[UPDATE: When I originally wrote this article, it was my intent to question the idea that evil spirits can be in the direct service of God. I still hold to the opinion that while evil spirits are subject to God’s authority, and at times are permitted by him to do harm, that they are never agents of God, acting under his direction. Evil spirits are enemies of God. Evil spirits do not have fellowship with God. They are not on his “team”. They do not work for him. I felt some of the comments that were generated reflect a misunderstanding of that point. But I have kept those comments because I think questioning things and challenging our understanding helps us to grow in the knowledge of God.
Some things to keep in mind when we study Scripture is to note who the speakers are, who their audience is, what their purpose is and what circumstances are influencing them. 1 Chronicles 18:22 reads, “Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of these your prophets. The LORD has declared disaster concerning you.” Without any context, one might conclude that God does in fact direct evil spirits to do his will.
However, consider the setting. The prophet Micaiah was speaking to Ahab, king of Israel, who hated Micaiah because “he never prophesies good concerning me, but always evil” (verse 7). Ahab had already been told by his own 400 prophets that God would give him victory in battle against Ramoth-gilead. But at the request of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, Ahab sent a messenger to bring him Micaiah.
The messenger coached Micaiah, telling him to “speak favorably” to Ahab (verse 12). Micaiah told the messenger, “As the LORD lives, what my God says, that I will speak.” But verse 14 gives us the sense that he was not altogether willing to speak for the LORD. In resignation and perhaps tongue-in-cheek, he said “Go up and triumph, they will be given into your hand.” Apparently, it was obvious to Ahab that he wasn’t being genuine because in verse 15 he said, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?”
So then in verse 16, Micaiah told the king the real vision God had given him: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains as sheep that have no shepherd. And the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.'” Predictably, Ahab was not pleased with Micaiah’s prophecy, for he remarked to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” (verse 17) So, then Micaiah let fly with “Therefore hear the word of the LORD” and proceeded to unload more “prophecy”.
This exchange between prophet and king was anything but simple and direct. Micaiah’s pronouncement recorded in verses 18 to 22 has been described as “biting sarcasm” by J. Vernon McGee. In his commentary, he says it is totally ridiculous to think that God would have to consult with his minions as to who would take what actions and how.
Ahab was an evil king. 1 Kings 16:30 tells us, “And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him.” Ahab was in rebellion against God. He did not seek the LORD’S leading when he made decisions. He did not want to hear from the LORD. His 400 “prophets” were all for show. They were all “yes men”. Inquiring of the LORD as to whether or not they should go to battle wasn’t his idea, it was Jehoshaphat’s (verse 4). So there wasn’t any need for a “lying spirit” to deceive Ahab’s prophets. They were already liars, hired by Ahab to tell him what he wanted to hear.
In order to appreciate Micaiah’s embellished, sarcastic “prophecy” from verses 18 to 22, it helps to consider that Ahab was not open to hearing the truth. Nothing Micaiah could say would change a thing Ahab would do, including going to his own death in battle. This Scripture passage does not provide a theological basis for concluding that lying spirits are minions of God.]
In 1 Samuel 19:9 we read, “an evil spirit from the LORD came upon Saul”. The idea that evil spirits are at God’s command, to do his bidding is problematical. Because this verse isn’t the only example of evil spirits coming “from” or being “sent” by God, the idea merits examination. Its implications seem to contradict some very basic assumptions about God’s nature.
During the period of time when Samuel, Saul and David lived, there was widespread abuse of God’s covenant with Israel. Many of God’s commandments were ignored. Household idols were commonplace, even though they were forbidden. Sacrifices were made in various “high places” deemed “holy” despite the admonition in Deuteronomy 12:13 to only offer burnt offerings in the place the LORD chooses, which was the tabernacle. Priests were often privately paid itinerants with no connection to duties of the tabernacle. Many of the religious practices of the surrounding nations were incorporated into local traditions, contrary to God’s commands. Because of this, I am of the opinion that the people in general held many misconceptions about God, including the idea that he would send evil spirits to do his bidding. Therefore, records from that time likely reflected those misconceptions.
