1 Samuel 16:23
And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was on Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand…
I. THE COMPLICATION OF MENTAL AND MORAL DISORDER. Saul was the victim of cerebral disease, but not an innocent victim. His unhingement of mind was due in large measure to causes for which he was morally responsible. The expression, "an evil spirit from the Lord was upon him," is just an Old Testament way of saying that the state into which he fell, as a result mainly of his own misconduct, bore the character of a Divine retribution. From the beginning there seems to have been a morbid tendency in the mind of Saul. He was at once very impulsive and very obstinate; and as his troubles and anxieties increased, the original weakness or unhealthiness of his brain became more and more apparent. He had an evil conscience because of his disobedience to Divine commands, and though faithfully reproved by the prophet Samuel, he does not appear to have ever sought pardon or healing. Thus the purpose of God to give the kingdom to another and a better man weighed on him as a dreadful secret, and his native melancholy deepened. The thing preyed on his mind till he became wretchedly suspicious and jealous, and at times gave way to homicidal mania. For considerable periods, as during the active struggle with the Philistines, this evil spirit left the king; but he fell back into his passionate gloom. As we trace his course, the better lines of his character fade away, and the worse become deeper and more obvious.
II. THE REMEDY APPLIED - ITS SUCCESS AND ITS FAILURE. In so far as there was mental disease, the case called for medical treatment; in so far as it was complicated with and grounded on moral disorder, it needed a moral corrective. But even if there had been any scientific treatment of insanity known at the period, it would have been difficult to apply it to King Saul, and it occurred to his attendants to try the soothing charm of music. This might be the opiate to assuage the anguish of the spirit -
"The soft insinuating balsam, that
Can through the body reach the sickly soul." So David was brought to the court to allay, if he could not cure, the malady of the king by his skilful minstrelsy. It was a wise experiment. From the readiness of Saul to catch the fervour and join in the strains of the sons of the prophets, and from the fact that in his frenzy he "prophesied in the midst of the house," we infer that his temperament was peculiarly open to musical impression, and are not surprised that the sounds of David's lyre and voice, especially when chanting some Divine and lofty theme, affected and in some degree controlled the unhappy king. As he listened his spirit became more tranquil, and wicked thoughts and jealousies lifted from off him, as clouds lift from a mountain for a while, even though they gather again. The refining and calming effect of music and song no wise man will disparage. It is not religion, but it may legitimately and powerfully conduce to moral and religious feeling. Elisha called for a minstrel, that his mind might be attuned and prepared to receive the prophetic impulse. Martin Luther found the inspiration of courage in the same manner. "Next to theology," he said, "I give the first place and the greatest honour to music." Milton, too, delighted in such musical service
"As may with sweetness, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before mine eyes." David sang before the clouded face of Saul, and "played with his hand." So let sweet and sacred minstrelsy confront the sin and sorrow of the world. It is better than the fabled power of Orpheus, who, when he touched his lyre, moved the very trees and rocks, and gathered the beasts of the forest to listen to his notes. Another myth regarding Orpheus has indeed a noble meaning beneath the surface of the story. When the Argonauts passed the island of the sirens, Orpheus, on board their ship, loudly chanted the praises of gods and heroes, so as to drown the voices from the shore, and so he and his comrades passed the fatal spot in safety. The moral is obvious. The sirens represent pleasures of sense, which begin with blandishment, but end in cruel destruction; and a powerful resistance to sensual temptation is to be found in preoccupation of mind and heart with holy and heroic song. Yet the moral power thus exerted has its limit, and we see this clearly in the case of Saul. The king was acutely sensitive to the influence of David's minstrelsy, but he was only charmed, not cured; and even while the youth played before him he attempted his life in a paroxysm of jealousy. So is many a man thrilled with delight by sacred music wedded to holy words in an oratorio or in Church service who is not delivered thereby from some evil spirit or base passion that has mastered him. Alas, how many men of musical taste and sensibility, some of them of poetic capacity also, have been quite unable to shake off the yoke of that most conspicuous evil spirit of our time and nation, the love of strong drink! This infatuation may be quieted or checked for a time, but it is not expelled by music ever so good and true. The harp, even David's harp, cannot subdue the power of sin. This requires the power of David's God. There is need of a prayer of David, such as Saul seems never to have offered up: "Create in me a clean heart; Lord, renew a right spirit within me." There is need to apply to the Son of David, who cast out unclean spirits by his word, and brought men to their right mind, and now in the power of the Holy Spirit not only controls, but corrects and cures all the evils which prey on the mind or defile the heart of man. The blackness of envy, the foulness of hatred, the demons of deceit, avarice, intemperance, and cruelty are expelled by nothing less than the grace of Christ.
"And his that gentle voice we hear,
Soft as the breath of even,
That checks each fault, that calms each fear,
And speaks of heaven." - F.
Parallel VersesKJV: And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.