In our previous post, we looked at some of King Saul’s blame-shifting tactics, and now we come to consider Saul’s narcissism and rage. When Saul’s desires were frustrated, he lashed out at others.
In the story of Israel’s war with the Philistines at this time, Samuel is absent for a while, and Jonathan stands out as a person who went against Saul’s wishes. It’s true that Saul was King, and that Jonathan, as his son, held a uniquely privileged position in society. However, whether Jonathan knew it or not, we will soon see that his position meant nothing once he crossed Saul.
Jonathan’s courage and communication with God had an incredible impact. From the story so far, we are led to believe only Jonathan had a sword when he and his armour-bearer went up to attack the Philistines.1 Jonathan led, and his armour-bearer killed behind him. Between them, they killed around 20 soldiers in the first rush, in an area a little smaller than two Olympic swimming pools.2
After that attack, the text tells us God sent a panic on the Philistines. They turned to attack each other.3
Jonathan cooperated with God
The connection between Jonathan’s character and the ultimate defeat of the Philistines is clear. Although Saul effectively controlled everyone else, Jonathan had a different centre. He took initiative that required independence from Saul. He made his decisions based on his sense of rightness and his relationship with God. Jonathan cooperated with God in his decision making, and God brought the panic once Jonathan had acted.
In what follows next we see Saul almost asking for God’s advice.4 It’s hard to interpret the nature of his intent, but what we do know is that he and his army joined Jonathan and his armour-bearer, and the Philistine army fled. Saul and his army were not the only ones who were influenced by Jonathan’s leadership. The text tells us:
Those Hebrews who had previously been with the Philistines and had gone up with them to their camp went over to the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan.
When all the Israelites who had hidden in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were on the run, they joined the battle in hot pursuit.
So on that day the Lord saved Israel, and the battle moved on beyond Beth Aven.5
This story ultimately tells us something about the effectiveness of Saul’s abusive tactics, because we know that despite Jonathan’s obvious courage, his ability to separate himself from Saul’s influence, and his productive relationship with God, he was still taken in by Saul’s lies and false apologies when David’s life was at risk.6 But for now, let’s look at more of Saul’s narcissism and rage, and Jonathan’s ability to think for himself.
Saul’s narcissism and rage
One of the common features of narcissism is narcissistic rage. It normally appears when something or someone blocks the felt needs and wants of the narcissist. Healthline describes narcissistic rage as
an outburst of intense anger or silence that can happen to someone with narcissistic personality disorder.7
We may see Saul expressing narcissistic rage in the way he blocked his army from eating:
Now the Israelites were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, “Cursed be anyone who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!” So none of the troops tasted food.8
His oath is clearly about himself, saying:
“…before I have avenged myself on my enemies!”9
It is clear from the text that his men were afraid of him10 and that they were faint from hunger.11 Interestingly, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV-TR notes a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder
“may expect great dedication from others and may overwork them without regard for the impact on their lives.”12
That sure sounds like Saul.A narcissist 'may expect great dedication from others and may overwork them without regard for the impact on their lives.' (DSM-IV-TR) Click To Tweet
Jonathan criticised Saul
By contrast with the men, Jonathan openly criticises Saul, saying:
“My father has made trouble for the country. See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey. How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?”13
Again, it is possible his position of privilege gave him the freedom to speak against Saul in ways others couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t consider. All the same, it’s clear by this time Saul is an angry and volatile man, and we can assume Jonathan would have experience with Saul’s character.
By the time night fell, the Israelites were exhausted, had fought another battle, and were so famished they started eating raw meat.
Saul’s narcissism and rage was dangerous even to his allies
This story holds no record of anyone agreeing with Saul, although it’s clear that many were afraid of him. Once he discovered Jonathan had eaten honey, Saul was quite willing to go ahead and kill him.
Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.”
So Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the end of my staff. And now I must die!”
Saul said, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.”
But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.14
It was only the men who saved Jonathan from Saul’s rage. Saul showed no sign of repentance, even in the face of such a strong rebuke.
One of the things the tale of Saul and Jonathan shows us is the difference between a repentant and a non-repentant person. Saul continued to blame his men, to take his frustrations out on others, and I wonder: in the exhaustion and hunger that was a direct result of Saul’s selfish anger, did men die from not being at their best? It seems likely.
No one was safe from the impact of Saul’s narcissism and rage. He was committed to killing Jonathan for eating some honey in innocent ignorance. Jonathan, meanwhile, resisted the influence of his abusive father, developing his own identity, opinions, and functioning relationship with God. For all that, as the story continues we will see him go on to be dangerously fooled by Saul, despite what was likely the best of intent.
Steve WadeWhen King Saul's desires were frustrated, he often lashed out at others. Saul's narcissism and rage are clearly connected. Click To Tweet
- 1 Samuel 13:22
- 1 Samuel 14:13-14
- 1 Samuel 14:15
- 1 Samuel 14:18-19
- 1 Samuel 14:21-23
- 1 Samuel 19:4-6; 20:1-2
- 1 Samuel 14:24
- 1 Samuel 14:24
- 1 Samuel 14:25
- 1 Samuel 14:28
- American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
- 1 Samuel 14:29-30
- 1 Samuel 14:43-45