Putting aside a tendency to paint a rosy picture of King David, one should not overlook the calculated measures that are here 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). 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 the family of Saul. Indeed, there is ample evidence of David being inclined to think in such ways.
Looking 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---2 Samuel 8), 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, one here sees David’s willingness to believe such a thing and the ongoing threat of reprisal from Saul’s family implied thereby, as he says “Everything that was Mephibosheth’s now belongs to you” (16:4a). Now, with the famine and the appearance of the Gibeonites, the presence of Saul’s old enemies provide the means to end this always looming threat once and for all.
So it is reported 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. Potential rivals to the throne have been eliminated. However, drawing attention to what could truly have been viewed by the people as a rather despicable, unjust, 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, and to be buried in the tomb of Saul’s father in the land of Benjamin. Thus, David can then seen to be honoring these men, when such could not have been further from his mind. Most likely, keeping in mind the fact that David has just perpetrated a despicable act, he does this so that he will not be viewed as being responsible for the execution of the sons of Saul, though they had in fact done no wrong. Of course, this must also be considered in light of the fact that the Creator 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.