Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD terrorized him. Saul's servants then said to him, "Behold now, an evil spirit from God is terrorizing you. Let our lord now command your servants who are before you. Let them seek a man who is a skillful player on the harp; and it shall come about when the evil spirit from God is on you, that he shall play the harp with his hand, and you will be well." (1 Samuel 16:14-16)
What are we to make of this passage? Did God really send Saul an evil spirit?
Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard provide excellent insight into this passage in their book Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. This book serves as an excellent introduction to hermeneutics.(1) Regarding this passage, they state:
The report that God sent Saul an "evil spirit" (1 Sam 16:14-16, et al.) illustrates how easily we may read later information into our reading of the Old Testament. In the NT an "evil spirit" is a demon (e.g., Mk 1:26 par.), so we naturally assume that the same term identifies the tormentor of Saul as a demon. This assumption overlooks two points of background: to read the OT phrase as "an evil spirit from God" implies that God sends demons on people, a theological assumption unsupported by Scripture because it conflicts with the biblical teaching that God does not associate with "evil." In addition, it wrongly assumes that the OT has an awareness of the demonic world, which does not seem to be the case. Instead, we might better translate the Hebrew as "bad spirit" (i.e., "foul mood" or "depression"; cf Judg 9:23).(2)
In other words, when we engage in biblical interpretation, it is important not to read New Testament theology back into Old Testament passages. This can lead to mistaken interpretations of Scripture.
What these authors are pointing out is that the phrase "evil spirit" needs to be interpreted with the original author and audience in mind. In addition, any legitimate interpretation of this passage must be consistent with the rest of Scripture. The "evil spirit" which came upon Saul is not necessarily a demon but may more accurately be regarded as a foul or depressing mood, such as seems to be the case in Judges 9:23.
Is there anything else in the passage which supports this interpretation? Does this interpretation fit the larger context? I think so.
Notice what it says just a few verses later:
So it came about whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him (1 Sam 16:23).
Given this verse, which interpretation of "evil spirit" better fits the context? Does it make more sense to think that a demon would depart from Saul whenever David played the harp? Or, does it make more sense to think Saul's depressing and foul mood would leave whenever David played the harp?
In terms of theology, I have no reason to believe that demons are somehow annoyed by the sound of harps and forced to leave whenever they hear them. On the other hand, I think we all have personally experienced the power of music in being able to lift our spirits and bring us out of a depressing or foul mood.
Therefore, not only does this later interpretation fit the context of the passage as a whole but it also seems to do greater justice to the original author and audience, as well as our own personal reflection on the matter. In light of this interpretation, neither skeptics nor Christians should be troubled by the idea of God sending an "evil spirit" on to Saul.
(1) Biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation.
(2) Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 12.