Was King Saul Possessed by Demons? (1 Samuel 19)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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9Then a harmful spirit from the Lord came upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing the lyre. 10And Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he struck the spear into the wall. And David fled and escaped that night. 11 Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” 12 So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped. 13Michal took an image1 and laid it on the bed and put a pillow of goats’ hair at its head and covered it with the clothes. 14And when Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.” 15Then Saul sent the messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.” 16And when the messengers came in, behold, the image was in the bed, with the pillow of goats’ hair at its head. 17Saul said to Michal, “Why have you deceived me thus and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?” And Michal answered Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go. Why should I kill you?’ ” 18Now David fled and escaped, and he came to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and lived at Naioth. 19And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.” 20Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. 21When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied. 22Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.” 23And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. 24And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

Plot to Kill

For two years Saul has been covertly plotting to kill David, and now, frustrated by his lack of success, he reveals to his closest advisers that they should join him in this endeavor. “But Jonathan”—whose relationship with Saul is mentioned twice to underscore how awkward the situation is for him—does not approve of his father’s scheme. Jonathan “delighted much in David” (cf. “loved” in 1 Sam. 18:1; 1 Sam. 20:17), where “delight” conveys deep affection (contrast 1 Sam. 18:22). Saul probably knows of the covenant between Jonathan and David and is trying—in his son’s best interests as he sees them—to prize him apart from David.

Jonathan immediately warns David of the danger he is in. “Saul my father seeks to kill you” employs “seek,” a term frequently used of Saul’s attempts against David. Jonathan urges caution and recommends that David conceal himself “in a secret place,” a site known to both of them where David could hide until the following day.

Meanwhile, Jonathan will bring Saul out to an open area near David’s hideout, presumably by asking for a private conversation with his father. While alone with Saul there, Jonathan will broach the subject of the king’s attitude toward David and will then update David concerning Saul’s intentions.

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The next morning, events occur just as Jonathan has planned. He carefully uses formal language in addressing Saul as “the king” and describing David as “his servant” and presents David in a very positive light to his father, denying that he has committed any offense and emphasizing how much he has contributed to the success of Saul’s reign. But Jonathan does not hold back from characterizing Saul’s proposal as “sin,” as it falls short of the standard of conduct a king should display.

Jonathan reminds Saul of the danger to which David exposed himself in slaying Goliath, and also of the evident divine favor David enjoys as the one through whom Israel has been delivered. These facts are known to Saul, who has previously applauded David. So Jonathan challenges his father, “Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?” “Sin against” repeats the expression of the previous verse, while “innocent blood” refers to the unwarranted death of an individual who has not acted improperly (Deut. 19:10). Such action would give rise to bloodguilt, which would have calamitous consequences for the king and the land (cf. 1 Sam. 25:30–31; 2 Sam. 21:1).

Surprisingly, on this occasion Saul is open to reason and to Jonathan’s passionate plea. He solemnly vows that David will not be put to death (a form of “to kill”). For “As the Lord lives,” cf. comment on 1 Sam. 14:39. There is no reason to suppose that Saul is being deliberately duplicitous, but his fluctuating moods make anything he says, even when guaranteed by an oath, an insecure basis for the future.

After Saul leaves, Jonathan informs David of what has been said (cf. 1 Sam. 19:3) and, bringing him under his protection as the crown prince, escorts him to Saul. Jonathan’s initiative is emphasized by the triple repetition of his name. Saul’s oath resolves a conflict of loyalties for Jonathan, but David is perhaps less ready to accept it at face value. Even so, David returns to his previous manner of living, presumably playing music for Saul and also acting in military affairs. But the rapprochement will not last.

A Harmful Spirit

Before long David is once more in action against the Philistines, and he and the men under him strike them and force them to flee. It was to procure such a victory that the Israelites had asked for a king like Saul, but it is David who achieves it.

David’s success rekindles Saul’s jealousy and his desperation to kill his rival. On this occasion there is no indication of outwardly disturbed behavior when the Lord permits a “harmful spirit” to come upon him. As Saul sits in the palace with his royal spear in his hand, David is “playing the lyre,” seeking to soothe the king’s troubled state of mind (cf. 1 Sam. 18:10–11).

As David’s success preys on his mind, Saul either throws his spear at David or lunges at him with it, but David is sufficiently alert and agile to sidestep the spear, and it lodges in the wall. This time it takes only one attempt on his life for David to leave. He who had struck the Philistines and made them flee (1 Sam. 19:8) is now struck at by his own king and forced to flee. This escape marks the start of David’s life as a fugitive.

Going home does not provide David with security, for Saul sends messengers, probably a detachment of the palace guard (cf. 1 Sam. 19:20), to ensure that no one will leave during the night. Saul plans to arrest and execute David the next day. “But Michal” corresponds to “But Jonathan” (1 Sam. 19:1) as another of Saul’s family intervenes to assist David. The narrator identifies her as “David’s wife” rather than as “Saul’s daughter” (1 Sam. 18:20) in order to indicate where her loyalty lies. Probably an informant has told her what is happening outside, and she urges David to flee immediately. The superscription of Psalm 59 links that psalm with this incident, but here David’s attitude is not revealed.

