King Saul At the Witch’s Cave – David James Burrell (historic sermon 1844-1926)
“Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor.” – I Samuel 28:7
It is said, “There is no character in a photograph, because it is a portrait taken at a single sitting.” The “composite photograph” gives the best impression of the real man. We want therefore to view Saul at different periods of his life.
Our first glimpse of him is out upon the mountains where he seeks his father’s asses. He is “a choice young man and a goodly, and among the children of Israel there is not a goodlier person than he.” His stature and sturdy bearing remind us instantly of the fictional hero of epic tales. In the course of his quest he comes upon the home of the prophet Samuel, of whom he inquires the whereabouts of the lost asses. The prophet replied, “Set not thy mind on them, for they are found. And on whom is all the desire of Israel? Is it not upon thee?”
He is next seen at the school of the prophets. Here he is getting rid of some of his roughness, the odor of the soil, and preparing in a measure, unawares, for the high office that awaits him. His character is changed; as it is written, “God gave him another heart, and the Spirit of- God came upon him.”
He is moved by new hopes and purposes. His remarkable presence in this company “coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret and a pipe and a harp before them,” is remarked upon in a phrase which afterwards becomes a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets”?
Next at Mizpeh. The people have been called together in solemn assemblage for the formal choice of a king. The lot is taken, and it falls upon the tribe of Benjamin; of the tribe of Benjamin the family of Matri is chosen; and in the family of Matri, the lot falls upon Saul, the son of Kish. He is sought for and cannot be found, for ” behold, he hath hid himself among the stuff”; that is, the baggage which surrounds the camp. He is brought forth into the midst of the assembly, and his presence inspires the greatest enthusiasm, for when he stands among the people he is higher than any of them from his shoulder and upwards. And all the people shout, “God save the King”!
But Saul himself seems to have been indifferent to his high calling. There were some among the people who looked upon him as a mere yeoman, and said, “How shall this man save us”? The king-elect returned to his farm. He gloried in the open air and the sunlight. He loved to throw back his shoulders and rejoice in the freedom of the fields. He was following the plow when messengers came to announce an incursion of the Ammonites. The town of Jabesh-gilead was besieged, and the cry of the terror, stricken people rang in his ears. He hewed in pieces a yoke of oxen, after the rude custom of that time, and sent them throughout the borders of Israel to enkindle their patriotic zeal, as the Scots were aroused in later times by the flaming cross upon their hills. He found himself at the head of a considerable army of volunteers; the martial spirit was aroused within him; he marched to the relief of the besieged city, and accomplished a great deliverance; as it is written, “He slew the Ammonites until the heat of the day.”
Then Saul assumed his proper place in the palace. He Was every inch a king, just and resolute, ruling in equity. A cabinet of remarkable counselors was gathered about him. Samuel was his court chaplain Abner was his secretary of war, Abiathar was the high priest; David soon became his lieutenant and confidential friend. The king now showed himself a man of magnetic control, and entered upon a remarkable career. Victory succeeded victory in the field. Those of the people who had formerly distrusted Saul now gathered loyally about him.
But as time passed a strange malady falls upon him. We find him giving way to his passions and eccentric impulses. He is filled with envy and jealousy. He shows himself cruel and vindictive towards those who oppose him. At Michmash, in the absence of Samuel, desiring to offer sacrifice before the battle, he profanely takes matters into his own hands. He hurls his javelin at David, who seeks to comfort his melancholy. He massacres the priests at Nob. Is it the intoxication of power that has seized him? Is he realizing, in moral bondage, the result of his self-indulgence; as it is written, “He that doeth sin is the servant of it”? Or is he indeed possessed of an evil spirit? He rejects all divine counsels and admonitions, and seems determined to run upon the bosses of the shield of God, There is scarcely a more lamentable picture of the decay of character than this:
So fallen! so lost! the light withdrawn
Which once he wore!
The glory from his gray hairs gone
Of all “we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains,
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.
All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled.
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Then pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!
The affairs of the kingdom have now reached a crisis. The Philistines have crowded their way through the borders of Israel and massed themselves at the old battle-field of Esdraelon like a Tartar horde. The desperate and remorseful king knows not where to turn. His old adviser, Samuel, is dead. Abiathar, the priest, has gone and taken the Urim and Thummim with him. The priests, outraged by the massacre of their brethren, have forsaken him. He is no more counseled in dreams and visions of the night. The chill shadow of approaching disaster has fallen over him. He cannot go into this battle without some supernatural support. He is at his wits end. At this point he learns of a female necromancer who plies her lawless trade among the hills. He disguises himself, and with two faithful friends makes his way to the witch’s cave at En dor. It is night.
