One might, upon searching fruitlessly for the word “depression” in a Bible concordance, conclude that no such emotional state existed in antiquity. There is neither a Greek nor a Hebrew word that corresponds exactly to our English term. The New Testament speaks of being sorrowful, distressed, troubled, perplexed, in agony, and very heavy, all of which seem to be more industrious states of suffering than what we mean by the modern affliction of depression.

The Old Testament, when describing states of inner agony, is more graphic: “Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord,” begins Psalm 130. Using the same spatial metaphor, Psalm 69 recreates a powerful image of one “sunk” in despair: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” Isaiah, who prefers the image of “desolate places” to objectify this inner state, describes the experience this way: “Among those in full vigor we are like dead men. We all growl like bears, we moan and moan like doves.”

Still, both the psalmist and the prophet are documenting a response to a clearly identifiable situation. In the Psalms, it is the ever present enemy who makes the poet’s life miserable. In Isaiah he is protesting lack of justice. The very recognition of such a solid source of one’s unhappy state makes it slightly, but significantly, different from what we call depression today. Indeed, the absence of a cause to which we can pin our sudden drop in spirit is what frightens us about depression.

Where ...

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