Scripture: 2 Samuel 21:1-14
A few weeks ago, our Easter sermon was not a typical Easter sermon. I planned it that way. Well, today is Mother’s Day and this is also not a typical Mother’s Day sermon. I did not plan this, but this is where we landed in 2 Samuel – a very tragic story about a grieving mother. I’m not going to sugar coat it. I’m going to trust the providence of God that this is the story He wants us to consider this morning. 2 Samuel 21:
1 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 don’t know exactly when this famine took place, because chapter 21 does not chronologically follow chapter 20. We also don’t know exactly when Saul broke Joshua’s covenant with the Gibeonites, but apparently, he did.
The Gibeonites were Gentiles, but they were protected by a covenant Joshua made with them. In fact, the Gibeonites tricked Joshua into making a covenant with them. They led him to believe they were from a distant land, when in fact, they were neighbors. When the people of Israel discovered the deception, they wanted to slaughter the Gibeonites. But Joshua allowed them to live because the covenant had already been made.
Do you remember what a covenant is? It’s like a contract, but instead of signing papers they cut animals in half. It was a bloody, messy business. And the idea was that if someone broke the covenant, they could be sawn in half.
Saul broke Joshua’s covenant, but God decided to punish Israel for it during the reign of David—long after Saul’s death!
David had to deal with the consequences of someone else’s sin! Why? Because David was the king. Breaking a national covenant was not an isolated, individual sin. Saul was representing Israel when he spilled blood on the land. David had to represent Israel in making restitution.
Think of it like this. If the President of the United States is caught assaulting someone on the White House lawn, who pays the penalty? He does. But if the President orders an attack on another country and starts a war, who pays for that? We all do! Like it or not, he’s our representative.
I think that’s the best way to understand this because God specifically says in Deuteronomy 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.”
David is not paying for Saul’s sin – he’s dealing with the consequences of it. In a similar way, I may not be guilty of the sins of my American forefathers or my family tree, but I am still dealing with the consequences of their sins. We have all inherited the problems caused by other people’s sin.
2 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.
I think it is worth pointing out that this is another example of someone in the Bible doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. We talked about this several months ago. Our intentions don’t matter when we commit sin. Our intentions will not soften God’s response to our sin. Remember the T.S. Elliot quote? “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” Saul did the wrong thing for the right reasons, but it didn’t matter.
3 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?” 4 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.”
Notice the word “atonement”. This is the first time that word appears in the Bible since the time of Moses. It isn’t found anywhere else in Samuel. I think that is significant. Atonement is the idea that something must be done to make things right in a relationship. Something must happen for us to reconcile.
Notice also that the Gibeonites were not looking for money or land.
And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” 5 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, 6 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.”
They don’t want money. They want blood. And they want these men put on display. Specifically, they want to hang the dead bodies of these men on large stakes in the ground. That’s what they ask for and shockingly that’s what David gives them.
7 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.
Remember that David made his own covenant with Jonathan. He wants to honor Joshua’s covenant with the Gibeonites without betraying his own covenant with Jonathan. Notice the importance of the covenant and how even kings had to keep them.
8 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;
9 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.
Notice that the Gibeonites see this atonement as an act of worship. They hang the men on stakes in the ground on the mountain before the Lord. This is how they died and, as Christians, it is utterly impossible not to think of the cross when we read this. But we still don’t know – is this what God wanted or is the writer just telling us what happened?
And now we come to the most depressing part of the story.
10 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.
You’re not going to find this verse in any children’s storybook Bibles. It would be easy to read this verse quickly and move on, because talking about it is going to be difficult. But I’m not going to do that. I’m going to let this verse speak to us.
This is a mom. This is a grieving mom. This is a mom making a campsite underneath the corpses of seven men. Five of these men were her nephews. Two of these men were her sons.
She gave birth to them. She nursed them. She swaddled them. She laughed with them and cried with them. They were comforted by her voice. She watched over them. She taught them. She cherished them as only a mother could. And now she’s keeping the buzzards away from their bodies. And she’s doing it alone.
