My wife Jeannette and I recently went on vacation, which included a week in the Northeast. We drove through Massachusetts, Maine, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. We loved the coast, with all of its bays and harbors. We were awe struck with the autumn leaves turning golden yellow and flaming red. Having lived in the Northwest and Texas, we were especially struck with how old things are in the Northeast. We saw churches built before the Declaration of Independence, and headstones on graves of those who died centuries ago.
The word “old” took on a new meaning; “old” was “older” than we were used to thinking. Yet in America, even this kind of “old” is not really “old.” Do we think a 200-year-old building or grave is “old”? Think what “old” meant to an Old Testament saint. For example, the Israelites made a covenant with the Gibeonites four centuries before the days of David. It is doubtful King Saul had forgotten about this covenant. More likely he convinced himself it was so “old” it really didn’t have a binding force any longer. How wrong he was! His actions with regard to the Gibeonites brought a famine upon the land of Israel some time after he died. It fell to David to deal with Saul's covenant breaking and make things right.
This story sounds strange to our Western ears. We wonder how and why it is necessary to kill seven descendants of Saul for something done years earlier, having to do with a covenant that was 400 years old. We are puzzled that the mother of two of those executed would take such efforts to protect the corpses of her sons, and that David would be prompted to give these bones a proper burial, accompanied by the bones of Saul and his son(s). Stranger still is finding that Goliath, with whom David fought at the outset of his military career, had a number of offspring who were all giants as well.
These strange stories were placed together in the 21st chapter of 2 Samuel, and they were recorded and preserved under divine inspiration and supervision. Let us bear in mind that these stories come at the conclusion or climax of 1 and 2 Samuel. The author has been building up to this point in the text, so the message must be important for all of us. Let us listen carefully to these stories to learn the message God has for us in them.
1 Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year; and David sought the presence of the LORD. And the LORD said, “It is for Saul and his bloody house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them (now the Gibeonites were not of the sons of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites, and the sons of Israel made a covenant with them, but Saul had sought to kill them in his zeal for the sons of Israel and Judah). 3 Thus David said to the Gibeonites, “What should I do for you? And how can I make atonement that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?” 4 Then the Gibeonites said to him, “We have no concern of silver or gold with Saul or his house, nor is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “I will do for you whatever you say.” 5 So they said to the king, “The man who consumed us and who planned to exterminate us from remaining within any border of Israel, 6 let seven men from his sons be given to us, and we will hang them before the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD.” And the king said, “I will give them.” 7 But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the oath of the LORD which was between them, between David and Saul's son Jonathan. 8 So the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, Armoni and Mephibosheth whom she had born to Saul, and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she had born to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9 Then he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the mountain before the LORD, so that the seven of them fell together; and they were put to death in the first days of harvest at the beginning of barley harvest.
The Gibeonites are a most interesting people. Our author refers to them as Amorites (21:2), but they are more technically known as the Hivites (Joshua 9:1, 7; 11:19).93 These Gibeonites were among those living in Canaan, whom God had commanded Israel to annihilate (Exodus 33:2; 34:11; Deuteronomy 7:1-2). This would have been the case except for a strange turn of events, which is described in the ninth chapter of the Book of Joshua. Under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites had just crossed the Jordan River (Joshua 3) and captured the city of Jericho (chapter 6), and then Ai (chapters 7 and 8). The next city to come under attack by Israel almost certainly would be Gibeon, and the Gibeonites knew it.
Gibeon was a great city, and its warriors were among the best (10:2). We would have expected them to put up a fight, but these people chose to take a different approach. Like Rahab in Jericho, these Gibeonites believed that God had given the land of Canaan to Israel. They knew they did not have a chance if they waged war against Israel. They sent a delegation to the Israelites' camp, pretending to have made a long journey from a distant place. These envoys had placed old sacks and wineskins on their donkeys, and they wore old, tattered clothing, and brought along moldy bread and provisions. All of this gave a kind of credence to their claim that they had come from afar. The Israelites made a covenant of peace with this “distant” people. When the Israelites learned that they had been deceived, they wanted to kill the Gibeonites, but their recent covenant prevented them from doing so. And so the Israelites made the Gibeonites their slaves, using them to chop wood and to draw water, especially for the house of God (Joshua 9:16-17).
