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2 Samuel xxi. 1-14.
We now enter on the concluding part of the reign of David. Some of the matters in which he was most occupied during this period are recorded only in Chronicles. Among these, the chief was his preparations for the building of the temple, which great work was to be undertaken by his son. In the concluding part of Samuel the principal things recorded are two national judgments, a famine and a pestilence, that occurred in David's reign, the one springing from a transaction in the days of Saul, the other from one in the days of David. Then we have two very remarkable lyrical pieces, one a general song of thanksgiving, forming a retrospect of his whole career; the other a prophetic vision of the great Ruler that was to spring from him, and the effects of His reign. In addition to these, there is also a notice of certain wars of David's, not previously recorded, and a fuller statement respecting his great men than we have elsewhere. The whole of this section has more the appearance of a collection of pieces than a chronological narrative. It is by no means certain that they are all recorded in the order of their occurrence. The most characteristic of the pieces are the two songs or psalms—the327 one looking back, the other looking forward; the one commemorating the goodness and mercy that had followed him all the days of his life, the other picturing goodness still greater and mercy more abundant, yet to be vouchsafed under David's Son.
The conjunction "then" at the beginning of the chapter is replaced in the Revised Version by "and." It does not denote that what is recorded here took place immediately after what goes before. On the contrary, the note of time is found in the general expression, "in the days of David," that is, some time in David's reign. On obvious grounds, most recent commentators are disposed to place this occurrence comparatively early. It is likely to have happened while the crime of Saul was yet fresh in the public recollection. By the close of David's reign a new generation had come to maturity, and the transactions of Saul's reign must have been comparatively forgotten. It is clear from David's excepting Mephibosheth, that the transaction occurred after he had been discovered and cared for. Possibly the narrative of the discovery of Mephibosheth may also be out of chronological order, and that event may have occurred earlier than is commonly thought. It will remove some of the difficulties of this difficult chapter if we are entitled to place the occurrence at a time not very far remote from the death of Saul.
It was altogether a singular occurrence, this famine in the land of Israel. The calamity was remarkable, the cause was remarkable, the cure most remarkable of all. The whole narrative is painful and perplexing; it places David in a strange light,—it seems to place even God Himself in a strange light; and the only way in which we can explain it, in consistency with328 a righteous government, is by laying great stress on a principle accepted without hesitation in those Eastern countries, which made the father and his children "one concern," and held the children liable for the misdeeds of the father.
1. As to the calamity. It was a famine that continued three successive years, causing necessarily an increase of misery year after year. There is a presumption that it occurred in the earlier part of David's reign, because, if it had been after the great enlargement of the kingdom which followed his foreign wars, the resources of some parts of it would probably have availed to supply the deficiency. At first it does not appear that the king held that there was any special significance in the famine,—that it came as a reproof for any particular sin. But when the famine extended to a third year, he was persuaded that it must have a special cause. Did he not in this just act as we all are disposed to do? A little trial we deem to be nothing; it does not seem to have any significance or to be connected with any lesson. It is only when the little trial swells into a large one, or the brief trouble into a long-continued affliction, that we begin to inquire why it was sent. If small trials were more regarded, heavy trials would be less needed. The horse that springs forward at the slightest touch of the whip or prick of the spur needs no heavy lash; it is only when the lighter stimulus fails that the heavier has to be applied. Man's tendency, even under God's chastenings, has ever been to ignore the source of them,—when God "poured upon him the fury of His anger and the strength of battle, and it set him on fire round about, yet he knew not; and it burned him, yet he laid it not to heart" (Isa. xlii. 25). Trials329 would neither be so long nor so severe if more regard were had to them in an earlier stage; if they were accepted more as God's message—"Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Consider your ways."
2. The cause of the calamity was made known when David inquired of the Lord—"It is for Saul and his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites."
The history of the crime for which this famine was sent can be gathered only from incidental notices. It appears from the narrative before us that Saul "consumed the Gibeonites, and devised against them that they should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel." The Gibeonites, as is well known, were a Canaanite people, who, through a cunning stratagem, obtained leave from Joshua to dwell in their old settlements, and being protected by a solemn national oath, were not disturbed even when it was found out that they had been practising a fraud. They possessed cities, situated principally in the tribe of Benjamin; the chief of them, Gibeon, "was a great city, one of the royal cities, greater than Ai." In the time of Saul they were a quiet, inoffensive people; yet he seems to have fallen on them with a determination to sweep them from all the coasts of Israel. Death or banishment was the only alternative he offered. His desire to exterminate them evidently failed, otherwise David would have found none of them to consult; but the savage attack which he made on them affords an incidental proof that it was no feeling of humanity that led him to spare the Amalekites when he was ordered to destroy them.
