The Meaning And Morality Of God Sending “Evil Spirits”

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It is written:

1 Samuel 16:14-16-But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the LORD troubled him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “Surely, a distressing spirit from God is troubling you. 1Sa 16:16  Let our master now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp. And it shall be that he will play it with his hand when the distressing spirit from God is upon you, and you shall be well.”

1 Samuel 16:23-And so it was, whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him.

1 Samuel 18:10-11-And it happened on the next day that the distressing spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied inside the house. So David played music with his hand, as at other times; but there was a spear in Saul’s hand. 11  And Saul cast the spear, for he said, “I will pin David to the wall!” But David escaped his presence twice.

1 Samuel 19:9-10-Now the distressing spirit from the LORD came upon Saul as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing music with his hand. 10  Then Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he slipped away from Saul’s presence; and he drove the spear into the wall. So David fled and escaped that night.

All of these passages talk about a “distressing” spirit which came from the Lord upon Saul (the word “distressing” is translated as “evil” in several translations of the Bible).

What is going on here?

First, the word translated here as “distressing” or “evil”is the Hebrew word “ra.” This particular Hebrew word had reference to an entire spectrum of things and did not necessarily suggest a spirit which was morally evil.

“However, the Hebrew word for evil ( rā ) used here does not always mean moral evil. Indeed, the context indicates that it should be translated, as the NKJV and other modern translations do, as “calamity.” Thus, God is properly said to be the author of “evil” in this sense, but not in the moral sense—at least not directly. Further, there is an indirect sense in which God is the author of moral evil. God created moral beings with free choice, and free choice is the origin of moral evil in the universe. So, ultimately God is responsible for making moral creatures who are responsible for moral evil. God made evil possible by creating free creatures, but the free creatures made evil actual. Of course, the possibility of evil (i.e., free choice) is itself a good thing. So, God created only good things, one of which was the power of free choice, and moral creatures produced the evil. However, God is the author of a moral universe and in this indirect and ultimate sense is the author of the possibility of evil. Of course, God only permitted evil, but does not promote it, and He will ultimately produce a greater good through it (cf. Gen. 50:20 ; Rev. 21–22 ).” (Norman Geisler & Thomas Rowe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties, 4059-4064 (Kindle Edition): Wheaton, Illinois; Victor Books)

So, the “distressing” spirit from the Lord may not have been morally evil, nor was it sent with the intention of causing moral evil in the life and mind of Saul. Instead, it simply caused “distress” to Saul.

Heiser points out:

“The above misconception arises from passages that speak of “an evil spirit” being sent by God to trouble people (e.g., Saul, 1 Sam 16:14–16; 18:10–11). The confusion is created by the choice of the word “evil” to translate Hebrew rāʿāh (lemma: rāʿ ) in some English translations. The term often has nothing to do with moral evil. It commonly describes something undesirable or contemptible (Gen 41:20, 27; Jer 24:2, 3, 8; 49:23; Ps 112:7; Deut 22:14, 19; Neh 6:13), or some harmful, injurious, or disastrous condition or situation (Gen 19:19; Deut 7:15; 28:35, 59). The “evil spirit” sent by God to trouble Saul therefore may be a mental affliction or psychological disposition. The same ambiguity applies to other passages using the same phrasing in other contexts (Judg 9:22–23; Isa 19:13–14; 37:5–7). Even if spirit beings are in view, it is incoherent to conclude that when God sends these spirits to judge wickedness that they themselves are evil. Such a conclusion would, for example, make absurd certain instances where members of the heavenly host are fighting against unbelievers or wicked enemies of God’s people (Judg 5:20; 2 Kings 6:5–19; Ps 78:43–51 [cp. Exod 12:12; Num 33:4]; Matt 13:36–43; Acts 12:21–23). This would be the proverbial “house divided against itself” (Matt 12:25).” (Michael S. Heiser, Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness, 10734-10747 (Kindle Edition, footnote 32); Bellingham, WA; Lexham Press)

There is a similar account in another passage of Scripture.

1 Kings 22:19-23-Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. 20  And the LORD said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. 21  Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ 22  The LORD said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the LORD said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ 23  Therefore look! The LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the LORD has declared disaster against you.”

Here, we see an example of God sending a spirit that would lie.

The words of Geisler and Howe are powerful here:

“Several factors should be considered in understanding this situation. First, this is a vision. As such, it is a dramatic picture of God’s sovereign authority spelled out in regal imagery. Second, this dramatic vision represents God in all His sweeping authority so that even evil spirits are represented as being subjected to His ultimate control. Third, the God of the Bible, in contrast to gods of pagan religions, is in sovereign control of everything, including the forces of evil which He uses to accomplish His good purposes (cf. Job 1-3). Fourth, the Bible sometimes times speaks of God “hardening” people’s hearts (see comments on Rom. 9:17) or even sending them strong delusions (2 Thes. 2:11). However, on closer examination of the text, we discover that God did this only on those who freely harden their own hearts (Ex. 8:15) and who “did not believe the truth” (2 Thes. 2:12). In short, God is not commending lying here. He is simply utilizing it to accomplish His purposes. poses. God is not promoting lying, but permitting it to bring judgment on evil. That is, God, for His own purposes of justice, allowed Ahab to be deceived by evil spirits whom He knew in His omniscience would be used to accomplish His sovereign and good will.” (Norman L. Geisler & Thomas Howe, The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation, 2363-2372 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

These passages show us that God can allow a person (or a spirit) devoted to evil to be used to bring about good.

