V. Final Years as King (2 Samuel 21:1–24:25)
V. Final Years as King (21:1–24:25)
21:1-3 During David’s later years, Israel was plagued by a famine that lasted for three successive years, which caused David to seek the Lord regarding the reason for it. God responded, It is due to Saul and to his bloody family, because he killed the Gibeonites (21:1). This is a reference to an incident not recorded in Scripture, but it clearly violated a covenant Joshua had made with these non-Israelites years before (2:2; see Josh 9:15-21). To lift God’s judgment against Israel, David asked the Gibeonites how he could make atonement for this wrong and restore the Lord’s blessing to Israel (21:3).
21:4-6 The Gibeonites asked that seven of Saul’s male descendants be hanged (21:6). Saul had no doubt killed far more Gibeonites, but the number seven was likely chosen as the number of completeness. This would bring full satisfaction for the wrongs Saul and his family had committed against these people. As grim as this seems to us, it is a reminder that sin is a great offense to God.
21:7-14 David agreed to their terms and selected seven men from Saul’s family to be executed. Two were sons of Saul’s concubine Rizpah, and five were sons of his daughter Merab (21:8). David spared Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth because of the oath he had made (21:7). The seven were hanged and their bodies were left out in the open until the rain poured down from heaven, signaling the Lord’s lifting of the curse and the end of the drought (21:9-10).
Saul’s concubine Rizpah went to the execution site and spent many days protecting her sons’ bodies from scavengers (21:10). When David heard of her devotion, he retrieved the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh-gilead, gathered up the bones of the seven executed grandsons of Saul, and buried all of them in Saul’s ancestral tomb (21:11-14). God accepted the atonement that had been made and was receptive to prayer for the land (21:14).
21:15-17 Sometime later, the Philistines again waged war against Israel, and David once again led his troops out in battle. But, he was no longer an energetic young warrior, and he soon became exhausted (21:15). Then, a great Philistine warrior named Ishbi-benob raised his spear and intended to kill David (21:16). Thankfully, the king was narrowly rescued by Abishai. But, it had been too close of a call for David’s soldiers. They made him promise not to go into battle again. They said, You must not extinguish the lamp of Israel (21:17). They didn’t want their aged king dying on the battlefield.
21:18-22 Three more Philistine champions fell in battles with the Israelites (21:18-21). One of these Israelite warriors, Elhanan, was said to have killed Goliath of Gath (21:19), which would contradict the report that David killed him (see 1 Sam 17). There could have been two giants named Goliath. Most likely, though, a scribe made an error while copying this passage, because the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 20:5 says that Elhanan killed “the brother of Goliath.” Altogether, four great Philistines were killed by the Israelite warriors (21:22).
22:1-4 David’s song of praise in this chapter is virtually identical to Psalm 18. He wrote it after the Lord rescued him from the grasp of all his enemies and from the grasp Saul (22:1). It was a public declaration of praise to God for his deliverance. As the song opens, David uses one vivid word after another to describe and give glory to his almighty God: rock . . . fortress . . . deliverer . . . shield . . . horn of my salvation . . . stronghold . . . refuge . . . Savior (22:2-3).
22:5-6 David then elaborated on the dangers from which the Lord had rescued him. He described his troubles as being overwhelmed by the waves of death and the torrents of destruction (22:5), feeling the ropes of Sheol (that is, the grave) entangling him, and being caught in the snares of death (22:6). David had faced death multiple times, so he was aware of God’s sovereign ability to rescue when all hope seems lost.
22:7-20 David’s poetic abilities really took over as he described what happened when he called to the Lord for help (22:7). The awesome Creator of the universe shook the earth in response to David’s prayer. He bent the heavens and came down (22:10). The Lord thundered from heaven (22:14). He hurled lightning bolts and routed David’s enemies (22:15). In other words, David had seen that God would move heaven and earth for the one who trusted in him and sought to honor him. God rescued David because he delighted in him (22:20).
