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Today's Study

1 Samuel 19:19-24: How Did Saul Prophesy?

Seeking a naturalistic explanation for the phenomenon of prophecy in the Old Testament, some have theorized that such powers derived from ecstatic experiences in which the prophet wandered outside his own consciousness during a period of artistic creation. One of the passages used to sustain such a thesis is 1 Samuel 19:19-24.

Quite apart from the issue of ecstasy in prophecy are two other matters. Could a king also be a prophet? And did the king really strip off all his clothes as a result of this powerful experience of prophesying?

The story told here is clear enough. In a jealous rage over David's popularity and success, Saul was bent on capturing David. No doubt rumors were now spreading that Samuel had anointed David as king in place of the then-reigning Saul.

Saul sent three different groups of messengers to apprehend David, who had fled from Saul to join Samuel at his prophetic school at Ramah. All three groups encountered Samuel's band of prophets prophesying. And each of the groups of messengers began to prophesy as well.

At last Saul had had enough and decided to go in search of David himself. While he was still on the way, however, the "Spirit of God" came on him; so he too prophesied. Later, after coming to where the others were, he removed some of his clothing and lay in an apparent stupor the rest of that day and the following night.

Each of the three problems raised by this text deserves some response based on the meaning of certain words used in this context and other similar contexts.

It has been claimed that the Greeks thought artistic genius was always accompanied by a degree of madness; thus, those who prophesied must have similarly experienced "ecstasy"--a word literally meaning "to stand apart from or outside oneself." Furthermore, it was argued that the behavior of the Canaanite prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel was just like that of earlier Israelite prophets.

But the verb to prophesy, as used in this context, does not mean "to act violently" or "to be mad." The Old Testament makes a clear distinction between the prophets of Canaan and those under the inspiration of God.

Only three Old Testament passages have been used as evidence that prophesying entailed a temporary madness and standing apart from oneself. These three passages, however, record the estimates of others rather than God's estimates of prophets and the source of their inspiration. In 2 Kings 9:11, a young prophet sent by Elisha to anoint Jehu as king is called a "madman" (msuga`) by the soldiers who are sitting in Jehu's barracks. Their label is hardly a statement from God or a source of normative teaching. The Bible simply records that that is what these men thought of prophets--an attitude not altogether dissimilar from that held today by some about the clergy. A second text, Jeremiah 29:26, quotes a certain Shemaiah, then captive in Babylon, from a letter where he too opines: "Every man that is mad [msuga`] makes himself a prophet" (my translation). In the final text, Hosea 9:7, Hosea characterizes a point in Israel's thinking by saying, "The prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac [msuga`]."

None of these three texts demonstrates that the verb to prophesy legitimately carries the connotation of madness. Instead, they simply show that many associated prophecy with madness in an attempt to stigmatize the work of real prophets. It was the ancient equivalent of the Elmer Gantry image of Christian ministers today!

As for Saul's being "naked" all day and night, the term used might just as well refer to his being partially disrobed. It seems to be used with the latter meaning in Job 22:6, 24:7, Isaiah 58:7 and probably Isaiah 20:2-3, where Isaiah is said to have walked "stripped and barefoot for three years." Saul probably stripped off his outer garment, leaving only the long tunic beneath. The figure of speech involved here is synecdoche, in which the whole stands for a part. Thus, naked or stripped is used to mean "scantily clad" or "poorly clothed."

In an attempt to shore up the failing theory of ecstasy, some have pointed to 1 Samuel 19:24 as evidence that Saul was "beside himself"--again, the etymology of our word ecstasy. However, this will not work since the verb in verse 24 simply means "to put off" a garment (by opening it and unfolding it; the verb's other meaning is "to expand, to spread out, to extend"). There is no evidence that it means "to stand beside oneself" or anything like that.

What about the apparent stupor? Did Saul momentarily lose his sanity? While the three groups of messengers experienced a strong influence of the Spirit of God, it was Saul, we may rightfully conclude, who fell under the strongest work of the Spirit.

The Spirit fell more powerfully on Saul than on the messengers because Saul had more stubbornly resisted the will of God. In this manner, God graciously warned Saul that he was kicking against the very will of God, not just against a shepherd-boy rival. The overmastering influence that came on Saul was to convince him that his struggle was with God and not with David. His action in sending the three groups to capture David had been in defiance of God himself, so he had to be graphically warned. As a result, the king also, but unexpectedly, prophesied. So surprised were all around them that a proverb subsequently arose to characterize events that ran against ordinary expectations: "Is Saul also among the prophets?" (1 Sam 19:24). Kings normally did not expect to receive the gift of prophecy. But here God did the extraordinary in order to move a recalcitrant king's heart to see the error of his ways.

The noun prophecy and verb to prophesy appear more than three hundred times in the Old Testament. Often outbursts of exuberant praise or of deep grief were connected with prophesying. But there seems to be no evidence for ecstasy as wild, uncontrollable enthusiasm that forced the individual to go temporarily mad or insane. And if we dilute the meaning of ecstasy so as to take away the negative implications--like those attached to the Greek's theory that artists only drew, composed or wrote when temporarily overcome with madness--the term becomes so bland that it loses its significance. In that case we all might qualify to join the band of the prophets. Certainly nothing in this text suggests the dancing, raving and loss of consciousness sometimes seen in contemporary extrabiblical phenomena.

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