Depression in the Old Testament

by Cliff McManis

The subject of depression is all over the Bible. Believers must understand this before they can even begin to properly diagnose and treat the problem. From Genesis to Revelation, whether it is explicitly stated by name or manifest in someone’s life or modeled in a solution or a cry of the psalmist’s heart, depression is in Scripture. And amazingly, some of the most respected saints in the Bible struggled with depression just like real people do today. A brief survey of those who have gone before us will prove helpful and encouraging to see how they were overcome with depression and struggled through it with God’s help.

From Genesis to Revelation, whether it is explicitly stated by name or manifest in someone’s life or modeled in a solution or a cry of the psalmist’s heart, depression is in Scripture.

The Scriptures Encourage
In Romans 15:4 the apostle Paul says, “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” In this verse God makes an amazing promise about the Old Testament. Here Paul says the Scripture provides “encouragement” and “hope.” What do depressed people need more than anything? Encouragement and hope! And the kind of encouragement and hope the Bible provides is supernatural, heavenly, lasting, and life-changing.

Nothing in the world can provide that kind of encouragement and hope. Pills and medication provide temporary numbing, escape, distraction…and sometimes even dependency, debt and addiction. Psychologists and psychiatrists provide futile human wisdom that can’t penetrate the soul or override the real causes of depression. Rapid eye therapy (RET) provides a temporary false hope based on junk science and Darwinian presuppositions, namely that humans are no more than sophisticated animals who are the byproduct of chance evolution. The Bible, on the other hand, is the living Word of God that never returns void (Isa 55:11) and penetrates to the deepest recesses of the human heart, soul and mind (Heb 4:12).

One of the benefits of reading the Old Testament is that the Christian can gain perspective and endurance. By God’s intent and design, the believer can identify with the scenarios and the people of the Old Testament. The encouragement of the Scriptures feeds and heals the soul. If you are a believer who is depressed or discouraged, you need a big, ongoing dose of the encouragement of the Scriptures. What is the byproduct when you immerse yourself in the Word of God, even when you don’t feel like it? “That we might have hope,” Paul writes. What is the diagnosis of a depressed person? They don’t have hope. Hope comes from the encouragement of the Scriptures.

If you have been suffering from any degree of depression, you need to, as a child of God, rest in the truth highlighted in 2 Corinthians 7:6: “God comforts the depressed.” The word for “depressed” here is the Greek word, tapeinós, and refers to “one who is brought down low with despair or grief.” God promises to lift you up. If you are a believer, God the Father is your ultimate Counselor because He adopted you into His own family (Rom 8:15) and “He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). Jesus Christ is also your personal Counselor (Isa 9:6). The Holy Spirit is your Comforter, your Counselor, and the One who provides encouragement since He is your Advocate who lives in you and will never leave you (John 14:16-18).

If you are a believer and you own a Bible, get your nose in the Word of God, listen to it taught and preached, immerse yourself in the refreshing waters of God’s truth. Let’s look briefly at examples of some of the godliest people in the Bible who were challenged with depression, and even more importantly, how God was their sufficiency in the midst of their discouragement.

Joseph’s Life of Hardship and Betrayal
Joseph was the son of Jacob (Gen 37:3) who suffered greater hardship than most of us will ever know. He had ten older brothers who hated him, beat him up, tried to kill him, and eventually sold him into slavery (Gen 37:28; Acts 7:9) and spent two years in a dungeon for a crime he did not commit (Gen 41:1). Despite decades of suffering and injustice, Joseph was a man of faith (Heb 11:2) who trusted God.

If anyone had a cause to be depressed it was Joseph. In prison, Joseph was utterly deprived, isolated, forgotten, and forsaken. Yet because he knew God personally and trusted in Him no matter what, “God was with him and rescued him from all his afflictions” (Acts 7:9). Joseph could have grown depressed and bitter toward his brothers who tried to kill him, toward the Pharaoh who threw him in prison, and toward God for allowing all this to happen. But he didn’t.

