THE KINGDOM OF DAVID AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD
2 Samuel 21 —24
A Problem in David’s Kingdom: God’s Wrath, Part 1
2 SAMUEL 21:1-14
CHAPTERS 21—24 OF 2 SAMUEL form an epilogue to the books of Samuel. This carefully arranged material presents us with important perspectives on the kingdom of David, the kingdom of God, and the relationship between them. These chapters look back over the whole period of David’s reign (and earlier). The text is not arranged chronologically but thematically. We can characterize this arrangement as follows:
21:1-14 A problem in David’s kingdom: God’s wrath, part 1.
21:15-22 The strength of David’s kingdom: his mighty men, part 1.
22:1-51 The hope of David’s kingdom: the Lord's promise, part 1.
23:1-7 The hope of David’s kingdom: the Lord’s promise, part 2.
23:8-39 The strength of David’s kingdom: his mighty men, part 2.
24:1-25 A problem in David’s kingdom: God’s wrath, part 2.
The first section of the epilogue (21:1-14) tells of a terrible sequence of events from an unspecified time during David’s reign. It is one of the Bible’s most difficult stories. It is not so much difficult to understand as difficult to hear and accept. Although the main action involves a relatively small number of people, it is an account of immense personal suffering, unimaginable grief, and what feels like intolerable unfairness. It is a story that will cause most sensitive readers to wonder what is going on. Our greatest difficulty is God’s role in what happened.
The emotions, perplexity, and disquiet that most of us will feel as we follow this story are not new to us. Even those fortunate enough to have never experienced great atrocities have heard about them. The cruelties of war, the atrocities of child abuse, the suffering of poverty—these and so many other horrors appear almost daily on our television news broadcasts. Whenever we pause to take seriously any one of these events (which we too rarely do), the immense tragic sadness is overwhelming. Most of us do not think much about these things because it is just too hard. But the toughest questions are about how and why God allows such things to happen.
Very often it is the horror of human suffering (and so much of it) that is given as the reason when a thoughtful person refuses to believe in God. An impossible contradiction is felt between an all-powerful God who is supposed to be good and the unbearable things that occur under his supposed eye.
Answers are not simple. The denial of God’s existence is a simple but hardly helpful answer. Atheism “solves” the problem of evil by replacing it with the problem of goodness. If there is no God, then goodness is a matter of opinion. You have “solved" the problem of suffering and sadness by denying it is a problem. If there is no God, and if goodness is a matter of opinion, then the awful suffering of which we have been thinking is just a fact, not really a problem.
A more realistic answer has to face uncomfortable truths. One of them is the righteous wrath of God. We would all like God to be comfortable. He is not. He is good, but his goodness is not determined by ideas that we find cozy. God’s goodness is actually terrifying.
Let’s turn to the first part of the epilogue to the books of Samuel and carefully consider the horrors that are presented there. We will hear about:
(1) The famine (vv. 1, 2).
(2) The conversation (vv. 3-6).
(3) The execution (vv. 7-9).
(4) The surprise (vv. 10-14).
The Famine (vv. 1, 2)
The Observable Facts (v. la)
The story begins at a difficult time in David’s kingdom. “Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year” (v. 1a). “In the days of David” means in the days of David's reign over Israel (therefore not before 2 Samuel 5). However, a three-year famine is not mentioned anywhere in the record of David’s reign in 2 Samuel 5—20. The appearance of Mephibosheth in 21:7 narrows down the time frame slightly. The famine must have been after the events of 2 Samuel 9.3.
Precisely when the famine occurred is unimportant. The focus is on the hardship it brought. For three whole years (“year after year”) food was in short supply. Harvests failed. People were hungry.
It was what we call a natural disaster. Like floods, bushfires, and earthquakes, there may be prudent measures that a society can take to mitigate the suffering caused by such calamities, but there is nothing we can do to avert them altogether. We cannot control these catastrophes. This famine was certainly beyond David’s power.
