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    King David’s Blues

    A rabbi translating the Psalms finds that King David surely dealt with depression, as did King Saul and even the prophet Samuel.

    By Atar Hadari

    October 6, 2020

    Some people say that David did not suffer from depression, but to me, the Psalms suggest he surely did. That symptomatic fog of unhappiness and inability to act would certainly raise the question today. In fact, as I have been working on translating various portions of the Bible, I find in close proximity three models of depression in David, Samuel, and Saul, and how they each responded to their difficulties spiritually.

    We start with Saul’s failure to exterminate the Amalekites, their king Agag in particular, and all their livestock, as God had directed him to do. The Lord’s response is an instant pink slip to Saul, delivered via the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 15:10-11, my own translation):

    But the word of the Lord to Samuel was to say –
    I regret having crowned Saul as king
    For he’s turned from following Me and has not fulfilled My words.
    And it troubled Samuel and he shrieked to the Lord all that night.

    Here Samuel models one way for dealing with depression. He receives the Lord’s word; he doesn’t like it but he doesn’t brood – he howls and argues with the Lord all night about it. There is no record of the Lord taking a blind bit of notice – unlike, for instance, his encounters with Abraham – but Samuel apparently feels better. In 1 Samuel 15:24-33, he goes to see Saul at peace with the message:

    But Saul said to Samuel, I’ve sinned for I transgressed what God said and his words
    For I feared the people and I obeyed them,
    But now pray you forgive my sin and return with me and I’ll pray to the Lord.
    But Samuel said to Saul, I will not return with you
    For you tired of the word of the Lord
    and the Lord is tired of you being king over Israel.
    And Samuel turned to go but Saul gripped the tail of his coat and it tore apart
    and Samuel said to him, the Lord tore the kingship of Israel from you today
    and will give it to your friend who is better than you.
    And Samuel returned with Saul and Saul prayed to the Lord.
    But Samuel said, Hand me Agag king of Amalek
    And Agag walked to him gingerly
    and Agag said, truly this is the minister of death.
    But Samuel said, Just as your sword bereaved women
    So shall your mother be bereaved among women.
    And Samuel skewered Agag before the Lord at Gilgal.

    In these few lines we have a contrasting study of Samuel and Saul as models of leadership and dealing with depression. Samuel has struggled with the Lord, then accepted the Lord’s will and moved into action. Saul’s initial reaction is denial, and when he’s told the kingdom will be torn from him he wants to cling to appearances. First he asks Samuel to honor him to avoid embarrassment, then he grips Samuel’s cloak, which tears, providing a metaphor for what will happen to Saul. Then, just in case Saul remains unclear about this, Samuel hacks Agag apart as Saul was meant to do. Which only leaves the question: Who will do the same to Saul?


    Yoram Raanan, Mei Shiloach Used by permission of the artist

    David is a chimerical hybrid of Saul and Samuel’s leadership styles and ways of dealing with the Lord. He has among the most intimate relationships with the Lord depicted in the entire Hebrew Bible; he speaks to the Lord more familiarly than anyone but Moses, and Moses, it must be noted, is usually pleading for the Israelites, not for himself. David is not bashful about asking the Lord for anything – he shrieks to the Lord just like Samuel – but just occasionally, like Saul, he becomes befuddled or thrown out of his right mind. Unlike Saul, David always recovers, yet Psalm 143 is about an occasion when David was so depressed he nearly did something wrong.

    Psalm 143 describes David’s state of mind as he hides from the jealous, murderous Saul. In fact, there are two stories in the account of Samuel in which David is chased by Saul, has the opportunity to kill his royal pursuer, but instead spares his life. On one of these occasions (1 Samuel 26), David creeps into Saul’s camp and steals his spear and water jug to prove that he was there. On another, Saul ducks into a cave where, unbeknownst to him, David already is. David dares to tear a patch of Saul’s cloak from him, just as Saul had torn the cloak from Samuel, and just as the Lord had said Saul’s kingdom would be torn (1 Samuel 24:5):

    But David rose and lopped the wing of Saul’s cloak softly.
    And it was afterward but David’s heart beat him up that he’d lopped the cloak of Saul.

    This is a description of depression. You feel so overwhelmed by things that you lose the ability to judge your own actions, you do something which subsequently makes you feel even worse, then you reproach yourself and the whole cycle starts over again.

    You feel so overwhelmed by things that you lose the ability to judge your own actions, you do something which makes you feel even worse, then you reproach yourself and the cycle begins again.

    It’s not the usual state of mind for a prophet, but then David isn’t quite a prophet; he is a man of action like Samuel, but without his direct access to the will of God. So he has to cry out and try to right himself as best he can (of course, without the additional tools that might be used to appropriately treat depression now).

    The first part of Psalm 143 describes his state of mind in the pit of depression and how David thrashes about to leave the darkness:

    Lord – hear my prayer      attend to my pleading.
    As you are faithful, respond      in your righteousness:
    But do not come to judge over your servant
    For not all will be just      before you among the living:
    For an enemy wanted me dead      battered to earth my get up and go:
    Set me to sit in the depths      like the dead of eternity:
    But my spirit closed in all around me      within me my heart is all at sea:
    I remembered the days before      I’ve thought about all you did
    On your handiwork      I brood:

    This is the section where David behaves most like Saul – looking back – bewildered by what he has done under the force of circumstances. His spirit has become closed under these constraints so that he can no longer see his way. Then David changes gear, and like Samuel, he starts to argue with the Lord:

    I raise my hands to you      my life
    Is like a tract of land worn out for you      Selah:
    Be quick and reply Lord      I’m gasping:
    Don’t hide your face from me      or I’ll be counted like those gone down in the pit:
    Let me hear come morning your kindness      for in you I have trusted
    Let me know the path I should take      for to you I’ve raised myself:
    Save me from my foes Lord      In you I’ve clothed myself:
    Teach me to do what you want      for you are my God:

    Now we see a further shift: the scrabbling to get out of the pit has borne fruit as David goes from brooding to arguing to renewed confidence that the Lord will answer:

    Your spirit which is good      will guide me in safe territory:
    For your own name’s sake Lord let me live      in your righteousness get my life out of a fix:
    And in your kindness wipe out my foes      and all trace of my mortal enemies      for I am your slave.

    David is by no means the perfect king, nor by any means a perfect human. But he is capable of crying to the Lord like almost no one else. He asks. He asks again. He will not stop asking. That is what makes his relationship with the Lord longer lasting than that of either Samuel or Saul, and why at least one of his sons sits on the throne after him.

    He transmits a personal relationship with God to his son Solomon, a channel of self-knowledge and communication Samuel never manages to share with his own sons. Samuel’s house falls, just as Saul’s house falls, while David’s house continues to rule in Israel even as his descendants badly let the Lord down.

    Samuel never looks back. David does, but he also never fails to move forward. He asks for forgiveness, and even when his depression has caused him to lose his way, he scrabbles back to the confidence that forgiveness will be granted.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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