22:21-30 The theme of David’s response to God’s gracious deliverance is that God works on behalf of the righteous and thwarts the schemes of the wicked. This doesn’t mean that David thought he was perfect and sinless. Clearly he was not—and David knew it. Yet, David sought to honor God over the long haul of his life. When he sinned, he turned to God in repentance, trusting in God to forgive him by means of the sacrificial atonement he had provided for Israel through the tabernacle’s system.
David knew the source of his deliverance and his blessings, and he readily acknowledged that the Lord alone was the righteous God who rewarded righteousness and judged evil (22:21, 25). David also knew that it was God who empowered him to overcome his enemies.
22:31-51 The final stanza of David’s song returns to the theme of God’s attributes, tying them to the ways God had worked through them on David’s behalf. God was David’s protector—a shield to all who take refuge in him, as well as a rock and a strong refuge (22:31-33), the one in whom David could find protection. To underscore his point, David asked two questions in 22:32 to which he and the reader knew the answer: Who is God besides the Lord? And who is a rock? There is no solid and immovable rock like the Lord. God was the one who subdued David’s enemies (22:38-41) and delivered David from harm (22:47-51). If the king of Israel looked to God as his tower of salvation, surely all of God’s people should do the same (22:51).
23:1-4 David’s last words are also a psalm of praise to God for exalting David from his humble beginnings as a shepherd boy in Bethlehem to the throne of Israel. He was the one chosen and anointed by the God of Jacob. To David, this [was] the most delightful of Israel’s songs (23:1). And, here, he seems to claim divine inspiration for his writings (23:2-3), an idea that is fully expressed in the New Testament, but which the Old Testament prophets claimed in many places when they said things like, “The word of the Lord came to me” (see Jer 1:11; Ezek 6:1). David was also aware that a king who ruled God’s people righteously was a special blessing to the land (22:3-4).
23:5-7 The heart of David’s reign is the Davidic covenant (see 2 Sam 7:12-16) that will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ returns in glory to reign on David’s throne in his coming millennial kingdom (see Luke 1:31-33). David expressed his complete confidence that God would be faithful to his permanent covenant (22:5). In contrast, the wicked are like thorns that are completely useless and are only good for the fire of God’s judgment (23:6).
23:8-39 The remainder of this chapter is devoted to the names and exploits of David’s warriors (23:8). The stories that follow are better than those credited to any comic book superhero—and they’re true. Interestingly, among all the names, “Joab” is not included. His brothers Abishai and Asahel are listed, and each is designated as Joab’s brother (23:18, 24). Joab was certainly a great warrior who was the commander of David’s entire army for most of his reign. But, Joab was also an extremely violent and brutal man who did not hesitate to kill his own kinsmen when they got in his way. (On the other hand, his omission from the list may have been due simply to his position as commander, which meant he was over all these men.)
The three men listed in 23:8-12 performed incredible feats of bravery in warfare, rallying Israel from defeat to victory over the Philistines more than once. There were also the thirty leading warriors who acted with great bravery and devotion to David (23:13). During a particular battle, the king expressed a wish he probably never dreamed his men would take literally. He said, If only someone would bring me water to drink from the well at the city gate of Bethlehem! (23:15). David was being nostalgic about his hometown drinking fountain and likely did not expect anyone to take his wish seriously because the Philistines were camped in Bethlehem as he spoke. Nevertheless, three of the thirty did exactly that, risking their lives to draw water from the well (23:13, 16). But, David was struck by his conscience over the risk they took, and he poured out the water as an offering to the Lord.
Benaiah was another of David’s great warriors. He was famous for going down into a pit on a snowy day and killing a lion (23:20-21). David wisely put Benaiah in charge of his bodyguard (23:23), and later Solomon placed him in command of his own army (see 1 Kgs 2:35).
The remainder of the chapter lists the Thirty—David’s elite warriors (22:24-39). Interestingly, this list includes Uriah the Hethite (22:39). His inclusion underscores the power that sin can have even in the life of a dedicated believer like David when it takes over. Uriah wasn’t just a good and loyal soldier. He was one of David’s best, a man who had taken a vow to defend the king at the cost of his own life. Ironically, being David’s soldier did cost Uriah his life, but his death was to David’s great shame (see 2 Sam 11).