The Gibeonites' treaty with the Israelites saved them from death by the Israelites, but it also put them in danger with their fellow-Amorites. When five Amorite kings learned of the defection of the Gibeonites and their alliance with Israel, they viewed the Gibeonites as their enemies. These five kings banned together and set out to attack and destroy the Gibeonites (10:1-5). When the Gibeonites saw that they were under attack, they sent word to Joshua at Gilgal, asking for his help, which they got. (The treaty the Israelites made with the Gibeonites also assured these people of Israel's protection.) Joshua was assured by God that He would give them the victory: “Not a man of them shall stand before you” (10:8). Marching all night from Gilgal, Joshua routed the five Amorite kings with a great slaughter at Gibeon. As they fled from before Joshua, God brought down great hailstones on them, killing more with the hail than with the sword (10:11). Even so, the victory was not complete, and so Joshua prayed that God would cause the sun to stand still, giving the Israelites more time to destroy the Amorites. The sun stood still over Gibeon, so that there has never been a day of battle like it before or since. One can only wonder what these Gibeonites thought as they beheld the hand of God, and as they partook of God's blessings on His people, the Israelites.
When the Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan, the city of Gibeon was allotted to the territory of Benjamin, and it was also set aside for the Levites (Joshua 21:17). This city was the “high place” where the tabernacle was set up and maintained until the time of the completion of the temple under Solomon (David brought the ark of God to Jerusalem, but the tabernacle and the altar remained at Gibeon (see 2 Samuel 6; 1 Chronicles 16:39-40; 21:29). Early in his reign, Solomon went up to Gibeon to worship God and to offer sacrifices. It was here that God offered to grant whatever Solomon requested (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 2 Chronicles 1:1-13; 1 Kings 3:4-5).
Gibeon was the hometown of Saul's forefathers (1 Chronicles 8:29-30; 9:35-39). It was also the place where 12 of Ish-bosheth's men (Saul's son) engaged in some kind of contest with 12 of David's men, which turned into a bloody battle (2 Samuel 2:12-17). It was also the place where the “great stone” was located, where Joab met Amasa and killed him (2 Samuel 20:8). Later, when David grew old and Joab foolishly supported Adonijah (against Solomon) as David's successor, he would flee to Gibeon and cling to the horns of the altar, but to no avail (1 Kings 2:28-34).
As we come to our text, some 400 years or so has now passed since the leaders of Israel made their covenant with the Gibeonites. We are tempted to write this covenant off as ancient history, but all of a sudden we find the Gibeonites appearing in our text in 2 Samuel. Israel had been suffering from a three-year long famine, and so David inquired of the Lord to learn why He had sent this famine. God answered that it was because of the sin of Saul and his bloody house, a sin against the Gibeonites. Out of a misguided sense of loyalty to the children of Israel and Judah, Saul and his house commenced a program of genocide against the Gibeonites. He had begun to systematically eliminate them, perhaps in a way that involved only a few (which included his own household). If Saul had planned to exterminate the Gibeonites, he could have easily carried out this mission from his home at Gibeah. We do not know how far Saul got with this evil scheme nor what stopped him from completing his task.
Saul's actions were a violation of Israel's covenant the Gibeonites, made nearly 400 years earlier.94 It was a covenant foolishly entered into by the leaders of Israel. The Israelites should never have made such a covenant with this people. But they did so, and thus the Israelites were obliged to keep their covenant. That is why Joshua came to the aid of the Gibeonites only a few days after that covenant was made. And now, a few hundred years later, Saul acts in a way that is completely out of keeping with the past. He sets out to annihilate the Gibeonites, not unlike the way Haman sought to destroy the Jews (see the Book of Esther). Somehow God kept Saul's sinister scheme from succeeding. Until reading about it in our text, we would never have known anything about Saul's bloody scheme. But now, years later, God brings a famine upon the land of Israel, prompting David to inquire into this matter and then make it right.
The author makes no effort to give us a precise time frame for these events. We do not know when in David's life this famine occurred. We do know that it happens after the death of Saul and his sons. When the famine came, it continued year after year for three years. This was not a random famine, but one which David sensed came from the hand of God. The Mosaic Covenant indicated that famine would come from God's hand as a judgment for sin (see Deuteronomy 28:23-24; 2 Chronicles 6:26-31). And so David inquired of the Lord concerning the reason for this famine. God's answer was clear:
“It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites” (2 Samuel 21:1b, KJV).
I chose to cite the Lord's answer from the King James Version because I believe it most precisely reflects the Hebrew text: “For Saul, and for [his] bloody house.” This statement solves what may look like a problem from other translations. Why does David execute Saul's sons and grandsons for the evil Saul committed? The law of Moses forbade Israel to punish children for the sins of their fathers:
“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16, NASV).
