How could God send an “evil spirit” to torment Saul?
1 Samuel 16:14: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from the Lord began to torment him.”
This text is confusing because we understand that God never tempts anyone (James 1:13), he only gives good gifts (1:17), and nothing evil can remain in his presence (Psalm 5:4), so how could something evil come from God?
Is this a wrong translation of the original Hebrew? No. It clearly says, “an evil spirit from the Lord.” This is the same word “evil” from Genesis 6:5, where before the flood “every inclination of the human mind was nothing but evil all the time.” And it’s the same word “spirit” from the first half of this verse. And it’s the same phrase “from the Lord” as in Psalm 120:2, where God is the source of “help.”
Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Mormon religion, found this verse troubling enough that he “corrected” it in his “Inspired Version” of the Bible: “But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit which was not of the Lord troubled him.” But there is no evidence in the ancient manuscripts to support this solution to the problem.
Critical scholars imply that the ancients were wrong to attribute all causation to God. They say that in those days they didn’t understand natural, physical, and psychological causes, and instead they assigned all things to God’s sovereignty. But the critical scholars are rejecting what God himself says about sovereignty: “There is no one but me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:6–7). The Hebrew word for “disaster” there is the same as “evil” here.
Was the spirit morally evil?
Maybe the spirit that God sent is not morally “evil” but merely physically “destructive,” politically “disastrous,” or psychologically “devastating.” The Hebrew word can mean those things. But that would still not be good; it would still be a bad gift from God. It only removes God one step from causing harm to Saul, but ultimately God still did it. Also, even if that solved the problem with this verse, there are still other biblical examples of God sending a spirit that is morally bad.
In 1 Kings 22 God affirms a plan to put a “lying spirit” into the mouths of Ahab’s prophets. But it is important to see that this is a punitive device. It was given to men who were already false prophets and who were serving a king who had already rejected God’s guidance. This, too, is the case with Saul, who had already profaned his sacred calling as king of Israel. The evil spirit is disciplinary, intended to bring Saul to repentance. This corrective discipline is ultimately a good, moral objective on God’s part. But, as Proverbs 15:10 says, “Discipline is harsh [literally, ‘evil’] for the one who leaves the path.”
God’s Discipline: To Repent or Reject
Saul had been invited by God to travel a path of obedience to the gracious covenant, which would have brought blessing, success, and long life from the hand of God. Saul, instead, has shown a tendency to exalt himself (1 Samuel 15:12) and to fear what people think (15:24; see also chapter 13). He has rejected the path of righteousness that leads to grace, blessing, and life, and thus he finds himself on the path of disobedience, where he is experiencing wrath, discipline, and judgment from the hand of God. Discipline accepted can lead to repentance and restoration, but discipline rejected or ignored leads ultimately to death and destruction.
All things, whether good or evil, ultimately come from God; there is no other ultimate source. We can generally consider that good things come directly from God’s hand, while bad things come from Satan, but only as God permits him to act (Job 1–2), so it is still ultimately from God’s will. Nothing can happen to us outside of God’s permission. We accept all things as coming from God, and we give God the glory in any situation (Job 1:21; 2:10; 2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
Nothing is the result blind change or Satan’s upper hand
While this is a challenging truth to consider, it is also comforting, if you think about it. Nothing that happens to us is a result of blind chance or of Satan having the upper hand. Everything is under God’s control. When David was given a choice of who would be in charge of his severe discipline, he opted for God because “his mercies are great” (2 Samuel 24:13–14). Jesus assured His hearers that not even a sparrow dies apart from God’s will, and God loves people more than sparrows (Matthew 10:29–31). And in the end, when wicked people are punished, all people who have accepted the invitation to be in God’s kingdom will be saved (Matthew 13:24–30,37–43). Be comforted and assured: none of God’s children will be lost (John 10:28–29; Romans 8:31–39).
Dave Stabnow is a Bible and reference book editor at LifeWay. He has a PhD in Old Testament Hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He and his wife, Bonnie, live in Nashville.