Old Testament History - 5.3 - David's Famine, Last Words

CHAPTER 3

The famine — the pestilence — the temple arrangements — David’s last hymn and prophetic utterance.
2 SAMUEL 21-24; 1 CHRONICLES 21-27

WITH the suppression of the federal revolution under Sheba, the political history of David, as related in the Second Book of Samuel, closes. Accordingly, the account of this, the second part of his reign, concludes, like that of the first (2 Samuel 8:16), with an enumeration of his principal officers (2 Samuel 20:23 to the end). What follows in the Second Book of Samuel (21-24), must be regarded as an Appendix, giving, first, an account of the famine which desolated the land (21:1-14), probably in the earlier part, and of the pestilence which laid it waste, probably towards the close of David's reign (24); secondly, some brief notices of the Philistine wars (21:15-22), and a detailed register of David's heroes (23:8-39), neither of which will require comment on our part; and, lastly, David's final Psalm of thanksgiving (22), and his last prophetic utterances (23:1-7). All these are grouped together at the end of the Second Book of Samuel, probably because it was difficult to insert them in any other place consistently with the plan of the work, which, as we have repeatedly noted, was not intended to be a biography or a history of David, chronologically arranged. Perhaps we should add, that the account of the pestilence was placed last in the book (24), because it forms an introduction to the preparations made for the building of the Temple by Solomon. For, as we understand it, no sooner had the place been divinely pointed out where the Sanctuary should be reared, than David commenced such preparations for it as he could make. And here the First Book of Chronicles supplements most valuable notices, not recorded in any other part of Scripture. From these we learn what David did and ordered in his kingdom with a view to the building of the Temple and the arrangement of its future services (1 Chronicles 22-29). We have thus four particulars under which to group our summary of what we have designated as the Appendix to the History of David, the famine; the pestilence; the Temple arrangements; and the last Psalm and prophecy of the king.

1. The Famine (2 Samuel 21:1-14). - There is not a more harrowing narrative in Holy Scripture than that connected with the famine which for three years desolated Palestine. Properly to understand it, we require to keep two facts in view. First, the Gibeonites, who, at the time of Joshua, had secured themselves from destruction by fraud and falsehood (Joshua 9:3, etc.), were really heathens - Hivites, or, as they are called in the sacred text, Amorites, which was a general designation for all the Canaanites (Genesis 10:16; 15:16; Joshua 9:1; 11:3; 12:8, etc.). We know, only too well, the character of the Canaanite inhabitants of the land; and although, after their incorporation with Israel, the Gibeonites must have been largely influenced for good, their habits of thinking and feeling would change comparatively little,*  - the more so because, as there would be few, if any, intermarriages between them and native Israelites, they would be left, at least socially, isolated. This will account for their ferocious persistence in demanding the uttermost punishment prescribed by the law.

* In a previous volume of this History we have shown how much even a woman like Jael was influenced by tribal traditions - so to speak, the inherited taint of blood.

The provisions of this law must be our second point of consideration. Here we have again to bear in mind the circumstances of the times, the existing moral, social, and national conditions, and the spiritual stage which Israel had then reached. The fundamental principle, laid down in Numbers 35, was that of the holiness of the land in which Jehovah dwelt among His people. This holiness must be guarded (ver. 34). But one of the worst defilements of a land was that by innocent blood shed in it. According to the majestic view of the Old Testament, blood shed by a murderer's hand could not be covered up - it was, so to speak, a living thing which cried for vengeance, until the blood of him that had shed it silenced its voice (ver. 33), or, in other words, until the moral equipoise had been restored. While, therefore, the same section of the law provided safety in case of unintentional homicide (vers. 10-29), and regulated the old practice of "avenging blood," it also protected the land against crime, which it would not allow to be compensated for by money (ver. 31). Hence the Gibeonites were strictly within the letter of the law in demanding retaliation on the house of Saul, in accordance with the universally acknowledged Old Testament principle of the solidarity of a family; and David had no alternative but to concede their claim. This is one aspect of the question. The other must be even more reverently approached. We can only point out how they who lived in those times (especially such as the Gibeonites) would feel that they might cry to God for vengeance, and expect it from the Just and True One; and how the sternest lessons concerning public breach of faith and public crimes would be of the deepest national importance after such a reign as that of Saul.

