Stages of Growth: “The Snowball Effect” – 2 Samuel 21

Why do we go through tough times even when we are doing right? Sometimes it seems as though it is getting tougher and more stressful to live modern life. Why? It may have to do with the “snowball effect” of sinful behaviors. As we pass through time, the snowball is growing. We pay for our own trouble making, but also pay indirectly, for the troubles that have been made before us. History bears this out, and so does the Word. Sadly, we still don’t seem to get it…Disobedience has a price that is incalculable to us, and to our children, and our children’s children…

There is hope in our text today. Following the trail of others mistakes can offer us a lesson that saves us pain.

Key Principle: God’s Word offers us a pain-filled portrait to help us avoid the same mistakes.  Education can be gained by experience or example – but example hurts us less!

Today, I want to look at five lessons that will help us learn by example.

The end of the book of Samuel has four chapters that act as an appendix to the book. The appendix includes two major songs of King David, a sin that introduced the building of the Temple, and the two strange stories we are about to encounter. Chapter 21 has two stories that sound like, “tying up loose ends from the past”. They are not attached to the time in the life of David, but are admittedly strange stories placed together near the end of the book of Samuel. The two stories are:

  • A famine because of Saul’s sin against Gibeon (21:1-14). The Israelites made a covenant with the Gibeonites 400+ years before David. King Saul must have convinced himself it was so “old” it really didn’t have a binding force any longer. He and his family tried to stamp them out. His actions brought a famine upon the land of Israel some time after he died. It fell to David to deal with Saul’s covenant breaking and make things right. The Gibeonites want justice and said it was necessary to deliver seven descendants of Saul for something done years in the past, in violation with a covenant that was 400 years old.
  • A final end to the Goliath of Gath family and their insurrections (14:15-22). Stranger still is finding that Goliath, with whom David fought at the outset of his military career, had a number of offspring who were left over and needed to be dealt with.

Lesson One: God doesn’t want us to suffer in silence (21:1). Sometimes you can see things are going right, but not be sure why. We can ASK GOD about his trials (something God reminded later believers to do in James 1:5. (21:1-2).

“The Inquiry” (21:1a): Israel suffered from a three-year long famine, and so David inquired of the Lord to learn why He had sent this famine. (21:1a). David sensed the famine came from the hand of God. The Mosaic Covenant indicated famine would come from God’s hand as a judgment for sin (see Deuteronomy 28:23-24; 2 Chronicles 6:26-31).

To understand the verses let’s think for a moment about the Gibeonites and their city. The Word reveals there was a:

  • Treaty Made: Our author refers to them as Amorites (21:2), but they are more technically known as the Hivites (Joshua 9:1,7;11:19). They lived in Canaan, and God had commanded Israel to annihilate (Exodus 33:2; 34:11; Deuteronomy 7:1-2). Israel was tricked (Joshua 9), under the leadership of Joshua. Though its warriors were among the best (10:2) the Gibeonites believed that God had given the land of Canaan to Israel. They sent a delegation to the Israelites’ camp, pretending to have made a long journey from a distant place. The Israelites made a covenant of peace with this “distant” people. When the Israelites learned that they had been deceived, they wanted to kill the Gibeonites, but their recent covenant prevented them from doing so. And so the Israelites made the Gibeonites their slaves, and made them chop wood and draw water, especially for the house of God (Joshua 9:16-17).
  • Treaty Tested: The Gibeonites’ treaty with the Israelites saved them from death by the Israelites, but it also put them in danger with their fellow-Amorites. When five Amorite kings learned of the defection of the Gibeonites and their alliance with Israel, they viewed the Gibeonites as their enemies. They set out to attack and destroy the Gibeonites (10:1-5). The Gibeonites sent word to Joshua at Gilgal, asking for his help, which they got. Joshua was assured by God that He would give them the victory: “Not a man of them shall stand before you” (10:8). Marching all night from Gilgal, Joshua routed the five Amorite kings with a great slaughter at Gibeon. As they fled from before Joshua, God brought down great hailstones on them, killing more with the hail than with the sword (10:11). Even so, the victory was not complete, and so Joshua prayed that God would cause the sun to stand still, giving the Israelites more time to destroy the Amorites. The sun stood still over Gibeon, so that there has never been a day of battle like it before or since. One can only wonder what these Gibeonites thought as they beheld the hand of God, and as they partook of God’s blessings on His people, the Israelites.

