1. Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?
We find it very hard to understand how there can be an “evil spirit from the LORD,” a phrase which occurs in all three of these passages. It is used twice more in chapter 16 in describing that incident. Besides 1 Samuel, the only other time it is used in the OT is in Judges 9:23.
It is particularly troubling to us, I think, because many contemporary NT translations use “evil spirit” to describe the demonic spirits that Jesus encountered and cast out, though frequently at least, the Greek phrase in the NT is “unclean spirit.”
2. How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?
First, it is essential to realize that the Hebrew word translated “evil” when used as an adjective as it is in these passages, had a range of meanings in the OT. The abridged version of Brown Driver and Briggs Lexicon lists them as follows: ra` — as an adjective:
|1) bad, evil|
|a) bad, disagreeable, malignant||Ex. 21:8|
|b) bad, unpleasant, evil (giving pain, unhappiness, misery)||Pr. 15:10; Pr. 15:15; Ez. 14:21|
|c) evil, displeasing|
|d) bad (used of its kind, land, water, etc.)|
|e) bad (used of value)|
|f) worse than, worst (comparison)|
|g) sad, unhappy||Pr. 25:20; Ne. 2:2; Gen. 40:7|
|h) evil (hurtful)||Ez. 38:10; Est. 9:25|
|i) bad, unkind (vicious in disposition)|
|j) bad, evil, wicked (ethically)||Ec. 12:14; Pr. 11:21|
(from The Online Bible Thayer’s Greek Lexicon and Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Copyright © 1993, Woodside Bible Fellowship, Ontario, Canada. Licensed from the Institute for Creation Research.)
I have added references to some of them in the second column. So I believe that it is essential that we not understand this as an “evil spirit” in the moral sense but as a “troubling spirit” (my words) or “tormenting spirit” NLT or as a “black mood sent by God” (The Message). The comment in the New English footnote suggests that the adjective could refer not so much to the character of the spirit as to its effect upon Saul. I like the NKJV translation, “a distressing spirit.”
A second help to understanding this passage is to realize that in the OT, writers are more willing to credit God with disturbing things. For another example, take Judges 9:23 where God sends a spirit of division to accomplish his purposes. Incidentally, the same Hebrew word is used in that verse. For another example look at Isaiah 45:7. The word which ESV translates “calamity” and NIV translates “disaster” and KJV translates as “evil” is the noun form of this same Hebrew word. What is in view there is God’s sovereign control of the nations, especially the coming conquests of Cyrus.
3. What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?
The lesson for us to learn is a preventative one. God sends his good Holy Spirit to encourage, sustain, inspire, instruct and enable us. But if we resist and insist on going our own way like Saul did, our spirits may become troubled too. I think of Rom. 1:28 where God “gave them over to a depraved mind,” which was a mind filled with “wickedness, evil…envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice” —words which very accurately describe what happened to Saul. In contrast, we can strive to have our “mind controlled by the Spirit” which will result in “life and peace” (Ro 8:6 NIV).