In 1 Samuel 16, a number of times an evil spirit from God is described to come upon Saul:

14 Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.

15 Saul’s attendants said to him, “See, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 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.”

17 So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”

18 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.”

19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 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.

21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”

23 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.

What is the nature of this evil spirit? How can an evil spirit be from God?

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    Stacey, if you want to ask about reconciling this with a New Testament concept, you may be able to fit it into a type of question that would work for Christianity.SE and ask a new one over there. On this site we focus on interpreting the text in the context in which it was written, which is why I edited as I did. Feel free to change it further as you'd like, but please keep that in mind.
    – Susan
    Apr 10, 2015 at 22:30
  • This passage does not say the evil spirit came from God. It says the ‘attendant’ [thought] said the spirit came from God.
    – Dave
    Oct 13, 2020 at 4:20

6 Answers 6


What is the nature of this evil spirit?

The semantic range of both רעה (evil) and רוח (spirit) are quite broad. As WoundedEgo correctly points out, רעה does not always mean evil or wicked in the narrow sense of the word, but can also refer to misery, trouble, disaster, (see HALOT Abridged). The verbal cognate (רעע, be evil) likewise has a broad semantic range. For example, רעע is normally translated 'sad' in Nehemiah 2:3, even in literal translations such as ASV and NASB.

‎רוח, like spirit in English, is extremely broad in meaning. Some of the possible meanings listed by BDB include breath, wind, spirit, air, disposition, temper, gas, etc.

Thus, considering the semantic range of the words normally translated 'evil spirit', it is completely possible that they do not refer to a personal demonic being that in some way intermittently possessed Saul. That fact that music provided him with relief (albeit only temporarily) would seem argue against such a conclusion.

The fact that רוח can refer to both personal and impersonal forces, such as mental faculties, temperament, etc., perhaps indicates that this distinction was not very acute in the Biblical world view.

As Tony Cartledge comments:

Modern psychologists can easily spot signs of manic depression or paranoia and other indications of mental illness in Saul’s behavior. These concepts, however, were unknown to the ancients. Hertzberg correctly noted that Saul’s suffering was clearly described in theological terms, not psychological terms. The Old Testament writers were so opposed to dualism or polytheism that they had little choice but to assign both evil and temptation to God, who was the source of all things (e.g., Deut 13:2-4; Amos 3:6; 2 Sam 24:1; 1 Chr 21:1). An evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem was attributed to God (Judg 9:23), as was the lying spirit that came over the false prophets who opposed Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19-22).

This insight has much to commend itself, although the author's statement that "The Old Testament writers...had little choice but to assign both evil and temptation to God" seems to imply that they were mistaken in doing so. Perhaps it is our modern categorizations that are out of sync with reality, and that the distinctions between theological and psychological, physiological and spiritual are not as clear cut as we think.

How can an evil spirit be from God?

Whether "evil spirit" does refer to a wicked demon or not, the question remains as to how God could possibly be responsible for sending something bad, sad, or troublesome, regardless if it is a spirit, gas, or a disposition.

Even a cursory reading of scripture should make it clear that God regularly brings what man considers evil, disastrous, calamitous, in order to judge, to bring man to repentance, or even to bless.

If one is inclined to understand the 'evil spirit' in 1 Samuel 16:14 as referring to some kind of demonic being, this is by no means out of harmony with the rest of scripture. The locusts in Revelation 9, which many understand to represent demons, explicitly receive their power to torment from God.

This does not mean that God is the ultimate source of evil, but that as sovereign, he is completely capable of using evil to achieve his purposes. As the NIV Zondervan Study Bible notes:

“The Lord does not perform evil, but evil elements are under his command in order to bring about his purposes (Judg 9:23; 1 Kgs 22:19–22). The sovereignty of God is such that everything that happens in heaven and on earth are under his divine control.”


The absolute sovereignty of Almighty God is the answer.

And he said, Hear thou therefore the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee. - 1 Kings 22:19-23

In this example we can see that a spirit volunteered a course of action and the Lord "rubber stamped" the plan. Later it is summarized with "the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets". The Lord did not "put" directly but by permission and this type of language indicates the thread of God's sovereignty being foundational to the writer and the actors of this scene.

