Rizpah: Primeval Motherhood

2 Samuel

Rizpah: Primeval Motherhood

May 12th, 1974 @ 10:50 AM

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 rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.
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Dr.  W.  A.  Criswell

2 Samuel 1:24‑27

5-12-74    10:50 a.m.


On the radio and on television, you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Rizpah, Primeval Motherhood.  I read just a verse in the twenty-first chapter of 2 Samuel, and then, because I can summarize the story more rapidly than I can read it, I will tell the story that gives rise to the verse:

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 rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.

And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the wife of Saul, had done.

[2 Samuel 21:10-11]

And small wonder that the devotion of this mother came to the ears of the king.

It came about like this; there was a drought in Israel that lasted one year and two years.  And at the end of the third year, the fortune of the land came to  desperation [2 Samuel 21:1].  I can understand that, for I have lived in a part of the country, far northwest Texas, and I have seen the heavens turn to brass and the earth turn to iron.  I have heard the cattle moaning and lowing for water.  I have seen the country turn to desert, the fields parched and brown.  And at the end of three years when God withheld water from the thirsting soil, David sought the mind of God and was told that the drought was a judgment from heaven because of what Saul had done in slaying the Gibeonites [2 Samuel 21:1].

Now the Gibeonites, the Amorites, were in Canaan, in Palestine.  And Joshua had made a covenant with them that they could live in peace and without molestation forever in the land of the promised country God gave to Israel [Joshua 9:15-27].  But Saul, in his mistaken zeal, violated that covenant and had sought to slay the Gibeonites—many of whom he did butcher in his raids upon their city of Gibeon [2 Samuel 21:1-2].  So the Lord said, because of the shedding of the blood of the Gibeonites by Saul and because of his violation of that sacred covenant made with the people by Joshua, this judgment has come upon the thirsting and barren land [2 Samuel 21:1].

So, David went to Gibeon and asked the Gibeonites what he might do to make atonement for, expiation for, the sin of Saul in slaying their people.  And the Gibeonites replied that the land might be atoned for and purged of the bloodshed by Saul:  “We do not ask money, silver or gold”—which was the usual thing; blood money in payment for violation like that—”nor,” said the Gibeonites, “do we ask that any suffer in Israel.  No, but what we do ask is that seven of the descendants of Saul might be publicly hanged before the Lord to make expiation for the bloodshed in the land” [2 Samuel 21:3-6].

So David took the two sons of Rizpah and five grandsons of Saul and gave them to the Gibeonites [2 Samuel 21:8].  And on a high, barren, rocky hill by Gibeon, there they offered up, as expiation for the blood shed upon the land, those seven descendants—the two sons of Saul by Rizpah his wife, and five grandsons.  And they were hanged there publicly to make expiation for the blood shed upon the land [2 Samuel 21:9].

And then this tragic and pathetic story; Rizpah took sackcloth, which for centuries has been a sign of mourning and of sorrow in the Middle East, she took sackcloth and spread it on that barren rock where her boys had been slain.  And by day and by night, from barley harvest at Passover until the fall rains in October, for all those six months, that devout, devoted mother stayed by the hanging corpses of her boys [2 Samuel 21:10].  And in the daytime she swung her staff, that the vultures and the carrion-eating birds might not light upon them; and by night she lighted her torch and drove away the carnivorous animals of prey—the wolf, the jackal—keeping watch over her boys hanging there dead.  No wonder the whole land heard of the devotion of this broken-hearted mother.  And when news came of it to the king—moved in compassion, King David went to Jabesh-gilead on the other side of the Jordan River, and there recovered the bones of Saul and of Jonathan, his son.  And then, taking the bones of those slain boys of Rizpah, he buried them with kingly honor in the tomb of the sepulcher of their father Saul, in the land of Kish [2 Samuel 21:11-14].

Could you imagine a more beautiful devotion or one more sadly pathetic than this of Rizpah—who night after night and day after day, for all those six months, with her staff and with her torch, in the day and through the night, guarding the bodies of those slain sons? [2 Samuel 21:10]. And that devotion of Rizpah has not been forgotten by the world.  One of the most moving and famous of all the poems in human literature is written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of England, and it is entitled “Rizpah.”

Upon a day, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was reading an obscure paper in England—a newspaper in England.  And in that newspaper he read the story of a poor English mother whose boy had been hanged for robbing the mail.  The mother went to see the doomed boy in his iron prison cell, awaiting his hanging.  And before the mother could finish her visit with her son, the cruel jailer seized her and tossed her out and closed the door on her boy.  And as the jailer shut the iron door to, the mother heard her boy cry on the inside, “O Mother, Mother!”

