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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary

2 Samuel 21

Verses 1-9


2 Samuel 21:1. “Then.” Rather, And, consequently there is nothing to indicate the period when the events here recorded took place, and many commentators consider that the words, “in the days of David” are “expressly inserted to denote that they are not narrated in their chronological order.” (Biblical Commentary). Keil says, “This occurrence certainly did not take place in the closing years of David’s reign; on the other hand, it is evident from the remark in 2 Samuel 21:7, to the effect that Mephibosheth was spared, that it happened after David had received tidings of Mephibosheth.” “Three years.” “For the first two seasons the scarcity did not cause much anxiety, since David and the officers of his government probably regarded it as the natural consequence of neglecting the cultivation of the land during the troubles occasioned by Absalom and Sheba, and hoped that the internal resources of the country would be sufficient to supply the wants of the population.” (Jamieson), “His bloody house,” rather “the house of blood-guiltiness.” This expression is in apposition to Saul, and determines the meaning more precisely.” (Keil). “He slew.” Nothing is said elsewhere of this deed. The covenant made with these people is described in Joshua 9:3, sq. q.

2 Samuel 21:4. “No silver,” etc. “Money payments as a compensation for blood-guilt were very common among many nations. Thus the law of Edward the Elder, in England, regulated the wer-gyld to be paid by the slayer upon the principle, “If anyone be slain, let him be paid for according to his birth.” (Biblical Commentary). “Neither for us,” etc., rather, not to us does it pertain to kill, etc., i.e., “it is not permitted us without more ado to execute blood-revenge for the murder of our people.” (Erdmann). “What ye shall say,” etc. “Assuming the necessity of blood-expiation.” (Erdmann).

2 Samuel 21:5. “The man that consumed,” etc. “It appears then that Saul had broken the power of the tribe by his bath of blood.” (Erdmann).

2 Samuel 21:6. “Seven men,” etc. “A sacred number, denoting the performance of a work of God.” (Keil). “According to Numbers 35:31-33, homicide was to be expiated by death but the death of the murderer, not of his kindred; it is, however, intimated in 2 Samuel 21:1, that Saul’s kindred had shared in the murderous deed. (Translator of Lange’s Commentary). “Hang thee up,” etc., i.e., Crucify them. “Whom the Lord did choose” or, the chosen of the Lord. Exception has been taken to this designation of Saul, and other renderings have been proposed. But the expression seems to indicate that “if Saul was the chosen of the Jehovah, his actions ought to have been more in accordance with his divine election (Keil), and that all the more must there be such expiation to the Lord for his sin as the Lord’s anointed.” (Erdmann).

2 Samuel 21:7. “The king spared,” etc. “The calamity brought upon Israel by Saul’s breach of the oath to the Gibeonites would make David doubly careful in the matter of his own oath to Jonathan.” (Biblical Commentary). “Rizpah.” (See 2 Samuel 3:7). “Michal.” Nearly all commentators agree that this is an error of memory or a copyist’s mistake, seeing that Merob, Saul’s eldest daughter, was the wife of Adriel, and it seems almost certain that Michal had no children. (See on 2 Samuel 6:23). Jamieson says that Kennicott has shown that two Hebrew M.SS. read Merab instead of Michal.

2 Samuel 21:9. “The hill,” etc. In or near Gibeah, the home of Saul. (1 Samuel 5:5). “Before the Lord,” i.e., in a place devoted to the worship of Jehovah. “It is true that God had said that the children should not be put to death for the parents (Deuteronomy 24:16); but this law, while it controlled the action of the magistrate, did not restrain God, who required and accepted the expiation.” (Wordsworth).

2 Samuel 21:9. “The barley harvest.” “In the valley of the Jordan this takes place in the last half of April. (Jamieson.)