God is sovereign and eminently able to turn evil into good without being, Himself, the author of the evil. Did not the serpent scheme to ruin God's creation by tempting Adam into sin? Did not evil men scheme and crucify the Lord of Glory? Did not God use this very evil to bring about the greatest good for all of creation?

All that evil intends takes place only by the full knowledge and the permissive will of the Sovereign God. See the early parts of Job for a good example. Indeed, the very evil act of putting the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross is the act by which evil is completely undone. God's foreknowledge of evil intent is no hindrance to His Sovereign purpose for good and we must be careful not to put the Lord on trial before our intellects.

When God uses the evil of others to bring about good, He does good.

Thou art good, and doest good; teach me thy statutes. - Psalm 119:68


Hereby I present a traditional view of the Greek fathers, which I believe to be truthful (the arguments are taken from the writings of Capadocian fathers and John Chrysostom, if needful, I can give all sources):

God is totally good, with no alloy of evil whatsoever, and since it is His co-eternal and con-substantial Logos who created everything, so that nothing in the created order falls out of the Logos' creative act (John 1:1-3), then it is impossible that evil can come from God. Evil spirit denotes the demon, whose tribe Jesus expels from humans, as we read from the Gospels so often.

So, does God purposefully send demon to Saul? Of course not! For how the all-loving God, whose very nature is love, act such a naughty thing? But the Scripture sometimes metaphorically says about God such things, like in case of Pharaoh, saying that God has hardened his heart and that's why he acted foolhardily and perished (Exodus 9:12); of course, God loved Pharaoh no less than Moses, but since he did not listen to Him, God did not interfere in his freedom and let him follow his whims. Or, when Paul says that "They perish because they refused to love truth to be saved, for which reason God sends them a delusion that they will believe a lie" (2 Thes. 2:10-11), does he really mean that God is a source of delusion? Then Paul would be a slanderer on God, but it is explained how this spirit of delusion comes: they do not hearken to God, therefore outside of God is only a delusion, so He does not hinder them forcefully, but lets, or permits them to linger in their folly, of course, always changelessly desiring their return for God is changeless and unshakeable in His love and benevolence towards humans, so that humans, even greatest saints like Paul himself, and even angels, may fall, but Jesus remains steadfast always, for He as God cannot deny himself: "if we fall, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim. 2:13); and again, this divine permission or letting is to be sharply and absolutely distinguished from His will/volition which is always good and is not changed even when He forbears with human wickedness.

Thus, it is not God's will for pharaoh to perish, or for Saul to be tormented by evil spirit, or those poor people who chose not to hearken to Him, but He permits this, because He does not interfere with human freedom, for we are really, horrifyingly so, free, so much so that can defy God's will for us; and if we do, He permits it, making Himself absolutely weak to stop us, in order to absolutely respect our freedom. Thus, metaphorically, this permitting, is attributed to God's doing, but God does only good things, it is us who do evil, by His permission.

As Jesus can set free Himself immediately from all those who were about to murder Him (Matt. 26:53), but He permits them this horrendous crime, without willing them to commit it, of course, but respecting their freedom absolutely; for in the final resort, only so they could come to the utmost repentance for their misdeed, so as to hit their breasts with their fists in repentance (Luke 23:48).

  • I thought we discussed how annoying, irrelevant and inappropriate it is to pepper your posts with unscriptural dogma such as "co-eternal and con-substantial" and you agreed it was inappropriate. -1
    – Ruminator
    Oct 15, 2017 at 14:59
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    Yes, I agreed, that the con-substantiality is a separate question, which I take to be just more scriptural and more reasonable than the dogma of Arius (in fact it was first Arians who, having run out of arguments, just presented their case in a form of unquestionable creed and the opponents only responded by a creed of their own, known as the Nicaean Creed), but here I simply write a traditional view, which I deem to be truthful, but it is an option of the questioner to accept it or not. I can defend rationally all my positions in it, to be sure. But you are right, I shall indicate it, thanks! Oct 15, 2017 at 15:24
  • Please cite your sources. Mentioning is not citing. Also, this is a "Biblical" hermeneutics site, not a Catholic padrone hermeneutics site so your answer is completely inappropriate.
    – Ruminator
    Oct 15, 2017 at 23:25
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    What theological position do.you object? Be specific/concrete, please. To my deepest conviction, this is a sound theology; as Bible is inspired, so the fathers were, by the same Spirit, which has been working in Church since the Pentecost. But I can give sources, of course. Need time, for I am not now close to library. Any decision about telling me your idea as to relation between Logos/Wisdom and Jesus? - will be interested to know. Oct 16, 2017 at 5:57
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    All I have done is to have cited the texts, but texts are to be interpreted, and this is more rational or less so. Those who I have relied upon, have it more rational, and objective too. So, tradition does not overpower Logos, but Logos breathes through tradition; not always, though, fathers were right in all their opinions, this I also take into consideration, but in the above example, I agree with their interpretations completely (Leibniz, as a matter of fact, also makes the same solution independently). Tell, what do you find wrong, with concrete examples, forget about the word "tradition". Oct 16, 2017 at 12:12

