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Bible Commentaries
2 Samuel 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-6

1. Saul’s broken treaty with the Gibeonites 21:1-6

Internal references in 2 Samuel enable us to date this incident early in David’s reign between Mephibosheth’s arrival in Jerusalem and the beginning of the Ammonite wars. Probably God sent judgment on Israel for Saul’s action soon after he died. Saul’s concubine watched over the bodies of her slain sons until the famine ended. If this took place later in David’s reign, she would have been very old, which is possible but unlikely. Also, David buried the bodies of Saul and Jonathan at this time. He would hardly have done this years later. The fact that David did not execute Mephibosheth suggests that this son of Jonathan had come under David’s protection by this time. That took place after David moved his capital to Jerusalem. After the Ammonite wars began, David might not have had time for what the writer described here. Consequently a date within 996-993 B.C. for this famine seems reasonable.

Characteristically, David sought the Lord about the famine (2 Samuel 21:1; cf. Deuteronomy 28:47-48). Sometimes natural catastrophes such as famines resulted from Israel’s sins, but sin was not always the cause (cf. Job; John 9:2-3). There is no mention elsewhere in Samuel that Saul had broken the Israelites’ treaty with the Gibeonites (cf. Joshua 9:3-27). Saul evidently refused to acknowledge Israel’s treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9) and put some of them to death. One writer suggested that Saul had made Gibeon his capital, and after a falling out with the native Hivite inhabitants Saul slaughtered them. [Note: Joseph Blenkinsopp, "Did Saul Make Gibeon His Capital?" Vetus Testamentum 24:1 (January 1974):1-7.] However there is nothing in the text that indicates he did this. Another possibility is that when Saul slew many of the priests at Nob he also executed many Gibeonites (1 Samuel 22:19). David asked the Gibeonites what punishment would satisfy them and atone for (cover) Saul’s sin of murder.

"Since the verb kipper ["atonement"] is used absolutely here, it is impossible to say from the construction alone whether it means to propitiate [satisfy] or to expiate [remove]. From the context, however, it is clear that it means both. David is seeking both to satisfy the Gibeonites and to ’make up for’ the wrong done to them. It is equally clear that he cannot achieve the latter with the former. There is no expiation [removal] without propitiation [satisfaction]." [Note: Paul Garnet, "Atonement Constructions in the Old Testament and the Qumran Scrolls," Evangelical Quarterly 46:3 (July-September 1974):134.]

"The inheritance of the Lord" probably refers to the nation of Israel (cf. 2 Samuel 20:19). The Gibeonites were content to have seven (a number symbolizing completeness) of Saul’s descendants (not necessarily sons) executed. This was in keeping with ancient Near Eastern and Mosaic laws (the lex talionis or law of revenge, Numbers 35:31). There are records of broken treaties leading to natural calamities in other ancient Near Eastern literature. [Note: See F. Charles Fensham, "The Treaty between Israel and the Gibeonites," Biblical Archaeologist 27:3 (1964):96-100.] The Hebrew word translated "hang" (2 Samuel 21:6) means to execute in a way that the body suffers public humiliation (cf. Numbers 25:4). Probably they suffered execution and then their bodies were hung up so everyone could witness their fate.

Verses 1-14

A. Famine from Saul’s Sin 21:1-14

In this first subsection the writer reminds the reader that breaking covenants results in God withdrawing the blessing of fertility.

Verses 7-9

2. David’s justice and mercy 21:7-9

David showed himself to be a true son of Yahweh by keeping his covenant with Jonathan and by sparing Mephibosheth (cf. 2 Samuel 21:2; 1 Samuel 18:3; 1 Samuel 20:8; 1 Samuel 20:16). However, he followed God’s Law and executed seven of Saul’s descendants including another Mephibosheth, Saul’s son (2 Samuel 21:8). "Merab" (2 Samuel 21:8) is the correct name of another of Rizpah’s sons. "Michal," the name that appears in the AV, is probably a scribal error (cf. 1 Samuel 18:19; 2 Samuel 6:23). [Note: Driver, p. 352.] David could justly slay Saul’s descendants if they had had a part in the execution of the Gibeonites. This seems to have been the case (2 Samuel 21:1; cf. Ezekiel 18:4; Ezekiel 18:20). The execution took place in Gibeah, Saul’s former home and capital, which was on a hill ("mountain," 2 Samuel 21:9) of Benjamin. The barley harvest began in late March or early April when the feast of Passover took place. Since Passover memorialized the Israelites’ liberation from oppression in Egypt, this was an appropriate time for this event. By getting things right with the Gibeonites, David brought Israel out from under God’s oppression that Saul’s sin had caused.

