Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (1 Samuel 16) transports me to a troubled monarchy driven to madness in the midst of a coup carried out by the combined forces of Holy and evil spirits. In one of the most puzzling passages in all of scripture, we read that God took away the Holy Spirit from Saul and sent an evil spirit to torment him. That’s what it says; God dispossessed Saul of the Spirit of holiness, and re-possessed the rejected king with an evil spirit. An evil spirit from the Lord is a phrase repeated throughout the story. It is one of those phrases that interpreters have danced around with the “what the Bible really means” commentary. If we can avoid that dance, and listen to the story as told, we’ll hear a narrative that believes God is sovereign over everything; including evil spirits, and weaves everything, including trouble and torment, into the fabric of the salvation story. That view of sovereignty is certainly out of my theological comfort zone, because I can’t wrap my head or heart around the idea of God bringing evil into someone’s life or causing craziness. And this is not all that lies outside my comfort zone with this narrative.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: the people wanted a king, which was not what God wanted, but God granted them their wish. God chose Saul, a small-time farmer who was out searching for some lost donkeys, and anointed him as the first king, pouring the Holy Spirit on him. Saul could hardly have been prepared for what happened in his first 100 days. He was filled with fear in his first battles with the Philistines. Then, he understood his instructions from God to be this: Go and slaughter the Amalekites. Don’t leave anything living – including the animals. Sounds like the same message the Hutus in Rwanda and the Janjaweed in Sudan heard. Saul took his army and started the slaughter, but fell short of total genocide; he spared the king and some of the animals. Going as he did from cattle farm to killing fields, Saul was a likely candidate for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he suffered a worse fate. For his disobedience, God removed the spirit of Holiness from him and sent the evil spirit to torment him. And to top it off, the only charm that soothed his savage breast was harp music from the usurper to his throne, David.
This story should be deeply discomforting to anyone who understands Jesus to be the incarnation of God, revealing the nature and character of God. But as discomforting as it is, there is something compelling about it, and I want to stay with it until I get the gospel out of it. St. Augustine once prayed, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This passage makes me restless, but it makes me want more than ever to rest in Christ. Until then, I’ll try listening to some soothing harp music.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Possession.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.