Christian Articles Archive

Inquiring of the Lord

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Monk contemplating a reading "Now children, if you can't settle this, you'll have to draw straws." "I'll flip you for it. Heads or tails?" We use lots all the time, but not to determine God's will. Yet Old Testament saints such as David often inquired of the Lord by the use of sacred lots, the Urim and Thummim.

And David said to Abiathar the priest ... "Bring me the ephod." ... And David inquired of the Lord, "Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?" He answered him, "Pursue; for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue" (1 Samuel 30:7- 8).[1]

How did David inquire of the Lord? How did the Holy Spirit speak to him? What role did prophecy play? Why do we seek God's guidance in a different way today?

Inquiry Under the Old Covenant

Although the Urim and Thummim are not mentioned by name in connection with David's life, without a doubt they were used when he "inquired of the Lord,"[2] for David begins to inquire only after the priest Abiathar escapes to him following Saul's massacre of the priests at Nob, bringing an ephod with him (1 Samuel 23:6, 9-12). This ephod was presumably part of the high priest's garments, to which was attached a breastplate pouch containing the Urim and the Thummim (Exodus 28, especially vs. 30; cf. Leviticus 8:8).[3] David's request, "Bring the ephod here" (1 Samuel 23:9), immediately precedes his inquiry of the Lord.

The exact nature of the Urim and Thummim is unknown, although some scholars speculate that they consisted of a pair of flat, marked stones used by the priest as sacred lots to determine the will of God.[4] They could give a positive answer (Judges 18:5; 20:23, 27-28; 1 Samuel 14:41-42; 23:2-4, 9-12; 30:8; 2 Samuel 2:1; 5:19), a negative answer (2 Samuel 5:23), and occasionally, no answer (1 Samuel 14:36-37; 28:6).[5] Typically, David would ask a leading question: "Shall I go up against the Philistines? Wilt thou give them into my hand?" A "yes, yes" response to this double question is phrased, "And the Lord said to David, 'Go up; for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand'" (2 Samuel 5:19). Though this sounds almost like a prophetic word, it is explained adequately as a "yes" answer given by the Urim and Thummim.

However, we see occasions on which the answer cannot come from casting a lot. Saul is chosen king by lot, but the word, "Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage," is clearly prophecy, probably through Samuel (1 Samuel 10:20-22). We observe another striking example of prophecy combined with the sacred lot when David asks the Lord whether his troops should attack the Philistine army spread out before them. Apparently the Urim and Thummim gave a negative response, but here a word of prophecy comes forth, giving detailed battle plans far beyond the scope of any lot:[6]

"You shall not go up; go around to their rear, and come upon them opposite the balsam trees. And when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then bestir yourself; for then the Lord has gone out before you to smite the army of the Philistines" (2 Samuel 5:23-24).

As we have no other record of priestly prophecy when using the Urim and Thummim, this word through Abiathar's mouth may have come as a surprise to even to him.

After David's death[7] we see no more inquiry of the Lord through a priest by the Urim and Thummim (see Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65). Except for pagan divination (e.g. 2 Kings 1:3-6, 16; 16:15; Hosea 4:12), inquiry is now made through prophets of the Lord, such as Ahijah (1 Kings 14:5), Micaiah (22:5-7), Elisha (2 Kings 3:11; 8:8-15), Huldah (22:13-20), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 21:2), and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 14:7).

Inquiry under the New Covenant

What is the New Testament equivalent of inquiring of the Lord? How are we to seek specific guidance today? The use of lots to discover the Lord's will (Proverbs 16:33) is a pre-Pentecost practice. The final use of lots in the Bible was to determine God's choice of an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:23-26; cf. 1 Samuel 10:20-22). Just as the Urim and Thummim were superseded by inquiring by prophets in the Old Testament, so lots became obsolete after Pentecost.[8]. On that day God answered Moses' poignant prayer: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29).

Neither do we discover in the New Testament any encouragement to go to inquire of a prophet for personal guidance, as people had inquired of seers and prophets in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 9:9). Though New Testament prophets sometimes bring a word of personal prophecy (Acts 21:10-14; 31:2; cf. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25), this seems to function alongside of other forms of guidance which would confirm it. For example, in the presence of prophets and teachers seeking God at Antioch, "the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have [already] called[9] them'" (Acts 13:2). Indeed, if God had not already directed Paul to proceed to Jerusalem despite the dangers (Acts 19:21; 20:22-23), he would have misunderstood a personal prophecy through Agabus (Acts 21:10-14; cf. vs. 4). Our primary means of inquiry today is of God Himself through the Spirit, not through intermediaries.

