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SAUL AT ENDOR.
1 Samuel xxviii. 3–25.
For a considerable time Saul had been drifting along like a crippled vessel at sea, a melancholy example of a man forsaken of God. But as his decisive encounter with the Philistines drew on, the state of helplessness to which he had been reduced became more apparent than ever. He had sagacity enough to perceive that the expedition which the Philistines were now leading against him was the most formidable that had ever taken place in his day. It was no ordinary battle that was to be fought; it was one that would decide the fate of the country. The magnitude of the expedition on his part is apparent from an expression in the fourth verse—“Saul gathered all Israel together.” The place of encounter was not any of the old battle-fields with the Philistines. Usually the engagements had taken place in some of the valleys that ran down from the territories of Dan, or Benjamin, or Judah into the Philistine plain, or on the heights above these. But such places were comparatively contracted, and did not afford scope for great bodies of troops. This time the Philistines chose a wider and more commanding battlefield. Advancing northwards along their own maritime plain, and beyond it along the plain of Sharon, they turned eastwards into the great plain of 405 Esdraelon or Jezreel, and occupied the northern side of the plain. The troops of Saul were encamped on the southern side, occupying the northern slope of Mount Gilboa. There the two armies faced each other, the wide plain stretching between.
It was a painful moment for Saul when he got his first view of the Philistine host, for the sight of it filled him with consternation. It would appear to have surpassed that of Israel very greatly in numbers, in resources, as it certainly did in its confident spirit. Yet, if Saul had been a man of faith, none of these things would have moved him. Was it not in that very neighbourhood that Barak, with his hasty levies, had inflicted a signal defeat on the Canaanites? And was it not in that very plain that the hosts of Midian lay encamped in the days of Gideon, when the barley cake rolling into their camp overturned and terrified the host, and a complete discomfiture followed? Why should not the Lord work as great a deliverance now? If God was with them, He was more than all that could be against them. Might not this be another of the days foretold by Moses, when one should chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight?
Yes, if God was with them. All turned upon that if. And Saul felt that God was not with them, and that they could not count on any such deliverance as, in better times, had been vouchsafed to their fathers.
And why, O Saul, when you felt thus, did you not humble yourself before God, confess all your sins, and implore Him to show you mercy? Why did you not cry, “Return, O Lord, how long? And let it repent Thee concerning Thy servants”? Would you have found God inexorable? Would His ear have been heavy that it could not hear? Don’t you remember 406 how Moses said that when Israel, in sore bondage, should cry humbly to God, the Lord would hear his cry, and have mercy on him? Why, O Saul, do you not fall in the dust before Him?
Somehow Saul felt that he could not. Among other effects of sin and rebellion, one of the worst is a stiffening of the soul, making it hard and rigid, so that it cannot bend, it cannot melt, it cannot change its course. The long career of wilfulness that Saul had followed had produced in him this stiffening effect; his spirit was hardened in its own ways, and incapable of all exercise of contrition or humiliation, or anything essentially different from the course he had been following. There are times in the life of a deeply afflicted woman when the best thing she could do would be to weep, but that is just the thing she cannot do. There are times when the best thing an inveterate sinner could do would be to fling himself before God and sob for mercy, but fling himself before God and sob he cannot. Saul was incapable of that exercise of soul which would have saved him and his people. Most terrible effect of cherished sin! It dries up the fountains of contrition and they will not flow. It stiffens the knees and they will not bend. It paralyses the voice and it will not cry. It blinds the eyes and they see not the Saviour. It closes the ears and the voice of mercy is unheard. It drives the distressed one to wells without water, to refuges of lies, to trees twice dead, to physicians who have no medicines, to gods who have no salvation; all he feels is that his case is desperate, and yet somewhere or other he must have help!
