Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Samuel 21:1
5-13-56 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and this is the pastor bringing the Mother’s Day sermon entitled Rizpah: Eternal Motherhood. And I speak today, this morning, of one of the primeval, fundamental, basic of all of the devotions in human life. In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of 2 Samuel, there is a page, a strange page, from the kingdom and reign of David of Israel. The twenty-first chapter of 2 Samuel reads like this:
Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is because of Saul, and because of his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.
And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal.)
Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the Lord?
And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul; nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And David said, What shall ye say, that I will do for you.
And they answered the king, 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 sons of this man be delivered up, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord hath chosen. And the king said, I will give them.
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the Lord’s oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.
But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul . . . and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul…
And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they all seven fell together, and were put to death in the days of the harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.
And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beast of the field by night.
And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the wife of Saul, had done.
And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabesh-gilead, which had stolen them from the street of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa.
And he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged.
And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they… in the sepulcher of Kish, Saul’s father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that, God was entreated for the land.
[2 Samuel 21:1-14]
I say, that’s one of the strangest pages that you’ll find in all of God’s Book, but it has in it a record, a display, a story of a mother’s love that is so typical, dramatically, of that primeval and most basic of all human devotions.
Now let me say the thing in my words: by nature, David was the most generous and magnanimous of kings. When Saul and Jonathan and the sons of Saul were slain by the Philistines on Mt. Gilboa, that meant that David had an undisputed right to the throne of Israel. And ordinarily, any king of the Orient would have rejoiced at the news of the slaughter of his bitter enemy. But instead David lamented for Saul and for Jonathan and for the house of Saul with one of the most touching and moving eulogies in all the literature of the world [2 Samuel 1:17-27]. That’s David.
Ordinarily, when the king of an Oriental country ascended the throne, he celebrated that ascension with a massacre of all of the households of his enemies. Instead of that, the first thing that David did when he came to undisputed possession of the kingdom of Israel—the first thing he did, he called his ministers and asked, “Are there any left of the household of Saul?”
And they said, “Yes. There is a lame son of Jonathan named Mephibosheth, and then other grandchildren and children.” David said, “Bring me Mephibosheth.” And there was brought to David the lame son of Jonathan. And for Jonathan’s sake, David said the lame boy, all the days of his life, shall eat at the king’s table. There was restored unto him all the land, and servants and the income of the estate of Saul the king [2 Samuel 9:1-7]. That’s David.
Now the years have passed, and somewhere in the story of David’s reign, there’s no rain that falls. One year, there’s a drought. Two years, there’s a drought. Three years, there’s a drought. And David inquires of the Lord, “Why is it that the hand and favor of God is taken away from His people?” And the answer came to him [2 Samuel 21:1]. How David inquired of the Lord, we’re not told. Maybe it was by sacrifice and prayer, and God raised up a Nathan to go and tell him, “This is why the curse upon the land.” Maybe David inquired by Urim and Thummim, the mystic jewels that flashed and gleamed from the breastplate of the high priest, and the answer came through the priest. However it was, David inquired of God, and God sent him the answer. And the answer was, “The curse is upon the land because of Saul’s bloody slaughter of the Gibeonites” [2 Samuel 21:1].
Now, the Gibeonites were a section of the Amorites. Do you remember when Joshua came into the land, by duplicity, the Gibeonites inveigled Joshua into making a covenant with the tribe of Gibeon [Joshua 9:3-15]. And when their duplicity was discovered, why, the people of the Lord and Joshua were greatly incensed, but on account of the covenant that they would never be destroyed and never be hurt—never be attacked by Israel, why, Joshua said, “With all the days of your life and all the generation of the Gibeonites, they shall be hewers of wood and drawers of water for the altar of the Lord” [Joshua 9:16-27]. Evidently, Joshua made the Gibeonites servants, menial servants for the keeping of the tabernacle—later the temple—and all of the menial tasks that went and accompanied the services of Jehovah.
