2 Samuel 21:1-14
21 During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
2 The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) 3 David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?”
4 The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.” “What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.
5 They answered the king, “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, 6 let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.” So the king said, “I will give them to you.”
7 The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul. 8 But the king took Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, whom she had borne to Saul, together with the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab,whom she had borne to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite. 9 He handed them over to the Gibeonites, who killed them and exposed their bodies on a hill before the Lord. All seven of them fell together; they were put to death during the first days of the harvest, just as the barley harvest was beginning.
10 Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night. 11 When David was told what Aiah’s daughter Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, had done, 12 he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had stolen their bodies from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) 13 David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up.
14 They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
I have to be honest with you here. When I read this passage weeks ago I kept thinking how do I preach on this? It’s hard to even understand what is happening here! Maybe, I should just forget this passage and find another one, one that seems more palatable, one that doesn’t paint a picture of life as so harsh and our God so revengeful and punitive! This passage haunts me, and I want so desperately to believe things like this don’t happen, that innocent young men aren’t put to death as payback for an earlier offense by a father or grandfather but wait…what kept coming to my mind over and over again is that this is a story of real-life! In many ways even more real for us today at this time!
Rizpah’s life unraveled right before her in the blink of an eye. Her sons were taken from her and killed, she was an innocent bystander and her sons were innocent pawns in the chess game of revenge and retribution. Let’s take a moment to recap this story of famine and war in more understandable terms. There was a famine and David went to God for consultation and heard God tell him that the famine was because of a massacre of the Gibeonites under the kingship of Saul. I want to stop here and put this into perspective. This would be like me saying that we have a famine right here, right now because of what my father did years ago. But in David’s time, this was how events were explained.
David is trying to figure out how to convince God to end the famine. So for David, the famine was totally attributed to God. Are you following me here with this line of thinking? So, David goes to the Gibeonites asking what they want in payment for the massacre that happened under Saul and their answer was for David to turn over to them the sons of Saul so they can be put to death. 2 of the men were sons of Rizpah and 5 were grandsons of Saul born to his daughter, Merab. What follows then is the mourning of Rizpah. She mourns by sitting on a rough burlap cloth watching over the bodies of these young men preventing their bodies from being decimated by wild animals and the elements. David finds out about her vigil and has the bodies taken for a proper burial. Now for you and me, this might not seem very insignificant but in those days where a person was buried was a sign of their importance and connection to their forefathers. This burial in the land of Benjamin in the tomb of Saul’s family was significant to their understanding that this would ensure peace for the souls of her sons. And therefore, Rizpah is now also at peace!
How do our own lives connect with this tragic story? I think it’s easy to dismiss many parts as being irrelevant, especially the direct link between God and the natural consequences of the famine, abundance, rain, drought. It was the way they saw God in those days. But then I wonder how many times we think that we know God’s mind or God’s purpose, all based on our own earthly viewpoint? Real-life is filled with misconceptions about just who God is and how God works in the world. Does this story reveal to us the God you and I know? Jesus Christ reveals a different image of God, doesn’t he? Jesus shows us the true God; God of love, God of forgiveness, God of healing, and reconciliation. We believe not in a God of revenge but in a God who brings strength, and comfort…exactly when and where it is needed.
Where was God when Rizpah donned her sackcloth and sat down on the rough burlap rug sitting keeping vigil over the bodies of her sons? I see God in giving her the strength to sit vigil and King David seeing her grief and bringing honor to her son’s lives. And to bring it closer to home, where is God when young black mothers are collapsed into the arms of neighbors, sobbing at the death of a son, who is now lying in the street? Or a grandmother, holding on to her daughter, watching in horror as her grandson is lifeless? This is real life too! This is the life we live in right now and for most of us, we have no idea what it is like to be sitting next to Rizpah, or the mother of Ahmaud, Breonna, Botham, Eric, Tamir, Antwon, and Trayvon. Can’t you still see the images of tears, neighbors, and families huddling together? Is their grief any different than the grief of Rizpah? I think not! But it is here in these very places of grief and pain where we must search for God, where we must seek God. If we only look for God in the places of joy and celebration, we miss the God who is present when life unravels, when our world shatters, when we break into pieces. We must look for God in new ways…searching for where grief and pain are honored and recognized!
I see God in the protests that help us to see that each life is precious, valuable, and that things must change. Protests that reveal anger that has roots of oppression and injustice. I see God in the grief, connecting mothers who have lost sons to other mothers who have lost sons. I see God in the darkness of the night, giving each mother the strength to begin a new day, even when her heart is broken. I see God in the children who are our witnesses, children who will grow up to bring into this world a new understanding of the beauty and dignity of each life.
When our lives are unraveling…we must seek God for God is the only One who can hold together all our unraveled lives and all our broken threads. Be open my friends to God’s presence in our tears, in our grief, in our disbelief, and in the darkness. Amen