Saul: A Tale Of Toil And Trouble
I Samuel 28:3-7
I want you to sit back and be very quiet. I want you to be aware of the fact that your family and friends are seated about you. That’s good. For today I want to tell you a story of witches and ghosts and things that go bump in the night. I want to take you back 3,000 years to a dark, dismal, scary place.
“Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
So come with me, if you have the courage, and I’ll tell you a tale of trial and tragedy, a tale of toil and trouble, a tale of Saul and the witch of Endor…
Chapter One: “The Journey Into Darkness”
It was dark on the Plain of Esdraelon. There was no sound save that of an occasional muted trumpet marking the watches of the night. There was no light save the occasional flash of a sentry’s torch. It was dark. It was quiet. And there was a chill in the air—not just the chill of the night air, but the chill of fear. There in the shadows of Mount Gilboa, the armies of Israel were gathered on one side of the plain; the armies of Philistia on the other. On the very next day, those two armies would engage in battle. The battle would begin at daybreak and everyone knew it; they also knew that they would fight to the death. So it was dark, and it was quiet, and there was a chill in the air.
At that moment, in a cave high up on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa, a woman huddled over a small fire made of sticks and dried roots, trying to warm herself against the chill. That woman was a witch. Suddenly, her meditation was interrupted because three men stepped out of the shadows and into the small circle of light created by the fire. One of the three men was Saul, the King of Israel. Now, Saul, in an effort to conceal his identity was wearing a disguise. It was a wasted effort. Remember, please, that the Bible tells us that Saul was far and away the tallest man in all of Israel, and it is simply impossible to ever conceal or disguise great height. No matter how he may choose to alter his physical appearance, Karem Abdul Jabar will always be recognizable. So it was with Saul. He tried to conceal his identity, but to no avail. Saul said to the woman crouched over the fire: “Will you be a witch for me?”
Strange, that Saul, the King of Israel should go in search of a witch. Not long before that, Saul had decreed that all of the witches and the wizards were to be driven out of the land. Saul had finally decided that he was going to be obedient to the word of God which prohibited the practice of sorcery and witchcraft; and so he had laid down the law for everyone to hear. Saul said: “Witches be gone.”
But now, suddenly everything was different; the great army of the Philistines was camped at the plain of Esdraelon, and now Saul was afraid, Saul was desperate. The Bible says: “His heart trembled within him greatly.” And so it was that Saul said to his servants: “Find me a witch.” It is interesting that Saul could hand down a law which all of the people in the kingdom were to obey, but then in his own time of need, he made himself an exception to the law. For everyone else: “Witches be gone,” but for Saul: “Find me a witch.”
That even happens in the church. I see it all the time. We claim to love the church, to want the church, to need the church. We want our children to grow up in the loving, supporting ministry of the church. We want dedicated ministers, we want talented singers, we want committed teachers, we want the church to minister to the great pressing needs of our lives when they occur in our living. We want these things, but then it’s so easy for us sometimes to say: “Well, I’m just too busy right now to help with the young people or with the Stewardship Campaign,” or “l just don’t feel qualified to be a Sunday School teacher, I just don’t think I could handle that responsibility.” Or: “l can’t carry a tune in a bucket!” Or: “The pressures of my work or the responsibilities of my family are so great, that…” We want the church, we need the church, we love the church. But let someone else do the work; as for me—”find me a witch.”
That’s what sin is, that’s what sin does.
The psychologists call it “rationalization.” It’s setting forth standards for other people to follow, standards which we ourselves are not willing to obey.
We make ourselves exceptions to the rules.
I love what the poet Longfellow once wrote in his journal. He got up on Sunday morning, and as was his habit, he attended church and then afterwards he sat down at his journal and wrote: “Heard a sermon today by John Ware of Cambridge” and then he proceeded to add five absolutely marvelous words: “l applied it to myself.” Isn’t that wonderful? “I heard a sermon today by John Ware of Cambridge, I applied it to myself.” Oh, Saul needed to hear those words; and all of those who follow Saul into the darkness of sin need to hear them.
