No one can ignore a pneumatic drill when it’s in action, but why does it make that ear-splitting noise and jump up and down so forcefully that it breaks concrete? Clearly, it’s because a demon is inside. After all, its name comes from the word pneuma, which is Greek for a ‘spirit’. When the cylinder is electrified, the demon starts jerking violently and roaring in anger.

That’s what scholars call an etymological interpretation – a meaning worked out simply from the origin of the word. We sometimes do this when studying the Bible because we want to grasp each word’s complete meaning. That’s a good ambition but, when interpreting in this way, we must be very careful, because it can lead us to strange conclusions.

For example, the Israelites wouldn’t listen to Moses at first because they had “shortness of spirit” (Exodus 6:9, translated word-for-word). This idiom clearly doesn’t refer to length, so has sensibly been translated in the KJV, NIV and ESV respectively as feeling “anguish”, “discouragement” or “broken”.

But what are we to make of the husband described in Hebrew in the King James Version as having “a spirit of jealousy” (see Numbers 5:14, 30, KJV)? This doesn’t mean a demonic spirit, because God doesn’t tell Moses to exorcise it. This “spirit” doesn’t come from God either, because we are told the man could mistakenly feel jealous “even though she is not impure” (v14). The NIV therefore wisely translates it as “feelings of jealousy”. In this context, “spirit” was simply the Hebrew way of referring to an emotion.

In another book of the Bible the KJV translates word-for-word that “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem” (Judges 9:23). This cannot mean an individual demon, because there were many Shechemites. The NIV translation is therefore: “God stirred up animosity between” them. The text confirms this meaning a few verses later when it explains that the Shechemites weren’t stirred up against Abimelech by a demon but by Gaal son of Ebed (9:26-31). Again, “spirit” is used to refer to an emotion (in this case anger), just as we might say “a spirit of adventure” or “a spirit of optimism” without implying an individual good or evil spirit.

This isn’t to say that the Old Testament doesn’t talk about the spirit world. God’s spirit is often mentioned with regard to creation and the new creation (Genesis 1:2; Ezekiel 37:14), and occasionally evil spirits are mentioned (possibilities include Genesis 6:2; 1 Kings 22:22). But it does mean we need to be careful in our interpretation of “evil spirits” indifferent scriptural contexts.

Saul's 'evil spirit'

What about the “evil spirit” that plagued Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:14-16; 23; 18:10; 19:9)? When it came on him, it says he was “tormented” (16: 14-15), although when David played his lyre he felt “relief” (16:23) and “the evil spirit would leave him”. Was it a spiritual being? At least twice the anger from this “spirit” made Saul aim a lance at David (18:10-11; 19:9-10). We might conclude that this uncontrollable violence indicated demonic activity. However, evil spirits don’t leave when you play soothing music (if only it were so easy!).

The text is very clear, saying four times that this “evil spirit” came “from God” (16:14–16, 23). This is difficult to understand, and we shouldn’t make the same mistake as the Pharisees who thought the house of evil was divided, claiming that Jesus cast out spirits by the power of Beelzebub who sent them (Matthew 12:23-32). If the evil spirit cast out by godly David had been sent by God, God’s house would be equally divided.

Everything becomes clearer when we realise that the Hebrew word for ‘evil’ (ra’ah) has a wide range of meanings, including “wicked” but also “harmful” and “sad” (eg Genesis 6:5; 31:9; 40:7). It’s also clear that Saul’s servants believed he was suffering from angry depression because they suggested music would calm him – and it worked (v23). Saul’s servants didn’t treat it as demonic. They didn’t call Samuel to pray with him and didn’t even ask for help from the witch of Endor (whom Saul consulted in 1 Samuel 28:7).They understood the phrase “an evil spirit” as something like “a harmful emotion” or perhaps “spontaneous anger”. The ESV translates it as “a harmful spirit”, and the NIV translates the same phrase in Judges 9:23 as “animosity”. A similar phrase, “spirit of stubbornness”, is translated “sullen” in 1 Kings 21:5. These translations don’t indicate that modern Bible translators don’t believe in demons– they have simply translated the phrases as they are used in context.

If Saul did have a demon, we’d be forgiven for concluding that exorcism requires nothing more than a playlist. We might also surmise that all mental illnesses are caused by demons. People in the ancient world didn’t make this mistake. Saul’s servants knew he needed psychological help; this “evil spirit” was obviously different from the demonic spirits that Jesus cast out.

Jesus casting out demons

Matthew also recognised that mental illnesses and demonic problems are often different. Matthew 4:24, which lists people healed by Jesus one afternoon, includes some who were “demon-possessed” and others who were sel?niazomai, meaning ‘lunar-struck’, ie ‘lunatic’ – the word they used for mental illness or epilepsy.

Jesus knew that people can have mental illnesses just as they have other illnesses. And he knew that people can be troubled by demons. If we don’t recognise this too, we can increase the suffering of those with psychological or psychiatric problems by falsely diagnosing demonic activity. Through prayer, demonic troubles can generally be addressed fairly quickly. However, illnesses of the mind can take much longer to heal, and often recur.

God can wonderfully heal these maladies, like others, but many people have to live with them. Just as society is now more open about mental health than ever before, the Church, too, can shake off the unhelpful attitudes of the past by offering acceptance and practical support, and by bringing those who are suffering before God in prayer.

Leading biblical scholar David Instone-Brewer writes a regular column in Premier Christianity. Click here to subscribe