Does God Control Evil Spirits?

There is a confusing verse in 1 Samuel 16 (italics mine):

Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.
1 Samuel 16:14 NIV

This has been an incredibly uncomfortable passage for me. I have studied this passage a number of times in a number of different contexts, and each time, I still feel a bit weird about it because it sounds like God caused an evil spirit to torment Saul, and I don’t like the idea that God would ever cause evil, because that seems very close to God doing evil, and that sounds very close to God being evil! How do we deal with a passage like this?

Solution 1: It’s a Mistranslation

Most of the times I studied this passage, the solution I was given was that “evil” doesn’t always mean morally evil. Instead, the word can refer to something that is difficult or unpleasant. Consider the way it is translated in these other translations (emphasis mine):

At that very moment the Spirit of GOD left Saul and in its place a black mood sent by GOD settled on him. He was terrified. – 1 Samuel 16:14 MSG

Now the Spirit of the LORD had left Saul, and the LORD sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear. – 1 Samuel 16:14 NLT

Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him. – 1 Samuel 16:14 ESV (Note: older versions of the ESV used the word “evil” instead of “harmful”)

I’ll admit, all of those translations sound more pleasant. I’m inclined to just accept them and move on, but that reveals more about me than it does about the text. Why do I think “evil” is somehow worse than “tormenting”? Well, it’s because I think of “evil” as a moral judgment, but I think of “tormenting” as a behavior that may or may not be morally justified. However, that means I think “tormenting” someone might be morally justifiable, and I find that uncomfortable too.
On top of that, we can’t dismiss an uncomfortable translation that easily. Consider this verse:

The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. – Genesis 6:5 NIV

The root of the word translated “evil” in 1 Samuel 16 is used twice in Genesis 6:5 as God’s justification for the flood he brought to judge the world during Noah’s time!

Solution 2: It’s About Perspective

The other explanation given to me about this passage was that “evil” described Saul’s perspective not an absolute moral reality. As an example, when I stub my toe, I can think of my coffee table as “evil” or I can think of the moment as being “evil” because the moment was bad for me or the coffee table was bad for me, but of course there isn’t anything morally evil about my coffee table or that moment.
When applied to this passage, the implication is that God (who is good), sent one of his angels (which are good) to go and do the work of torment (as a punishment that is morally good) against Saul. However, Saul and his associates would have perceived the torment as a bad thing and therefore would have concluded that God had sent an evil spirit.
Therefore, this option says that the spirit was actually a good spirit doing the good work of judgment, but the human writer used the word “evil” because that’s the way it seemed to the people involved.
The problem with this approach is that it downplays the authority of the author of this text. The author of this text claims to have intimate knowledge of God and his motivations. The author of this text claims to know what God directly said to Samuel, and the author of this text uses the word “evil” to describe the spirit sent by God.

Solution 3: God is Bigger than we Thought

This is the solution I briefly mentioned in my most recent Sunday message and it is the solution I find to reflect the biblical teaching the best even though it is a solution that is less comfortable than either of the others. Simply put, God is bigger than we thought.
Let’s go back to why the verse makes us uncomfortable in the first place. The verse makes us uncomfortable because it implies that God commanded an evil spirit to do something and it obeyed which then implies God caused something evil to happen which then implies that God is also somehow evil.
That cannot be! The Bible is abundantly clear that God is only good all the time!

The Box We Built for God

We are so repulsed by the idea of God ever being responsible for “evil” that we have created for ourselves a more comfortable mythology that is partially supported by Scripture, but not entirely so. Our mythology is that there are two opposing forces in the world—God and Satan—and these two forces are constantly in battle with each other. Satan is responsible for the evil and God is responsible for the good. Secondarily, this mythology extends to a group of spiritual beings we call angels and demons. Satan is responsible for all the activity of demons and God is responsible for all the activity of angels.
We even have some biblical reasons for this mythology. In Matthew 25, Jesus says this about the future day of judgment:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. – Matthew 25:41 NIV

Clearly, Jesus is leaning into the idea that there is a “devil” who has his own “angels” (demons).
In Revelation 12, John describes a vision using these words:

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. – Revelation 12:7-10 NIV

Again, this indicates that “the devil” or “Satan” has his own angels and has been leading the world astray, but pay special attention to the second paragraph. It says, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God…” This is a passage that is talking about a future moment in time when the kingdom of God has fully taken hold. This is a future battle not some past moment when Satan rebelled against God and then was sent to earth with a bunch of demons. This is talking about a future moment when Satan is defeated handily by an angel called Michael. God doesn’t even need to get directly involved in this battle!
Still, there is one line in there we need to note: talking about Satan, it said “who leads the whole world astray.” Take note of that; I’ll come back to it in a bit, but before I do, I want to point out one more passage from Jesus. In Matthew 12:24-28, we read this:

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. – Matthew 12:24-28 NIV

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the religious leaders of the day had taken to referring to the leader of the demons as “Beelzebul” (sometimes written as Beelzebub) a word that might mean “Prince Baal” or “Lord of Flies” or something else, but Jesus immediately re-identifies him with the word “Satan.” Also, Jesus uses the word kingdom to refer to Satan’s sphere of influence and implies that the demons are part of Satan’s “kingdom.” Finally, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as a separate kingdom in opposition to the kingdom of Satan.
All these things put together can leave us with the impression that God and Satan are forever antagonists until the future day when God finally wins. We can get the impression that there are two independent kingdoms, two independent armies of spiritual beings. However, that mythology misses a few details. Let me reiterate:

  • In Revelation, it’s not God v. Satan, it’s Michael against Satan.
  • In Matthew, Jesus absolutely dominates the demons, his power utterly surpasses any power of Satan, and Jesus claims it as proof that the Kingdom of God is higher than whatever kingdom Satan thinks he has.

