Does this passage disturb you at all? I hope so. In such passages, we are meant to be shocked, horrified and put off. This is how bad sin is. This is how completely unattainable holiness is. This is how much we need Jesus.
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2 Samuel #21 . 2 Samuel Chapter 21
I’m very glad we’ve done this extended series on the Old Testament, because we have encountered many of the things that cause trouble for people when they think about the bible. The first part of 2 Samuel Chapter 21 is another one of those troublesome parts for me. Hopefully, however, as we have gone through these difficult passages, you have begun to learn (as I have) how to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through them.
The New Testament tells us that everything in the Old Testament was written for our instruction; it is useful and helpful for Christians today. Another thing the New Testament teaches is that the Old Testament is about Jesus. So, first and foremost, we should ask, “What does this have to do with Jesus? How does it teach me about him?” Next, we can ask, “What does this have to do with my present day relationship with the Lord? What does it teach me about myself?”
Some Old Testament passages paint a picture, a foreshadowing of what Jesus was going to be like. People like David and Samuel and Uriah show us, through very limited parts of their lives, something of the attitude, life or teaching of Jesus. Theologians call these “types of Christ.”
There are other passages that are primarily about how people relate to Jesus – how they respond to him. We’ve had quite a bit of that lately, seeing how people responded to David when he forgave his enemies. There are lessons there for us in how we respond to Jesus.
Some of the most difficult passages, however, are there to show us how much we need Jesus. They show us the depths of our sin, the heights of God’s holiness, and the huge gap in between. They show us how it was between God and people before Jesus made it right. They show us what our situation would be without Jesus. I think this is one such passage.
It started with a famine. This is equivalent to a modern-day economic recession or depression. Times were tough, families were struggling. After three years of this, David began to wonder if there was a spiritual reason for the hardship. When he worshipped and inquired of the Lord (probably through the prophet Gad, and through the urim and thummim, the “holy dice”) he learned that the famine was because of something king Saul had done.
There was a group of people known as the Gibeonites. They were not Israelites, but when Israel invaded in the time of Joshua, the Gibeonites had tricked the leaders of Israel into swearing an oath that they would not destroy the Gibeonites. So they had lived for more than four hundred years in Israel’s territory. According to the old agreement, they were essentially a tribe of servant-class people for the Israelites. They kept their part of the agreement, working as laborers for the Israelites, and remaining peaceful. But at some point not recorded in the bible, Saul had tried to wipe them out. Essentially, he tried to commit genocide, similar to what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently he slaughtered a great many of them, but obviously not all.
Stop for a moment here. The famine came along years later. Saul was dead. The whole nation had repudiated Saul’s family, and chosen David. David had never done anything like Saul’s slaughter. He had never hurt the Gibeonites. But the entire nation was still punished, years later, for what Saul did.
My first response to this is to think that it was not fair. Why should David’s kingdom pay for something David did not do? Why should the people suffer for a crime they had no part in?
But there is another question here also. Why should the Gibeonites suffer? Why should they be denied justice? Would it be right to ignore the crimes that were done to them?
When David heard what the problem was, he spoke to the Gibeonites directly.
He asked the Gibeonites, “What should I do for you? How can I make atonement so that you will bring a blessing on the LORD’s inheritance? ” (2Sam 21:3, HCSB)
There is a key concept here: atonement. The idea is that harm done must be made right; justice must be appeased. When you break a window, you atone for it pay paying for a new window. But how do you atone for something like genocide? It would appalling and offensive to simply suggest we should “just forget about it.”
The Gibeonites told David that they would like to execute seven of Saul’s descendants. David made sure to protect Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan. The seven who were executed were Armoni and Mephibosheth (a different one) – sons of Saul by his concubine Rizpah. The other five were sons of Merab, Saul’s oldest daughter, who was originally supposed to be David’s wife (thus they were Saul’s grandchildren). They were hanged, and their bodies were left exposed.
Does this disturb you at all? I hope so. In such passages, we are meant to be shocked, horrified and put off. This is how bad sin is. This is how completely unattainable holiness is.