I.—Natural laws work or rest as God’s servants. The Bible refers all the workings of the natural world to the will of God. It claims for Him the power to set in motion or to stay the operation of any one or of all the forces of nature as He sees fit. They are not the masters of our earth or of man, but servants obeying Him who is Lord of all. It is true that man will sometimes ignorantly or wilfully pervert and arrest the action of those laws which are to some extent within the reach of his influence, but this does not affect their divine origin. When, therefore, certain ordinary gifts of nature are withheld—when, as was most likely the case in the present instance, rain or sunshine do not visit the earth and quicken the seed into life and growth, those who believe in the God of the Bible refer the event, not to an impersonal law, but to a living Ruler of the universe. Indeed, apart from all scriptural teaching, it seems impossible for men who think to come to any other conclusion, for laws necessarily include a law-giver, and it is impossible to conceive of such a being as in any way fettered by his own methods of working. David was a true philosopher, as well as a devout believer, when he looked to the Lord as the only Being who could give rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, or command the clouds to withhold their blessings and so bring dearth and famine upon the land.

II. The cause of the suspension of beneficent natural laws is to be found not in God but in man. When David inquired of the Lord concerning the repeated dearth in the land, he evidently did so with the conviction that the cause of the dispensation was to be found not in the good nature of God but in the bad nature of man. He had formed such an estimate of the character of Jehovah as to be sure that He would not afflict his children willingly, or withdraw from them any of His gifts out of caprice, still less out of a desire to cause them pain or suffering. For no good human creature would be guilty of such conduct, and it would be blasphemy to ascribe to the ever-blessed God that which we should condemn in a fellow man. If a loving father withholds from his child his accustomed provision for his needs, all unprejudiced minds at once conclude that the reason is to be found, not in the disposition of the parent, but in the character of the child. So God declared of old it was with Him and Israel, and so it must ever be with Him and all His creatures. All His withholdings of good gifts or infliction of positive ills are, either directly or indirectly, the outcome of man’s sin, and are either for his correction or instruction, either to bring him back to the ways of God or to quicken and direct his steps after his return.

III. The punishment of sin is not remitted because it is delayed. The chief actor in this crime had long since left the earth, and had not in his own person received special retribution for this special act, but had been altogether rejected by God for an almost life-long disobedience to His commands. But there were most likely many still living who had been Saul’s willing instruments on this occasion, and they now learnt that this unrighteous deed had not been forgotten by God, although He had so long kept silence concerning it. It is not more certain that the stone thrown into the air will return to the earth than that retribution will follow sin, and, although individuals may escape in this world, the crimes of families, and other communities rarely fail to be punished in the present life, although that punishment may be so long delayed as to pass over many of those who are guilty. This fact in God’s government is closely linked with another, viz:

IV. That one generation of men often suffer for crimes for which other generations are also responsible. It was so in the case of Saul and the Gibeonites. However guilty Saul’s sons might be in this matter, they were not the only guilty persons, nor were they so guilty as their father, yet upon them only fell the penalty for this particular crime. Many generations of Egyptians oppressed the children of Israel, yet only those who lived in the days of the Exodus suffered for it. Many generations of Jews were guilty of killing the prophets, but Christ told those who lived in His day that the righteous blood of all was upon their heads. (Matthew 23:35). In secular history we have many similar cases, and if we ask if such a law be just, we can only answer that the God of all the earth can have no motive for wronging any of His creatures, and that there is another world wherein all these apparent inequalities will find their level. Such a law of entail has a bright as well as a dark side, for the blessed influence of righteous deeds descends also, and one great end of such a law in the Divine government is evidently to deter men from iniquity by the consideration of the misery they may bring upon their posterity.


2 Samuel 21:1. There are things deeper and truer than any such philosophy, and among these I place the spiritual instincts of the human heart. Why is it, we are disposed to ask, that in almost all languages pestilence has been called by a name which—like our own word plague, which means a stroke—directly points to God’s agency in its appearance? and whence comes it that, when a people are enduring such a calamity, there is a general thought of God among them, and their resolution becomes that of Jeremiah: ‘Let us search, and try our ways, and turn again unto the Lord?” Do not these things, and others like them, point to the fact that, by the mystic intuitions of the soul, God is recognised in all such visitations? and while we take into account the laws of external nature, shall we refuse to pay regard to the nature that is within us?—Dr. Taylor.