And thereafter, the mother heard no other thing but the call of that son, “Mother, Mother.”  They took her to the madhouse.  They bound her and chained her to the bed.  And after the passing of the years and the years—broken and stupid, they released her.  And the mother went to the grave where her boy was buried beneath the gallows; and there in the nighttime, night after night, she dug them up with her hands and took the bones one at a time and buried them in sacred ground in the churchyard.  Alfred, Lord Tennyson, reading that story in an obscure English newspaper, sat down and wrote this most moving of all the poems from his facile and incomparable pen.  I read it:

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 drenched with the rain.

Anything falling 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 lived so soft, what should you know of the night,

The blast and the burning shame, and the bitter frost and the 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 had 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;

And he took no life, but he took one purse, when all was done

He flung it among his fellows–”I’ll none of it,” said my son.

I came into the 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–let us hide!

. . .

But the jailer 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 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 bone was left—

I stole them all from the grave–and you, will 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 them all—

I couldn’t dig deep; I am old–in the night by the church house wall.

My Willy ‘ill rise up whole when the trumpet of judgments will sound,

But I charge you never to say that it was I that 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 but to murder, but the Saviour lives just 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.

. . .

Year after year in the mist and the wind and the shower and the snow.

. . .

I beg your pardon! I know you mean to be kind,

But I cannot hear but for my Willy’s voice calling in the wind—

The snow and the sky so bright–he used to call in the dark,

And he calls to me now from the church not from the gibbet–for hark!

You can hear it yourself—it is coming–shaking the very walls—

Willy—the moon’s in a cloud—Good-night.  I am going.  He calls.

[Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Rizpah”]

You could not read that and not be moved—the fruit of a great poet.

Why would he be attracted by a story like that? And why would he call it “Rizpah” from a story like that?  Because there is no dedication in human story so deep and so meaningful as that of a godly, consecrated, devoted Christian mother.  I do not know, but I have often thought, if it were not this story of Rizpah in the Bible, and this story of Rizpah from the pen of the poet laureate of England, Lord Tennyson, if it were not that that brought to—to Rudyard Kipling that famous song and—and verse—

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]

Their devotion to us in body and in soul has been immeasurable.

As a little boy about five—isn’t it strange how some things burn in your heart forever?  As a little boy about five, my mother took me in her arms, and on the train, carried me to Trinidad, Colorado, the nearest town of any size and consequence; and there, stayed by my bed in the hospital day and night.  And when the operation was done, she took me in her arms and carried me back home.  And I remember when she got off the train, carrying me in her arms, a passerby remarked, “The little boy is so poor, just skin and bones.”  Caring for the body, washing us, bathing us when we were helpless; feeding us, nursing us when we were hungry; sheltering us, watching over us when we were so tiny and helpless; and no less under God’s caring for our souls.

In a revival service at a morning hour, I happened to be seated, coming from school to go to church to attend the service—I happened to be seated back of my mother.  And after the minister had done his sermon and gave an appeal; when the congregation sang the hymn of invitation, she turned to me with many tears and said, “Son, today, today, would you give your heart to Jesus?”  And I answered, “Mother, today, this day I will take Jesus as my Savior”: watching over us in body and in soul, primeval motherhood, Rizpah, undying devotion [2 Samuel 21:10].

There is a legend that the Lord God called Gabriel, the angel in heaven, and said, “Gabriel, bring to Me the three most beautiful things you can find in the earth.”  And Gabriel swept over this emerald globe and brought back to heaven three things—the most beautiful things he could find: a rose, a baby’s smile, and a mother’s love.  And when Gabriel swept through the gates of glory to present his gifts to the great God of heaven, he looked at the rose; it had faded.  He looked at the baby’s smile; it had passed away.  But mother’s love endured forever.  And he brought to God the sweetest, most beautiful thing in the earth; the loving devotion of a sainted mother.

What could I do in my life that would be fine and splendid and good?  I can tell you.  If you had a good mother, a Christian mother, the finest thing you could do in life would be to achieve what she thought you could be; good, honest, upright, godly, and Christian; belonging to the household of faith, taking your place with the people of God, and living a noble and wonderful life in the name and to the praise of the Lord.

And that is our invitation this sweet, precious, Mother’s Day morning.  There is nothing you could do so meaningful, so fine, as today giving your heart to Christ; an invitation in that spirit to place heart, and hand, and home, and life with us in the church.  In a moment we shall stand to sing our invitation hymn, and while we sing it, a family you to come, dad and mother and children, all of you coming; or just a couple you, or just one somebody you, “This day, Mother’s Day; this beautiful God’s day, I have made the decision in my heart, and I’m coming.”  In the balcony round, down one of these stairways, on the floor, into the aisle and here to the front, “I’m coming now, pastor, I give you my hand.  I have given my heart in faith and trust to God.”  Make the decision in your heart, and when you stand up, stand up walking down that aisle.  “Here I am, pastor, and here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.