Famished and Fallen: How God's Hand Disciplines and Saves
Passage: 2 Samuel 21:1–21:22
Famished and Fallen: How God's Hand Disciplines and Saves
2 Samuel 21 is a chapter of highs and lows, a history of suffering and triumph, both of which occur in David’s kingdom. On the one hand, God’s people suffer under a lengthy famine that plagues the land for three years. We live in a country of abundance, so it’s hard for us to appreciate how difficult this would be, but try to imagine going to the grocery store day by day, but there’s simply no bread, no produce to buy. That’s Israel’s affliction in the first fourteen verses. It’s a low point in David’s kingdom.
But on the other hand, that low point suddenly swings to the other end of the spectrum. The famine is followed by triumph, as God’s enemies, the Philistines, repeatedly fall before God’s people. Vv15-22 tell this part of the story, and it’s one victory after another. No one, it seems, can stand against David’s men, not even gigantic thugs armed with new weapons and extra digits. You see, it’s a chapter of highs and lows. God’s people are famished, but then God’s enemies are fallen.
What, then, ties these things together? Is there a thread that unites the highs and lows of David’s kingdom in chapter 21? Yes, there is, and that thread is the hand of God. Did you hear it as we read? At the low point of famine, what was God doing? Disciplining his people. And at the high point, where was the Lord? Saving his people. In other words, none of this is random. None of this is meaningless. In fact, if we were to take away only one thing this morning, I pray it would be this. In every season, both the highs and lows, God is doing something among his people. We may not always see it or understand it or even like it, but the Lord’s work is always purposeful. Before we go any further, brothers and sisters, I want you to hear this truth and let it sink in. Whether it’s famine or triumph, whether it’s the lows or the highs – it all flows from the hand of a sovereign God, and his every intention is doing good to his people. That’s the essential message of 2 Samuel 21 – in the highs and lows, God is at work, and his work is purposeful.
The Mercy of God’s Judgment
Now, with that essential message in view, let’s focus in on the specifics of the chapter. The theme is God’s hand at work among his people, so I’d like to draw your attention to three specific truths that comprise that theme. The first is found in vv1-2, where we see the Mercy of God’s Judgment. As we noted a moment ago, there is a famine in Israel, but v1 indicates this famine is unusually severe. Notice again the length of time in v1 – “Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year.” You can hear the difficulty in the author’s description. This famine drags on with no end in sight. Year after hungry year, God’s people go without.
Now, of course, you could conclude this famine is simply the product of poor weather patterns and untimely agriculture disasters. Famines happen, we might say, so there is nothing more to note at this point. But, that conclusion would ignore the unique relationship Israel has with the Lord God. Remember, Israel is God’s covenant people here. They belong to him, and their lives are defined by their covenant with the Lord. In fact, if you look back to Deuteronomy, you would find that in this covenant, God held out to Israel either blessings or curses. If the people were faithful, then they and their land would be blessed. But if they were unfaithful, then God warned them that things like disease and pestilence and famine would strike them. You see, for OT Israel, there was no meaning to life apart from their relationship to the Lord God. And that means this crisis in chapter 21 is telling the people something. It’s a famine with a message.
And King David understands this, which is why he takes the action he does in v1. Notice again the King’s response – “And David sought the face of the LORD.” This is an act of humility on David’s part. He recognizes something is amiss, something is not right. But instead of evading or ignoring or even pretending to have the answer, David humbly casts himself on the Lord. He goes to God in prayer, asking the Lord to deliver his people. It’s a prayer of humility. And it’s also a prayer of faith. By seeking God’s face, David is expressing his trust in God’s goodness. He believes God will hear and will answer. So, with humility and with faith, David seeks the face of God.
And that’s when something small but astonishing happens. Notice the end of v1 – “And the LORD said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death’.” Now, before we consider why this is so astonishing, we need to clarify what, exactly, God is referring to. The background to this is found in Joshua 9, and v2 of our passage gives us a brief summary. The Gibeonites did not belong to the nation of Israel. They were descendants of the Amorites, the pagan people who inhabited the land before Israel’s conquest. But that’s where it gets interesting. Perhaps you remember the story. During the conquest, the Gibeonites tricked Joshua into making a peace treaty. Israel swore they would not annihilate the Gibeonites, and that promise was cemented in a binding covenant.
