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Sermon preached on 2 Samuel 21:1-14 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/19/2016 in Novato, CA.
2 Samuel 21:1-14
“With What shall I Make Atonement?”
As our nation continues in this election season, we are reminded that our leaders affect us. In other words, the decisions they make on behalf of our country, have an impact on us. If they choose to go to war, our whole nation is as at war. That means our young people may have to go off to battle. It means that the enemy nations might try to attack us in return. Similarly, if our leaders make laws for our country, those laws affect us, whether we agree with the law or not. Well, I mention this because it’s a reminder that a few who are part of a group, can do things that affect the whole group. That is especially the case when those people are the leaders or heads of that group. As Americans who really love our independence and autonomy, that can be a hard thing to accept at times. But we are reminded in a passage like this that it is a notion in the Bible and in life that we are not completely independent from others. There are ways in which we are connected and grouped together with others. What we do affects others in that group, and our leaders’ choices, along with their consequences, can especially impact us.
And so we see that similar notion in today’s passage. The people of Israel are being negatively affected because of the actions of their former king. Their former king, King Saul, caused them to break covenant loyalty, to break hesed with the Gibeonites. This not only got them in trouble with the Gibeonites, but it ultimately got them in trouble with God as seen with the famine. And so today we’ll study first the context of the famine and Israel’s troubles. Second, we’ll look at the agreed upon atonement. Third we’ll consider the mourning of Rizpah that we see here, which concludes this passage. In all of this, we’ll see how King David works to bring atonement for Israel to save them from this famine. And so in our study of this passage, we’ll be reminded about the atonement we have in King Jesus.
Let’s begin first with the context of this famine and Israel’s troubles. This is verse 1. There was a famine in the land, and not just any famine, but one for three years. This was surely starting to take a toll on the people. Now, whenever you are in the timeframe of the Mosaic covenant, a famine like this should be a red flag. We should remember that under the Mosaic covenant, God had brought the people into the Promised Land, a land of milk and honey. Under that covenant, God specifically promised them that if they obeyed the covenant, the land would be fruitful for them. However, they were told that if they were not faithful to the covenant, then God would send covenant curses. Famine was one of these curses. You can read about this, for example, in Deuteronomy 28. And so whenever you see a famine like this under the old covenant, you should say “Uh oh,” and ask, “What did the people of God do this time?” And that is what David does. He asks that question of the LORD, verse 1. And the LORD gives him an answer. The answer is that Saul and his bloodthirsty house had killed some Gibeonites.
Now in case you don’t remember the biblical history of the Gibeonites, we are given a brief explanation of it in verse 2. They were not Israelites. They were actually part of the original Amorite people who had possessed the Promised Land before Israel came and took it over. In other words, originally they were part of the people that Israel was supposed to completely destroy when God sent them in to conquer the Promised Land. But if you recall from the book of Joshua, in Joshua 9, the Gibeonites saw back then the hand writing on the wall, and found a sneaky way to enter into a peace treaty with Israel. God had told Israel not to enter into any covenants of peace with the Amorites. But the Gibeonites sent a delegation to Israel dressed up as if they were travelers from a distant country to try to make peace with them. They even brought moldy bread as their supplies to try to look like they were not from around there. Israel did not inquire of the Lord but instead made a permanent treaty with them, swearing in the name of the LORD. And despite their duplicity in making the treaty, God had since then required Israel to uphold the treaty with the Gibeonites. This makes sense that God would hold them accountable, because they made the treaty in the name of the LORD. And so Israel had to show covenant loyalty, hesed, to the Gibeonites in the treaty, because they were bound by covenant.
And yet we see here in verse 2 that King Saul had been violating that covenant. It says that Saul sought to kill them in his zeal for Israel and Judah. In other words, he had somehow had Israel’s interests in mind in how he attacked the Gibeonites. Man, that sounds so typical of Saul. It’s obviously good for the King of Israel to have great zeal for the people. Saul repeatedly did things that were almost right; things that had good elements, but executed in some wrong way. That’s the case again here. It was good to have zeal for the interests of Israel, but not to do this in such a way as to break a covenant that Israel had with someone else. The result of Saul’s actions is not good for Israel, but actually bad for Israel. They experience this curse of famine from God for the breaking of this treaty.
And so that’s the background and context for Israel’s problem with the famine and the Gibeonites. Let’s look at now what David, a man after God’s own heart, decides to do. We see David take action in verse 3. After learning from God what the issue was, he approaches the Gibeonites to try to make atonement. Verse 3, “With what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?” Putting aside the idea of atonement for a moment, I think it’s interesting and ironic that David says that his goal is to receive blessing from the Gibeonites. But it makes sense. The people of Israel are experiencing curse right now because of the outstanding covenant violation. If that covenant violation can be repaired, then Israel hopes to be restored in God’s blessings. But the irony here is that if you remember all the way back to Father Abraham, the promise God made to him is that his offspring would bring blessing to the nations. But here Abraham’s offspring has to seek the reverse. They have to look to the nations that they might bless them. Do you see the reversal? But of course the reversal is because of the nation’s sin which King Saul had led them into.
