1 Samuel 16:14 But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the LORD troubled him.
Before I discuss verse 14 I’d like to say a few things: People have an amazing tendency to want to look at Scripture and shape it to what they want to believe, as opposed to letting it shape them. The question is, Regardless of how difficult some things might be to believe, will we believe them if the Bible teaches them? Many of these difficult teachings relate to God’s sovereignty…not His sovereignty when good things happen, but when “bad” things happen. I put bad in quotations, because I want to use the word loosely since many times situations we believe to be “bad” might be good…just not the way we would like them to good, or more importantly just not the way we happen to think of things as being good.
One very simple example relates to a woman I knew who regularly asked me to pray for her son to get out of jail. She viewed his time incarcerated as something “bad”, but I was pretty certain that while he was there, it was actually “good” for him. He was forced to think about what he did, and hopefully pray and read his Bible, something I believe he didn’t do when released.
Back to the subject: people like to think God allows things, but don’t want to see Him as making them happen. Is there really a difference? If God didn’t stop something, is it because He couldn’t stop it? We would all say no, because we believe in God’s omniscience (we believe He’s all powerful). So if He didn’t stop it, but could stop it, what does that say? (Let’s answer this a little later, but keep it in mind.)
I’ve heard a lot of people say things about God and what He does and doesn’t do and much of it sounds really good…there’s just one problem: it’s not biblical. The Bible needs to be our authority on God and what He does and what He’s like, and whether we like it or not, the Bible presents God as sovereign…not just over the good, but even over the “bad”.
The biggest struggle most of us have with this verse probably isn’t that a distressing spirit “troubled” Saul (or many Bibles translate “troubled” as “tormented”), but that the verse says the spirit, or demon was “from the LORD.” In other words, we probably wouldn’t mind it if God allowed this, but the fact that it looks like He DID it is concerning.
In other words, people feel better about saying God allowed something to happen as opposed to making something happen. Oftentimes this is referred to as God being “active” or “passive.” In fact, one commentator I thoroughly enjoy “defended” God’s actions in verse 14 by stating, “If God is all-good, why did He send a distressing spirit upon Saul? There are two senses in which God may send something. He may send something in the active sense, or He may send something in a passive sense. Actively, God never initiates or performs evil; He is the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning (James 1:17). Passively, God may withdraw the hand of His protection, and therefore allow evil to come, without being the source of the evil itself.”1
The first question that comes to mind for me is, “What difference is there between God allowing something or doing something?” As asked earlier, if God could stop something but didn’t, is there really any difference?
Applying it to our lives, if I knew a building was about to explode and I could disarm the bomb saving all the people, but chose not to, would I be any less culpable than the person who planted the explosive? Personally, I don’t really think so, and if we use the biblical example of the man who suffered more than anyone else possibly in history, I think we have biblical support that this is the case…
Even though Satan was the one afflicting Job, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Job essentially recognized God’s hand in his testing and it’s evident in verses like these:
- In Job 1:21 he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD.”
- In Job 13:15 he said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
Both of these verses show that Job recognized God as the One “taking away” and “slaying him.”
These are by no means the only verses dealing with God’s sovereignty over affliction and calamity:
- Isa 45:7 I form the light and create darkness,
I make peace and create calamity;
I, the LORD, do all these things.’
- Lam 3:38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
That woe and well-being proceed?
- Micah 1:12 For the inhabitant of Maroth pined for good,
But disaster came down from the LORD
To the gate of Jerusalem.
- Amos 3:6 If a trumpet is blown in a city, will not the people be afraid?
If there is calamity in a city, will not the LORD have done it?
One additional problem for me with painting God as being passive, or passively allowing things to happen is that…it paints God as being passive! The Bible never represents God as being passive. The Bible presents God as completely sovereign. By definition, God’s sovereignty means He isn’t passive. If He were passive, He wouldn’t be sovereign.
Here’s an interesting example from Scripture, contrasting two verses describing the same event. One verse is from 2 Samuel and the other verse is from 1 Chronicles:
- 2 Sam 24:1 Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”
- 1 Chr 21:1 Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.
