What does the Bible mean when it says God “sent an evil spirit” on certain people?
Question: In Judges 9:23, I Samuel 16:15ff and 18:10 it is said that God sends evil spirits on people. Doesn’t this support the idea that everything Satan and demons do is under God’s sovereign control?
Answer: I’ll make six points in response to this question.
1) If everything Satan and demons do is under “God’s sovereign control,” we’d have to say God has a specific good reason for everything Satan and demons do. This in turn entails that we can no longer explain any evil in the world by appealing to nefarious spirits — or even evil human decisions for that matter — for behind everything spirits and human agents do is God’s “sovereign control.” If there’s a different way of interpreting these texts, therefore, I think it should be preferred.
2) The fact that Yahweh fights evil spirits throughout the Bible is enough to suggest that spirits aren’t always under his “sovereign control.” Most importantly, all of our thinking about God must be centered on the person of Jesus Christ, and Jesus uniformly manifests the will of God by coming against evil spirits. He never suggests that evil spiritual agents are carrying out the will of God.
3) Many scholars argue that the word “spirit” used in some Old Testament passages doesn’t refer to a spirit being, but is rather just an ancient way of personifying human attitudes. So, for example, the TNIV translates Judges 9:23, “God stirred up animosity between Abimelek and the citizens of Shechem…”
4) The Hebrew word translated “evil” (rah) in these passages doesn’t necessarily refer to something morally evil. It can just mean “troubling.” So the passages may be teaching not that the Lord sent a wicked spirit on someone, but simply that he sent a troubling spirit: that is, a spirit to cause unrest between or within people.
5) Even if we conclude that the spirits sent from Yahweh are wicked, there’s no warrant for concluding from this that everything wicked spirits do is under the “sovereign control” of Yahweh. It just means that there may be cases where God’s interests and the interests of wicked spirit agents coincide.
6) Related to this, it’s important to note that whenever these troubling or wicked spirits are sent by God, it’s done as punishment for something people have done. God judges people by allowing spirit agents to do what they want to do: namely, torment people.
For all these reasons, I see no reason, based on a few passages that (may) say that God “sent an evil spirit,” to conclude that everything Satan and demons do is specifically under “God’s sovereign control.” Of course God allows their activity in the sense that he gave these spirit agents free will, just as he gave humans free will. But this doesn’t imply that God in any sense approves of what they do (though, as I said above, there may be instances where God’s interest to punish someone and the desire of fallen spirits to torment people coincides).