Further, the Word tells us about Gibeon and its “Area Events”:

  • When the Israelites took possession of the land of Canaan, the city of Gibeon was allotted to the territory of Benjamin, and it was also set aside for the Levites (Joshua 21:17). A nearby “high place” (Nabi Samwill) held for a time the tabernacle (see 2 Samuel 6; 1 Chronicles 16:39-40; 21:29). Early in his reign, Solomon went up to this high place to offer sacrifices and God offered to grant whatever Solomon requested (1 Chronicles 16:39; 21:29; 2 Chronicles 1:1-13; 1 Kings 3:4-5).
  • Gibeon was the hometown of Saul’s forefathers (1 Chronicles 8:29-30; 9:35-39). It was also the place where 12 of Ish-bosheth’s men (Saul’s son) engaged in some kind of contest with 12 of David’s men, which turned into a bloody battle (2 Samuel 2:12-17).
  • It was also the place where the “great stone” was located, where Joab met Amasa and killed him (2 Samuel 20:8). Later, when David grew old and Joab foolishly supported Adonijah (against Solomon) as David’s successor, he would flee to Gibeon and cling to the horns of the altar, but to no avail (1 Kings 2:28-34).

Now, 400 years after the Israelites were tricked by the Gibeonites, Israel was being punished…so David called on God, because it was the RIGHT thing to do!

Lesson Two: When we guess and do not ASK GOD what will honor Him in a situation, we create more problems than we solve! (21:1b-2).

“The Answer” (21:1b-2): God answered that it was because of the sin of Saul and his bloody house, a sin against the Gibeonites (21:1b-2). In the Hebrew text: “For Saul, and for [his] bloody house.” Though the law of Moses forbade Israel to punish children for the sins of their fathers: (“Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin” (Deuteronomy 24:16), God’s words to David seem to emphasize the fact that Saul did not act alone in seeking to annihilate the Gibeonites. His family became accomplices in this plan. What had Saul done? Apparently, Saul and his house commenced a program of genocide against the Gibeonites and take their ancestral territory into the private inheritance of their father’s family (an honor issue). 21:2 indicates this was attempted out of some misguided patriotism! What a reminder to stick to the script!

One student observed: “Saul just didn’t seem to be able to get it right.” He refused to completely annihilate the Amalekites, whom God commanded him to kill (1 Samuel 15), and he tried to annihilate the Gibeonites, whom he could not put to death. Thinking to do Israel and Judah a favor, Saul brought a famine on the land. We do not know how far Saul got with this evil scheme, nor what stopped him from completing his task. We DO know that Saul’s actions were a violation of Israel’s covenant. Until reading about it in this text, we would never have known anything about Saul’s bloody scheme.

Saul never seemed to fail to get it WRONG. Most of it he did by guessing at God’s will, instead of asking for it and listening when God revealed it!

Lesson Three: God has consistent principles in dealing with sin, and has revealed them to us! (21:3-6). Here are some of those important principles:

#1) Sin gives away reward of God.  “The Inquiry” (21:3): David knew he must make atonement and needed the blessing of the Gibeonites to regain God’s favorable blessing in the removal of the famine. The Gibeonites must “bless” (release) Israel, the people of God, in order for God to once again bless Israel. When the believers sinned against non-believers, God removed His blessings and withheld their prosperity – until the made right the people they cheated. Even though the believers still knew God, He was not going to bless them the same way until they tried to make it right.

#2) Sin gives away control of my future course. (21:4) David called the Gibeonites and asked what he should do to make this matter right. The Gibeonites made it clear that it was not money they wanted. Just a note here: When we wrong people, it is not what WE feel will make it right that counts the most, it is what THEY feel. That is one of the profound penalties of sin. We become the servant of those who we have hurt, and surrender the blessing and power over all rectification.