Even today some believers are content to accept the proposition that God possesses both good and evil qualities — something along the line of yin and yang. However, that opinion is not supported by the weight of Scripture. Once, a fellow Christian tried to convince me that God is malevolent. Perhaps his assertion was due to not really understanding the definition of the word. Nevertheless, upon reading “an evil spirit from the LORD”, some readily jump to the conclusion that the evil spirit is directly obeying God’s command. I do not agree.
Scripture teaches that sin separates us from God; that only by means of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross are we able to be in the presence of holy God. Similarly, that evil spirits are fallen angels cast out of heaven, out of God’s presence to the earth, where they are minions of Satan, God’s adversary. The separation between holiness and sinfulness (or evil) is likened to that of light and darkness. Colossians 1:12 & 13 speaks of the “kingdom of light” and the “dominion of darkness”. John 1:5 says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
Considering this separation, it strains the imagination to think of God issuing instructions to an evil spirit to do his bidding. It would be analogous to General Eisenhower during WWII giving orders to a Nazi soldier. Though God can do anything he wants, is it in his character to do such a thing? Further, if an evil spirit is obeying commands from God (something believers are supposed to do), then are we not fellows with him? 1 John 3:24 says, “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them.” But 2 Corinthians 6:14 reminds us, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” We can only conclude that if an evil spirit does accomplish God’s will it isn’t the result of obedience to God or following his orders.
So why would Scripture suggest such a contradiction? An interesting clue is found in comparing two different versions of the same incident. 2 Samuel 24:1 reads, “Again, the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah”. 1 Chronicles 21:1 puts it another way: “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” One says David was incited by God. The other says David was incited by Satan. Some might conclude that this is an example of the Bible contradicting itself, and showing its unreliability. However, the fact that both perspectives have been preserved in Scripture tells me each has something of value which can help us understand.
A major theme of the Bible is God’s judgement. Not only did the LORD use Israel as an instrument of judgement against the nations that occupied the promised land, but he also used gentile nations as instruments of judgement against Israel. In 2 Samuel 24:1, David is being used as God’s instrument of judgement against his own nation. In order for Satan to have had any influence on David’s heart or mind, David had to have been rebelling against God already. By allowing sin to enter into his own life, David opened himself both to God’s judgement and Satan’s influence, thereby allowing himself to be “incited” by Satan.
Satan’s ability to either injure us or incite us to act is not only limited by our own human ability to turn from sin but by what God decides to permit. Satan, and his minions (evil spirits) are always subject to God’s sovereignty and can only act within the limits of his permission. Illustrations of this are found in Job 1:12 and 2:6. Rather than God actually directing Satan to take actions against Job, his removal of the protective “hedge” around Job gave Satan the access he needed to cause Job harm. Thus, the LORD can be said to have indirectly incited David in 2 Samuel 24:1, while in 1 Chronicles 21:1 the inciting on Satan’s part was direct. When the LORD removes his protection (or his Spirit), the “vacuum” that is created draws Satan or his evil spirits into a position of being able to influence or harm us.
Before I was a Christian, I was seeking the truth about God. When I prayed for him to reveal himself to me, his clear answer was, “Read the Bible.” Before I read it, I decided I would have to believe it all if it was to be the foundation for my faith. For me, it was a point of intellectual integrity. I could not believe in the God of the Bible unless I accepted the whole Bible as true. Because of that, ever since, I have studied Scripture with an eye to examine its apparent contradictions. Some 35 years later, I still believe in the inerrancy of God’s word, and continue to dig into those parts of it that challenge my understanding. One thing I have come to know is that while God is perfect, I am not. It just isn’t possible for an imperfect mind to perfectly understand a perfect God. So when I reach the limits of my understanding, rather than doubting God or the Bible, my faith leads me to worship him all the more.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! — Romans 11:33