He did, however, experience tremendous emotional turmoil as a result of the whole grueling experience when at last he confronted his brothers in Egypt thirteen years after his demise:

Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried, “Have everyone go out from me.” So there was no man with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard of it. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me.” And they came closer. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”

Gen 45:1-5

A little later after their father Jacob died, Joseph again wept before his guilty brothers and said, “‘you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…So therefore do not be afraid’…So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen 50:20-21).

A key lesson for believers from the life of Joseph is to realize that bad circumstances and evil treatment from others does not justify becoming chronically depressed or bitter. In the midst of trying circumstances, God can extend us “kindness” and “favor” (Gen 39:21) to see us through the trial, regardless of how bad things get. That is God’s promise. Paul said to Christians, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him” (Rom 15:13). But you have to trust Him. If you blame others, get bitter, justify your bad attitude, blame the circumstances, complain and grumble, refuse to give Him thanks, or seek relief and comfort in other places rather than in Him, then He won’t “fill you with joy and peace.” It’s that simple. Trusting God is a deliberate choice—and that choice can result in inexplicable joy.

David’s Personal Anguish: A Look at the Psalms
Another example to learn from in the Old Testament is King David. Like Joseph, he also loved God and was a man of faith. But unlike Joseph, David was prone to more turbulent bouts of emotional inconsistency—including seasons of severe depression, anxiety and fear. David’s writings, taken as whole, reveal a man after God’s own heart, while at the same time picture a man who walked with feet of clay and who exuded the full gamut of human emotions. This biographical sketch of David’s personality and temperament can be gleaned from the Old Testament Psalms, seventy-five percent of which are attributed to his name.

Psalm 32
I once counseled a believer who was going through the most severe case of depression I had ever encountered. I listened as he told me his own diagnosis of why he was overcome with a kind of depression that had brought him near to the point of death! I asked several questions about what he was feeling, what thoughts were going through his mind, how he was conducting his daily life, and so on. After he described these things in detail, I immediately thought of Psalm 32 and began reading it to him. Psalm 32 depicts David in aguish from unparalleled depression to the point that it made him physically sick. After I finished reading the short Psalm to my friend, I asked, “Does this sound like you?” It did—he could totally identify with that Psalm.

Psalm 32 provides a close look at David after he had committed grievous sins. It is fresh after he committed adultery with Bathsheba, murdered her husband Uriah, and subsequently tried to cover it all up (2 Sam 11-12). He was a believer, the king of Israel, and leader of God’s people. He was supposed to be the shepherd and prophet of God. He was a man of God, he loved God, and God loved him. But these were horrific sins in which he had been involved and had attempted to conceal. He was finally exposed by Nathan the prophet who put his finger in David’s face and confronted him for his egregious sins.

I believe Psalm 32 was written during this one-year period when David was battling on the inside with severe, chronic, “clinical” depression. While reading this Psalm, pay attention to what he says because of his sin and the compromise in his life. Despite being forgiven for his sins, he is reflecting on what the turmoil in his life was like:

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!

vv. 1-2

David was forgiven. There were severe consequences for his sin, but he was forgiven, and he is now reflecting on what it was like and how depressed he was as a believer:

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away.

v. 3a

Sin can be a key cause of depression. When you are silent about your sin, running from God, hiding your sin from God, and ignoring your guilt, depression will often take root. Depression physically affects us, especially for prolonged periods of time. You lose your appetite. You can’t sleep. And it gets worse as you spiral down. That is exactly what happened to David as described in Psalm 32. This had nothing to do with chemical imbalances—that was not the ultimate cause of his depression. He probably had chemical imbalances as his depression worsened, but it was not the root cause.

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.

v. 3b

There was a continual, unbroken, ongoing groaning in his soul that was akin to what today is called “chronic depression.” For David, there was no human solution. Nobody could comfort him with mere human wisdom.