It is surprising that David, despite his anointing by the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13) and prophetic gifts exercised in the Psalms (Acts 2:30), could not inquire of the Lord without the aid of a priest with Urim and Thummim. This magnifies the wonderful fulness of the Holy Spirit's presence we experience. By the indwelling Spirit we have direct access to inquire of the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:9-16, especially vs. 16). If we are quiet before the Lord, His direction is often a gentle "yes" or "no" spoken to our spirit. A "yes" might be a deep peace or a "nudge". A "no" can be a "check" of the Spirit, a lack of peace, or a closed door.[10] Occasionally the Spirit may put specific directions in our minds, so clearly and specifically that we are confident these are from Him. For major life direction, however, it is wise to confirm our guidance through counsel with trusted Christian leaders. Very often we receive no answer at all. This calls for patience, trust, and continued waiting on the Lord.

We look forward to the coming of our Lord, when the need to inquire for God's guidance will be no more:

"When the perfect comes, the partial will be done away .... For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully .... (vss. 10, 12, NASB).


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references are cited from the Revised Standard Version.

2. Hebrew sha'al, "to ask, inquire," is often used of "men and women asking or failing to ask God for guidance," or of "sinful consultation of pagan deities." Gary G. Cohen, "sha'al," in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament [Abbreviation TWBOT], eds. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), II, 891.

3. So Edward Robertson, "The Urim and Tummim; What Were They?" Vetus Testamentum XIV (1965), 74. Other scholars suggest that this ephod containing the Urim and Thummim may have been a solid object such as a box (cf. Judges 8:24-27; 1 Samuel 21:9). See Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (New York: McGraw-Hill, ET 1961), pp. 349-353; and Herbert G. May, "Ephod and Ariel," American Journal of Semitic Lanugages and Literature LVI (1939), 44-69. Even though Abiathar, who possessed the ephod and sacred lots, had escaped to safety with David, Saul still must have had access to a set of Urim (and Thummim; 1 Samuel 28:6).

4. So H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), pp. 28-31; and Henry Preserved Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel (International Critical Commentary series; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), p. 121f. If the Septuagint version of 1 Samuel 14:41-42 is preferred over the Masoretic Hebrew text, we would read, "If the fault is in me or my son Jonathan, respond with Urim, but if the men of Israel are at fault, respond with Thummim" (NIV footnote; RSV text). See discussion by Joh. Lindblom, "Lot- Casting in the Old Testament," Vetus Testamentum XII (1962), 164- 178; and W. Dommershausen, "goral," in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, tr. John T. Willis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ET 1975), II, 450-456. Other speculations regarding Urim and Thummim are discussed by Herbert Wolf, "'or," in TWBOT, I, 26 (a personal revelation to the mind of the priest), and Edward Robertson, op. cit., pp. 67-74 (small tablets of wood or bone bearing letters of the Hebrew alphabet).

5. If Urim and Thummim were two marked stones which were cast, a "yes" might be both up, a "no" both down, and "no answer" one up and one down. So Rowley, loc. cit.

6. So George B. Caird, "1 and 2 Samuel," in Interpreter's Bible, eds. G. A. Buttrick, et. al. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), II, 1074f. However, since this appearance of prophecy does not fit Caird's presuppositions, he rejects the passage as an interpolation. Few other commentators even notice that this is prophecy.

7. Near the close of his life David inquires of the Lord at the threshing floor of Ornan (later, the Jerusalem temple site). His inquiry is now accompanied by sacrifice to atone for sin (1 Chronicles 21:28-30; 22:1; cf. Psalm 27:4).

8. In fact, the use of mechanical means for divination in our era of the Spirit can be extremely dangerous (e.g., the occult use of the ouija board or tarot cards).

9. The verb "have called" is in the perfect tense, indicating that God had called Paul and Barnabas to this mission work in the past, and that the call was still in effect when the Holy Spirit now indicated that the time to go out had come.

10. For example, Paul was "forbidden" by the Holy Spirit to preach in the province of Asia (Acts 16:6).

Copyright © 2023, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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