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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 '15 at 22:30
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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.”

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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).

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  • 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 '17 at 14:59
  • 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! – Levan Gigineishvili Oct 15 '17 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 '17 at 23:25
  • 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. – Levan Gigineishvili Oct 16 '17 at 5:57
  • I object to arguing from a theological position (eisegesis) rather than from the text (exegesis). I won't argue with you about this anymore. If you insist on arguing from dogma I'll simply down-vote. I think you would be happier over at Christianity.se answer questions like "According to Catholics...". Here it is supposed to be, "According to the text..." which you apparently have no heart for. You even refuse to cite your sources. Yeesh. – Ruminator Oct 16 '17 at 11:08
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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

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  • Why the down vote, would like to see your reasons for the down vote, or a better answer based on the scriptures. – Ozzie Ozzie Aug 28 '17 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. – Levan Gigineishvili Oct 15 '17 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. – Ozzie Ozzie Oct 17 '17 at 8:31
  • Thanks O. Nicolas, I have upvoted your answer earlier, for it was even more succinct and precise than my verbosity:) – Levan Gigineishvili Oct 17 '17 at 9:18
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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.

Excursis:

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 '17 at 20:43

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