But that’s where Saul comes in. During his reign, Saul apparently killed some of the Gibeonites, thereby violating the covenant. We don’t have the specific occasion recorded in Scripture, but it fits with Saul’s character, doesn’t it? Like so much of Saul’s life, he made a rash decision without considering the consequences. He tried to wipe out the Gibeonites, and his decision has now brought guilt on the entire nation.
But why is that, we ask? Why is Saul’s failure now causing a problem for the entire nation? Remember who Saul was at the time – he was the king of Israel. And as the king, Saul represented the nation. In fact, if you know Israel’s history, then you know this formula – as goes the king, so goes the nation. Saul’s success meant blessing for the nation, while his failure meant judgment. That’s why this one failure now means judgment for Israel – as goes the king, so goes the nation.
But there’s another reason Saul’s failure has such a serious consequence. If you look back to Joshua 9, you’ll find that Israel swore to the Gibeonites in the name of the LORD God. You see, God’s name, God’s glory was bound up with this covenant with the Gibeonites. Now, consider what this means for Saul’s sinful decision. Saul didn’t merely break faith with the Gibeonites. Saul brought dishonor on the name of God. By killing the Gibeonites, Saul declared that God cannot be trusted, that his ways are not righteous, that God’s name is not steadfast. And that’s why God has responded with such a severe consequence – because Saul, and therefore Israel, has fallen short of the glory of God. And therefore, what Israel deserves is God’s wrath. You see, this famine is only a taste of what the people deserve.
But this is where v1 becomes astonishing. Israel deserves God’s wrath, and yet, what do we find God doing here in v1? Let’s read it again – “And the LORD said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death’.” Don’t overlook this. The Holy God of heaven, the Creator of all things, the One who will not give his glory to another – that God speaks – not in judgment but in revelation. God reveals to David the reason for this affliction. This should take your breath away. It should stop you in your tracks. David prays, and God answers. God could have left David in the dark. He could have allowed the famine to go on time without end. God was under no obligation to reveal the reason for this hardship.
And yet, in midst of God’s judgment, what do we find? We find God’s mercy. The Holy God does not crush his people without hope, and neither does he leave them in the dark. No, God speaks to them, he reveals the problem, and he calls them to repentance. Oh, what mercy it is to have God open our eyes to our need for repentance! His discipline is often painful, but it is never cruel or harsh. It’s always full of mercy, full of kindness, and as the apostle Paul would say centuries later, that kindness is meant to lead us where? To repentance.
Brothers and sisters, don’t begrudge those moments in life when God mercifully reveals where you’ve fallen short and therefore where you need repentance. He’s not being cruel. In fact, if God were cruel, he would simply leave you to yourself. He would just leave you in the dark, oblivious to your need for repentance. But as this passage reminds us, the Lord is kind, and therefore, we shouldn’t begrudge those moments when God’s fatherly discipline reveals our need for repentance. It may be a rebuke from a fellow believer, or it may one of those times when God allows your sin to be really visible so that it’s unmistakable before your eyes. Have you had one of those lately? I know I have – one of those times when your sin lashes out and then it’s just there, staring you in the face and there’s nowhere for you to hide. Those moments are hard – not as hard as Israel’s famine – praise the Lord! – but they’re still hard. And yet, the lesson of David’s kingdom at this point is that even in judgment, even in discipline, there is mercy for the people of God.
The Necessity of Sin’s Atonement
As the chapter continues, we soon find that Israel’s trouble is far from settled. Yes, the Lord has been merciful to reveal the problem, but still, Saul’s sin must be dealt with. And it’s here we see our second truth – the Necessity of Sin’s Atonement. If there is one thing the people of Israel should know very clearly, it’s that sin cannot be ignored. Think about the detailed requirements God provided in the Law of Moses for how to deal with sin. Think of all the sacrifices, all the regulations that had to be followed for cleansing. Of all people, Israel should know that sin cannot be ignored.
And that certainly proves to be true here in chapter 21. Beginning in v3, King David initiates a conversation with the Gibeonites as to how to deal with Saul’s sinful covenant failure. In fact, notice in v3 the language David uses – “And David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the LORD?’” You don’t have to look very hard to find the key in that verse. It’s the mention of atonement. Saul’s sin cannot be ignored; it must be atoned for. That is, Saul’s sin must be paid for so that Israel is cleansed of the guilt. Payment and cleansing – that’s the essence of what must happen in order for atonement to occur.
