God in charge of illness in the Old Testament

This passage is famous as an illustration of how the Old Testament and the New Testament apparently have different theologies about mental illness. In the Old Testament all illnesses and sicknesses are strictly under the power of God.

“‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39)

2 Now Ahaziah fell through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay sick; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this sickness.” But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Now therefore thus says the Lord, You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’” So Elijah went. (2 Kings 1:2-4)

The different background to the New Testament is largely a result of the dualism of the Pharisees and Jewish people which had developed in the intertestamental period. By the time of the New Testament Baal-zebub was no longer a non-existent god of the Ekronites, but a name the Pharisees and people used for the prince of literal demons.


So did God directly cause Saul’s violent mood swings?

Probably not. We see throughout Saul’s life that he was an unstable and capricious person, with what – by today’s language, would be called psychological problems.  The language of ‘spirit’ used in relation to Saul does not include his down moods, but also his up moods at the beginning and end of the following series of seven references:


  • And the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled. (1 Samuel 11:6) 

  • David in Saul’s Service Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. (1 Samuel 16:14) 

  • And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. (1 Samuel 16:15) 

  • And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23) 

  • The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. (1 Samuel 18:10) 

  •  Then a harmful spirit from the Lord came upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing the lyre. (1 Samuel 19:9)

  •  Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. (1 Samuel 19:20)


So taking those seven references as a whole it does not seem that God directly was sending up moods and down moods on Saul, particularly when something as simple as David’s lyre could calm the spirit. It is rather the language of the period, describing a medical condition, but coupled with a theology that sees God in ultimate charge of illness, which he is. In this way the language used is not so different from the demon-possession language used in the three synoptic gospels.


Ultimately Saul’s problems were his own choices

The mood swings of Saul are a side thread to the main narrative of Saul’s failed relationship with God. The fact is that Saul had made choices against God and consequently, God had rejected Saul as Israel’s king, and God had commanded Samuel to find and anoint David to replace Saul’s line. It’s worth noting that the second of the seven references above the Spirit of the Lord came upon David either immediately before or at the same time it left Saul (1 Samuel 16:13-14).

Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:13) 

The whole sequence of references to Saul’s mood swings commences only after he had already made his choices and God had already published the result. Saul had disobeyed God, and God had already announced to him that his kingdom was to go to another (1 Samuel 15:28).

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