His Honorable Conduct

2 Samuel 21

There does not seem to be much in common between the murder of Amasa and the famine which afflicted the land of Israel, yet that the contents of 2 Samuel 20 and 21 are definitely linked together is clearly intimated by the opening "Then" of the latter. What that connection is, a little reflection should make clear: that which is now to be before us supplies a further illustration of the principal thought developed in our last. It is the retributive justice of God which is again seen in exercise. There it had to do with an individual; here it affected a whole nation. Valuable light is here shed upon the subject of the Divine government of this world, for we are not only given to see how that God fully controls even its physical history, but are also shown something of the moral principles which regulate His procedure. So far from that government being a capricious one, it is regulated by definite design and method. It is the noting of this which supplies the key to the philosophy of history.

"Then there was a famine in the days of David three years. year after year" (2 Sam. 21:1). When faced with droughts and famines, the scientists (so-called) and other wiseacres prate about planetary disturbances, sun-spots, the recurring of astronomical cycles, etc., but the Christian looks beyond all secondary causes and discerns the Maker of this world directing all its affairs. And thus the simplest believer has light which the most learned of this world’s savants possess not. They, and all who follow them, leave God out of their thoughts, and therefore the light which is in them is darkness, and how great is that darkness. It is only the eye of faith which sees the hand of the Lord in everything, and where faith is in exercise there is secured a satisfying resting-place for the heart.

"And David enquired of the Lord" (v. 1). Wise man: he declined to lean unto his own understanding. Nor did he, like the monarchs of Egypt and Babylon before him, send for the astrologers and soothsayers. There was no need to, when he had access to the living God. The pity is that he did not consult Him earlier, instead of waiting till the situation got really desperate. By inquiring of the Lord in the time of trouble, David left us an example which we do well to follow. The Sender of trouble is the only One who can remove it; and if it be not His pleasure to remove it, He is the One who can show us how best to meet it. He did so for David; and He will for us, if we seek Him aright—that is, with an humble, penitent, yet trustful heart.

Troubles do not come by haphazard. The poor worldling may talk of his "ill fortune," but the believer ought to employ more God-honoring language. He should know that it is his Father who orders all his circumstances and regulates every detail of his life, Therefore, when famine comes upon him—be it a spiritual or a financial one—it is both his privilege and his duty to seek unto the Lord and ask, "Show me wherefore Thou contendest with me" (Job 10:2). When the smile of God is withdrawn from us we should at once suspect that something is wrong. True, His favor is not to be measured by His material benefits; and true also that His withholding of them does not always indicate His displeasure. No, He may be testing faith, developing patience, or preparing us for an enlarged trust. Nevertheless, it is always the part of wisdom to think the worst of ourselves, for the promise is "seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these (material) things shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).

"And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house because he slew the Gibeonites" (21:1). The Lord did not turn a deaf ear unto David’s inquiry, even though it was such a tardy one. How longsuffering He is with His own! How many of us have been like David in this! smarting under the chastening rod of God, yet allowing a lengthy interval to pass before we definitely inquired of God as to its cause. Rightly did the poet say, "O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer." Yes, oftentimes they are quite "needless," for if God show us what is wrong, and we put matters right, His rod will quickly be removed.

It is solemn to note that the controversy which the Lord had with Israel at this time was not over some recent thing, but one which had been committed years previously; yet was it one that had never been put right. God does not forget, if we do. Many afflictions, both upon individuals and upon nations, are expressly sent by Him for the purpose of "bringing to remembrance" the sins of the past. In the case before us Israel was now suffering because of the transgression of Saul, for it is an unchanging principle in the divine government that God deals with nations according to the conduct of their rulers or responsible heads. No truth is more clearly revealed in Scripture than this, and the same is plainly exemplified in the history of the world all through this Christian era. Nor need this fact and principle at all surprise us, for in the great majority of instances the rulers follow that policy which will best please their subjects.