God's words to David seem to emphasize the fact that Saul did not act alone in seeking to annihilate the Gibeonites. He would have needed help, and who would be more likely to help than his own family? Whether any Gibeonite blood was shed by their hands or not, they must have known, and thus they became accomplices in this heinous plan.95
I would have thought Saul's motivation for eliminating the Gibeonites was self-serving. After all, he lived in Benjamite territory, and Gibeah of Saul was not very far from Gibeon. It could have been his own family who would have possessed this land. But the text tells us that Saul did this out of misguided patriotism. He “sought to kill them in his zeal for the sons of Israel and Judah” (verse 2). As a friend of mine commented after hearing this message, “Saul just didn't seem to be able to get it right.” He refused to completely annihilate the Amalekites, whom God commanded him to kill (1 Samuel 15), and he tried to annihilate the Gibeonites, whom he could not put to death. Thinking to do Israel and Judah a favor, Saul brought a famine on the land.
David knew he must somehow make atonement for Saul's sin and obtain the blessing of the Gibeonites to regain God's blessings by the removal of the famine. This is truly an amazing thing we are told. The Gibeonites must “bless” Israel, the people of God, in order for God to once again bless Israel. It seems to be almost an exact reversal of the Abrahamic Covenant:
“And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
Due to the sin of Saul and his bloody house, the Gibeonites had been wronged. It would seem that they cried out to God for justice, and a curse (the famine) came upon the land. It did not happen in Saul's day, but in a later day. (This may be because Saul would not have sought the reason for the famine or taken the necessary steps to rectify this situation.) Now, to resolve the matter, an atonement must be made (the execution of seven of Saul's descendants). Then the Gibeonites must bless the Israelites so that God could once again bless His people.
David called the Gibeonites and asked what he should do to make this matter right. They responded in a very different way than we would expect. Perhaps they did not have lawyers in those days (pardon the sarcasm), who could tell them how much money could be made. The Gibeonites made it clear that it was not money they wanted. This would not “atone” for the bloodshed Saul had brought about. The next thing they said prepared the way for what they really felt would serve the cause of justice: “Nor is it for us to put any man to death in Israel” (verse 4). It was not in their power as a subject people to put Jews to death. David must have sensed that this was what they would request, and so he asked them what they wanted, assuring them he would grant their petition.
The Gibeonites told David that since Saul destroyed some of them and purposed to kill them all, they would find justice served if but seven of Saul's “sons”96 were handed over to them for execution. They would hang these sons “before the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD” (verse 6). Hanging was the punishment used for very serious crimes (see Genesis 40:19; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29; 10:26). The Gideonites promised they would hang Saul's sons “before the LORD.” It seems to me that they were viewing this matter as they should, seeing that they were carrying out God's will in a way that satisfied (propitiated) Him, and thus satisfied them as well. They would carry out the execution before the city of Saul, before the Lord in Gibeah of Saul.
I find it most interesting that the Gibeonites made a point of referring to Saul as “the chosen of the LORD.” No doubt this a common way of referring to Saul, one with which the Gibeonites would be familiar. I believe it is said here with a point in mind. Did Saul presume that because he was “the chosen of the LORD” this meant he could do as he pleased? Did he think this put him in a special category so that God would overlook his sins? Not so! The “chosen of the LORD” was about to have his sons executed in front of his own city. God does not excuse or overlook the sins of those He has chosen. He did not condemn the Canaanites for their sins and then condone the same sins among His chosen people, Israel. God did not condone the sins of David, nor was He about to condone the sins of Saul, his “chosen one.”
There are times when Christians get a little fuzzy on this point. When some Arab group bombs a building, killing innocent people, we quickly condemn this “act of terrorism” and cry out for justice. But when an Israeli group does the same thing, we look at it as self-defense or justified retaliation. Being God's chosen people gives us no license to sin. God hears the cries of the oppressed and judges sin, even when that sin is committed by His “chosen people.”
26 “If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, 27 for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious” (Exodus 22:26-27).
For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help, The afflicted also, and him who has no helper (Psalm 72:12).
Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (James 5:4).
His judgment may not come immediately, but it will come.
And so seven of Saul's “sons” are selected. Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, is spared because of David's covenant with Jonathan. The two sons of Rizpah,97 Saul's concubine, are executed, along with the five sons of Saul's daughter, Merab.98 The Gibeonites took these seven men and “hanged them in the mountain before the LORD” (verse 9). The execution took place at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Before we move on to the conclusion of this matter between Israel and the Gibeonites as described in verses 10-14, let me pause to make some observations and applications based upon what we have already seen.
