6/30/2024

“You Are the One: The Candidate”

You Are the One:

The Candidate

First Baptist Richmond, June 30, 2024

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. He said: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!”

At one of my former churches there was a lay leader who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Most of the time he was one of the most gracious and charming people you would ever want to meet, but at other times, often during meetings when there were significant issues on the table, he would drop his chin to his chest, look straight ahead, and start saying things that seemed wildly out of character—hateful things, hurtful things—sometimes about other people seated around the table, sometimes about me. The National Institute of Mental Health describes bipolar disorder as a mental illness that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, activity levels, and concentration. These shifts can make it difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks. At their worst they range from periods of extremely “up,” elated, irritable, or energized behavior (known as manic episodes) to very “down,” sad, indifferent, or hopeless periods (known as depressive episodes).

I tell you this because I have come to understand bipolar disorder for what it is—a mental illness. And I have come to understand mental illness like any other kind of illness, like an illness of the liver or pancreas, except that the organ affected by mental illness is the brain and the brain is responsible for so much of our behavior. Like that lay leader’s behavior at church meetings. If it had been his liver or pancreas that acted up he might have winced in pain and asked to be

excused. But it was his brain, and if he hadn’t been taking his medicine regularly the chemistry in his brain could get out of balance, giving his bipolar disorder the freedom it needed to misbehave, and the results were often damaging.

I remember one day in particular, when Christy and I had made plans to go to a fancy dinner theatre in a nearby town as soon as I got home from work as a way of celebrating the anniversary of my ordination. But the last thing on my agenda for that day was a meeting with this man, and the meeting went so badly that as Christy and I drove to the theatre I was smacking my palm against the steering wheel and venting my anger in a way that Christy had never seen before (which means I may have actually raised my voice). The next day she went to the pharmacy and bought a blood pressure cuff so she could take my blood pressure from time to time and make sure that it was within normal range. She was that worried about me.

Now, we can’t say with any certainty that King Saul in the Bible had bipolar disorder, but he does seem to have had some serious mood swings. At the end of the story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16 we are told that, “The spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” But in the very next verse it says, “Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” That’s how they talked in those days; they thought that everything—good or bad—came from God. So, if David was filled with the spirit of the Lord it was from God, and if Saul was being tormented by an evil spirit it was from God. A modern psychiatrist might offer a different kind of diagnosis and follow up with treatment. He might say that Saul was depressed and prescribe some medication. Saul’s advisers did essentially the same thing. They said, “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.” If music soothes the savage beast, they reasoned, then perhaps it will soothe a troubled king. So they found David, the youngest son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. And for a while it worked. In 1 Samuel 16:23 it says, “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.”

But that was before David killed Goliath. And that was before everyone began to fall in love with him. After David killed Goliath the soul of Saul’s son, Jonathan, was bound to the soul of David, so that Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul himself loved David. He set him over his army, and sent him out to fight his battles, and wherever he went David was successful, so that the women of Israel would come out rejoicing, lining both sides of the road and singing, “Saul has slain his thousands but David tens of thousands!” When he heard what they were singing all the love that Saul had felt for David previously turned into pure jealousy. “They have ascribed to David tens of thousands and to me they have ascribed only thousands” he muttered; “what more can he have but the kingdom?” So Saul eyed David from that day on.

The very next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre. Saul had his spear in his hand, and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” Think about it: Saul is sitting there on his throne, listening to David play the lyre, waiting for its soothing effects to take hold of him. But as he does he becomes more and more agitated. His grip on the spear tightens. And suddenly he leaps to

his feet and throws the spear with enough force to penetrate David’s body—to slice through muscle and sinew, to shatter bone, and still go six inches into the cedar planking behind him so that David’s limp body would hang from the shaft. But he missed. The Bible says David “eluded him,” which may mean that he dodged the point of that spear. But then it says he eluded him “twice,” which means that even after Saul had tried to kill him once David stayed and played his lyre until Saul threw his spear again. And then he decided it might be a good time to go.

But Saul began to think that if he couldn’t kill David directly he would kill him indirectly. He promised David his oldest daughter, Merab, asking only that he continue fighting the Lord’s battles, thinking that if he did, the Philistines would eventually get lucky. But then he gave Merab to someone else, and when he did Michal, his youngest daughter, came to him and said she wouldn’t mind being David’s wife. The thing pleased Saul. He said to David, “All I ask in exchange for my daughter is one hundred Philistine foreskins,” knowing that the Philistines wouldn’t give up their foreskins without a fight, and that there was at least one chance in a hundred that David would come out on the losing end of that fight. But the Lord was with David, as you know. He presented Saul with one hundred Philistine foreskins. And Saul grudgingly kept his word, and presented David with his daughter.

