Before we get to this text, allow me to briefly discuss the nature of these closing chapters in 2 Samuel to orient us to where we’ve arrived. When one enters chapters 21-24 one enters into a theological battlefield. Here’s the issue. Older scholars and theologians, like the Puritans for example, believe these chapters don’t skip a beat and continue on telling the story of David’s life. Modern scholars and theologians disagree, believing these chapters cover various events in David’s earlier life that are hand chosen by the author to form a kind an appendix to the story of 1-2 Samuel as a whole. I appreciate both of these views but I find myself not being altogether comfortable with either of them. It seems to me the modern opinion sees the older Puritan view as somewhat quaint, while the older Puritan doesn’t tackle some of the issues present here. What do we do with this? Here is what I think is going on. 

Not all of the events present in these chapters occur in chronological order, though with the Puritans I think some of them do. But with the more modern interpreters I think there truly is a kind of appendix present here, that is intended to be a poetic conclusion to the entire 1-2 Samuel story. We’ve spoken of chiasm’s before, a poetic structure used to highlight a central point, and here we find another one:

A1 – A Three year Famine (21:1-14)

            B1 – Valiant Warriors, part 1 (21:15-22)

                        C – David’s Songs (22:1 – 23:7)

            B2 – Valiant Warriors, part 2 (23:8-39)

A2 – A Three day Plague (24)

The centerpiece being highlighted here is David’s praise to the Lord. Which is indeed a stout way to end his story because he is, despite his failures, a man after God’s own heart.[1]

Are some of you thinking ‘Why does this matter?’ ‘Why go into all that background before expositing the text?’ Great question, let me tell you. We all know maps are useful, whether it’s an old atlas or our smartphone GPS, they tell us where we are and how to get to where we’re going. I begin like this today because we need to know where we are and what we’re entering into. This matters because we’re entering, not only a new section of the storyline in the Samuels, but we’re entering the final section of the storyline that is by its very design is crafted to tell us a great truth: king David was one of the greatest kings Israel ever had. But the greatness of king David had everything to do with David knowing and David loving the greatness of God. That is the theme we’ll see over and over in this final section of the Samuels.

Let’s dig into the first text in this poetic structure, 21:1-14. In it there are three pairs for us to see. First see…

Famine & Judgment (v1)

“Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”

We’ve seen the narrator many times begin another episode of David’s life with the phrase, “After this…”, or ‘Now such and such happened…’ but here in v1 we don’t see that. Rather we’re told here that a famine occurs “…in the days of David…” So whether this happened right after the events of chapter 20, later on in the future, or at a time before the rebellions is hard to know. What we do know is that there was a three year famine. Famines can be caused by many things in many places around the world. For them in their day if the winter rains weren’t as abundant as they usually are, the following harvest would’ve been slim, resulting in a famine. And this one lasted for three entire years. The text wants us to note that, because after telling us a famine occurred for three years, we have that little added note “year after year” indicating the famine was not only serious but there might be more to it than meets the eye. I do think it’s strange to see David’s inaction for three whole years on this. But while David might be a bit late he knew a famine was not always an indication of divine judgment.[2] It could’ve just been a bad year, which would’ve taken another year to recover from. But three bad years in a row? David knows he needs to seek the face of the Lord. He does, and the answer is unexpected, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”

We learn three things here. First, bloodguilt has occurred. This would happen when one was unlawfully killed, and the remedy according to Numbers 35:33 is to shed the blood of the one who committed the unlawful crime. Second, it was Saul and his house who were the guilty party. And third, Saul and his house were guilty of bloodguilt because they have unlawfully put Gibeonites to death. We don’t get the record of that event in 1-2 Samuel, but we trust it occurred simply because it speaks of it here. 

These three things bring us back to Joshua 9. As Israel had come into Canaan and was slowly and surely taking possession of the Promise Land, it was the Gibeonites who grew fearful of being destroyed by Joshua when they heard of how powerfully he had destroyed Jericho and Ai. Cunningly then, they put on raggedy clothes and supplies and came to Joshua, pretending they had come from a long way away to make a covenant between them. Joshua 9:14-15 says without asking for counsel from the Lord Joshua made peace and entered into a covenant with them that they would live and not be killed. Now normally in that day when covenant was made, or literally, when a covenant was cut, the two parties entering into it would cut a few animals in half and together walk through the pieces. By doing this each party was stating that if they did not uphold their end of the covenant what happened to these animals would happen to them. Joshua and the people did eventually find out they were lying about how far away they lived, they were near neighbors in fact (!), but Joshua kept covenant with them and didn’t kill them.

