II Samuel 20:14-26
21 During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) 3 David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?” 4 The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.” “What do you want me to do for you?” David asked. 5 They answered the king, “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, 6 let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.” So the king said, “I will give them to you.” 7 The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul. 8 But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9 He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed them and exposed their bodies on a hill before the Lord. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning. 10 Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night. 11 When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done,12 he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) 13 David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up. 14 They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
Guilt from unresolved sins of the past may be blocking God’s blessings on your ministry. In this narrative we learn of a wrong that Saul had done long before, the guilt of which was blocking God’s blessings on Israel. As soon as David knew that was the cause of the famine they were experiencing he quickly wanted to make amends. The sin had been that Saul did not honor a pledge that Joshua had made to the Gibeonites. Christian leaders today can learn from this that agreements must be kept and that God deals with communities as well as with individuals. Each person in a community is responsible to be a corrective force. When we do not speak up against a wrong in our community we become a guilty partner in the wrong. You are a part of a family and are responsible to oppose wrong in it. You are part of a Christian community. If there is error or sin there, confront it firmly and lovingly.
1. The Wrong and the Requested Retribution 1-6
Many years had passed since Saul’s sin and nothing was recorded in the story of Saul about this transgression. We would not even be learning of it now except because of the guilt it was as the cause of a three-year famine in Israel. Verses 1-2 say, “During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, ‘It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.’ The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) ” A righteous God required His favored Israel to live up to an agreement they made with a heathen and deceitful nation. We are to keep promises regardless of the character of the other party.
The Gibeonites were Amorites who tricked Joshua and Israel into a peace treaty as recorded in Joshua 7. The treaty was a mistake, but God held Israel responsible to keep her word. The Gibeonites were deprived of land and liberty, but their lives were spared. There is no record that they ever broke their part of the agreement. Saul in his unjustified zeal apparently killed many of them in an attempt, perhaps, to show himself more zealous for Israel than his predecessors, the judges. It is possible that he tried to compensate for his failure to annihilate the Amalekites by trying to kill off the Gibeonites. Or, perhaps, when he went on a witch-killing campaign, he included the Gibeonites. It is also possible that the wicked Saul killed any pious Gibeonites who were employed by the Levitical priests when he killed the priests, their masters. In any case, he not only shed innocent blood, but also violated the solemn obligation by which the nation was bound to protect them. Sad it is to observe the widespread suffering and difficulty that was caused by Saul’s house, a bloody house indeed.
As a result of Saul’s sin, now years later, the nation of Israel was punished with a long famine. Even in the fruitful land of Israel, and in the glorious reign of David, there was a famine. Had the famine been more severe, David would have inquired of the Lord earlier. But with the passing of three years, even a mild famine can be difficult with drought, and lack of food supplies. For example, if a corn crop goes missing one year, usually the next year’s crop compensates for the deficiency, but three years would be a serious cause about which to inquire of the Lord.
David was himself a prophet, yet he must consult the Lord, and know God’s mind in his own appointed way. When we are under God’s judgments we need to humbly consult the Lord. David might have inquired earlier, but evidently he did not suspect a spiritual cause such as it turned out to be. Hind-sight is more accurate than foresight and not every difficulty has a spiritual cause. This time and in Job’s case, yes, but not every time. To be on the safe side, it is better to inquire sooner than later. The blessing we can all experience is that God was ready in His prompt answer, though David was slow in his investigation.
David quickly learned that the cause was Saul and his house. God remembers sin until it is atoned for. When we are under his rebukes we may need to look a long way back. It is of no use for us to object against the people’s suffering for the sin of their kings because they may have been complicit. Someone carried out the king’s order. Saul did not act alone. The record does not provide an account of how this sin transpired, but let us learn that the passing of time does not remove the guilt of sin. We cannot build any hopes of escape from punishment just because judgment seems to be delayed. There is no statute of limitation in God’s judicial system; He can punish whenever He wants.
