The previous post about David and Jonathan got me to thinking about Saul. There is a certain sadness to the story of Saul. He's anointed by Samuel to be Israel's first king. (1 Sam. 9-10) Unfortunately, Saul can't always follow God's directions and doesn't destroy the Amalekites with the thoroughness that God demanded and expected. (1 Sam. 15) His failure to trust and obey causes God to regret choosing him as king and God's regret puts Samuel into mourning, because he had high hopes for Saul. (1 Sam. 15:10ff)
Long story less long, just before David enters the scene, we read the scene between Samuel and Saul, wherein Saul finds out what's happened:
Saul said to Samuel, ‘I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.’ Samuel said to Saul, ‘I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.’ As Samuel turned to go away, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. Moreover, the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.’ Then Saul said, ‘I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.’ So Samuel turned back after Saul; and Saul worshipped the Lord. (1 Samuel 15:24- 31)
So David, our boy hero, makes his entrance into the story when Samuel anoints him and when he, subsequently, goes to soothe Saul’s troubled mind with his music. That’s right, David shows up to comfort Saul- the newly anointed consoling the one abandoned by God’s Spirit.
Did that last phrase seem a little harsh? Read on:
Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’ So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.’ One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.’ So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, ‘Send me your son David who is with the sheep.’ Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, ‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.’ And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him. (1 Samuel 16:14-23)
The spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and yet something remains to torment him. We could say that the understanding of the time was that the torment he experienced was God’s judgment. True enough, but while I’m loathe to place the framework of modern, Western psychoses on ancient stories, I’m inclined to say that our man Saul had God’s judgment and it made him capital Depressed. (You need to draw that out a little… DEE- pressed.) And so he moped around the castle, needing a faint soundtrack of New Age harps to go with his mood.
While Saul remains in the place of the king, he already knows, through Samuel, that he’s lost the Lord’s favor and he’s just waiting for his replacement. He’s a lame-duck king and he’s lost in a landslide through the only voter with power.
For the biblical story, the reminder is to hold God’s commandments close and to realize that distance in your relationship with the Holy is because of your actions, not God’s.
For our own interpretation, this story brings up another point with which to wrestle. If Saul is tormented by an “evil Spirit from the Lord” and we recognize his behavior as depressed (and later a little manic)- are we to believe that mental illness is caused by evil spirits or, even more difficult, by God?
Of course not, you say, “We know so much now about brain chemistry, post-traumatic stress, workplace anxiety, depression through life change, etc. How could anyone say God causes mental illness?” (And if Saul didn’t wasn’t affected by at least 3 out of 4 of those, I’ll eat a DSM.) In our modern context, we view mental illness as more organic than spiritual, even when it can have a spiritual dimension.
It’s important to remember that people struggle with mental illness, from what seems common place like depression or chemical dependence to less common things like schizophrenia or avoidant personality disorder. In that struggle, it is easy to feel abandoned by God, as well as those around you. When you can’t make sense of your world, there is an additional grief, which can make you feel like you’ve failed. If your world includes a system where in goodness is a reward from God, then your apparent not-goodness is either a curse or, at the very least, God withdrawing God’s blessing.
People of faith must be vigilant in love toward those around us, not always being aware of who longs for a song from the harp to soothe their soul and quiet their demons. Words of blessing are better than nosy questions. Specific offers of help are better than waiting to be asked or worrying over doing the right thing.
We look to Saul, who sank without the Spirit of the Lord. He struggled until, at last, he fell on his sword to keep from being humiliated in death at the hands of the Philistines. Even to the last, he fought for God’s people and, likely, for God’s favor.
We who believe that we are in God’s favor through Jesus Christ must remain ever vigilant to share that same good news with those around us who struggle, in whatever ways present themselves through the Spirit.