And the king said, ” I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit and bring me him up whom I shall name unto thee.”
Then said the woman, ” Whom shall I bring up unto thee?”
And he said, ” Bring me up Samuel” Samuel of all men whom he had loved and hated, grieved and persecuted, and ultimately driven to his death!
The witch waved her wand, mumbled her cabalistic charms and suddenly uttered a shriek of surprise. And the king said, “Be not afraid. What seest thou?”
The woman said, “I see a god rising from the earth”; and then, “An old man cometh up; he is covered with a mantle.” The king bowed himself to the earth and received the intimation of his approaching defeat and death.
It is an open question whether or no it was the real Samuel who appeared on this occasion. Not that the spirits of the dead may not return on occasion to this world; for did not Moses and Elijah commune with the Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration? But there are two suspicious facts in the present case; one is that Saul did not see Samuel. He took the witch’s word for it, and he was in the very mood to believe that it was he. The other is that the message delivered by the specter was nothing new. The king had previously been warned again and again of the calamity which was to overtake him. But I am not disposed to turn aside here into irrelevant or collateral questions, for there are certain practical truths and lessons which demand our attention.
I. As to the probationary character of life. Saul had all along been on trial. In his call to the throne he had been required to meet certain tasks and responsibilities and was endowed with peculiar gifts and faculties for the discharge of them. If ever God was patient, it was with this man. He surrounded him with faithful counselors who warned, exhorted and entreated him. He had a fair chance to make a success of character and life. So have we all “a fighting chance”; no more, no less. In many ways our circumstances are against us; but the “mark of true greatness is for a man to prove himself superior to his environment.” It is for us to say whether we will fight down our lower nature and be true to our best impulses and to the God who is ever stimulating and remonstrating with us, or give way to our besetting sins and temptations. To triumph means character and usefulness ; to yield means an utter loss of manhood and ultimate exile from God.
II. The touch-stone of spiritual success is obedience. There is no room for willfulness in the better life. Saul was determined to have his own way and he had it. The turning point in his life was in his famous campaign against the Amalekites. The Lord had said, “Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not.” The result was an utter rout of the enemy; “Saul smote the Amalekites from Havilah until thou comest to Shur; and he took Agag, the king, alive; and spared also the best of the sheep and the oxen and the fatlings, and would not utterly destroy them.” On his return from battle he met Samuel and said, ” Blessed be thou of the Lord; I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” And Samuel said, ” What meaneth then this bleating of sheep and lowing of oxen which I hear?” The truth was, Saul had spared Agag to grace his own triumph; but he was probably right when he excused himself further by saying, “I have spared the sheep and oxen to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God.” And the prophet said, “Why didst not thou obey the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” And rending his mantle, he said, “The-Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day.”
The beginning of the higher life is in a covenant of absolute subjection to the divine will. There must be no reservation. There can be no willfulness. “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” No half-hearted service will answer. ” My son give me thy heart.” All or nothing! We cannot serve God and have our own way. “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.”
III. There is such a thing as “grieving the Spirit” this is for those who profess to be the people of God. For the impenitent there is another phrase, ” quenching the Spirit”; this is done in rejecting the overtures of mercy which are extended from time to time, as one puts out a kindling flame by repeatedly throwing water upon it. But we *’ grieve ” those whom we profess to love, our friends, our mothers, our counselors; we grieve them by repeated slights and affronts and inattentions. Our best friend is the Holy Spirit; he is constantly urging us to larger measures of grace and virtue and fruitfulness. He is grieved when we refuse his invitations and admonitions. He is grieved by habitual disobedience, by worldliness, by neglect of known duty, by persistence in sin. And with what result? Coldness of heart, discomfort, self-accusation, departure farther and farther from God. Then misery and hopelessness; no more Urim and Thummim; no more blessed visions in the night watches; no more walking with God in the cool of the day. We feel ourselves to be as Saul was, alone, forsaken. The awful consummation of such a course is seen in the bitterness of Christ’s anguish on the cross, when, not for himself, but in behalf of those who have exposed themselves to this grievous pain of abandonment, he cried, “My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”
IV. But we must have some sort of religion. I call you to witness that no matter how far we may have wandered from our original devotion to Christ, we cannot live without some form of devotion. The soul craves it. If we cannot find God, we shall seek the witch of Endor. We know that we belong to two worlds. We must keep up our communication with the invisible and supernatural. The soul’s thirst must be slaked at wayside pools if not at the river of life.
