Depression from Fear

David at Gath

I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.
—Psalm 34:4

David was a study in contrasts. He was the sweet-voiced poet of the psalms; he was the mighty warrior who slew his “ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). He was the meek penitent that earned him God’s commendation as “a man after mine own heart” (Acts 13:22); he was a man who took the wife of one of his soldiers and then had him killed in battle to cover up his crime. He was a man who could rail over his enemies (Psalm 55:23), and who could bitterly weep over the death of his traitorous son Absalom (2 Samuel 18:33).

David was a man sharing the like passions of fallen humanity. He rashly ordered a divinely forbidden census of Israel (2 Samuel 24:1-4). He was an over-indulgent father (1 Kings 1:6). Despite his shortcomings, he was judged as having done “that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:5).

A Refugee

After one of King Saul’s fits of anger and threats against his life, the record reads: “And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath” (1 Samuel 21:10). Although he had fled before, both from his own house and from Naioth, he now left his country completely and went, of all places, to the Philistine city of Gath, the former home of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:4).

Although apparently well received by the king, the king’s servants took a more negative view: “And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.” (1 Samuel 21:11, 12).

David took two actions in response. First, he feigned madness by “scrabbling,” or scratching, on the gates of the city and drooling saliva into his beard. His ruse was successful in producing both disgust and sympathy; Achish ejected him from the city. Second, he continued his flight until he reached a safer location, the cave of Adullam, not far from his hometown of Bethlehem.

Psalm 34

Some time after this event, David wrote his feelings about this experience in Psalm 34. The title to this psalm reads: “A Psalm of David, when he changed his behaviour before Abimelech; who drove him away, and he departed.” Abimelech and Achish are the same person. Abimelech is the title given to Philistine kings and merely means “my father is king.”

We read, “My soul shall make her boast in the LORD: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad” (Psalm 34:2). The Hebrew word translated “humble” (anav, Strong’s #6035) literally means “afflicted,” and comes from a root meaning “depressed.” It is these that are the psalmist’s intended audience. David is here drawing lessons from his own depression to help others with similar emotions.

In verse 4 he gets to the crux of the problem: “I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” It was fear, and not real danger, from which David was delivered. Although prominent men of Gath were suspicious of him, there is no indication that King Achish shared their doubts. In fact, on a later occasion when he sought refuge there, Achish received him most hospitably, even giving him the town of Ziklag for a home (1 Samuel 27:6).

Fear is an insidious paralyzing agent. It can immobilize the one it affects. The apostle says “fear hath torment” (1 John 4:18). Pastor Russell points out in Reprints page 1040 that the Greek word kolasis (Strong’s #2851 meaning penal infliction) should be translated “restraint” rather than “torment.” The Phillips translation contains an interesting paraphrase: “fear always contains some of the torture of feeling guilty.”

Fears must be faced to be conquered. A young boy once had a deep fear of a deep, dark closet in his bedroom. One night he walked in his sleep and woke up seated on the floor in the deepest recesses of that closet. From that time on, he no longer feared that place. Someone has well said, “Fear knocked on the door; Faith answered; No one was there.”

In 1 John 4:18, the apostle offers a remedy for expelling fear: “Perfect love casteth out fear.” It is only as we, in our love for the Lord, learn to trust him implicitly that he can and will overrule every affair of our life for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28); then our paralyzing fears will dissipate. Otherwise we can be of those who, “through fear of death” are “all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). David’s confidence was restored by the realization that “the angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them (Psalm 34:7).


David did a masterful job of acting to escape from Gath. He feigned insanity (or epilepsy, as the Septuagint has it) by scratching with his fingernails on the city gate and frothing at the mouth. It was by such an innovative means of guile that David successfully extricated himself from his predicament.

Yet he does not look back approvingly on this piece of theater. On the contrary, he reflects plaintively and pronounces judgment on his artfulness by saying, “Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile” (Psalm 34:13). Herein lies a lesson for every consecrated child of God. “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart,” the wise man writes, “and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

The brightest schemes that earth can cherish
Are but the pastimes of an hour.            

It is a natural human trait, when one is in a dilemma, to try to find a way of escape. But when we seek our own solutions, even if successful, it is essential that truth, and not deception, be used. Otherwise, feelings of guilt torment us and bring on depression. A better approach is to trust in the Lord for deliverance. The apostle Paul addresses this issue: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Other translations, more correctly, do not speak of a “way of escape” but suggest that divine strength is given to go through the difficult experience. The Concordant Translation, for instance, renders it “together with the trial, will be making the sequel also, to enable you to undergo it.”

A Contrite Spirit

David’s reactions to his behavior at Gath is also in Psalm 34: “The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all” (Psalm 34:18, 19).

Although plagued with guilt over his deceitful conduct, David firmly leaned on the Lord’s forgiveness. He wrote: “For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all that call upon thee” (Psalm 86:5). Jesus’ beloved apostle picks up the same sentiment: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

It is noteworthy that John makes God’s forgiveness a matter of justice. “As he would have been unjust to have allowed us to escape the pronounced penalty before satisfaction was rendered, so also he here gives us to understand that it would be unjust were he to forbid our restitution, since by his own arrangement our penalty has been paid for us” (The Divine Plan of the Ages, p. 157).

The same author writes in another place: “If any violation of this [the golden] rule brings pain and regret, it is a sure sign that the violation was not wilful, not of the heart, not the New Creature’s violation of principle, but, at most, a violation connived at or stumbled into by the flesh, contrary to the desires of the spirit or intention” (The New Creation, p. 375).

Guilt, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is guilt prolonged that leads to depression and despair. Guilt may be likened unto a heavy weight. Wrong actions place this weight on our shoulders for one purpose—to bring us to our knees. Once we have prayed on our knees for forgiveness, the weight is lifted and we may rise again: “A just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again” (Proverbs 24:16).

A story is told of a woman who, in despair, went to her pastor and said that she had committed a sin so grievous that, though she had asked God for forgiveness, he was not able to grant it. Her pastor responded, “You have indeed committed a sin for which you need forgiveness; but it is not that sin of which you speak. That sin has been forgiven. The sin for which you must now repent is the sin of accusing God of being a liar when he said that he would freely forgive you.”

In a much more serious sin, the combined sin of adultery and murder, David wrote: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness. O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise. For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51:14-17).

Having offered his contrite heart, he is willing to offer the animal sacrifices the law required, and he appends these words, “Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar” (Psalm 51:19).

The Sum of the Whole Matter

David draws his penitent prayer to a conclusion with these reassuring words: “The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and all that trust in him shall not incur guiltiness” (Psalm 34:22, Leeser, where the verse is numbered 23).

If we have this contrite attitude of David, we may be assured in our darkest hours that we will receive divine forgiveness and, if such an attitude be maintained, like David we may be found to be “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).