Here is a good question that moves us into a discussion on what to think of things like fortune tellers, necromancers, palm readers, witches, and so on: “Hello Pastor John, my name is Kristine, a listener to the podcast in Norway. In 1 Samuel 28 Saul wants to contact Samuel through a medium, and he does. But how can this be possible? You cannot contact dead people. And all spirits, except the Holy Spirit, are from the devil. Why does not chapter 28 forbid it, and what are your thoughts on this passage?”
Here’s the short answer to Kristine, and then I’ll say just a bit more. First Samuel 28 has lots to say about consulting with necromancers and mediums who interact with the dead, and all of it is negative. The point here, and throughout the Old Testament, is that God’s people should not consult with mediums, not because there’s no such thing as communication with the dead, but because it is an abomination to try to communicate with the dead. The point is never in the Old Testament that it’s impossible but that it is wicked and sinful and will bring down God’s judgment if we do it. That’s the short answer.
“God tells us as much as he wants us to know about the secret councils of his plans for the future.”
The situation in 1 Samuel 28 is that Saul and David have been at odds for a long time, and David is rising in God’s favor to be the new king. Saul is becoming increasingly disobedient and unacceptable as God’s king. Back in chapter 15, Saul disobeyed God and failed to destroy the Amalekites. Samuel the prophet confronts him and says that God has now rejected him as being king. He’s torn the kingdom away from him. He’s going to give it to David.
Then Samuel says something very significant in 1 Samuel 15:22–23. It’s very relevant to what’s going to happen over in chapter 28. Saul had defended his disobedience by saying he intended to sacrifice some of the stolen things to God. Samuel says, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice. . . . For rebellion is as the sin of divination” — necromancy, mediums — “and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.”
Did you hear the reference to divination? Divination refers to trying to get revelation about the future and about God’s secret plans by using demonic means or means that involve transactions with the dead. Samuel says it is, in essence, rejecting the word of the Lord. The Lord’s word is not enough. Samuel says that Saul’s disobedience, therefore, is like divination. It’s like idolatry. He puts divination and idolatry in the same category, and that’s the root issue in using mediums and necromancers. It puts the mediums and the necromancers in the place where God belongs. God tells us as much as he wants us to know about the secret councils of his plans for the future.
When the prophet Isaiah indicts the people for their involvement with mediums, he says it like this: “When they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?” (Isaiah 8:19). This is why Samuel calls it idolatry. If we go to mediums to find out something about our life that God has withheld from us, we put them in the position that only God should have. This is a great abomination, and Samuel calls it idolatry.
Moses in Deuteronomy 18:10–12 speaks like this when he goes after mediums: “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.”
“If we go to mediums to find out something God has withheld, we put them in a position only God should have.”
When we get to 1 Samuel 28, we see that this is exactly what Saul does. He does this abomination. Even though he has already cast out all the mediums from the kingdom, he disguises himself. He goes at night, so he knows he’s doing a great evil, but he has sunk this low. He asks the medium, the witch of Endor — the medium, the necromancer — to call up Samuel from the dead. Samuel has died in the meantime. She does it, and he sees him and she sees him. They know what’s happening. Samuel confronts him and predicts he’s going to die in the battle because he’s broken the law of God at every level and sunk to the degradation now of using an illegal medium. This is the bottom of Saul’s degradation, and that’s the point of the chapter. He has sunk this low in spite of all God’s privileges to him. In his next battle with the Philistines, he is a dead man.
The point of this chapter is not that necromancy and divination or the work of mediums is impossible, but that it is to be avoided at all costs by God’s people because it is an assault on God’s wisdom and authority and love, and is therefore in the category of idolatry and rebellion and abomination.
I would say to Kristine: the Christian answer to witches and mediums and sorcerers and charmers and necromancers and the users of omens and divination and Ouija boards or anything like that, the answer is not that such things are unreal or impossible — we’re not secularists; we’re supernaturalists — the point is not that they’re unreal, but that you should not, in any case, participate in them. They are evil. They are idolaters. They are rebellious. They are abominable, to use all of the words that the Bible uses. And for that reason, they are to be renounced by the people of God. Those who use them are to be prayed for and pleaded for to step away from that kind of abomination.