Now Saul, as he warred against the Amorites to destroy them out of the land, paid no attention to the sacred covenant that Israel had made with the Gibeonites [Joshua 9:3-27]. So he sought to slay the Gibeonites [2 Samuel 21:1-2], just as he tried to slay all of the other enemies of the land. So, when David inquired of why the curse was upon the people, the Lord said, “It is because of the breach of faith with the Gibeonites, because of the bloody slaughter of Saul among those people that Israel had promised faithfully to keep and to protect” [Joshua 9:3-15].
So David went to the Gibeonites and said, “What can I do to make expiation for the wrong, to wash away this sin?” And the Gibeonites said, “We do not want any money. We do not want anything at all. We want nothing from Israel.” But David said, “What shall I do?” [2 Samuel 21:3-4]. Now, this thing that happens is a thing of the law. So many people want to get back under the law. You have a whole denomination that wants to get back under the law. They want to keep the seventh day—Saturday—holy. They want to live under the law. There are many, many, many other people and other kinds who want to get back under the law.
All right, this is the law. I will read it word for word: “Thou shalt give”—according to Exodus 21, this is the written commandment of the Lord. This is the law: “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for a foot, burning for a burning, wound for a wound, stripe for a stripe” [Exodus 21:23-25]. I turn again. “If any man”—this is the twenty-fourth of Leviticus—”If any man caused a blemish in his neighbor; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again” [Leviticus 24:19-20]. I read from the law. This is Deuteronomy : “And thine eye shalt not pity” [Deuteronomy 19:21]. This is the law.
You want to get back there under the law; “for the law was given by Moses, [but] grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17].
“And thine eyes shalt not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” [Deuteronomy 19:21]. Now, we’re going back under this old dispensation, under the law. So the Gibeonites said, “This is for the expiation of the guilt. “Thou shalt bring to us seven men of the house of Saul, and we will hang them up before the Lord” [2 Samuel 21:6], blood for blood, death for death, murder for murder, hanging for hanging, slaughter for slaughter. So, for the expiation of that terrible guilt of Saul, the king delivered into the hands of the Gibeonites seven of the household of the former king: the two sons of Rizpah the daughter Aiah, the wife of Saul, and the five sons of Michal [2 Samuel 21:8]. And there at Gibeah of Saul, the great rock, barren mountain before Saul’s old house, on the top of the rock, there they hanged these seven men [2 Samuel 21:9]. And they were left there to rot, to be eaten as prey by the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, an expiation for the curse of the land. This is grace. This is love.
There was another involved in that, and her name was Rizpah [2 Samuel 21:10]. And she followed her two sons, as the king took them and delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites. And she watched as they were raised between the heaven and the earth and as they died in hanging there on the top of Gibeah. Then Rizpah, the mother of the two boys, took sackcloth and made her way up the barren hillside of that mountain of torment and death, and there on the top of the great rock lie the bodies of her two sons, hanging there. She made a little tent of the sackcloth, and she sat there in the door of that sackcloth tent from the beginning of the barley harvest—that was early spring—until the fall rains began to descend. That was about the last of September. Six solid months that mother sat there under the sackcloth of tent, watching the decaying forms of her sons. And in the daytime, she took her staff and she beat all the vultures and the birds of prey from the bodies of her boys. And at night, she kept in her hand a flaming torch, and she drove away the jackal and the wolf and the beasts of prey. By day and by night, that faithful mother, with her sackcloth tent, guarding the bodies of her two boys [2 Samuel 21:10].
The thing was known throughout all of Israel. How could you hide a devotion like that? And it came to the ears of the king, and the king said, “And, it is enough. It is enough. It is enough.” And he took down what was left of the bones of the two boys, whose bodies had rotted there through the six hot summer months. And he gathered the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan from Jabesh-gilead across the Jordan, brought all of them back and gave them kingly interment in the sepulcher of Saul’s father, Kish, in Gibeah of Saul [2 Samuel 21:11-14].