The story itself may be told in few sentences. For some reason unrecorded - perhaps in the excess of his carnal zeal, but certainly without sufficient grounds - Saul had made havoc among the Gibeonites, in direct contravention of those solemn engagements into which Israel had entered, and which up to that time had been scrupulously observed. When, afterwards, a famine desolated the land for three years, and David sought the face of Jehovah, he was informed that it was due to the blood-guilt*  which still rested on the house of Saul.

* It is thus we understand the expression (2 Samuel 21:1): "It is for Saul, and for his bloody house."

Upon this the king summoned the Gibeonites, and asked them what atonement they desired for the wrong done them, so that the curse which they had invoked might no longer rest on the inheritance of Jehovah. Their answer was characteristic. "It is not a matter to us of silver or of gold, in regard to Saul and his house, nor is it ours to put to death any one in Israel." "And he said, What say ye then? and I will do it for you."*  Then came the demand, made with all the ferocity and irony of which they were capable, that the blood-vengeance which they, as Gibeonites, did not venture to take, should be executed for them, and that seven of Saul's descendants should be handed over to them that they might be nailed to the cross - of course after they were dead, for so the law directed**  - as they termed it: "To Jehovah in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of Jehovah."

* We have translated literally 2 Samuel 21:4.

** The punishment of crucifixion, or impaling, is mentioned in Numbers 25:4. But that criminals were not crucified or impaled alive, but only after they were slain, appears from ver. 5. Similarly, in hanging, death always preceded the hanging (Deuteronomy 21:22, where our Authorized Version is not sufficiently distinct). The same remark applies to the punishment of burning, which was only executed on the dead body of the criminal (Leviticus 20:14), as appears from Joshua 7:15 comp, with ver. 11. In these respects the Rabbinical Law was much more cruel, ordering literal strangulation, and burning by pouring down molten lead (comp. specially Mishnah Sanh. 7:1-3).

Terrible as their demand was, it could not be refused, and the two sons of Rizpah, a foreign concubine of Saul, and five sons of Merab,*  Saul's eldest daughter, were selected as the victims. Then this most harrowing spectacle was presented.

* In 2 Samuel 21:8, by a clerical error, we have Michal instead of Merab. But it was the latter, not the former, who was married to Adriel the Meholathite (comp. 1 Samuel 18:19).

From the commencement of the barley harvest in April until the early rains of autumn evidenced the removal of the curse from the land, hung those lifeless, putrescent bodies, which a fierce Syrian sun shriveled and dried; and beneath them, ceaseless, restless, was the weird form of Saul's concubine. When she lay down at night it was on the coarse hair-cloth of mourners, which she spread upon the rock; but day and night was she on her wild, terrible watch to chase from the mangled bodies the birds of prey that, with hoarse croaking, swooped around them, and the jackals whose hungry howls woke the echoes of the night. Often has Judaea capta been portrayed as weeping over her slain children. But as we realize the innocent Jewish victims of Gentile persecution in the Middle Ages, and then remember the terrible cry under the Cross, this picture of Rizpah under the seven crosses, chasing from the slaughtered the vultures and the jackals, seems ever to come back to us as its terrible emblem and type.

"And it was told David what Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done. And David went [himself] and took the bones of Saul, and the bones of Jonathan his son, from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the street of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa. and he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were crucified. And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulcher of Kish his father."

2. The Pestilence. - In regard to this event, it is of the greatest importance to bear in mind that it was sent in consequence of some sin of which Israel, as a people, were guilty. True, the direct cause and immediate occasion of it were the pride and carnal confidence of David, perhaps his purpose of converting Israel into a military monarchy. But this state of mind of their king was, as we are expressly told (2 Samuel 24:1), itself a judgment upon Israel from the Lord, when Satan stood up to accuse Israel, and was allowed thus to influence David (1 Chronicles 21:1). If, as we suppose, the popular rising under Absalom and Sheba was that for which Israel was thus punished, there is something specially corresponding to the sin alike in the desire of David to have the people numbered, and in the punishment which followed. Nor ought we to overlook another Old Testament principle evidenced in this history, that of the solidarity of a people and their rulers.