Let no one think it strange that the penalty should come thus, in famine, upon an entire nation, after a new generation had sprung up. For a nation’s history is a unit; and as there can be no such thing as retribution of a nation in the future state, it follows that if punishment for national sins is to be inflicted at all, it must fall in the subsequent earthly history of the nation that committed them. The generation which was alive in France at the eras of the massacre of St. Bartholomew and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes was a different one from that which lived at the time of the first Revolution; yet in the events of the latter, with its Reign of Terror and rivers of blood, we have the undoubted consequences of the former. Many generations have come and gone in Spain since the days of Philip and the great Armada, yet we can not doubt that the miserable condition of that land for more than a century—a condition out of which its inhabitants find it hard even now to emerge—was due to the sins of those who knew not the day of their visitation, and suppressed the Protestantism which, but for the Inquisition, would have arisen among them, and enabled them to lead the van of European progress. The English occupants of India in 1857 were not the same as those who, under Clive and Hastings, and others, so unrighteously obtained possession of large portions of that empire; nay, they were in many instances men of another order and a nobler nature; yet upon these, ay, even upon the heads of sainted missionaries who repudiated and condemned the cruelty and craft of the first invaders, the terrible Nemesis of the mutiny did fall.—Dr. Taylor.

Fools look only who stands on the next stair or step, but Jacob, when he saw the angels ascending and descending, he inquired who stood on the top of the ladder and sent them to and fro. Ezekiel also inquireth who standeth on the top of the wheel. Whatever is the instrument of our sufferings, let God be looked upon as the chief agent … The whole people suffered for Saul’s sin, either because they approved it, or at least bewailed it not, neither did what they could to hinder it, whereby they became accessory.—Trapp.

2 Samuel 21:2. Leal to Israel, not to God, whose law, nevertheless, he might seem to have on his side (Deuteronomy 8:16, etc.).… And yet he might also be moved to this by covetousness to gain their lands and goods.… The hypocrite is fitly compared to the eagle, which soareth aloft, not for any love of heaven, for her eye is all the while upon the prey which by this means she spieth sooner, and seizeth upon better.—Trapp.

2 Samuel 21:1-9. Our feelings, influenced by the Gospel, recoil from this proceeding. The implacableness of the Gibeonites astonishes us; and also the compliance of the king appears to us to be in violent contrariety to his whole disposition, as well as to the state of mind in which he was at the time. But let it always be remembered that it was the economy of the law under which those things were done, and with the character of which they harmonised; and that the care of God, in his educating of the human race, aimed above all things at this—that He should be recognised and feared as the Holy One and the Just. To this divine purpose David must bend himself, and make full account of it, whatever inner conflict it may cost him. The great guilt of the house of Saul—perjury and murder at the same time—demanded blood, according to the inviolable law of God’s kingdom. Already, indeed, that house, laden with sins, had been smitten by many judgments; but yet by none which discovered itself at the first glance to every one among the people, as a requital for that most culpable of all their crimes, the murder of the innocent Gibeonites. This special chastisement must not be omitted. For the prevention of doubtful interpretations in Israel, and for the heightening of esteem for every iota of the divine law, it must follow all that went before; and it truly did follow. The majesty and inexorable rigour of the law, as it was in Israel divinely manifested, was scarcely ever more brightly, and in a more alarming manner, brought to view than it was on this occasion.—Krummacher.

Little did the Gibeonites think that God had so taken to heart their wrongs, that for their sakes all Israel should suffer. Even when we think not of it, is the righteous Judge avenging our unrighteous vexations. Our hard measures cannot be hid from Him; His returns are hid from us. It is sufficient for us, that God can be no more neglective than ignorant of our sufferings.—Bp. Hall.

