David: A Depressed King

Archaeologists have labored for many years to find artefacts associated with King David. The evidence available appears to be insufficient to convince scholars that David was more than a myth, although the Hebrew Bible documents his life from youth through old age with more details than that of any other biblical hero [1]. I propose to analyze the text to demonstrate that David’s actions were largely determined by his depressed state.

From the time he assumed his kingship until his old age some 40 years later, David shows psychological reactions that can best be explained on the basis of his long-term mental depression. He began his reign over Israel when he was about 30 years old. After successfully defeating the Philistines in several battles, he gathered thousands of his victorious troops to escort the Ark of God to Jerusalem. The Ark was mounted on a cart and musicians accompanied the Ark playing joyously. David and the women of Israel followed along swaying and dancing. David clothed in an ephod, a short linen garment tied around the waist, exposed himself while he was whirling about. Michal, David’s wife observed the dancing and accosted him saying, “you have shown yourself to be a low life”. David replies that he would continue to dance exposed or not. Dancing feverishly in public would be an unexpected and inappropriate behavior for a great king, but he might have been moved to dance vigorously because it relieved his state of depression. Dancing would have helped to lift his spirit.

The 17th century author Robert Byrd attributes the Calvinist’s melancholy behavior to their hostility to dance [2]. Ecstatic dance is used as a cure for depression in some cultures. This circumstantial evidence would explain David’s bizarre activity and is an indication that he may have suffered from depression. Dancing lifted his spirit.

An important event in David’s life concerns his involvement with Bathsheva, a woman married to one of the soldiers in his army. At this time, David was an established and well regarded king residing in his palace. One early evening, he arises from a prolonged afternoon nap and takes a stroll on the roof of his palace. According to the text he sees a beautiful woman bathing on a nearby rooftop. From his attendants, he learns the woman is Bathsheva, the wife of Uriah, a soldier who is away with the Army besieging an Ammonite city. David sends for her, she arrives, he seduces her and she returns to her home. We will pick up on her story later.

In his memoir, William Styron [3] notes that depressed individuals usually feel best in the afternoon; from this we see that David fits this description of a depressed person. A second indicator of his depression might be his reluctance to join the troops when they are engaged in a fierce battle. Polzin [4] in a masterful study of the Book of Samuel characterizes David as a sedentary King. The reluctance of David to leave his secure home on this occasion is symptomatic of a continued state of depression.

The evidence in the literature on psychology reports that depressed people have a decreased interest in sex [5]. However an extensive series of reports in the literature conclude that about 15% of depressed persons report a heightened need for sexual activity. David might be included in that 15% group and this would explain his intense need for sex after viewing Bathsheva bathing.

Sometime later, Bathsheva sends a message to the King, “I am with child” and David accepts his role as the father. He then recalls Uriah who was still away fighting with the troops. David urges him to return to his wife but Uriah refuses stating that his first duty is to serve with his fellow soldiers. David is not successful in persuading him to return home, presumably in an attempt to have him identify himself as the unborn child’s father. David’s next move appears to be an act of desperation and lacks any sense of justice. He has Uriah return to the war front carrying a letter to the commanding general requesting that Uriah be placed in a dangerous position and his fellow soldiers were to fall back, leaving him in a situation where he might be killed. Was it the King’s depression that left him without control of his behavior? Uriah is killed. After mourning for her dead husband Bathsheva moves into David’s home. She becomes his wife and bears him a son.

The child suffers from an unknown disease. During the child’s illness, David reacts by weeping and pleading with God for the child’s recovery. He fasts, grovels in the dirt and does not change his clothes. This was all to no avail and the child dies. David arises washes himself and continues his normal activities as if nothing had occurred. His attendants question his abrupt change of behavior. King David responds saying, “when the child was alive I thought he might recover. But once he died he cannot come to me, I can only go to him.” This extreme behavior of the King was not expected by his servants. David’s emotional response was evidently not within normal bounds. Here we suspect that David’s state of depression might be a factor in these bizarre actions.

Another important episode in the life of King David concerns the rape of his beautiful daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon, David’s oldest son. Amnon, heir apparent to the throne, was sexually attracted to Tamar, but he was not clear about how to deal with his fascination for her. Amnon had a good friend, a young man, who advised him to pretend to be sick and ask Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, to send her to prepare some special food to help restore his health. But instead of Absalom responding to the request, King David appears unexpectedly to check on Amnon’s well-being. After inspecting Amnon, David agrees that Tamar should prepare a special meal for him. When the food is ready Amnon requests that Tamar come into his house and feed him, and she agrees. Once inside, he asks his servants to leave them alone. He seizes Tamar, and asks that she lie with him. She replies, “speak to the king he will not withhold me from you.” Amnon does not act on her request and proceeds to rape her. Immediately following the rape, Amnon felt a great hatred for Tamar is repulsed by her and calls his retainers to force Tamar to leave the house and to lock the door behind her. Tamar is very upset and mourns her condition.