#3) Sin’s judgment isn’t partial. God doesn’t play favorites in the sow and reap principle of life. He did not excuse or overlook the sins of those He chose. He did not condemn the Canaanites for their sins and then condone the same sins among His chosen people, Israel. (21:5-6) The Gibeonites told David that since Saul destroyed some of them and purposed to kill them all, they would find justice served if but seven of Saul’s “sons” were handed over to them for execution. They would hang these sons “before the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD” (verse 6). Hanging was the punishment used for very serious crimes (see Genesis 40:19; Deuteronomy 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29; 10:26). The Gideonites promised they would hang Saul’s sons “before the LORD.” It seems to me that they were viewing this matter as they should, seeing that they were carrying out God’s will in a way that satisfied (propitiated) Him, and thus satisfied them as well. They would carry out the execution before the city of Saul, before the Lord in Gibeah of Saul. The Gibeonites made a point of referring to Saul as “the chosen of the LORD.”

#4) Sin’s judgment isn’t my job! It is God’s business and His authorized agents alone! (21:6b “the king said”). The Gibeonites didn’t bring about the judgment of God, God brought out the righting of the wrong for them. This was not a vengeful hatred; it was a careful justice. I know that because they didn’t initiate the judgment, they waited until asked and acknowledged (even in their hurt) the position of Saul as “God’s chosen one.”

God says:

  • “If you ever take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, 27 for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else shall he sleep in? And it shall come about that when he cries out to Me, I will hear him, for I am gracious” (Exodus 22:26-27).
  • Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (James 5:4).

#5) Sin’s judgment will arrive. It may not come immediately, but it will come (21:6b “I will give them”). Saul’s “sons” were selected. Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, was spared because of David’s covenant with Jonathan. The two sons of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, are executed, along with the five sons of Saul’s daughter, Merab. The Gibeonites took these seven men and “hanged them in the mountain before the LORD” (verse 9). The execution took place at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Lesson Four: God takes covenant agreement seriously (21:7-9).

David restricted the sons taken based on his covenants, and then gave the Gibeonites the seven sons as requested by the Gibeonites (21:7-9). They were not murdered, they were executed by legal command of the authority.

This illustrates the serious nature of a covenant in Scripture. David’s dealing with the Gibeonites, at its root, is a matter of keeping covenants. Israel had made a covenant with the Gibeonites. Even though this covenant was 400 years old, God still took it seriously. Saul broke that covenant by trying to rid the land of them. No matter how good his intentions might have been, the covenant should have been kept. The breaking of that covenant had serious consequences for Saul’s family and it brought a famine on the land of Israel.

God deals with men in terms of covenants. Time does not weaken God’s covenants. Even when men do not take their covenants seriously, God does. He expects us to keep our covenants:

  • Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. 2 Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. 3 For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words. 4 When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for {He takes} no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger {of God} that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? (Ecclesiastes 5:1-6).
  • In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD; He swears to his own hurt and does not change (Psalm 15:4).

Think through the implications of this lesson with me. It takes my mind in three directions:

#1 Even when a covenant is entered into foolishly, as the Israelites and Gibeonites, God expected a believer to keep covenants. How many times we have witnessed the marriage ceremony where a man and a woman enter into the covenant of marriage. Then a few years later, one partner (or both) decided the marriage hasn’t been all they hoped it would be. How do you think God feels about the breaking of the covenant of marriage? We are not left in doubt:

13 “This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 “Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 “But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth.” (Malachi 2:13-15).

#2: I know the story is bloody, and it is hard to understand. Yet, in the Biblical economy, blood was shed to atone for sin. This story vividly illustrates how one man can die for the sins of another. Remember, that was true for our sin as well:

  • And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22).
  • There is only one Person’s blood that was shed which can save us from our sins — the blood our Lord Jesus Christ shed on the cross of Calvary: In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:7).
  • 11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:11-14).
  • 17 If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:17-18).