But that doesn’t mean they were friends. In the next chapter Saul’s son Jonathan has to intercede for David. A few verses later Saul tries again to pin David to the wall with his spear. In the next paragraph Michal has to help David escape from her father. And over time this is the pattern that emerges: Saul trying to kill David and then feeling guilty about it and inviting him home again. Mood

swings. But eventually David has had enough. He realizes he will never be safe in Saul’s presence. He leaves the palace for good. And this is how it goes for the next several chapters. David is out there on his own, a fugitive from his father-in-law, and “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him, and he became captain over them. Those who were with him numbered about four hundred,” the Bible says. It was like Robin Hood and his merry men, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, until the whole nation was in love with David. Saul, however, was not, and he kept going after him, hunting him down, and trying to kill him.

There’s a great story in 1 Samuel 24 about that time David and his men were hiding in a cave and Saul stepped into the same cave to relieve himself. So, there was David, in the back of the cave, begging his men not to make a sound, and there was Saul, in the front of the cave, squatting down to do his business. David’s men began to point out the obvious: that the Lord had delivered Saul into David’s hand, and that all David had to do was sneak up behind him and run him through. And David realized they were right. So, he silently slid his sword out of its sheath, crept up behind King Saul on little cat’s feet, and then, while Saul was otherwise occupied, David sliced off a corner of his robe and returned to the back of the cave. But then he began to feel bad about it, as if he had disrespected the Lord’s anointed. And when Saul was fully out of the cave David stepped forward and held up the corner of his robe, so that Saul saw it fluttering there in the breeze, and realized that he could have been killed. So, he made his peace with David, said he would never bother him again, and rode away with his army.

David continued to build a following in the wilderness, fighting against his enemies all around and defeating them, because the Lord was with him. But Saul

became more and more desperate, more paranoid and afraid. He consulted a medium to see how his upcoming battle with the Philistines would turn out. He asked her to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel, the one who had anointed him, but when she did Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you just as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David…. Moreover, the Lord will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.”

And that’s what happened: Saul and his sons died in the battle of Gilboa. Jonathan, the one David loved so much, was struck down and killed. And Saul, when he found himself mortally wounded, fell on his own sword and died. When word got back to David that his old nemesis, the only person standing between him and the throne of Israel, was dead you might assume that he would rejoice. But he did not. He tore his clothes and wept. He wrote a psalm of lament. You can find it in today’s reading from 2 Samuel 1. It’s a psalm that praises Saul’s courage and valor and at three different points it practically weeps with the words, “How the mighty have fallen!”

I think David understood that Saul was subject to unpredictable mood swings, so that one minute he wanted to kill David and the next he wanted to kiss him on both cheeks. And for that reason—especially after his death—I think David was able to forgive Saul, and to see that he had been in the grip of something he couldn’t control. I think that if David had been living in our times he might have understood that Saul was dealing with a mental illness, and that you don’t

condemn someone for being ill. But what about you? If you were trying to find yourself in this story, where would you be?

A few months after I left that church with the difficult lay leader I was invited back to do a funeral, and I went, not even thinking that he might be there. But almost as soon as I got to the church I turned a corner in the hallway and there he was, standing right in front of me. This was the person who had been my greatest enemy while I was there, the person who had worked behind the scenes to see if he could get me fired, the person who used whatever power he had against me, to make my life miserable, hoping I would leave. And yet when I saw him I didn’t feel any of that. I realized that he no longer had any power over me. He looked smaller somehow, almost pitiful. And so instead of putting up my defenses I reached out and pulled him into my arms. And when I did he melted and mumbled something about how sorry he was that things hadn’t been better between us while I was there.

I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t. I think the Lord simply allowed me to let bygones be bygones, to forgive this man for his many faults, to understand them as a symptom of his illness, and to move on. Maybe the Lord can do the same for you. Maybe there’s someone you need to forgive and maybe you can find a way to do it this week, quietly and privately. David did it publicly. He wrote that psalm of lament, set it to music, and then ordered all the people of Judah to learn it. I think he wanted them to sing it along with him. I think he wanted everyone to know how much he loved Saul, but I also think he wanted them to see that he had nothing to do with his death. Because in the moment that Saul died David became a candidate. He knew that at some point the people would start looking for a new king, and that they might come looking for him. And

perhaps on the deepest level he knew that at some point they would realize how flawed he was, and how much he would need their forgiveness.

—Jim Somerville © 2024