Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.” One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him.” Therefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me David your son, who is with the sheep.” And Jesse took a donkey laden with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them by David his son to Saul. And David came to Saul and entered his service. And Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.
–1 Samuel 16:14–23
The “harmful spirit” that causes Saul such suffering and problems in 1 Samuel 16 is a tough thing to work out because we often don’t think of God as bringing harm. This is because we often associate harm with evil. As such, it’s not within our comprehension to think of a good God bringing harm.
The reality is, however, that not all harm is evil—and can, at times, be quite helpful. For instance, God gives us the good gift of lesser pain to keep us from more substantial pain. When my side hurts badly, it’s a lesser pain to prevent me from having my appendix burst. God also uses the good gift of discipline, which can bring harm, for the growth of those he loves and to keep them from harming themselves to a greater degree. Finally, because he is just, God will harm those who oppose him, his plans, and unjustly bring harm to others.
There have been many ideas put forth to explain the harmful spirit in 1 Samuel 16. Some claim it was a demon sent to torture and torment Saul as a result of his continual sin. Others claim that it was a demon possession that would be temporarily exorcised when David played his harp. Still others offer that the “spirit” was not a distinct entity, but was descriptive of Saul’s temperament. Each of these ideas has merit, and each has weaknesses. We will look at what I believe are the three best views: the idea that the spirit was a tormenting demon, the idea that the spirit was a bad temperament, and the idea that the spirit was a harmful agent from God.
View #1: A Tormenting Demon
On the surface, it’s easy to read 1 Samuel 16:14 and think of a demon coming to torture Saul—for what else could a “harmful spirit” be? Compounding this belief, most Bible translations read “an evil spirit from the Lord,” the most prominent being the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the Revised Standard Version. Whether or not the translators thought the spirit was a demon is unclear from the translation themselves, but it certainly begs the question: what is the spirit?
The spirit could be one of two things: either a messenger-angel from God, or a demon from Satan. Since many translate “harmful” as “evil,” the spirit is traditionally assumed to not be an angel, and thus must be a demon. In his bookThe Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, Leon Wood argues this case. Consequently, the demon was God’s way of punishing Saul for his repeated rebellion and to keep Saul from killing David. Prior to an evil spirit being sent from the Lord to torment Saul, David was anointed as the new king (1 Sam. 16:13), and God didn’t want Saul to succeed in destroying the new king.
There are a few strengths to this view. First, it seems to make sense of the simplest reading of the text; a harmful or evil spirit must be just that. Second, it makes sense that an evil spirit would plague Saul after the Holy Spirit of Yahweh left him (1 Samuel 16:14). Lastly, it would make sense that demon possession would cause Saul to try and kill David on several occasions (1 Sam. 18:10–11, 19:1–17).
Even though this idea has some strengths, there are also some problems. First, the phrase “evil spirit,” ruwach-ra’a in Hebrew, appears only one other time in the Bible in Judges 9:23, and in that instance does not necessarily mean “demon.” The Hebrew word ra’a, which is translated as “evil,” has the basic meaning of bad or harmful. Fruit that is spoiled would be called ra’a. Calamity fallen on people in the form of earthquakes or famine is also called ra’a in Isaiah and Jeremiah, and wild animals are referred to as ra’a in Genesis. So the most basic translation ofruwach-ra’a as “evil spirit” or “harmful spirit” does not appear to necessarily imply a demon.
Furthermore, those who espouse this idea must struggle with the fact that God himself sends the spirit to Saul. Normally, commentators get around this by arguing that God permitted the spirit to be sent, and that Satan was the one responsible for sending it. However, as some commentators point out, there is nothing in the text to suggest that Satan was actually involved. Contextually, God is clearly the originator of the spirit.
In light of these difficulties, there are other answers to the question that deal better with the biblical evidence.
View #2: A Bad Temperament
A second view held by some argues that the “harmful spirit” was not a separate entity from Saul at all, such as a demon, but instead, some believe the phrase refers to a “bad temperament” or sour mood that constantly plagued Saul.
The term “spirit” (ruwach) in the Old Testament can refer to the internal emotional and mental state of a person. When the Israelites were on their doorstep, the hearts of the citizens of Jericho melted in fear and, as Rahab says, there was no “spirit” left in any man they were so afraid (Josh. 2:11). When Jacob discovered that his son Joseph was still alive, his “spirit” perked up (Gen. 45:27). Hannah, begging for a son at the tabernacle, explained her impassioned plea as being “troubled in spirit” (1 Sam. 1:15). Thus, the argument is that Saul’s “harmful spirit” was really a “bad spirit,” in the sense that he became depressed.