Chapter Two: “The Summoning of a Spirit”
Please know that this witch at Endor was a crafty old crone. She knew precisely what was going on. She could see that this was none other than Saul, the King of Israel standing before her. She recognized that he was trying to conceal his identity somehow, and so she wondered if maybe he might be up to something. She wondered if this might be a trap. She played a game of pretend. She pretended that she didn’t know who he was. She said: “Sir, I am not going to be able to be a witch for you. If I were to do that, King Saul would have me put to death for practicing witchcraft.” At that point Saul said to her: “Do not worry, nothing will happen to you. Now do as I say. Not very long ago, God’s prophet, Samuel, died. I want you to call up for me the spirit of Samuel.” I find that fascinating. I mean, think about it. Saul didn’t ask this witch of Endor to call up the spirit of Moses, the greatest leader the Hebrew people had ever known. He didn’t ask for the spirit of Abraham, the founding father of his faith. He didn’t even ask for the spirit of Gideon, who years earlier had fought a battle and won that battle on that very same plain of Esdraelon where Saul would be fighting on the next day. No, Saul said to the witch at Endor: “Bring me up Samuel. Bring me up the one who anointed me king. Bring me up the one who stood so close by me throughout the earlier years of my life. Bring me up the one who never once failed to speak God’ s word for me. Bring me up Samuel.”
We can understand that, can’t we? Don’t make a mistake at this point. I’m not suggesting that we engage in things like seances and fortune telling and astrology. That stuff is about as real as championship wrestling. But we can understand, can’t we? Have you never had the experience in your own life when you encountered some kind of need, some time of desperation, some time of difficulty when you reached back into your experience and called up the memory of some godly parent or some Christian friend who in years gone by had stood so closely by you, stood by you with one hand gripping the hand of God and the other hand gripping yours? You call up that memory and you gain a measure of strength. Has that never been your experience? We say it so casually: “Saints preserve us.” The fact of the matter is the saints do preserve us. Here’s how: Our friends and our loved ones who have died and gone to be with the Lord, through the gift of memory, can move into our present experience and deliver to us messages of strength and faith and courage. Oh, the blessed gift of a memory. To remember those who have stood so close to us in times past, to remember those who never failed to speak God’s word to us.
As I visit with people, it seems to me that so many, many people in our day are desperately concerned to have a bountiful estate and some treasured possessions to leave to those who follow after. I have to tell you, I’m not much concerned about that. No, rather I am desperately concerned that after my days on this earth are done, that someone, sometime, somewhere, somehow in a time of need, will call up a memory of me and in remembering will find a measure of strength. It is my desperate hope that some word uttered in a sermon may so embed itself in another human life that years from now, that person in a time of difficulty will remember that word and will find strength in it again. That some thought shared in a counseling session might move into another heart and consciousness so that years hence, when I am no longer in this life, that person might look back and remember and find the power for living on. That’s the great hope of my life. A hope that my children, long after I’m gone, will not so much remember the places we’ve lived, or the things we’ve done, or the possessions we’ve shared, but simply that their Dad tried as best he could to live for Jesus. That’s what I hope. And if that is your hope too, then I want to ask you to remember something: The memories of someone else’s tomorrows are being forged by you today. Saul said: “Bring me up Samuel.”
