Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Still Thinking about Saul and David and the Book of 1st Samuel

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers: and the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.
16:14 Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh troubled him.
16:15 Saul's servants said to him, See now, an evil spirit from God troubles you.
16:16 Let our lord now command your servants who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp: and it shall happen, when the evil spirit from God is on you, that he shall play with his hand, and you shall be well.
16:17 Saul said to his servants, Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.
16:18 Then answered one of the young men, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, and a mighty man of valor, and a man of war, and prudent in speech, and a comely person; and Yahweh is with him.

Does God send bad things as well as good things? I ask this question after reading from 1 Samuel about how the prophet Samuel was called by God to annoint David as king of Israel while Saul was still king of Israel. We are told that when Samuel annointed David, God's Spirit came powerfully upon David. And, then the next verse tells us that God sent an evil spirit to Saul that tormented Saul.

First, from reading scripture, it is clear that Israel accepted and believed that God sometimes sent an evil spirit among his people. In Saul's case, God turned from him when God found Saul disobedient. Wasn't that enough? Why also send the evil spirit? What is really meant by this?

I think our best first answer is that we don't know, and that we don't know for sure how the ancient Israelites thought about "evil spirits." One thing that I think we can know is that the writer of 1 Samuel didn't believe in good and evil in the way that modern Christians do. We modern Christians, whether liberal or conservative, tend to have a dualistic view of the world believing that there is a power of good struggling against a power of evil. For this ancient writer, it seems that he (I am assuming male from what I know of ancient Israel's scribal traditions) really believed in only one supernatural power, and that was the power of the one Creator of all people who had chosen Israel as a special people. So, when it speaks of an evil spirit coming from God, then that doesn't sound strange to Jews of that day, as it does to us. For them, God was the only power and God could use whatever means he needed to accomplish his good purposes. One thing that was there for God to use was "evil spirits," or something we might think as forces that disrupt a person's life internally, from the inside out. It wasn't God's Spirit that came to Saul, for God's Spirit strengthened life, whereas this "evil spirit" dampened and diminished Saul's life.

It is troubling to think that God would be in the business of troubling a man's life. But, that is what the Jews of that day believed.

There are several explanations I could give to harmonize this passage with our contemporary world views. One explanation would be that the writer knew that God had rejected Saul because Saul had been disobedient,and so when Saul began suffering mentally, the writer simply assumed it was caused directly by God sending an "evil spirit." In that sense, the conclusion of the writer of scripture that God had sent an evil spirit would be a theological interpretation given to events. This means that assumptions about who God is and how God acts in the world and what forces affect human behavior are applied to make sense of a happening (e.g., Saul losing his mind at times). Clearly, with different assumptions about who God is or how God acts or why humans lose their minds, the writer could have come up with a different conclusion about God's role in all of this.

Modern interpreters of scripture have often taken a liberal approach and said: "well, once you understand the ancient worldview, you can understand that the conclusion that "God sent an evil spirit" to torment Saul is simply a prescientific explanation of mental illness and not a valid interpretation for those living in the age of science, then you can begin to understand the true meaning. Or, a conservative view would be:"The scripture means for us what it meant for the Jews back then: God rejected Saul and actively opposed his reign and sent used an evil force to accomplish God's purposes."

If you take the liberal interpretation above, the passage ends up having basically no meaning. We can say how it is not to be understood - what it does not mean. But, we can't say what it does mean.

If you take the conservative interpretation above, the passage ends up making sense of the story being told back then, but may end up having no meaning for us in our day or may even lead to drastic misinterpretations in our day. For instance, what if I read that passage, then turned to my family member who was suffering from a psychotic mental illness and concluded that God had rejected her for her disobedience?

I'm not satisfied with either the common liberal method or the common conservative method of interpretation. I would rather just hear this story out, listen to it as it develops and wait to decide on what it means. And, to hear this story out, means reading the whole thing: from the beginning when God didn't want Israel to have a king, but they wanted a king, and he gave in to them and Samuel annointed Saul . . . to the end when divided Israel is conquered: first, northern Israel by the Assyrians, second, southern Israel by the Babylonians. But, the real story is that this is not "the end" of Israel. No, God sends prophets like Ezekiel to them in their exile and bondage. And, God eventually brings them back home to Jerusalem to rebuild from the ruins of war.

And, the history of God with Israel goes on after the period of the prophets ends, after Ezra and Nehemiah are dead and gone. And, this God who has been trying so hard to train a people in his ways, finally gives up on the traditional ways of prophets, priests, and kings, and comes down among his people - this time to claim not only Israel,but the whole world.

So, in the context of all that, what does it mean when our scripture in 1 Samuel says: "God's Spirit filled David," and then says: "God sent an evil spirit that tormented Saul?" It means that God has purposes that God is actively working on among us. It also means that it is a good thing to be an agent of those purposes, and it means that not everybody is chosen to carry out the same purpose for God. And, when you are not meant to serve in a certain role for God but you try to do it anyway, well, it would have been better if you had never tried to serve.