For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me.

v. 4a

In other words, day and night he was being pressed down by God’s judgment. God was chastening him for unconfessed sin. He describes it as God “pressing down” on him. That is depression. Not every cause of depression is a bad thing; sometimes God causes depression from His holy, purifying discipline. That is what this verse says. God disciplines those whom He loves (Heb 12:6). Day and night God’s heavy hand was pressing down upon him, literally crushing him down, trying to get David to fess up and repent.

My vitality was drained away.

v. 4b

This is common of somebody who has chronic, clinical depression—they lose strength and desire in every area of life, and that is what happened to David. He is the poster child of psychotic neurosis, major depression, bipolar disorder, or whatever you want to call it.

I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”; and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found. Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.

vv. 5-6

In these two verses David reveals the solution to the depression he endured for almost a year—a full, honest confession of his sin that he was hiding. And his advice to other believers is to pray to God and confess your sin before it is too late.

Job’s Unprecedented Trials
One of the oldest and longest books in the Bible is Job. It offers much to inform our thinking on the topic of depression because the main character in the book was subjected to greater hardship than the average person will ever experience.

Job was a godly man (Job 1:1), yet he was suddenly overcome with a flurry of devastating events including robbery and the loss of nearly all his personal property (1:13-17). Furthermore, all ten of his children were killed (1:2, 18-19), he contracted boils from head to toe (2:7), his wife spurned him (2:9), his closest friends gave him bad advice (42:7) and behind the scenes he was being oppressed by Satan himself (1:9; 2:4).

Job was suffering such excruciating physical pain (2:13) as well as emotional pain from all his trials that he cursed the day of his birth (3:11). He was so depressed that he was “bitter of soul” (3:20) and longed for death (3:21). In other words, Job was suicidal.

There is no greater sign of depression than being suicidal. Job’s life was typified by “groaning… cries…fear…dread…not at rest…turmoil” (3:24-26). He further claimed to have “vexation…terrors…despairing” (6:2, 4, 14). He said for months, “My flesh is clothed with worms and a crust of dirt; my skin hardens and runs” (7:3, 5). The longer it went on the more Job loathed his life, gave full vent to his complaining and had deep bitterness in his soul (10:1). But through it all he never abandoned his belief in God, even though he argued with Him about his circumstances. All through the turmoil he realized that the way he felt was not due solely to a medical condition; he knew he was in a spiritual battle and his thought life was at the center of that conflict.

In the end Job allowed his thinking to be corrected and his perspective to be brought to “true North” (42:1-2).

In the end Job allowed his thinking to be corrected and his perspective to be brought to “true North” (42:1-2). He humbled himself before God (42:6) and realized that despite his bad circumstances he still needed to trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness. As a result the LORD blessed Job (42:12) and saw him through his emotional duress and season of depression.

Other Old Testament Saints
The Old Testament provides many other examples of believers who battled with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. We could have given many more examples from the life of King David, like when he feigned insanity out of “great fear” he had for Achish, king of Gath. As a result, David had an explosive schizophrenic, bipolar episode as “he disguised his sanity before them, and acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let saliva run down his beard” (1 Sam 21:13).

And there was the great prophet Elijah who at the peak of his ministry was overwhelmed by anxiety and became depressed to the point of no longer wanting to live. The Bible says, “he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life’” (1 Kings 19:4)!

Then there was Jeremiah the “weeping prophet,” or the “depressed prophet,” who for over fifty years preached under duress and rejection from the people. He described himself as one whose eyes were “a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night” (Jer 9:1; cf. 13:17; 14:17). He wrote Lamentations, an inspired journal of one tormented with deep grief and anguish.

And don’t forget Jonah the prophet who was prone to episodes of temperamental chaos and debilitating depression, at one point begging “with all his soul to die, saying, ‘Death is better to me than life’” (Jon 4:8).

All the above references to the saints in the Old Testament clearly illustrate that depression is frequently found in the Bible among God’s people. And as a result, what Paul said in Romans 15:4 is true: believers can go to Bible when they are discouraged so that through “the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

You can read more on this topic in Cliff’s book, What the Bible Says About Depression.

Related Articles