In many areas of our lives, we accept that things must be made right. When we make our bank statement right, we call it, reconciling. The balance MUST equal deposits minus expenditures. That is the nature of a bank balance. If we refuse to accept that, our finances will be in a mess. All of our hurt will not change the basic facts of mathematics. Our ignorance will not make any difference either. 2+2 MUST equal 4. If you have a two, and then you have another two, what you have is four. It HAS to be four – that is simply how the universe works.
Too look at it another way, we sometimes say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone pays for it, even if it isn’t you. The food had to come from somewhere. Someone had to work to harvest it and cook it.
But for some reason, we seem to think that in terms of moral actions, nothing must be paid for, and nothing has to add up. This passage shows us how horribly wrong that is. Sin MUST be accounted for. The balance must be reconciled. Deep down, we know this. It would be a permanent obscenity upon the human race if no one had tried to bring justice upon the perpetrators of Jewish holocaust. We know that. If the man who killed all those young children in Connecticut were still alive, it would be an insult to all humanity if we simply let him go free.
If sin isn’t atoned for, it lasts. There is no statute of limitation. In the case of the Gibeonites, the atonement required was gruesome and was itself full of tragedy.
This passage shows us the futility of what some religions call “karma.” If it is true that “what goes around, comes around,” then we are doomed. If we need to make up for all of our sins not only in this life, but also for past lives, we will never find rest for our souls. If the sins of previous generations are on our heads, there is no hope. If even just our own sins are accounted to us, there is no hope.
Now, if you read this passage, and you think about what I’m saying, there are two possible responses. One response is to say, “Wow! I really need to straighten out my act and get serious.” If that’s your response, you still don’t get it. If this makes you think you need to get it together, you still don’t understand how bad this is.
The only appropriate response to this passage is: “If this is the way things are, I’m screwed.”
We are screwed.
Saul’s sons and grandsons were screwed. There wasn’t anything they could do to avoid a shameful death. According to moral law – according to God, if we understand this passage correctly – they deserved it. Nothing would be right until they got what was coming to them.
This how it stands in the universe. The moral equation must add up. The only way to make it add up is for you to suffer and die. Too many Christians don’t take it seriously enough. When someone tries to straighten out her life and live morally, to be a good person for God, she isn’t taking this seriously.
Imagine a homeless bum who is stupid-drunk. In his intoxication, he kills a woman – someone else’s wife and mother. Now imagine he sobers up, and realizes he’s done something bad. In response, to try and make up for it, he offers the family all the money he has, which amounts to $3.35.
“I’ve given them everything I have,” he says. “It’ll just have to be enough.”
It’s an insult. It is offensive that he would even offer it, let alone that he would try to pretend that it would make up for what he did. That is just how ridiculous and offensive it is to suppose that we can be good enough to make up for the times when we sin. We are screwed.
That is what this passage is all about. You have no hope. You have no options. You deserve to die and your attempt to make up for things is so pathetic that it is offensive.
Thankfully, these are not the only verses in the bible. Thankfully, the Lord loves us too much to leave us without hope. But get this straight: there is no hope in your behavior. There is no hope in you straightening out and doing better next time. You can’t dig yourself out of this pit – the walls will come crashing in and bury you.
Too many churches give the impression that Christianity is about getting your act together. It isn’t. That’s entirely false. If you think you can get your act together enough to make a difference to God, you aren’t a Christian. Sometimes I think Christians don’t get excited about the “Good News” because they haven’t taken the bad news seriously enough.
The accounts of morality must be balanced. But we can’t do it. And that is why Jesus came to earth. Soon, we will be celebrating his birth. We often do that with a lot of vague feelings of peace and goodwill. But the most appropriate response should be profound gratefulness.
Jesus took our sins upon himself. The balance was paid out through his torturous death. Through faith in him, we were punished by his death. That is what we call atonement. There is no other hope of settling the score.
But in Jesus, that hope is real and true. There isn’t anything you can do. And so he did it all. Our part is merely to believe that, and accept it with gratitude. When we truly believe both the bad news and the good news, Jesus changes us from the inside out. When we know we truly don’t have to measure up, there is a tremendous freedom and joy that brings us even closer to God.
Pause now, and let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.