May 10th, 1964 @ 10:50 AM
2 Samuel 21:1-14
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Samuel 21:1-14
5-10-64 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are worshiping with the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the eleven o’clock morning message entitled Primeval Motherhood. In the twenty-first chapter of 2 Samuel is recorded one of the most unusual and dramatic of all of the stories in human literature. Second Samuel, chapter 21:
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 for Saul, 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: but Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.)
Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye 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 ye shall say, that will I do for you, anything.
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 men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul. And the king said, I will do it.
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 . . . and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul …
He delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of the harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of the barley harvest—
He repeats that three times for a reason—
And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and 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 visit on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.
And it was told David what Rizpah . . . 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 Bethshan, 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 country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulcher of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And then God was entreated for the land.
[2 Samuel 21:1-14]
That is one of the most startling of all of the pages in the Word of God.
By nature David was generous and kind. And when he gained the victory, and after the long years of trial and agony was crowned king of Judah and Israel—had he followed the pattern of a typical Oriental monarch, the first thing he would have done was to have his army bring before him all of the household of his enemies, all of the family of Saul, and before his eyes, he would have slain them, every one. How different did David: after he had ascended the throne and the entire kingdom was his, he called his ministers before him, and said, “Is there any remaining of the household of Saul? For Jonathan’s sake, let me be good to them, and shelter them, and care for them, and protect them [2 Samuel 1]. And Mephibosheth the son of [Jonathan] did David take unto himself as his own son; and the rest of the days of his life he broke bread at the king’s table and was numbered in David’s family [2 Samuel 9:6-7].
Now, in those days, in the after years, there came a dreadful drought [2 Samuel 21:1]. The heavens turned to brass, the earth turned to iron, and year after year, three in succession, the heavens withheld its rain, and the earth turned to powdered dust; and there was starvation, and dearth, and want, and grievous famine in the land. David took the matter to the Lord and asked why the horrible and terrible affliction [2 Samuel 21:1]. Whether the Lord answered by Thummim and Urim, the flashing stones on the breastplate of the high priest, or whether the Lord answered by Nathan the prophet, or whether the Lord answered by fire in sacrifice, or whether He whispered to the heart of the king in answered prayer, we’re not told. But there came an answer to the entreaty and the agonizing supplication from heaven, and God said, “The curse is because of Saul, when he violated the covenant Israel had made with the Gibeonites, and in his zeal, had sought to slay the entire tribe, clan of the Gibeonites” [2 Samuel 21:1-2]. Now you must remember that the Gibeonites were that family, that household, that clan who, when they saw that Joshua was to destroy the Amorites—and they belonged to the Amorites, the people in Canaan who lived up in the mountains—when they saw the avenging sword of Joshua, remember? They put old clothes and old tattered shoes and old molded bread, and placed it as though they had come from a long way off, and placed it before Joshua and said, “We are your friends from a great distance, and we desire to make a treaty, to enter into a covenant.” And Joshua made that covenant with the Gibeonites, that they should live in their homes in the protection of Israel. Now that was the covenant that was made [Joshua 9:1-15]. But Saul sought to violate that promise and with the edge of his sword to destroy the Gibeonites [2 Samuel 21:1-2].
Now, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17]. And the Mosaic law—so different from the message of Christ—the Mosaic law three times [Exodus 21:23-24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21] did it write this: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and a hand for a hand, and a foot for a foot, and a limb for a limb” [Deuteronomy 19:21]. And according to that Mosaic legislation, when the covenant was broken [2 Samuel 21:1], it was life for life, and blood for blood, that atonement might be made and sin purged from the land. So when God told David why the curse upon Israel, David called the Gibeonites [2 Samuel 21:2-9]. And he said, “We have sinned. We have broken the covenant that Joshua made with your fathers. And Saul sought to destroy you in blood. Now, what shall we do for atonement, that God may bless His inheritance?” [2 Samuel 21:3]. And the Gibeonites replied, “We want nothing of gold or of silver, nor do we seek the life of any man in Israel; but the house that sought to waste us, let them pay the penalty for the broken covenant. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, foot for foot, hand for hand, blood for blood.” So David said, “What shall it be?” And they replied, the Gibeonites replied, “Let seven sons in the household of Saul, let them be delivered unto us. And on the great high hill, there shall we hang them up for the whole world that passes by to see the penalty of violating a covenant made in the presence of the Lord God” [2 Samuel 21:4-6].
