Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well. (1 Sam. 16:15-16)
The difference between Saul and David boils down to this: Saul was a religious man. David was a regenerated man. There’s all the difference in the world between the two.
The religious man or woman is just a church-based version of what they were before. But the person who has been regenerated has a new heart. There’s a love for Christ, a hunger and thirst for God, and a desire to pursue a holy life in the power of Spirit.
A Saul who became a David
Nicodemus came to Jesus. He was a religious man, a moral man, an educated man, well respected in the community, and Jesus said to him, “You must be born again.” We could put it like this: If you don’t become like David, you will remain like Saul—religious, but not regenerated.
Nicodemus did not have the faintest idea what Jesus was talking about: “How am I supposed to climb back into my mother’s womb?” The great thing about that story is that at the end of John’s gospel, Nicodemus comes out into the open and identifies himself as a disciple of Jesus (John 19:39).
God turned this religious man into a regenerated man.
So, I want to encourage you to stay with the Word of God in this series even if, up to this point, you are finding it tough sledding. Ask God to be your teacher. Tell him you want to grasp what is not yet clear to you. Tell him you need and want more from him than you ever have before. God can do what he did for David and for Nicodemus for you.
An old king and a new king in conflict
There are two kings: Saul and David—the religious and the regenerate. The purpose of this series is to follow the story of these two kings. Now that we know who they are and what they represent, we are able to learn from the interaction between them.
It is a fascinating story. There are two kings—the old king was abandoned by God; the new king was anointed by God. The old king brought disaster; the new king brought blessing.
The old king hates the new king. He does all that he can to oppose him, to resist him. He hunts him, and even tries to kill him, and as time goes on the life of the old king is increasingly caught up with his fight against the new king.
But the new king shows grace to the old king. He refuses to take advantage of the old king’s weakness. He does him good and spares his life. The new king loves the old king and grieves over him when he dies.
Saul was always fighting against David. David was always showing grace to Saul. David, the new king, points us to Jesus. Christ is the Son of David, born into David’s line, and David is presented to us as a type of Christ especially in 1 Samuel, where we see him as the Lord’s anointed who comes to serve and is rejected.
Saul, the old king, points us to the sinner who resists Christ, hates him, opposes him, and as we see in the Gospels, will even hunt him and kill him. The sinner crowns himself as king. He does not want to relinquish the throne of his life. But God says that the new king must reign! So there is a conflict. The sinner is always in conflict with Christ.
Now we take up the story today at 1 Samuel 16:14. Notice the extraordinary contrast with the verse that came before it.
The Kindness of God to All People
The Spirit on the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward… the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul. (1 Sam. 16:13-14)
The contrast could hardly be clearer.
In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit was given to certain people for particular purposes. The Holy Spirit came on Saul, giving him wisdom for his work in government. His particular gift was an ability to prophesy.
God gives help to people who do not honor him, as well as those who do. We acknowledge this every time we pray for our nation. We pray that God will help our leaders, some of whom know him and love him, and some of who do not. We pray for God to help all of them because we believe that God, in his mercy, helps those who do not honor him, as well as those who do.
Theologians call this “common grace.” God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the evil as well as the good. God can prompt bad kings to make good decisions. This is common grace, and this is what the Holy Spirit did for Saul.
The kindness of God should lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). But Saul did not follow that path. He hardened his heart in rebellion against God.
The sovereignty of God over good and evil
Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. (1 Sam. 16:14)
A harmful spirit from the Lord? There’s a sentence that raises a lot of questions. Let’s think about this together: God is sovereign over evil as well as good. Thank God that this is so.
We see from the story of Job that Satan operates within boundaries that are set for him by almighty God. This is why the Bible says that God will now allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). This is why the Bible says Satan knows that his time is short. He knows that he operates only within the boundaries set by the Almighty.
But when sinners choose the path of rebellion, the boundaries for Satan are widened by God. God uses evil as well as good in his own ultimate purpose. You see this all over the Bible.
