Sin in 3D - 2 Samuel 21:1-14

David  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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If you have watched a 3-D movie you have probably enjoyed watching as things seem to jump off the screen. We went to MGM at Disneyworld a number of years ago and watched a 3-D movie that made the movie quite and experience. In addition to the 3-D video effects when a wave came toward you, you were squirted with water and a puff of wind, and when things shook so did your seat. The balloons seemed to be within your grasp.

Virtual Reality experiences are very similar. If you take a virtual roller coaster ride it feels like you are actually riding the roller coaster. A variety of effects are combined to utilize your senses to make your experience much more heightened.

It may not seem like it on the surface, but 2 Samuel 21:1-14 is like a 3-D experience. It is so graphic that it causes us to recoil. I believe this story is included by God to present to us the consequences of sin in a very vivid way.

Three years of famine had come upon Israel. This led David to inquire of the Lord as to whether this was some kind of judgment on the people. David was told by God that the famine was the result of an action taken by Saul (David’s Predecessor) against the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites had a long history with Israel. When Joshua led the people of Israel into the Promised Land they were to destroy entire towns of people on God’s direct order. God declared this as an act of judgment on these lands to protect Israel from the corruption of false worship.

The Gibeonites saw the power of Israel’s God so they resorted to a ruse. They put on old clothes and packed moldy bread and rode over to the camp of Israel. They told the leaders that they were from a faraway land and had come because they had heard about all the things God had done for Israel.  They said they wanted to establish a peace treaty with Israel. The Israelites looked at their bread and their clothes and agreed to the treaty without ever checking with the Lord. They made the treaty and “ratified it by oath” (they called God as their witness). When the Israelites came upon the cities that were occupied by the Gibeonites they did not attack them because of the treaty they made before God. The Gibeonites became servants to the Israelites.

When Saul became King, God told him to finish the work of cleaning out the pagan people that remained in Israel (the Canaanites, Ammonites, Hittites etc).  Saul did not do as he was told (most likely because these were formidable foes). What he did do was attack the Gibeonites, violating the treaty that had been made with them. Saul did not eliminate all the Gibeonites but apparently massacred a significant number.

After David took over as King, the nation experienced three consecutive years of famine. When David asked God why the famine had come he was told that it was due to the sin of Saul in attacking the Gibeonites. The rest of the story tells us what David needed to do to make things right with the Gibeonites and with God.

The Difficulty of the Text

Let’s be honest, we really don’t like this story. We don’t like it for a number of reasons,

We don’t like the fact that God is identified as the source of the 3 year famine. We would rather believe that our God does not do such things. However, as we read the Bible we see that God sent plagues on Egypt in the Exodus, we know God brought judgment on various nations and individuals. We also know from reading the book of Revelation that God will bring fierce judgment on the world before the end. God does bring judgment.

We don’t like to think of God bringing judgment simply because Saul broke a treaty with the Gibeonites. We may deplore what Saul did, but the idea of three years of famine because Israel broke its promise, seems overly harsh to us. It doesn’t’ seem fair for the whole nation to suffer because Saul ignored a treaty. The reality is that God takes our word more seriously than we do.

We don’t like the fact that the price for removing the curse is the execution of 7 of the children and grandchildren of Saul. We point to the fact that the Bible says children should not be punished for the sins of their fathers. However, the Bible also says “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5) In Numbers 14:18 we read, “‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ Like it or not, our sin does impact those around us. Sometimes others reap the consequences of what we sow.

We hate the way these men were killed. We don’t know exactly how the men were executed (the text leaves room for ambiguity) but the fact that they were made a very public display causes us to turn our heads away. This kind of thing still happens in the Middle East. For many centuries hangings and be-headings were performed in the public arena because the graphic nature of the execution served as a powerful deterrent to others.

Finally, we don’t like watching the tender actions of Rizpah who protected the remains of her children so they might be accorded a proper burial. Rizpah’s story makes the account more personal and therefore more uncomfortable.

