Evil Spirits From the Lord?

In Judges 9:23 and 1 Samuel 16:14, we read of evil spirits coming from the Lord. How can an evil spirit come from the Lord (especially since the Bible says God is not tempted to sin and does not tempt us to sin)?

Every event is under the sovereign control of God who “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). This includes even the smallest details of life. Jesus says that not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the will of God (Matt. 10:29). In fact, nothing at all could happen unless God were either to make it happen or permit it to happen. We could not lift a finger, or even blink an eye, unless God in some sense willed it.

God’s control of events extends even to the sinful actions of evil men. Take the sin of Joseph’s brothers as an example. Joseph saw the sovereign hand of God behind his being sold into slavery in Egypt. He said,

“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (Gen. 45:7-8a).

This is remarkable. “It was God who sent me here.” This is not to say that Joseph’s brothers were not responsible for their actions, nor that they were not sinful when they acted. They were not puppets on a string, or robots doing what they were programmed to do. No, they acted freely in accord with their own will, and thus were responsible for their sinful actions. But God made use of their evil designs to accomplish his own holy purpose, as Joseph later indicated when he said,

“You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it that many people should be kept alive” (Gen. 50:20).

We see here what we might call a “double intention” in the same event. God intended one thing, Joseph’s brothers another. God’s intention was holy, just, and good. The intention of Joseph’s brothers was sinful, unjust, and evil. God’s sovereignty is so great that he is able to use the will of even sinful men to serve his holy purpose.

The same is true with the sinful actions of evil spirits. Even they are under the sovereign control of God. They can do neither more nor less than what God wills; and he uses them to accomplish his holy purpose.

In the passages which our questioner mentioned (and there are others as well—e.g., Ahab in 1 Ki. 22:19-22), God sent evil spirits to afflict, torment, and deceive the wicked, as a means of punishing them for their sin.

The most striking case we have of God using devils to accomplish his purpose is that of Job. It was Satan who afflicted Job with the loss of all his children and property; but Satan could do nothing apart from God’s will (see Job 1:9-12; 2:4-6), and thus ultimately it was God who afflicted Job (2:3). Job understood this. He understood the sovereignty of God. When the calamity struck him, he traced it back to the will of God:

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (1:21).

“Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (2:10).

“The hand of God has touched me” (19:21).

The fact that it was the devil who carried it out was only incidental, because the devil could do nothing apart from God.

In the cases of Abimelech, Saul, and Ahab, the evil spirits were sent as a punishment for their sin. In the case of Job, the devil’s afflictions were sent as a trial or a test. Again, there was a double intention. Satan intended to make Job stumble and fall; God intended to test his faith and to purify it. God never sends tests or trials with the intention of making his people fall. The questioner correctly point out, “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (Jas. 1:13). God never seeks our ruin or downfall. The tests and trials he sends are intended to strengthen us, to cause us to depend more fully upon him, and to show forth his goodness and glory in the end. This was certainly the experience of Job as we read when we get to the end of the book (42:10-17).

The concurrence of the sinful will of man and the holy will of God is wonderfully set forth in the crucifixion of Christ. On the one hand, Scripture says that Jesus was “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). And on the other it says that it was God who “crushed him” and “put him to grief” (Isa. 53:10).

In the same way that the cross is the most profound demonstration of the love of God for his people, so it is also the most profound demonstration of his sovereign will.

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