Behind the Observable Facts (vv. lb, c, 2)
However, David knew the one who did have power over such things. Therefore “David sought the face of the Lord” (v. 1b). The expression “to seek the face of” suggests a person seeking an audience with a ruler. Here the king came before the King. By the end of this story we will learn that David prayed to God for the land that was suffering from this famine (“the plea for the land,” v. 14). He may also have asked the Lord whether there was a reason for the famine.
It is important for us to understand that the reason for any particular terrible event or situation in the world may be unknowable to us. This is one lesson from the book of Job. There was a reason for Job’s suffering, revealed to readers of the book in chapters 1, 2. It is possible to trust that God has his reasons without knowing what those reasons are. Eventually Job learned to trust God like that (Job 42:1-6).
However, on this occasion when David prayed, the Lord told him the reason for the famine. “And the Lord said, ‘There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death’” (2 Samuel 20: 1c).
Here our difficulties with this story begin. The Lord’s word to David clearly implied that there was a connection between “bloodguilt” (v. 1) and the famine now being suffered by the people throughout David’s kingdom. The “bloodguilt” is explained in terms of something that Saul had done. He had killed certain Gibeonites. In a moment we will learn that there was a particular issue with the Gibeonites. Before we hear about that let us carefully note the difficulty we have with the idea that Saul’s deed should bring “bloodguilt” on his “house” (his family in a wide sense; see “house of Saul" in 3:1, 6, 8, 10; 9:1, 2, 3; 16:5, 8) and that this should somehow be causally
connected to the suffering of people long after Saul’s death, this famine “in the days of David” (20:1).
Our problems are magnified by the fact that this is how the Lord saw the situation. King Saul’s deed had terrible consequences for his whole family and for the nation because of God's view of what Saul did. They suffered what can rightly be called God’s wrath because of King Saul’s action against the Gibeonites. How can that be right? We will return to that question.
However, King David did not ask that question. We might wonder whether he understood something that we do not. Instead David arranged to have a very important conversation. “So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them” (v. 2a).
Before we listen to that conversation, the narrator fills in some of the background. First, who were the Gibeonites? They were the original inhabitants of Gibeon, a town that has featured prominently twice in the books of Samuel. Gibeon was the site of the battle between Ish-bosheth’s men under Abner and David’s men under Joab when only the tribe of Judah had accepted David as king (2:12-28). Much later Gibeon was where Joab killed Amasa (20:8-10). While the mention of the Gibeonites here may remind us of these two events, the original people of Gibeon played no role in either. “Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites” (v. 2b). That is, the Gibeonites were survivors from the indigenous Canaanite peoples who had been displaced when the Lord gave the promised land to the people of Israel.
How had the Gibeonites survived the Israelite conquest? Briefly, “the people of Israel had sworn to spare them” (v. 2c). The circumstances of this unusual arrangement are recounted in Joshua 9:3-27. The Gibeonites had, with good reason, feared the conquering Israelites and had tricked them into thinking that they were not occupants of Canaan, but from a distant country. The people of Israel failed to “ask counsel from the Lord” about this, and Joshua made peace with the Gibeonites and a covenant to let them live (Joshua 9:14, 15). When the Israelites discovered the deception, they considered themselves nonetheless to be bound by the oath they had sworn “by the Lord, the God of Israel” (Joshua 9:19, 20). Whatever we might think about the Gibeonites’ deception, they were right to fear the Israelites who were the instrument of the Lord’s judgment on the “the iniquity of the Amorites” (see Genesis 15:16). They were also right not to join the kings who “gathered together as one to fight against Joshua and Israel” (Joshua 9:2). As a consequence they received mercy and were permitted to live safely among the Israelites.
Despite this King Saul “had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah” (v. 2b). Saul’s zeal had led him to a number of terribly misguided actions. Most of those we know about occurred because of his zeal for his own position and his furious jealousy of David’s popularity and success (see, for example, 1 Samuel 22:18, 19). Perhaps in Saul’s mind this was “zeal for the people of Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 20:2). His actions against the Gibeonites were not included in the earlier record of Saul’s reign, perhaps because of the focus there on the relationship between Saul and David. Now we learn that Saul had disregarded the oath that had been sworn to the Gibeonites and killed an unknown number of them. Whatever Saul imagined his motivation was, this action incurred the wrath of God (as anticipated in Joshua 9:20).
