If eternal security is true, why did the Holy Spirit depart from Saul?

by Luke Wayne

The incident of King Saul's sin and the subsequent removal of the Holy Spirit can seem quite out of place to the modern New Testament believer. We often fail to understand that the Holy Spirit works in a variety of ways. The New Testament sense of the indwelling work of the Spirit in all believers and the intimate connection we find between eternal redemption and the Spirit's personal presence is not what is typically in view when the work of the Old Testament Scriptures discuss the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's work throughout Scripture is actually quite varied and was often not connected directly to salvation from sin at all. When the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in the work of creation (Genesis 1:2), for example, we shouldn't assume that it was to save the waters from their sins. So it is important to look at just what the "presence of the Holy Spirit" meant in the narrative of Saul, rather than immediately assuming a New Testament, salvific work is in view.

To understand this, we will need to briefly step back to much earlier in the narrative of Scripture. In Numbers 11 we are told the story of the people of Israel's grumbling and rebellion over the matter of having only manna to eat. This incident is the last straw for Moses, and he prays that if he has to continue to lead the people alone, he would rather God just kill him now. God then tells him to select 70 men who are among the authoritative elders of the tribes of Israel and to gather them at the tent of meeting. God then tells Moses:

"Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear it all alone" (Numbers 11:17).

The passage describes Moses having the Spirit upon him uniquely and alone among Israel, and God is now going to give that Spirit to these seventy elders as well. He is not giving the Spirit to them based on their repentance or faith, nor for the purpose of their redemption. Instead, the Spirit is given to them so that they can share in the leadership of Israel along with Moses. So we see here a connection between God raising someone up to lead Israel, and God blessing that person with the unique presence of the Spirit to carry out this role. The passage goes on to explain:

"Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again," (Numbers 11:25).

Here we see that the elders prophesied when the Spirit first came upon them, but they did not prophesy after that. They did not take on a prophetic role, that was not the purpose God had given them the Spirit, but the Spirit did cause them to prophesy at the outset as a testimony to Israel that He had come upon these men and they were to be respected like Moses. Ultimately they were to share in Moses leadership role, but not in His prophetic role. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit was to work in those whom God had blessed to be leaders in Israel.

We see the same idea in Deuteronomy 34:9, which explains that the Spirit of Wisdom passed from Moses to Joshua and therefore the people listened to him and followed the Lord's commands. We also see throughout the book of Judges that when God raised up a judge to lead and deliver Israel, the Scripture says of him that "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him." As we track this through the Old Testament narrative, it should come as no surprise that when God chooses a man through the prophet Samuel to raise up as king over Israel, that He places His Spirit upon the man. Nothing is ever said about Saul's redemption or forgiveness of sins. It is all in the context of Saul having been chosen by God to be king. We even see an initial incident Saul prophesying when the Holy Spirit first comes upon him (1 Samuel 10:10) just we saw with the elders of Israel in Numbers 11. Like the elders of Israel, Saul does not prophesy regularly after this but is raised up to lead over Israel.

When we arrive at 1 Samuel 15, Saul sins before God by keeping what God had commanded him to utterly destroy, and Samuel says to him:

“The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you," (1 Samuel 15:28).

Chapter 16 then opens with Samuel being sent to the house of Jesse to anoint David as king in Saul's place. Verse 13 tells us:

"The Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward," (1 Samuel 16:13).

The very next verse explains:

"Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul," (1 Samuel 16:14).  

The Spirit leaving Saul here is God removing His blessing on Saul as king of Israel. He gives His Spirit to David, the man He has chosen to replace Saul as king. The removal of the Spirit from one and the giving of the Spirit to the other was God's supernatural declaration that the throne had been taken from Saul and given to David. Saul may cling to His crown for a time, but God was no longer with him nor blessing his leadership. Israel had a new shepherd. God had raised up a new leader for his people. David was now God's chosen king.

The Holy Spirit worked among God's people in ways other than eternal redemption. He worked through chosen men to lead, guide, and deliver from trials. Once we understand this, we realize that incidents like that of Saul, while powerful and instructive, simply have no bearing on the discussion of eternal security and the permanence of the Spirit's redemptive work in Christ to those who are truly entrusted to Him.