Here I. Were are told of the injury which Saul had, long before this, done to the Gibeonites, which we had no account of in the history of his reign, nor should we have heard of it here but that it came now to be reckoned for. The Gibeonites were of the remnant of the Amorites (2 Sam. 21:2), who by a stratagem had made peace with Israel, and had the public faith pledged to them by Joshua for their safety. We had the story Josh. 9:1-27, where it was agreed (21-23) that they should have their lives secured, but be deprived of their lands and liberties, that they and theirs should be tenants in villanage to Israel. It does not appear that they had broken their part of the covenant, either by denying their service or attempting to recover their lands or liberties; nor was this pretended; but Saul, under colour of zeal for the honour of Israel, that it might not be said that they had any of the natives among them, aimed to root them out, and, in order to that, slew many of them. Thus he would seem wiser than his predecessors the judges, and more zealous for the public interest; and perhaps he designed it for an instance of his royal prerogative and the power which as king he assumed to rescind the former acts of government and to disannul the most solemn leagues. It may be, he designed, by this severity towards the Gibeonites, to atone for his clemency towards the Amalekites. Some conjecture that he sought to cut off the Gibeonites at the same time when he put away the witches (1 Sam. 28:3), or perhaps many of them were remarkably pious, and he sought to destroy them when he slew the priests their masters. That which made this an exceedingly sinful sin was that he not only shed innocent blood, but therein violated the solemn oath by which the nation was bound to protect them. See what brought ruin on Saul’s house: it was a bloody house.
II. We find the nation of Israel chastised with a sore famine, long after, for this sin of Saul. Observe, 1. Even in the land of Israel, that fruitful land, and in the reign of David, that glorious reign, there was a famine, not extreme (for then notice would sooner have been taken of it and enquiry made into the cause of it), but great drought, and scarcity of provisions, the consequence of it, for three years together. If corn miss one year, commonly the next makes up the deficiency; but, if it miss three years successively, it will be a sore judgment; and the man of wisdom will by it hear God’s voice crying to the country to repent of the abuse of plenty. 2. David enquired of God concerning it. Though he was himself a prophet, he must consult the oracle, and know God’s mind in his own appointed way. Note, When we are under God’s judgments we ought to enquire into the grounds of the controversy. Lord, show me wherefore thou contendest with me. It is strange that David did not sooner consult the oracle, not till the third year; but perhaps, till then, he apprehended it not to be an extraordinary judgment for some particular sin. Even good men are often slack and remiss in doing their duty. We continue in ignorance, and under mistake, because we delay to enquire. 3. God was ready in his answer, though David was slow in his enquiries: It is for Saul. Note, God’s judgments often look a great way back, which obliges us to do so when we are under his rebukes. It is not for us to object against the people’s smarting for the sin of their king (perhaps they were aiding and abetting), nor against this generation’s suffering for the sin of the last God often visiteth the sins of the fathers upon the children, and his judgments are a great deep. He gives not account of any of his matters. Time does not wear out the guilt of sin; nor can we build hopes of impunity upon the delay of judgments. There is no statute of limitation to be pleaded against God’s demands. Nullum tempus occurrit Deo—God may punish when he pleases.
III. We have vengeance taken upon the house of Saul for the turning away of God’s wrath from the land, which, at present, smarted for his sin.
1. David, probably by divine direction, referred it to the Gibeonites themselves to prescribe what satisfaction should be given them for the wrong that had been done them, 2 Sam. 21:3. They had many years remained silent, had not appealed to David, nor given the kingdom any disturbance with their complaints or demands; and now, at length, God speaks for them (I heard not, for thou wilt hear, Ps. 38:14, 15); and they are recompensed for their patience with this honour, that they are made judges in their own case, and have a blank given them to write their demands on: What you shall say, that will I do (2 Sam. 21:4), that atonement may be made, and that you may bless the inheritance of the Lord, 2 Sam. 21:3. It is sad for any family or nation to have the prayers of oppressed innocency against them, and therefore the expense of a just restitution is well bestowed for the retrieving of the blessing of those that were ready to perish, Job 29:13. “My servant Job, whom you have wronged, shall pray for you,” says God, “and then I will be reconciled to you, and not till then.” Those understand not themselves that value not the prayers of the poor and despised.