In this passage, we are reminded of the importance of covenants. Throughout Old and New testament history, God dealt with men covenantally. When God spared Noah and his family, He made a covenant with them and gave the rainbow as a sign of that covenant (Genesis 9:1-17). God later made a covenant with Abraham, with its accompanying sign, circumcision (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-22). Then God made a covenant with Israel through Moses, and its sign was the Sabbath (Exodus 19-20; 31:12-17; Deuteronomy 5). God made a covenant with David to build him an eternal house (2 Samuel 7:12-17). Then, of course, there is the New Covenant inaugurated by our Lord Jesus Christ through the shedding of His blood (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 9:11-22). God has not dealt with men capriciously; He has always dealt with us in accordance with a covenant.
David's dealings with the Gibeonites, at its roots, is a matter of keeping covenants. Israel had made a covenant with the Gibeonites. Even though this covenant was 400 years old, it was still to be honored. Saul broke that covenant by trying to rid the land of them. No matter how good his intentions might have been, the covenant must be kept. The breaking of that covenant had serious consequences. It cost Saul and his sons their lives. It brought a famine on the land of Israel. There were other covenants involved as well. Much of what is described in our text looks like the fulfillment of God's warnings for breaking the Mosaic Covenant in Deuteronomy 28-30. In addition, David's covenant with Jonathan had to be honored, so Mephibosheth was not handed over to the Gibeonites.
God deals with men in terms of covenants. Time does not weaken these covenants. Covenants are to be kept. Even when men do not take their covenants seriously, God does. He expects us to keep our covenants:
In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD; He swears to his own hurt and does not change (Psalm 15:4).
Even when a covenant is entered into foolishly, as the Israelites were taken in by the Gibeonites, God expects us to keep our covenants. How many times we have witnessed the marriage ceremony where a man and a woman enter into the covenant of marriage. Then a few years later, one partner (or both) decide the marriage hasn’t been all they hoped it would be. They feel the person they married isn’t really the person they thought he or she was. So they feel free to leave the marriage and to go on to another. If God expected the Israelites to keep their covenant with the Gibeonites, even though they were deceived by them, and even though 400 years had gone by, how do you think God feels about the breaking of the covenant of marriage? We are not left in doubt:
13 “This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 “Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 “But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. 16 “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Malachi 2:13-16).
Thank God that He is a covenant keeper. Throughout Israel's history, His chosen people stiffened their necks and disobeyed the One who saved them from slavery in Egypt. How easy it would have been for God to wash His hands of this rebellious people. But God kept His covenant. He kept it by bringing adversity on His people when they sinned (such as the famine which came on Israel in David's time), but He also provided a Savior, who perfectly kept the Mosaic Covenant and fulfilled the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants. He inaugurated the New Covenant, by which sinful men are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and His blood, which was shed to make an atonement for the sins of men.
I am impressed that our text foreshadows the gospel in so many ways. Not only does it remind us that God relates to men by means of His covenants, but it speaks to us particularly of the New Covenant. Saul's sins had to be atoned for or God's blessings could not be enjoyed. Saul's sin brought adversity in the form of a famine. Money could not atone for this sin, but only the shedding of blood. It was the shedding of this blood which brought about atonement and appeased both God and the Gibeonites.
There are those who think the gospel of the New Testament is too bloody (remember “testament” is an old fashioned word for covenant). What else can wash away our sins? Can our efforts at good works? Can our money save us? Only the shedding of blood atones for sin:
And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22).
There is only one Person's blood that was shed which can save us from our sins -- the blood our Lord Jesus Christ shed on the cross of Calvary:
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7).
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13).
19 For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:19-20).
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:11-14).
17 If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:17-18).
There is a passage in the Book of Revelation which has always puzzled me:
And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood came out from the wine press, up to the horses' bridles, for a distance of two hundred miles (Revelation 14:20).
This text describes the outpouring of the wrath of God on those who have rejected Jesus Christ and rebelled against Him. How could the wrath of God be described in such bloody terms? Blood was shed that came up to the horses' bridles -- for a distance of 200 miles. This is incredible! Is this a poetic exaggeration, or is it to be understood literally? I am not sure, but I would say that it indicates how desperately sinful men are and how great the penalty for sin is. How much guilty blood would have to be shed to atone for the sins of the world? There isn't enough. The shedding of our Lord's blood, His precious blood, is enough. Have you claimed this shed blood as the basis for your forgiveness?
