Harold Behr

The Melancholy King: with Apologies to the Book of Samuel

Once upon a time (around the eleventh century, to be precise,) there lived in the land of Israel a young man of solitary temperament, whose name was Saul. Saul’s greatest wish was to be left alone to tend his father’s cattle. Unfortunately, as we know, life is not simple. When we get to a certain age, we have to take on unwanted responsibilities and our lives take unexpected turnings which sometimes lead towards undesirable outcomes. As soon as Saul reached manhood, his fellow tribesmen began to make demands of him which put paid to his dream of being left in peace and started him on the road to a dark fate. This is how it happened.

One day, as Saul was sitting on a rock whittling away at a twig, he looked up and saw a group of elderly men hurrying towards him. One of them embraced him, his eyes glistening with emotion, and introduced himself as the prophet Samuel. He went on to say that he had come to inform Saul that he had been chosen as the first king of Israel.

It transpired that the Israelites had been going through an unusually bad time. Not only were the various tribes at each other’s throats, but they were being threatened by the Philistines, a warlike nation who lived within spear-throwing distance of them. To make matters worse, they were being ruled by a group of unmilitary judges who had not the faintest idea about running an army. Nor did these judges have the authority to bang people’s heads together and bring them to their senses.

On the face of it, Saul was the right man for the job. He was tall and strong, he knew a thing or two about wielding a sword and he had a commanding presence. Before you could say “Shemah Yisroel” he was frog-marched off to have oil poured over him, and the people were given their king.

At first, all went well. The people welcomed Saul and fell into line behind him, rescuing an entire community from the clutches of the Philistines and conquering a few other tribes along the way. Saul himself waded into the Philistines with gusto, leaving a trail of hacked bodies in his wake and building up a reputation as a formidable warrior. But it was not long before things began to go wrong. To understand how this happened, you have to know that deep down, Saul was a very unconfident character. Not only was he prone to fits of brooding and melancholia but he trusted no one and frequently had outbursts of rage which terrified those around him.

While Saul was riding the crest of a wave, a young man appeared on the scene who showed himself every bit as capable as Saul in the field of battle. This young man, whose name was David, was not only a brave soldier but a talented musician to boot. He was charged with the task of playing his harp for Saul in the hope that music might be the remedy for his dark moods. But Saul, who by this time was eaten up with jealousy, saw in David only a dangerous rival. While David was attempting to soothe the unhappy king with his music, Saul unexpectedly reached for his spear and flung it at David, narrowly missing him.

From this point on, things went from bad to worse. David fled the scene in the face of Saul’s hostility, accompanied by his close friend Jonathan, who was one of Saul’s sons. Jonathan could not bear his father’s hostility towards David and helped him to hide from Saul. A desperate game of cat and mouse ensued, in which Saul tried, but failed, to track David down. On one occasion, David sneaked back into Saul’s tent and cut off a piece of Saul’s cloak while he was asleep to prove that he could easily have murdered him had he wanted to but that despite Saul’s persecution of him he harboured no ill-feeling towards him.

Meanwhile, the war against the Philistines was going badly. The Israelites saw this as a sign that Saul had antagonised their god and they began to have qualms about his leadership. As the two armies were preparing for a decisive battle on the slopes of a strategic mountain range, Saul, who by this time had sunk into state of profound depression, turned in desperation to a witch who lived nearby and sought her help in contacting Samuel, who by this time had passed on to a better place, in order to obtain his advice. As the practice of witchcraft was forbidden, Saul had disguised himself, but the witch was not fooled. She immediately recognised Saul and it was only with some difficulty that she was persuaded to summon the spirit of Samuel from his resting place.

Samuel was furious at having been disturbed. He told Saul in no uncertain terms that he had offended God and said that, as far the Philistines were concerned, his fate was already sealed. Grimly, Saul went off to do battle, accompanied by his three sons and his faithful armour-bearer.

Sure enough, the Philistines prevailed. The Israelites were defeated, and Saul’s sons were slaughtered. Saul himself was badly wounded. He begged his armour bearer to finish him off, but that loyal trouper could not bring himself to do so, so Saul, determined not to be taken alive, fell upon his own sword.

There is a poignant postscript to the story. The messenger bringing news of Saul’s death to David embellished his account by representing himself as the man who had put Saul out of his misery, thinking, foolishly, that David would be pleased with him. David, however, half-crazed with grief, flew at the messenger and killed him on the spot.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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