David and Goliath. David and Bathsheba. David, the shepherd King. David, a man after God’s own heart. These are Davids we are familiar with, Davids we teach our children, Davids we depict and commemorate in the arts.
But David, the depressed? David, the melancholy poet familiar with the deep, unutterable places of the human heart? We don’t talk about him much. After all, depression is an uncomfortable subject.
I am no clinical psychologist, and the DSM IV was clearly not in circulation in David’s day and age; however, as one who has walked through deep waters and swum through the Psalms David penned, my expert opinion says that David was familiar with depression. Sure, the topography of psychology and neurology have changed and evolved, but the tendencies of the human heart and soul have been the same since the first bite of forbidden fruit.
Whether he walked through what we call a clinical depression or not, whether his levels of various neurotransmitters were deficient or not, one thing is certain. David waded through deep mental, emotional and spiritual mire. Judging from the poems he penned which God saw fit to preserve for humanity, the fathomless places of the human soul and psyche were trudged by him on many different occasions through countless seasons.
Save me, O God, for the waters have threatened my life. I have sunk in deep mire and there is no foothold. I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched; my eyes fail while I wait for my God. Psalm 69:1-3
Psalm 69 provides a painfully honest lens into the heart of the depressed David. David paints the pervasive image of deep, deep waters rising, surrounding him, engulfing him throughout this poem. Strong Hebrew words of distress litter the entire psalm, words like tsar which means tight, constricted places, shataph which means to engulf, to charge, to overwhelm and taba which means to sink or to drown.
To the ancient Hebrew mind, nothing was more intimating and threatening than the concept of the sea. Throughout this psalm, David continually refers to the deep places. The word translated as deep, metsolah, literally means the deepest parts of the sea. The image of the ocean chart in a middle school earth science textbook comes to mind. David is not referring to the intertidal zone, the ocean shelf, or the deep sea, but the abysmal, fathomless zone so deep that light does not penetrate it. Even today, in an age of submersibles and underwater exploration, the abyss represents mystery, fear, and deep darkness; how much more so to an ancient Hebrew mind?
David invites God and, subsequently, us into his consuming fears, inescapable exhaustion and terrifying isolation. Sounds a lot like depression to me.
The searing image that comes to mind is David gasping desperately for life and breath amidst the surrounding, life-threatening waters all around him. The Psalm shifts ever-so-slightly to hope in moments when chunks of truth float by on the surface of the raging waters like scraps of wood onto which David clings to for a moment’s breath and rest.
But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord, at an acceptable time; O God, in the greatness of Your lovingkindness, answer me with your saving truth. Deliver me from the mire and do not let me sink…Answer me, O Lord, for your lovingkindness is good; according to the greatness of your compassion, turn to me. Psalm 69:13-14 and 16.
The respite doesn’t last long, as the waters in his soul seem to rise again and again. Yet, David continually cries out honestly to his God in the midst of the stubborn darkness. He even goes so far as to imagine what life will be like on the other side of these raging floods of turmoil. Even though in the moment, in his urgency, it feels like he will never be rescued, David knows that even this darkness will be illuminated, that the waters will recede and that the resultant tale of his perseverance will not only make God greatly smile but will also encourage the hearts of those in their own abysmal depths.
But I am afflicted and in pain May Your salvation, O God, set me securely on high. I will praise the name of god with song and magnify him with thanksgiving. And it will please the Lord better than an ox or a young bull with horns and hoofs. The humble have seen it and are glad; You seek God, let your heart revive. For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise His who are prisoners. Psalm 69:29-33.
The heights are inverted depths. Our capacity for joy and peace is directly correlated to our capacity for pain.
Christian wading through deep mental mire, knee-deep in emotional muck, you are in good company. Find solace in the words of David the depressed, but even more so, find refuge in the One who felt the greatest capacity for human suffering and joy, Jesus the Christ.