Second, notice that in both of these passages, God allows the spirits to be used to help people see the need for repentance to the Lord.

For example, Saul is clearly shown that the distressing spirit leaves when David plays music and worships the Lord.

As for the account of Micaiah in 1 Kings 22, consider these words:

“At first glance it appears as if the LORD sanctioned and took part in lying and deception. What is the explanation? It is clearly given in the context. Micaiah, speaking by the Holy Spirit, is seeking to dissuade Ahab and Jehoshaphat from going up to Ramoth-gilead. All the false prophets have told the two kings that they should go up to victory. Micaiah, the messenger of the Lord, tells them on the contrary that they shall go up to defeat and to the certain death of Ahab. He tells them that the spirit that had spoken by the false prophets was a lying spirit. He puts this in a highly pictorial way. Though the picture is exceedingly vivid, it does not teach error, but truth, and teaches it in a most forcible way, namely, that it was a lying spirit that was in the mouth of the false prophets. But that Jehovah was not really a party to the deception appears clearly in the narrative, if we take it as a whole. Far from being a party to the deception, He sends His own prophet to warn them that the spirit that spoke by the false prophets was a lying spirit, and to tell them the exact facts in the case as to what the issue of the battle would be. If they would choose to listen to God and His prophet they would be saved from calamity, but if they would not listen to God and His prophet then God would give them over to the working of error, that they should believe a lie; but He would not do this without abundant warning. This is God’s universal method, not only as taught in the Bible but as taught in experience. He allows every man to choose either to listen to Him and know the truth, or to turn a deaf ear to Him and be given over to strong delusion. If men will not receive the love of the truth that they may be saved, then God gives them over to strong delusion to believe a lie. If men want lies, God gives them their fill of them (2 Thessalonians 2: 10–12, RV).” (Reuben A Torrey & Edward D. Andrews, DIFFICULTIES IN THE BIBLE Alleged Errors and Contradictions, 81-82 (Kindle Edition); Cambridge, OH; Bible-Translation.Net Books)

Finally, consider that the “distressing spirit” from the Lord may have simply been a spirit of depression and not an actual demonic spirit.

“What is meant by “an evil spirit”? The context clearly shows. It was a spirit of discontent, unrest, depression. The circumstances were these: Saul had proved untrue to God. He had deliberately disobeyed God (1 Samuel 15: 4–35, especially vv. 22–23), and consequently God had withdrawn His Spirit from him, and a spirit of discontent and unrest had come upon him. This was not an unkind act on God’s part. There was nothing kinder that God could have done. It is one of the most merciful provisions of our heavenly Father that when we disobey Him and wander from Him He makes us unhappy, discontented in our sin. If God should leave us to continue to be happy in sin, it would be the unkindest thing He could do. God in His great mercy will win every sinner possible back to Himself; and if we sin, God for our highest good sends us deep depression and unrest in our sin. If we make the right use of this spirit of unrest and depression that God sends us, it brings us back to God and to the joy of the Holy Ghost. Saul made the wrong use of it. Instead of allowing his unrest of heart to bring him to repentance and back to God, he allowed it to embitter his soul against one whom God favored. The sending of the evil spirit was an act of mercy on God’s part. The misuse of this act of mercy resulted in Saul’s utter undoing. There is many a man today who once knew something about the Spirit of the Lord and the joy of the Holy Ghost, who has fallen into sin, and God in His great love and mercy is sending him at the present time an evil spirit, a spirit of unrest, dissatisfaction, deep discontent, or even of abject misery. Let him thank God for it! Let him inquire humbly on his face before God where he has sinned against God and lost the joy of his salvation! Let him put away and confess his sin and come back to God and have the joy of God’s salvation renewed to him. An evil spirit of unrest and discontent was sent to David, too, when he sinned; but when after some resistance David confessed his sin to the Lord, the Lord blotted it out and brought him into a place of glad joy in the Lord, where he could instruct and teach others in the way they should go (Psalm 32: 4–8; 51: 9–13).” (Reuben A Torrey & Edward D. Andrews, DIFFICULTIES IN THE BIBLE Alleged Errors and Contradictions, 82-83 (Kindle Edition); Cambridge, OH; Bible-Translation.Net Books)

In the final analysis, the cure is the same whether it was an actual demonic spirit or a spirit of depression: repent (where necessary) and draw closer to God!

The Lord loves you and calls you to salvation. He died for your sins, was buried, and arose again the third day to save you (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

The Bible tells unsaved believers:

Acts 2:38-Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible tells baptized believers who have sin in their life:

1 John 1:9-If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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