The earlier history supplies no record of that which occasioned this calamity upon the nation. We mention this to correct the assertion which is often made in some quarters that Scripture always explains Scripture, by which it is meant that every verse or statement in the Word may be understood by some other statement elsewhere. As a general principle this is true, yet it is by no means without exception, and therefore it needs qualifying. The above is an example of what we mean: there is no historical account of Saul’s slaying the Gibeonites. Nor is this example by any means an isolated one. Paul said "thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep" (2 Cor. 11:25), yet we know not when and where this occurred. In connection with the giving of the law at Sinai "Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake" (Heb. 12:21), but there is no record in the Old Testament of this. Hebrews 13:23 tells of Timothy being "set at liberty," yet his imprisonment is nowhere recorded in Scripture.

"Now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them" (v. 2). The allusion is to what is found in Joshua 9. It will be remembered that after Joshua had overthrown Jericho and Ai the inhabitants of Gibeon were afraid, and resorted to dishonest strategy. They succeeded in deceiving Joshua. After telling a plausible tale, the Gibeonites offered to become the servants of Israel. And we are told "And Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them, to let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them" (Josh. 9:15). A little later, Israel learned that they had been deceived, that instead of the Gibeonites being travelers from a far country (as they had affirmed) they were really Canaanites. The sequel is quite striking and contains a lesson which governmental leaders would do well to take to heart today.

Three days later, as they continued their advance, the Israelites reached the cities of the Gibeonites, and we are told "And the children of Israel smote them not, because the princes of the congregation had sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel" (v. 18). The heads of the nation respected the solemn treaty into which they had entered with the Gibeonites. Then they were put to a more severe test: "And all the congregation murmured against the princes" (v. 18). The common people urged their leaders to regard that treaty as a scrap of paper—human nature was just the same then as it is now: unprincipled, blind to its own highest interests, utterly selfish, indifferent to the divine approval. But in the merciful providence of God, Israel at that time was favored with conscientious leaders, who refused to yield to the popular clamor and do that which they knew was wrong.

"But all the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them; we will even let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we sware unto them" (vv. 19, 20). What mercy it is when the responsible bends of the nation are God-fearing men, whose word is their bond, who cannot be induced to forsake the paths of righteousness. And, my reader, how we need to pray (as we are commanded to do: 1 Tim. 2:1, 2) for all in authority over us, that God will make them honest, just, truthful, and that He will keep them steadfast in the performance of duty. Their position is no easy one: they are in need of divine grace, and prayer is the appointed channel through which supplies of grace are communicated—to the ministers of state as truly as to the ministers of the Gospel. Then instead of criticizing and condemning them, let us hold up their hands by daily supplication for them.

Joshua confirmed the stand taken by the "princes"—the heads of the tribes. Calling the Gibeonites unto him, he asked why they had beguiled him. Whereupon they confessed it was out of fear for their very lives that they had resorted to the imposture; and then cast themselves upon his mercy and fidelity. "And so did he unto them, and delivered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, that they slew them not. And Joshua made them that day hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the Lord, even unto this day" (vv. 26, 27). From that time onwards, the Gibeonites remained in Israel’s midst, acting as their servants—a peaceful and useful people, as Nehemiah 3:7 and other passages intimate.

"And Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah" (2 Sam. 21:2). In utter disregard for the solemn treaty which guaranteed their security, Saul determined to exterminate these Gibeonites; but this was done not out of zeal for the Lord, but "in his zeal to the children of Israel." How perverse human nature is! God had given Saul no commission to slay the Gibeonites, but He had commanded him to destroy the Philistines and Amalekites; but this he left undone. Ah, the extirpation of the Philistines was a difficult and dangerous task, for they were a well-armed and powerful people, fully prepared to resist; whereas the Gibeonites were an easy prey. And is there not much fleshly zeal being displayed in corrupt Christendom today?—thousands engaged in work to which God has never called them, whilst neglecting the great task He has assigned them. What numbers of the rank and file of professing Christians are now busy in seeking to "win souls to Christ," while neglecting the mortifying of their fleshly and worldly lusts—ah, the former is far easier than the latter.