The Gibeonite deception is indeed a deception, but it shows much of the gospel. For in it we see a people who were once not a people, flee to the leader of God’s people for refuge, and through the grace of this leader, these foreign people become grafted into the true people. What a picture of how alien gentiles flee to the greater Joshua for refuge and by faith are grafted into true Israel, God’s true people.

Fast forward back to v1 here before us. When David senses there might be more to this famine, he seeks the face of the Lord and learns the famine was an expression of divine wrath against the nation because king Saul and his house violated covenant long ago when he put the Gibeonites to death.[3]

That’s our first pair in the text, famine and judgment. In v2-9 we have our next pair…

Cursing & Blessing (v2-9)

We’ve already established that a covenant was present between God and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, and I’d remind you that a covenant by nature is not just an agreement, it’s far more. As the two parties walked through the animal pieces they entered into a bond, and by doing so would make certain promises to each other. If they remained true to the covenant promises blessing would come but if they broke covenant promises great cursing would come. In v2-9 we have just that, covenant cursing and covenant blessing.

See v2-6 first, “So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the LORD?” The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the LORD at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD.” And the king said, “I will give them.”

After learning the truth behind the famine, David calls the Gibeonites to him and he learns more in v2. Though they were in covenant with God, Saul in misguided zeal, sought to strike them down. Maybe he thought them to be a threat or wanted their land, or something else. Whatever occurred Saul broke covenant with them. But wait. God didn’t judge the land and the people in Saul’s time as king, He does it here when David is king. Why wait? Why now? Well, the Lord’s timing is not our own, His ways are higher than ours. But I do wonder if God was waiting to bring judgment onto His people to give them time for reflection and repentance.[4]

Now, come back with me to v3. Why does David say what he says here? Remember, because Saul did what he did the whole land and people of Israel had been subjected to a famine, and the only way to make it right was to shed the blood of the one who unlawfully shed blood in the first place (Numbers 35:33). This is why David asks what he does in v3 about how he can make “atonement” for this. The Gibeonites respond in v4-6, and they want one thing, seven of Saul’s sons to hang “before the Lord” in Gibeah. Notice, they ask for seven of sons, why seven? Because seven is a number often used to symbolize completion so seven sons of Saul dying would symbolize a complete and full restitution. They also desire this occurs “before the Lord”, why? Because only an offering, a sacrifice, to the Lord will make atonement for this and bring the people back to peace. In other words, the stipulations of the covenant were broken, thus, the curses of the covenant must come.[5] That this was asked to be done in Gibeah, Saul’s hometown is also worth noting. Saul had killed many Gibeonites in their hometown, now they will kill a representative number of his sons in his hometown.[6] Well, in v6b David agrees to this because he knows these things too. Look ahead to v8-9 we see David carry it out, “The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the LORD, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.”

I should say at this point that many commentators and study Bibles alike take David to task here and state that he’s grievously sinning by allowing humans to be sacrificed in order to bring peace once again.[7] How dare he put sons to death for the sins of their father, didn’t David remember Deut. 24:16? “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” Theologians and scholars may say this, but I disagree. I don’t think David sinned, I don’t think he broke the Law in Deuteronomy. That law was for individuals, Saul and David are not just Israelite individuals, they’re kings. Follow me here. Saul did not zealously seek to kill the Gibeonites as an individual, but as the representative head of Israel. And because his kingly office was representational the guilt for his covenant breaking was national. Naturally then, all Israel suffered for the sinful actions of their king in the famine, and seven of Saul’s sons would bear the curses of the covenant as covenant breakers in his place.[8]

Covenants do bring curse for disobedience but covenants also bring blessing for obedience. Did you notice I skipped over v7? Look at it now. “But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the LORD that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.” So question. Why does David save Mephibosheth from death, even though he was a son of Saul? The same reason the others were executed, covenant! Covenant curse came to the seven sons, while covenant blessing came to another son. This wasn’t David acting in random choice or preferential treatment. Long ago, in 2 Samuel 9, he had done what? Entered into covenant with Mephibosheth, saying “You shall eat at my table always.” Look at v7, “…because of the oath of the LORD that was between them…” he spared Mephibosheth.

