Why did God send an evil spirit to tempt Saul?
Just as Saul had recourse against the evil spirit through the anointed David, the believer has recourse against indwelling sin through God’s Word and prayer.
Suppose a judge threatens to suspend the license of a driver with numerous offenses. The driver is then pulled over again, so his license is suspended. It would be foolish to think the judge gave the warning simply to lure the driver into committing another infraction. The suspension is the result of repeated offenses.
So it is with God.
God judges sin in this life for the purpose of repentance (Ezek. 18:23–32; Heb. 12:10). This judgment is not vindictive—he doesn’t do it to entice us to sin more. He does it because he loves us.
Pondering God as Judge is helpful for comprehending the story of Saul and the evil spirit in 1 Samuel 16–19. An immediate question arises after reading it: Did God send an evil spirit to lure Saul into attempting to murder David (1 Sam. 18:10–11; 19:9–10)? Did a vindictive God tempt Saul to sin, or did Israel’s first king choose to attempt murder?
At first glance, it may appear that God set up Saul for failure by sending the evil spirit. When this passage is read in light of James 1:13, however, it is clear that God doesn’t tempt anyone to sin.
So how can 1 Samuel 16–19 be reconciled with James 1:13? Two main points emerge from the story of Saul and the evil spirit.
1. God sent an evil spirit on Saul
The beginning of Saul’s reign gives the impression he was the right choice as king. He showed great promise. He led the military in several key victories (1 Sam. 11; 13:1–4; 14:16–23) and exercised wisdom and mercy (1 Sam. 11:12–13).
Yet two events during his reign show that all was not well.
First, Saul took it upon himself to offer a burnt offering while he and the army waited on Samuel (1 Sam. 13:5–14). The prophet rebuked Saul’s failure to obey God, and insisted the Lord already had chosen another king after his own heart.
And then, two chapters later, Saul failed to obey God’s command to fully wipe out the Amalekites. Again, Samuel rebuked him for misunderstanding God’s requirement, for being rebellious and insubordinate, for rejecting God’s Word. Sure enough, the Lord revoked the kingdom from Saul (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:23), removed his Spirit from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14), and sent an evil spirit upon him (1 Sam. 16:14). God wasn’t tempting Saul with the evil spirit; he sent it as an act of judgment in response to Saul’s stubborn rebellion.
Scripture plainly teaches that God uses the entire spiritual world for his purposes (Judg. 9:23; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Chron. 21:1; Luke 22:31). We can confidently say, then, that God sent the evil spirit to judge Saul’s persistent disobedience.
But Saul found grace and mercy from God’s wrath through David’s music (1 Sam. 16:23). God’s kindness to Saul was designed to lead him to repentance (Rom. 2:4), but that raises another question: If God sent the evil spirit, how is Saul responsible for trying to kill David? After all, no one can resist God.
2. Saul is responsible for his choices
Saul was not like a rudderless ship being tossed about by the whims of the sea; he was an active player in the events of his life. He made two key decisions in 1 Samuel 16–19 that show he was responsible for trying to kill David.
Saul chose to keep David around the palace to play the harp. Any time the evil spirit terrorized Saul, David played his harp and refreshed Saul (1 Sam. 16:23). By summoning David to play music, Saul accepted David’s ministry. What’s more, Saul, the rejected king, accepted the grace and mercy God provided through his chosen servant, David.
But Saul chose to be jealous of David’s success and to be suspicious of his intentions (1 Sam. 18:8–9). Because God was with David, he succeeded under Saul: He became the king’s armor bearer (1 Sam. 16:21), he killed Goliath (1 Sam. 17), and he rose to the rank of platoon leader over the men of war (1 Sam. 18:5).
David’s success and the love the people had for him—including how the women sang his praises—didn’t sit well with Saul (1 Sam. 18:7–8). He eyed David with suspicion from that day on. Saul chose to harbor jealousy and suspicion, and this led him to plot to murder David.
In choosing to harbor jealousy and suspicion, Saul rejected the means to peace that God provided through David, and he gave himself to his own evil desires.
Saul threw a spear at David twice, both during times when the evil spirit was upon him (1 Sam. 18:10; 19:9). David’s music—God’s gracious gift—no longer refreshed him; he simply gave himself over to his own evil desires. The words of James 3:16 were true of Saul: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”
How should we preach it?
Though the fruit of Saul’s life indicates that he was not a believer, his life offers application for both believers and also unbelievers.
In preaching Saul and the evil spirit, pastors should remind people that God is not vindictive. He does not tempt people to sin. James says we are tempted when we are enticed by our own evil desires (James 1:14). God judges everyone according to his or her actions—not arbitrarily, but for the purpose of repentance (Ezek. 18:23, 32; Rom. 2:5–11; Heb. 12:10). He does this because he loves us.
In this fallen world, a judge may issue a ruling too swiftly or harshly, but the Judge of heaven is enormously patient. Saul was judged only after he’d demonstrated that his heart was unbendingly disobedient. Yes, God’s patience can expire (Ps. 103:9; 2 Pet. 3:8–10), but even in judgment he extends mercy to believers and unbelievers so they will repent (Rom. 2:4). Sadly, though, Saul persisted in unrepentant unbelief and rebellion until death (1 Sam. 31).
Although the believer’s salvation is secure, we aren’t immune from temptation, nor from the consequences of sin (1 Cor. 3:3; James 4:1). Just as Saul had recourse against the evil spirit through the anointed David, the believer has recourse against indwelling sin through God’s Word and prayer. For the unbeliever, God’s wrath against unbelief and rebellion (Rom. 1:24; 2:8) is satisfied through repentant trust in God’s Anointed, Jesus Christ.
Our God is not a vindictive judge who tempts and destroys those who disobey him. He is just and merciful, desiring that all should repent and live (1 Tim. 2:4).
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.