First Samuel 16:14-23 speaks repeatedly of an “evil spirit” from God that tormented Saul. Does this phrase mean that God sent a demon to afflict Saul?
To answer this question, we need to look closely at certain aspects of the Hebrew words used to speak of that “evil spirit.” In 1 Samuel 16, ruah rangah is used repeatedly to speak of what was on Saul that troubled him.
1 Sam. 16:14 But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him.
1 Sam. 16:14 וְר֧וּחַ יְהוָ֛ה סָ֖רָה מֵעִ֣ם שָׁא֑וּל וּבִֽעֲתַ֥תּוּ רֽוּחַ־רָעָ֖ה מֵאֵ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃
1 Sam. 16:15 And Saul’s servants said unto him, Behold now, an evil spirit from God troubleth thee.
1 Sam. 16:15 וַיֹּאמְר֥וּ עַבְדֵֽי־שָׁא֖וּל אֵלָ֑יו הִנֵּה־נָ֧א רֽוּחַ־אֱלֹהִ֛ים רָעָ֖ה מְבַעִתֶּֽךָ׃
1 Sam. 16:16 Let our lord now command thy servants, which are before thee, to seek out a man, who is a cunning player on an harp: and it shall come to pass, when the evil spirit from God is upon thee, that he shall play with his hand, and thou shalt be well.
1 Sam. 16:16 יֹאמַר־נָ֤א אֲדֹנֵ֙נוּ֙ עֲבָדֶ֣יךָ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ יְבַקְשׁ֕וּ אִ֕ישׁ יֹדֵ֖עַ מְנַגֵּ֣ן בַּכִּנּ֑וֹר וְהָיָ֗ה בִּֽהְי֙וֹת עָלֶ֤יךָ רֽוּחַ־אֱלֹהִים֙ רָעָ֔ה וְנִגֵּ֥ן בְּיָד֖וֹ וְט֥וֹב לָֽךְ׃ פ
1 Sam. 16:23 And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.
1 Sam. 16:23 וְהָיָ֗ה בִּֽהְי֤וֹת רֽוּחַ־אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־שָׁא֔וּל וְלָקַ֥ח דָּוִ֛ד אֶת־הַכִּנּ֖וֹר וְנִגֵּ֣ן בְּיָד֑וֹ וְרָוַ֤ח לְשָׁאוּל֙ וְט֣וֹב ל֔וֹ וְסָ֥רָה מֵעָלָ֖יו ר֥וּחַ הָרָעָֽה׃
Many interpreters believe that ruah rangah in this passage should be understood to denote a demon that God sent to afflict Saul. Some, however, deny that interpretation and argue that it means that some kind of impersonal influence from God came on Saul to trouble him.
To determine which understanding is correct, we need to examine a later passage where the Spirit speaks of the coming of that same “evil spirit” on Saul.
Ruah Rangah in 1 Samuel 18
In 1 Samuel 18, the Spirit uses the verb tsalah to speak of the coming of that same “evil spirit” (Heb. ruah rangah) on Saul on a later occasion:
1 Sam. 18:10 And it came to pass on the morrow, that the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied in the midst of the house: and David played with his hand, as at other times: and there was a javelin in Saul’s hand.
1 Sam. 18:10 וַיְהִ֣י מִֽמָּחֳרָ֗ת וַתִּצְלַ֣ח רוּחַ֩ אֱלֹהִ֙ים׀ רָעָ֤ה׀ אֶל־שָׁאוּל֙ וַיִּתְנַבֵּ֣א בְתוֹךְ־הַבַּ֔יִת וְדָוִ֛ד מְנַגֵּ֥ן בְּיָד֖וֹ כְּי֣וֹם׀ בְּי֑וֹם וְהַחֲנִ֖ית בְּיַד־שָׁאֽוּל׃
According to HOL, this verb means “to be strong, effective, powerful” when it is used with ruah earlier in the book in 1 Samuel 10:6.1 In 1 Samuel 18:10, therefore, the use of this verb with ruah as its subject conveys that the “evil spirit,” whatever that phrase signifies, came powerfully on Saul.
The following examination of all the other occurrences of tsalah in the Hebrew OT in which it has the same meaning shows us how we must understand what ruah rangah denotes in 1 Samuel 18 (and also in 1 Samuel 16 because the activity of the same spirit is in view in both passages).