God withdrew his spirit from Saul so this made it possible for a bad spirit to to gain possession of him, thus depriving Saul his peace of mind. Saul's failure to obey God indicated a bad inclination of mind and heart,against which God's spirit offered no protection. Since God permitted the "bad spirit" to replace his spirit and terrorize Saul, it could be termed a "bad spirit from God"so that Saul’s servants spoke of it as “God’s bad spirit.”

The danger of a spiritual vacuum:

In Luke 11:24- Jesus said <<“When the evil spirit comes out of a man, it wanders through waterless places looking for rest, and when it fails to find any, it says, ‘I will go back to my house from which I came.’ When it arrives, it finds it cleaned and all in order. Then it goes and collects seven other spirits more evil than itself to keep it company, and they all go in and make themselves at home. The last state of that man is worse than the first.>>” (YLT)

2 Peter2;20 Peter wrote; <<" If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning.">> NIV

  • Why the down vote, would like to see your reasons for the down vote, or a better answer based on the scriptures. Aug 28, 2017 at 12:40
  • I have answered practically similarly, yet, with more words, and not out of myself, but mostly summarizing, compiling a traditional Eastern Orthodox answer in a mediocre way, I guess. Oct 15, 2017 at 21:30
  • Levan it is a very good answer, and I appreciate your effort you have put in it. Gave you an up vote. Oct 17, 2017 at 8:31
  • Thanks O. Nicolas, I have upvoted your answer earlier, for it was even more succinct and precise than my verbosity:) Oct 17, 2017 at 9:18

The words translated "evil" is in this context refer to emotional depression:

...7 sad, unhappy: לֶברָֿע֑ sad heart (compare opposed to טוב, יטב) Proverbs 25:20; of face Genesis 40:7 (E) Nehemiah 2:2; רע לְפָנָיו Nehemiah 2:1... http://biblehub.com/interlinear/1_samuel/29-7.htm

If this were a demon it would be hard to see why David's music would assuage the savage beast. Also, it would be the only example of a demon in the OT.

Here is the detailed analysis from the Pulpit Commentary:

But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him. Verses 14, 15. - From this time forward David is the central figure of the history. Saul has been rejected, and though, as being the actual king, he must still play his part, more especially as his decline goes on side by side with David s growth in every kingly quality, yet the record of it is no longer given on Saul's account. Interesting, then, as may be the information concerning the mental malady with which Saul was visited, yet the object of this section is to acquaint us with the manner in which David was first brought into connection with him. From the description given of David in ver. 1 Samuel 16:18 it is evident that there has been a considerable interval of time between this and the previous section. David is no longer a child, but a "mighty valiant man." The connection is ethical, and lies in the contrasted moral state of the two men, as shown in the two parallel statements: "the Spirit of Jehovah came upon David;" "the Spirit of Jehovah departed from Saul." There was a gradual decline and debasement of his character; and as David grew from a child into a hero in war and a scholar in peace, so Saul, from being a hero, degenerated into a moody and resentful tyrant. An evil spirit from Jehovah troubled him. Really, as in the margin, terrified him; that is, Saul became subject to fits of intense mental agony, under which his reason gave way, and temporary insanity, accompanied by outbreaks of violence, came on. It is very difficult for us with our richer language to give the exact force of the Hebrew; for the word rendered spirit is literally wind, air, breath. A student of Hebrew can trace the word ruach through all its modifications, from its physical signification as the material wind, to its metaphysical meaning as an influence from God; and then still onward up to the beings who minister before God, and of whom the Psalmist says, "He maketh his angels to be winds" (Psalm 104:4); till finally we reach up unto the third person of the blessed Trinity: and then, as with this full knowledge of the Divine nature we read backward, we find the presence of the Holy Ghost indicated, where to the Israelite probably there was mention only of a material agency. Jost, in his 'History of the Jews since the time of the Maccabees,' vol. 1. p. 12, says that Saul suffered under that form of madness called hypochondria, and that the Jews gave this the name of bad air, the words translated here "evil spirit;" for they held, he says, that "the devil inhabited the air." So St. Paul speaks of the "wicked spiritual beings that are in high places," i.e. in the loftier regions of the atmosphere (Ephesians 6:12). A study of Saul's character makes it probable that, as is often the case with men of brilliant genius, there was always a touch of insanity in his mental constitution. His joining in the exercises of the prophets (1 Samuel 10:10-12) was an outburst of eccentric enthusiasm; and the excitement of his behaviour in the occurrences narrated in ch. 14. indicate a mind that might easily be thrown off its balance. And now he seems to have brooded over his deposition by Samuel, and instead of repenting to have regarded himself as an ill-used man, and given himself up to despondency, until he became a prey to melancholy, and his mind was overclouded. His servants rightly regarded this as a Divine punishment, but their words are remarkable. Behold, an evil spirit from God terrifieth thee. And so again, in ver. 16, the evil spirit from God, as if they were unwilling to ascribe to Jehovah, their covenant Deity, the sending of this evil "influence," while rightly they saw that evil as well as good must come from the Almighty, inasmuch as all things are in his hand, and whatever is must be by his permission. The writer of the book has no such scruples; he calls it "an evil spirit from Jehovah," because it was Jehovah, their own theocratic King, who had dethroned Saul, and withdrawn from him his blessing and protection.


I guess I should also mention that despite the context, the word "spirit" doesn't mean something that causes one to "spear it"! :)

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    This seems it could be a valid interpretation, but I think it could benefit with examples of scholars who have opted for this explanation. Lifting one possible definition of the word from BDB doesn't seem adequate enough when the other nine definitions (including the four that define it as 'bad', 'wicked', or 'evil') could be equally plausible.
    – user2910
    Aug 25, 2017 at 20:43
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    A keen and syntetical answer (+1). Without knowing this your answer I answered to a similar question (see #28927). Thanks. Oct 12, 2020 at 18:19
  • Hi @SaroFedele and thanks. Can you provide me with a direct link? I don't know how to there from that number. Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Oct 12, 2020 at 20:07
  • @user2910, please see added commentary.
    – Ruminator
    Oct 12, 2020 at 20:11
  • Sure! (I gave you a wrong number, sorry). The correct link is the following: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/28027/… Oct 12, 2020 at 21:18

1 Sam. 16 preserves a pre-exilic attitude about God in which He is not only the author of good but also of evil. If so we do not need to justify God by making it seem as if He did not do what the text says. I admit that "evil spirit" may be understood as an emotional disturbance but this does not solve the problem that God is the one sending it.

Several passages in the OT portray God as intending "evil." (Exodus 32:14, Jeremiah 18:8 etc.) Others show Him actually doing evil such as commanding the genocide of the Amalekites.

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Sam. 15:3)

Indeed, it was for failing to obey this command that Saul is portrayed as losing God's blessing and later becoming the victim of the evil spirit from the Lord.

Rather than excusing such actions attributed to God, modern critics tend to point out that early Israelite religion simply had a more nationalistic concept of God's morality than we do today. This agrees with other answers that hold that God did not actually send an evil spirit to torment Saul. However in this view we do not need to re-interpret the meaning of text as written. Rather, we can recognize that God's true nature was imperfectly perceived by the authors of the text. As the Jews progressed in their spiritual development through the ministry of the later prophets and rabbis (and for Christians through the NT and church fathers), God's nature was more perfectly expressed.

The problem of theodicy is thus one that the Bible deals with in various ways. If one holds that God is perfectly good, then it is difficult to see how He would send an evil spirit to torment Saul. But if we admit the possibility that early Israelite religion was not as philosophically consistent as post-Exilic Judaism, then we may not be so troubled by the fact that this particular author actually did think that God sent an evil spirit to trouble Saul. That is the clear sense of the text, after all.

An evil spirit does not come from God, except in the sense that God is the ultimate creator of all that exists. But the author of this part of 1 Samuel clearly believed that God sent the evil spirit to Saul.

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