The book of 1 Samuel is an amazing story, and this story, Samuel’s Ghost and the Witch of Endor, is particularly fascinating. It is a tragic story about the demise of Israel’s first King, Saul. This story begins when the people of Israel demand a king, not so that they might have a representative before God, but so that they might be like the other nations. God grants their wish, but warns them that having a Lord other than the LORD will be a decision fraught with misery. Nevertheless, Samuel, God’s prophet, anoints Saul as King and he rules God’s people. It wasn’t long before Saul began to turn away from God’s commands and becomes a selfish, wicked ruler, falling deeper and deeper into darkness.
Our story today picks up at the dawn of Saul’s fateful battle with the Philistines. He is nervous, fearful, and desperate. For most of our time this morning I’d like to slowly walk through this unfamiliar story. Samuel’s Ghost and the Witch of Endor is a story in four scenes. In the first scene, which functions as a prologue, the narrator sets the stage. Samuel is dead. Saul has expelled the mediums and wizards. Saul is afraid. God is silent. In the next three scenes, all of these proclamations will be turned upside down.
God’s silence sets the action in motion. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly, so he prayed to God, but received no answer, neither by dreams or Urim or prophet. So, he gathered his stewards together and asked them to seek out a medium so that he might have an answer. The story is already beginning to turn on itself. First, Saul pronounced the expulsion of the witches and mediums so, supposedly, there are no mediums with whom to consult. Second, Saul is dissatisfied with God’s silence. Ironically, Saul hadn’t been listening to God when God was speaking. God’s words weren’t good enough, and now God’s silence is unnerving. (God’s silence is not an unanswered prayer as Garth Brooks sings. It is an answer, and it usually means “wait.”).
As the curtain rises on scene two, Saul’s men find a medium in the woods of Endor. Saul takes off his kingly garment and puts on “other clothes.” This term for “other clothes,” essentially means “treachery.” Saul’s kingship is unraveling before the audience’s eyes. He pronounces a rule that neither he nor anyone else follows, God becomes silent, and he takes off his kingly affects and puts on treachery. Saul has lost all authority and power and now the clothes he has put on is the identity he has now assumed . . . and it is night.
Saul approaches the medium and asks, “Consult a spirit for me, and bring up for me the one whom I name to you.” The woman replied, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” The reversals continue. “Surely you know what Saul has done”—obviously he doesn’t care. “How he has cut off the mediums and wizards from the land”—obviously that’s not true. “Why then are you laying a snare for my life”—The trap is not for her, as we will see. “To bring about my death,”—it’s not her death we will hear about.
Now this is interesting. Saul swears to her by the Lord, the Lord who is now silent, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing,” or as the Everett Fox translation puts it, “As the Lord lives, should you hold any guilt over this thing . . .” which is exactly where his authority stands . . . incomplete.
“Whom shall I bring up for you?” she asks. “Samuel,” Saul replies. This term, “bring up” essentially means “exalt.” Who should I exalt for you? Every time the word “raise up” or “bring up” associated with Samuel, it means “to exalt” or “to lift up.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out in a loud voice saying, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” “Don’t be afraid, what do you see?” “I see an old man coming up. He is wrapped in a robe.” Saul bows his face to the ground.
The downward spiral continues. The woman recognizes that she is being deceived by casting her eyes upon Samuel, who reveals truth. She cannot see through Saul’s disguise until she looks to Samuel, the one who has always revealed the truth of God. Saul then tells her not to fear, this man whose heart is trembling with fear because of the Philistines. “Do not be afraid, what do you see.” What do you see? The darkness is so great that Saul can no longer see. When the woman tells him that it is Samuel, Saul prostrates himself to the ground. Close curtain.
In scene three we get to hear what Samuel has to say, and it’s nothing new. Saul says, “I am in great distress for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more.” You see, part of the problem is that his relationship with God is his secondary concern. His first concern is against the warring Philistines, but while he has Samuel “on the line,” he says that God has also turned against him. Samuel replies, “Why are you bothering me? You didn’t listen to me when I was alive. You’ve never listened to God. Why are you bothering me now?” Samuel answers Saul’s questions in the appropriate order (again, Saul’s got everything backwards). He begins by addressing Saul’s relationship with God. He says, “You did not listen to God, which is why God is silent to you today. Moreover, your kingdom will be given to David, Israel will be defeated by the Philistines, oh, and by the way, you and your sons will be with me tomorrow.” Curtain.
Scene four begins and Saul is fearful, throwing himself to the ground. The woman saw that Saul was terrified, so she decides to provide him and his men a meal before their long journey. This woman, who placed her life in Saul’s hands is now asking Saul to place his life in her hands, and he first refuses saying, “I will not eat.” Saul doesn’t do anything right. Eventually he agrees, she bakes them bread, they break the bread and eat and they rise up on their way. By the way, the “rise” that’s mentioned here does not mean to be exalted as it did when Samuel was “rising” from the ground. In this context, Saul’s rising is the same word used when Cain rose up against Able. It means “to rise up against.” Saul does nothing right. The people demanded a king and the king failed, which led to Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines. “Yes,” God says, “I’ll give you the king you want, but it won’t be the king you need.”
“Hosanna, Hosanna,” the people cried as Jesus went into Jerusalem. “Save us, Save us,” but they weren’t speaking spiritually. When Jesus entered into Jerusalem the crowd wanted to anoint Jesus king, but he would not be the king they would want . . . but he is the king we need. Jesus, throughout his ministry, turned the world on its head. Blessed are the poor. Let the children come to me. The last shall be the first. Love your enemy. King Saul turned everything on its head, and in so doing, led God’s people down a path of destruction and war and eventually exile. “Yes, I will give you a king, but it will be up to him to keep my commandments and according to his faithfulness, Israel must go.” “Are you a king?” Pilate asks Jesus. “You say that I am a king, but I am not like Saul who thought being a king is about power and wealth and making God your servant. My kingdom is not of this world for it is a kingdom which finds its strength in weakness, humility, and sacrifice. Through Saul’s infidelity Israel found destruction. Through my faithfulness my people will find everlasting life.” May our lives be turned upside down for all of the right reasons. Let us point to a world that God has established through Christ. A world in which the last are first, the poor are valued, the oppressed are free–a world in which we no longer hide behind what we are not, but live according to whom God has blessed us to be. As we leave this place, may we arise to live an abundant life of love, mercy, and grace. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.