Tsalah in Judges
In Judges, tsalah with that meaning occurs three times. Each time, ruah is used as the subject and signifies that the Spirit came powerfully on Samson.
Jdg. 14:6 And the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand: but he told not his father or his mother what he had done.
Jdg. 14:6 וַתִּצְלַ֙ח עָלָ֜יו ר֣וּחַ יְהוָ֗ה וַֽיְשַׁסְּעֵ֙הוּ֙ כְּשַׁסַּ֣ע הַגְּדִ֔י וּמְא֖וּמָה אֵ֣ין בְּיָד֑וֹ וְלֹ֤א הִגִּיד֙ לְאָבִ֣יו וּלְאִמּ֔וֹ אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃
Jdg. 14:19 And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he went down to Ashkelon, and slew thirty men of them, and took their spoil, and gave change of garments unto them which expounded the riddle. And his anger was kindled, and he went up to his father’s house.
Jdg. 14:19 וַתִּצְלַ֙ח עָלָ֜יו ר֣וּחַ יְהוָ֗ה וַיֵּ֙רֶד אַשְׁקְל֜וֹן וַיַּ֥ךְ מֵהֶ֣ם׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים אִ֗ישׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ אֶת־חֲלִ֣יצוֹתָ֔ם וַיִּתֵּן֙ הַחֲלִיפ֔וֹת לְמַגִּידֵ֖י הַחִידָ֑ה וַיִּ֣חַר אַפּ֔וֹ וַיַּ֖עַל בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיהוּ׃ פ
Jdg. 15:14 And when he came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands.
Jdg. 15:14 הוּא־בָ֣א עַד־לֶ֔חִי וּפְלִשְׁתִּ֖ים הֵרִ֣יעוּ לִקְרָאת֑וֹ וַתִּצְלַ֙ח עָלָ֜יו ר֣וּחַ יְהוָ֗ה וַתִּהְיֶ֙ינָה הָעֲבֹתִ֜ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר עַל־זְרוֹעוֹתָ֗יו כַּפִּשְׁתִּים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּעֲר֣וּ בָאֵ֔שׁ וַיִּמַּ֥סּוּ אֱסוּרָ֖יו מֵעַ֥ל יָדָֽיו׃
Tsalah in First Samuel
Aside from its occurrence in 1 Samuel 18:10, which we will examine later, tsalah occurs with that meaning four other times in First Samuel. Each time, ruah as its subject signifies that the Spirit came powerfully on someone, either Saul or David.
1 Sam. 10:6 And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man.
1 Sam. 10:6 וְצָלְחָ֤ה עָלֶ֙יךָ֙ ר֣וּחַ יְהוָ֔ה וְהִתְנַבִּ֖יתָ עִמָּ֑ם וְנֶהְפַּכְתָּ֖ לְאִ֥ישׁ אַחֵֽר׃
1 Sam. 10:10 And when they came thither to the hill, behold, a company of prophets met him; and the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.
1 Sam. 10:10 וַיָּבֹ֤אוּ שָׁם֙ הַגִּבְעָ֔תָה וְהִנֵּ֥ה חֶֽבֶל־נְבִאִ֖ים לִקְרָאת֑וֹ וַתִּצְלַ֤ח עָלָיו֙ ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים וַיִּתְנַבֵּ֖א בְּתוֹכָֽם׃
1 Sam. 11:6 And the Spirit of God came upon Saul when he heard those tidings, and his anger was kindled greatly.
1 Sam. 11:6 וַתִּצְלַ֤ח רֽוּחַ־אֱלֹהִים֙ עַל־שָׁא֔וּל (בְּשָׁמְעוֹ) [כְּשָׁמְע֖וֹ] אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה וַיִּ֥חַר אַפּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃
1 Sam. 16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.
1 Sam. 16:13 וַיִּקַּ֙ח שְׁמוּאֵ֜ל אֶת־קֶ֣רֶן הַשֶּׁ֗מֶן וַיִּמְשַׁ֣ח אֹתוֹ֘ בְּקֶ֣רֶב אֶחָיו֒ וַתִּצְלַ֤ח רֽוּחַ־יְהוָה֙ אֶל־דָּוִ֔ד מֵהַיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא וָמָ֑עְלָה וַיָּ֣קָם שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ הָרָמָֽתָה׃ ס
Tsalah in Second Samuel
In its lone occurrence with that meaning in Second Samuel, tsalah does not have ruah as its subject. Instead, it has a large group of men as its subject and signifies that they rushed to the Jordan:
2 Sam. 19:17 And there were a thousand men of Benjamin with him, and Ziba the servant of the house of Saul, and his fifteen sons and his twenty servants with him; and they went over Jordan before the king.
