1 Samuel 16:14-23 – Saul’s Evil Spirit


1 Samuel 16:14-23


David, whom God had chosen, will continue to rise to the throne of Israel. Saul, whom God had rejected, will continue to decline.


Just what this “evil spirit” sent by God to “torment” (better: “terrify”) Saul is, remains in obscurity. There is no lack of educated guesses, however, which usually revolve around some form of paranoia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression. We should be careful not to insert our own understandings of mental and/or emotional health into these texts, however. The diagnosis of the cultural context that produced this Scripture is that these events – and Saul’s prophetic frenzies – had spiritual causes. First Samuel has its own, internal understanding of non-spiritual mental health issues (21:13). It is disrespectful to the cultural context[s] that produced 1 Samuel, as well as people living with mental and emotional illnesses today, to map spiritual affliction onto mental health or vice versa. Suffice it to say that Saul felt tormented, and acted out of that experience. 

Theologically speaking, we are on slightly firmer ground. For example, the word “evil,” which here modifies “spirit” (vv. 14, 23), does not necessarily denote “wicked, demonic, or hellish.” Saul’s “tormentor” may be as innocuous as a “bad mood” or a “gloomy disposition.” It definitely has negative connotations, but it certainly is not satanic at this time in Israel’s religious development.

Besides the irrecoverable nature of Saul’s disposition, two points stand out in this passage:

  • Saul’s suffering is sent by the Lord (v. 14). However, this is not necessarily to be seen as vindictive, since all things beyond human control come from God in Israel’s conception of God’s all-embracing will.

Together with verse 13, verse 14 is the theological pivot point of 1 Samuel. The rest of the narrative will depict the contrast between Saul and David. Just as David received the spirit of the Lord in verse 13, now we see Saul experiencing the loss of that spirit and the beginnings of the devastating effects of the “evil spirit” that will continue to plague him. God has abandoned Saul, leaving him bereft of the spirit; his kingship is over, and he will continue to decline without these two necessary aspects of rule, even as David, God’s chosen and the recipient of the spirit, will continue his rise to the throne of Israel.