Having heard from the Lord what was behind the famine, David summoned the Gibeonites (presumably this was the leaders of the Gibeonites who had survived Saul’s purge) and spoke with them.
The Conversation (vv. 3-6)
Davids Inquiry (v. 3)
And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” (v. 3)
Notice that although the Lord had told David that Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites was behind the famine, the Lord did not tell David what to do about it. David set about working out what was to be done by consulting the victims. This implicitly acknowledged the oath that Saul had disregarded. David wanted to “make atonement” (v. 3). Here this loaded term probably means both to satisfy the justified grievance of the Gibeonites and to “make amends” for the wrong done to them.
The outcome David sought was that the Gibeonites would “bless” the people and land of Israel, “the heritage of the Lord” (v. 3). This would bring the Gibeonites within the promise God made to Abraham (“I will bless those who bless you,” Genesis 12:3) and so restore the “peace” made with the Gibeonites by Joshua.
The Gibeonites ’ Evasion (v. 4a)
The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” (v. 4a)
Understandably the Gibeonites were cautious in their response to King Saul’s successor. They made no demand. They did not want monetary compensation. The offense was not one that could or should be dealt with so easily (cp. Numbers 35:31). On the other hand, the Gibeonites recognized that they had no right to take the life of any Israelite.
David's Promise (v. 4b)
David took the last point in the Gibeonites’ response as an indication of what they really expected. “And he said, ‘What do you say that I shall do for you?”’ (v. 4b). This was in effect a promise from David to do whatever they were asking.
The Gibeonites ’ Proposal (vv. 5, 6a)
The Gibeonites now spoke more freely and spelled out what they considered would “atone” for the atrocities that Saul had committed against them.
They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” (vv. 5, 6a)
What Saul had done (“consumed us”), what he intended (“to destroy us”), and what he was hoping to achieve (“that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel”) are described without using Saul’s name. He is “the man” who carried out this atrocity.
What the Gibeonites proposed in order to “make atonement” (v. 3) for this outrage is the central horror of this story. Seven “sons” (v. 6; literally, “men from his sons,” meaning male descendants) of Saul were to be handed over to the Gibeonites. Seven is probably deliberately symbolic (as well as literal) of the whole house of Saul. The Gibeonites proposed that they would “hang” these seven (v. 6). There is debate about the precise means of execution indicated by the Hebrew word here. Some suggest “impale” or even “crucify.” It makes little difference. These seven descendants of Saul were to be put to death in a public execution.
This would happen, said the Gibeonites, “before the Lord” (v. 6). This would not be an act of vengeance on their part, but a judicial act, like Samuel’s execution of Agag “before the Lord” (1 Samuel 15:33). The Lord would be witness to it and would, the Gibeonites seemed sure, approve.
They chose the location for the killing—Saul’s hometown of Gibeah (1 Samuel 10:26; 11:4; 14:2; 15:34; 22:6; 23:19; 26:1). With bitter sarcasm, now that his name had been used, they added, “the chosen of the Lord” (2 Samuel 21:6).
This is what the Gibeonites proposed as “atonement” (v. 3) for the horrors that Saul had carried out against them, in breach of the covenant that had been made between the peoples of Gibeon and Israel. We should observe carefully that the proposal did not come from the Lord. This fact does not solve the deep difficulties of this story, but should nonetheless be noted.
Davids Agreement (v. 6b)
The discomfort we feel at what was being proposed is intensified when we hear David’s response. “And the king said, ‘I will give them’” (v. 6b). There are no grounds for the suggestion sometimes made that David agreed to this course of action in order to eliminate potential rivals to his throne. However, neither is David’s acquiescence presented as an act of obedience to a word from the Lord.
The Execution (vv. 7-9)
Before we hear the terrible details of the execution being carried out, the narrator notes how David, in contrast to Saul, honored an oath that had been made earlier.