Joseph’s brothers beat him up and sell him as a slave—that was evil. But their evil is the means of getting Joseph to Egypt where he becomes a prince and a savior, and he says to his brothers “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
You see it in Paul. God allows him to live with a thorn in the flesh that Paul describes as a messenger of Satan to buffet him—that’s evil. But this particular work of Satan that God allowed in the life of the apostle became the means of him proving God’s grace was sufficient. And in the kindness of God, Paul says that it kept him from becoming proud and ruining his ministry.
You see it supremely at the cross. Men take nails and pound them into the flesh of the Son of God—that’s evil! But through this cross, God is reconciling the world to himself as Christ bears our sins in his body on the tree.
God works in all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). It would not help us much if the verse said, “God works in all the good things for our good.” That would leave the bad as a massive sphere that was somehow beyond God’s reach; a black hole in the world of grace. But God works in all things, the bad as well as the good, the worst things as well as the best, for the good of those who love him.
If God allows you to endure some evil and you belong to him, you can be sure that the good he will bring from it will be greater by far than the pain and the torment that you endured on the way.
Saul’s life is a warning
But Saul is not among those who love the Lord. He is in rebellion against God, and the tragedy of Saul’s life is that he lived with what he had chosen. Matthew Henry says wisely, “They that drive the good Spirit away from them…become prey to the evil spirit. If God and his grace do not rule us, sin and Satan will have possession of us.”
The great judgment of God on sinners is to give them what they choose. Saul chose rebellion against God. And now, he finds himself in the company of spirits that share his rebellion.
Saul’s life is a warning to the person who rises up against God and will not back down. You may think that if you throw off the claims of Christ on your life that you will be free. The opposite is true. If God does not rule you, sin (and ultimately Satan) will possess you.
Never imagine that hell will be a happy band of brothers and sisters united together in common antagonism towards God. It is a place of torment because it is the place of rebellion. It is a world in which every person is his or her own king. And such a world can only ever be a place of unending conflict.
Four Ways God Is at Work in This Story
The story before us today is a very simple one. Saul’s servants (or we would say his counsellors) could see his decline:
1. God is preparing David, the shepherd boy, to lead a nation
Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. (1 Sam. 16:15)
Saul became moody, irritable, vindictive, a source of misery to himself, and a cause of anxiety to those who were around him. The servants see this and they suggest a therapy: “Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skilled in playing the lyre” (1 Sam. 16:16). Saul agrees to this prescription: “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me” (1 Sam. 16:17).
One of the servants has heard David playing his harp and nominates him for the job. Saul sends for David, and in the amazing providence of God, David, who is anointed to be king, is brought to the royal court without him even knocking on the door!
This is a remarkable story. How could a shepherd boy have any idea of what it was to be in government and to rule a nation? God brought him into the royal court so that he could see it from the inside. He saw how the royal court functioned. He saw what was going wrong. And he learned what it would take to put it right.
If God puts you in place of dysfunction, he may be showing you what needs to be different when your own time comes. Everything God allows in your life becomes part of your opportunity to glorify him. The dysfunction you have seen equips you for ministry. What you have endured becomes the place from which you can reach out to serve others.
Look for these things in your life, and marvel at the grace of God when you see them! God knows how to open doors for his people that are beyond anything we can imagine. David focused on becoming a person who could be used by God (1 Sam. 16:18). God opened the door for him to become useful.
2. God is illustrating how his servant honors him by doing good
And David came to Saul and entered his service. (1 Sam. 16:21)
What a picture this is: David entering Saul’s service. At first Saul received him well, but it was not long before Saul rejected him. In this, David points forward to Christ serving sinners who will hate and despise him.
The Lord’s anointed came to serve. He brought good to all, and yet he was rejected. He comes to his home town in Nazareth and announces that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to preach good news to the poor, but at the end of the service they are ready to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29).