From a psychological perspective, this view has merit. In order to deal with Saul’s “depression” the court called in a musician, David, to play his harp. The sound of the soothing music then made the spirit depart and Saul was refreshed. At times when the spirit was particularly bad, Saul was prone to raving and throwing things (1 Sam. 18:10–11). If this “bad temperament” was indeed some sort of depression or bipolar condition, it would explain Saul’s rapid descent into rash attempts to take David’s life.
In light of these strengths there are a few things to take into consideration before accepting this view. In the mindset of ancient Israel, a spirit sent from God was never a “mood” or “temperament.” Though “spirit” can refer to the internal mindset of an individual, when a “spirit” is sent from God, it always means a divine agent of some kind or another. In addition, the coming of the harmful spirit is set in direct contrast to the departure of the Holy Spirit of the Lord, which is certainly a distinct person apart from Saul. Though this view is attractive, I think it relies too heavily on modern understandings of mental disorders and finds less than sufficient support in the text.
View #3: A Harmful Spirit from God
Of the major translations of the Bible, only the English Standard Version, quoted above, translates “evil spirit” as “harmful spirit.” This is completely within the bounds of the word ra’a (as explained above), and is, perhaps, the best solution to the problem. It is almost certain that the spirit was a distinct entity apart from Saul and that this spirit was sent by God himself. This excludes the possibility of the “evil spirit” from being a bad mood, as well as from being a demon.
The third view argues that the spirit was a divine agent (perhaps an angel) sent to Saul for the purpose of confounding his plans, frustrating his emotions, and generally bringing him discomfort. This is not without precedent in the Bible. Often, God sends angels or spirits for destructive or harmful purposes. For example, the angel of death was sent against Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12:23), and an angel was sent to kill Balaam (Num. 22:22). These instances of God sending a spirit to harm were all in response to sinful behavior, just as Saul’s “evil spirit” was sent because of his sin.
A Word on Suffering
Though Saul clearly suffered at the hands of a “harmful spirit” due to his sin (1 Sam. 15:22–29), it’s not always so easy to discern just why we, or others, suffer. Life is complex and never easy to understand in neat theological categories.
As a general rule though, the Bible does categorize suffering as either positive (when it is for a good reason like Jesus’ suffering) or negative (when it is because of our sin) (1 Pet. 3:17). While there may never be any one clear way to answer all of the questions surrounding suffering, I have previously outlined 15 kinds of suffering as a humble means of offering help for those who are suffering and for those who help others in their suffering.
Sadly, what often occurs when someone is suffering is that they consider whether God is either sovereign or good. Those who are hard Calvinists leaning toward determinism are prone to retain the sovereignty of God while diminishing the goodness of God. The result is a cold view of a distant God who is possibly even the author of evil, which makes God a co-conspirator of evil and therefore the last person someone who is suffering would be inclined to run to for comfort.
Those who are hard Arminians leaning toward Pelagianism are prone to downplay the sovereignty of God while retaining the goodness of God. The result is a false view of God who does not want suffering to occur, but is powerless to stop it and is therefore perhaps well-intended but ill-equipped, and thus unhelpful.
When either the sovereignty or goodness of God is compromised, a hurting person is left without comfort or help because their pain and poor biblical sight distort their view of God. The Bible repeatedly reveals that God is both sovereign and good.
For the Christian, this means that everything in life, including our suffering, either comes from or passes through his hand. Further, for the Christian, God uses it for our good. It is this goodness of God that is often difficult for suffering people to believe. This is because suffering people are prone to ask the “why” question. The “why” question is dangerous because it puts the suffering person in a judge’s chair and God on trial, where God must answer to them in a way that they deem sufficient in order to abdicate him from a verdict of some guilt in their eyes.
Sometimes we can, if we are honest with ourselves and surrounded by godly counsel, see some reason(s) for our suffering. Other times it simply hurts and makes no sense to us. Either way, I believe the better question for suffering people to ask is the question, “Who is God?”
The “who” question does not seek answers from God as much as it seeks God himself. The “who” question seeks to grow in deeper understanding of who God is because when we are suffering, what we need more deeply, passionately, and urgently than answers, even helpful biblical ones, is God.
In the End
For those who are suffering, Jesus is a God whom you can speak to, run to, and walk with. Unlike any other false god offered by any other religion, Jesus did not sit back in his heavenly ease and give us mere counsel for our suffering from a safe distance. Instead, he entered into human history to identify with us. He was tempted. He was rejected by his family. He was poor and homeless. He was abandoned by his friends. He was betrayed by his disciple. He was falsely accused by his enemies. He was falsely tried and condemned. He was beaten beyond recognition. He bled, suffered, and died in shame. And he lives today as a sympathetic high priest who gives grace to the hurting and promises justice to the unrepentant.