Mephibosheth (v. 7)
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of the Lord that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. (v. 7)
The story of David’s kindness to Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9 has this brief sequel. At a terrible time, when descendants of Saul were to be killed, David remembered his promise to Mephibosheth’s father, Saul’s son Jonathan, and saw that he was protected. We presume that Mephibosheth lived out the rest of his days under the kindness of King David. Although it is likely that the encounter with David in 19:24 occurred after these events, this is the last we hear of Mephibosheth in the Bible (we will hear of another man by the same name in the next verse).
The Execution (vv. 8,9)
Verse 7 is only a brief respite to the horrors of this story. We now witness the carrying out of the wishes of the Gibeonites.
The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the live sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the Lord, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest, (vv. 8, 9)
Two sons from one family and five from another were handed over to the Gibeonites. The mother of the two, Rizpah, was introduced in 3:7, where we were told that she had been Saul’s concubine. On that occasion she was at the center of a row between Saul’s son Ish-bosheth and his military commander, Abner. Now we discover that Rizpah had two sons by Saul. These would have been half-brothers to Jonathan. We are left to wonder what may have been behind Jonathan’s naming his son, Mephibosheth, after one of these. We might guess that these two sons, born in Saul’s lifetime, were by now at least young men. We know nothing more about them.
In addition David delivered to the Gibeonites five grandsons of Saul, sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, who were also possibly adults by this time. These five are not named.
The Gibeonites did to these seven “sons” of Saul precisely what they had proposed. We must allow this terrible event to be as terrible as it was. The narrator takes the time to tell us where they were killed (“on the mountain”), the judicial nature of the execution (it was “before the Lord”), how they died (they “perished together”), and when it was (“the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest,” v. 9). We should take time to feel the horror of it.
It is curious that the time of the execution should be identified in terms of a “harvest” (v. 9). It may have been the time of the beginning of the barley harvest, but since there was a famine in the land, we may presume that there was little or no barley being harvested. Barley harvest was in April.
The Surprise (vv. 10-14)
That could have been the end of the story, but just as we are feeling the horror of the executions, we are forced to watch the scene even more closely by a surprising development.
Rizpah (v. 10)
One of the mothers did something extraordinary. Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it for herself on the rock, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell upon them from the heavens. And she did not allow the birds of the air to come upon them by day, or the beasts of the field by night, (v. 10)
The horror of what Rizpah did defies description. For a long time Rizpah placed herself in a pure hell. The autumn rains (if that is what is meant) came in October-November. For those months she watched over the decaying bodies of her two sons and the other five, protecting them, day and night, from predators. She used the cloth of mourners either to lie on or as a shade from the hot sun as she prevented the bodies being further desecrated. Rizpah’s devotion magnifies the horror of the story if we can cope with allowing our imaginations to dwell on what she did.
David and the House of Saul (vv. 11—14a)
Eventually David heard about what Rizpah was doing. He was moved to do something less gruesome but equally remarkable. When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done, David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father. And they did all that the king commanded, (vv. 11—14a)
The men of Jabesh-gilead, some fifty miles northeast of Jerusalem on the east side of the Jordan, had been the first from the northern tribes to be approached by David after the people of Judah had made him king (2:4-7). David had praised them then for what they had done in the events referred to here (see 1 Samuel 31:11-13). After all that had happened between David and the house of Saul, David now returned to the honour he had shown toward Saul and Jonathan in the lament that stands near the beginning of this book (1:17-27). Now this honour was expressed by arranging a proper burial for the seven executed sons of Saul along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan in the family tomb in Zela, in the territory of Saul’s tribe, Benjamin.
The compassion and dignity (could we even say love?) displayed by Rizpah and then David in their different ways make a stark contrast to the violence and horror that we have witnessed. At least these last actions of the mother and the king seem right and proper in the circumstances. It’s the circumstances that trouble us.
Answered Prayer (v. 14b)
The episode concludes with the simple but vital note, “And after that God responded to the plea for the land” (v. 14b). The rains came. The famine was over.