Chapter Three: “The Coil of the Serpent”
The witch at Endor knew what she was about. After all Saul wasn’t the first fool who had ever come to her looking for help. And so, she immediately thrust herself into reciting her sing-song incantations and swaying back and forth over the flickering fire, and then gradually her eyes glazed over in a well rehearsed trance. Suddenly, she saw before her what previously she had only pretended to see. She saw the spirit of Samuel rising up. God had superseded her silly little seance. The spirit of Samuel appeared there—not by the power of some witch, oh no, but by the power of God. And when she saw the spirit of Samuel, she fell back in stark terror and she spoke no more. The Bible noted at that point King Saul fell on his knees with his face in the dust and did obeisance to Samuel. That is the only time in all the record of Saul’s life where it is noted that he ever bowed his knee before anyone else. What a tragedy! If only he had bowed his knee in obeisance to Samuel earlier. If only he had heeded earlier the advice and the counsel of the prophet of God, then so much tragedy could have been averted. Saul’s life had begun in extraordinary blessing. He had a fine family. He had a strong body. He had a superb mind, he had a winsome personality. He had it all. And yet, he then proceeded to misspend and destroy it all. What began in beauty ended in ugliness. As a result, they were all there at the end: Murder, jealousy, cruelty, blasphemy, choking the life out of King Saul.
Nathaniel Hawthorne has a stinging little story about a man who played false with his wife and who, out of a sense of guilt, began to imagine that a serpent had taken up residence within his heart. And yet, the feeling was so strong that his imagination gave way to reality and he began to feel that serpent gnawing away at his insides. He even told others about it, and he became a source of ridicule. The people began to refer to him as “the man with a snake in his heart.” There came a day when he was confronted by his wife and in one great agony of remorse and. repentance, he fell down before her as if he were dead. In that moment, the people standing nearby, while they did not see a serpent, nevertheless heard the sound of one slithering away through the grass.
But for Saul there was no such moment of remorse and repentance. You see the serpent of evil began to coil itself around Saul’s heart and the more Saul sought to break its grip, the deeper it bit. Because Saul would not kill the serpent, in the end, it killed him.
That’s what sin always does. It wraps itself around everything that is good in us. If we do not break its grip, if we do not destroy it, well, in the end it destroys us, just as it destroyed Saul.
You know, I’m convinced that when at last King Saul died, the only sound in that place was the sound of hissing.
Chapter Four: “The Voice from the Grave”
Samuel said to Saul: “Saul, why did you call me up?” and Saul said: “Samuel, I’m in big trouble. I need your help. The Lord has turned against me.” And Samuel said: “No, Saul, that’s not the problem. The problem is that you long since turned against the Lord.” And then Samuel went on to cite chapter and verse where Saul had rejected the word and the way and the will of Almighty God. And the spirit of Samuel said to Saul: “Saul, now it’s too late for you. Tomorrow you shall die.” Can that be true? What Samuel said? I mean, can it sometimes be too late for a person? The story of Saul says yes, it can. The story of Saul says it is possible to play with God until there comes a point where God is not willing to play anymore. The story of Saul says that those who refuse to hear the word of God ultimately hear another voice which says: “it’s too late. Tomorrow death will come.” That’s what happened to King Saul when he turned away from the Lord and turned instead to the witch of Endor. “Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
I cannot leave it there. No, I dare not leave it there…Not as long as there is another voice from beyond the grave, the voice of Jesus Christ. Listen please to what He says. John 5:25: “Truly I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear shall live.” John 6:40: “it is the will of my Father, who is in heaven, that everyone who sees the Son of God and believes in Him shall have eternal life and I will raise him up.” John 11:25: “Because I live, you shall live also.” Revelation 1:18: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, I am the living one; behold once I was dead but now I am alive forevermore.” That is the voice of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. That is the voice which speaks of the victory which we can know in Him. That is the voice which has changed the world, and that is the voice which can change your life and mine.
So how about it, my beloved? If you have lived too long in the dark, don’t you think it’s about time you came to the light, the light of Jesus Christ? The Bible says: “Now is the day of salvation,” not tomorrow. Tomorrow is too late. Tomorrow was too late for Saul, tomorrow may be too late for you. The Bible says: “Now is the day of salvation,” not tomorrow—today. The Bible says: “Seek ye first the Lord, draw nigh to Him while He is close at hand.” Come to Jesus Christ today.
You know, if you were to do that today, it would be the happiest day of my life. More importantly, if you were to do that today, it would be the happiest day of your life.