David consulted with the Gibeonites themselves to determine what should be done to right the wrong. Verse 3 says, “David asked the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?’” They had for many years remained silent with no appeal, complaint, disturbance or demand being made, but now that God had spoken for them, they responded. They were not only given the honor of recognition by David, but also became judges in their own case. We do not know if during their years of patient endurance they felt like the Psalmist who in Ps 38:15 said, “Lord, I wait for you; you will answer, Lord my God.” David did not want the prayers of the Gibeonites against him; he wanted the Gibeonites to forgive and bless Israel.
Job’s three friends misunderstood and falsely judged Job. God told the three friends what to do to receive God’s favor again. Job 42:8-9 say, “So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has. So Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite did what the Lord told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.” Job’s three friends had become weapons forged against Job. They needed Job’s blessing and when Job prayed for them the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
We do not understand ourselves and our need of the blessings of others if we do not value the blessings rather than the cursing of the poor and despised. Is 54:17 says, “no weapon forged against you will prevail.” Saul’s house—Israel—had become a weapon forged against the Gibeonites. David wanted to change that. David wanted—needed—the blessing of the Gibeonites, so he took the necessary remedial measures just as Job’s friend did. The Christian leader who wants God blessings on all they do, will exercise caution not to offend others—anyone—so that others bless them; not curse them. And if they do, per adventure, offend them, will quickly repair the relationship.
The Gibeonites desired that seven of Saul’s descendants be put to death, and David granted their request. Verses 4-6 say, “The Gibeonites answered him, ‘We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ David asked. They answered the king, 'As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.’ So the king said, ‘I will give them to you.’” They did not ask for silver or gold. Money is no satisfaction for blood. Num. 35:31-32 says, what God, not the Gibeonites, required. Killing these descendants of Saul’s was more to satisfy God’s laws than the Gibeonites desire for revenge. God brought the famine, not the Gibeonites. After this ordeal was over, it was God who brought the famine to an end. This whole thing was a God thing—to teach that we must keep our promises. “Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. They are to be put to death” (Num 35:31). “Do not accept a ransom for anyone who has fled to a city of refuge and so allow them to go back and live on their own land before the death of the high priest. Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num 35:32).
Even before Moses’ law it had been established that blood calls for blood. Gen. 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” The Gibeonites had an opportunity to escape from their servitude. In the spirit of Ex 21:26 they could have obtained their freedom: “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye.” They did not insist on this even though the agreement was broken by the Israelites who who killed many of them. They requested no lives but of Saul’s family. He had done them the wrong, and his children must pay for it.
Deut 24:16 says, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” I cannot explain why, in this case, God wanted the descendants of Saul to shed their blood for the blood the house of Saul had shed. It is possible that these who were to shed their blood had been a part of the original blood-shedding by the house of Saul. If so, they were shedding their blood justly for having participated in the shedding of blood against the covenant with the Gibeonites. As Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right” (Gen 18:25)? God’s judgments are not subject to the rules to which men’s judgments are subject.
Let parents take extra care, for the sake of their children, not to sin or influence to sin. If our children follow our example, yes, they suffer for their own sin, but they learned by our example to commit those sins. So we can bring either judgment or blessings upon our children according to how we influence them. Saul’s posterity walked in his steps, for it is called a bloody house; it was the spirit—the attitude and inclination, the propensity to sin—of the family, and so they are justly charged with the result of his sin because it was their own.
According to the law of the time, the avenger of blood had the right to execute justice. The Gibeonites did not require this out of malice but rather to satisfy God’s justice, not to gratify revenge of their own, but for the good of the public, not for our own reputation. This is clear from the following.
2. The Retribution Paid 7-9
Verses 7-9 say, “The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul. But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite. He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed them and exposed their bodies on a hill before the Lord. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.”
Mephibosheth was spared for the sake of David’s covenant with Jonathan. In correcting one wrong David did not want to commit another. He gave the Gibeonites two of Saul’s sons by a concubine, and five grandsons his daughter Merab bore to Adriel. Saul’s treachery was punished because Saul gave Merab to Adriel when he had promised her to David.