As we reflect on this intensely disturbing story, I want to suggest we resist the urge to resolve its problems neatly. I do not believe that can be done. Nor does the story invite us to approve or condemn the actions that are most perplexing—David's approach to the Gibeonites, their proposed solution, David’s agreement to do what they asked, and the carrying out of these things. These things happened, and the narrative does not denounce them, nor does it present these things as required by God.
What, then, are we to make of this disturbing portion of Scripture? I have three suggestions. First, feel the sadness and horror of this story—a story of suffering from beginning to end. Although the narrator does not dwell on the hardships of the famine, these would have been terrible. People were dying of starvation. That’s what happens in a famine—parents are unable to feed their children, the weak are unable to obtain food that stronger neighbours may have been able to scrounge. The Gibeonites had suffered from King Saul’s treacherous massacre of many of their people. We do not need details of what Saul did to know that the suffering was great and continued in the grief of the survivors. And the execution of seven of Saul’s sons and grandsons was no less terrible, even though the number involved was smaller. The suffering of the families of these boys or men, especially their mothers, must be added to this catalog of pain. The sight of Rizpah and what she did in her grief is unbearable.
All of this was in some way a consequence of Saul’s sin. We do not understand the connections. It is complicated. But God has not so arranged the world that the only person who suffers when someone sins is the sinner. Others get hurt also. Perhaps we wish it were otherwise, but it is not. This is a reality we live with every day. Indeed it is difficult to think of a sin that does not in some way hurt others. Of course, we are all sinners, and we are not in a position to complain that it is unjust for us to suffer because of the sins of someone else. What about those who suffer because of our sins?
This situation, where sin leads to suffering, sometimes on a large scale, is because of the righteous wrath of God (see Romans 1:18-32). As we relicet on 21:1-14, I am suggesting that we should take time to see how immensely sad it all is.
Second, see and appreciate the inadequacy of King David to deal with the problem of God’s wrath. David’s attempt to deal with the consequences of Saul’s sin horrifies us. Perhaps his subsequent effort to give those who had been executed a decent burial was an attempt to make up for what he had done. If you do not listen to the story carefully, you could think that the deaths of Saul’s sons was God’s requirement in recompense for Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites. That is not what the text tells us. Indeed it is clear that the Lord did not answer the prayer for the land until after David had shown compassion and honour toward Saul, Jonathan, and the seven who had been executed. God answered the prayer for the land when and how he chose to do so, not because of something King David did. The difficulty we have in making sense of the events should impress upon us the inadequacy of David’s kingdom to deal with the problem of the wrath of God.
Third, hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)
Jesus is the King who is able to save us from the wrath of God—“whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). He was fully and effectively “the atoning sacrifice” for the sins of the whole world (cp. 1 John 2:2 niv). The greatest problem for the kingdom of David is no longer a problem in the kingdom of the son of David, Jesus. But as we have felt the horror of the events in the days of David, we should not take lightly the cost at which we are saved from God’s wrath. The horror of the death of Jesus on the cross is beyond description. The consequences are unfathomable: we are saved from the wrath of God.
We will return to this vital theme in 2 Samuel 24, the corresponding section of the epilogue.
The Strength of David’s Kingdom:
His Mighty Men, Part 1
2 SAMUEL 21:15-22
HAVING SEEN THE PROBLEM that the kingdom of David was never able to fully and effectively address (the wrath of God), the second section of the epilogue to the books of Samuel provides four snapshots of the strength of David’s kingdom.
We must not underestimate the extraordinary strength of King David. From the day on which he was first noticed by the public, when as a lad he brought down the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17), King David had defended and protected his people from their enemies (see 2 Samuel 8). Of course, the record in the books of Samuel is clear on one fundamental point: David was victorious because the Lord was with him (see, for example, 1 Samuel 17:37, 46, 47; 2 Samuel 8:6b, 14b).
As we look at the snapshots of the power of David’s kingdom in 21:15— 22, we will consider two observations. First, we will see once again that the victories of David and his servants were remarkable. The enemies were very powerful. In this the kingdom of David anticipated the King who has given us victory over enemies greater than those defeated by David. We look at the victories of David and say, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
Second, as an anticipation of the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, there were inadequacies in the kingdom of David. David had weaknesses.