The story of Saul, David, and the Gibeonites teaches us more. It reminds us not only that sin must be atoned for by the shedding of blood, but that there is a payday, someday, for sin. I am not sure why God waited to bring the famine upon Israel until after the death of Saul and his three sons, but I am impressed that this sin did not get overlooked. In God's good time, He dealt with this sin, as He will deal with all sin. Some seem to think that if God does not immediately deal with sin He will never deal with it, but they fail to grasp God's delay as a manifestation of His grace, not an assurance that men can sin without fear of judgment (see 2 Peter 3:1-13).
The Gibeonites seem to foreshadow God's saving grace as extended to the Gentiles, as a part of God's eternal plan of salvation. The Gibeonites were sinners, worthy of God's wrath. It was due to Israel's foolishness (if not sin) that a covenant was made with the Gibeonites. These condemned Gentiles were saved by Israel's failure. And, wonder of wonders, it will be through the Gentile Gibeonites that Israel will once again enter into God's blessings. Is this not a foreshadowing of the way God will bring salvation to the Gentiles, and then through the Gentiles bring blessing to the Jews? I urge you to read Romans 9-11 to see how Paul describes this.
When the Israelites learned that the Gibeonites had deceived them, they were very angry. They could not kill them, because of the covenant they had just made, but they could “curse” them by making them their slaves, by making them wood cutters and water carriers. Was this “curse” really a curse? Not really. It was a great blessing. These Gibeonites were privileged to have a part in the worship of God's people, by cutting wood for use on the altar and water for use in the tabernacle. No wonder these Gibeonites, 400 years later, seem to have a strong spiritual sense of God's will, of right and wrong, of atonement and justice. I am reminded of the psalm that says,
For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand.I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God Than dwell in the tents of wickedness (Psalm 84:10).
How gracious God was to bless these Gentiles, and through them to bring blessing back to Israel.
10 And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until it rained on them from the sky; and she allowed neither the birds of the sky to rest on them by day nor the beasts of the field by night. 11 When it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, 12 then David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the open square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them on the day the Philistines struck down Saul in Gilboa. 13 He brought up the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from there, and they gathered the bones of those who had been hanged. 14 They buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the grave of Kish his father; thus they did all that the king commanded, and after that God was moved by prayer for the land.
I think you would agree that this is a very strange story, even stranger than the one we have just read concerning the hanging of Saul's “sons.” Why does the author of Samuel record this incident? What is the point? Note with me first of all that this story is a continuation and completion of verses 1-9. It is the execution of Saul's sons which precipitates the actions of Rizpah, and then of David. Not until after the burial of Saul and his sons does the famine end (verse 14). We must therefore attempt to understand this story in the context of what we have just read and of the chapter as a whole.
Here is Rizpah, a concubine of Saul, whose two sons have been put to death by the Gibeonites. Apparently these sons' bodies were not removed, as it would seem they should have been (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23). While I was reading in the Old Testament, I came upon this most interesting verse:
“Your carcasses will be food to all birds of the sky and to the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away (Deuteronomy 28:26).
This text suggests that Rizpah was not acting in an unusual fashion at all. What mother would want the birds to devour the carcass of her son(s)? Since the bodies of Saul's sons were left unburied, this mother determined to watch over them, stationing herself nearby so that she could drive off both birds and devouring beasts. David got word of this, and by Rizpah's actions was prompted to take action. These were seven of Saul's sons, who were not yet given a proper burial. David was reminded that Saul and his three sons99 had not been properly buried either.
You may remember that David did not have anything to do with the earlier hasty burial of Saul and his three sons, as described in 1 Samuel 31. David was in Ziklag when he learned of Saul's death. The bodies of Saul and his sons were taken by the Philistines and hanged from the wall of Bethshan. Brave men from Jabesh-gilead marched all night to steal the bodies, burning them and burying their bones under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh (31:11-13). All of this had been done by the men of Jabesh-gilead in David's absence. Saul and his three sons had not yet been given a proper burial, though their bodies had been rescued from shameful display by the Philistines.
On the surface at least one can see how David may have reasoned. The bones of the seven sons of Saul had not been buried, and this prompted Rizpah to act as she had. This matter would not be “laid to rest” until these sons had a proper burial. In thinking about this, David could have reasoned that Saul and his three sons had not had a proper burial yet either. To finally “lay this matter to rest,” David arranged for the bones of Saul and his three sons to be taken to the tomb of Saul's father, along with the bones of these seven sons who were just executed. Once they were buried, the matter would be closed, once and for all.