Questions to Ask the Text

There are three questions we need to ask the text. First, why did God wait so long to seek justice for this crime? As we read 2 Samuel 21 we are near the end of David’s 40 year reign as King.  However, these things likely took place much earlier in David’s reign. We know it took place sometime AFTER David welcomed Mephibosheth into his home because David made sure Jonathan’s son was not one of those given to the Gibeonites. The account likely happened BEFORE the time of Absalom’s revolt.  Shimei’s words to David make much more sense if the sacrifice of Saul’s descendants happened before the coup. Shimei shouted,

“Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! 8 The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The LORD has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!” [2 Samuel 16:7-8]

So, there may not be near as much time between the massacre of Saul and the Judgment on Israel as it seems.

There is a second question: were the sons and grandsons of Saul complicit in the attempted genocide of the Gibeonites? Since this may have actually take place near the beginning of David’s reign, it is possible that Saul’s sons and some of his grandsons may have been co-conspirators in the killing of the Gibeonites. In other words they may not have been the “innocent victims” we think. They may have been more like the war criminals of World War II who when caught, were convicted and sentenced to death.

We’ll spend the rest of our time trying to answer the third question: What in the world are we to learn from this text?

Lessons from the Text

While I believe the biggest purpose of this story is to help us to see and experience the horror of sin, I think there are some additional lessons we can learn.

First, sin matters to God. In this particular story the people of Israel made a solemn oath with the Gibeonites. When they broke their promise . . . it mattered to God. When we make a promise to God and then don’t keep that promise, we reveal a problem that exists in our relationship with God. Since the promise doesn’t seem to be held in high regard, it would seem to indicate that the Lord before whom we promised is not held in high regard. Think about some of the promises we make before God

We declare vows to our mate

We vow to tell the truth in court

As a nation our leaders make treaties on behalf of our country

We solemnly swear that contracts and other documents are true and binding

We promise the Lord that we will follow Him not only with our words but also with our lives.

We promise before God, to the members of a church, that we will support the church with our attendance, our service, and our financial support.

We promise before God’s people that we will raise our children in the ways of the Lord.

We make promises to God that we will reform behaviors if he will just get us out of whatever mess in which we find ourselves.

So here is the question: Have you begun to take sin lightly? Do you have a somewhat cavalier attitude toward keeping your promises? If so, do you see that this denotes a problem in your relationship with God? Let this story challenge you to confess your sin, right the wrongs, and return to the way of godliness. . . before God steps in to act.

Now on the positive side, since God takes our promises so seriously, we know that He will also take seriously the promises He has made to us.

He has promised to forgive us when we confess our sin (which means more than saying, “sorry” but means we see the sin as God does, motivating us to change) and when we confess our sin He will certainly forgive us.

He promises to work all things for good and He will take even the toughest circumstances and bring good from it.

God promises that He will never leave us or forsake us and we can count on Him to be true to His Word.

God promises that He will supply all our needs

Most of all when God says, “whoever believes in (clings to, relies on) Him (Jesus) will not perish but will have everlasting life” His promise is sure for anyone who will put their trust in Him.

Second, Saul’s mis-placed zeal serves as a warning for us.  Since God had told Saul to get rid of the Canaanites and the Hittites and all the other “ites” Saul may have thought it would be a good thing to exterminate the Gibeonites. We read that he acted out of “a zeal for the children of Israel and Judah”. The problem was that God never told Saul to kill the Gibeonites! Saul did not do what God told him to do (he did not get rid of the other nations), and then did do what Israel had promised they would not do!

Saul may have felt good about his actions. They may have seemed noble. The military commanders may even have applauded Saul. God does not judge like we do. He will not form his estimate of our conduct based on our opinion of that conduct. The fact that we “feel good” about something is irrelevant. We may be celebrating our devotion over things that God actually hates.[1]

The solution is to seek God for guidance and direction before we go rushing off into some cause that is actually misguided and leads us into sin. The first rule of thumb was given to us by Jesus: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all the other things will be added to you.” (Mt. 6:33)  It’s a principle that never fails: if your work, activity, or passion leads you to make the things of God less important then other things….it is either the wrong thing to do or it has the wrong priority in your life! You may believe you are headed in the right direction but you are actually tempting God to judgment.