These help us see the greatness of the King whose kingdom is even more powerful than the kingdom of David.
We will see:
(1) The kingdom at war: David weary (v. 15).
(2) Snapshot 1: Ishbi-benob (vv. 16, 17).
(3) Snapshot 2: Saph (v. 18).
(4) Snapshot 3: Goliath(?) (v. 19).
(5) Snapshot 4: The man of strife (vv. 20, 21).
(6) The victories of David (v. 22).
The Kingdom at War: David Weary (v. 15)
The section (and the first snapshot) is introduced by describing a situation that had arisen many times through David’s reign (and earlier through Saul’s reign): “There was war again between the Philistines and Israel” (v. 15a). The Hebrew sentence indicates that it was the Philistines who were at war with Israel. The Philistines were the aggressors.
The Philistine threat was in the background of the entire period of Israel’s history covered by the books of Samuel. They first appeared in 1 Samuel 4, when Israel suffered a terrible defeat and the ark of the covenant was captured. It took the prayers of Samuel and the intervention of the Lord to defeat them in those days (1 Samuel 7:10, 11, 13, 14). However, the threat emerged again, and when Samuel was old it was part of the motivation of the people’s demand for a king to “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). The Lord gave them Saul with the clear commission to “save my people from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 9:16). Saul neglected this commission (that is the implication of the narrative in 1 Samuel 10:1-10). It was Saul’s son Jonathan who did what his father had failed to do (1 Samuel 13:3; 14:1-46). However, the threat persisted throughout Saul’s reign: “There was hard fighting against the Philistines all the days of Saul” (1 Samuel 14:52). The next major victory over this enemy came when the young David killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17). This was the beginning of many battles in which David consistently crushed the Philistines (1 Samuel 18:27, 30; 19:8; 23:1-5). Remarkably David twice sought refuge from Saul in the land of the Philistines (1 Samuel 21:10-15; 27:1-12), each time deceiving the enemy. It was the Philistines who finally brought Saul down. He died in his final clash with the old enemy (1 Samuel 31). The people’s hope for deliverance from the Philistines now rested on David (see 3:18). This hope was vindicated shortly after David became Israel’s king (5:17-25; 8:1). Later, after the people had rejected David, it was the memory of how he had saved them from the Philistines that brought them to a change of mind (19:9).
The conflict referred to in 21:15a could have occurred at almost any time through David’s reign, but there are hints that it may have been in his later days, possibly after Absalom’s rebellion. David’s response to the Philistine threat is no surprise: “David went down together with his servants, and they fought against the Philistines” (v. 15b). He “went down,” presumably from Jerusalem, in the Judean hills, westward to the coastal plain, or perhaps the foothills, toward the territory of the Philistines.
The next thing we expect to hear is something like, “And David defeated the Philistines and subdued them” (as, for example, in 8:1). Instead the narrator tells us, “And David grew weary” (v. 15c). This reminds us of the weariness of David in the days of his exile as he fled from Absalom (16:14; 17:2, 29). Weariness does not mean defeat (the same word is used in 1 Samuel 14:31, esv, “faint”), but it does suggest weakness and limited capacity to continue the fight.
This may suggest that the years were taking their toll on King David. How long would he be able to continue to protect his people from their enemies?
Snapshot 1: Ishbi-benob (vv. 16, 17)
One particular Philistine decided to take advantage of David’s weakness. His name was Ishbi-benob (“his dwelling is on the height”), and he was “one of the descendants of the giants [Hebrew, raphah]” (v. 16a). This phrase recurs with minor variations in verses 18, 20, 22, suggesting an important idea through this passage. Unfortunately, the Hebrew is difficult. It probably means that this individual (and the others so described) was a descendant of Rapha (cp. niv), the ancestor of the Rephaim. While there is uncertainty about the identity and history of the Rephaim, there are indications that they were a people reputed for their gigantic size. It is possible that several different groups who were unusually tall received this designation and that the term acquired a general sense, “giant.”
The Rephaim were mentioned in one of David’s earlier clashes with the Philistines “in the Valley of Rephaim [Giants?!]” (5:18). The term probably suggests a formidable adversary, a reminder of the first Philistine David had encountered, Goliath.