But at first, the Gibeonites seem hesitant. Notice v4. They say that money cannot settle this issue, and neither do they have the authority to put anyone to death. And it’s that last piece – the mention of death – that provides a hint of where things are going. Money can’t deal with Saul’s sin. Extra land or royal decrees can’t address the guilt. Saul sinfully spilled blood, and therefore, blood must be spilled for atonement to be made.
And indeed, the Gibeonites make that clear in vv5-6. David again asks what he must do, and the horror of atonement becomes unmistakable. The Gibeonites ask for seven of Saul’s descendants whom they will then hang before the Lord in Saul’s hometown.
This is troubling, isn’t it? Part of me is wondering, “Why not just pay them off? Why can’t money settle this?” But that’s where we have to remember that Saul’s sin was no small thing. He broke a covenant. He murdered people Israel had sworn to protect, and in doing so, Saul dishonored the name of the Lord. We mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating here. Covenants came with blessings and curses. In fact, when a covenant was established, an animal was typically cut in two, and the parties of the covenant would walk between the halves of the slain animal. That gruesome act was a symbolic way of saying, “If I break this covenant, then let what happened to this animal be done to me.” You see, covenants are serious matters, and when broken, the shedding of blood is necessary to make atonement.
But there’s more. There’s another reason why David can’t buy off the Gibeonites, and it comes from the Law of Moses. In Numbers 35, God declared that murder polluted the land, and the only way to be cleansed of that pollution was by atonement in blood. Listen to v33 of Numbers 35 – “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, expect by the blood of the one who shed it.” Saul is long dead, so the shedding of blood must now come from his household. Is that unjust? No. Remember, Saul was the king of Israel. His actions were not merely individual, but national. His sin was not merely personally, but representative. And in such heinous cases, there was precedent in the Law that the punishment would be enforced within the family of the guilty party.
And so, seven of Saul’s descendants are handed over. V9 describes their end, it is hard to watch – “and they hanged them on the mountain before the LORD, and the seven of them perished together.” The necessary atonement has been made.
Now, if this has not been difficult enough already, the author hits us with still more hardship. It seems that God wants us to stand still here for a moment until we feel the full weight of what atonement requires. The reality of death hangs in the air. Notice v10. Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, sets up vigil over the bodies of the slain men. Rizpah lost two sons in this horrific episode, and her grief drives her to protect their bodies from further desecration. Night and day, she wards off the bird and the beasts. We don’t know how long her vigil lasted, but even one night would have been traumatic. Why does the Bible recount this? I don’t know entirely, but perhaps it is to remind us that death and atonement always go together.
After some time, David hears of Rizpah’s grief, and he responds with a decision to show honor to Saul’s household. Vv11-14 give the details, and the point is clear enough. Out of respect, David decides to properly bury Saul and his descendants. David retrieves the bones of Saul and Jonathan from Jabesh-Gilead, and together with the seven who have died, David buries them in the tomb of Saul’s father. It’s all been horrific on some level, but it’s also been necessary. In fact, notice the last line of v14 – “And after that God responded to the plea for the land.” You see, atonement has been made, the famine abates, and the land is cleansed of the guilt associated with Saul’s sin.
As Christians, how should we respond to this difficult scene? For one, we shouldn’t deny that it is hard or horrifying. There’s no use in pretending that this really isn’t that bad. No, it’s gruesome, and that, is what should mark our response. Atonement is a painful, costly reality. We should never lose sight of the fact that whenever atonement has been made, blood has been shed. Whenever God’s judgment has been satisfied, someone has taken the punishment and carried it all the way to the grave.
You know, we’re going to sing here in just a few minutes the wonderful words that “on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” That’s a declaration of atonement. But if you’re like me, I’ve sung that declaration so many times now that I pretty much just keep on singing. I so easily overlook the fact that the tie binding those two lines together is the blood of the Son of God. Atonement isn’t neat, it isn’t clean, and it isn’t easy. In order for God’s wrath to be satisfied against my sin, the Son of God – the Lord Jesus Christ – had to shed his blood. He had to hang there on that shameful cross – stripped, beaten, and mocked – so that the judgment I deserved would be dealt with in his physical body. I’m free because Christ died. I’m forgiven because Jesus’ blood was poured out. I have atonement because the Son of God stood in that gap between me and God’s judgment, and with unspeakable grace, the Son of God said, “I’ll take the wrath. I’ll shed my blood. I’ll hang on this cursed tree so that my people might be healed and forgiven.”
