His Honorable Conduct


2 Samuel 21

"Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year: and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites" (2 Sam. 21:1). In our last we sought to show that this occurrence supplies a definite illustration or example of Godís governmental ways with the nations. On this occasion He was dealing with Israel for a crime which they had committed many years previously. That crime respected their violation of a treaty which had been entered into between themselves and the Gibeonites in the days of Joshua. King Saul had ruthlessly ignored that solemn obligation, and instead of protecting the weak he had brutally sought to exterminate them, thus bringing down upon his own house and upon the nation the holy wrath of the Lord.

God does not always manifest His displeasure at once, either against individuals or nations; instead, He usually gives "space for repentance" (Rev. 2:21). But alas, so perverse is fallen human nature that, instead of improving the divine mercy, it perverts the same: "Let favour be showed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness" (Isa. 26:10). No, instead of "learning righteousness" man only adds iniquity to iniquity: "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Eccl. 8:11). Men regard Godís patience as indifference to their sins, thereby emboldening themselves in their wickedness: "These things hast thou done, and I kept silence: thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes" (Ps. 50:21). Yes, sooner or later, God will "reprove"óexhibiting His holiness, exercising His retributive justice. It was so here. Though Saul was now dead, yet his house was made to feel Godís avenging hand.

When David inquired the reason why God had sent this protracted famine upon the land of Israel, God made known to him the cause thereof. The king thereupon entered into a conference with those who had been wronged, and invited them to state what reparation should be made for Saulís outrages upon their people. Their response was striking, illustrating the fact that those from whom it is to be the least expected often evince much more magnanimity than others who have enjoyed far greater privileges. The Gibeonites made it known that they sought no pecuniary gain, being far more concerned that divine justice should be compensated: "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" (2 Sam. 21:6).

Let it be duly noted, first, that the Gibeonites had for many years held their peace, neither complaining to David for the unredressed wrong Saul had done them, nor disturbing the kingdom by their protests and demands. It was not until the Lord had interposed on their behalf, and until David himself had inquired what satisfaction should be made for the grievous wrong which had been done them, that they preferred the above request. It was in no blood-thirsty and vindictive spirit they now spoke. Their request was neither unjust nor unreasonable: they asked for no lives but those of Saulís own family: he had done the wrong, and therefore it was but right that his house should pay the price. To this day, the heirs may be lawfully sued for their parentsí debts. True, in the ordinary course of things, children are not to be slain for the crimes of their father (Deut. 24:16), but the case of the Gibeonites was altogether extraordinary.

Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that the Lord had definitely intervened on behalf of these injured ones, and therefore what is here before us should be considered from the divine viewpoint. However shocking this incident may appear to us, or however contrary to our sense of the fitness of things, let us beware of condemning or even criticizing that which the Most High inspired. "God had made Himself an immediate party to the cause, and, no doubt, put it into the hearts of the Gibeonites to make this demand . . . Let parents take heed of sin, especially the sin of cruelty and oppression, for their childrenís sake, who may be smarting for it by the just hand of God, when they are in their graves. Guilt and a curse are a bad entail on a family" (Matthew Henry). A most solemn warning was furnished for all future generations in this tragic incident.

Finally, let it not be overlooked that God owned what was done on this occasion: "And after that God was entreated for the land" (v. 14). Godís judgments are not subject to those rules which human judgments are to be regulated by, nor does He stand in need of any apology from us. Jehovahís actions are not to be measured by our petty tapelines. Where we cannot understand His ways, we must bow silently before Him, assured that He will yet fully vindicate Himself and at the finish close the mouth of every rebel who now quarrels with His providences. However, it should not be overlooked that, in this particular punishment which fell upon Saulís descendants, it was by no means a case of innocent and unoffending members of his house being dealt with, for God Himself speaks of them as a "bloody house" (v. 1)óthey were actuated by their fatherís cruel spirit and walked in his steps.

