Here is a multi-part question I received about my sermon on 1 Samuel 16:14-23 from Sunday:
In today’s sermon, 1 Samuel 16:15 speaks of a “harmful spirit from God.” I thought I heard Pastor Lee say that this was an angel sent by God to do harm. My questions are as follows:
1. Aren’t all harmful spirits actually angels, some in the fallen state and others not?
2. I’m not sure why the harmful spirit wouldn’t be any different than demons or fallen angels that God gives Satan permission to harm those he chooses, such as in the book of Job? Why would it be an angel assigned to do harm?
3. How did Saul’s servant recognize that this harmful spirit was from God?
4. Does the Bible teach us how to recognize harmful spirits today, and if so, would our response be any different if it were from God or a direct attack from the enemy?
This are some great questions!
First, we use the term “angel” in English differently than what the word would mean in the Old Testament. The spirits in question are all heavenly beings created by God. I said in the sermon that this spirit would be what we would call an angel in our day. However, in the Old Testament, there are different types of created heavenly beings: watchers, princes, seraphs, cherubs, messengers, etc. The “messenger” is where we get our word “angel” because it is a transliteration of the Greek word for messenger (angellos). Created heavenly beings are even called gods in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word elohim is usually used of God in the Old Testament. But it is a plural word. In the Hebrew, a plural can be used of a single person or thing to assign special honor to it (called, not surprisingly, an “honorific plural”). That’s how elohim is used with God. But elohim is also translated simply as “gods” in the Old Testament, whether referring to angels or pagan deities. We rely on our English translators to decide for us what the word means in any given situation. We should realize that there are always other translation options.
So, there are righteous heavenly beings (“good angels”), and unrighteous heavenly beings (“fallen angels”, including Satan).1 And even using the term “heavenly being” (which I usually do) is inexact, because, first, God, man, and angel were meant to all dwell together according to God’s original design (where heaven and earth are the same place), and second, the “fallen” spiritual beings are fallen because they are no longer allowed in heaven (heaven and earth are not the same place yet). These beings now dwell on earth.
Regardless, to answer the first question, all “spirits” – whether righteous for unrighteous – are what we would today call angels. And God uses righteous (obedient) angels to carry out temporal judgments and temporal salvation, and He allows fallen angels to torment men for His purposes, as well. To answer the second question, because of the way the Hebrew is written in 16:14: “a harmful spirit from YHWH,” I believe it is a righteous angel willingly doing YHWH’s bidding. It was sent by YHWH. Note that we are told in verse 14 that a harmful spirit from YHWH tormented Saul, but in verse 15 his servant calls it a harmful spirit from “God.” This is our word elohim. This can just as easily be translated as “a harmful spirit from the gods.” So when he says elohim, he can be referring to angels, pagan deities, or God. It may just be that as many would assume in the 11th century B.C., that a mental or emotional issue was caused by a spirit sent by the person’s deity or deities. Or, he may be saying it is a “harmful spirit of (from among) the gods.” The preposition “from” is in verse 14 (“from YHWH”) but is not in verse 15. Hebrew also has a word that serves no purpose other than to identify the direct object of a preposition. This direct object marker is in verse 14 (connecting “from” with “YHWH”), but not verse 15. Verse 14 makes explicit that the spirit is from YHWH. But what the servant is saying is ambiguous. Even if the ESV gets it right: “a harmful spirit from God,” that doesn’t mean the servant knew what we are told in verse 14.
Now the practical question: how can we identify “harmful spirits” today and how to we deal with them? In the New Testament – including Jesus’s own teaching – righteous angels are held up as protectors of the elect and as agents of God’s salvation for us. This has, of course, always been the case. God does not use righteous angels to do anything harmful to His spiritual people. However, the powers of darkness remain a very real threat for us. They will tempt us to sin, and they may even cause us physical or emotional harm. But they cannot do us spiritual harm. The Holy Spirit resides in us and has all the power. But if there is a supernatural harm (physical, emotional, etc.) being done to a believer, it is not one of God’s righteous angels, but a fallen angel. And it is done with God’s permission. And our response should be prayer and reliance on God.
We do not get instructions for exorcisms in the Bible, or details on how to overpower the powers of darkness in a one-on-one battle. But we have been given authority over them. And we know that even righteous angels rely on the power of God to battle the powers of darkness (Jude 9). When Paul tells us how to fight our spiritual war (Eph 6:10-18), don’t miss that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God along with prayer (” the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication”). What we do to battle the powers of darkness personally are more preventive than offensive (the faith, truth, etc. that is our armor). Our offensive is done as the church in the expansion of the kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel. When we gain ground (even one soul!), the powers of darkness have permanently lost that ground.
The overcoming of the powers of darkness is a primary function of the church. It is, along with God’s salvation from sin and death, the overarching theme of the Bible. Many people miss this, especially in an age where the supernatural is discounted, even sadly by many Christians. We need to take this responsibility – and the war we are in – very seriously.
1 There is also a distinction in some Ancient Near East writings between demons and unrighteous spiritual beings, or what we call fallen angels.