Summary: King Saul’s depression, caused by disobedience to God, was relieved as he came to terms with himself and asked David to play his harp - a parable of what Jesus can do for us.
A century ago when biographies of Christian men were written it was the accepted policy not to probe too deeply into their lives. It was felt that it wasn’t to the glory of God that a man whom God had used mightily in his service should have weaknesses or failings (except, of course, before conversion!). If they couldn’t be hid it was quite permissible to have them glossed over or gilded. Well-meaning biographers resorted to editing correspondence to hide mistakes and anything that would show their subject in an unfavourable light. That’s a pity because, in addition to it being dishonest, it prevents us from knowing the real man and appreciating that he too was "of like passions as we are" (James 5:17).
Over the years the attitude has changed and there’s now a refreshing frankness in Christian biography. When W E Sangster, the much-loved Methodist leader was told that his life story would undoubtedly be written he insisted that there should be a chapter included entitled "Warts and all". He didn’t wish the public to be given a false impression of his life. He knew that there was only One who was faultless and made no mistakes.
One thing which confirms the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God is the fact that, although it makes much of its heroes and great men of history, it also points out with utter frankness their failures and shortcomings. This is the case of the account of Saul, the first king of Israel. It’s heart-warming to read that God chose and called him to the pinnacle of fame and gave him the opportunity to serve the Almighty. God spoke to him through the prophet Samuel words which must have thrilled him: "The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power and you will prophesy … and you will be changed into a different person" (1 Samuel 10:6). The promise was entirely fulfilled as soon afterwards it’s stated: "God changed Saul’s heart" (9).
But there’s another side to Saul’s life. Just as faithfully as the Bible records his good beginnings and life of service, it also records that he didn’t continue in the way of righteousness in which he’d begun. Samuel had to speak sharply to Saul: "You acted foolishly … you have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you" (13:13). Saul had been told wait for Samuel to arrive at a certain place to offer a sacrifice to God but after 7 days the prophet hadn’t arrived and Saul grew impatient and offered the sacrifice himself. This was a prohibited action; the offering of sacrifice was reserved for priests only. We notice first Saul’s:
RELAPSE INTO SIN
One of the unchanging laws of life is that whatever we sow we shall reap. And so it was with Saul. We read the sad words: "The Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul" (16:14). This paints a tragic picture, contrasting terribly with the bliss of the first day of his experience with God - but it had happened. We’ve seen the cause. In a word it was Saul’s disobedience to the express command of God. Instead of the joy and peace of the communion he once enjoyed, he now had an aching heart and an uneasy conscience. Instead of the bliss of fellowship with God as the Spirit came upon
him he now had a tormented mind.
Saul could well have felt like the hymnwriter when he wrote: "Where is the blessedness I knew when first I knew the Lord? Where is the soul refreshing view of Jesus and his word? What peaceful hours I once enjoyed! How sweet their memory still. But they have left an aching void the world can never fill." When we compromise with the world we lose our fellowship with God. A former Dean of St Paul’s, W R Inge, famously observed that any church that enters into a marriage with the spirit of the age "will soon find itself a widow in the next". It happens to the individual as well.
When "the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul" we read: "an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him." What can that mean? Evil can’t proceed from a righteous God, much less an evil spirit. The term "evil spirit" must refer to some affliction or punishment that God, in his love for a chosen servant of his, saw fit to inflict in discipline. This isn’t to say that depression or illness necessarily is the result of a person’s actions, but it was in Saul’s case. As the Spirit of God departed from Saul he was assaulted by evil powers and he suffered a depression not far removed from insanity.
It’s helpful to see a distinction between those things which God allows and things that God commands. Both can be seen as coming from God. When Saul’s servants saw his uncontrolled behaviour in his outbursts of depression it’s understandable if they thought he was possessed by demons. Depression is a terrible scourge. I read that Winston Churchill, in the 1930s when he was in the political wilderness, he referred to his “black dog days”.