The passage leads us to understand that God's purposes are paramount. That we must fit in with those purposes,and at times, some very painful things come to us in life because we don't. And, it is not always because we are intent on doing evil. Saul certainly wasn't a man with evil intent. But, failing to discern the movement of God's Spirit can lead to some sad results for humans even if those humans didn't intend evil by their ignorance.

And, that leaves me with one other thought. The writer of this book of 1 Samuel showed some compassion for Saul by attributing Saul's aggressive and violent actions towards David to an evil spirit that would come upon him. The writer would not call Saul an evil man, whereas the writer had no problem calling later kings evil. It is almost like the writer of this scripture wanted to attribute Saul's badness to some mysterious will of God and even raise questions with God about it, since it didn't make sense to the writer. If you think about it, Saul is a tragic figure. And, the writer of scripture doesn't gloss over this. Other kings got what was coming to them when they rejected God and worshipped idols and enslaved their own people. But, Saul, it just seemed like he was the people's choice for king that God never approved of. If he had really campaigned for it, we might not have such sympathy for him. But, when they were trying to raise him up as king, he hid in the baggage!

For me, Saul stands for the truth that you can come into conflict with God's will not just when you are intent on doing evil, but when you try to play a role that you is not your role to play in life. All of us have to bear roles that don't fit us for a time. The key is to understand when you are in the wrong role, and bear it as a burden for God, until God can deliver you to live in the freedom of your proper role in this life or the next. Maybe Saul did that as well as he could. Maybe he did this fairly well. After all, he was always sorry when he tried to do David in, and in the end, David did survive living in the time of Saul. And, as Charlie pointed out in Bible Study, right as God sent an evil spirit to Saul to trouble him, he sent David to comfort him. Even when we are getting the backside of God's will, he uses someone who is in the power of God's Spirit to help us out.

The "evil spirit" that came to Saul from God may be the flipside, the backside of the positive movement of God's Spirit in David's life. Saul's experience may be what it means to be serving in a role that is in conflict with God's will and purposes. Right as God's Spirit is promoting David as king, the backside of that spirit can do no other than dismantle Saul's kingship. God's Spirit had "departed" from Saul when it was given to David. God cannot support every purpose or every cause.

You can end up in the wrong role in life even if you have tried pretty hard to respond reasonably and decently to the circumstances of your life. It takes an awful lot of courage to come to this insight about one's life. And, it seems to me that truths this painful can only be faced with the Spirit of God surrounding and inspiring. Perhaps, in the end we are all a lot more like Saul than David. And, if you take Jesus at his word he came to save the sick not the well; the unrighteousness, not the righteous. He came knowing that the world was filled with people like Saul who had responded to their circumstances the best they knew how and made a real mess of their lives. I would like to ask Jesus what he really thought about King Saul. I would really like to overhear Jesus discussing that one with his Father.

For all the talk we hear in our religion from people who know what is God's will for them and for us, maybe it would do our souls good to hear from someone who is humble enough to acknowledge that God's ways are far beyond our ways, God's thoughts far above our thoughts. Reading the scripture honestly instead of simply using the scripture to support our simplistic and often self-serving beliefs is really what Bible Study is all about. I guess most people don't go in for that kind of honesty too much in religion or Bible Study. If you do, you might want to join us for Bible Study. If you don't, you might want to continue watching how they teach the Bible on T.V.


  1. Well George... you've done it now!

    I don't know how many conservatives and liberals you have alienated with your wise words with this posting, but as for me, I am reminded of the words of a song from my youth... "he's telling my life with his words..."

    Having lived a good part of the last four years like Saul, I can identify only too well with the questions you ask... and I can't say that my answer would be much better. But I can share with you a part of the way I have come to live with the conundrum.

    I am learning to be more circumspect with the words "good and evil". I have begun to suspect that neither Saul, or his biographer, or many of us for that matter, really know what is good or evil in God's eyes.

    Oh... we know the commandments and we know how Jesus challenged the "righteous" of his day and we know how Paul pushed us to think about sin and how we "miss the mark" and we know how the Church has defined "good and evil" over the centuries... but... I wonder if the problem with sin isn't so much our desire to name what is good and evil instead of waiting for God to reveal His judgment. I wonder if we don't get so caught up in trying to "play God" that we are not able to see the good that God brings from the midst of the trials and temptations that assail us.

    For now... I am content to evaluate people and actions more on the scale of "helpful v unhelpful" and let God make the call about good and evil.

    Having said all that... keep up the good work!


  2. Malcolm: Maybe you have gotten close to the center of what these thoughts are all about. My mind goes back to the early part of Genesis and the reason humans were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

    The terms helpful and unhelpful or other such non-moralistic terms seem to be very "helpful" in our time. I find myself using terms like enhances or twists life, and gives energy or depletes energy. I think we need to move towards thinking of God as the power of life and knowing that God's power is all good. And, I want to summarize what you said as: connect primarily to God, but let your "moral judgments" be secondary to that primary relationship to God. Because moral judgments about others remove us from relationship and establish us in a judgeship over another/others. That doesn't mean we can't exercise discretion and determine one thing is better than another, or more advisable than another - just that we continue to make decisions about things with acknowledgement that we have a limited perspective. Humility is a real blessing and probably takes a lifetime to realize.