A Bible passage perplexing to many is in 1 Samuel 28 in which Saul consults a medium in order to get advice from the dead prophet Samuel. We need to read from the perspective of the prophet Samuel’s death,
“Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had removed from the land those who were mediums and spiritists.” v. 3
This bit of information sets the stage for the account.
Samuel has died and Saul had cleared the land of mediums and spiritists, (God had commanded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that no one consult any medium or spiritist or to do such a practice.) Apparently, at least one medium remained, however. (Some Bible versions use the word “witch” but this term can designate mediums, enchanters, and those who do divination).
There are those who think this was not Samuel whom the medium called up, but a demon. Others think this account contradicts God’s commands to not consult the dead. But reading it carefully and applying other passages and biblical principles takes away any confusion or seeming contradictions.
Did the medium call up Samuel?
The medium was surprised (“gave out a cry”) when Samuel appeared, because this is not what she usually saw, if she saw anything. No medium can bring a dead person back to life or communicate with a dead person.
God bringing Samuel back is not against what God commanded because Samuel was a prophet; God had used him in life for his messages and was now using him in death as a special rebuke to Saul. Moreover, God has power over life and death, and this action reveals that power. God took the situation created by Saul and used it as judgment against Saul.
Why did Saul do this?
Verse 5 answers that question:
“When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly.”
Saul was afraid of the Philistines camping nearby. He was not getting answers from God (see verse 6) because God had taken his Spirit from Saul earlier for disobedience (1 Samuel 16:14). Saul was desperate. It is in times of desperation that we often look to the wrong source for advice or help. Saul wanted advice on how to deal with the Philistines.
God allowed Saul this communication, but it was not going to be what Saul expected. It’s a brilliant rebuke of Saul. God let Saul have what he wanted — Samuel — but God also used this for his judgment on Saul. (God also used astrologers in Matthew 2, the Magi, but God did not use or endorse astrology).
Is Samuel really an evil spirit?
God’s word states that this is Samuel. God would not say it was Samuel if it were an evil spirit. God’s words designate the person brought up as Samuel. Samuel rebukes Saul for disobeying God (verse 18) and gives a prediction that the Philistines will defeat Israel, and that Saul and his sons will die the next day (verse 19). An evil spirit would not rebuke Saul for disobedience to God nor give exact predictions that came true.
Where was Samuel?
Some believe that no one went to heaven until after the ascension of Jesus to heaven and that Old Testament saints like Samuel were in a holding place until then. We are not told. The important point is that Samuel was dead and God brought him to Saul.
We don’t even know exactly what Saul saw, because the medium described Samuel to him as an “old man wrapped in a robe” and the text tells us that this is how Saul knew it was Samuel.
Why was Samuel’s rebuke to Saul so condemning?
God had removed his spirit (the Holy Spirit) from Saul after Saul’s earlier disobedience regarding the Amalekites (chapter 15). At that point, Saul had time to repent and he did not. In fact, he went into further disobedience by consulting the medium and this is why God judged him with death.
After being wounded in battle, Saul has his armor bearer kill him with a sword. His 3 sons also died. It was a very ignoble end:
“When his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him. Thus Saul died with his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men on that day together…..It came about on the next day when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his weapons, and sent them throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.” 1 Samuel 31: 5, 6, 8-10
Mediums were part of the system of pagan worship and consultation of false gods. Ironically, Saul, who had banned the mediums, now has news of his death carried to the house of the Philistines’ idols (false gods) and his weapons put in the temple of the Ashtaroth (referring to various forms of the pagan goddess). What a clear and grave judgment from God for Saul turning from God to a medium! This should be sobering to all, and shows that God does not take doing this lightly.
God has the last word
God gave numerous prophecies of judgment on the Philistines. These are just two:
“For the Lord is going to destroy the Philistines,
The remnant of the coastland of Caphtor.” Jeremiah 47:4b
“And a mongrel race will dwell in Ashdod, And I will cut off the pride of the Philistines.” Zechariah 9:6
And the Philistines were eventually defeated.
There is clarity on consulting mediums
God makes it abundantly clear it is wrong to consult a medium and why Saul had to die in 1 Chronicles 10:13, 14:
“Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.”
There is no confusion on this topic at all. It is against God to consult a medium or spiritist for any reason or to attempt contact with the dead.