A second principle is: if your anticipated action requires you do something that is forbidden in God’s Word then it is NOT what God wants you to do! For example, the person who wonders if it is God’s will for them to divorce their spouse so they can marry someone else is wasting their time. God has spoken! He wants us to keep our promises to our mate! If you wonder if God is “OK” with you taking money from your employer (even with the intention of returning it later) you can stop wondering. God will NEVER sanction stealing! If our plan requires us to sin it is a case of misplaced zeal.

Third, the difficult circumstances of life may be sending a Divine message. Apparently during the first two years of the famine David thought that it may have been simply part of the normal cycle of life. However, when the famine went into its third year David began to wonder if the famine was a message from God.

I don’t know how to tell the difference between something that is a normal circumstance of life from something that is a “wake up call” from the Almighty. However, it is a good practice in any difficult circumstance to ask if there may be a spiritual reason for the problem. For example: It is wise to consider if the current financial crisis in our country is a message from God about our priorities? Any time we face an obstacle of some kind we should ask God if there is some problem we need to address.

Some of you may be enduring a time of spiritual famine in your soul. If that is the case, Ask God if there is some sin that Is hindering your fellowship with Him. Solomon said, “He that covers his sins shall not prosper; but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).

Fourth, sin is never an isolated event. The sin of Saul impacted not only the Gibeonites, but it also led to a famine for three years in Israel. Saul’s sin led to the death of seven of his descendants. His sin brought heartache to the Gibeonites and grief for his family members. His sin also created turmoil and bad feelings in the Kingdom of David.

The Bible reminds us that what we do in life will impact the lives of those around us. Our faithfulness (or lack thereof) will result in real consequences in the lives of our children and grandchildren. The idea that our sin “is not hurting anyone” is a lie. The effect may be delayed but the impact will be real.

Fifth, we see the devotion of a godly parent. Rizpah is a side story in this account. The passage does not mean to teach us about parenting but I can’t help but notice the devotion of this parent. Rizpah sacrificed for her children. She lived outside for anywhere from a few weeks to possibly several months in order to make sure her children received an honorable burial. The message is not that we should refuse to turn from grief; the point is that Rizpah loved sacrificially and was loyal to her sons until there was nothing else she could do.

Rizpah’s actions touched the heart of the King. David retrieved the bones of Saul and Jonathan and the whole family was honorably buried together. Rizpah reminds us that

Parenting means setting our needs aside so we can care for those entrusted for us. Parenting involves sacrifice.

Giving our children gifts is not the same as showing them love

Taking our children to church is not the same thing as leading them to Jesus.

Living in the same home is not the same thing as giving our kids quality time.

Finally, we are reminded that the death of a representative can atone for sin. The three years of famine came to an end because of the death of the seven male relatives of Saul. These men bore the penalty of the sinful acts on behalf of the nation.

It’s a powerful picture that points to Jesus. Our Lord went to the cross and was also put on public display in order for the wrath to reside on Him instead of us. Jesus died, so we might live. The sinless, innocent Son of God was crucified and endured a punishment we will never be able to fathom, so that you and I might know peace with God.

The message of Scripture is that we can know new life with God; we can know what it is to be truly forgiven. And we can know these things because the Son of God was willing to die in our place.


Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death. We see that picture vividly in 2 Samuel 21. Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ” was also something that was hard to watch. The brutality of how Jesus was treated made us want to turn away. Like 2 Samuel 21 it showed us sin in 3-D.

To be honest, I hope you found today’s text unsettling. I hope it bothered you. I think it was meant to bother you. In fact, I hope it bothers you enough to take a careful look at your own life. Ask yourself some pointed questions

Are you toying with sin? Are you ignoring God assuming that you can do so without consequences? Are there vows you have not fulfilled?

Is there a storm that has been going on in your life or circumstances? If so, have you considered that God might be trying to get your attention?

Have you considered the long term consequences of your actions? What you choose today may impact your children and grandchildren in the future. What kind of future are you making for those you love?

Are you enthusiastic and committed to something that is either taking you away from God or causing you to ignore God’s commands? If so, stop! You will never know His blessing if you are adjusting God’s truth to your preferences.

I hope you have seen this morning that this unpleasant text should not be dismissed. It is a vivid warning that we need to hear. This story points us to our great need and then to the wonder of God’s unfathomable grace. May you see that message so clearly that it leads you to turn and boldly and diligently follow the one who always keeps His Word.

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