Whither shall we go in our wandering? Into atheism? That is most unnatural; the evidence of “a power not ourselves making for righteousness” is so interwoven with the fibers of our being that denying God is like wrenching off an arm or plucking out an eye. It is the fool, and the fool only, who hath said in his heart, ” There is no God.”
If not into atheism, where then? Into rationalism? To reject the revelation from above in order that we may follow the dictates of unaided reason is pure willfulness; it leads us into all manner of error and unbelief. We wander about like a man lost on the prairie, with no landmarks anywhere, A level stretch of boundless, monotonous prospect on every side ; no path except that made by our own foot-prints, to which we ever return. We refuse to get our bearings from the only hopeful quarter, the stars that shine in heaven above us. This is to be lost indeed.
Or if not into rationalism, perhaps into agnosticism? This is the logical outcome of the habit of rejecting truths which are constantly set before us. We begin by doubting and end by saying, “I know not. There may be a God; but I cannot see him. It is possible that there is a future life; but no one has returned to speak definitely about it. The Scriptures may be true; but there is a difference of opinion, and I am not wise enough to solve it.” So we find ourselves at the last like those eyeless fish in the waters of the Mammoth Cave, who have nothing but scars to show that once they could see.
Or it may be that we find ourselves joined to some form of base superstition. Saul was a spiritualist. I do not say that there is no truth underlying this most specious form of falsehood. But for the so-called “spiritualism” of these times I have no feeling but of contempt and abhorrence. The idea that our dear ones who have gone to glory, to sit at the feet of
Jesus in the heavenly splendors, should return to earth to tap tables and hide in cabinets and submit to materialization in darkened rooms, to drivel sentimental nothings and meaningless trivialities at the call of male and female transcendentalists of generally doubtful character, is too puerile and contemptible for a moment’s thought. And experience proves that danger lies that way.
I had a schoolmate once, the son of a clergyman, taught by a Christian mother to receive the simple truths of the Gospel, who as time passed, following his own inclinations, forsook the covenant with its moral precepts and yielded himself a willing attendant at the witch’s cave. He deemed himself a profound thinker, and asserted that he had found a system of philosophy far better than the Gospel of Christ. He finished his course in the murder of President Garfield; and he excused himself for that dreadful crime by saying that he was under the control of a supernatural influence.
The danger point is at the divergence of the paths. The star that swings out of its orbit by a single inch, is lost forever in infinite space. God, the Bible, the influence of the Spirit, these mark the appointed route of the Christian life. The moment we depart from them we are on dangerous ground. The Christian system is like a chain whose strength is lost if but a single link be broken. To say that we believe with a reservation, is to say that we do not believe at all. And this is the tendency of our time, to place one’s own heart and reason over against the divine authority. ” For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God; but not according to knowledge; for they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.” If we persist in such a course, willful and unrestrained, it is certain that we shall ultimately be “given over to believe a lie.”
The last chapter in the history of Saul remains to be told. On the heights of Gilboa he met the Philistines. The figure of the stalwart king was to be seen amid a shower of arrows, desperation in his face. A troop of the enemy had driven him up a steep hill, and there he stood at bay. His three sons had been slain; his armor-bearer lay dead beside him; his shield, stained with blood, had been cast away, and he leaned heavily upon his spear, weak from a self-inflicted wound. The dizziness and darkness of death were before him; he reeled and fell. The next morning his armor was fastened above the altar of the Ashtaroth and his headless body was impaled on the wall of Beth-shan like a captured bird of prey.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter. Back to thy first love, O believer in Christ! Back to thy covenant and thy vows of espousal! Back to the old-fashioned Book which is thy only infallible rule of faith and practice! Back to the mercy seat where once thy communion was so sweet with. God! It is not too late; the hands of mercy are stretched out still.
In the recent exhibit at the Luxembourg there was one picture by an American artist which attracted great attention. It was called “The Return.” A wandering son in rags and tatters has come home; he kneels in an attitude of hopeless anguish by the side of the high bed whereon his father lies dead with the candles about him. Too late! too late!
This is not true. The Father never dies; the prodigal may. The Father waits with outstretched hands. Here is the divine record, “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”