Today’s reading has a lot of different verses that are often used for devotional writings:
“People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
“To obey is better than sacrifice.” (BTW, do we ever consider that this particular “obedience” is killing an entire city?)
But I don’t think I’ve ever read a devotional about this one: “An evil spirit from the Lord tormented him (Saul).” What? Since when did God send “evil spirits” on people?
There can be a number of interpretations of this one and I have heard some of them in other discussions before:
(1) This is an early description of a psychological problem. Saul suffered from a diagnosible mental condition that caused these fits. Music has been shown to calm people and even animals.
(2) God is omnipotent so everything that happens is attributed to Him without questioning. Much of our confusion about God’s activity in the Old Testament comes from our questioning why He wouldn’t act like us. In the Old Testament, the key wasn’t that we understand God but that we honor Him. He could do anything He wanted because He was God, and He was in control of everything. Therefore, anything that happened would be attributed to God, even evil spirits.
(3) God sends evil spirits, even Satan himself, upon the world to test (like in the story of Job) or to punish (like here with Saul, or in the story of Baalam who’s donkey helps him avoid “Satan” (that’s the name used for this “Angel from the Lord”) on the road). This is a more direct version of the second option since it still recognizes God’s complete control over the world but then also gives God more direct agency in the matter.
So which is it? You’ll have to take it up with God. He knows and I don’t believe anyone else on earth does.