The heart of the gospel is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for the sins of his people. And as this chapter and indeed all of the OT reminds us, that atonement was not cheap or easy. It was costly, and that cost was paid in Jesus’ blood. Perhaps this morning, you’re realizing that the gospel has grown somewhat stale and dull to your eyes. Perhaps you’ve grown accustomed to the facts of the good news – Jesus died, Jesus rose, sins are forgiven, no condemnation, no hell. You can rattle off those facts, but there’s very little wonder or appreciation for the cost that makes those facts so gloriously true. Does that sound like your mindset this morning? I know that’s true of my response far too often. The monotony of life seeps over into my walk as a Christian, and the gospel grows to look like simply another piece of information I affirm as true. If that’s the case with you today, consider the kindness of God to provide such a clear reminder of what atonement really requires, of what it truly means to have divine wrath satisfied against your sin. It means someone died in your place, and his blood was shed instead of yours. Atonement – it’s the heart of the gospel, and the necessity of that payment is pictured here, in 2 Samuel 21 of all places.
The Strength of God’s Salvation
We said at the outset this was a chapter of highs and lows. We’ve just come through the low point, and now, we end at the high point. In vv15-22, we see our final truth – the Strength of God’s Salvation. V15 begins a new scene, though the events here are familiar. The Philistines return to trouble Israel – they’ve been absent since chapter 8. The Philistines return, but in a rapid-fire series of descriptions, we witness Philistine futility. Time and time again, the Philistines attack, and each time, Israel prevails.
Now, there are two aspects to this section that make it somewhat unique. The first is the presence of four gigantic Philistine warriors. These men are Goliath-like. One of them is even named Goliath, perhaps because that was a common name, like a title, among these huge mercenaries. The presence of these gigantic figures defines the scene. Note the repetition. There are four battles, and in each instance, one of these giants falls. The last Philistine thug is particularly noteworthy, as he has six fingers and six toes on each hand and foot respectively. And still, even with extra digits, he proves no match for the Israelite champion. So, that’s the first reason why this account is somewhat unique – we have the presence of four gigantic Philistine warriors.
The second reason has to do with David. Notice what happens in v15 – “There was war again between the Philistines and Israel, and David went down together with his servants, and they fought against the Philistines. And David grew weary.” Time, it seems, is catching up with mighty King David. He goes to fight, but this time, he gets tired. The hand of David that has so often delivered Israel is now growing weak.
And that weakness colors the rest of the scene. In v17, Abishai steps in and saves David from one of the Philistine thugs, and in response, the men of Israel prohibit David from going to war any longer. So, for the rest of the chapter, each Philistine giant is killed not by David, but by one of David’s mighty men. You see, the king has grown weak. His hands are weary; his sword is not so quick; his aim is not as true. And therefore, someone else must fight in his place.
Do you remember what God promised back in chapter 3 of 2 Samuel? The Lord said, “By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” You see, I’ll contend this series of battles is recorded in Scripture in order to teach God’s people something about the Lord’s salvation. David’s hand is too weak to save his people, but God’s hand remains strong and able to save. David’s strength will soon be dried up, but for all time, the Lord’s strength is sufficient for whatever his people may need.
The battle belongs to the Lord, doesn’t it? That’s what chapter 21 is reminding us. The battle belongs to the Lord. The salvation that God has promised his people will never grow weary. It will never fall short. It will never come up empty.
There are highs and lows in 2 Samuel 21, just as there are highs and lows in the Christian life today. But the God who brought victory despite David’s weary hands is the same God who promises to sustain us regardless of our weariness. So, be encouraged, brothers and sisters. The victory of God’s people does not depend on the strength of our leaders or the strength of our resolve. The victory rests on the sovereign strength of the Triune God. Whether high or low, he will not fail, and his hand will surely save us, even when our hand grows weak. Amen.
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