We are not told of any offence that the Gibeonites had committed; and perhaps covetousness lay at the root of Saul's policy. There is reason to believe that330 when he saw his popularity declining and David's advancing, he had recourse to unscrupulous methods of increasing his own. Addressing his servants, before the slaughter of Abimelech and the priests, he asked, "Hear now, ye Benjamites; will the son of Jesse give you fields and vineyards, that all of you have conspired against me?" Evidently he had rewarded his favourites, especially those of his own tribe, with fields and vineyards. But how had he got these to bestow? Very probably by dispossessing the Gibeonites. Their cities, as we have seen, were in the tribe of Benjamin. But to prevent jealousy, others, both of Judah and of Israel, would get a share of the spoil. For he is said to have sought to slay the Gibeonites "in his zeal for the children of Israel and Judah." If this was the way in which the slaughter of the Gibeonites was compassed, it was fair that the nation should suffer for it. If the nation profited by the unholy transaction, and was thus induced to wink at the violation of the national faith and the massacre of an inoffensive people, it shared in Saul's guilt, and became liable to chastisement. Even David himself was not free from blame. When he came to the throne he should have seen justice done to this injured people. But probably he was afraid. He felt his own authority not very secure, and probably he shrank from raising up enemies in those whom justice would have required him to dispossess. Prince and people therefore were both at fault, and both were suffering for the wrongdoing of the nation. Perhaps Solomon had this case in view when he wrote: "Rob not the poor because he is poor, neither oppress the afflicted in the gate; for the Lord will plead their cause, and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them."331
But whatever may have been Saul's motive, it is certain that by his attempt to massacre and banish the Gibeonites a great national sin was committed, and that for this sin the nation had never humbled itself, and never made reparation.
3. What, then, was now to be done? The king left it to the Gibeonites themselves to prescribe the satisfaction which they claimed for this wrong. This was in accordance with the spirit of the law that gave a murdered man's nearest of kin a right to exact justice of the murderer. In their answer the Gibeonites disclaimed all desire for compensation in money; and very probably this was a surprise to the people. To surrender lands might have been much harder than to give up lives. What the Gibeonites asked had a grim look of justice; it showed a burning desire to bring home the punishment as near as possible to the offender: "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." Seven was a perfect number, and therefore the victims should be seven. Their punishment was, to be hanged or crucified, but in inflicting this punishment the Jews were more merciful than the Romans; the criminals were first put to death, then their dead bodies were exposed to open shame. They were to be hanged "unto the Lord," as a satisfaction to expiate His just displeasure. They were to be hanged "in Gibeah of Saul," to bring home the offence visibly to him, so that the expiation should be at the same place as the crime. And when mention is made of Saul, the332 Gibeonites add, "Whom the Lord did choose." For Jehovah was intimately connected with Saul's call to the throne; He was in some sense publicly identified with him; and unless something were done to disconnect Him with this crime, the reproach of it would, in measure, rest upon Him.
Such was the demand of the Gibeonites; and David deemed it right to comply with it, stipulating only that the descendants of Jonathan should not be surrendered. The sons or descendants of Saul that were given up for this execution were the two sons of Rizpah, Saul's concubine, and along with them five sons of Michal, or, as it is in the margin, of Merab, the elder daughter of Saul, whom she bare (R. V.—not "brought up," A. V.) to Adriel the Meholathite. These seven men were put to death accordingly, and their bodies exposed in the hill near Gibeah.
The transaction has a very hard look to us, though it had nothing of the kind to the people of those days. Why should these unfortunate men be punished so terribly for the sin of their father? How was it possible for David, in cold blood, to give them up to an ignominious death? How could he steel his heart against the supplications of their friends? With regard to this latter aspect of the case, it is ridiculous to cast reproach on David. As we have remarked again and again, if he had acted like other Eastern kings, he would have consigned every son of Saul to destruction when he came to the throne, and left not one remaining, for no other offence than being the children of their father. On the score of clemency to Saul's family the character of David is abundantly vindicated.
The question of justice remains. Is it not a law of333 nature, it may be asked, and a law of the Bible too, that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, but that the soul that sinneth it shall die? It is undoubtedly the rule both of nature and the Bible that the son is not to be substituted for the father when the father is there to bear the penalty. But it is neither the rule of the one nor of the other that the son is never to suffer with the father for the sins which the father has committed. On the contrary, it is what we see taking place, in many forms, every day. It is an arrangement of Providence that almost baffles the philanthropist, who sees that children often inherit from their parents a physical frame disposing them to their parents' vices, and who sees, moreover, that, when brought up by vicious parents, children are deprived of their natural rights, and are initiated into a life of vice. But the law that identified children and parents in Old Testament times was carried out to consequences which would not be tolerated now. Not only were children often punished because of their physical connection with their fathers, but they were regarded as judicially one with them, and so liable to share in their punishment. The Old Testament (as Canon Mozley has so powerfully shown44 Lectures on the Old Testament. Lecture V.: "Visitation of Sins of Fathers on Children.") was in some respects an imperfect economy; the rights of the individual were not so clearly acknowledged as they are under the New; the family was a sort of moral unit, and the father was the responsible agent for the whole. When Achan sinned, his whole household shared his punishment. The solidarity of the family was such that all were involved in the sin of the father. However strange it may seem to us, it did not appear at all strange in David's time334 that this rule should be applied in the case of Saul. On the contrary, it would probably be thought that it showed considerable moderation of feeling not to demand the death of the whole living posterity of Saul, but to limit the demand to the number of seven. Doubtless the Gibeonites had suffered to an enormous extent. Thousands upon thousands of them had probably been slain. People might be sorry for the seven young men that had to die, but that there was anything essentially unjust or even harsh in the transaction is a view of the case that would occur to no one. Justice is often hard; executions are always grim; but here was a nation that had already experienced three years of famine for the sin of Saul, and that would experience yet far more if no public expiation should take place; and seven men were not very many to die for a nation.
