If I had to name the one person in the Bible I was most like, Heman the Ezrahite would be on the short list of names. Heman is one of the most obscure people of the Bible, and is obscure even among the Sons of Korah, but is a person whose qualities deserve to be much better known. Despite Heman’s obscurity, let us focus on three elements of Heman that the Bible makes plain so that we may understand him and his role in the Bible better. The Bible gives us useful insight into three parts of his life: his background, his wisdom, and his lengthy struggle with depression, and each deserves attention.
1 Chronicles 6:31-38 gives the first indication of the duties and ancestry of Heman, saying: “Now these are the men whom David appointed over the service of song in the house of the Lord, after the ark came to rest. They were ministering with music before the dwelling place of the tabernacle of meeting, until Solomon had built the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they served in their office according to their order. And these are the ones who ministered with their sons: Of the sons of the Kohathites were Heman the singer, the son of Joel, the son of Samuel, the son of Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Eliel, the son of Toah, the son of Zuph, the son of Elkanah, the son of Mahath, the son of Amasai, the son of Elkanah, the son of Joel, the son of Azariah, the son of Zephaniah, the son of Tahath, the son of Assir, the son of Ebiasaph, the son of Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, the son of Israel.”
What we learn from this ancestry is that Heman was one of the men chosen by David to be over the music service of the Temple, along with other names (like the notable Psalmist Aspah, who was from the line of Gershon in Levi), and that Heman was the grandson of the prophet and judge Samuel. It was, in part, the mistakes and sins of his father Joel that led Israel to request a king rather than let the rule of the judges continue. Though information about his family history is somewhat sketchy to nonexistent, it is clear that though Heman was a faithful servant of God, some of his deep struggles with depression, which find their way into Psalm 88 (which he wrote) seem related to a difficult childhood. Despite the sinful example of his father, though, Heman’s own contribution to the Bible is positive, if largely unrecognized.
Heman’s faithful service to God is shown in 1 Chronicles 15:16-17, which records the following: “Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. So the Levites appointed Heman the son of Joel; and of his brethren, Asaph the son of Berechiah; and of their brethren, the sons of Merari, Ethan the son of Kushaiah.” These three men–Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were the top rank Levites when it came to their skill in composing music as well as performing music with joy, and Heman was chief of these, despite his recognized struggles with depression. Here was a man with a known background among the Sons of Korah, a known struggle, but also known and recognized godliness, abilities, and a heart of service to his people.
In fact, this Heman was recognized as one of the wisest men in Israel during the time of Solomon, though he may not be recognized as such today. In 1 Kings 4:29-31 Heman is mentioned along with Ethan the Ezrahite as being a man of notable wisdom, though Solomon’s God-given wisdom exceeded it. Nonetheless, to be found as being almost as wise as Solomon is a notable achievement for any man, especially given the fact that his wisdom was notable enough to be listed among the wisest men of Israel.
Heman’s wisdom is recorded even where his family life is mentioned in the scriptures, in 1 Chronicles 25:4-5: “Of Heman, the sons of Heman: Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, Romanti-Ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth. All of these were the sons of Heman, the king’s seer in the words of God, to exalt his horn. For God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters.” Here we see that Heman was the seer for King David, which brings to attention that this man had a large family as well as a reputation for wisdom.
Though a full examination of the evidence of Heman’s depression will require a full explanation of Psalm 88, which is beyond the scope of this biographical sketch, it is notable that the aspect of Heman’s life which has left the most recognizable trace on scriptures (as his extensive mention within 1 Chronicles is obscure as a result of that book’s relative neglect) is his lengthy struggle with depression.
Let us therefore briefly note two notable aspects of his depression that are worthy of study. For one, his struggle with depression was a lengthy one, one that he suffered from his youth. As Heman laments in Psalm 88:14-15: “Lord, why do You cast off my soul? Why do you hide Your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.” While we do not have enough evidence from the scriptures to understand exactly what Heman’s sufferings in his youth sprang from, or what terrors he suffered from God (perhaps they were frequent nightmares, a terror I understand well), his struggles were long lasting, and he may be termed as one of the notable biblical figures to be afflicted with chronic depression.
The second aspect of his depression that is particularly notable is something he mentions twice, in Psalm 88:8 and Psalm 88:18. Psalm 88:8 reads: “You have put away my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an abomination to them.” Psalm 88:18 reads: “Loved one and friend you have put far away from me; and my acquaintances into darkness.” This lament about the loneliness that results from depression (and the fact that most people do not want to be around those who are intensely gloomy) mirrors the insight of Job about the same state in Job 19:13, 19, which reads: “He has removed my brothers far from me, and my acquaintances are completely estranged from me…all my close friends abhor me, and those whom I have loved have turned against me.” Here we see that the lament of Job and the lament of Heman echo the same language and reflect a deep truth about depression and its effects on one’s sociability.
The Biblical Verdict on Heman
Despite the fact that Psalm 88 itself shows no resolution, the notable, lengthy and public struggle of Heman with his depression does not mar the fact that Heman is given an exemplary record within scriptures. His exemplary record, regardless of whether God healed him of his depression, is due to his record for godliness, the honor provided to him by his fellow Levites and by David as a leader of the Levites in the worship of God, and his well-earned reputation as a seer as well as his place among the most prominent wise men in all of Israel during the time of David and Solomon , all combine to make Heman among the most notable heroes of faith during the golden age of Israel. Despite his obscurity, Heman’s wisdom, service, and faithfulness to God were not forgotten either by his brethren among the Levites or the people and God whom he served. Let us therefore remember the faithful example of Heman and recognize that we are not forgotten by God, though we may be best remembered for our struggles in a wicked and corrupt world, as Heman is.