Rizpah: Primeval Motherhood
May 12th, 1974 @ 8:15 AM
2 Samuel 21:10-14
RIZPAH: PRIMEVAL MOTHERHOOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Samuel 21:10-14
5-12-74 8:15 a.m.
On the radio we welcome you to the services of our First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Rizpah: Primeval Motherhood. It is a sermon about one of the most unusual things you will ever read in human story. In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of 2 Samuel, we read of a tragic drought, of an expiation for the land. And the text:
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 or the beasts of the fields, to light on them, to rest on them, by day, nor the beasts of the fields 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 from Jabesh-gilead…
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 they buried them there in the sepulcher of Kish . . . And after that God was entreated for the land.
[2 Samuel 21:10-14]
I would have taken time to read the whole story, but I can summarize it in briefer words. In the reign of David, there was a tragic drought; one year, two years, and then three full years [2 Samuel 21:1]. I have lived in a country like that, year after year tragic drought; when the heavens turned to brass and the earth turns to iron; when the fields die and the pastures wither and the cattle low and moan for water; when the whole earth seemingly is burned under the judgmental hand of God.
This happened in the days of the reign of David. In desperation, David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said it is a judgment upon the land for what Saul did to the children of the Gibeonites, when he sought to slay them, extirpate them out of the land, breaking a solemn vow that Joshua, under God, had made to the Gibeonites that they would never be molested or hurt or bothered, but would live at peace in the land [2 Samuel 21:1-2, Joshua 9:1-27].
David therefore went to the Gibeonites, who remained after the slaughter of Saul, and said, “What shall we do?” And the Gibeonites said, “We want neither silver nor gold,” a habit in that day of blood money, blood payment, “nor do we want any man in Israel to be hurt. It is just that we ask that seven descendants of Saul be given to us, that we might hang them before the Lord and expiate the blood guilt upon the land” [2 Samuel 21:3-6]. So David acquiesced in that request of the Gibeonites and took of Saul’s descendants two of his sons by Rizpah and five of his grandsons by Michal. And the Gibeonites went to a high, rocky, barren hill by Gibeon of Saul and there hanged them before the Lord publicly in expiation of the guilt that Saul had brought upon the land [2 Samuel 21:8-9].
Then the story of Rizpah, the mother of two of those boys; when they were hanged there on the top of a rocky, barren hill, Rizpah took sackcloth, which was a sign of mourning in all of the centuries of the biblical age, Rizpah the mother took sackcloth and spread it on the barren, hard rock where her two boys were hanging in public expiation. She took sackcloth and spread it on the rock and from barley harvest, which was at Passover time, until the rains fell in the fall—a full five or six months she stayed there in her lonely and sorrowful vigil, by day waving her staff to keep the vultures and the carrion birds away, and by night using her flaming torch to keep the jackals and the wolves and the beasts of prey away, guarding, as only a mother could do, the dead decaying bodies of her sons [2 Samuel 21:10]. It was an amazing and astonishing devotion! And soon it spread to the land, what this mother, Rizpah, was doing, and finally came to the ears of the king. And the king, hearing it, went to Jabesh-gilead on the other side of the Jordan River and there gathered the bones of Saul and of Jonathan, his son, and took the bones of these who had been hanged in expiation in Gibeon and buried them with honor in the sepulcher of the house of Saul in Gibeon of Saul [2 Samuel 21:11-14].
There is hardly an instance, a record of devotion like this, to be found in the Word of God and a like devotion in the story of English literature. There is no more powerful poem, moving poem, than that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson entitled “Rizpah.”
Upon a day, Tennyson was reading, the poet laureate of England, one of the greatest literary geniuses and giants of all time, upon a day, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was reading an obscure English newspaper, and in that paper he read the story of a young man who had been hanged for robbing the mail. And the story said that when the young man was caught, incarcerated and shut up in an iron cell, that his mother went to see the doomed boy. But before their visit was done, the jailer said that time was up, and he took the mother and forced her out and closed the door against her. And as the mother was forced out by the cruel jailer and the door shut to, she heard her boy on the inside cry, “o, mother, mother!”