The grimness of the mode of punishment was softened by an incident of great moral beauty, which cannot but touch the heart of every man of sensibility. Rizpah, the concubine of Saul, and mother of two of the victims, combining the tenderness of a mother and the courage of a hero, took her position beside the gibbet; and, undeterred by the sight of the rotting bodies and the stench of the air, she suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day nor the beasts of the field by night. The poor woman must have looked for a very different destiny when she became the concubine of Saul. No doubt she expected to share in the glory of his royal state. But her lord perished in battle, and the splendour of royalty passed for ever from him and his house. Then came the famine; its cause was declared from heaven, its cure was announced by the Gibeonites. Her two sons were335 among the slain. Probably they were but lads, not yet beyond the age which rouses a mother's sensibilities to the full. (This consideration likewise points to an early date.) We cannot attempt to picture her feelings. The last consolation that remained for her was to guard their remains from the vulture and the tiger. Unburied corpses were counted to be disgraced, and this, in some degree, because they were liable to be devoured by birds and beasts of prey. Rizpah could not prevent the exposure, but she could try to prevent the wild animals from devouring them. The courage and self-denial needed for this work were great, for the risk of violence from wild beasts was very serious. All honour to this woman and her noble heart! David appears to have been deeply impressed by her heroism. When he heard of it he went and collected the bones of Jonathan and his sons, which had been buried under a tree at Jabesh-gilead, and likewise the bones of the men that had been hanged; and he buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish, Saul's father. And after that God was entreated for the land.
We offer a concluding remark, founded on the tone of this narrative. It is marked, as every one must perceive, by a subdued, solemn tone. Whatever may be the opinion of our time as to the need of apologizing for it, it is evident that no apology was deemed necessary for the transaction at the time this record was written. The feeling of all parties evidently was, that it was indispensable that things should take the course they did. No one expressed wonder when the famine was accounted for by the crime of Saul. No one objected when the question of expiation was referred to the Gibeonites. The house of Saul made no protest336 when seven of his sons were demanded for death. The men themselves, when they knew what was coming, seem to have been restrained from attempting to save themselves by flight. It seemed as if God were speaking, and the part of man was simply to obey. When unbelievers object to passages in the Bible like this, or like the sacrifice of Isaac, or the death of Achan, they are accustomed to say that they exemplify the worst passions of the human heart consecrated under the name of religion. We affirm that in this chapter there is no sign of any outburst of passion whatever; everything is done with gravity, with composure and solemnity. And, what is more, the graceful piety of Rizpah is recorded, with simplicity, indeed, but in a tone that indicates appreciation of her tender motherly soul. Savages thirsting for blood are not in the habit of appreciating such touching marks of affection. And further, we are made to feel that it was a pleasure to David to pay that mark of respect for Rizpah's feelings in having the men buried. He did not desire to lacerate the feelings of the unhappy mother; he was glad to soothe them as far as he could. To him, as to his Lord, judgment was a strange work, but he delighted in mercy. And he was glad to be able to mingle a slight streak of mercy with the dark colours of a picture of God's judgment on sin.
To all right minds it is painful to punish, and when punishment has to be inflicted it is felt that it ought to be done with great solemnity and gravity, and with an entire absence of passion and excitement. In a sinful world God too must inflict punishment. And the future punishment of the wicked is the darkest thing in all the scheme of God's government. But it must337 take place. And when it does take place it will be done deliberately, solemnly, sadly. There will be no exasperation, no excitement. There will be no disregard of the feelings of the unhappy victims of the Divine retribution. What they are able to bear will be well considered. What condition they shall be placed in when the punishment comes, will be calmly weighed. But may we not see what a distressing thing it will be (if we may use such an expression with reference to God) to consign His creatures to punishment? How different His feelings when He welcomes them to eternal glory! How different the feelings of His angels when that change takes place by which punishment ceases to hang over men, and glory takes its place! "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth." Is it not blessed to think that this is the feeling of God, and of all Godlike spirits? Will you not all believe this,—believe in the mercy of God, and accept the provision of His grace? "For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but should have eternal life."
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