2 Samuel 21


We’re coming near to the end of 2 Samuel and the story of David. But our narrator still has a few more things to tell us about David and his reign. And today’s chapter can be divided into two main parts. Firstly, in verses 1 to 14, we have this story involving the Gibeonites. And secondly, in verses 15 to 22, the narrator briefly records for us various battles which were fought against the Philistines during David’s reign. And, of course, as we’ve seen before, the reason these things have been recorded for us is because they reveal to us in one way or another the good news of the gospel and why every single one of us needs to trust in Christ the king, who came into the world as one of us and who laid down his life on the cross to pay for our sins and shortcomings so we can have peace with God and the hope of everlasting life. David was the king of God’s people in those days long ago; and his reign was a foretaste of what Christ the king does for all who trust in him as the only Saviour of the world. So, let’s turn to today’s passage to see what we can learn from it about Christ the king.

Verses 1 to 14

And the chapter begins in verse 1 with the words:

During the reign of David….

That’s a bit vague, isn’t it? The narrator is wrapping things up for us and he’s telling us that some time during David’s reign this thing happened. So, it could have happened at almost any time during his reign.

So, what happened? This is what happened: there was a famine in the land. And the famine lasted for three years. So, that’s a long time to be without food; and while the text doesn’t tell us, no doubt the people suffered greatly because of this three year famine in the land.

We believe that nothing happens by chance. There’s always a reason for everything that happens in the world, because God — who rules and reigns over all — is working out all things according to his plans and purposes. Things don’t just happen by chance, but they happen because of the will of the Lord. So, why did God send this three year famine on the land? Well, David wants to know. So, he sought the face of the Lord. In other words, he went to inquire of the Lord at the tabernacle. And the Lord explained to him that the reason he had sent the famine on the land was because of Saul and his blood-stained house, because Saul had put the Gibeonites to death.

Who were the Gibeonites? We first read about them in Joshua 9. Joshua, you might recall, was the man who became leader of God’s people after the death of Moses. And Joshua led God’s people through the Jordan River and into the land of Canaan, that Eden-like land which the Lord had promised to give to them. And the Lord commanded Joshua to drive out the nations who were living in the land at that time. Don’t make friends with them. Don’t intermarry with them. Don’t have anything to do with them, because they’ll only lead you astray and you’ll end up worshipping their idols. So, drive them away. And that meant the Israelites were to attack the nations who were living in Canaan and they were to destroy them.

The Gibeonites were living in the land of Canaan at that time. And they heard what the Israelites were doing to the nations in Canaan. And so, they decided to trick the people of Israel. They put on old clothes and packed some old food into their bags and they went over to the Israelite camp and pretended that they had come a great distance and they asked if they could make a covenant with Israel. That is, they asked the Israelites to promise to let them live. Well, the Israelites thought it would be okay to make a covenant with the Gibeonites, because hadn’t the Gibeonites come a long way and hadn’t God commanded them to kill only those nations who were living in Canaan? And so, the Gibeonites fooled the Israelites. And only later, after the covenant was made, did the Israelites discover that they’d been tricked and the Gibeonites hadn’t come a great distance, they’d only come from down the road. But even though they had been tricked, the Israelites had given their word and had promised not to harm the Gibeonites. And so, for years and years, the Israelites had allowed the Gibeonites to live in the land.

But then, from what we’re told in verse 2 of today’s passage, Saul — in his zeal for Israel and Judah — had tried to annihilate them. He disregarded the covenant the Israelites had made with the Gibeonites and he had tried to wipe them out.

And that was a very serious thing to do, because whenever people made a covenant in those days, they would cut an animal in two as part of the covenant-making ceremony. And by cutting an animal in two, they were saying:

May we be cursed and cut in two like this animal if we break our promise to you.

Saul had broken the promise; and so he deserved to be cursed and cut in two.

And since Saul had no right to kill the Gibeonites, we must also bear in mind what we read in Leviticus and in Numbers about the penalty for murder. In Leviticus 24, the Lord commanded that whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. So, you can pay a fine if you kill an animal, but when it comes to killing another person, it’s life for life. And in Numbers 35, God revealed through Moses that a murderer deserves to die and he must surely be put to death. And Moses explained that bloodshed — shedding innocent blood — polluted the land. It defiled the land. And the Promised Land must not remain defiled, because the Lord lived in the land, among his people. And if the land was left defiled by their bloodguilt, then the Lord was liable to depart from their midst. And so, whenever blood was shed, it had to be atoned for: the stain of death had to be washed away and removed. And it could only be washed away and removed by the death of the murderer.