The focus remains on Michal, who personally helps David escape. “Let David down” may imply that the house is more than one story high and that David exits through an unwatched window to the rear. More probably the house is built into the city wall (cf. Rahab’s; Josh. 2:15) so that David, avoiding gates and guards, “fled away and escaped.” “Fled” (also in 1 Sam. 19:18; 20:1) is a different word from that used in verses 8 and 10 and implies unobserved flight from a dangerous or unpleasant situation.

To give David extra time to get clear, Michal makes it appear that he is ill in bed by using an “image” (lit., “teraphim,” household god[s]; cf. 1 Sam. 15:23) to resemble his body or, more probably, to set it at the bed to reflect a heathen practice thought to aid recovery from illness. No hint is given as to where the teraphim comes from, but her ruse is sufficiently realistic if not examined too closely.

The next morning, when Saul sends other messengers to arrest David, Michal shows them the recumbent figure in an adjacent room and refuses them entry on the grounds that David is confined to his bed due to illness.

Saul is so intent on killing David that he directs that the ill man be brought forth on his bed, perhaps no more than a mattress, so “that I may kill him” (lit., “to kill him”; it is still not explicit who will perform the deed). “Bring him up” indicates the palace is higher than David’s house, which would accord with its being against the city wall.

Saul’s insistence emboldens his messengers to defy the king’s daughter, and they break into the bedroom. Immediately Michal’s subterfuge is exposed. Even so her actions have probably gained David several hours to make good his escape.

Saul apparently never goes to David’s house but instead summons Michal and demands to know why she has “deceived” him. He makes no pretense concerning his attitude, calling David “my enemy,” and he cannot understand why his daughter does not support him in his vendetta.

Michal attempts to turn away her father’s fury by falsely claiming that David threatened her life if she did not cooperate with his escape plans. “Why should I kill you?” is a threat Saul could readily imagine on David’s lips. The narrator gives no indication either here or in verse 14 that Michal’s deception was wrongheaded in the face of Saul’s homicidal fury.

David flees not south to Judah, as might have been expected, but northwest for a few miles to Ramah (1 Sam. 15:34) to contact Samuel, their first recorded meeting since the anointing in Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:13). David updates Samuel regarding Saul’s conduct and no doubt seeks his advice. Possibly to gain greater security, the two men move to Naioth, which is perhaps a small settlement on the outskirts of Ramah, where the group of prophets resides.

Is Saul Among the Prophets?

Saul’s intelligence network soon informs him of David’s whereabouts, and he sends a detachment of soldiers (cf. 1 Sam. 19:11) to arrest him. However, when they arrive, “the company of the prophets,” possibly composed of senior figures, is prophesying, that is, engaging in enthusiastic praise of God in a way similar to the group Saul had earlier encountered at Gibeah (1 Sam. 10:5–6, 10–11). Samuel is presiding over the proceedings. Then “the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul” to so overwhelm their faculties that “they also prophesied,” joining in the praise of God. Thus the Spirit of God protects David by preventing Saul’s messengers from carrying out his orders.

The repeated “they also” emphasizes that on the two further occasions in which Saul sends messengers to Naioth, the same outcome prevails: none of the three groups of soldiers is able to fulfill the orders given to them.

After these three attempts, Saul in exasperation decides to go himself (lit., “he also”) to Ramah. He has worked out that at Ramah David would have contacted Samuel, and so, when he reaches the landmark of “the great well that is in Secu,” he inquires regarding their whereabouts. The site of the well (more specifically a “cistern” for storing water, as in 13:6) is unidentified, but it is likely the same as in 1 Samuel 9:11. While Saul is still approaching Naioth, “the Spirit of God came upon him also,” with “also” again marking the contagious phenomenon. This is not a visitation of the evil spirit from the Lord but a repetition of his earlier experience (1 Sam. 10:10–13). Saul is not prevented from completing his journey, but he prophesies as he does so.

When he reaches Naioth, Saul is no longer in conscious control of himself, and he strips “off his clothes.” This expression need not entail removal of all his clothing; possibly only his outer garments are involved. The repeated “he too” (= “he also” in v. 23 and earlier) implies that the messengers had done so earlier, but probably only Saul remains in that state for the rest of that day and throughout the night. No longer the legitimate king of the land, he is compelled to put off his royal apparel. The Spirit mocks Saul’s hostility and renders his efforts futile. Once more the question is asked, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (cf. 1 Sam. 10:11– 12). The repetition of the saying invites comparison with the earlier occasion. Then what occurred was part of Saul’s accession to the throne; here a humbled and incapacitated Saul is debarred from using his royal authority to arrest David. Both David and Samuel probably take advantage of the situation to depart, so that there is no communication between the prophet and the king (1 Sam. 15:35).

This article is written by John L. Mackay and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Chronicles (Volume 3).

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