Saul, then, broke public faith with the Gibeonites, for the solemn covenant entered into with them by Joshua assured their preservation. This is clear from verse 5, for while verse 2 says only that he "sought to slay them," here the Gibeonites referred to him as "the man that consumed us, and that devised against us, that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel," which is an amplification of the Lord’s words, "It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites" (v. 1). This brought down heavy guilt upon the nation, which had not been expiated by the punishment of the guilty. The three years’ famine which now came upon the land was proof of this. "It pleased God in this manner, and so long after, to proceed against the nation for it: to show His abhorrence against such crimes; to teach rulers to keep at a distance from similar offences themselves, and to punish them in others; and to intimate the chief punishment of sin is after the death of the offenders" (Thomas Scott).

The fact that God waited so many years before He publicly evidenced His displeasure against Israel for this heinous transgression, manifested His long sufferance, granting them a lengthy space for repentance. But they repented not, and now He made them to realize that He had neither overlooked nor forgotten their crime. Learn then, my reader, that the passage of time does not remove or lessen the guilt of sin. Let us also learn what a solemn thing it is for a strong nation to go back upon its pledged word when they have promised protection to a weak people.

God made known unto David the reason for his present controversy with Israel, that he might take proper measures for expiating the national guilt. As a God-fearing man, David at once recognized the binding obligation of the league Joshua had made with the Gibeonites, and the nation’s guilt in violating the same. Accordingly "David said 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" (v. 3). This was but fair: they were the ones who had been wronged, and therefore it was but just that they should be given the opportunity for deciding what form the reparation should take. Incidentally, let it be carefully noted that this is still another passage which plainly teaches that "atonement" is made for the express purpose of turning away the displeasure of the Lord—there is no thought of at-one-ment or reconciliation here, for the Gibeonites were not alienated from Him!

"And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel" (v. 4). Most generous and noble was their reply. It showed they were neither mercenary nor spiteful: they neither desired to turn this situation to their own material advantage, nor did they harbor a spirit of revenge. For centuries they had acted as servants, and now that Israel had broken the covenant they might well have demanded their freedom. How their selfishness puts to shame the greedy, grasping spirit of this much-vaunted twentieth century! It is not often that the poor are free from covetousness and avarice—the great majority are not poor from choice, but from necessity of circumstances. No wonder the Lord was ready to plead the cause of so meek and mild a people.

And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you. And they answered the king, 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" (vv. 5, 6). Here we perceive their spiritual intelligence and piety. Their asking for "seven" of the descendants of Saul showed they understood that number signified completeness. Their suggestion that these seven men should be "hanged," intimated that they knew this form of death betokened accursedness (Deut. 21:23). Their words "hang them up before the Lord in Gibeah" evinced their knowledge that satisfaction must be offered unto God’s justice before His wrath could be turned away from Israel. Their declaration "Saul, whom the Lord did choose" was an open acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God. Their offer we will hang them up unto the Lord" was magnanimous—willing to spare David, and themselves bear any public criticism which was likely to be offered.

But let us now notice the nobility of David’s conduct in this connection. First, in his inquiring of the Lord as to the reason why the famine had been sent on his land. You will recall how often this grace was seen in him—signal evidence of his piety. Second, in his readiness to consult with the Gibeonites. How many a man would have considered it beneath his dignity to hold conference with menials!—but humility was another grace which shone brightly in David. Third, in his fairness. An unscrupulous man would have disputed their claim, saying that the league made in the days of Joshua was long since obsolete. Fourth, in his consenting to their proposal. We know from other passages that he was sentimentally attached to the family of Saul, but with him the claims of justice superseded all personal considerations. Finally, his fidelity to the promise he had made to Jonathan: "But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the Lord’s oath that was between them" (v. 7) and cf. I Samuel 15:20, 42.