And so do you understand how David wants to try to fix this? Israel has violated the covenant with the Gibeonites, and so David goes to them and asks what can be done to make things right. That’s why David is talking about making atonement here. The word atonement is literally about a covering made for sin. The idea of atonement here is that you are making amends for a wrong that had been done. You are trying to bring legal satisfaction to whatever debt you have incurred by the wrong doing or breach of contract. And so that’s what David wants to know. What can he do to pay for this past crime?
What follows in their back and forth in verses 4-6 is essentially their negotiation of what are the proper amends. The final answer is that they want seven men of the household of Saul to somehow be killed and hung at Saul’s hometown in Gibeah. As we read on to see, this was understood as to leave the bodies exposed for some extended period of time, instead of being immediately buried. David evidently thinks this sounds like a fitting and just atonement and agrees to it. Let’s say a few words about this agreed upon atonement. Given that justice back then and still today is guided by the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, there is surely a reason why they picked these specific amends. Saul had tried unsuccessfully to wipe out the Gibeonites, but had killed a significant number of them. So life for life makes sense. And yet the Gibeonites wisely do not call for those lives to come from all Israel, but specifically from Saul’s house. This shows that the Gibeonites understood the spirit of the treaty violation; that it was especially the result of Saul’s bad leadership among Israel, and not Israel’s position as a whole. Surely that’s the further symbolism expressed by having the men hung and exposed in Saul’s hometown. And similarly it was surely both symbolic and merciful that only seven men of Saul’s house would have to die. Presumably more than seven Gibeonites were killed by Saul, but they only ask for seven. Seven would have likely been symbolic of completion, like how God completed the creation week in seven days. And so this would have symbolically represented a complete atonement and reparation from Saul’s line for the blood they had shed in treaty violation. Lastly, we can point out that to leave a dead body hanging and exposed for more than a day was ordinarily a violation of God’s law, because it represented how a man was cursed by God, Deuteronomy 21:23. But evidently in this case, they must have figured that was appropriate because that is indeed the issue here. Saul and his house had brought this curse upon the people, and so in their deaths they will show forth that they are cursed by God.
And so in verses 7-9, David hands over seven from Saul’s house. He is careful to make sure that Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, is not one of them. Verse 7 explains why; because David wanted to keep covenant loyalty with Jonathan. There’s a positive example of covenant loyalty in this passage. And so these seven are killed and left exposed. This happened at the start of the barley harvest.
This brings us then to our third point, to see the mourning of Rizpah. She comes into the picture to mourn the seven who died, I’m sure especially her two sons. In this she also shows some covenant loyalty of sorts, some hesed, to Saul and for her children. As a side note, this is actually not the first time we have heard about Rizpah. Rizpah was a concubine of Saul’s. This is the concubine that Ishbosheth accused Abner of taking, back in 2 Samuel 3:7, though we don’t know if that accusation was true or not. But at any rate, what we see Rizpah doing here is not only mourning for her two dead sons, but she basically sets up camp with a bed of sackcloth next to the seven dead bodies, who were left there exposed in their accursed state. She spends her time day and night, not only mourning their deaths, but protecting their dead bodies from the birds during the day and the beasts during the night. At the risk of sounding crass in light of her suffering, let me say I can relate to the birds and the beasts in terms of protecting our cats’ cat food. We have to keep the birds from eating it during the day and the raccoons and opossums from eating it at the night. And so that’s what she’s doing here for these bodies. Notice in verse 10 that she does this for a long time, from the beginning of the barley harvest until the time that the late rains came and poured upon them. By the way don’t miss the importance of the rain that is mentioned there. Surely this famine that they were having was a result of a lack of rain. And so Rizpah, in her own sort of almost covenant loyalty, shows hesed in this way, during this entire time of these bodies’ cursed exposure, until finally the rain started to fall again.
And so David then hears of what she did and is moved by it. Also, since the rain had started to fall again, this probably signaled to David that it was now appropriate to take down the exposed bodies and give them a proper burial. In other words, the falling of rain surely represented that God had lifted his curse because the atonement had been completed. Thus, David must have felt free to then give these bodies a proper burial. And he actually takes it one step further. He uses this occasion to reinter the bodies of Saul and Jonathan. As we were reminded here, they had been previously buried in Gilead after their bodies had been rescued from the shameful exposure imposed upon them by the Philistines. So David uses this as an opportunity to return those bodies back to the family tomb of Kish where they would have otherwise been buried.
And so notice that it’s this covenant loyalty of Rizpah that helps spur David to do this. And I think for David this is more of his own covenant loyalty that he wanted to show to both Jonathan and Saul. We saw this in the past, and are reminded of it again. Despite how Saul had treated David, Saul and David had a connection that David knew demanded such covenant loyalty. Not only had Saul been his king, but Saul had even become his father-in-law when he married Michal. And David also had had the privilege to eat at Saul’s table. So, he rightfully wants to show covenant kindness and loyalty to Saul in this reburial, and in the burial of others from Saul’s house. And of course we know well the great love and covenanting that existed between him and Jonathan, and we can appreciate why David would want to show that in the honor of this reburial.
