2016 · David's Life · Debunks · Scripture

The Trouble with Saul: Mental Illness or Character Flaw?

David_playing_the_harp_before_Saul._Engraving_by_W._van_der_Wellcome_L0012090Trying to understand Saul is a task that honestly, I have stalled on for some time. I am more interested in David, as David’s life holds so many keys to how we can forge a closer, more effective walk with the Lord. Saul only conjures up images of a confused, aggressive man, who was alienated from God by his own choice. It’s an unhappy forty-two year story with no happy beginning, or end.

I have read many opinions on what ailed Saul once he had been rejected by the Lord, and demonic torment commenced. There are only two symptoms to go on: aggression and anger. The most conclusive verse is: “Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.” That tells us almost nothing. The best clinical definition I can associate with Saul’s state of mind is hyperarousal, which goes with many psychological and medical conditions, and may be a transitory, fight or flight state, which dovetails with his fear. So linking Saul’s demonic oppression to clinical depression, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, epilepsy, or anything else, is a long leap in logic.

The first time Saul was disobedient to God, it was because of fear. This becomes a thread that never leaves his life story. After his second act of public rebellion in 1 Samuel 16:14, when Saul chose greed over obedience, the demonic attacks commenced: “Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD terrorised him.”

In the original Hebrew, you can use the word terrorise, or troubled. Some versions claimed that this included depression, but there is no concrete evidence of that and interestingly, there is also no clinical reason to conclude that the demon caused any kind of mental illness. As the demon came and went, it was not a case of possession either.

So what can we assume? The evidence for what happened is quite solid. It centres around the fear and jealousy that obsessed Saul, knowing he was going to lose his kingdom. Plus if Saul knew the history of the people of Isra’el, it meant only one thing: he was also going to die. When judgement fell on disobedient people, the penalty was *death. [Ref. 1 Samuel 12:14-15 and see base of post for examples.] The demon would have used that to maximum effect and would not need to incite any form of mental illness, to be incredibly successful. Saul’s ego and lack of self-esteem did most of the work. [Self-esteem references: 1 Samuel 10:22-23 and 15:17]

Saul lost the kingdom through the disobedience that comes from not really caring about God. 1 Samuel 13:13-14 gives us the first point where it happened. “How foolish!” Samuel exclaimed. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. Had you kept it, the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom must end, for the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart. The LORD has already appointed him to be the leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.”

The damage was done, the next king chosen. So from then, Saul was on the look out for his successor, and it didn’t take long for Saul to find him.

1 Samuel 18:6-12 “When the victorious Israelite army was returning home after David had killed the Philistine, women from all the towns of Israel came out to meet King Saul. They sang and danced for joy with tambourines and cymbals. This was their song:

“Saul has killed his thousands,
and David his ten thousands!”
This made Saul very angry. “What’s this?” he said. “They credit David with ten thousands and me with only thousands. Next they’ll be making him their king!” So from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David.

The very next day a tormenting spirit from God overwhelmed Saul, and he began to rave in his house like a madman. David was playing the harp, as he did each day. But Saul had a spear in his hand, and he suddenly hurled it at David, intending to pin him to the wall. But David escaped him twice.

Saul was then afraid of David, for the LORD was with David and had turned away from Saul.”

759px-Smart_Hymn17_PraiseFrom that point on, the situation went around in circles. Saul did everything he could to get rid of David, his probable successor; then when David spared his life, Saul had a brief change of heart, before he allowed his total paranoia to take over again.

In the end, an aged Saul, “frantic with fear,” consults a medium to see if he can win against the Philistine army. At this point he also falls to the ground, paralysed with fear. [Ref. 1 Samuel 28] Fear is the problem. Magnified by a long term (at least twenty years) knowledge that he would die and lose his kingdom, that fear would have damaged Saul’s emotions and psyche on many levels, even without demonic interference.

Saul’s character flaws and unrighteousness showed in many ways. He argued with his son and successor, Jonathan, behaved cruelly to his daughter Michal; and his reign was summed up relatively early on, with this controversial and misleading verse: “Now when Saul had secured his grasp on Israel’s throne, he fought against his enemies in every direction—against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. And wherever he turned, he was victorious.” 1 Samuel 14:47

Victorious is what Saul had always wanted, however, according to the Hebrew word which is used in the place of victorious in the original texts, it should read “and wherever he turned, he acted wickedly,” or “he mistreated.” The Hebrew word is rasha, which in Strongs Concordance numbers is 7561. (Have a look at it in Biblehub.com http://biblehub.com/hebrew/7561.htm and see for yourself.)

Rasha is a sad indictment on Saul’s behaviour and character.

For a comprehensive chart comparing both King Saul and King David’s character and behaviour, please visit the From Despair to Deliverance Facebook page. The chart tells most of the story succinctly and covers many more pivotal issues. Though one part I didn’t have room to put in, was that Saul left the Ark of the Covenant (the centre of worship) where it had been stashed after being returned by the Philistines and gave it no obvious attention. (God’s Presence was on the Ark.) David bought it into Jerusalem, the Capital city of Isra’el and centre of power and worship.

DavidvsSaulintraits


*Torah references regarding losing life due to disobeying God.
– After the golden calf: Exodus 32:27-29
– Strange fire: Leviticus 10:1-7
– Blasphemy: Leviticus 24:10-23
– The generation that rebelled in the wilderness: Numbers 14
– Korah’s rebellion: Numbers 16, specifically verses 20-35 then verse 49
– Moses and Aaron died before they could enter the promised land, because of disobedience:
Numbers 20:22-29 and Deuteronomy 34
– The men who worshipped Baal of Peor: Numbers 25


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All images in this post are public domain licensed.

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