#3: It is amazing to me how this story illustrated that the disobedience of Israel led to a blood payment on behalf of the Gentiles, only to lead back to the blessing of Israel! The Gibeonites were sinners, worthy of God’s wrath. It was due to Israel’s foolishness (if not sin) that a covenant was made with the Gibeonites. These condemned Gentiles were saved by Israel’s failure. And, wonder of wonders, it will be through the Gentile Gibeonites that Israel will once again enter into God’s blessings.

Is this not a foreshadowing of the way God will bring salvation to the Gentiles, and then through the Gentiles bring blessing to the Jews? Romans 11:11 says:

11 I say then, Israel did not stumble so as to be permanently rejected, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!

25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery–so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.” 27 “THIS IS MY COVENANT WITH THEM, WHEN I TAKE AWAY THEIR SINS.” 28 From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; 29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. 32 For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.

Lesson Five: Troubles can make us face laxity in our own walk (21:10-14).

David corrected something of an oversight of his own in the story as well. Saul had done wrong, but Saul was a king of Israel. David forgot to bring the bones of Saul and Jonathan home to Benjamin and bury them with honor in the family tomb of his father Kish. It was not the execution of Saul’s sons which brings healing to the land. Not until after the burial of Saul and his sons does the famine end (verse 14).

Rizpah, a concubine of Saul, had two sons put to death by the Gibeonites. The bodies were not removed, as it would seem they should have been (see Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Rizpah highlighted their improper disposal and called to David’s attention an oversight on his part that he had to deal with. Since the bodies of Saul’s sons were left unburied, this mother determined to watch over them, stationing herself nearby so that she could drive off both birds and devouring beasts. David got word of this, and by Rizpah’s actions was prompted to take action. These were seven of Saul’s sons, who were not yet given a proper burial. David was reminded that Saul and his three sons had not been properly buried either.

Though brave men from Jabesh-Gilead marched all night to take the bodies, burning them and burying their bones under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh (1 Sam. 31:11-13) David did not offer them a family burial later and honor them appropriately.

The final words of verse 14 are significant: “And after that God was moved by entreaty for the land.” We would have expected to read something like: “And so God removed the famine that had plagued the land for three years.” Instead, we are informed that God once again heard the prayers of His people beseeching Him to cease His judgment on the land. In other words, the people must have been praying for God to remove the famine for the entire three years, but God would not heed their petitions because of the sin of Saul and his bloody house. Now that this sin was atoned for, God would listen to the prayers of the people.

Note what Solomon said to God only a few years later:

26 “When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin when You afflict them; 27 then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and Your people Israel, indeed, teach them the good way in which they should walk. And send rain on Your land which You have given to Your people for an inheritance. 28 “If there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence, if there is blight or mildew, if there is locust or grasshopper, if their enemies besiege them in the land of their cities, whatever plague or whatever sickness there is, 29 whatever prayer or supplication is made by any man or by all Your people Israel, each knowing his own affliction and his own pain, and spreading his hands toward this house, 30 then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men, 31 that they may fear You, to walk in Your ways as long as they live in the land which You have given to our fathers” (2 Chronicles 6:26-31).

God answers prayer. In this case, the author of our text in 2 Samuel underscores the fact that God removed the famine because He took heed of the prayers of His people. And He took heed of their prayers because the sin which hindered their prayers had been atoned for. Let us not miss the point that our author seeks to stress: Sin hinders our prayers, but when that sin has been dealt with, God then heeds our prayers. Let us not underestimate the importance of prayer.

There you have it, five important lessons:

  1. Silent suffering isn’t necessary.
  2. Guessing at God’s way is bad, but asking works!
  3. God deals with sin in a consistent way, He doesn’t change.
  4. God deals through unchanging covenants, and wants us to live up to ours!
  5. Trouble can be a great educator to help me see what I wasn’t seeing!

God gave us models and bread crumb trails, because God’s Word offers us a pain-filled portrait to help us avoid the same mistakes those who went before us made. Learning by example is less painful than learning by experience.