This was all done “before the Lord.” They were hanged up, as cursed as Deut 21:23 says, “you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” This verse and David’s action can illustrate the deeper meaning of Jesus being hung and crucified on a cross. Gal 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’” Israel was freed from a curse of a famine by Saul’s house providing men who were cursed and hung. Christians are freed from the curse of sin by Jesus who became a curse for us. Christ being made a curse for us and dying was to satisfy God’s justice and to turn away the wrath of God. Saul’s male descendants were not guiltless as Jesus was, but they did bear the curse for another as Jesus would.
They were hanged up in Gibeah of Saul to clearly demonstrate that this whole affair related to Saul and the house of Saul.They were hanged in their own neighborhood and in this way God accomplished the ruin of that family. Until then, not only the blood of the slain Gibeonites but also the blood of Israel’s priests and their families had cried out from the ground. Ps 9:12 says, “For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cries of the afflicted.” Despising an oath and breaking a covenant, will be judged. God takes vows, oaths and covenants seriously and we should too if we want to be fruitful in His work. Ezek 17:18-19 says, “He despised the oath by breaking the covenant. Because he had given his hand in pledge and yet did all these things, he shall not escape. Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: As surely as I live, I will repay him for despising my oath and breaking my covenant.” No wonder we are advised that it is better not to make a vow than to make a vow and break it. Numbers 30:2 says, “When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” And Jesus said in Mat 5:33, “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’” To atone for the shed innocent blood of the covenant-keeping Gibeonites, blood—even if it is royal—must be shed. God keeps accurate records.
3. The Matter is brought to a Successful Conclusion 10-14
From the time of the executions until the coming of the rain that signaled the end of the famine, the mother of two of the executed persons stayed with the bodies to defend and protect them from birds and wild animals. “Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.”
Saul’s sons were not only hanged, but their dead bodies were left hanging, and exposed, until the judgment ceased as shown by the rain that eventually came. Deut 21:23 is very clear. Explicit instructions are given that bodies are to be buried the same day. Why? Because everyone who hangs is cursed. “ . . . you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.” This would be the reason why those who were not cursed should not be hung up beyond one day as though cursed. But these men died as cursed. These were the very kind of persons who should be hanged up for an extended time. The reason they died, the reason they hung, was to bear the curse; to take the curse from Israel. Moving and pitiful that they were made a spectacle, but right that they were. That was exactly the intent and all of this was “before the Lord.”
We cannot imagine the sorrow, embarrassment, affliction and mental torture it would have been for Rizpah to guard these 7 bodies. Two of them were sons of hers; the others, relatives. She did not steal them away, she faithfully and lovingly protected those bodies. Her actions testified of her love for them. She let the world know that her sons did not die for their own sins alone as stubborn or rebellious sons but as a part of bearing the curse of Saul’s family. Die they must, but it will be with pity and lamentation. That was the best this good mother could do.
David was so moved by Rizpah’s display of love and loyalty that he took action to relieve her from her self-imposed duty and, at the same time, to do honor to Saul’s house as best he could under the circumstances. He had not give these seven over to the Gibeonites out of spite, hatred or a revengeful spirit. He was attempting to do justice in the land; to free Israel from the famine. So he determined that as he buried these 7 men he would also honorably bury Saul and Jonathan.
Verses 11-14 say, “When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done, he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up. They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
The first and earlier major admonition we received from this record of the pestilence Israel experienced because of the sin of Saul’s house, is the importance of keeping our vows. God holds us to our promises. With the requirements of the Gibeonites fulfilled, which also fulfilled the requirements of God, the project was complete with no grudges, no fighting or further unnecessary mourning. None was required or wanted. When justice is done on earth vengeance from heaven ceases.
Similarly, through Christ, who was hanged publicly and made a curse for us, to take away our guilt—even though He was himself guiltless—God was pacified, and is once again able to look on us with His favor. This glorious truth is at the center of our life’s work. The satisfaction of the justice of God, offering the sacrifice He required is what makes the Christian gospel different from all man-made religions. This is the second of the two main lessons of this section of Scripture. Jesus took our curse upon Himself. We go free.