So, Saul had no right to kill the Gibeonites. He was therefore a murderer. And he deserved to die. But, of course, Saul had already died. So, how could David make atonement for what Saul had done? What did David have to do in order to cleanse the land which had been defiled because of what Saul had done? What did David have to do in order to make up for what Saul had done?

That’s the question David put to the Gibeonites in verse 3. Now, the NIV’s translation of their reply isn’t the best. What they said is that it’s not a matter of silver or gold. According to God’s own law, you can’t make up for murder by paying a fine. According to God’s law, it’s life for life. Someone must die to make up for what Saul did to the Gibeonites and to cleanse the land from his bloodguilt. And — the Gibeonites went on to say — we have no right to put anyone in Israel to death. And, of course, what they’re hinting at is this: We have no right to put anyone in Israel to death, but you do, David. You do. And so, when David asked them what they wanted him to do for them, they replied that they wanted seven of Saul’s descendants to be killed to make up for what Saul had done to them, when he tried to destroy them and left them decimated so that not many of them had been left alive. Since Saul is already dead, let some of his descendants be put to death in his place. And according to the end of verse 6, David agreed to do what they asked for:

I will give them to you.

Now some of you may be familiar with Deuteronomy 24:16 where God said through Moses that children must not be put to death for their father’s sins. You shouldn’t punish a child for something his father did. So, was David disobeying God’s word when he agreed that Saul’s descendants should die for something Saul had done? Well, it’s difficult, isn’t it? But if you go back to verse 1, you’ll see that God explained that he sent the famine because of Saul and because of his blood-stained house. In other words, Saul’s house, his family, was somehow implicated too. The guilt of having taken innocent blood was not only on Saul, but it was on his family too. And so, members of his family must die.

According to verse 7, David spared Mephibosheth, who was Saul’s grandson and Jonathan’s son, because David had once made a covenant with Jonathan by which he promised not to harm Jonathan’s children. But two of Saul’s surviving sons and five of his grandsons were handed over to the Gibeonites who killed them and exposed them on a hill. It’s likely that their dead bodies were impaled on posts which were set up on the hill.

And what we read next is very moving, because the narrator tells us how Rizpah, the mother of two of the victims, took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. The Hebrew word translated ‘spread’ can also mean to pitch a tent. So, it’s not clear whether she laid the sackcloth on the ground to lie on or whether she used the sackcloth to pitch a kind of tent to cover the corpses. Whichever it is, she wanted to protect their bodies so that they weren’t eaten by the birds or by any wild animals. And she remained there from the beginning of the harvest until the rain poured down from the heavens. So, who knows? She may have stayed there for many weeks, keeping watch over the bodies of her sons and the others.

Eventually someone told David what she had done. And David got the bones of Saul and Jonathan from Jabesh-Gilead, where they had been buried, and he got the bones of Saul’s seven descendants and he buried them in the tomb of Saul’s father.

And this part of the chapter ends with the news that God answered their prayers which they had made concerning the land. In other words, now that David had atoned for Saul’s sin and had cleansed the land of his bloodguilt, the Lord brought the famine to an end. Instead of afflicting the people because of Saul’s sin, he blessed the land with a good harvest.


It’s a gruesome story, isn’t it? But one of the points the narrator is making is to highlight for us once again how David was a much better king than Saul. Saul had done wrong when he broke the covenant with the Gibeonites and had murdered many of them. And his sin brought trouble on Israel, because for three years the Lord cursed them by sending a famine on the land. However, David kept the covenant he had made with Jonathan to spare Mephibosheth. And by what he did in this chapter David made up for the sins of Saul and his family and he cleansed the land of their bloodguilt so that in the end, the Lord removed his curse from the land and he blessed them with food. So, this story is a reminder that David was a better king than Saul.

However, if David was better than Saul, the Lord Jesus is much, much better than David, because by giving up his life on the cross, the Lord Jesus has made atonement for all the sins of all his people. And when I say that he has made atonement for the sins of his people, I mean two things. Firstly, I mean that he has paid for our sins with his life. The wages of sin is death. You and I deserve to die, because of what we have done wrong in this life and for all the ways we have fallen short of doing God’s will. Some us of have sinned a lot. Some of us have sinned a little. But all of his have sinned and done wrong. And there’s nothing you and I can do for God to make up for what we have done wrong. And so, we deserve to die and to be punished forever for all the ways we have offended God. But Christ has paid for our sins with his life, so that though you die, nevertheless — if you’re trusting in Christ the king — then you shall live with the Lord forever and forever in the new and better world to come. Christ died to pay for your sins with his life. He took the blame for what you have done wrong. He suffered in your place the punishment you deserve. He died in your place so that, by believing in him, you can live forever.

