Our focus in this article will be on the supernatural realm as presented in the Bible. Comparing two biblical texts, we can obliquely discern warnings against approaching the supernatural in the first text while in the second, treasuring a supernatural event. The texts are 1. Saul summoning up the OT prophet, priest and judge, Samuel, from the dead and 2. the Transfiguration, recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke. What makes the first wrong and the second right? I say ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ because I believe they are so according to warnings throughout Scripture. The key difference between the supernatural experiences in these contrasting texts is that one shows a seeking of the occult through human illicit grasping at it and the second shows supernatural manifestation as a gift from God and initiated by Him. Just before we look at these accounts, it needs saying that ‘occult’ means simply ’hidden’, so the term can be used in a non-supernatural sense as well, as is the case with its use in medical-speak (eg occult bleeding). But most of us think of it as pertaining to the forbidden. It is forbidden because it involves delving into places where we should not be lured and opening us up to the possibility of horrific states like demon possession. Here is the enigmatic story of Saul and deceased Samuel :
1 Samuel 28:3-25 (HCSB) 3 By this time Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his city, and Saul had removed the mediums and spiritists from the land. 4 The Philistines came together and camped at Shunem. So Saul gathered all Israel, and they camped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the Philistine camp, he was afraid and trembled violently. 6 He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him in dreams or by the Urim or by the prophets. 7 Saul then said to his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I can go and consult her.” His servants replied, “There is a woman at En-dor who is a medium.” 8 Saul disguised himself by putting on different clothes and set out with two of his men. They came to the woman at night, and Saul said, “Consult a spirit for me. Bring up for me the one I tell you.” 9 But the woman said to him, “You surely know what Saul has done, how he has killed the mediums and spiritists in the land. Why are you setting a trap for me to get me killed?” 10 Then Saul swore to her by the LORD: “As surely as the LORD lives, nothing bad will happen to you because of this.” 11 “Who is it that you want me to bring up for you?” the woman asked. “Bring up Samuel for me,” he answered. 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she screamed, and then she asked Saul, “Why did you deceive me? You are Saul!” 13 But the king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” “I see a spirit form coming up out of the earth,” the woman answered. 14 Then Saul asked her, “What does he look like?” “An old man is coming up,” she replied. “He’s wearing a robe.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed his face to the ground and paid homage. 15 “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Samuel asked Saul. “I’m in serious trouble,” replied Saul. “The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He doesn’t answer me anymore, either through the prophets or in dreams. So I’ve called on you to tell me what I should do.” 16 Samuel answered, “Since the LORD has turned away from you and has become your enemy, why are you asking me? 17 The LORD has done exactly what He said through me: The LORD has torn the kingship out of your hand and given it to your neighbor David. 18 You did not obey the LORD and did not carry out His burning anger against Amalek; therefore the LORD has done this to you today. 19 The LORD will also hand Israel over to the Philistines along with you. Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will hand Israel’s army over to the Philistines.” 20 Immediately, Saul fell flat on the ground. He was terrified by Samuel’s words and was also weak because he hadn’t had any food all day and all night. 21 The woman came over to Saul, and she saw that he was terrified and said to him, “Look, your servant has obeyed you. I took my life in my hands and did what you told me to do. 22 Now please listen to your servant. Let me set some food in front of you. Eat and it will give you strength so you can go on your way.” 23 He refused, saying, “I won’t eat,” but when his servants and the woman urged him, he listened to them. He got up off the ground and sat on the bed. 24 The woman had a fattened calf at her house, and she quickly slaughtered it. She also took flour, kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread. 25 She served it to Saul and his servants, and they ate. Afterward, they got up and left that night.
The problem in this story, the reason it is enigmatic, is that God warns us off divination but here He seems to reward it by sending the spirit of Samuel to Saul as requested. Armed not only with the repetition of a previous prophecy but also with a new and undesirable one, the apparition of Samuel comes to Saul. The Bible does not shy away from the paranormal, even that of an evil nature such as that revealed in this story but we are told in no uncertain terms in Scripture to go nowhere near the occult. For example, see:
Deuteronomy 18:9-14 (HCSB) 9 “When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not imitate the detestable customs of those nations. 10 No one among you is to make his son or daughter pass through the fire, practice divination, tell fortunes, interpret omens, practice sorcery, 11 cast spells, consult a medium or a familiar spirit, or inquire of the dead. 12 Everyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and the LORD your God is driving out the nations before you because of these detestable things. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God. 14 Though these nations you are about to drive out listen to fortune-tellers and diviners, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do this.