Indeed there was more about this warrior that reminds us of Goliath. His “spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze, and [he] was armed with a new sword” (v. 16b). His spear, weighing about eight pounds, was half the weight of Goliath’s (1 Samuel 17:7) but was nonetheless intimidating.
This heavily armed hulk of a man “thought to kill David” (v. 16c). The Hebrew may suggest that he announced this intention. No doubt he hoped to take advantage of David’s weariness.
The David who had once brought down the giant Goliath single-handedly (so to speak, for it was, of course, the Lord who gave the Philistine into David’s hand, 1 Samuel 17:47) now needed help. “But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him” (v. 17a). How would David cope without the sons of Zeruiah? I suspect that the sons of Zeruiah sometimes wondered the same thing. Abishai did exactly what David had once done to Goliath (1 Samuel 17:50).
However, David’s vulnerability was now recognized as a serious matter. “Then David’s men swore to him, ‘You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel’” (v. 17b). David’s immense significance for the people of Israel is captured in this striking expression, “the lamp of Israel.” As the Lord’s anointed king, David had brought light into the darkness that Israel had sometimes endured. As the Lord himself was David’s lamp (22:29), so David was “the lamp of Israel” (cp. Psalm 132:17; 1 Kings 15:4). Indeed the dark days with which the books of Samuel began included a reference to a lamp: “The lamp of God had not yet gone out” (1 Samuel 3:3). This seemed to suggest that the Lord had not abandoned his troubled people. Now, near the end of the story, we hear the people’s fear that “the lamp of Israel” might be snuffed out if David were to continue to lead them into battle (2 Samuel 21:17).
There had been a time when David was victorious “wherever he went” (8:6, 14). David’s men had no confidence that this would still be the case ("no longer”). David’s weakness would be responsible for the extinguishing of Israel’s lamp (“lest you quench . . .,” v. 17).
This concern had been expressed in different terms when David’s men were up against Absalom’s coup (18:3). This suggests again that the snapshot given here may come from the days after that rebellion.
Snapshot 2: Saph (v. 18)
The second snapshot is more briefly presented. “After this" there was again war with the Philistines at Gob. Then Sibbecai the Hushathite struck down Saph, who was one of the descendants of the giants, (v. 18)
Gob was probably a small place somewhere near Gezer (since the location of this incident is given as Gezer in 1 Chronicles 20:4). This was about twenty miles west of Jerusalem, in the foothills and close to the Philistine territory of the coastal plain, where David had driven the Philistines early in his reign (5:25). Conflict again with the Philistines in this vicinity is a reminder of those stronger days of David’s kingdom.
Again the focus is on one large Philistine, another “one of the descendants of the giants” (v. 18; exactly the same phrase as in verse 16). This one was named Saph, and he was slain by a Hushathite (from the town of Hushah in Judah, about four miles west of Bethlehem) named Sibbecai. He was one of David’s “mighty men” (1 Chronicles 11:29) and a commander of one of his military divisions (1 Chronicles 27:11).
In this scene there is no mention of David. Presumably the recorded deed of Sibbecai was part of a wider victory over the Philistines, but what role, if any, was played by David we do not know.
Snapshot 3: Goliath (?) (v. 19)
The third snapshot is similarly brief but has generated much debate, because here we do not simply have reminders of David’s original Philistine foe but his name, along with an apparent contradiction of the well-known account of David’s triumph over Goliath.
And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (v. 19)
The obvious problem is that 1 Samuel 17 has recounted in great detail how David killed Goliath the Gittite (see 1 Samuel 17:4, 23, 50), the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam (see 1 Samuel 17: 7-14). To confuse matters further, the text corresponding to 21:19 in 1 Chronicles says that Elhanan “struck down Lahmi, the brother of Goliath the Gittite” (1 Chronicles 20:5). The statement, as it stands, in 21:19 appears to contradict both 1 Samuel 17 and 1 Chronicles 20.