So David, in accordance with the request of the Gibeonites, took seven sons of the household of Saul. Five of them were the sons of Michal, the daughter of Saul, the grandchildren of the first king. Two of the boys, two of the sons, were the children of Rizpah, the sons of Saul himself. And those seven men, young men, were delivered up into the hands of the Gibeonites; and they hanged them in the hill, a certain tall, high, barren, desolate hill, crowned with a great rock. And they rotted there, hanging there in expiation to the household of Saul [2 Samuel 21:8-9].
But Rizpah, the mother, to her it was no expiation. To her it was no atonement. To her it was agony and tears and indescribable sorrow as she saw her two sons hanging on the high hill and their bodies under that hot and tropical sun, rotting in the view and before the eyes of men [2 Samuel 21:10]. And that’s why the narrative emphasizes and three times repeats, “At the beginning of the barley harvest,” early in the spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest [2 Samuel 21:9-10], she took sackcloth and left her house, and left her home, and left her family, and left her village, and her friends, and she made her way up that stony, stony hill. And when she ascended to the top, on the great rock that crowned it, she cast a little tent of a resting place made out of sackcloth. And staying there and abiding there, by day and by night, until the rains fell in the fall; for six long weary and interminable months, this mother stayed there. And in the daytime with her staff, she beat off the vultures and the circling birds; and in the nighttime, with a torch, she beat off the jackal and the ravening wolf; for six long and dreary months, fed by the hand of a stranger who saw it, and he passed by; but never slackening her vigil by day or by night, six long, grievous months, guarding the decaying bodies of her sons [2 Samuel 21:9-10].
And it was told David [2 Samuel 21:11-14], “O king, never, never in the annals of history was there such unusual and astonishing and amazing devotion. O king,” and when the king heard it, he sent to Jabesh-gilead on the other side of the Jordan, and the other side of Galilee, and there gathered the bones of Saul and of Jonathan together, and sent his men; and by the fall time the bodies of the sons of Rizpah and the five others, had turned to lime heaps, to ashen heaps under those hot suns. And he gathered the bones, the remains of those sons that were offered up unto the Lord, and in honor, and in dignity—and I don’t think I am less than a prophet in saying—and in honor to primeval motherhood, along with the King Saul and with the flower of all the characters of the Old Testament, the most beautiful, Jonathan, there in tribute to a mother’s love and a mother’s devotion, he laid in the tomb of Israel’s first king the bones of those two boys and the five who were hanged with them [2 Samuel 21:11-14].
I do not think that our reaction to this unusual and astonishing story is any different than the reaction of King David when he heard it. The unfathomable depths, and the unscalable heights, and the everlasting endurance of the devotion of this grieved and hurt and sorrowing mother; it has captured the imagination of the artists and of the poets and of the men of letters and literature through the centuries and the centuries. There is no equal to that story in human literature. And out of the many references, I have chosen one to present this morning. There is not a poem more powerful in the English language, and there is hardly a poem more poignant and filled with pathos in human literature, than the poem of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of Great Britain under Queen Victoria, entitled “Rizpah.” Somewhere in an obscure paper, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, England’s singing poet, had read of this incident: there was a boy who had robbed the English mail, and for his crime and theft, he was condemned to die hanging in chains. His mother had gone to see him in his cell; and while she was there in this last visit with her son, the jailer came and forced her out and closed the cell door; and from the inside the boy had cried, “Oh, Mother!” and she was forced away. Thereafter, she heard that boy cry in the day and in the night, “Oh, Mother!” They tied her down in the madhouse; and after the years had passed, in age, they had released her. And thereafter in the nighttime, she went to the hill where the boy had been hanged on a gallows, and underneath the gallows where his body had been buried, and one by one she dug up the bones of her boy, and carried them in the darkness of the night to the churchyard, and had buried them in holy ground next to the churchyard wall. That is the story that Alfred, Lord Tennyson read in some obscure newspaper; and this is the poem that he wrote, one of the most dramatic, one of the most pathetic to be found in human literature. I read it now, entitled “Rizpah”:
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 as bright as 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 nights 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 fallen again? nay—what was there left to fall?
I have taken them home, I have number’d the bones, I have hidden them all
Ah—you, that have liv’d 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 dar’d me to do it,” he said, and he never told me a lie.
