weekly blog

Part 4  Saul

This is the fourth in a series that examines references to prisons and prisoners in the Bible.  This time we will look at Saul, King of Israel whose life we can read about in 1 Samuel 8-31

Saul is an unusual character to choose for an article such as this since there is no record that he was ever physically imprisoned.  Saul’s story is appropriate, however, because it describes how he lived in a type of emotional prison for much of his life, one that is shared by a very high number of inmates in our country and around the world.  That is the bondage of mental illness.

The introduction we have to Saul in the Scriptures is very positive.  He was chosen by God to be Israel’s first king.  We learn that Saul was a very handsome, well built man.  The prophet Samuel recognized God’s blessing upon him and anointed him as king.    Saul demonstrated himself as a man of both great courage and compassion, when he refused to have his critics executed after winning a decisive battle against the Ammonites.  We can read in 1 Samuel 13:1 that Saul was thirty years old when he became king and that he ruled Israel for forty years.

Saul’s situation changed dramatically, however, after an incident in which he disobeyed God by offering sacrifices prior a battle against the Philistines rather than waiting for the prophet Samuel to arrive as was agreed upon.  Because of that event Samuel declared that Saul’s descendants would not rule over Israel.  From that point on things in Saul’s life went from bad to worse.  Eventually in 1 Samuel 16:14 we read, But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD troubled him. (Note:  It is likely that the Lord permitted the evil spirit to torment Saul, rather than that He directly sent the spirit to him.)  This “evil spirit” tormented Saul for the rest of his life.

Many commentators have noted that Saul demonstrated the symptoms of a number of common mental health disorders, including manic/depression, paranoia and schizophrenia.  Modern medicine and psychology have tried to tell us in recent years that severe mental health problems are entirely associated with chemical imbalances in the brain.  We can see that at least in Saul’s case, the cause of his troubles came from a spiritual source.  While there is no question that mind altering drugs can ease the most severe symptoms of many of these severe psychological problems, the patients themselves will openly admit that the root causes are often a complex combination of emotional, psychological and spiritual factors.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics nearly 15% of all inmates in the United States are being actively treated in correctional institutions for mental health disorders, most of them receiving some type of pshycotropic drugs to alter their behavior.  Such quick fix remedies as prescribing pills to the mentally ill may pacify and temporarily calm an individual but it does not treat the root cause of the disorder.  We read in the Scriptures that the only thing that could give Saul peace was when David would play his harp for him.  David probably sang as well while he played and it is likely the words of his songs were the very ones that eventually were recorded in the book of Psalms.  So it was the Word of God, set to music that had the effect of calming Israel’s king when he was troubled by the evil spirit that tortured his mind and soul.

I am not implying that the example of Saul’s situation explains every case , or even most cases of mental illness today.  It does however, give us insight to show that we are engaged in a spiritual battle against “spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).  The relationship between the physical nature of the brain and the soul and spirit is deep and complex.  Emotional and psychological problems should be viewed from a holistic perspective that takes in every aspect of the human nature.

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