There is a little more than this going on, I think. There is a clear link between the execution of Saul's seven sons by the Gibeonites, the actions of Rizpah, and the action taken by David. I think the link is more than just the common element of being related to Saul and not yet having a proper burial. What did these seven men have in common with Saul and his three sons? They were all Saul's sons. But they were also all “hung.” I am inclined to infer from this that David saw this connection between Saul and his three sons, killed and then hung earlier, and now Saul's other seven sons, who have been publicly hung for the attempted annihilation of the Gibeonites. Had these earlier deaths and hangings not also been an atoning for this same sin? When David buries all of these “sons” in Saul's father's tomb, he not only gives them a decent burial, he seems to link them in the same sin and the same judgment. This is the only way I can see the author making so much of Rizpah's actions and David's response. At least we can say that this matter now seems to have closure.
One further fact should be noticed. The final words of verse 14 are significant: “And after that God was moved by entreaty for the land.” We would have expected to read something like: “And so God removed the famine that had plagued the land for three years.” Instead, we are informed that God, this sin having been atoned for, once again heard the prayers of His people beseeching Him to cease His judgment on the land. In other words, the people must have been praying for God to remove the famine for the entire three years, but God would not heed their petitions because of the sin of Saul and his bloody house. Now that this sin was atoned for, God would hear the prayers of the people. God is sovereign, but He often acts in response to the means He has appointed. The means here is the prayer of His people. Note what Solomon will say in only a few years:
26 “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin when You afflict them; 27 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and Your people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Your land which You have given to Your people for an inheritance. 28 “If there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence, if there is blight or mildew, if there is locust or grasshopper, if their enemies besiege them in the land of their cities, whatever plague or whatever sickness there is, 29 whatever prayer or supplication is made by any man or by all Your people Israel, each knowing his own affliction and his own pain, and spreading his hands toward this house, 30 then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men, 31 that they may fear You, to walk in Your ways as long as they live in the land which You have given to our fathers” (2 Chronicles 6:26-31).
God answers prayer. In this case, the author of our text in 2 Samuel underscores the fact that God removed the famine because He took heed of the prayers of His people. And He took heed of their prayers because the sin which hindered their prayers had been atoned for. Let us not miss the point that our author seeks to stress: Sin hinders our prayers, but when that sin has been dealt with, God then heeds our prayers. Let us not underestimate the importance of prayer.
15 Now when the Philistines were at war again with Israel, David went down and his servants with him; and as they fought against the Philistines, David became weary. 16 Then Ishbi-benob, who was among the descendants of the giant, the weight of whose spear was three hundred shekels of bronze in weight, was girded with a new sword, and he intended to kill David. 17 But Abishai the son of Zeruiah helped him, and struck the Philistine and killed him. Then the men of David swore to him, saying, “You shall not go out again with us to battle, so that you do not extinguish the lamp of Israel.” 18 Now it came about after this that there was war again with the Philistines at Gob; then Sibbecai the Hushathite struck down Saph, who was among the descendants of the giant. 19 There was war with the Philistines again at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver's beam. 20 There was war at Gath again, where there was a man of great stature who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; and he also had been born to the giant. 21 When he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David's brother, struck him down. 22 These four were born to the giant in Gath, and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants.100
Things just seem to become even stranger as we come to the close of chapter 21. First, the sin of a dead man and his bloody house results in the execution of seven of his sons. When these seven sons are put to death, their bodies are left exposed so that the mother of two of them stations herself where she can scare off the birds and wild beasts to keep them from consuming the carcasses. David then digs up the bones of Saul and his sons and buries all of them together with the seven in Saul's father's burial place. Now, to top matters off, we read of battles with the Philistines which culminate in the appearance of a number of Goliath's offspring, who are equally awesome and deadly.
Once again, we are not given a precise time frame into which we can place these events. What we are told is that the Philistines attacked Israel, and David led his men against them. In the course of this battle, David became weary. Ishbi-benob, one of the Philistine soldiers, took note of David's condition and determined to make the most of it. He was one of the giant's descendants, with weapons very much like those of his predecessor, Goliath. Among his weapons was a new sword, which he hoped to initiate by drawing first blood from Israel's king.
