“Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David inquired of the LORD. And the LORD answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites. And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.) Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the LORD? And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you. And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the LORD in Gibeah of Saul, whom the LORD did choose. And the king said, I will give them. But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the LORD’S oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite: And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the LORD: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest. And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night. And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done. And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabeshgilead, which 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 hanged. And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was entreated for the land” (2 Samuel 21:1-14).
There is an interesting argument that the following three chapters of 2 Samuel do not follow any chronological order, but were added to offer the reader further insight into David’s life. We cannot engage ourselves in this theory, but ought to simply study the details as described in Scripture.
Israel was devastated by a three year famine which made David believe that it was due to some unconfessed sin or act of disobedience, therefore he took the matter to the Lord in prayer. But we should notice that he had allowed three years to go by before doing this, which infers that the famine did not need to be so long.
David received an immediate answer from the Lord; Saul had wickedly slaughtered the Gibeonites. We have no record of this in Scripture, but we can see why some commentators state that this famine must have been close to the beginning of David’s reign and before the Bathsheba incident. The Gibeonites were under the protection of Israel, “We have sworn unto them by the LORD God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them” (Joshua 9:19). It seems that King Saul had wickedly broken this treaty. This also reveals just how evil Saul was, for he was ordered to slay the Amalekite animals but did not, yet he slew those who were under God’s care. Saul’s life is summed up in Samuel’s words, “Thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God” (1 Samuel 13:13). Saul slew the Gibeonites to impress Israel and Judah, but God was not impressed, hence the famine.
David investigated this further and called the Gibeonite leaders to inform him about what happened. They revealed that Saul had ordered that they be ethnically cleansed from Israel. These people were already burdened with being Israel’s servants, but Saul wanted them dead. What we are referring to here is a holocaust, and though not on the same scale as in World War II, it is nonetheless from the same evil spirit that possessed Adolph Hitler.
It is certain those living in Saul’s dominion must have known about what he did, but kept silent. All of this must have happened when David was in exile. The Gibeonites, it seems, were in no position to defend themselves from the vicious attack.
David knew that things had to be put right and questioned the Gibeonites about how they thought he should go about it. He does not ask the judges of Israel but the ones affected by the crime about solving the issue. The remedy might sound pretty gruesome to us, but we have to believe that David acted with integrity or else God would not have removed the famine from the land. Those who were punished for what Saul did were members of his family and may have played an active part in the atrocity against the Gibeonites. David was freed from executing these men himself, for the Gibeonites believed it was their right to carry out the punishment. They would be hung in Gibeah, Saul’s hometown (1 Samuel 10:26).
David protected Mephibosheth from this because of the promise he had made to Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:14-16) and is further proof of his integrity at this stage of his life. Those chosen to die were two sons of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine (2 Samuel 3:7). The other five were the sons of Michal, though not her own children, for she was barren “unto the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:23). Michal was the sister of Merab the first wife of Adriel. Notice that the text says that Michal brought them up which probably indicates that she adopted and cared for them as her own sons and may suggest that Adriel was a widow at this point. We know that Merab was originally promised to David until Saul changed his mind and gave her to Adriel instead (1 Samuel 18:17-19).
The rest of the passage tells of Rizpah’s vigil for her two sons, though it appears she was also weeping for Saul and Jonathan for maybe the hanging reminded her of how the Philistine’s had hung up their dead bodies. She faithfully watched over the bodies of her sons even when the harvest rain came. David took compassion on her and ordered that the remains of Saul and Jonathan be taken from Jabeshgilead and placed in Kish’s family tomb along with Rizpah’s sons.
Wherever this event fits into the life of David, we can see that he had to deal with the aftermath of Saul’s sinfulness and disobedience. David is left to do the work of putting things right, which was not a pleasant task by any means, but he received the blessing for it when God healed the land.