Making atonement means he has paid for our sins with his life. But making atonement also includes the idea of cleansing. The Lord Jesus shed his blood on the cross to cleanse us from our guilt. Our sin and guilt is like a moral stain which prevents us from coming into the presence of a holy God. But by his blood, the Lord Jesus washes us and cleanses us and he purifies us, so that we are able to come before the Lord in his life to worship him. And one day, we’ll be able to come into his presence in the life to come to be with him forever. When John the Apostle saw a vision of heaven, he saw that God’s people in heaven were wearing white robes which had been washed in the blood of the Lord Jesus to signify that the people had been forgiven because of Christ. The stain of their sin had been washed away.

So, think about David and Christ the King. Whereas David could make atonement for Saul’s sin, the Lord Jesus has made atonement for all the sins of all his people: for everyone who believes in him as the only Saviour of the world. And whereas David made atonement for Saul’s sin by putting those seven men to death, the Lord Jesus has made atonement for our sins with his own precious and perfect life. And whereas the result of David’s atonement was the removal of a famine, the result of Christ’s atonement is the removal of God’s wrath and curse forever from those who trust in Christ. And instead of suffering God’s wrath and curse, God pours out on his believing people one blessing after another, because he gives us justification so that we’re pardoned and accepted forever; and he gives us adoption so that we become part of his family; and he gives us sanctification to help us obey him more and more; and he gives us peace of conscience and assurance of his love and joy in the Holy Spirit and growth in grace and perseverance to help us to keep trusting in him always. And when we die, he will bring our souls to heaven. And when Christ comes again, he will bring us in body and soul into the new and better world to come to live with him forever. By making atonement for Saul’s sin, David’s people could enjoy life in the Promised Land of Canaan. But by making atonement for your sins, Christ promises you eternal life in the Promised Land to come.

And so, we ought to give thanks to God for Christ our King, who gave up his life to make atonement for us, by which he paid for our sins with his life and he cleanses us with his blood. And we all should trust in him, because whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ is delivered from God’s wrath and curse and we receive forgiveness and the hope of eternal life. Think about your life. You may not have done what Saul did, when he killed all those Gibeonites, but, because of Adam who sinned in the beginning, you were born into this world a guilty sinner; and every day of your life you have disobeyed God in countless different ways. And there is nothing you can do for God or give to him to make up for your disobedience and shortcomings. But Christ came into the world to do for you what you could not do yourself. He gave up his life to remove God’s curse from you and to win for you God’s blessing.

Verses 15 to 22

But we’re not finished. Now, I’m not going to spend long on the second half of today’s chapter, which records for us some of the battles which were fought during David’s reign against the Philistines. One time, David was fighting the Philistines. According to verse 15 David was exhausted. But Abishai came to his rescue and killed Ish-bi-Be-nob, one of the Philistines. On another occasion, Sib-be-cai, one of David’s men, killed Saph, one of the Philistines. On another occasion, El-ha-nan, one of David’s men, killed Goliath the Gittite. Since David famously killed Goliath the Gittite, it’s perhaps likely that the text should read that he killed Goliath’s brother. That’s how it’s recorded in 1 Chronicles. In still another battle, the Philistines had on their side a giant of a man with not 20, but with 24 fingers and toes. But when he taunted Israel, this man Jonathan killed him.


The Philistines were mighty men, but David and his men were able to overcome them again and again and again. And the purpose of this part of the passage is to give us a foretaste of what will happen when Christ the King comes again, because when Christ the King comes again, with all his mighty angels with him, the Devil and all who sided with the Devil will be defeated and will be sent away to be punished forever and forever. And they will be punished for their unbelief and for all that they have done wrong in this life.

When you read a novel, or when you watch a movie or drama on TV, you wonder how it will end. How will it end? What will happen to that character? What will happen to that one? Who will triumph in the end? Who will lose in the end? When you read a novel or watch a movie, you wonder how it will end. But we don’t need to wonder about how the world will end. We don’t need to wonder about how history will end. The end has already been decided by God and he’s revealed to us in his word what will happen in the end. And in the end, everyone who did not believe in the Saviour and who refused to yield their lives to Christ the King will be defeated and sent away to be punished. But those who trusted in the Saviour and who yielded their lives to Christ the King will be brought into God’s presence to enjoy perfect peace and rest. And God has come to you today in the preaching of his word to warn any who don’t yet believe that the end is certain. The Devil and all who sided with him will be defeated and will be sent away to be punished forever and forever. And so, now is the time to confess your sins to God. And now is the time to ask him to forgive you and to give you the hope of everlasting life for the sake of Christ our Saviour and King, who loved us and who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us.