It seems a confirmation of the view, that the sin of David, in wishing to ascertain the exact number of those capable of beating arms, was due to carnal elation and pride, and that the measure was somehow connected with military ambition on his part, that both in 2 Samuel and in 1 Chronicles. This story follows an enumeration of the three classes of David's heroes, and of some of their most notable feats of arms.* 

* The same inference may be drawn from 1 Chronicles 27:23, 24, where the enumeration is evidently connected with the military organization of the nation.

The unwillingness of Joab and of the other captains, to whom the king entrusted the census, arose partly from the knowledge that such an attempt at converting all Israel into a large camp would be generally disliked and disapproved - a feeling with which he and his fellow-captains would, as Israelitish patriots, fully sympathize. But religious considerations also came in, since all would feel that a measure prompted by pride and ambition would certainly bring judgment upon the people (1 Chronicles 21:3). Remonstrance having been vain, the military census was slowly and reluctantly taken, the Levites being, however, excluded from it (Numbers 1:47-54), and the royal order itself recalled before the territory of Benjamin was reached.*  For already David's conscience was alive to the guilt which he had incurred. It was after a night of confession and prayer on the part of David, that Gad was sent to announce to him the punishment of his sin. For, the temporal punishment appropriately followed - not preceded - the confession of public sin. Left to choose between famine,**  defeat, and pestilence, David wisely and well cast himself upon the Lord, finding comfort only in the thought, which has so often brought relief to those who realize it, that, even when suffering for sin, it is well to fall into the hands of Jehovah. Nor was his unuttered hope disappointed.

* Comp. 1 Chronicles 21:6; 27:24. From this latter notice we also gather that the result of the census was not entered in the Chronicles of King David. We can therefore the less hesitate in supposing some want of accuracy in the numbers given. Of the two enumerations we prefer that in 2 Samuel 24:9. However, 1,300,000, or even, according to 1 Chronicles 21:5, 1,570,000 men capable of bearing arms, would only imply a total population of about five or six millions, which is not excessive.

** According to 1 Chronicles 21:12, the famine was to be of three years duration. The number "seven" in 2 Samuel 24:13 must be a clerical error.

The pestilence, terrible as it was in its desolations, was shortened from three days to less than one day, "from the morning to the time of the assembly," viz. for the evening sacrifice.*

* This is the proper rendering of 2 Samuel 24:15.

Meanwhile "David and the elders, clothed in sackcloth" (1 Chronicles 21:16), were lying on their faces in humiliation before the Lord. Significantly, it was as the Divine command of mercy sped to arrest the arm of the Angel messenger of the judgment, that he became visible to David and his companions in prayer. Already he had neared Jerusalem, and his sword was stretched towards it - just above Mount Moriah, at that time still outside the city, where Aravnah*  the Jebusite had his threshing-floor.

* This seems to have been the original, while that of Ornan (1 Chronicles 21:15) and others are the Hebraised forms of the name.

It was a fitting spot for mercy upon Israel, this place where of old faithful Abraham had been ready to offer his only son unto God; fitting also as still outside the city; but chiefly in order that the pardoning and sparing mercy now shown might indicate the site where, on the great altar of burnt-offering, abundant mercy in pardon and acceptance would in the future be dispensed to Israel. At sight of the Angel with his sword pointed towards Jerusalem, David lifted his voice in humblest confession,*  entreating that, as the sin had been his, so the punishment might descend on him and his household, rather than on his people. This prayer marked the beginning of mercy. By Divine direction, through Gad, David and they who were with him, went to Araunah to purchase the place thus rendered for ever memorable, in order to consecrate it to the Lord by an altar, on which burnt and peace-offerings were brought. And this was to be the site for the future "house of Jehovah God," and for "the altar of the burnt-offering for Israel" (1 Chronicles 22:1).

* 2 Samuel 24:23, reads in the Hebrew: "The whole, O king, does Aravnah give unto the king," and not as in the Authorized Version.