And so I love the picture here. It’s a picture of repentance. Israel via King Saul had not shown covenant loyalty, hesed. David learned of this, and knew they need to turn from that. And when you turn from a sin, repentance means you turn toward the right thing you should be doing instead of that sin. That means if you had been not showing covenant loyalty, then you should start showing covenant loyalty. And so with Rizpah’s action of covenant loyalty in the sense of her family loyalty, David is sparked to show covenant loyalty as well in this passage. And so you see this picture of repentance and turning. The nation in King Saul had stopped showing hesed. But the nation in King David began to show hesed again.
And yet as wonderful as this picture of repentance is, realize that there still needed to be an atonement. That’s so important to understand. Just because you stop doing something wrong and start doing something right, doesn’t repair the wrong that you’ve done. If I steal a $100 from you, and then decide to never do that again, and in fact never do that again, you would be happy that I’ve changed my ways. But I’m sure you would still like your $100 back! And so the same is true here. Though we can see a sense of repentance highlighted by people like Rizpah and David in their own expressions of covenant loyalty, there was still this wrong done to the Gibeonites. It needed to be atoned for. And that is what King David did on behalf of the Israelites. This again shows the heart of King David. He understood God’s heart in terms of repentance and atonement. When he learns of what the issue was, he sets out to make things right. This was a part of David’s leadership, to remedy wrongs that were done previous to his reign, but were matters that needed to be dealt with in terms of godliness. And so King Saul had led the people into sin and put them under a curse. But King David led the people out of the sin and out of the curse and into a blessing. And King David did it by making atonement for the sin.
Stepping back we can be tempted to be frustrated when we think of how people we are connected with, especially leaders, can lead us into bad situations. We don’t like to think about how we have to pay in some sense for the sins of our fathers or the sins of our leaders. But there is an element of this in life. From the biggest picture, we can think of how we all have suffered as humans under the headship of Adam. In Adam, all humanity has borne his guilt. And yet if we are tempted to complain about that, remember that it goes both ways too. The one man Saul’s act brought the people curse, but the one man David’s act brought the people atonement and redemption. So too with Adam. Under the first Adam we are guilty and under curse. But under the Jesus Christ, a sort of second Adam, we can know blessing and justification. And this is possible because Jesus Christ made atonement for us by hanging on the cross for our sins.
I love how we see how God foretold this all the way back in Genesis 15 to Father Abraham. God have covenanted to him that he would bring forth salvation and blessing through his offspring. Abraham wondered how this would be since at the time he didn’t even have any sons yet. And so God had Abraham cut up some animal pieces and lay them out. Like Rizpah he sat by those hewn up pieces and had to keep the birds of the air from eating them. But then God had a deep sleep come upon Abraham. In that sleep, God appeared to him in a dream and assured him that he would keep his covenant promises to Abraham. Then God had a burning fire pot pass through all those animal pieces. It was God’s way of saying that God was putting himself on the line for keeping the covenant. It was like God was saying, “May it be to me like these cut up animals, if I don’t keep the covenant promises I made to Abraham.”
And so do you see how that looks to Christ and the atonement? Jesus death on the cross was God in the flesh becoming like those cut up animal pieces, in order to save us; in order for God to keep his promises; in order for God to bring blessing to the world through Abraham’s offspring. God showed forth covenant loyalty, covenant hesed by Jesus making atonement for our sin. That would be the only way God could fulfill his promises to Abraham to take from his line a people for himself. God said that for Abraham’s offspring, he would be there God, and they would be his people. That would only be possible if their sins were atoned for. And so God sent his son to make atonement with his own life, so God could have a special redeemed people unto himself.
We are a part of this redeemed people if we have turned and put our faith in Jesus Christ. His was a complete atonement for our sins. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and know the blessing from God.
In closing, I leave us with a final application. We are reminded how a sin among God’s people, especially by its leaders, can have an effect upon all of God’s people. That is certainly still seen today. It’s easiest to probably point to leaders who have had some moral failing and see how that has brought great shame by the world to the body of Christ. But even in less visible ways, we can see this. Our individual sins can affect us all, in one way or another. Recognize this. Repent from those. Trust in Christ’s atonement for those. But as you are able, try also to make amends in this life for the wrongs you have done. I don’t mean to say that as a way to take away from the complete atonement that Christ has already done. But I remember that Zaccaeus, when he was forgiven by Jesus, still felt it right to try to return fourfold to whomever he had stolen from. So may we too, look to right wrongs we have done. Not in order to offer another atonement before God; no our sins have already been atoned for. But in light of that perfect atonement, may we indeed seek to make such amends toward others.
One benefit is so that our prayers will not be hindered. That’s a sermon in and of itself, but we see here a reference at the end that God began to heed the people’s prayer after they addressed this sin. We see similarly in 1 Peter 3:7 the idea that God’s people’s sins can hinder their prayers. Surely this is an aspect of God’s chastening love for us. So then, let us instead, trusting in Christ’s atonement, look to grow in our sanctification, and to see how God will all the more use our prayer life in that to his glory and for our blessing. Amen!
Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.