The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.2 Samuel 21
The points in this chapter are few but significant. There was a famine in the days of David three years, year by year. A famine in Palestine was always a consequence of deficient winter rains, such a deficiency being by no means uncommon: but in this case the famine endured three successive years, and thus became alarming, and impelled men to ask religious questions and make religious arrangements. "David inquired of the Lord,"—in other words, he sought the face of the Lord. In the original the phrase is a different one from that used so frequently in Judges and elsewhere. Is not the action of David imitated, to some extent at least, by the men of all time? When the east wind blows three days, or three weeks, men do but remark upon it complainingly, and it passes from criticism; but when it continues three months, and three more, and the earth is made white with dust, and every tree stands in blackness and barrenness, and every bird is silent, and the whole landscape is one scene of blank desolation,—then men begin to inquire concerning causes, and even the most flippant and obdurate may be easily moved to seek the face of the Lord. Thus selfishness assumes a religious aspect, and religion is degraded by being crowned with selfishness; thus men make confusion in moral distinctions, and imagine themselves to be pious when they are only self-seeking, and suppose themselves constrained by persuasion when they are simply driven by fear. A very remarkable answer was returned to king David: "The Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloodguilty house, because he slew the Gibeonites." The Gibeonites had never become incorporated with the Israelites by the adoption of the peculiar ordinance of circumcision, but remained a people separate and distinct. The Gibeonites are said to have been a remnant of the Amorites or mountaineers—a frequent name given to the old people of Palestine. We cannot say why the punishment of Saul's violated oath should have been so long delayed. It has been attempted to show a distinction between Saul the son of Kish, and Saul the king of Israel, and so to make Saul's sin into a representative national sin, so that all the people of Israel might suffer for what was done officially in their name. Whilst we are at a loss to account precisely for the delay of this particular penalty, our wonder is at least mitigated by the fact that we see the same law of postponement continued in our own day. We imagine that the sword should fall instantly upon the offender—yea, even whilst the offence is in his hand; but God's way is not our way in this matter: he visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. He thus treats humanity as one. He does not speak about guilty fathers and innocent children; he knows nothing about unborn generations as being separate and independent from all human history; he recognises only the solidarity and unity of the human race, and he brings penalty to bear at times and in places and in ways which are of his own selection and appointment Reflections arising out of this fact are abundant, and ought to be regarded as deeply solemn. To-day we may be laying up punishment for men who are to come in our stead many years hence. No man liveth unto himself.
David, having learned the divine reason for the continued famine, now turned in a human direction, as he was bound to do, saying unto the Gibeonites, "What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord?" (2Samuel 21:3). The word is the term which is used throughout the law in connection with the propitiatory sacrifices. The word literally means to cover up. David inquires what he can do to cover up the sin of Saul, so as to remove it from the sight of the men against whom it had been committed—namely, the Gibeonites, who had suffered so much from it, and from God himself against whose law Saul had chiefly offended. The Gibeonites were in a high mood of excitement. They would take no silver or gold of Saul. Money compensations for sins of blood were quite customary amongst ancient nations, but from Numbers 35:31 it would appear that such compensations were distinctly forbidden by the Mosaic law. Nor would the Gibeonites have any man killed in Israel; that is to say, they would not confound the whole of Israel with the house of Saul: they would have the punishment confined solely to the king's personal descendants. Their demand was undoubtedly marked by great severity. They said,
"The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose" (2Samuel 21:5-6).
Saul himself being dead, his male descendants were considered as standing in his place, and were looked at in the solemn light of actually personating him and having responsibility for his evil deeds. The number seven was full of suggestion, and was also associated with sacred memories, but specially it was regarded as indicating completeness of satisfaction. The execution of the sons of Saul was to be done "unto the Lord,"—that is to say, it was to be done publicly. In proportion to the outrageousness of the sin was to be the conspicuousness of its punishment. Notice that the execution was to take place in Gibeah, the home of Saul. Is there not a spirit of righteousness in the very act of public punishment? The Gibeonites did not wish to glut their revenge upon the sons of Saul for merely selfish reasons; they regarded the whole affair as involving the theocracy, and not until the execution had been completed could the stains be removed which had been thrown upon the most sacred history of the race. Men's ideas of compensation undergo great changes. It is no surprise that at first the idea of compensation should be considerably rough and formless. Jesus Christ, remarking upon it, set it aside in the letter, and displaced it by a nobler spirit:—"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you"... and then came the gospel so difficult to be apprehended by the natural reason, but yielding itself as an infinite treasure to the claim of faith and love. David took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah. He could not lawfully refuse the demand of the Gibeonites, having before him the fact that the law absolutely required that blood-guiltiness should be expiated by the blood of the offender. It is noteworthy as showing the spirit and nobleness of David that he spared for Jonathan's sake the only descendants of Saul in the direct line who could have advanced any claim to the throne, and took the two sons of a concubine, and the five sons of Saul's eldest daughter Michal, who had been promised in marriage to David himself. In incidental traits of this kind we see how completely king David delivers himself from the suspicions of evil minds. His aim was to walk steadfastly in the way of the law, whatever consequences might accrue from his constancy and fidelity. We have in the conduct of Rizpah a beautiful instance of motherliness:—she
"Took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night" (2Samuel 21:10).