Who was there to come to David's rescue but Abishai, brother of Joab and the deceased Asahel, all of whom were the sons of Zeruiah, David's sister (2 Samuel 2:18). This is the fellow who accompanied David into Saul's camp and offered to put Saul to death with one blow (1 Samuel 26:6-8). He had a hand in the murder of Abner by Joab (2 Samuel 3:30). Abishai sometimes commanded one of the divisions of David's army (2 Samuel 10:10; 18:2). Twice he wanted to put Shimei to death for speaking evil of King David as he fled from Absalom (2 Samuel 16:9-12; 19:21-22). He was chief of the thirty mighty men who took on three hundred men in battle with his sword and killed them. He was a renowned hero in Israel (2 Samuel 23:18). While David may well have had his frustrations with Abishai -- and he may not have even liked him -- he certainly was indebted to him.
This incident troubled David's army as much as it may have bothered him. They nearly lost their king in battle. When David fought, he led his men into battle. He thus became the primary target, especially by the champions of the opposing army (see 1 Kings 22:29-33). It was one thing to lose a soldier in battle, but it was quite another thing to lose a king in battle. David had been rescued by Abishai this time, but what about the next? David was past his peak; he was not the man of war he once was. His men did not wish to lose David as their king, and so they insisted that David no longer go out to battle with them.
The next paragraph, verses 18-22, follows closely on the heels of verses 15-17. In the former battle with the Philistines, David had been attacked by one of Goliath's offspring and had nearly been killed. The decision was reached that David would no longer accompany his men in battle. But could they win without this Goliath-killer? Was David essential to Israel's victory against the Philistines? Verses 18-22 give us the answer. In subsequent101 battles, other descendants of Goliath emerged, and they were killed also. There was Saph, who was struck down by Sibbecai the Hushathite (verse 18). Then in a battle at Gob, Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim the Bethlehemite killed Goliath the Gittite102 (verse 19).
The final “Goliath” descendant is saved until last, and no wonder. This fellow not only intimidated his opponents by his size but by his extremities. Can you imagine this fellow being an offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos, and you being his counterpart on the defensive line? You are both down in your stance, ready for the ball to be hiked. You look down at the ground and notice his hands. You start counting his fingers . . . one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . . . . . . . . six? Then you look at his other hand, and then his feet. What a sight he must have been! Nevertheless, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David's brother, struck this giant down like the rest. He did not fall on all 4's; he fell on all 24's. Whether by the hand of David or by one of his men, they all fell to the army of Israel.
Why are these stories given to us here, especially when they seem to be out of chronological order near the end of this book?103 Let me make a couple of observations and then draw out some applications.
First, our text reminds me of the words of our Lord, recorded in Matthew:
21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent” (Matthew 5:21-26).
I must confess that the relationship of this passage to our text passed me by until a comment from a brother called it to my attention, and rightly so I believe. We would certainly do well to dwell on our Lord's instructions regarding hatred and murder, but I shall not deal with this here. I would point out the relationship our Lord makes between an offended brother and our worship. Our Lord teaches us to first reconcile our wronged relationships and then commence our worship. Our text in 2 Samuel is teaching us something very similar. Until the wrong that Saul and his house had done to the Gibeonites had been made right, God would not pour out his blessings on the land (and thus there was a famine). When this wrong was rectified, God’s blessings resumed, and God again heard the prayers of His people to remove the famine.
Second, I must remember that the author of this book is highly skilled, an expert in what he has set out to do. If I am puzzled by what I am reading, it is not the author's failure, but because I have not yet grasped what he has set out to do -- and has done. The author has not followed a chronological timeline here but has carefully developed a theme, and it is my task to study this chapter to see what that theme is.
Third, I see some emphasis here on the next generation. Saul has passed off the scene, as have his sons. These are the sons who could have challenged David's son Solomon for the throne. But God providentially removed them. David here retires from his military career, and it will not be long until he steps down as Israel's king, giving way to his son Solomon. Rizpah shows special concerns for the bodies of her sons, protecting them from the birds and the beasts. And Goliath, though dead, is succeeded by his offspring, who continue to walk in their father's (oversized) footsteps. We seem to be moving from one generation to the next.
Fourth, there is a very clear sense of closure in this chapter. If you think about it, this chapter describes the end of David's military career. It is not yet the end of his reign as King of Israel, but it is the end of his military career. David will no longer go out to fight with his men (verse 17). David's military career began, as you may recall, with a contest with Goliath and a victory over the Philistines (1 Samuel 17). The beginning of David's career was the defeat of Goliath and the army of the Philistines. The ending of David's military career is a final battle with one of Goliath's offspring and the defeat of the Philistines.