2. They desired that seven of Saul’s posterity might be put to death, and David granted their demand. (1.) They required no silver, nor gold, 2 Sam. 21:4. Note, Money is no satisfaction for blood, see Num. 35:31-33. It is the ancient law that blood calls for blood (Gen. 9:6); and those over-value money and under-value life, that sell the blood of their relations for corruptible things, such as silver and gold. The Gibeonites had now a fair opportunity to get a discharge from their servitude, in compensation for the wrong done them, according to the equity of that law (Exod. 21:26), If a man strike out his servant’s eye, he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake. But they did not insist on this; though the covenant was broken on the other side, it should not be broken on theirs. They were Nethinim, given to God and his people Israel, and they would not seem weary of the service. (2.) They required no lives but of Saul’s family. He had done them the wrong, and therefore his children must pay for it. We sue the heirs for the parents’ debts. Men may not extend this principle so far as life, Deut. 24:16. The children in an ordinary course of law, shall never be put to death for the parents. But this case of the Gibeonites was altogether extraordinary. God had made himself an immediate party to the cause and no doubt put it into the heart of the Gibeonites to make this demand, for he owned what was done (2 Sam. 21:14), and his judgments are not subject to the rules which men’s judgments must be subject to. Let parents take heed of sin, especially the sin of cruelty and oppression, for their poor children’s sake, who may be smarting for it by the just hand of God when they themselves are in their graves. Guilt and a curse are a bad entail upon a family. It should seem, Saul’s posterity trod in his steps, for it is called a bloody house; it was the spirit of the family, and therefore they are justly reckoned with for his sin, as well as for their own. (3.) They would not impose it upon David to do this execution: Thou shalt not for us kill any man (2 Sam. 21:4), but we will do it ourselves, we will hang them up unto the Lord (2 Sam. 21:6), that if there were any hardship in it, they might bear the blame, and not David or his house. By our old law, if a murderer had judgment given against him upon an appeal, the relations that appealed had the executing of him. (4.) They did not require this out of malice against Saul or his family (had they been revengeful, they would have moved it themselves long before), but out of love to the people of Israel, whom they saw plagued for the injury done to them: “We will hang them up unto the Lord (2 Sam. 21:6), to satisfy his justice, not to gratify any revenge of our own—for the good of the public, not for our own reputation.” (5.) The nomination of the persons they left to David, who took care to secure Mephibosheth for Jonathan’s sake, that, while he was avenging the breach of one oath, he might not himself break another (2 Sam. 21:7); but he delivered up two of Saul’s sons whom he had by a concubine, and five of his grandsons, whom his daughter Merab bore to Adriel (1 Sam. 18:19), but his daughter Michal brought up, 2 Sam. 21:8. Now Saul’s treachery was punished, in giving Merab to Adriel, when he had promised her to David, with a design to provoke him. “It is a dangerous matter,” says bishop Hall upon this, “to offer injury to any of God’s faithful ones; if their meekness have easily remitted it, their God will not pass it over without a severe retribution, though it may be long first.” (6.) The place, time, and manner, of their execution, all added to the solemnity of their being sacrificed to divine justice. [1.] They were hanged up, as anathemas, under a peculiar mark of God’s displeasure; for the law had said, He that is hanged is accursed of God, Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13. Christ being made a curse for us, and dying to satisfy for our sins and to turn away the wrath of God, became obedient to this ignominious death. [2.] They were hanged up in Gibeah of Saul (2 Sam. 21:6), to show that it was for his sin that they died. They were hanged, as it were, before their own door, to expiate the guilt of the house of Saul; and thus God accomplished the ruin of that family, for the blood of the priests, and their families, which, doubtless, now came in remembrance before God, and inquisition was made for it, Ps. 9:12. Yet the blood of the Gibeonites only is mentioned, because that was shed in violation of a sacred oath, which, though sworn long before, though obtained by a wile, and the promise made to Canaanites, yet is thus severely reckoned for. The despising of the oath, and breaking of the covenant, will be recompensed on the head of those who thus profane God’s sacred name, Ezek. 17:18, 19. And thus God would show that with him rich and poor meet together. Even royal blood must go to atone for the blood of the Gibeonites, who were but the vassals for the congregation. [3.] They were put to death in the days of harvest (2 Sam. 21:9), at the beginning of harvest (2 Sam. 21:10), to show that they were thus sacrificed for the turning sway of that wrath of God which had withheld from them their harvest-mercies for some years past, and to obtain his favour in the present harvest. Thus there is no way of appeasing God’s anger but by mortifying and crucifying our lusts and corruptions. In vain do we expect mercy from God, unless we do justice upon our sins. Those executions must not be complained of as cruel which have become necessary to the public welfare. Better that seven of Saul’s bloody house be hanged than that all Israel be famished.