in Samuel-Kings, we read that “the Spirit of God came powerfully on Saul”—once when Samuel anointed him king, and once when he was inspired to deliver the Israelites from an enemy.  Now, unfortunately, we hear that “the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul.”  Once the Spirit’s presence had been experienced, its absence would be keenly felt.  This may be sufficient to explain Saul’s dark moods.

On balance, in my opinion, the first meaning—a spirit-being—seems more likely, given the parallelism in the narrative:  “The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”

But whatever this evil or bad spirit was, and however active a role God had in sending it, we need to recognize that God was also gracious to Saul in arranging for David to come to his court and relieve him through music, through a servant who happened to have seen “a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre.”

God allowed Saul the privilege of hearing one of the most gifted musicians in ancient Israel play his lyre and perhaps sing early versions of what became some of the psalms.  When David did this, Saul “would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave.”  God mercifully tempered the judgment with relief, allowing Saul back into his presence through the worship music he providentially made possible at his court.

I hope that any who experience depression and anxiety today will find this same relief in seeking and finding God’s presence, whether through music, the beauty of creation, the encouragement of God’s word, or some similar means.

Erasmus Quellinus, “Saul Listening to David Playing the Harp”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

7 thoughts on “Did God really send an evil spirit to torment Saul?”

  1. I was wondering what the actual Hebrew translation of the ‘from the LORD’ portion is; as we know in practical living terms if we do not stay close to our father God and get caught up in a sin of some kind it can open up a door to the enemy.I was wondering if the way the LORD has set up the operation of the world, mucked up by the original sin of course, is why it is worded in that way?

    1. The Hebrew is pretty straightforward: me’eth Yahweh, meaning “from Yahweh,” in the sense that Yahweh sent the spirit or was otherwise responsible for it troubling Saul. If this means “a bad spirit from the LORD,” then it more likely signifies not an actual spirit-being, but rather a dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit, reflecting the break in Saul’s relationship with God. But I agree with you that wandering away from God can leave us open to sinister influences (“an evil spirit”), which, as I say in the post, this passage may actually be describing.

      1. The post indicates that you think its more likely that an actual spirit-being was sent to Saul, but in your answer to Carolyn you say that you still think that the best way to understand this is as a dark or foreboding disposition of the human spirit, rather than a spirit-being. I am confused.
        I believe that God is good and that the bible is His inspired word, but I don’t understand why it is so hard to understand. Why did God word things in the bible in ways that are so easily misconstrued, and even can be used against us by those who want to tear down our faith? Do you think it is just so that we will study the bible more deeply?

      2. Any use of language inevitably has the potential for ambiguity (more than one possible meaning). God chose to use human languages to communicate His word to us, so the Bible also has more than one possible meaning in many places. In this post I discuss the two most likely meanings of the phrase “an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him,” and decide that “on balance, in my opinion, the first meaning—a spirit-being—seems more likely, given the parallelism in the narrative: ‘The Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.’” In my reply to Carolyn I was addressing specifically the possibility that the word might mean “bad” rather than “evil,” and if it does, then it refers to a “dark and foreboding disposition of the human spirit.” I’m sorry if this wasn’t clear from my original reply, and I have now edited it in the hopes of making it clearer. Thank you.

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