There is a thing of beauty to see here. Saul is portrayed in this passage as the king who breaks covenant and brings disaster on the nation. Standing brilliantly and beautifully against the king who breaks covenant is David, the king who keeps covenant and brings blessing on the nation.[9] Does this not point forward to another Covenant Head and Covenant King? Indeed it does. David’s covenant faithfulness points far ahead to the Lord Jesus Christ, who brings all who believe in Him into the blessings of the New Covenant with Himself. How? While Saul’s sons hung before the Lord because of Saul’s sin to make atonement and bring peace to the nation by bearing the curses of the covenant…so too Jesus, not because He had sinned, hung before the Lord on a tree for us, to make atonement for us, to bring peace with God to us, and to bear the curses of the covenant for us. And because He is King and Head of the Church, His obedience doesn’t just reap individual blessing for Himself, but covenant blessing to all united to Him by faith.

Do not shy away from such bloody covenantal reality. From Abel’s blood still crying out, to the slicing of a lambs throat, all the way to Calvary atonement is always bloody business. Christians can at times yearn and long for a gentler kinder faith, and move away from the bloodiness of it all, turning Calvary into something it isn’t. Perhaps if we’ve done that to Calvary, maybe this atonement at Gibeah can shock us back to reality, that the stench of death always hangs heavy where the wrath of God has been satisfied.[10]

Do not shy away from this, instead may you be stunned by this, sobered by this, and thrilled by this, evermore! Our covenant Head bore the curse we deserved to bring us the blessing He earned. What grace is ours through Christ our Covenant King!

We come now to our last pair of the passage…

Misery & Action (10-14)

“Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens. And she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night. When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father. And they did all that the king commanded. And after that God responded to the plea for the land.”

At first this might seem a strange way to conclude our passage, but these events in v10-14 flow directly out of the previous events in v1-9. The atoning sacrifice was demanded because of a covenant made long ago, and yet that very sacrifice was the cause of immense suffering and personal grief. Seven sons had been chosen, two sons from a woman named Rizpah and five sons from a woman named Merab. Surely the mother of the five was in unbearable pain, but we only read here of Rizpah, the mother of the two. Her grief and misery takes center stage in v10. From the beginning of harvest until rain came again she guarded the bodies as they hung, while residing in a little tent she had made for herself, to hide from the sun’s heat no doubt. Note she didn’t try and stop David from carrying out the covenant curse on Saul’s sons, so maybe she knew it must happen. And in her misery we’re reminded of how far reaching the effects of sin can be. Saul broke covenant and years later her sons die because of it and she suffers for it.

In v11-14 as our text ends, David hears about Rizpah’s actions and is stirred to action himself. He knew he had not seen to the bones of Saul’s house as he should have. So off he goes to get the bones of Saul, Jonathan, and all seven of the men who hung for Saul’s sin and buried them in Benjamin in their family tomb. Then and only then do we hear the final words of the text, “And after that God responded to the plea for the land.”

Covenant had been broken, famine and judgment had come, atonement had been made, Saul’s house is placed in the grave where they ought to be, and God responds by ending the famine.

Conclusion:

Here are a few takeaways[11] from this:

First, the justice of God is unrelenting. We may say ‘Time heals all wounds.’ Not so with God. Nothing blows over with Him, even if we forget our God never forgets and will one day bring all accounts to bear.

Second, the judgments of God are educating. Saul broke covenant, the whole nation suffered in a famine. But in having to endure such suffering, the nation learned more of how their God calls them to live before Him in holiness and faithfulness. It was a hard time indeed, but one they’d look back in gratitude on for they learned in it.

Third, the patience of God is astounding. God had given His people years to make things right. His patience reveals His kindness, and His kindness is meant to bring us to repentance.

These three takeaways should terrify those continuing on in their sinful ways, for God is just and will judge all sin wherever it is found one day. But these three takeaways should happify those in Christ, for He drank the cup of covenant curse so that we could ever more drink the cup of covenant blessing.


[1] Nearly every commentator points out the chiasm present in this section, though most differ on the nature of chapter 21-24.

[2] John L. Mackay and J. Gary Millar, ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel-2 Chronicles, ed. Iain M. Duguid, Hamilton Jr James M., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019), 450.

[3] David Toshio Tsumura, The Second Book of Samuel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2019), 291. See also Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 433.

[4] Mackay and Millar, ESV Expository Commentary, 451.

[5] Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Revised edition (Fearn, Ross-Shire Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013), 267.

[6] Robert D. Bergen, quoted in Richard D. Phillips, 2 Samuel (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2018), 365–66.

[7] Both liberal and conservative as well as ancient and modern commentators do this, stating David was morally suspect at best and morally bankrupt at worst. But understood through the lens of covenant, it is clear what’s occurring. The absence of the ‘covenantal’ framework leads to widespread misinterpretation.

[8] Davis, 2 Samuel, 268–69.

[9] Davis, 270.

[10] Phillips, 2 Samuel, 368.

[11] Phillips, 362–63.

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