Saul Syndrome

Once upon a time, the people saw God as the leader of their nation. Judges and priests – men and women of God – rose up and listened to God and for God. They helped the people hear God as their King. The people followed God across the land to land flowing with milk and honey. Traveling to new places, they saw that other peoples had human kings. Human kings rode into battles with colorful tribal banners flying overhead. Human kings spoke to tribal neighbors and enemies negotiating artful deals, acquiring wealth and land.

The people who had God as their king decided they needed a human king – not a heavenly king. They told their prophet/priest, “We want a man-king, an earthly king to rule the nation- like nations around us.
Their priest Samuel responded to them, “No you don’t.”
The people said, “Yes we do!”
Samuel said, “Trust me, no, you don’t.”
The people said, “Yes we do! We want a king in a robe, and armor with military might.”
Samuel took their request to God. He said, “the people want a king.”
God said, “I’m their king..”
Samuel said, “they want a man king.”
God said, “No they don’t.”
Samuel says, “Yes they do.”
God said “Tell them how bad it will be with an earthly king.”
Samuel did just that. He went back to the people and said, “We’ve got God as our king. Let’s not mess this up. Who are we going to get better than God to lead us? Do we want some rookie apprentice with no experience in governing a nation?”
Samuel reports back to God, “The people won’t listen; they still want a king.”
God said,” Fine, give them a king; they’ll be sorry.”
Samuel says, “Ok, who will be the first king of Israel?”
God said, “You’ll know him when you see him.“

Samuel calls people of Israel together again with a word from God. “God told me to tell you,
“I, your God, led you out of Egypt, I delivered you. Now you want a king!? One last time- is this your final answer? The priest Samuel then names the one God has selected for their king. Saul was the son of a prominent Israelite family. His father had money. When Samuel announces Saul’s name as king, Saul did not step forward. In fact, Saul -was nowhere to be seen.

Samuel speaks to God, “What’s up? Where’s they guy you picked to be king?” God said, “He’s hiding in the baggage area.” (This really is in the Bible. I’m just telling the story not making this up.)

The people run to the baggage area and drag out Saul. When he stands up, he is a head taller than any of the others. He’s a fine specimen for a man-king. Evidently, the tallest person gets the job as national leader.

The people cry, “ Long live the king!”

The priest/prophet Samuel reminds the people that this is not a good idea, but he anoints Saul king anyway. Saul becomes the first king of Israel ever. That’s a really big deal. It’s like he got a star on a famous celebrity sidewalk. The nation of Israel has accumulated wealth, and now they have a big man-king to protect it.

The priest Samuel continues to instruct the man-king according to the Word of the Lord. The priest tells the new king to wait. “Wait until I tell you what to do” says Samuel. Saul waited six days. Then Saul grows impatient. He gives up on waiting. He’s the king. The king doesn’t have to wait on a priest. King trumps a bishop, right? He begins to rule on his own; he comes to believe he is above the law- above God’s law. He developed a knack for denial and self-justification. He has trouble sleeping. He begins ranting throughout the night. His beginning battle launched a downward spiral, a decent into madness: anxiety, paranoia, and depression.

When one of his servants, a young shepherd boy with musical talent was called in to play his harp for Saul, Saul grew calmer as melody filled the air. Music therapy worked to sooth his spirit. But when the same servant, David, found success in combat, people cheered David, Jealousy consumed Saul. He could not share the limelight- even with a boy. The Israelites had a man-king just like they asked for. Manic episodes with psychotic phases became the way of life in the royal regime.

Paranoia set in. Saul determined that David, his loyal servant and music therapist, had to die. He tried many times to kill him himself and then to recruit others as assassins. He even used his own daughter as unwitting accomplice to destroy the younger David.

In his paranoia, he perceived his own advisors and his own son as disloyal when Jonathan confronted his father’s madness. Saul and threatened to terminate them all- permanently.

Saul’s life became classic case now described in psychiatric medicine with the following symptoms evidenced in the stories of his life:
Need for constant attention and admiration
Sense of entitlement
Exploitive for his own ends
Lack of empathy
Envious of others or believing others are envious of him
Arrogant, haughty attitude
Preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success
A belief that he is special and can only be associated with other high-status people
It’s called the “Saul Syndrome,”1 otherwise known as Narcissism.

Narcissism makes for miserable, dangerous people. When on the throne, it makes for a miserable, dangerous nation. When madness comes forward to govern, we see holocausts, ethnic cleansing, and tribal wars. We look only to propping up the appearance of a broken man and feeding the insatiable appetite and greed of his own ego. We see disregard for the sacred soul of the earth. We witness international friendships become distant and strained. We gouge the poor and glutton the rich. Paranoia erects walls and bans brothers and sisters in need. God weeps.

Saul’s story ends tragically. He is the man-king that leads his men into battle, but it is a battle that cannot be won. The Philistines slay all King Saul’s men including Saul’s own sons. Before his enemies draw near enough to humiliate him, Saul draws his own sword and falls upon it. King, sons, servants and army all lie together in a heap of national death.

This is a tragic, sad story of man in power haunted by mental illness and the destruction and devastation that ensues when he is followed. You might read the entire story of King Saul in 1 Samuel. Even if you’ve never read it before, you might find Saul’s story eerily familiar.

As you read this tragic tale, listen oh so carefully, there is a single note of hope – like a solitary bird song amidst the storming chaos. While it is clear that “Israel has no future with Saul” – the story is clear that the next king is already being prepared. God has not abandoned Israel even when they abandoned God as their king. God is bringing up a new leader – a man after God’s own heart – not a son of great wealth, like King Saul, but a humble shepherd boy. He will not be a perfect man; he will have his flaws for sure, but he will be a man who listens for God. Our introduction to him comes in the plucking of harp strings providing music to sooth a troubled soul.

The Celtic tradition tells a story of the eternal quote, “Then, a great spiraling strain of Melody moved across the endless waters. Subdued at first, then quickly gathering momentum until it reached a great crescendo. And, then, there was Life! The Melody filled all of Creation with its divine harmony.” To the Celts it was known as the Oran Mór, “The Great Melody of Life” We live in an age that no longer listens for, that primordial divine, healing, Melody of Creation. Because we no longer hear the music , we wander restlessly with a sorely dis-eased soul. We no longer dance to its life giving rhythm. We move in silence feeling alone and lost. We have lost our way,2 like Saul and the people who forgot God as the King.

However, all is not lost. There is hope. Saul experienced relief from his madness when he listened to David pluck the strings of his harp. There is hope for us. When we listen to the music of God’s love woven into creation- in every sparrow song, every water crashing, every child laughing, and the wind rustling through the trees.

The Great Melody of Life did not cease- not with the Sabbath day of Creation, not with one mentally ill king thousands of years ago or one wounded leader today. Creator God continues with us, to soothe our troubled souls and to make our hearts sing in wholeness once more.

May it be so.


1 The Saul Syndrome: Its Symptoms, Causes, and Remedies, Including Options For Potential Codependents By Ed Vainio.
2 Frank Mills. Oran Mór: The Primordial Celtic Myth