But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the LORD troubled him. … And so it was, whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him. 1 Sam 16:14, 23
And it happened on the next day that the distressing spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied inside the house. So David played music with his hand, as at other times, but there was a spear in Saul’s hand. And Saul cast the spear, for he said, “I will pin David to the wall!” But David escaped his presence twice. 1 Sam 18:10-11
There is not a lot of information in the Old Testament about spirits. We know from these passages that a spirit of some kind was tormenting Saul, when The Spirit of the LORD departed from him. Was it an angelic spirit, or a demonic spirit? Those are the only two choices.
My belief is that it had to have been a demonic spirit, because first of all, I don’t believe angelic spirits trespass their boundaries and mess with people that way, or even want to. They perform the word of the LORD, that is their function, and they do not trespass their boundaries (Psa 103:20-21). Demonic spirits became demonic in the first place because they trespassed their boundaries and rebelled against God (Rev 12:7-9).
Second of all, we see the fruit that comes from the influence of this spirit, is distress and torment. Saul was troubled because of it. In the presence of anointed worship music magnifying the LORD (I assume the music David played, was the music he wrote, the psalms), the distressing spirit would depart from Saul.
Third, when Saul was under the influence of the distressing spirit, he threw a spear and tried to pin David to the wall. The fruit that was being produced, was a desire for murder. In the New Testament we see that spirits that cause distress and who trouble people, are in fact demonic, whom Jesus cast out and away from people:
“… how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.” Acts 10:38
Why does Scripture say that the distressing spirit was from the LORD if it was demonic? Does the LORD command oppression to come upon people? I do not believe that God commands oppression to torment people. The most often repeated commandment in Scripture, from the mouth of the LORD and from His servants the angels and prophets, is Fear Not. Do Not Be Afraid. Fear was operating in Saul’s life to cause him torment (1 Sam 18:12, 1 Joh 4:18).
But I believe, because the revelation of the nature and work of Satan was limited in the Old Testament — for it was through Jesus and the apostles that the Spirit brought greater revelation of the nature and work of Satan, once Jesus had come who defeated Satan and stripped him of all his power — that the distressing spirit was attributed to the LORD. The LORD is sovereign, He is on His throne. We learn from Job that when the LORD has put a hedge of protection around His servant, the enemy couldn’t cross that hedge without permission. Because God is sovereign in heaven and on earth, Saul’s servants attributed the distressing spirit to God, and it was not a contradiction at all in the Scripture, but was the most accurate statement that could be made about that spirit, given the revelation that God had allowed up until that time.
This is my current understanding, that harmonizes Old and New Testaments. But I may be wrong! I believe no portion of Scripture is to be cast aside, but all is true and relevant; the Old must be examined in light of the New, and the New must be examined in light of the Old, for a complete and accurate picture of truth to be reached.
The most important thing to remember, is that we are no longer subject to distressing spirits, because of the work, blood, and victory of Yeshua our Messiah! Even before the cross, distressing spirits were instead subject to Him and to His disciples in His name, and now especially after the cross, He has disarmed principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in His cross (Col 2:15).
For further reading:
Recognizing the Real Enemy by Miguel Demelli (highly recommended)