Absalom learns of Tamar’s rape and is angry, but urges Tamar to be silent and to stay at his home. When David learns of Amnon’s deceit, he may have been upset but he takes no action. David fails to administer justice and thereby allows Amnon to remain in line to become King of Israel at David’s death. It has been suggested that David had made a political decision to permit Amnon to continue as his heir. Or possibly, David understood Amnon’s behavior, since David knew that Amnon’s closest friend was a young man. David in his youth was very strongly attached to Jonathan, King Saul’s son. Bonding between men was a strong memory for David. Jonathan expressed a love for David that was described as greater than that of a man for any woman. Were Amnon in a similar relationship it was unlikely that he would produce an heir. David silence indicates that he probably knew that he had been complicit in allowing an innocent virgin to associate with her half-brother who had never shown an interest in women. Tamar’s statement that David would not refuse Amnon’s request to marry her indicates her perception that David was seriously looking for a wife for his son. David may have felt guilty for setting the stage for the rape and could not bring himself to punish Amnon.

Absalom like his father David had a long memory. He waited two years before inviting Amnon and David to a festival at his home. David being depressed declines but eventually he agrees to have Amnon to attend the festivities. When Amnon becomes intoxicated, Absalom instructed his servants to kill him. Immediately after this event Absalom left and sought refuge in the home of his grandfather some distance away. He remains there three years before David is persuaded to allow him to return to Jerusalem. He probably knew that Absalom was justified in avenging Tamar’s rape.

King David’s depression is also reflected in an analysis of the book of Psalms. Whilst the author of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible remains unknown, certainly King David is a strong contender for this honor. An Internet search for King David and depression (Christian answer.net) listed 53 citations of verses of gloom and unhappiness in the Psalms, for example, “I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly, I go mourning all day long…I groan because of the turmoil of my heart” (Psalms 38:6,8 NKJV). This sounds like a depressed author and would support the suggestion that a depressed King David maybe the author of many of the Psalms.

The complex events in the life of King David described in the books of Samuel and Kings, can be woven together by a consideration of his psychological depression and early life experiences. David’s story is largely consistent with these observations as his sinfully behavior may have been controlled by his depressed state and his intense need for sexual activity may have influenced his adulterous affair with Bathsheva. His bodily exposure while vigorously dancing in public, may be ascribed to the salubrious effects of dancing on a depressed person. David’s love for his children and his wish for an heir, combined with his experiences as a young man with Jonathan, may account for him agreeing to have Tamar prepare a meal for Amnon. These experiences may also have influenced his failure to punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar. Absalom was allowed to escape serious punishment for arranging the murder of Amnon, because David might have felt complicit in encouraging Tamar to interact with Amnon. David’s continued sedentary lifestyle suggests a depressive state. Finally, further evidence of David’s depression is grounded in his putative authorship of the Book of Psalms, which contains numerous expressions of sad and unhappy feelings. It appears difficult to imagine that the set of disparate behaviors by David recorded in the books of Samuel and Kings as part of a myth. Because of the consistency of behavior it appears likely that David’s story may be drawn from a carefully observed person reacting as his mind and personality permit. This alone would explain many of the strange actions of the King. In this area of history where evidence is sparse, we offer this textual analysis of Samuel and Kings to suggest that King David was indeed a historical individual.

[1] Garfinkel, Yosef, and S. Ganor. “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism.”Biblical Archaeology Review 37.3 (2011): 46-53.

[2] Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Dance, dance, revolution.” New York Times, June 3 (2007): 2007.

[3] Styron, William. “Darkness visible: a memoir of madness.” New York: Vintage Books, 1992. (1992).

[4] Polzin, Robert. Samuel and the Deuteronomist: A Literary Study of the Deuteronomic History Part Two: 1 Samuel. Indiana University Press, 1993.

[5] Bancroft, John, et al. “The relation between mood and sexuality in gay men.”Archives of sexual behavior 32.3 (2003): 231-242.

About the Author
Paul Nathan lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and has a PhD from the University of Chicago. He has a keen interest in the lives of biblical characters.