I whippp’d him for robbing an orchard once when he was but a child—
“The farmer dar’d me to do it,” he said; he was always thus 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 the best.
But he liv’d 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;
And he took no life, but he took one purse, and when all was done
He flung it among his fellows—“I’ll none of it,” said my son.
I came into court to the judge and the lawyers. I told them 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 bore 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 set him up so high
That all the ships of the world could stare at him, passing by
And the jailer, he forced me away. I had 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 never shall 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 cried in the dark to me year after year—
They beat me for that, they beat me—you know that I couldn’t but hear;
Then at the last they found I had grown so stupid and still
They let me abroad again—but the creatures had work’d their will.
Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone 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 them, I buried them all—
I can’t dig deep, I am old—in the night by the churchyard wall.
My Willy’ll rise up whole when the trumpet of judgment’ll sound,
But I charge you never to say ‘twas I laid him in holy ground.
Now 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 is born to murder—but the Savior lives to bless.
He’ll never put on the black cap except for the worst of the worst,
And the first may be last—I have 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.
That is mother.
I point to you another of those marvelous tributes inspired by this story of Rizpah—primeval, primeval motherhood. Rudyard Kipling wrote,
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!
And 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!
I say three brief things about that heavenly and saintly and godly devotion. One: it is never to be forgotten, not by us, that that devotion watched over us and cared for us when we were unable to watch over and to care for ourselves. Rizpah’s staff by day to shepherd, to guide, to care; and Rizpah’s torch by night to remember, to love, to pray in health and in sickness, in babyhood, in youth time, and no less devoted and offered in manhood or womanhood.
Second: the enduring, unfading character of that pure and holy love: a criminal, just the same; an exalted and famous citizen, honored as a man of letters, as a man of great success, or nobody, maybe in the gutter, just the same: never changes.
An angel who was sent from heaven to the earth to bring back the three most beautiful things in the earth, and as the angel walked through the length and the breadth of the land, he chose three things: a rose, a baby’s smile, a mother’s adoring devotion. He carried all three to heaven. And when he went through the gates of glory, he looked, and his rose had withered away; and the baby’s smile had passed away; but mother’s love endures forever.
And the third: oh what tribute could a child offer to God comparable to giving his life to mother’s God, to the Lord and Savior whose name was on her lips, who was the burden and substance of her intercession. What a holy privilege for a son or a daughter to dedicate to the Lord the life given to us in the valley of the shadow by a saintly and godly mother.
I was in Washington one time, walking through the great capitol of the United States of America. Practically all of the statues that you will find in honor, in dedication in the great capitol of America, practically all of them are men, statesmen, leaders. But one of them is a woman. The woman is Mrs. Francis E. Willard, the great Christian crusader and temperance leader. And I copied her word on her seventy-sixth birthday:
Motherhood is life’s richest romance. Sitting in sunshine calm and sweet, with all my precious ones on the other side, save this daughter who so faithfully cherishes me here, I thank God most of all that He ever said to me, ‘Bring up this child for Me in the love of humanity, and in the expectation of immortal life.’
And if God could whisper in the soul of a true mother, “Bring up this child as unto Me, in the love of humanity, and in the expectation of the heavenly life that is yet to come,” as God could whisper so noble a mandate to a devout and godly mother, what a holy dedication for the child to answer that mandate with a devout, a godly, a consecrated, and a Christian life. How best to honor the memory of a worthy and sainted mother? Build her a great monument out of stone? Buy in her memory some great philanthropic dedication? Ah no; but by walking in the steps of the Savior she loved, and worshiping the great God before whom in prayer she bowed. Is not this God’s whispered call to your heart and to mine? Rizpah, primeval motherhood, as it was then, as it shall be forever, and as we have known it so preciously now.
While we sing this song of invitation and appeal, I’ll be standing here to my left. I’ll be standing here at the front. Somebody you, give his heart to Jesus today, a family you, coming into the fellowship of the church today, a couple you, or one somebody you, while we sing this appeal, make it now. “Pastor, I give you my hand; I give my heart to Jesus.”
“Pastor, today we’re coming into the fellowship of the church. This is my wife, these are our children,” three of you, two of you, one of you, a family you, what a holy and beautiful day to turn God-ward, church-ward, us-ward. If the Spirit of Jesus lays it upon your heart, make it now, make it now, come now. Come and stand by me, while all of us stand and sing our invitation hymn together.