1 Samuel 16:14 says: Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.
It’s a statement that, on the surface, doesn’t quite feel right. God sending a harmful spirit to torment Saul. It doesn’t quite fit our preconceived notions about God. At least the God we’ve created in our own image.
So let me give you 6 principles to help you understand what is, and is not, going on here. It’s a theodicy of sorts—a defense of God’s goodness despite the existence of evil.
1. Scripture is clear that on occasion, God not only allows evil, but ordains it.
That is, he indirectly brings it about; He ensures that it will happen. He doesn’t do it or carry it out, but he decides that it will happen. There are literally dozens of Scriptures that say so. Like...
- Exodus 4:21 where God tells Moses to go do his miracles before Pharaoh, and then says: But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He ordained that rebellion would mark his life.
- Romans 9:18 where, after talking about Jacob and Esau, and Moses and Pharaoh, Paul says of God: He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
- Exodus 14:17 where God hardened the hearts of the Egyptians to pursue the Israelites with their chariots.
- A principle repeated in Psalm 105:25: He [God] turned their hearts to hate his people.
- The list continues with the Canaanites in Joshua 11:20: It was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts.
- And with David later on, when God told him: I will raise up evil against you out of your own house (2 Samuel 12:11). And then incited him to sin in 2 Samuel 24:1, by taking a census.
On occasion, Scripture is clear that God not only allows evil, but sometimes ordains it. That is, he indirectly brings it about to accomplish his purposes. Like...
- When he raised up evil kings against Solomon in 1 Kings 11 (v14, 23).
- Or brought the wicked Babylonians against his people to punish them in Jeremiah 25 (v8-9).
- Or intentionally deceives certain false prophets in Ezekiel 14 (v6-11), to further lead his people astray and punish them.
- Or when he put a lying spirit in the mouth of Ahab’s prophets (1 Kings 22:23).
- Then there’s Lamentations 3:38 where it says: Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?
- And Isaiah 63:17 where God’s people asked: O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
- And how about 1 Peter 2:8? Where Peter says that those who reject Jesus as the Messiah stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
- And 2 Thessalonians 2:11 where it says of those who refuse to love the truth and be saved...Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.
Sometimes God deludes or deceives those who already reject the truth and his offer of salvation, in order to seal their fate and the punishment they deserve.
And finally, the clearest example of all that God sometimes ordains evil, is the death of his own Son. In Acts 4:26-28a prayer of the early believers is recorded: The rulers were gathered against the Lord and against his Anointed—for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. They were confessing that God determined beforehand, ordained, that all of those people would bring about the suffering and death of Jesus. About as evil as it gets.
That’s the first thing to see and understand. That on occasion, Scripture is clear that God not only allows evil, but ordains it. That is, he indirectly brings it about to accomplish his purposes.
2. When a person or spirit acts on God’s behalf to do the evil he ordains, they do so of their own choosing.
Their own will. Their own desire. God sometimes ordains evil, but he never makes someone do something evil that they don’t want to do. There’s no coercion involved. He only uses willing agents who want to do the very thing he ordains—that’s the implication of each and every example. How he does so, how he causes free agents such as people or spirits to make willing choices of their own volition, we’re not told. We’re just told that he does.
3. God is never considered guilty of wrongdoing for the evil he ordains.
He’s never blamed for it. At least not legitimately. He’s never held responsible for it in a moral sense. Only those who carry it out are held responsible and accountable for it. Again, because they’re free, willing agents, doing what they want to do. And therefore deserve to be punished for their sin. This is important, because if God were culpable or blameworthy, then he would have done something wrong, and wouldn’t be God.
4. Apart from the explicit indication in Scripture, we cannot know whether an act of evil is allowed or ordained.
We can’t know. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s a toss-up. But when it comes to individual situations in our lives, we must be very careful not to jump to conclusions about whether the evil was allowed or ordained. Because it’s a guess at best, and a foolish presumption on the mind of God, at worst.
This is particularly when thinking about something like 9/11. We don’t know whether it was God-allowed or God-ordained. To say one way or the other is foolish speculation that does no good. And we don’t have to know. Because when you get right down to it, our response should be the same—fight and flee. Fight for what’s right, and flee what’s wrong.
5. God uses all things, good and bad, for his glory, his purposes, and our good.
That’s why Joseph, who eventually became Pharaoh’s right hand man and accomplished much good in that position, was able to say to his brothers who had sold him into slavery: As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:20).
That’s why Paul was able to say in Romans 8:28: We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
He works all things together for good, for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. Which you are if he’s Lord of your life.
Now, if all of that puts your mind in knots, you’re in good company. And if you think you have it all figured out, you don’t understand. Because...
6. God does not fully reconcile all of this in his Word.
He does not fully reconcile the fact that in his goodness and holiness, he sometimes ordains bad things. He does not fully reconcile the fact that he sometimes ordains bad things through the actions of free agents. And yet holds them responsible for it, while he is not.
But we have more than enough to know that he is good beyond a shadow of a doubt. That we can trust his plan and purpose in all things. And no matter what the source of evil, whether ordained or allowed, he’s always in control.
Now, having said all that, let’s go back to 1 Samuel 16:14 and the evil spirit from the Lord that tormented Saul. Obviously this is a case where God ordained the evil that would befall him, by sending an evil spirit—presumably a messenger of Satan—to aggravate him, and quite possibly exacerbate a predisposition on his part for depression, anger, and delusion.
But the main thing to see is that God used something bad, to accomplish something good. He used an evil spirit (something bad), to expose David to the king’s court (something good), and give him an insider’s look into running the nation. A nation he would eventually lead. Genius. Did I mention that God uses all things for his purposes and our good?
I might note that some people will try to say that this is somehow a spirit of discontent in Saul, rather than an evil spirit. But there’s nothing in the text to warrant such a conclusion. Usually, those who advocate such things are just trying to avoid the uncomfortable conclusion that God sometimes ordains evil. Because it doesn’t fit their preconceived theology, or their notions of God. So they either dismiss it all together, or try to explain it away.
At this point you might ask, “Do I have to worry about God sending an evil spirit to torment me? To oppress me?” And for most of you, the answer is no.
But if you’re making shipwreck of your faith by rejecting the truth or indulging in sin, then yes. You have reason to worry about God’s discipline. Whatever form it takes. Especially if you’re like Hymenaeus and Alexander. Two men in Timothy’s church, who were making shipwreck of their faith and the faith of others by teaching false doctrine. Of them, the apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:20, that he handed them over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. Scary.
Or, if you’re like the man in Corinth who was indulging in the heinous sin of having sex with his father’s wife, his mom or his step mom...Then you have cause to worry about God’s discipline to get you to stop. Because Paul tells the rest of the church in 1 Corinthians 5, to deliver him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, with the hope that he would come to his senses, repent of his sin, and be saved.
In other words, through rejection in extreme cases of sin or rebellion, God may expose you to Satan’s influence. And if he does, he does so to discipline you, wake you up, or destroy you. It’s possible. Whether that includes or involves the oppression of an evil spirit, I don’t know. But whatever it means, it can’t be good, and you have reason for concern.
Short of that, short of rejecting Jesus or indulging in sin, you have nothing to worry about and much to look forward to. And you can rest secure in the fact that God is altogether good, altogether trustworthy, and always in control. Even when it comes to evil.