24:1-2 The story of David’s census is an example of the mysterious interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Here the text says that the Lord’s anger burned against Israel again, and he stirred up David against them to take this census (24:1). But, according to 1 Chronicles 21:1, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to count the people of Israel.” So, who did the action? The Lord or Satan? The answer is both.
God was angry with Israel, apparently because the people had sinned in some way. So, he allowed Satan to tempt David to arrogantly count the size of the troops under his command. This interplay between God and Satan is similar to God allowing Satan to trouble Job (see Job 1:1–2:7). Ultimately, though, it was God who was sovereign over Job’s circumstances. Job understood that he had suffered because of “all the adversity the Lord had brought on him” (Job 42:11). Though Satan had meant the adversity for evil, God had meant it for Job’s good.
In principle, it isn’t sinful for a commander to count his troops in order to know if he has sufficient numbers to go to battle. But, the Lord had made it clear to David that he—not the army—was the source of Israel’s strength. Satan had tempted David to meet a legitimate desire (to win Israel’s battles) by an illegitimate means (the number of his forces) rather than a legitimate means (relying completely on the Lord).
24:3-10 On this occasion, Joab was more spiritually aware than David. He objected to David’s order because he saw it for what it was—a needless attempt by David to take pride in and feel secure in his military might instead of trusting the Lord (24:3). But, David overruled Joab, and the count was made (24:4-9). Too late, David’s conscience troubled him and he confessed to God, I have sinned greatly in what I’ve done. . . . I’ve been very foolish (24:10).
24:11-13 Sin, even forgiven sin, always has consequences. So, the Lord gave the king a choice of three very painful judgments. These three, spelled out to David by the prophet Gad, increase in severity from a famine to a plague, but decrease in length from three years to three days. Gad gave David some time to think things over before choosing his punishment (24:13).
24:14-17 David thought through the options and made what he considered the best decision. He had experienced years of fleeing from his enemies, so he knew he would find no mercy from them. Knowing the Lord’s mercies are great, David placed himself in God’s hands (24:14). Therefore, the Lord sent a plague on Israel, which resulted in seventy thousand deaths (24:15). The plague stopped only when God spared Jerusalem in his mercy by saying to his destroying angel, Enough, withdraw your hand now! (24:16).
This happened at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (24:16). (In 1 Chronicles, Araunah is known by his alternate name, Ornan; see 1 Chr 21:18-28.) When David saw the angel striking the people, he pleaded with God for mercy. He recognized that the sin was his and begged God to let the judgment be against his family alone (24:17). This is a reminder that we never sin in a vacuum. You may think that your sinful choices affect no one but you. But, this is never correct. When we choose to sin, we leave spiritual harm in our wake—whether or not we see the results immediately.
24:18-23 God ordered David to go to the threshing floor of Araunah to set up an altar so that the plague might be stopped (24:18). David obeyed immediately. When Araunah saw him coming, he paid homage to the king with his face to the ground (24:19-20). Once he learned the reason for David’s visit, Araunah was more than happy to give him not only the threshing floor, but everything else he needed for the sacrifice (24:22-23).
24:24 David refused the offer, insisting that he would pay for everything at full price (see Chr 21:22, 24). Then, he stated one of the great biblical principles of sacrificial giving: I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing. This should make us ask what we give to the Lord and his kingdom work (prayers, time, service, money, resources) that costs us little in terms of sacrifice.
24:25 David offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. God was pleased with David’s sacrifice, and the plague on Israel ended. In God’s sovereign plan, he accomplished his will despite David’s sin.
The piece of land that David bought (24:24) was Mount Moriah, the spot where Abraham once offered his son Isaac to the Lord and where Solomon would one day build the Lord’s temple (see Gen 22; 2 Chr 3:1). God allowed Satan’s wickedness and David’s sin to run their course until what would become Israel’s holiest site was selected.
The census was the last recorded act of David in the book of 2 Samuel, showing both the king’s vulnerability to sin and his sensitivity to turn to the Lord in repentance. Similarly, God calls all kingdom men and women to be on guard regarding their own vulnerability to sin and to maintain hearts that are sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s convicting work.