On top of that, I want to re-surface something from the ancient book of Job:

One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the LORD, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
Then Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.
Job 1:6-12 NIV

The story of Job makes this clear. Satan has the freedom to roam the earth, has the attitude of an “accuser” aimed at pitting God against people, and has “power” to do things against people, but all of that is still under the authority of God himself. Satan can’t act as the accuser unless God gives him the opportunity to speak, and Satan can’t do anything to Job unless God gives specific approval for that.
Even back in the Garden of Eden when Satan takes the form of a serpent to deceive Adam and Eve into eating from the forbidden tree, we need to remember that the tree was put there by God! The only thing Satan can do is to act within the parameters God sets up.
Remember how John’s vision in Revelation referred to Satan as the one who leads the whole world astray? Clearly, Satan’s whole deal is to try to pit God and people against each other, but he still can’t do anything unless God gives him space to do it.
Here’s the point: God is not in conflict with Satan. God is WAY BIGGER than Satan, and Satan can only operate within the sliver of authority that God gives him. Satan has some kind of “kingdom” and some group of “angels” (demons) to lead, but God has the real Kingdom, God commands the Host of Heaven, and God governs literally everything in the universe.
Talking about Jesus, Paul says this:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. – Colossians 1:15-17 NIV

All powers throughout the universe were created through Jesus and for Jesus, and he himself is the one who sustains all things including those powers and authorities!
It’s a misunderstanding to think that somehow God is struggling in a fight against Satan. Satan might think he’s fighting against God, but it’s basically like a six-year-old child having an arm wrestling match against the Incredible Hulk. The modern Hulk is nice and all, and might let the naive little child think it’s an equal competition, but it’s not.

So is God in charge of evil?

Going back to the beginning, I’ll say that our problem is in our own naive understanding of “good” and “evil.” We are too tempted to think of “good” as whatever is pleasant to us and to think of “evil” as whatever conflicts with my sense of morality, but both concepts are far too weak to be able to tell us anything about God.
Keeping our terms biblical, God is literally in charge of everything. He has authority over all powers in the universe. He could have made people to be unfree robots, but he gave us the power to choose and therefore the power to do things that lead to our own destruction. He could have kept the forbidden fruit out of the garden, but he put it right in the middle, AND allowed Satan to have words with the first people even though those words were lies about God himself. God certainly knew the outcome of his decision to put the tree in the middle of the garden, but he did it anyway. God made a decision that opened the door to all the evil in our world today because God made decisions that allowed us to make decisions that can lead to our own destruction.
And we actually think it’s great. As human beings, we continually make choices for ourselves that are simultaneously great and destructive, and we keep making them. We love Doritos even though they destroy our cardiovascular system. We love technology even though it leads to climate catastrophe and nuclear bombs.
So should we blame people for the bad choices or the bad consequences of good choices? Should we blame Satan for the problems we see?After all, God’s the one who set it all up? Should we blame him?
It’s actually such a naive way of thinking. What if instead of asking who is to blame for the evil in the world we asked a different question? What if we asked about the purpose of evil in the world?
The question we should ask is “Why?” and the answer we should give is, “Keep reading.”
Scripture is a consistent story of God bringing light from darkness, order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes, even life from death. From beginning to end, it’s a story of beautiful redemption. Even the greatest “evil” in human history, the moment when human beings torture and execute the divine Son of God, a moment that we mourn, is a moment smack-dab in the center of God’s plan. The greatest evil happened on a day we call Good Friday!

God is the God of Beauty from Ashes

Even the passage we studied on Sunday demonstrates this truth. Let’s go back to it:

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.
Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.
Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”
So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”
One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the LORD is with him.”
Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.
David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”
Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him. – 1 Samuel 16:13-23 NIV

Don’t let the significance of this moment pass you by. It’s super important, and it’s super beautiful:

  • God punishes Saul by removing the Holy Spirit from him.
  • God punishes Saul by removing the kingship from him.
  • God punishes Saul by sending an evil spirit to him.
  • God blesses David by giving the kingship to him.
  • God blesses David by placing the Holy Spirit on him
  • God blesses Saul by sending David to him.
  • When David serves Saul, the evil spirit leaves.

God took everything away from Saul, gave everything to David, but then sent David right back to Saul!
God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul, but God also sent David who through his ministry, causes the evil spirit to leave.
For all of Saul’s time as king, he only really looked after himself and his own interests. Now, through this, God has made Saul dependent on someone else, specifically dependent on the one who would be the next king.
This is beautiful in so many ways, and I just can’t get over it. The Holy Spirit leaves Saul, but through David comes right back. The kingdom leaves Saul, but the next king is Saul’s servant. The evil spirit comes on Saul when he’s by himself, but when David comes, the evil spirit leaves. God is dealing with the arrogant independent Saul in exactly the most perfect way possible, not by mere punishment, but by making Saul find relief and blessing through dependence on his humble rival!
The spirit might have been fully evil, but God sent it to accomplish something incredibly beautiful and it obeyed.

God is Bigger than we Think!

Are you frustrated with something you see in the world?
Remind yourself that God is up to something, and it’s going to be beautiful, but remind yourself also that in order for something evil to become something beautiful someone has to be a servant. Wherever you find a moment of beautiful redemption, you also find a moment of sacrifice.
The hinge point in the story of Saul and the evil spirit is David, the person who is the new rightful king who is willing to humble himself and serve the current king, the person who has the Spirit of God who is willing to humble himself and serve someone no longer worthy of the Spirit of God.
Yes, there is evil in the world, but in the midst of it, God is giving his Spirit to human beings who will step into dark places through sacrifice and service and expel the influence of evil from them.
May we be people who trust the overall plan of God enough to step into sacrifice and bring the Spirit of God into places of darkness!

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