2 Sam. 19:18 וְאֶ֙לֶף אִ֣ישׁ עִמּוֹ֘ מִבִּנְיָמִן֒ וְצִיבָ֗א נַ֚עַר בֵּ֣ית שָׁא֔וּל וַחֲמֵ֙שֶׁת עָשָׂ֥ר בָּנָ֛יו וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים עֲבָדָ֖יו אִתּ֑וֹ וְצָלְח֥וּ הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן לִפְנֵ֥י הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃
Tsalah in Amos
In Amos, tsalah with that meaning occurs once. Although it does not have ruah as its subject, it has the Lord as its subject and signifies His breaking out powerfully to consume sinful people.
Amos 5:6 Seek the LORD, and ye shall live; lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, and there be none to quench it in Bethel.
Amos 5:6 דִּרְשׁ֥וּ אֶת־יְהוָ֖ה וִֽחְי֑וּ פֶּן־יִצְלַ֤ח כָּאֵשׁ֙ בֵּ֣ית יוֹסֵ֔ף וְאָכְלָ֥ה וְאֵין־מְכַבֶּ֖ה לְבֵֽית־אֵֽל׃
The Spirit uses tsalah seven times in Scripture to speak of His own coming on people (Judg. 14:6, 19; 15:14; 1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 11:6; 16:13). Each time, ruah is the subject of tsalah.
Aside from its occurrence that is in question in 1 Samuel 18:10, tsalah with the same meaning occurs two other times in Scripture (2 Sam. 19:18; Amos 5:6). In both passages, although ruah is not its subject, it does have a personal noun as its subject (a large group of men in 2 Sam. 19:18; the Lord in Amos 5:6).
This evidence shows that aside from the nature of its subject in 1 Samuel 18:10 that we have not yet determined, tsalah with that meaning in Scripture always has a personal noun as its subject.
First Samuel 18:10 is the only other occurrence in Scripture of tsalah with that meaning, and it has ruah as its subject there. In every other passage that the Spirit has used this noun and verb combination, ruah denotes the coming of the Spirit Himself, who is a personal being, on human beings.
We can be confident, therefore, that ruah in 1 Samuel 18:10 denotes a personal entity that was a spirit that came on Saul and not some impersonal influence from God that came on Saul.2 The phrase ruah rangah certainly signifies here that it was an evil spirit, that is, a demon that came on Saul.
A thorough examination of the Spirit’s use of tsalah in Scripture shows that ruah rangah denotes a demon from God that came powerfully on Saul in the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 18:10. Because that activity on Saul was the activity of the same “evil spirit” from God that the Spirit speaks repeatedly of in 1 Samuel 16, we can be certain that God did send a demon to afflict Saul on both occasions.
1 Holladay, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the OT (HOL) Hol7192 צלח: qal: pf. צָֽלְחָה, צָלֵֽחָה; impf. יִצְלַח, יִצְלָֽח, וַתִּצְלְחִי: — 1. be strong, effective, powerful, of rûµ 1S 106; — 2. be of use Is 5417; — 3. succeed Nu 1441, be successful Je 121.
hif.: pf. הִצְלִיחַ, הִצְלִיחָה, חִצְלַחְתָּ, הִצְלִיחוֹ; impf. יַצְלִיחַ, וַיַּצְלַח, תַּצְלִיחִי; impv. הַצְלַח, הַצְלִיחָה; pt. מַצְלִיחַ: — 1. be successful, succeed, enjoy success 1K 2212; °îš maƒlîµ successful man Gn 392; w. acc. in s.thg Dt 2829; — 2. w. acc. make s.thg succeed, bring s.thg to successful conclusion Gn 2421; — 3. make s.one prosper 2C 265. (pg 306)
2 As discussed earlier in this section, this interpretation is confirmed by the Spirit’s also using only a personal noun as the subject of tsalah in the only other occurrences of it with the same meaning in Scripture (2 Sam. 19:18; Amos 5:6).