One verse says God moved David to number Israel and the other verse says Satan moved David to number Israel? What are we to make of that? If we understand God’s sovereignty, that He is ultimately behind everything that happens, then we can even understand, how in a way that might not be comfortable for us, even Satan serves God’s purposes. Whether we like it or are comfortable with it, Satan furthers God’s plans.
If that isn’t comfortable for you, think about this: What if Satan did NOT further God’s plans? What would that mean? That would mean that Satan could thwart or compromise God’s plans. That would mean God can’t control Satan. That would mean Satan poses a threat to God and His will. Now THAT is an uncomfortable thought!
Here are a few biblical examples:
We know it was God’s will for Jesus to die on the cross. Who was one of the most instrumental people in that taking place? Judas. Look at these verses from Luke 22:
3 Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve. 4 So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him to them. 5 And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. 6 So he promised and sought opportunity to betray Him to them in the absence of the multitude.
Satan indwelt Judas who then went and betrayed Jesus. Satan used Judas to betray Jesus (as a note, this does not remove Judas’ responsibility or punishment for his actions). We know it was God’s will for Jesus to be crucified and Judas’ betrayal was a crucial aspect of that taking place. In other words, simply put, Judas/Satan was very instrumental in accomplishing God’s will.
When Jesus was before Pontius Pilate, another terribly ungodly man who was instrumental in Jesus’ crucifixion, John 19:10 and 11 record: “10 Then Pilate said to Him [Jesus], “Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?”
11 Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
Jesus clearly let Pilate know that as wicked and terrible as his actions looked, God was the One who was sovereignly directing the course of events. Now, isn’t that actually comforting? The alternative is that man was responsible for crucifying Jesus, and He and the Father were unwitting, powerless bystanders, watching these events unfold apart from their wishes, unable to prevent the impending death.
When Peter spoke to the crowd at Pentecost in Acts 2 he said, 22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— 23 Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;
Peter makes it clear that Jesus was “delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God” to be “put to death.”
When Adam and Eve sinned, their responsibility in sinning wasn’t removed any more than Judas’ and Pilate’s responsibilities for their actions were removed; however, to say their sin wasn’t part of God’s plan is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture. Revelation 13:8 says Jesus is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” What does that mean? It means before the foundations of the earth had ever been lain, God had already determined to crucify Christ, and since God’s will is so sure to come to past, to say that God has determined to crucify Christ is to be able to speak of Him as crucified even before the crucifixion has taken place.
God crucified Jesus to take the punishment our sins deserved, and it was at the fall, through Adam’s actions that sin was introduced into the world. Satan was the one who deceived Eve who gave to Adam, who brought sin into creation, starting the chain of events that would lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. In that sense, Satan was initiating God’s redemptive plan. The alternative is to believe God had to sit back helplessly, and perhaps even surprised, as these events unfolded.
The point is that to say Satan moved David or God moved David is to say the same thing since His allowance of a situation doesn’t remove His sovereignty from it.
Although this might sound unsettling, it should ultimately be comforting, because how much confidence could we have in God if we thought He was only sovereign over the good, but somehow couldn’t control or prevent the “bad”?
If someone I loved was in a terrible accident and might die, would it comfort me to think God might want to save the person, but be unable to do so? The comfort would be in knowing He could save the person.
Whether comforting or unsettling, for God’s divine purposes, He sent this demonic spirit that tormented Saul. The rest of the chapter reveals much of the good this “bad” event brought:
- First, God used this to establish David’s throne, in that this is how David was brought into Saul’s life, because even though David had been anointed as the next king, it still leaves the question, “As a shepherd boy, and the youngest of eight sons, how is he actually going to become the next king?” God begins answering that question here.
- Second, for the first time David is now in a royal court, beginning to learn the customs and manners he would need to be king.
- Third, and by far the most important reason: this is all going to do a tremendous work in David’s life. Bringing David into Saul’s presence was going to provide David with a living warning about the danger of disobeying God. Looking at Saul every day in his afflicted state would serve as a tremendous object lesson to David of the need to obey God. And ultimately, all of this is recorded to serve as the exact same warning in our lives.