And after the boy was hanged, the mother continued to hear him cry, “O mother!” And they took her to the madhouse and tied her down. And after the passing of years, she was finally released. And in the nighttime, the mother dug up from beneath the gallows from where her boy had been buried, she dug up the bones, one at a time, of her son and faithfully carried them to the churchyard to holy ground, and buried them by the churchyard wall. And that gave rise—Tennyson reading that gave rise to his writing one of the most moving poems in all literature. I read it now, “Rizpah” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
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 tonight, 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 drench’d 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 has told me a lie.
I whipp’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 so wild—
And idle—he could n’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;
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. And 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—he 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 set him so high
That all the ships of the world could stare at him, passing by.
And the jailer forced me away. I had bid him my last goodbye;
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 seiz’d 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 could n’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 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 laugh’d and had cried—
Theirs? O no! they are mine—not theirs—they had mov’d in my side.
Do you think I was scar’d by the bones? I kiss’d ’em, I buried ’em all—
I can’t dig deep, I am old—in the night by the churchyard wall.
My Willy ’ill rise up whole when the trumpet of judgment ’ill sound,
But I charge you never to say that it was I that laid him in holy ground.
And I 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 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 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.
Madam, I 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 and the sky so bright—he us’d but to call in the dark,
And he calls to me now from the church and not from the gibbet—for hark!
Nay—you can hear it yourself—it is coming—shaking the walls—
Willy—the moon’s in a cloud—Good-night. I am going. He calls.
Motherhood, primeval motherhood; I have wondered if it was Rizpah and maybe this incomparable moving poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson that moved Rudyard Kipling to write his famous poem:
If I were hanged on the highest hill,
I know whose love would follow me still,
If I were drowned in the deepest sea,
I know whose tears would come down to me,
If I were damned in body and soul,
I know whose prayers would make me whole,
Mother of mine!
[“Mother O’ Mine”; Rudyard Kipling]
The devotion of primitive, primal, primeval motherhood: always with her staff of care remembering us, and always with her torch of love commending us to the mercies and the goodnesses of God; caring for our human frames, our human bodies, ministering to us when we were helpless, caring for us when we could not care for ourselves.
One time, when I was about five years of age, my mother took me in her arms and took me to Trinidad, Colorado, the nearest town of any consequence from where we lived in far northwest Texas. And after an operation, she carried me back in her arms to our farm home, and I remember when she got off the train, carrying me in her arms, I remember somebody saying to her, “Your little boy is so poor.” Mother: caring for our physical frames and mother caring for our souls.
In the church service, in the revival, being seated in a providence of God right back of my mother, when the preacher had finished his sermon and they were singing the hymn of appeal, she turned with tears and said to me, “Today, today, son, will you give your heart to Jesus?” And that day, that day, I gave my heart to Jesus. Mother: caring for body and for soul, primeval motherhood enduring in love and devotion forever.
There is no sweeter legend than the Lord God sending an angel into the earth to bring back the three most beautiful things the angel could find. And as he swept over the whole earth, he found three beautiful things: a rose, a baby’s smile, and mother’s love. He carried them back to heaven to present them before God, and as he walked through the gates, he looked at the rose, it had faded. He looked at the baby’s smile, it had gone away, but mother’s love endures forever, and he presented that as the most beautiful thing in the world before God.
This solemn and beautiful and worshipful hour, when we have gathered in the name of our Lord to pay tribute to her who gave us life, who carried us in her warm womb before we were born, who ministered to us, and bathed us, and fed us, and clothed us, and washed us, and watched over us when we were helpless and who prayed for our souls that we might be good and that we might be saved; what greater thing could we do for her and for God than to give our hearts to Jesus and to number ourselves in the congregation of the Lord? That is our humble appeal this solemn morning hour, to take Jesus as your Savior, trusting in Him, looking to Him, to put your life with the people of God.
In a moment we stand to sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, standing in the presence of the Lord, if today you will give your heart to Jesus, would you come and stand by me? If to put your life in the fellowship and circumference of this dear church, would you come and stand by me? “Pastor, I have made the decision in my heart, and this moment I am coming.” If you are in the balcony round, there is time and to spare, coming down one of these stairways; if you are on the lower floor and God bids you here, when you stand up, stand up walking down that aisle: “Today, God has spoken to me, and I’m answering with my life. Here I am, pastor. Here I come.” Make it now, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.