"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" (v. 6). Notice the "whom we will hang up, which showed their consideration for the king: they were quite willing to bear the odium of the execution. As we have already pointed out, this was not for the gratification of personal revengeó"neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel" (v. 4). "Hang them up unto the Lord"óas a sacrifice unto His justice, and also as a warning unto Israel to molest them no more. "In Gibeah of Saul"óas an object lesson to those who had assisted him in his persecution and slaughter of the innocent. "And the king said, I will give them" (v. 6). Obviously David had never consented to their proposal had it been wrong in the sight of God. Inasmuch as the selection of these seven men was left to David, opportunity was afforded him to spare the son of Jonathan (v. 7).

"But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite" (v. 8). The first two were Saulís own sons, which he had by a concubine. The other five were grandsons which his daughter had borne to Adriel, but who had been brought up by their aunt: Let it be recalled that the mother of these five men had been promised to David by her father, but he treacherously gave her to Adriel, with the intention of provoking the sweet singer of Israel (1 Sam. 18:19). Herein we may perceive more clearly the workings of divine justice. Commenting on this particular point Joseph Hall said, "It is a dangerous matter to offer injury to any of Godís faithful ones: if their meekness have easily remitted it, God will not pass it over without a severe rebuke, though it may be long afterwards."

"And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites" (v. 9). We are well aware that, in this sentimental age when capital punishment is being more and more opposed, many will consider David did wrong in carrying out the wishes of the Gibeonites. Some have so perversely wrested this incident that they have not hesitated to charge David with seizing the opportunity to wreak his own spite upon an old enemy. But surely it is evident to all right-minded people that David could do no other: it was not from any private animosity which he bore to the house of Saul, but that obedience to God required his compliance with the request of the Gibeonites, while his having at heart the good of the Nation left him no other alternative. "Those executions must not be complained at as cruel which are become necessary in the public welfare. Better that seven of Saulís bloody house be hanged, than that all Israel should be famished" (Matthew Henry).

"And they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest" (v. 9). "As these persons were hanged by the express appointment of God for an anathema, an accursed thing, a national atonement to divine justice, they were left on the tree or gibbet till some tokens of the Lordís reconciliation were afforded by seasonable rains" (Thomas Scott). Yet here again we may perceive the absolute sovereignty of Jehovah, and His superiority to all restrictions. Though He had expressly forbidden magistrates to slay children in order to avenge the crimes of their parents (Deut. 24:16), nevertheless, God Himself is bound by no such limitations. He had also given command to Israel, "If a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day, for he that is hanged is accursed of God" (Deut. 21:22, 23); yet here we see the Lord moving David to do exactly the contrary! Why? if not to make it plain that He Himself is above all law, free to do just as He pleases.

"And were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest" (v. 9). Every detail here evidenced the superintending hand of the Lord. First, the place appointed for this execution, namely, in Saulís own city, so that the seven victims were, practically speaking, put to death on their own doorstep. Second, the manner of their execution, which was by hanging before the Lord, to demonstrate they were accursed in His sight. Third, the time of their execution, namely, "in the days of harvest." Those days were selected to make it the more manifest that they were being sacrificed for the specific purpose of appeasing Godís wrath, which had for three years withheld from them harvest mercies, and to obtain His favor for the present season. Who, then, can reasonably doubt that everything was here done according to the divine ordering?

But is there not also an important practical lesson for us? Surely there must be, for the natural ever adumbrates the spiritual. Nor should it be difficult to ascertain what is here figuratively set forth. While those bloody sons of Saul were spared, the mercies of God were withheld; but when they had been hanged, "God was entreated for the land" (v. 14). And is it not the same with us today individually? If we fail to deny self, and on the contrary indulge our corruptions, how can we expect the smile of the Lord to be upon us? "Your iniquities have turned away these things, and your sins have withholden good things from you" (Jer. 5:25). Do we sufficiently realize, dear reader, that the One with whom we have to do is the thrice Holy God? If we play with fire we must expect to get our fingers burned, and if we trifle with sin and trample upon the divine precepts, we shall suffer severely.