Have you ever watched how professional athletes “retire”? The one thing they never want to do is retire after a bad year. They want to quit while they are ahead. I can understand that. It is better to go out with a shout of triumph than with a whimper of defeat. I think you and I can agree that David went out about as well as anyone could. Granted, David needed some help to finish Ishbi-benob, but this fellow was killed and the Philistines were defeated.
The success I am thinking about is to be seen on a greater scale. When the Israelites demanded a king, it was so they could have a man who would fight their battles for them and lead them into battle, especially against the Philistines (1 Samuel 8:19-20; 9:16). What would they do now when David was no longer able to lead them in battle?
The answer is beautiful, but let me take you back even further in time. When the first generation of Israelites had an opportunity to possess the land of Canaan, they failed because they were afraid of the giants who were reported to be in the land (see Numbers 13:25-33). When the Israelites were intimidated by the Philistines, Goliath was their champion who frightened the Israelites badly. David stepped forward and killed Goliath, and the Philistines were defeated. But now, David is no long able to handle the “Goliaths” which the Philistines put up against him. Does this mean that Israel is in trouble? Not at all! Saul's “leadership” could not produce one man who would take on Goliath, including Saul himself. But David's leadership produced many mighty men of war. Was David no longer able to fight? No problem! Men were lining up to take on all the Goliath's the Philistines could put up against them. And these offspring of Goliath were all killed and the Philistines defeated. What a way to end David's military career. The people no longer needed a king to do their fighting for them; they were willing to fight themselves, even against the offspring of Goliath. Now this is what I call a great way to retire.
There is also a sense of closure in that things left undone, things not dealt with under Saul's administration, are now made right by David. The sin of Saul and his bloody house against the Gibeonites has been atoned for, and the land can once again enjoy God's blessings. Not only are the seven “sons” of Saul given a proper burial, but so are Saul and his sons, who had only been given a hasty burial at Jabesh-gilead. And the army of Israel has reached the point where David need no longer fight their battles for them, or even with them. There are many mighty men who are able to carry on where David left off.
This to me is a very important lesson in leadership. Often people want leaders who will do their job for them. The greatness and contribution of a leader are judged by how big a hole is left when he steps aside. In biblical terms, this should be an insult to a godly leader. The task of leaders is not to do everything, but to facilitate ministry, to train, equip, and encourage others who will take our place and do even better than we have. If this is what Christian leadership is to be, then David was a great leader. Under Saul, not one man was willing to stand up to Goliath. In David's ministry, there were many willing and able to do so. David is now free to step aside (first as commander of the military and later as king) because he has done his job well-- he has helped to create a lower level of leadership that is ready to take his place. Most dictators dread the fact that there are others like this, and seek to eliminate them because they are seen as competition. This is not so with David. It should not be so with us either.
93 The term “Canaanite” is used both in a narrow sense and in a broader way when referring more generally to the inhabitants of Canaan. The same seems to be true of the term “Amorite” here. The author of Samuel seems to be using the term “Amorites” in its general sense here.
94 In 1 Samuel 15:7, we are told that Saul remembered that the Kenites gave aid to Israel at the time of the Exodus, and thus he spared them when he was attacking the Amalekites. Could Saul have simply forgotten the covenant Israel made with the Gibeonites? It is hard to believe that he did.
95 There is, of course, the painful question concerning Jonathan’s relationship to all this. He hardly seems to have been one to participate in such sin, nor to keep quiet about it if he became aware of it. We simply do not know.
98 There are some very strange ironies here. Merab is Saul’s oldest daughter, and Michal was the younger daughter (1 Samuel 14:49). Saul offered her first to David and then reneged on the offer (1 Samuel 18:17-19). Michal was given to David for his wife (1 Samuel 18:27), then was taken away and given to another (1 Samuel 25:44), and then returned to David at his insistence (2 Samuel 3:13-16). She never bore children to David (2 Samuel 6:23), so she was not involved in the agony of losing any of her sons.
99 Our author mentions only Saul and Jonathan here, but in 1 Samuel 31 we are told that Saul and his three sons were involved. I would therefore assume that not only Saul and Jonathan were given a proper burial, but that all of his three sons were buried here as well.
102 This naming of a “Goliath” need not present us with any great problem. We have just read about two Mephibosheth’s earlier in the chapter (see vss. 7-8). This Goliath could have been the namesake of his father, but the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 20:5 calls this man “Lahmi, the brother of Goliath.”