The medium, it would appear, was out of her depth and “screamed” when she saw the spirit of Samuel appear as “a spirit form coming up out of the earth”. This would indicate that the spirit of Samuel came not through the medium’s power but through God’s because even she was surprised and alarmed. Samuel appeared as an old man wearing a robe, evidently just as Saul would have recognised him before his death. Why did God allow Saul to get his way in having Samuel return to the land of the living in order to ask his question? Saul turned to divination because God would not answer his question, either by dreams or prophets, or so he claimed (vs 15). Saul thought God had gone silent because he didn’t hear what he wanted to hear from Samuel when he was still alive. But God eventually and finally answered Saul in a way he didn’t bargain for. Through Samuel He let Saul know of his death and that of his sons the following day. These appeared fixed. There was nothing Saul could do. But was there? We read of other biblical characters intervening in God’s seemingly fixed decisions and making special pleas. See Moses :
Exodus 32:11-14 (NASB) 11 Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Other references on this theme of God changing His mind can be found in Jeremiah 18 which I quote, and 1 Samuel 15.
Jeremiah 18:5-11 (ESV) 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. 9 And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: ‘Thus says the LORD, Behold, I am shaping disaster against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your deeds.’
Perhaps Saul could have tried to change God’s mind regarding this prophecy, repenting and turning once more to God in faith. But we see none of that. Might God’s allowing Saul his wish have been a type of grace offered to Saul to repent before his death the following day? I do not know what ultimately became of Saul nor do I know why God allowed the return of Samuel to Saul. I reference the story as an example of who not to emulate – don’t emulate Saul!
Or was this story showing God’s judgement of Saul for his recalcitrant lack of acceptance of God’s commands and judgements. He would not do as God commanded in battle and conquest (1Samuel 15). He appeared not to accept that the kingship had been removed from him and handed over to David. But now, finally, Saul goes silent in the face of God’s pronouncement on him and his progeny. Now we will turn to look at another supernatural manifestation in the story of the Transfiguration:
Matthew 17:1-9 (HCSB) 1 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. 2 He was transformed in front of them, and His face shone like the sun. Even His clothes became as white as the light. 3 Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here! If You want, I will make three tabernacles here: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him! 6 When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified. 7 Then Jesus came up, touched them, and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up they saw no one except Him — Jesus alone. 9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
Moses, one of the three in the vision, had died a natural death but with a supernatural burial – a burial by God :
Deuteronomy 34:4-6 (NASB) 4 Then the LORD said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” 5 So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. 6 And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.
Moses represented the law. Elijah represented the prophets. Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. So the Transfiguration shows Jesus in His glorified radiance speaking with the representatives of the law and the prophets discussing Jesus’ forthcoming death (Luke). Elijah’s death, like that of Enoch, were not death as we know it. They were taken body and all into heaven. So here at the Transfiguration this Elijah, assumed into heaven without dying, is seen in his glorified state by Peter, James and John and in conversation with Jesus and Moses, also in their glorified state. All three gospel writers speak of the glory of Jesus being revealed in the vision but only Luke includes detail that the saints, Moses and Elijah, also appeared glorified. See Barnes’ notes:
In glory – Of a glorious appearance. Of an appearance like that which the saints have in heaven.
Here is the Bible verse Barnes is commenting on:
Luke 9:30-31 (NASB) 30 And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, 31 who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
The Bible both relates occult experiences on the one hand and commands us to stay away from them on the other. Why? What’s the difference between the Saul/Samuel story and the Transfiguration? Saul had sought the occult experience of Samuel. He had used divination, something the Bible references in several places to abstain from. The Transfiguration unveiled hidden reality through a vision of the glory of Jesus and of the saints, Moses and Elijah, by an act of God’s grace and given to these particular men at this particular time by God’s choice and for His purpose. Contrasting these two passages is an important exercise to go through. It clarifies what is right and what is wrong for the people of God to engage in. We are focusing here on what is permissable and impermisssable for Christians. Some Christians of a more spiritual inclination can fall prey to going into dangerous spiritual situations. This is a weakness for them much like the carnal have a weakness in earthy types of sins. Not that people commit either one type of sin or the other but the causes for falling away from God can start with one type of sin and then break out into other areas. Make no mistake – wrong spirituality will wind people up in just as horrible a place as carnal sin will. I have noted that wise Christians involved in deliverance ministries have warned believers to be alert as to what they read, do and watch, including what events they attend. One such warned about these gateways to the occult because they can be entry points for demon possession. This needs to be heeded. Seemingly innocuous books or films or activites can be dangerous because they form a pathway for occult experiences or are the beginning of relaxing vigilance against deviating from God. If you have any feeling that the film/book/activity you intend going to might be a bit spiritually risque, heed the warning of your conscience. You may be being prompted away by the activity of the Holy Spirit. When Paul said that “all things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 6:12 & 10:23), he didn’t mean straying into the occult. We need to constantly and vigilantly watch, pray and act in accordance with God’s will and instruction to us. It is for our good!