We may learn from this history—
I. What should in every case be the effect of temporal troubles, and afflictive dispensations. They have not answered their first purpose, till they have brought us to God. Had David sooner “inquired of the Lord,” he and his people had been sooner relieved from their distress; but while their hearts continued hard, and their consciences at ease, the evil not only continued, but continued to increase. Such, in general, is our conduct under the calamities of life. The mind is too deeply depressed—too fondly attached to present objects, to rise at once to Him who orders all things, both in heaven and earth. While we are passionately repining,—looking around for modes of relief, or for the sources of our suffering, we are too much occupied with secondary and external causes, to think of the sinful cause in ourselves, which may have drawn down upon us these troubles.… Where-ever God afflicts, there He speaks,—not indeed always in anger, more frequently in mercy.… Yet in such admonitions He will not be disregarded; every successive stroke will be yet heavier and heavier, till it either draw us to Him or drive us from Him. II. The danger of trifling with oaths and solemn engagements.… God would teach us, by this instance of just severity, that His honour is implicated in every oath, and that he will exact an awful retribution for the violation of such solemn engagements. The very insignificance of the injured party, as here, may be a farther reason with Him for taking the cause upon Himself.… In confirmation of this, we have another striking example in Scripture. In the days of Zedekiah a solemn treaty had been ratified with the King of Babylon, upon these humiliating conditions, “that the kingdom might be base, that it might not lift itself up, but that, by keeping of his covenant it might stand.” Zedekiah, thinking to throw off this yoke, rebelled.… Therefore, thus saith the Lord God: As I live, surely mine oath that he hath despised, and my covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head.” (Ezekiel 17:19).—Lindsay.

This whole narrative strikes us as extraordinary, at first almost staggers us. It places David in a strange light, it seems at first to place God in a strange light, but on a closer examination its mystery vanishes, and it is seen to harmonise both with the character of David and the righteous judgment of God.… What was Saul’s motive in attacking the Gibeonites? There is reason to believe that when he saw his own popularity declining and David’s advancing, he had recourse to base, unscrupulous methods for increasing his own (see 1 Samuel 22:7-8). Evidently he had rewarded his servants, especially those of his own tribe, with fields and vineyards; ‘but how had he got them? In no other way that we can suppose than by robbing the Gibeonites of theirs.… Probably he would give the larger share to the members of his family, but to prevent the transaction from having a mean personal aspect, he might so arrange that the people generally should have a share of the spoil.… If this was the way in which the transaction was gone about, it was fair that the nation should be visited with chastisement.… No remonstrance had gone forth against the deed.… The authors of the outrage might now be dead, but their children were quietly living on the plunder. Even David himself was not free from blame. When he came to the throne he should have seen justice done to this injured people.… The famine was, therefore, a retribution deserved both by David and his people. It was a lesson on the consequences of riches gained by robbery. It was to show that perfidy and theft cost far more than they bring in.… We now come to the main difficulty in this transaction. Where was the justice, it may be asked, of this frightful execution? Why should these unoffending men be punished so terribly for the long-forgotten sin of their father? It is not the rule of Scripture. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of his father, but every man shall bear his own iniquity.” On the other hand, it may be said, is it not a rule of God’s government? “I, the Lord, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, etc.?” There is no real contradiction between these seemingly conflicting rules. In the righteous judgments of God every man has to bear his own iniquity. Saul had to bear every atom of his.… There is no such thing as a son bearing the iniquity of his father in the sense of relieving the father of the load … But there is a law that often operates in the government of God. When a father is addicted to a sin … it often gets ingrained, as it were, into the very substance of the race, and … incases where the iniquity of the fathers is visited upon future generations, it will commonly be found that the children have served themselves heirs to the sins of their fathers.… It was the blood that lay upon the house, as well as on Saul personally, that cried to heaven for vengeance. The sons that were given up to justice were probably living and fattening upon the fruits of that unprincipled massacre.… And if it should be said that, in going into this transaction, David appears to have felt little or no horror, we must remember how sparing the Scriptures are in their mention of men’s feelings in such matters. He may have felt much that is not here expressed; or, if he did feel less concern about this deed of death than might have been expected, we must remember how familiar he had been all his life with the most ghastly scenes and how much familiarity tends to deaden the ordinary sensibilities of our nature.—Blaikie.

