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Dealing with Difficult Verses: Case Study on 1 Samuel 16:14

When you read through the Bible, you will come across verses that are difficult to understand. What do you do when this happens? One solution people employ is to ask me! When answering these questions, the teacher in me wants to give insights to help you when you come across these sort of verses in the future (trying to teach you to fish and not just give you a fish!). After we recently had a sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13, a church member asked me about 1 Samuel 16:14: “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him” (ESV). This passage is difficult in that it says that God sent a harmful, tormenting spirit upon King Saul. Good steps to take in looking at a difficult verse such as this one are to compare it in multiple translations, examine the context of the passage, and consider what other Bible passages say about the subject.

Compare Translations

Just as there are times we understand something when when someone says it again in a slightly different way, so sometimes reading a different translation makes the passage more clear. There are many different translations (and they are easy to find online at Bible Gateway), so which ones would I encourage you to look at? Two of the more popular, recent translations are the NIV and the CSB, and they respectively put the verse this way: “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him” (NIV), and “Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from the Lord began to torment him” (CSB). There is a footnote on the NIV saying that “evil” can also be rendered “harmful” (which is what we saw in the ESV).

One could also look at the most “literal” translation of the Bible, the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which translates the verse this way: “Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him.” The New Living Translation (NLT) is translation done by top scholars that is less literal, trying to get at the idea rather than word-for-word equivalence, and pus it a little differently:“Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and the Lord sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear” (a footnote also notes that it can be translated as “evil spirit”). There are other translations you could look at as well, but you probably only need to look at a few, as they will largely sound the same.

Unfortunately, in this situation, I don’t think the other translations help us - if anything,they make it more confusing since some use the term “evil” as opposed to “harmful.” So where else do we turn?

Examine the Context

Words have meaning when used in sentences, and sentences have meaning when used in paragraphs, and paragraphs tell a story or give a message, so it is important that we don’t just look at a word or a sentence but rather the whole story or discourse. The context of this passage is that God had sent His Spirit upon Saul when he became king, but after multiple instances of disobedience, God rejected Saul from being king and selected a new king, named David, upon whom God sent His Spirit. First Samuel 16:14 then tells us that the Spirit of the Lord leaves Saul and this troubling spirit comes upon him. The context shows us that this is not something that is arbitrary or done randomly by God, but rather is punishment for his disobedience; the “tormenting” Spirit is not sent to an innocent man but one who has continually rejected God’s Word. Furthermore, this happens to a person who was to play a key role for God as king (and given a special gift of the Spirit to do so), not just a random person. In addition, God gives some relief to Saul through David’s music: “And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Samuel 16:23). Therefore, we see God’s grace given to a man who had rejected His word over and over again in this passage.

Consider What the Rest of the Bible Says

In sending this spirit, does it mean that God is the source of “evil” things? Something to remember is that we read elsewhere that God does not tempt someone with evil (James 1:13), so God is not the cause of evil. Another interesting portion of Scripture to note is the Book of Job, as there we see that Satan is the one who causes the suffering to Job, but yet Job says “the Lord gives and takes away” (Job 1:21). This might give us insight into 1 Samuel 16:14, as it may be describing an action of the devil but rather than focusing on the secondary cause of it (the work of the devil) it reminds us that all things happen under the sovereignty of God. It is also worth noting how the New Testament shows people afflicted by demons (which could be described as “evil spirits”), but that these demons can be cast out by Jesus and acknowledge that Jesus can command them to leave if so desired (see Mark 5:1-20). Therefore, we could look at the passage here in 1 Samuel as describing how God withdraws his Spirit from Saul and at that time under His sovereign rule, allows the forces of evil (that Saul has exposed himself to through his disobedient to God’s word) to reign over him and hurt him.

Summary of What We Learn

Throughout Scripture and in this passage, we see that God is not the author of evil but allows the consequences of evil to come, while offering his grace to those afflicted by evil. Hopefully, the process by which we see this not only helps you better understand 1 Samuel 16:14, but also teaches you how to look at other difficult verses you might encounter.

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