That story has become one of the great stories of this thing I’m preaching about this morning: that primeval, deep‑seated devotion that we call “mother love.” You’ll find—as you read through the literature of our race, you will find that that name, Rizpah, mother love, has been sung of in song. It has been painted with the touch of the artist, and it has been beautifully and marvelously written in some of the great poems of the English language.
I do not know how I missed it. I cannot understand. It is only of recent days that there has come to my attention, and that I read, what critics say is the most powerful poem that Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate of England in the Victorian era—the most powerful poem that Alfred, Lord Tennyson ever wrote. It is entitled, “Rizpah.” How come him to write it was this. He read in an obscure paper the story of a poor English mother. Her son had been hanged for robbing the mails, left there as a lesson to all boys who might be tempted thus to transgress the law, and then buried underneath the gallows, where his body had hung in chains.
The story said in the paper that Tennyson read that this mother had gone to see her boy before he was hanged by the government. And when the time was up, the jailer came and thrust her away and closed the cell. But, the boy had not done speaking with his mother, and when the jailer thrust her aside and slammed to the door of the jail, the boy, from the inside, cried, “O Mother!” And the jailer thrust her away.
The boy was hanged, but, thereafter, the mother kept hearing the boy cry, “O Mother!” And she was taken to the madhouse and bound down to her bed; the rest of the years of her life, lived in that madhouse. And in her age, stolid and still, she was liberated. And that mother went by night when the moon didn’t shine. You couldn’t see your hand before your face in the blackness of the night. That mother went to the place where they had buried the bones of her boy under the gibbet, and she dug them up, one by one, and transplanted them, one by one, in the churchyard, on holy ground. And this is Tennyson’s poem:
Wailing, wailing, wailing, the wind over land and sea—
And Willy’s voice in the wind, “O mother, come out to me!”
Why should he call me to-night, when he knows that I cannot go?
For the downs are bright as the day, and the full moon stares at the snow.
We should be seen, my dear; they would spy us out of the town.
The loud black night’s ‘for us, and the storm rushing over the down,
When I cannot see my own hand, but am led by the creak of the chain,
And grovel and grope for my son till
I find myself drenched with the rain.
Anything falling again? Nay—what was there left to fall?
I have taken him home, I have number’d the bones, I have hidden them all.
. . .
Ah—you, that have lived so soft, what should you know of the night?
The blast and the burning shame and the bitter frost and the fright?
I have done it, while you were asleep—you were only made for the day.
I have gather’d my baby together—while you slept the moments away.
. . .
I kiss’d my boy in the prison, before he went out to die.
“They dared me to do it,” he said; and he has never told me a lie.
I whipped him for robbing an orchard once when he was but a child—
“The farmer dared me to do it,” he said; he was always so wild—
And idle—he couldn’t be idle—my Willy—he never could rest.
The king should have made him a soldier, he would have been one of his best.
But he lived with a lot of wild mates, and they never would let him be good;
They swore that he dare not rob the mail, and he swore that he would;
He took no life, he took one purse, and when all that was done
He flung it among his fellows—”I’ll none of it,” said my son.
I came into court to the judge, I told him my tale,
God’s own truth—but they kill’d him, they kill’d him for robbing the mail.
They hang’d him in chains for a show—we had always borne a good name—
To be hang’d for a thief—and then put away—isn’t that enough shame?
Dust to dust—low down—let us hide! but they sat him so high
That all the ships of the world could stare at him passing by.
. . .
And the jailer forced me away. I bid him my last good‑bye;
They had fasten’d the door of his cell. “O mother,” I heard him cry.
I couldn’t get back, tho’ I tried, he had something further to say,
And now I shall never know it. The jailer forced me away.
Ever since I couldn’t but hear that cry of my boy that was dead,
They seized me and shut me up: they fasten’d me down on my bed.
