Today’s Bible reading
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 skillful 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 skillful 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 Message)
More thoughts for meditation
I thought, “Surely this story must be a movie! Why have I never seen this tragedy on screen?” So I went to YouTube and, sure enough, there was the story of King David with Jonathan Pryce playing King Saul. It was a miniseries with Leonard Nimoy as Samuel! There are whole sets of Bible stories on Amazon – who knew?
It is a story worth watching/reading/hearing. The tragedy of Saul gives us loads of opportunity to meditate on how our own mental and relational struggles end up isolating us. As we watch Saul get isolated by his struggles and behavior we can then watch his fear and envy create a wall of defensiveness that makes him even more isolated until he ends up dying alone among his dead sons on Mt. Gilboa.
It is a long story in the Bible. But the turning point comes early in the tale of Israel’s first two kings: “At that very moment the Spirit of God left Saul and in its place a evil spirits sent by God settled on him. He was terrified.” As the tale moves on, note your own evil spirits and what fear might cause you to become.
The Spirit of God anoints David and a dark spirit inhabits Saul. Saying something like “All things come from God, so get over it” may seem like it is appropriate to this chapter, but we just saw Moses pulled out of his resistant darkness. So it is safe to say that Saul has major issues, but it is not a foregone conclusion that his dark mood will do him in. I quoted the Message paraphrase, since most versions more accurately call what came upon Saul as a “spirit.” I think ancient people called depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and all sorts of chemical and systemic glitches “spirits.” Everything about us is spiritual and material, so we always have to sort out how that relationship is going.
Saul is up and down about it, as are most of us these days. If you came into Covid season with some loose ends, they may have unraveled already, or you may have spent all your energy keeping things together (the most troubled are probably not reading this entry, to be honest). If your resilience was chugging along, then you have probably noticed your fuel getting low at times. It is a hard season.
Saul experienced the onset of something he could not handle. Ironically, his helpers located the next, secretly-anointed, king of Israel to be his court musician. David soothed his weary brain. He was kind of a stand-in for the presence of God who seemed impossible to reach. If he would have stuck with that humility, let himself be soothed by God through David, things might have worked out better.
But Saul feared criticism and loved popular approval. Even more, he used his great courage to fight God’s desertion. In his attempt to force God to reverse the divine decision against him, Saul changed from one who was humble and pure, chosen of the Lord to receive great promised blessings, to one who stood angry, alone, and impenitent.
King Saul made a lot of mistakes, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was when he did not destroy all the Amalekites and every animal belonging to them and then lied to the prophet Samuel about it. He tells the holy man the people had spared the best sheep and oxen “to sacrifice unto the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:14–15). Samuel says, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:17–22). That was the last time he ever saw Samuel, who left him with the promise that God had chosen someone else to be king.
Realizing that his blessings and kingdom had indeed been given to another, he looked around to see who that other might be. He discovered it was his foster son, David, who became a great warrior and came back from battle to the royal compound as women sang, “Saul has slain his thousands, but David has slain his tens of thousands.” He had the popularity Saul had so much wanted but had never fully received. From then on, Saul sought to take David’s life.
In his struggle against God, Saul’s efforts reached great intensity. His heart was torn; he saw not only his people leave him, but even members of his own family turn against him, especially Michal and Jonathan, who thwarted his plots against David. Saul, heartsick and angry, struggling to maintain the kingdom and give it to Jonathan, spoke to his son: “As long as the son of Jesse lives upon the ground, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Fetch him to me, for he shall surely die” (1 Sam. 20:31). But Jonathan defended David, and Saul, angered beyond control, cast his spear at his own son. Then he vainly chased David around the wilderness for years.
The final days of Saul’s tragic life are heightened by his growing paranoia and his terrible need for help outside himself. Formerly, he had been able to appeal to God, to the prophet Samuel, and to the priests. Now, however, “when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets” (1 Sam. 28:6). He was completely alone. Samuel was dead, and Saul himself had murdered the priests. Saul’s own family no longer respected him. The people whom he had sought to serve refused to support him.
“All of you have conspired against me,” Saul cried at Gibeah. “There is none of you that is sorry for me.” (1 Sam. 22:8.) Yet Saul did not repent; neither did he change. At the last, faced by a vast horde of Philistines gathered at Mount Gilboa to do battle against him, Saul was filled with fear. Crazed and abandoned, he turned at last to those he had formerly condemned. In disguise, he went to the witch of En-dor, a spiritualist, and asked her to call up Samuel from the dead. A deceiving spirit, appearing as Samuel, rebuked Saul and pronounced the final curse: “The Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines … Tomorrow shall you and your sons be with me” (1 Sam. 28:19; see also 1 Sam. 28:15).
It is a wild ending both in the Bible and on film. But Saul did not weep or don sackcloth in ashes. Beyond repentance, he turned deliberately toward the impending battle, perhaps in the dreaded hope that he might yet disprove this last prophecy. But in the great battle that followed, as he looked around and saw his three sons lying dead beside him, Saul himself, already wounded by archers, fell upon his sword and died.
Suggestions for action
That’s quite a parable, isn’t it? — a cautionary tale. It has more angles to explore than a tidy moral could contain. You might want to meditate on it and consider how your own story is going. As the Covid season wears on it has the possibility at closing around some of us like Saul’s madness on Mt. Gilboa. Isolation breeds despair which breeds desperation and more isolation.
Isolation is making a big impact on people. Scientists keep telling us why. We are social creatures, of course. The CDC guidelines are a pretty good summary of what we are up against and what we need to do in the face of the isolation we are experiencing. Maybe you should call up someone who knows you and let them help you with a mental health assessment. There are mental health resources at your disposal, not the least of which is Circle Counseling. Our church helps people afford professional help, too.
Pray: Keep my safe in your care Lord. Strengthen me to connect beyond my fears.
Today is Sundar Singh Day! Admire an evangelist who offered living water in an Indian cup long before people talked about being missional or incarnational at Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body.
Add to the laments on the page some people are using to pray! We’ll have a book of Covid-19 Lamentations!