It is in response to this knowledge, along with the word that he had received in his inquiry from the Lord, that David summons the Gibeonites and says to them, “What can I do for you, and how can I make amends so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?” (21:3) Before going on, we must take note of the explicit connection to the Abrahamic covenant that David is shown to be making. David, of course, is referring to Israel when he speaks of the “Lord’s inheritance.” By speaking of “blessing” that inheritance, David invokes the promise to Abraham, which must have been well understood by the Gibeonites (because they lived and served among Israel, and presumably, would have known the story of Israel quite well), that Israel’s God would bless those who blessed Abraham (and by extension, Israel).
Here, David is seizing on an opportunity. He is using the famine in a calculated manner for the sake of his own kingship and that of his progeny. Additionally, he knows that the Gibeonites are motivated by revenge, so in calling to mind the blessings promised (in the Abrahamic covenant) for those that bless Israel (with the king representing Israel in such a way that by their serving the king they bless him, the nation as a whole, and themselves in turn), he is going to turn that mindset of vengeance in his own favor. After being asked this extraordinarily calculated question by David, “The Gibeonites said to him, ‘We have no claim to silver or gold from Saul or from his family, nor would we be justified in putting to death anyone in Israel.’” (21:4a) Feigning ignorance of where all of this was leading, “David asked, ‘What then are you asking me to do for you?’” (21:4b) “They replied to the king, ‘As for this man who exterminated us and who schemed against us so that we were destroyed and left without status throughout all the borders of Israel---let seven of his male descendants be turned over to us, and we will execute them before the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, who was the Lord’s chosen one.’” (21:5-6a) In what must have been a considerable exercise of self-restraint in the midst of jubilation, David says, “I will turn them over” (21:6b).
Once again, let us not forget the calculated measures taking place. According to the history presented here in this book, David had recently experienced Absalom’s rebellion (with his own temporary deposition from power), along with the issue of Sheba. Together with that, there were other potential problems and rebellions with which to be dealt, and the most natural direction from which those problems would come would be from the family of Saul. Indeed, we see evidence of David being inclined to think in such ways, if we look back to his flight from Jerusalem, when he was met by Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth (the son of Jonathan to whom David had extended grace and seated at his table, treating him as one of his own sons). When David sees that Ziba alone has come to him, without Mephibosheth, bringing him bread, raisin cakes, summer fruit, and wine (16:1), he says, “Where is your master’s grandson?” (16:3a). Ziba replies by saying, “He remains in Jerusalem, for he said, ‘Today the house of Israel will give back to me my grandfather’s kingdom” (16:3b).
Though this makes no sense at all, as it was Absalom, David’s son, that was supported by the people and taking the throne, we see David’s willingness to believe such a thing and the ongoing threat of reprisal from Saul’s family implied therein, as he says, “Everything that was Mephibosheth’s now belongs to you” (16:4a). Now, the presence of Saul’s old enemies provide the means to end this looming threat once and for all. So we read that “The king had mercy on Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, in light of the Lord’s oath that had been taken between David and Jonathan son of Saul” (21:7), though before he had been willing to quickly write off Mephibosheth and toss him aside as a traitor and conspirator. Additionally, because Mephibosheth was crippled in his feet, not only would he not be able to rise up to lead an army, but David would also have been confident that the people of Israel would certainly not support one such as him as king.
Sparing Mephibosheth, the king took seven sons and grandsons of Saul and “turned them over to the Gibeonites, and they executed them on a hill before the Lord. The seven of them died together” (21:9a). To go along with that, the Gibeonites left those men there to rot. For David, problem solved. However, drawing attention to what could truly have been viewed by the people as a rather despicable, unjustifiable, and clearly politically calculated action on David’s part, a woman named Rizpah, the mother of the sons of Saul that had been executed, “took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest until the rain fell on them, she did not allow the birds of the air to feed on them by day, not the wild animals by night” (21:10). This was an unforeseen nuisance, and when David is told that this was taking place, he ordered their bodies to be taken, along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan, to be buried in the tomb of Saul’s father in the land of Benjamin. Thus, David is then seen to be honoring these men. Most likely, he does this so that he will not simply be viewed as being responsible for their execution though they had done no wrong, especially in light of the fact that God’s law clearly stated that a son was not to be put to death because of the actions of his father, though this was precisely what David allowed to take place because it was a furtherance of his own ends.