Verses 10-14


2 Samuel 21:10. “Until water dropped,” etc. The early rain usually began in October. But rain may have been sent earlier as a token of forgiveness. The reason of the bodies being left unburied, contrary to Deuteronomy 21:23, probably was that the death of these men being the expiation of a violated oath they were to remain until the fall of rain should give the assurance that God’s anger was appeased and the national sin forgiven.” (Biblical Commentary.)

2 Samuel 21:14. “And the bones,” etc. Although not expressly stated, it is implied that the remains of the crucified men were interred at the same time and place, if not actually in the same tomb. “Zelah.” The situation of this city is unknown.



I. Deep affliction often brings forth a nobility of character which would otherwise remain latent. It is not likely that Rizpah showed herself to be in any respect a remarkable woman before this great bereavement. She manifested probably no exceptional amount of affection for her children, and is hardly likely to have herself sounded the depths of her maternal love. But when plunged into this deep sorrow she revealed a self-sacrificing devotion, which lifted her at once far above the level of ordinary humanity. The death of her children awakened within her a noble heroism which would in all probability have lain dormant under less trying circumstances. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Men and women who seem very commonplace while no special demand is made upon their better nature, often rise into true heroes and heroines in the day of extraordinary trial, when the emotional side of their nature is called upon to assert itself.

II. Such nobility of character forms a common meeting ground for those otherwise widely sundered. There was little in common between David and Saul’s concubine. The king had scarcely before this felt any interest, much less admiration, for Rizpah. But being himself a noble man and capable of great self-devotion, this display of deep love and grief bridged over, for a time at least, the gulf that had hitherto divided them. Men are not unfrequently surprised into the discovery that some, from whom in all other respects they are as widely sundered as the poles, are one with them in deep and noble emotion which breaks down the wall of partition raised by opposing interests and differing circumstances. The father who mourned for Absalom as David did could not fail to be touched by such sorrow as Rizpah’s, and for the moment we may well believe their common humanity made them forget all past differences.


It must be borne in mind that the famine did not cease with the hanging of the sons of Saul.… For three long months the bereaved daughter of Aiah held her watch.… But still the Lord was not entreated for the land.… But though private piety is all too weak to avert God’s judgments on a guilty nation, it is of force to draw down from heaven a private blessing, and is never wholly unavailing. Deep, we may well believe, were the communings which Rizpah held with God in her awful loneliness, and fervent her supplications.… And David, moved by her affecting piety, buried the bones of her sons with those of Saul and Jonathan … and after that, God was entreated for the land.… Both the infliction and removal of this scourge of famine afford a striking proof how deeply the well-being and happiness of nations may be affected by the personal character of their rulers, and consequently, what just reason we have to attend to the Apostle’s exhortation. (1 Timothy 2:2.)—T. H. L., Dean of Exeter.

Verses 15-22


2 Samuel 21:15. “Moreover,” or, and. “Yet,” rather, again. “This refers generally to earlier wars with the Philistines, and has probably been taken without alteration from the chronicles employed by our author, where the account which follows was attached to notices of other wars.” (Keil.) “Probably this fragment belongs chronologically in the group 2 Samuel 5:18-25, in favour of which is the fact that David is here already king of all Israel, since he is called (2 Samuel 21:17) the light of Israel.” (Erdmann.) But see also on 2 Samuel 21:17.

2 Samuel 21:16. “Ishbi-benob.” Many scholars understand this name to mean “the dweller on the rock.” If this rendering be correct, he probably lived in some mountain fastness. “The giant,” rather Raphah, a proper name for the ancestor of the giant race described in Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 2:20, etc. “Three hundred shekels.” About eight pounds, half the weight of Goliath’s (1 Samuel 17:7). “A new sword.” The last word is not in the Hebrew and the better rendering is “he was newly armed.”