He comes to the land of the Gerasenes and delivers a man who has terrorized the town. The man, who has been a danger to himself and the whole community, is sitting dressed and in his right mind. And the people say “Please leave this area. Go away!”
He comes to Jerusalem with the words of life, and they arrested him, scourged him, and nailed him to a cross. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).
How many people were touched in some way by the life of Jesus? Think of all the people who saw him or heard him speak over three years, all the people who gathered in that huge crowd on Palm Sunday marching into Jerusalem. How many of them became his followers? Relatively few.
The entire company of believers in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost was only 120. Of the large crowds who at one time followed him, we read, “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Christ served and did good for many people who never became his followers.
David entered Saul’s service. Saul never came to repentance. But David honored God by doing good for Saul and by being a figure of Christ and of grace towards him.
Your experience will be the same. Your life will touch the lives of many others who may not come to faith and repentance, but by doing them good you bring honor Christ.
3. God is putting the powerful gift of music on display for us
David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him. (1 Sam. 16:23)
Music is a wonderful gift, and it has remarkable power. Music has power to calm and to soothe. It also has power to awaken and inspire. Go to any sporting event or political rally and you will always find music. The producers of these events know its power.
Let this be an encouragement to all who serve in the ministry of music. David practiced on the harp, and God used the skill he developed. Saul was helped by David’s music, and that kept the nation from falling apart.
This to me is very fascinating: Saul’s problem was an evil spirit that troubled him because of his own rebellion against God. The Bible tells us that the music helped him. When David played, Saul was refreshed, and the harmful spirit departed from him.
Matthew Henry has a thoughtful, provoking, and I think helpful comment here: “Music cannot work upon the devil, but it may shut up the passages by which he has access to the mind.”
But as we will see next week, the relief was only temporary, and that leads to my last observation:
4. God is warning us about the danger of suppressing symptoms without treating the root problem
Behold now, a harmful spirit from the Lord is tormenting you. (1 Sam. 16:15)
Saul’s counsellors are to be given credit because they correctly diagnosed his problem. But please hear me clearly: There are torments of mind that arise from mental illness, and when that is the case, they need to be treated with the best medical help available.
But that is not the case here. The root of Saul’s problem was not a mental illness. It was his own rebellion against God. The counsellors diagnosed this correctly. They knew that the root of the issue was spiritual and that what Saul was suffering arose from his own resistance to God.
But here is the extraordinary thing: Having correctly diagnosed the problem, they prescribed therapy to suppress the symptoms, without treating the root problem!
Again, to quote Matthew Henry, “How much better friends had they been to him if they had advised him, since the evil spirit was from the Lord, to give all diligence to make his peace with God by true repentance, to send for Samuel to pray with him and to intercede with God for him! Then might he not only have had some present relief but the good Spirit would have returned to him.”
He sees your troubled heart
I speak in these last moments to the person who has been holding out on God. You have been making a king of yourself. You may be religious, but you have not been open to repentance. Like Saul, your heart has become troubled.
What are you using to soothe your troubled heart? Sports? Work? Drink? Drugs? Friends? Music? Pornography? Accumulating stuff? These things may give you temporary relief, but when you are alone the pain in your troubled heart returns more violently than before.
You know this, and, through his Word, God is speaking to you directly today! It’s no use trying to suppress the symptoms. You need to deal with the root problem, and there’s only one way to do that.
The Savior stands before you today with arms of love stretched out towards you. He calls you to end your rebellion against him today, to take the crown off your head and to lay it at his feet, to turn to him in repentance, and to crown him as your Lord and your master. He calls you to submit yourself to him, and to offer yourself for unconditional obedience in the power of the Spirit that he will give to you.
That addresses the root of the problem. In great love and in mercy, this Christ reaches out to you today. He sees your troubled heart. He sees you weary of your own rebellion, heavy laden with your sins, and he says, “Come to me and I will give you rest!”
© Colin S. Smith
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