Q: What does it mean a ‘distressing spirit’ from the Lord troubled Saul?
When Saul was anointed king of Israel, the prophet Samuel predicted the Spirit of God would come on Saul, giving him the needed skill and wisdom to rule the nation (1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 11:6). But Saul later disobeyed God’s direction as given by Samuel, so the Lord rejected him and eventually removed him as king (13:1–14; 15:1–35).
God chose David to replace Saul. When Samuel anointed David, God’s Spirit departed from Saul and came on David from that day forward: “But the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the LORD troubled him” (16:14). It seems that, after David was anointed king, Saul’s mental instability and outrageous behavior worsened.
What does it mean, a “distressing [bad or evil] spirit from the LORD” came upon Saul? First, we know God does not cause moral evil (Jas. 1:13–17). Second, we know all beings God created are under His sovereign control. Since God is morally perfect and unchangeable, He cannot cause or be involved in evil.
Although the text doesn’t elaborate, it seems God simply removed His Spirit (the Holy Spirit) from Saul and allowed an evil spirit from Satan to come upon him, causing Saul to think illogically about spiritual matters. Deep psychological problems plagued him the rest of his life.
Scripture says Saul at times suffered from deep, depressive mood swings, which made him mentally unstable and caused him to exhibit wild behavior of extreme wickedness throughout his rule. This behavior manifested itself in uncontrollable jealousy of David, compelling Saul to pursue David continually to injure or kill him. Given Saul’s uncontrollable fits of anger, it seems demonic forces motivated him at times.
From the symptoms expressed in Scripture, many Bible scholars have theorized on the theological and psychological particulars pertaining to Saul’s situation and the type of illnesses from which he might have suffered. Saul seemed to suffer from melancholia mania (extreme manic depression) and paroxysmal mania (violent emotional outbursts of rage), often described as paranoid schizophrenia.
The story of Saul is one of the sorriest and most ignominious in the Bible. It reveals what disobedience toward God and unchecked sin can do in an individual’s life. Saul entered his kingship with great potential and ended his reign 40 years later with the most grievous personal disasters recorded in biblical history.