2 Samuel 21:17. “The light of Israel.” “David had become the light of Israel from the fact that Jehovah was his light (2 Samuel 22:29), or, according to the parallel passage in Psalms 18:29, that Jehovah had lighted his lamp and enlightened his darkness, i.e., had lifted him out of a state of humiliation and obscurity into one of honour and glory.” (Keil.) This address of David’s men seems to be against the assumption that the event here narrated occurred early in David’s reign.

2 Samuel 21:18. “Gob.” In 1 Chronicles 20:4, this is said to have taken place at Gezer. It is generally supposed Gob was a small place near Gezer. “Sibbechai.” According to 1 Chronicles 27:11, the leader of a division of David’s army. “Hushathite.” “In 1 Chronicles 27:11, Sibbecai is said to have belonged to the Zarhites, that is (probably) the descendants of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah. So far this is in accordance with a connection between this and Hushah, a name apparently of a place (1 Chronicles 4:4), in the genealogies of Judah. (Smith’s Biblical Dictionary). It seems quite as probable that Hushah was the name of an ancestor. Josephus says that Sibbechai was a Hittite. “Saph,” or Sippai. (1 Chronicles 20:5). Miss Rogers, in Domestic Life in Palestine, says, “I saw a number of Arabs belonging to the valley of Urtas, with their chief, a tall, powerful man, called Sheikh Saph, whose family, according to social tradition, has for ages been distinguished for the height and strength of its men.”

2 Samuel 21:19. This verse in the original says that Elnathan slew Goliath, etc., but it is evidently a record of the same occurrence as that narrated in 1 Chronicles 20:5, which is most likely the correct reading, although, according to Gesenius, Goliath means simply a stranger, an exile, and might, therefore, have described all the members of a family or tribe.

2 Samuel 21:20. “Six fingers,” etc. Such men have been met with elsewhere. Pliny (Hist. Nat. xi. 43), speaks of certain six-fingered Romans (sedigiti). This peculiarity is even hereditary in some families. (Keil). “Was born,” etc., i.e., was also a descendant of Raphah. Shimeah, or Shammah, Jesse’s third son. (1 Samuel 16:9; 2 Samuel 13:3).

2 Samuel 21:22. A postscript, summing up the preceding verses. “By the hand of David.” Evidently only in the sense that he commanded the heroes who slew these giants.



I. Men’s qualifications for service differ at different periods of life. When a man is young his body answers to his will as the well-built vessel answers to her helm, going hither and thither in obedience to every behest of the soul as the ship turns to obey every motion of the wheel. But as years pass on the body becomes a less ready instrument of the human will, and we are all made painfully conscious that our ability to perform falls far more below our desires and aims than in the days of youth. At whatever period in David’s life the event took place which is recorded in 2 Samuel 21:15-17, it is certain that it must point to a time when the strength of his outer man was no longer equal to that of his inner, when he lacked neither the courage nor the skill to face and fight a foe, but when he found that his powers of endurance were not so great as they had once been. To will was present with him still, but how to perform what he willed he found not. But if David had no longer the physical gifts which had distinguished his earlier days, he had other and far more needful qualifications for his present duties which he could not have possessed when he was a young man. There is this compensation given to all faithful men when they feel their bodily powers decline, that they now are far richer in all those gifts and graces which can only be gained by a long experience,—that their knowledge of God, of themselves, and of their fellow-men, having grown with their years, they can now serve their generation in a higher capacity than a physical one, inasmuch as wisdom to guide is more rare and precious than ability to act. David was more truly a light to Israel now than when he slew Goliath or captured the stronghold of Zion.

II. Men fall in with the purpose of God when they recognise the fact that a diversity of gifts tends to the common good. David and his warriors seem to have shown true wisdom concerning this matter. The king acknowledged that he was now not able to do as well on the field of battle as they were, and was content to confine himself to other duties, while they, freely rendering such services as they were able, declared that what they could do was as nothing in comparison with the worth of his services. Such a spirit tends to create that bond between men which was doubtless one great end which God had in view when He made them to differ so much in mental and physical endowments. By making it impossible for them to be independent of each other’s services, the Father of the Universe would bring them into that fellowship without which they can not fulfil the destiny which He desires for them.

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Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.