There are two approaches to such puzzles that should be avoided. The first is to be too confident that an apparent contradiction is in fact a contradiction. Too often skeptical readers of the Bible (not to mention skeptical Bible scholars) are impatient with those who search for an explanation that resolves an apparent contradiction. Those of us who receive the Bible as God’s word to us are eager to understand the truth and are open to the idea that an apparent contradiction is only apparent. On the other hand, we should be honest about the problem and not pretend it away. It is reasonable to evaluate the likelihood of explanations and refuse to simply accept an argument because it removes the problem.
The simplest (and I think the most probable) solution in the case of 21:19 is that there have been a number of accidental errors in the transmission of this text. It is possible that the original text was close to what we now find in 1 Chronicles 20:5 and that therefore Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother who, unremarkably, was also a powerful giant equipped with similar weapons to Goliath.
The problem should not distract us from this third snapshot of David’s kingdom. It was yet another “war with the Philistines at Gob” (v. 19; identical wording to verse 18a). This town near the border between Israelite and Philistine territory was, unsurprisingly, the setting for a number of the skirmishes between these two adversaries.
Once again the presentation here focuses on one incident in the war, possibly the decisive moment or turning point.
The hero of this incident was named Elhanan. Apart from this episode (also recounted in 1 Chronicles 20:5), this Elhanan does not appear else where in Biblical history. There is some uncertainty about his father’s name (probably Jair) and whether he was in fact from Bethlehem. These small difficulties are of little substance.
As for the Philistine whom Elhanan killed (probably Goliath the Gittite’s brother), we know from verse 22 that he was yet another “one of the descendants of the giants” (2 Samuel 21:18).
In itself this snapshot is very similar to the previous one. There was yet another victory in David’s name over a formidable foe. David himself, however, is again not mentioned.
Snapshot 4: The Man of Strife (vv. 20, 21)
The fourth snapshot of the strength of David’s kingdom is a little more detailed than the previous two.
And there was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature [or, strife], who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number, and he also was descended from the giants. And when he taunted Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David’s brother, struck him down. (vv. 20, 21)
This time the conflict was about ten miles south of the site of the previous two scenes and inside Philistine territory. Gath was one of the Philistine towns. Most famously it was Goliath’s town, as we have just been reminded. Gath has featured prominently at a number of other points in the books of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 5:8; 21:10; 27:2; 2 Samuel 15:18). This was yet another Israelite/Philistine war.
Again our attention is drawn to one particular Philistine, a fourth one “descended from the giants” (as in vv. 16, 18, 22). The description “a man of great strife” suggests expertise in derision and agitation. This fourth giant is not named. Instead his physical peculiarity is described in unusual detail—twelve fingers and twelve toes. This feature, no doubt, enhanced his fearsome and frightening appearance.
We are reminded yet again of David’s famous confrontation with Goliath when we hear that “he taunted Israel” (v. 21). That is what Goliath did. Like Goliath his taunting was silenced. Unlike Goliath it was not David but one of his nephews who brought down the twenty-four-digit giant.
There is a connection here with the beginning of David’s story. David’s brother Shimei (or Shammah) was one of those not chosen by the Lord on the day that Samuel came to Bethlehem to anoint David (1 Samuel 16:9). His son Jonathan was the hero on this day.
The Victories of David (v. 22)
The four brief snapshots are now summed up: “These four were descended from the giants in Gath, and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants” (v. 22). Such was the strength of David’s kingdom. On one hand each of these victories was remarkable. Each could have been told with the same drama and thrills as David’s victory over Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. If the stories were told in more extended detail, there is little doubt that the implied truth would have been stated each time: it was the Lord who gave the Philistine giants into the hands of David’s servants.
The kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the kingdom of David. As servants of King Jesus we are given victory over our gigantic enemies— sin, and death (cp. Romans 16:20).
However, the Lord Jesus Christ is not absent from the fray as King David was in each of these scenes. The victories were won in David’s name, but this section makes a point of the fact that David was weary and probably aging, and it was not safe to have him “go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (v. 17). Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5), and there is no possibility of this light ever being quenched. As we serve him, we know that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it (cp. John 1:5).