And God had both prepared and inclined the heart of the Jebusite for the willing surrender of the site for its sacred purposes. No doubt he was a proselyte, and probably (analogously to Rahab) had been an ally in the taking of Jerusalem under Joab. It seems that Araunah and his four sons, while busy in that threshing-floor, had also seen the figure of the Angel high above them, and that it had struck terror into their hearts (1 Chronicles 21:20). When, therefore, David and his followers came, they were prepared freely to give. not only the threshing-floor, but also all within it,11 if only Jehovah were pleased to accept the prayer of the king (2 Samuel 24:23). Thus most significantly, in its typical aspect, were Jew and Gentile here brought together to co-operate in the dedication of the Temple-site. It, no doubt, showed insight into Oriental character, though we feel sure it was neither from pride nor narrow national prejudice, that David refused to accept as a gift what had been humbly and, as we believe, heartily offered. But there was evident fitness in the acquisition of the place by money*  on the part of David, as the representative of all Israel. And as if publicly and from heaven to ratify what had been done, fire, unkindled by man, fell upon the altar and consumed the sacrifices (1 Chronicles 21:26). But from that moment the destroying sword of the Angel was sheathed at the command of God.

* Of the two statements of the price, we unhesitatingly take that in 1 Chronicles 21:25 (the other in 2 Samuel depending on a clerical error, very common and easily accounted for in numerals). Bearing in mind that the common shekel was of half the value of the sacred, and that the proportion of gold to silver was about ten to one, the six hundred shekels of gold would amount to about £380. In Siphre 146 a., various attempts are made to conciliate the two diverging accounts - it need scarcely be said ineffectually. The learned reader will find a full discussion of the question in Ugolini's tractate Altare Exterius (Ugolini Thesaurus, Fol. Vol. 10. pp. 504-506).

3. David's Temple arrangements. Since the Lord had, in His Providence, pointed out the place where the Sanctuary was to be reared, David, with characteristic energy, began immediate preparations for a work, the greatness of which the king measured by his estimate of Him for Whose service it was designed (1 Chronicles 22:5). It almost seems as if in these arrangements all David's former vigor had come back, showing where, despite his weaknesses and failings, the king's heart really was. Besides, the youth of his son and successor Solomon,*  and the consideration that probably no other monarch would wield such influence in the land as he had possessed, determined David not to neglect nor defer anything that he might be able to do. First, he took a census of the "strangers,"**  and set them to prepare the stone, iron, and timber work.

* Solomon was probably at this time about twenty years of age.

** These were not only foreign settlers, but the descendants of the original inhabitants of the land whose lives had been spared. Such was their number that Solomon could employ no fewer than one hundred and fifty thousand of them to bear burdens, and to hew stones (1 Kings 5:15; 2 Chronicles 2:17).

His next care was to give solemn charge to Solomon concerning what was so much on his own heart. Recapitulating all that had passed, when he first proposed to "build an house unto the Name of Jehovah," he laid this work upon his son and God-appointed successor, as the main business of his reign. Yet not as a merely outward work to be done, but as the manifestation of spiritual religion, and as the outcome of allegiance to God and His law (1 Chronicles 22:6-12). Only such principles would secure true prosperity to his reign (ver. 13). For himself, he had "by painful labor"*  gathered great treasures,**  which were to be devoted to the building of the new Temple; and he had made all possible preparations for it. Finally, summoning "the princes of Israel, with the priests and the Levites" (1 Chronicles 23:1, 2), and presenting to them his son Solomon as successor in the kingdom, he entreated their co-operation with him in what was to be the great work of the future - making it not a personal, but a national undertaking, expressive of this, that they had "set heart and soul to seek Jehovah" their God (1 Chronicles 22:19).

* This, and not "in my trouble," is the correct rendering of 1 Chronicles 22:14.

** Although, as we have often explained, clerical errors occur in the numerals in the historical books, it may be well to give the real equivalent of the silver and gold, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 22:14. Bearing in mind the distinction between the sacred and the common shekel (2 Samuel 14:26; 1 Kings 10:17, compared with 2 Chronicles 9:16), it would amount to under £4,000,000. Immense as this sum is, Keil has shown that it is by no means out of proportion with the treasures taken as booty in antiquity (comp. Bibl. Comment. Vol. 5. pp. 181-184).

It was in this solemn assembly of laity and priesthood that Solomon's succession was announced and accepted, and that the future organization of the Temple Services was determined and fixed.* 

* It is, of course, impossible here to enter into any critical examination of the chapters in 1 Chronicles, summarized in our text.