Verses 10-14

3. David’s honoring of Saul and Jonathan 21:10-14

The writer did not mention how much time elapsed between the execution of Saul’s descendants and the coming of rain.

"Leaving corpses without burial, to be consumed by birds of prey and wild beasts, was regarded as the greatest ignominy that could befall the dead . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 462.]

David’s action ended the famine, and God again blessed Israel with rain and fertility. David also proceeded to give Saul and Jonathan honorable burials. [Note: See my note on the significance of burial in the ancient Near East at 1 Samuel 31.]

Because Saul had been unfaithful to Israel’s covenant with the Gibeonites, God punished the nation with famine (lack of fertility). When David, who followed the Mosaic Law, righted this wrong, God restored fertility to the land. God reduced Saul’s line from one of the most powerful-looking men in Israel, Saul, to one of the weakest-looking, Mephibosheth. David’s faithfulness to his covenant with Jonathan shows he was a covenant-keeping king like Yahweh. Saul, on the other hand, broke Israel’s covenant with the Gibeonites.

Verses 15-22

B. Four Giant Killers 21:15-22

This record emphasizes the supernatural character of the victories David was able to enjoy because God fought for him by using various men in his army.

"The lists of heroes and heroic exploits that frame the poetic centre-piece represent human instrumentality, but not the underlying reality, which is Yahweh." [Note: Gordon, p. 298.]

The pericope may describe what happened when David was fighting the Philistines early in his reign (cf. 2 Samuel 5:18-25), probably right after he became king of all Israel in 1004 B.C. [Note: Merrill, Kingdom of . . ., pp. 237-38.] However, it is really impossible to tell how the incidents recorded here relate to others mentioned in the book, or even if they do.

"The giant" (2 Samuel 21:16; 2 Samuel 21:18; 2 Samuel 21:20; 2 Samuel 21:22) appears to have been the father or ancestor of all four of the huge Philistine warriors mentioned in this passage. However, the Hebrew word translated "giant" (raphah) is a collective term for the Rephaim. The Rephaim were the mighty warriors who originally inhabited the Canaanite coastal plain (cf. Genesis 15:19-21; Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 3:11; Deuteronomy 3:13). They terrified ten of the 12 spies that Joshua sent out from Kadesh Barnea (Numbers 13:33).

"The lamp of Israel" (2 Samuel 21:17) refers to David, the source of Israel’s human guidance, prosperity, and wellbeing-its leading light. As God was a light to His people, so the king was a source of life as His vice-regent. Similarly, Jesus is the light of the world, but Christians are to let our light shine before men.

". . . when a man dies his lamp is extinguished (Job 18:6; Proverbs 13:9); David’s death would be tantamount to the extinction of the life of the community (cf. Lamentations 4:20). The figure of the lamp, which came to symbolize the Davidic dynasty as maintained by Yahweh (1 Kings 15:4; Psalms 132:17), possibly derives from the world of the sanctuary, in which a lamp was kept burning ’continually’ (see on 1 Samuel 3:3)." [Note: Gordon, p. 303.]

Gob (2 Samuel 21:18) was evidently another name for Gezer (1 Chronicles 20:4). The reference in 2 Samuel 21:19 to Elhanan killing Goliath the Gittite (i.e., a resident of Gath) seems to contradict 1 Samuel 17. However 1 Chronicles 20:5 says that Elhanan killed Lahmi, the brother of Goliath. Evidently that is the correct reading. [Note: See Archer, p. 179.] Sometimes David was able to slay his enemies personally, but at other times he had to rely on the help of others (2 Samuel 21:17).

The point of this brief section is that God blessed David with military victories far beyond anyone’s normal expectations because he was God’s faithful anointed servant. Yahweh brought blessing through him to Israel militarily as well as agriculturally (2 Samuel 21:1-14). The first incident in the appendix (2 Samuel 21:1-14) illustrates that breaking covenants reduces fertility, but this one (2 Samuel 21:15-22) shows that God’s favor results in supernatural victories.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/2-samuel-21.html. 2012.
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