Saul did not neglect the outward means by which in other days God had been accustomed to direct the nation. He tried every authorized way he could think 407 of for getting guidance from above. He believed in a heavenly power, and he asked its guidance and its help. But God took no notice of him. He answered him neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets. Men, though in heart rebellious against God’s will, will go through a great deal of mechanical service in the hope of securing His favour. It is not their muscles that get stiffened, but their souls. What a strange conception they must have of God when they fancy that mere external services will please Him! How little Saul knew of God when he supposed that, overlooking all the rebellion of his heart, God would respond to a mechanical effort or efforts to communicate with Him! Don’t you know, O Saul, that your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you that He will not hear? Nothing will have the least effect on Him till you own your sin. “I will go and return unto My place, until they acknowledge their offence and seek My face.” And this is just what you will not, cannot do! How infinitely precious would one tear of genuine repentance have been in that dark hour! It would have saved thousands of the Israelites from a bloody death; it would have saved the nation from defeat and humiliation; it would have removed the obstacle to fellowship with the Hope of Israel, who would have stood true to His ancient character,—“the Saviour thereof in time of trouble.”
But Saul’s day of grace was over, and accordingly we find him driven to the most humbling expedient to which a man can stoop—seeking counsel from a quarter against which, in his more prosperous days, he had directed his special energies, as a superstitious, demoralizing agency. He had been most zealous in exterminating 408 a class of persons, abounding in Eastern countries, who pretend to know the secrets of the future, and to have access to the inhabitants of the unseen world. Little could he have dreamt in those days of fiery zeal that a time would come when he would rejoice to learn that one poor wretch had escaped the vigilance of his officers, and still carried on, or pretended to carry on, a nefarious traffic with the realms of the departed! It shows how little man is acquainted with the inner feelings of other men—how little he knows even himself. Doubtless he thought, in the days of exterminating zeal, that it was sheer folly and drivelling superstition that encouraged these sorcerers, and that by clearing them away he would be ridding the land of a mass of rubbish that could be of service to no one. He did not consider that there are times of wretchedness and despair when the soul that knows not God will seek counsel even of men with a familiar spirit—he little dreamt that such would be the case with himself. “Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?” he would have asked with great indignation in those early days, if it had been insinuated that he would ever be tempted to resort to such counsellors. “What better could I ever be of anything they could tell me? Surely it would be wiser to meet any conceivable danger full in the face than to seek after such counsel as they could give!” He did not consider that when man’s spirit is overwhelmed within him, and his craving for help is like the passion of a madman, he will clutch like a drowning man at a straw, he will even resort to a woman with a familiar spirit, if, peradventure, some hint can be got to extricate him from his misery.
But to this complexion it came at last. With dreadful sacrifice of self-respect, Saul had to ask his 409 advisers to seek out for him a woman of this description. They were able to tell him of such a woman residing at Endor, about ten miles from where they were. With two attendants he set out after nightfall, disguised, and found her. Naturally, she was afraid to do anything in the way of business in the face of such measures as the king had taken against all of her craft, nor would she stir until she had got a solemn promise that she would not be molested in any way. Then, when all was ready, she asked whom she should call up. “Call up Samuel,” said Saul. To the great astonishment of the woman herself, she sees Samuel rising up. A shriek from her indicates that she is as much astonished and for the moment frightened as anyone can be. Evidently she did not expect such an apparition. The effect was much too great for the cause. She sees that in this apparition a power is concerned much beyond what she can wield. Instinctively she apprehends that the only man of importance enough to receive such a supernatural visit must be the head of the nation. “Why did you deceive me?” she said, “for thou art Saul.” “Never mind that,” is virtually Saul’s reply; “but tell me what you have seen.” The Revised Version gives her answer better than the older one—“I saw a god arise out of the earth.” “What is his appearance?” earnestly asks Saul. “He is an old man, and he is covered with a mantle.” And Saul sees that it is really Samuel.