The beginning of harvest points to the time as being immediately after the Passover (Leviticus 23:10-11), and consequently about the middle of April. The rains of autumn began in October, so that Rizpah's tender care must have extended over about six months. The spreading of the sackcloth was intended to form a rough shelter during the long winter. She waited until water dropped upon them out of heaven,—that is, until the water-famine was at an end; and thus the divine forgiveness was assured. A most vivid and ghastly picture this: see the seven bodies fastened to a stake, either by impaling or by crucifixion, and watch them standing there day by day and week by week, until the clouds gathered and the returning rain attested that God had been satisfied because justice had been done in the earth. The Lord from heaven is watching all our oblations and sacrifices and actions, and when we have done that which his law of justice requires he will not forget to send the rain and the sunshine, and to bless the earth with an abundant harvest. What Rizpah had done was not likely to be concealed from king David. He made a beautiful reply to the motherly care of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah. To show that he had no enmity against the house of Saul, he
"Took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabesh-gilead, which had stolen them from the street of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa: and he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged. And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded" (2Samuel 21:12-14).
Then we come upon a beautiful expression—"And after that God was intreated for the land." There is a solemn lesson here for all time. We must do justice before we can make acceptable prayer, we cannot turn dishonoured graves into altars which God will recognise. "It thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee: leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." "Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings."
These are the conditions upon which God will be intreated; and as we peruse them we cannot but be struck by their moral dignity and appropriateness, and feel that we are in the hands of a just as well as a merciful God.
There is a line of true melancholy in the remainder of the chapter. The Philistines had yet war again with Israel, but now when David went down and fought against the Philistines we read that "David waxed faint" (2Samuel 21:15). A splendid life is now showing signs of decay. David in his old age was fighting with giants, but he was no longer the ruddy youth who smote Goliath in the forehead. The giants of the Philistines were hard upon David. Ish-bibenob thought to have slain the king with a new sword, "but Abishai the son of Zeruiah succoured him, and smote the Philistine, and killed him." Now other men had to do for David what once David did for other men. Thus positions are changed: Thus one generation passeth away and another generation cometh. A beautiful speech was made to David by his loyal followers: the heart gives way under the touch of pathos which is so discernible in the seventeenth verse:—"Thou shalt go no more out with us to battle, that thou quench not the light of Israel." There is a time when a man must cease from war. There is also a time when his character, his peaceful counsels, his benignant smile, may be of more value than the uplifting of his enfeebled arm. None can say that David shunned the field in the spirit of a coward; he was full of valour, and always willing to answer the challenges of Philistine boasters and idolatrous assailants of every name; but he had now had enough of it: old age was telling upon him, and his men magnanimously proposed that he should fight no more but should remain at home and shine as a lamp in the country he had so long adorned. Patriots should take care that their leaders are not too long in the field of danger; and these leaders themselves should know that there is an appointed time for withdrawing from the battle and sitting in noble and well-earned seclusion, guiding by counsel when they can no longer lead by example.
The chapter closes with the history of three victories over giants. There was a battle with the Philistines of Gob; then a second battle; then a third battle in Gath, "where was a man of great stature, that had on every hand six fingers, and on every foot six toes, four and twenty in number.... When he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimeah the brother of David slew him" (vv., 20, 21). Every day we fight with giants in the spiritual region: they are called principalities, and powers, and the rulers of the darkness of this world,—invisible but mighty, nameless but strong because of fury. We can only overcome by the grace and power of the God of David. Wherefore, take unto you the whole armour of God, that having withstood in the evil day, you may stand firm and strong evermore. There is a provided panoply, every part of which has been prepared and appointed by the Captain of heaven. In vain that we take swords of our own manufacture, and adopt plans of our own feeble and perverse ingenuity: stand in the old paths; demand to know the old ways; resolutely refuse to adopt any answer to satanic assault that is not included in the replies of Jesus Christ himself to the great foe; and constantly pursuing this course, the course can have but one end—victory in the name of the Lord, and heaven for evermore.
Who was Goliath? (1Samuel 17:23; 2Samuel 21:19.) It is singular to find narrated two distinct stories of the killing of a giant, whose name is given as Goliath, and it has given rise to various explanatory conjectures. Some think the real story is that of Elhanan, which has been wrongly attached to David; but this is a conjecture, indeed, revealing only the wilfulness of him who makes it. Others call the second Goliath the brother of Goliath, but with no authoritative ground. It is not in the least likely that the author of the Books of Samuel confused either the names or the incidents, and there should be no difficulty in supposing a second and later giant bearing the same name as the former one. Goliath might very probably be a family name. Jerome thinks that Elhanan is another name for David, and so the second narrative only repeats in brief the first story of David's victory.