We are well aware that this aspect of the Truth is not a palatable one. Those who lead a life of sell-pleasing wish to hear only of the grace of God. But does not the very grace of God teach us to deny "ungodliness and worldly lusts" and to "live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world" (Titus 2:12) Grace is given not to countenance evil doing, but to counteract the workings of an evil nature. Grace is given to enable its recipient to pluck out right eyes and cut off right hands: in other words, it is a supernatural principle which produces supernatural effects. Is it doing so in you and me? or are we after all our profession, strangers to it? Have we diligently sought to use the grace already imparted? If not, can we really expect more grace until we penitently confess our failures and put right with God what we know to be displeasing in His sight.

We are also well aware that this aspect of the Truth is utterly ignored by the great majority of preachers and "Bible teachers" today, who instead of pressing the holy claims of God and rebuking self-indulgence, are seeking either to amuse or soothe their hearers in their sins. It is not that we are inculcating a strange doctrine, introducing that which opposes divine grace. No, those servants of God in the past who most extolled the grace of God, also maintained the requirements of His righteousness. As a sample of what we have in mind take these words of Matthew Henryís on 2 Samuel 21:19, "There is no way of appeasing Godís anger but by mortifying and crucifying our lusts and corruptions. In vain do we expect mercy from God, unless we do justice upon our sins. What have we said above which is any stronger than that? If there was no other way of placating Godís wrath than the slaying of Saulís sons, so now our sins must be put to death if His approbation is to be enjoyed."

"Then there was a famine in the days of David, three years, year after year." Is that nothing more than an item of ancient history? Has it no voice for us today? Does it not accurately describe the actual experience of many a backslidden Christian? Is it not pertinent to the case of some of our readers? Has there not long been a famine in your soul, dear friend? Ah, there is indeed a most important practical application of the above incident to our own lives. If you are painfully aware that such is the case with you, are you not desirous of that famine being removed? Then take to heart what has been before us above: put matters right with Godóbanish from your life that which withholds from you His approval. He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy" (Prov. 28:13).

"And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah 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" (v. 10). It is touching to behold this poor mother keeping so lengthy a vigil over the corpses of her two sons. True, she made no attempt to cut down the bodies, thereby evidencing her submission to the righteous judgment of God; yet was she not guilty of inordinate grief? As Matthew Henry says, "She indulged her grief, as mourners are apt to do, to no good purpose. When sorrow, in such cases, is in danger of excess, we should rather study how to divert and pacify it, rather than humour and gratify it. Why should we thus harden ourselves in sorrow?"

"And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabeshgilead, which had stolen them from the street of Bethshan, 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" (vv. 12-14). This respectful interment of the bones of Saul and his descendants, by the king, is clear proof that David had not been actuated by a spirit of spite and revenge when he had delivered them up to the Gibeonites. But what, let us ask, is the spiritual lesson for us in this detail? If those sons of Saul may justly be taken as a figure of our sins (that which withholds Godís blessings from us), and if the slaying of them adumbrates the believerís mortification of his lusts, then surely it is no far-fetched fantasy to regard the interment of their bones as indicating we are to bury in oblivion those disgraceful things of the past: "Never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified toward thee" (Ezek. 16:63). Instead of holding up to the public viewóunder the pretence of "giving your testimony"ó those things we hope are under the blood, let us draw a veil over them.

The last eight verses of our chapter give a brief summary of the events which occurred during the closing years of Davidís reign. That which is most prominent in them is the further battles which took place between Israel and the Philistines, and the slaying of certain antagonistic giants. Here, too, the spiritual application is not difficult to perceive. There is no furlough in the fight of faith! The flesh continues to lust against the spirit till the end of our earthly pilgrimage, and therefore the work of mortification is to go on till God calls us to our rest. When the seven sons of Saul have been put to death, other foes (lusts) will seek to prevail against us, and they too must be resisted, and (by grace) be overcome. Let it be duly noted that, though David grew old and feeble, he did not grow indolent (vv. 15, 22)! The mention of the "giants" at the close of the chapter, intimates that the most powerful of our enemies are reserved for the last great conflict: yet through our "David" we shall be more than conquerors.