But what was it that really happened, and how did it come about? That the woman was able, even if she really had the aid of evil spirits, to bring Samuel into Saul’s presence we cannot believe. Nor could she believe it herself. If Samuel really appeared—and the narrative assumes that he did—it must have been by 410 a direct miracle, God supernaturally clothing his spirit in something like its old form, and bringing him back to earth to speak to Saul. In judgment it seemed good to God to let Saul have his desire, and to give him a real interview with Samuel. “He gave him his request, but sent leanness to his soul.” So far from having his fears allayed and his burden removed, Saul was made to see from Samuel’s communication that there was nothing but ruin before him; and he must have gone back to the painful duty of the morrow staggering under a load heavier than before.
Samuel begins the conversation; and he does so by reproaching Saul for having disquieted him, and brought him back from his peaceful home above to mingle again in the strife and turmoil of human things. Nothing can exceed the haggard and weird desolation of Saul’s answer. “I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me and answereth me no more, neither by prophets nor by dreams: therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.” Was ever a king in such a plight? Who would have thought, when Samuel and Saul first came together, and Saul listened so respectfully to the prophet counselling him concerning the kingdom, that their last meeting should be like this? In all Saul’s statement there is no word that carries such a load of meaning and of despair as this—“God is departed from me.” It is the token of universal confusion and calamity. And Saul felt it, and as no one understood these things like Samuel, he had sought Samuel to counsel his wayward son, to tell him what to do.
It is not every sinner that makes the discovery in this life what awful results follow when God is departed 411 from him. But if the discovery does not dawn on one in this life, it will come on him with overwhelming force in the life to come. Men little think what they are preparing for themselves when they say to God, “Depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of Thy ways.” The service of God is irksome; the restraints of God’s law are distressing; they like a free life, freedom to please themselves. And so they part company with God. The form of Divine service may be kept up or it may not: but God is not their God, and God’s will is not their rule. They have left God’s ways, they have followed their own. And when conscience has sometimes given them a twinge, when God has reminded them by the silent monitor of His claims, their answer has been, Let us alone, what have we to do with Thee? Depart from us, leave us in peace. Ah! how little have you considered that the most awful thing that could happen to you is just for God to depart from you! If we could conceive the earth a sensitive being, and somehow to get a dislike for the sun, and to pray the sun to depart from her, how awful would be the fulfilment! Losing all the genial influences that brighten her surface, that cover her face with beauty and enrich her soil with abundance, all the foul and slimy creatures of darkness would creep out, all the noxious influences of dissolution and death would riot in their terrible freedom! And is not this but a poor faint picture of man forsaken by God! O sinner, if ever thy wish should be fulfilled, how wilt thou curse the day in which thou didst utter it! When vile lusts rise to uncontrollable authority—when those whom you love turn hopelessly wicked, when you find yourselves joyless, helpless, hopeless, when you try to repent and cannot repent, when you try to pray and 412 cannot pray, when you try to be pure and cannot be pure—what a terrible calamity you will then feel it that God is departed from you! Trifle not, O man, with thy relation to God; and let not thy history be such that it shall have to be written in the words of the prophet—“But they rebelled and vexed His Holy Spirit; therefore He was turned to be their enemy and He fought against them” (Isaiah lxiii. 10).
There was no comfort for Saul in Samuel’s reply, but much the contrary. Why should he have asked advice of the Lord’s servant, when he owned that he was forsaken by the Lord Himself? What could the servant do for him if the Master was become his enemy? What can a priest or a minister do for any man if God has turned His face away from him? Can he make God deny Himself, and become favourable to one who has scorned or sinned away His Holy Spirit? Saul was experiencing no more than he had just reason to expect since that fatal day when he had first deliberately set up his own will above God’s will in the affair of Amalek. In the course which he began then, he had persistently continued, and God was now just executing the threatenings which Saul had braved. And next day would witness the last of his sad history. The Lord would deliver Israel into the hands of the Philistines; in the collision of the armies he and his sons would be slain; disaster to his arms, death to himself, and destruction to his dynasty would all come together on that miserable day.
