Q. 1 Sam 16:14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. How could an evil spirit be from the Lord?
A. Christians are often surprised or puzzled when they read about an evil spirit from the Lord tormenting Saul. God is supposed to be holy and loving, how could He send an evil spirit to torment people? This phrase appears 5 times in the Bible, and there was no translation error:
• 1 Sam 16:15-16 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 harp. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes upon you, and you will feel better.
• 1 Sam 18:10 The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul.
• 1 Sam 19:9 But an evil spirit from the LORD came upon Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand.
How are we to understand this? First, know the historical background. Saul was being punished for not keeping the Lord’s command and rejecting His word:
• 1 Sam 13:13-14 “You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.”
• 1 Sam 15:23, 26 For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has rejected you as king.” But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!”
Saul was rebellious and arrogant, and rightly deserved God’s punishment. God had acted justly.
Second, know the grammar. Even though you may not know the original languages, you can have a pretty good idea of what the Hebrew OT said here by checking multiple English translations. I looked up 1 Sam 16:14 in 39 translations and paraphrases. Here are the results:
* 31 translations (79.5%) have the passive voice “an evil spirit from the Lord”,
* 6 (ERV, GNT, HCSB, NIRV, NLV, NLT) have the active voice “the Lord sent an evil spirit”,
* 2 (Knox, Message) translated it as an evil mood instead of a spirit.
The majority has translated the Hebrew accurately. There is a difference between God actively sending an evil spirit to torment Saul, versus God allowing an evil spirit to do so. You will recall that in Job 1 and 2 Satan incited God against Job to ruin him without any reason (Job 2:3). Satan had to ask for permission to strike Job, and God allowed it. Here all 5 references in 1 Sam the text said an evil spirit came from God or the Lord. The text did not say God actively sent the evil spirit, despite the minority view. I suggest something similar to Job is happening here: the evil spirit appeared before God to ask for permission to torment Saul, and God allowed it.
Why did God allow it? I believe because it is God’s way of dealings with the rebellious as articulated in the NT:
• Rom 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
• Rom 1:26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones.
• Rom 1:28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.
• 1 Tim 1:20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.
When men continued to exchange God’s glory and truth for images and lies, God gave them over to their sinful desires and lusts. Paul handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. When Saul continued to disobey God’s commands and reject His word, He gave him over to an evil spirit to torment and discipline him.
Third, when you look up the Hebrew word spirit (ruwach) in a lexicon, it has the following meanings depending on the context:
c. spirit (as that which breathes quickly in animation or agitation)
d. spirit (of the living, breathing being in man and animals)
e. spirit (as seat of emotion) i.e. mood
g. Spirit of God
As pointed out above, 5% of translators took the fifth meaning (e) by interpreting “an evil spirit” as “a troubling feeling” or depression. This is possible, but unlikely. Personally I believe the historical-grammatical approach of the majority of scholars taking the sixth meaning (f) to be a better explanation. Hope this helps.