We are meant to feel her pain as we read this story. And we are meant to remember that death is always an enemy. It is always sad and wrong and tragic.
But there’s also a hint in this verse about the intentions of God in this story. The men are dead. The atonement has been made. Blood has been shed. But God has not yet sent the rain!
I think the writer includes that fact intentionally, to leave a question unanswered. Was God happy with this atonement or not? Is this what God wanted? The text doesn’t say. God told David that the famine was a result of Saul’s sin, but God had not prescribed a solution. The seven men are dead, but the rain still hasn’t fallen.
11 When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, 12 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.
13 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. 14 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.
And wow the rain falls – not in direct response to the deaths of the seven men. Instead, God responded to the burial of their bones along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan.
David noticed the actions of this grieving mother – the respect she showed the bodies of these dead men – and David was compelled to show respect for them as well. They were given a proper burial, along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan.
How should we explain all this and why does it matter?
I think first we need to acknowledge that this is a really offensive story. It offends us, because it isn’t clean, and we would rather our religion be clean and attractive. There is nothing attractive about a grieving mother protecting her sons’ corpses from carrion birds.
This is brutal and ugly and that is the nature of atonement. Atonement is ugly because sin is ugly. Death is ugly.
Sin fools us into thinking it’s not a big deal. It tempts us with counterfeit beauty, but underneath the mask is death.
13 The woman Folly is loud;
she is seductive and knows nothing.
14 She sits at the door of her house;
she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
15 calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
16 “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
17 “Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
18 But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.
In other words, our sin wants to trick us into believing that we aren’t that bad. In reality, sin is a banquet in the grave. The brutality of the Bible in places like 2 Samuel 21 is meant to expose sin for what it is.
Also consider the centrality of the bones in the story. God restored His blessing when the bones were buried. Why? What are bones?
Bones are the last tissue remaining in a dead body, meaning that everything else has been stripped away. Everything else has been exposed. Rizpah protected the bodies as long as she could, but in the end, there was nothing left but the bones. One way or another, we will all be exposed.
And I think that’s the message of the text. Our guilt demands blood. Our sin leaves us exposed before a Holy God. And we will be exposed. But just as even the bones of Saul were buried – in hope, in the land of promise – so also, we are buried spiritually in Christ and one day buried physically in the ground. Our hope is also tied to an atonement, but not one that we initiated or provided. God provided an atonement. We broke the covenant, but God Himself bore the curse. Jesus died hanging on a cross, on a hill, before the Lord.
His death was just as ugly – uglier because it was not deserved. But it was sufficient for the grace and mercy of God to fall on His people like rain, filling our dry and empty souls with the waters of life.
There is no greater place to see this promise and the connection between 2 Samuel 21 and the promise of the Gospel, I think, than in Ezekiel 37.
1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.
3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Some may be offended by the Bible’s way of explaining the problems of this world and the solution that is offered in the atonement of Jesus. It’s not pretty. It’s not a happy story from beginning to end.
But when you have felt the sting of this world – when you have suffered deeply, and you know things aren’t OK. When you have witnessed the power of sin and death in yourself and in others and you have felt the emptiness and the curse of it… you may be more likely to embrace God’s version of the story.
The Rizpahs of the world understand this. They aren’t questioning God because they have suffered. They know that, in the end, God is the only one with the power to right the wrongs of this world. He’s the only one who can put the flesh back on dry bones. He’s the only way Rizpah will see her sons again. He’s the only way I will see my grandmother again.
God was not happy with the deaths of these men, but they teach us something about the darkness of this world, the dire circumstances we face, and the death of death in the death of Christ Jesus.
How is it that I believe in God when there is so much wrong with the world – so much darkness and death and misery? I start with the resurrection of Jesus and everything else falls into place. If Jesus rose again, then the Bible is true. If he didn’t, then stop wasting your time with all this. But I believe He did.