It is no wonder that Saul was utterly prostrated: “He fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.” He could not have expected 413 that the interview with Samuel would be a pleasant one, but he never imagined that it would announce such awful calamities. Have you not known sometimes the terrible sensation when you had heard there was something wrong with some of your friends, and on going to inquire, discovered that the calamity was infinitely worse than you had ever dreamt of? A momentary paralysis comes over one; you are stunned and made helpless by the tidings. We may even be tempted to think that surely Samuel was too hard on Saul; might he not have tempered his awful message by some qualifying word of hope and mercy? The answer is, Samuel spoke the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We are all prone to the thought that when evil men get their doom there will surely be something to modify or mitigate its rigour. Samuel’s words to Saul indicate no such relaxation. Moral law will vindicate itself as natural law vindicates itself—“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
The last incident in the chapter is interesting and pleasing. We might have thought that such a calling as that followed by the witch of Endor would have destroyed all the humanities in her nature; that she would have looked on the king’s distress with a cold, stoical eye, and that her only concern would be to obtain for herself a fee adapted to the occasion. But she shows much of the woman left in her after all. When she rehearses her service, and the peril of her life at which it has been rendered, to prepare the way for her asking a favour, the favour which she does ask is not for herself at all,—it is on Saul’s own behalf, that she might be permitted the honour of preparing for him a meal. Saul’s mind is too much occupied and too 414 much agitated to care for anything of the kind. Still prostrate on the ground he says, “I will not eat.” Men overwhelmed by calamity hate to eat, they are too excited to experience hunger. It was only when his servants, thinking how much he had gone through already, how much more he had to go through on the morrow, and how utterly unfit his exhausted body was for the strain—it was then only that he yielded to the request of the woman. And the woman showed that, for all her sinister business, she was equal to the occasion of entertaining a king. The “fat calf in the house” corresponded to the “fatted calf” in the parable of the prodigal son. It was not the custom even in families of the richer class to eat meat at ordinary meals; it was reserved for feasts and extraordinary occasions; and in order to be ready for any emergency a calf was kept close to the house, whose flesh, from the delicate way in which it was reared and fed, was tender enough to be served even at so hasty a meal. With cakes of unleavened bread, this dish could be presented very rapidly, and, unlike the hasty meals which are common among us, was really a more substantial and nourishing entertainment than ordinary. It is touching to mark these traces of womanly feeling in this unhappy being, reminding us of the redeeming features of Rahab the harlot. What effect the whole transaction had on the woman we are not told, and it would be vain to conjecture.
And now Saul retraces his dark and dreary way southward to the heights of Gilboa. We can hardly exaggerate his miserable condition. He had much to think of, and he would have needed a clear, unclouded mind. We can think of him only as miserably distracted, and unable to let his mind settle on anything. 415 It would have needed his utmost resources to arrange for the battle of to-morrow, a battle in which he knew that defeat was coming, but which he might endeavour, nevertheless, to make as little disastrous as possible. Moreover, he knew it was to be the last day of his life, and troubled thoughts could not but steal in on him as to what should happen when he stood before God. No doubt, too, there were many sad thoughts about his sons, who were to be involved in the same fate as himself. Was there no way of saving any of them? The arrangement of his temporal effects, too, would claim attention, for, restless and excitable as he had been, it was not likely that his private affairs would be in very good order. Anon his thoughts might wander back to his first interview with Samuel, and bitter remorse would send its pang through him as he thought how differently he might have left the kingdom if he had faithfully followed the counsels of the prophet. Possibly amid all these gloomy thoughts one thought of a brighter order might steal into his mind—how thoroughly David, who would come to the throne after him, would retrieve his errors and restore prosperity, and make the kingdom what it had never been under him, a model kingdom, worthy to shadow forth the glories of Messiah’s coming reign. Poor distracted man, he was little fitted either to fight a battle with the Philistines or to encounter the last enemy on his own account. What a lesson to be prepared beforehand! On a deathbed, especially a sudden one, distractions can hardly fail to visit us—this thing and the other thing needing to be arranged and thought of. Happy they who at such a moment can say, “I am now ready to depart.” “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit, for Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth.”
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