An Evil Spirit From the Lord
What does it mean when the Bible says that an evil spirit was sent by God to torment Saul (reference 1 Samuel 16:14-15)?
1 Samuel 16:14-15 states, "But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him. And Saul's servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee."
Some of the most difficult passages in scripture are those that show God using the devil or evil spirits for His purpose. We know that God is not the cause of wickedness, so it goes against our understanding to think of Him sending evil spirits hither and yon to do His bidding. Yet, we examine scripture and there they are. Let us see if we can make sense of this biblical teaching.
- First, we must understand that God is not the source of wickedness. The "evil" He creates in Isaiah 45:7 refers to bad things like earthquakes and floods, not to sin or wicked acts (this verse is covered in another question and answer). The Bible teaches that sin originates from the devil (1 John 3:8). He is also the father of the lie and was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). On the other hand, God cannot be tempted with evil or wicked acts and He does not tempt any man to commit these acts (James 1:13-14). God is holy and all that springs forth from Him is pure and good.
- Second, though God is not the source of wickedness, He often uses the wicked to perform His own purpose. Psalm 76:10 states, "Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain." Here we learn that God will take man's wrath toward Him and turn it into praise. That wrath which is not to be turned into God's praise will be restrained.
But how can God use the devil and evil spirits to do His bidding? Perhaps a biblical study of the cause of death would help at this point. On one hand, God is clearly the cause of death. In Deuteronomy 32:39, He declares, "I kill, and I make alive." Hannah, in her prayer of praise, said, "The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up" (1 Samuel 2:6). Exodus 12:23 tells us concerning the first Passover, "For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians." Certainly, God is in charge of taking life.
However, on the other hand, Hebrews 2:14 tells us that Christ came to die on the cross that He might "destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil." The next verse say that the devil holds the lost in bondage through the fear of death. But the problem is clear. If God is in charge of death, how can the devil have the power of death? The answer explains a lot about how God uses the world of the wicked to do His bidding.
The devil by nature is a murderer (John 8:44). His rebellion against God changed his character and has made him a force that naturally kills and destroys all that comes under his power. In Revelation 9:11, he is called Abaddon and Apollyon. Both names mean Destroyer. Paul understands that someone may be delivered "unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh" (1 Corinthians 5:5).
We see this principle in operation in Job. When God turns Job over to Satan the second time, He states, "Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life" (Job 2:6). If God had allowed him to do so, Satan would have killed Job. Earlier in the story, God did allow Satan to kill the sons and daughters of Job (Job 1:18-19). So, who killed the children of Job? You say, Satan. But even this is not so easy. After they were killed, Job said, "the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD" (Job 1:21). He gave God the credit for taking his children (also the cattle and other possessions). And, if we reflect on it, we can see that both are true. Satan killed Job's children but God was responsible for allowing them to be killed. He took them away.
So, what about the sending of evil spirits by the Lord? This may be more common in scripture than you think. In Psalm 78:49, God judged Israel "by sending evil angels among them." In Judges 9:23, "God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem." In 1 Kings 22:22, God sent a "lying spirit" in the mouth of the false prophets to send Ahab to his death. In the passage in question (1 Samuel 16:14-15), God removed His Spirit from the disobedient Saul. This opened the door for an evil spirit to come and torment Saul. Though in this passage, it is only the servants of Saul that said the evil spirit was from the Lord, in other passages (1 Samuel 18:10; 1 Samuel 19:9), the text states that the evil spirit came from the Lord.
What we see in these passages follows a pattern. When God removes His protective hand, he often turns the person over to Satan for destruction or to an evil spirit for torment. The devil and the evil spirits do the work, but God has allowed them to do what come natural to them for His own purpose. I know that some will have trouble with this concept, but it is thoroughly established in scripture. God does not commit wickedness, but He uses the wicked for His purpose. In the end, God will have His glory. How much better it is for us to submit to Him and obey Him willingly.
Thank you for the question. I hope this helps you understand the passage.