A census of the Levites gave their number, from thirty years and upwards, at 38,000 men. Of these 24,000 were appointed to attend to the general ministry of the sanctuary (23:28-32), 6,000 to act as "officers and judges," 4,000 for instrumental music, and 4,000 as choristers - the latter (and probably also the former class) being subdivided into adepts, of which there were 288 (25:7), and learners (25:8). As all the Levites, so these 288 adepts or trained choristers were arranged by lot into twenty-four courses, a certain number of "learners" being attached to each of them. Each course of Levites had to undertake in turn such services as fell to them. Those who had charge of the gates were arranged into classes, there being altogether twenty-four posts in the Sanctuary in which watch was to be kept (1 Chronicles 26:1-19). Similarly, the priests, the descendants of Aaron, were arranged by lot into twenty-four courses for their special ministry (1 Chronicles 24:1-19). Lastly, the sacred text gives a brief account of the work of those 6000 Levites whom David appointed as "scribes and judges" (1 Chronicles 26:29-32), and of the final arrangement of the army, and of all the other public offices (1 Chronicles 27.).

4. David's last hymn and prophetic utterance (2 Samuel 22-23:2-7). - The history of David appropriately closes with a grand hymn, which may be described as alike the program and the summary of his life and reign in their spiritual aspect. Somewhat altered in language, so as to adapt it to liturgical purposes, it is inserted in our present Psalter as Psalm 18, to which we accordingly refer. This grand hymn of thanksgiving is followed - to use the language of an eminent German critic*  - by the prophetic testament of the king, in which he indicates the spiritual import and bearing of his kingdom.

* Keil. We quote, of course, only the substance of his remarks.

If Psalm 18 was a grand Hallelujah, with which David quitted the scene of life, these his "last words" are the Divine attestation of all that he had sung and prophesied in the Psalms concerning the spiritual import of the kingdom which he was to found, in accordance with the Divine message that Nathan had been commissioned to bring to him. Hence these "last words" must be regarded as an inspired prophetic utterance by David, before his death, about the King and the Kingdom of God in their full and real meaning. The following is the literal rendering of this grand prophecy:

The Spirit of Jehovah speaks by me,*
And His Word is on my tongue!**

* According to some "in me" or "into me," as Hosea 1:2. In that case, the first clause would indicate inspiration, and the second its human utterance.

** The Rabbis and others regard this as referring to all David's Psalms and prophecies.

Saith the God of Israel,
Speaks to me the Rock of Israel:
A Ruler over man,*  righteous,
A Ruler in the fear of God -

* Not merely over Israel, but over mankind, indicating the future Kingdom of God, and the full application of the prophecy in its Messianic sense.

And as the light of morning,*  when riseth the sun**  -
Morning without clouds -

* Here the effects of that great salvation are described. The Rabbis, however, connect it with the previous verse, and regard it as a farther description of this ruler.

** The light of the morning of salvation - in opposition to the previous darkness of the night, the sun being the Sun of Righteousness.

From the shining forth out of (after) rain (sprouts
the green out of the earth!*

* After a night of rain the sun shines forth and the earth sprouts. Comp. Psalm 72:6; Isaiah 45:8.

For is not this my house with God?*
Since an everlasting covenant He hath made with me,
Provided (prepared) in all things, and preserved (kept, watched over). -
Then, all my salvation and all good pleasure,
Shall He not cause it to spring forth?

* Pointing to the promise in 2 Samuel 7 - as it were: Does not my house stand in this relationship towards God, that alike the Just Ruler and the blessings connected with His reign shall spring from it ?

And (the sons of) Belial, as thorns cast away are they all*  -
For they are not taken up in the hand*

* Here is an indication of the judgment to come upon the enemies of the Messianic Kingdom. Mark here the contrast between the consequences of Belial and those of the morning light when green sprouts from the earth. Mark also how, while the sprouting of the grass is a gradual and continuous process, the burning of the castaway thorns is the final but immediate judgment. Comp. Matthew 13:30.

And the man who toucheth them,
Provides himself (lit., fills) with iron and shaft of spear,*
And in fire**  are they utterly burned in their dwelling***
(where they are).

* That is, they are not gathered together with the naked hand in order to burn them, but people provide themselves with iron instruments held by wooden handles.

** The fire a symbol of the Divine wrath.

*** Other renderings have been proposed, but the one in the text conveys the idea that the thorns are burned where they lie.