“Mother, O Mother!”—he call’d in the dark to me year after year—
They beat me for that, they beat me—you know that I couldn’t but hear;
And then at the last they found I had grown so stupid and still,
They let me abroad again—but the creatures had worked their will.
Flesh of my flesh was gone, But bone of my bones was left—
I stole them all from the grave—and you, would you call it a theft?—
My baby, the bones that had suck’d me, the bones that had laughed and had cried—
Theirs? O, no! they are mine—not theirs—they had moved in my side.
Do you think I was scared by the bones? I kiss’d ‘em, I buried ‘em all—
I can’t dig deep, for I am old—in the night by the churchyard wall.
My Willy will rise up whole when the trumpet of judgment shall sound,
But I charge you never to say twas I laid him in holy ground.
. . .
Read me a Bible verse of the Lord’s good will toward men—
“Full of compassion and mercy, the Lord”—let me hear it again;
“Full of compassion and mercy—long-suffering.” Yes, O, yes!
For the sinner’s born but to murder—but the Savior lives but to bless.
He’ll never put on the black cap except for the worst of the worst,
And the first may be last—I’ve heard it in church—and the last may be first.
Suffering—O, long-suffering—yes, as the Lord must know.
Year after year in the mist and the wind and the shower, and the snow.
. . .
Madam, I’m a-beg your pardon!I think that you mean to be kind,
But I cannot hear what you say, for my Willy’s voice in the wind—
The snow in the sky so bright—He used but to call in the dark,
He calls me now from the church and not from the gibbet—for hark!
Nay—you can hear yourself—it is coming—shaking the walls—
Willy—the moon’s in a cloud—Good night. I am going. He calls.
[“Rizpah,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson]
That’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the most powerful poem, the critics say, that he ever wrote. I think that’s where Kipling got the inspiration, from “Rizpah,” poem that all of us know.
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
Mother o’ mine, Mother o’ mine,
I know whose love would follow me still,
Mother o’ mine. Mother o’ mine.
If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
Mother o’ mine, Mother o’ mine,
I know whose tears would come down to me,
Mother o’ mine, Mother o’ mine.
If I were damned in body and soul,
Mother o’ mine, Mother o’ mine,
I know whose prayers would make me whole,
Mother o’ mine, Mother o’ mine.
[“Mother o’Mine,” Rudyard Kipling]
That is Rizpah. May I make just a little closing remark for our time has passed? Rizpah, eternal motherhood; her staff by day, full of care and prayer; her torch by night, an unquenching love that never dies, and it endures forever [2 Samuel 21:10].
An angel from heaven was asked to bring back to glory the most beautiful thing in the earth. He saw beautiful roses. He gathered them. They were the most beautiful. Going back, he saw a baby smile. He took the baby’s smile. He saw the love of the child in the mother’s face. He took the mother’s love. When he arrived at the gates of heaven, the roses had wilted away. The smile had faded from the face of the child. But the mother’s love was changing never. And he went before the throne of God and brought the abiding, unchanging devotion of mother’s love, the most beautiful thing in the world.
I close with the reading from the wisest man who ever lived; from the thirty-first chapter of the Book of Proverbs:
Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.
She openeth up her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.
She looketh well to the ways of her household…
Her children arise up, and call her blessed…
Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou [mother] excellest them all…
Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.”
Humbly, and I speak for us all. It is the pastor’s gracious privilege to say words of gratitude to God for devout, loving, constant faithful Christian mothers; to honor them while they live, the privilege of life to remember them in love after they have entered their inheritance; the dedication of so many of us this holy and sacred morning hour.
Now while we sing our song, in the great group here this morning, somebody you to give your heart in faith to Christ this day, in answer to somebody’s prayers and love, “This day, I give my heart to Christ.” A family of you into the fellowship of the church, as the dear Lord shall say, shall open the door, shall make appeal, as God shall put it into your heart, while we sing the song, would you come? Anywhere, this great balcony around, while we stand and while we sing.