The Good Shepherd Cares for His Sheep - 2 Samuel 21:1-14
Well, it’s New Year’s Eve. I’m sure some of you have goals for the new year.
Maybe you’ve thought about ways you can take better care for yourself in the coming year: get more exercise, more rest, eat better.
In the 1746 edition of the Poor Richard’s Almanac, Ben Franklin wrote, “When the Well's dry, we know the Worth of Water.” That sounds so cliché that we can overlook the truth of it, that when anything runs out, your health, for example, then you find out it’s value. So it’s wise to make some kind of renewed effort to take better care of yourself in the NY, and you can determine how you go about doing that. But God has also determined how he will go about caring for you in the new year. You and I may have our resolutions. God has resolutions as well. One of his resolutions is that he will care for his people as a shepherd cares for sheep.
Now we don’t normally think of ourselves as sheep needing a shepherd. But Matthew 9 in the NT states that when Jesus saw crowds of people, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Which is to say that Jesus saw people as “troubled and cast down.” They needed to be cared for in ways that they couldn’t care for themselves. And when we are very honest, we have to admit that “troubled and cast down” describes us in some aspects of our lives. But both the Old and New Testaments teach us that Jesus cares for us in our “troubled and cast down” state. And so we should give him glory for his care. But what kind of care does Jesus provide?
Whenever you receive an insurance policy (health insurance, dental, car insurance), you can read up on the benefits provided. What benefits does Jesus provides as the good shepherd? Well, on page 6 of your worship guide you’ll see three answers to this question. 2 Samuel 21 doesn’t provide an exhaustive list, but because King David foreshadowed Jesus Christ as the shepherd of his people, this passage of Scripture displays a few characteristics of the good shepherd. The behavior of David toward God’s people in this ancient setting helps us see that the good shepherd cares for his sheep by:
1. making intercession for them,
2. mediating atonement for them,
3. and modeling compassion for them.
At the beginning of 1 Samuel, Israel needed a shepherd. They wanted a king, and by the time we reach today’s passage in 2 Samuel, God has given them two: a bad one followed by a better one. We’ve seen Saul, the bad king, removed from power. He has been replaced with David, a shepherd and a man after God’s own heart. He is a sinner also, but David knows and walks with God. David has the heart of a shepherd. Over and over through 1 and 2 Samuel, David foreshadows Jesus Christ, and our passage today is a key example of how the shepherd-king David resembles the shepherd-king Jesus.
Scholars believe that though this event is recorded in chapter 21, chronologically it took place earlier, perhaps after the chapter 9 events in which David shows kindness to Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan. It is included here along with the following chapters to examine some specific events in the reign of David.
The events of chapters 21-24 are laid out in a pattern to show their similarities. This is the first of six portions of Scripture that are structured to make a point about David.
As today’s passage begins, the people of Israel are helpless. They have endured a three-year famine. Can you imagine that – three long years! They can’t go down the street to the grocery store or make a quick trip out to a local restaurant. All they can do is trust in their shepherd to solve this problem somehow. Again, what we learn here about David will teach us about our shepherd, Jesus.
First, The good shepherd cares for his sheep by making intercession for them. (v.1-2)
“Making intercession” means that he intervenes for them. David went to the LORD on behalf of the people. This was part of his role as king. And through David’s prayer for the sake of the people, God reveals that the famine in Israel is a result of a curse brought on Israel because Saul broke the Israelite covenant with the Gibeonites some years before. A little background: When Joshua was the leader of Israel, they made a covenant not to harm this people-group called the Gibeonites Joshua 9 records this. Saul, in his efforts to establish Israel as a strong nation, later broke this covenant (which was disobedience to God’s law) by putting many Gibeonites to death. This evoked the curse written of in Leviticus 26, which God states, “I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. (that’s the drought) And your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.” (that’s the famine) Joshua had made a covenant in the name of God. To break it was to defame the name of God.
Now at this time in history, David had special access to God. The relationship between God and the people was mediated by a middleman. This middleman was David. Like a representative for a group of people who speaks on their behalf, David represented the people before God. He sought out the will of God for them. But David was an imperfect mediator. Jesus Christ, the true Good Shepherd of God’s people, intervenes for the sake of his people. He intervenes for us before God. Hebrews 7 says, “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Romans 8, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” John 17 contains what is called the High Priestly Prayer, where Jesus prayed at length for his people. That intervention demonstrated this role of Jesus. The OT priest was the one who mediated the relationship between God and the people. Jesus is that final, perfect priest, pleading the case of his people before God.
When I pray for people, I don’t always know what to pray for them. Depending the situation, I may be puzzled about what to say to God. Jesus is a perfect intercessory. He knows exactly what to say, he knows exactly what you need and what is best. You may wonder, “But why does Jesus pray for me? Isn’t Jesus God? So wouldn’t he be praying to himself for me?” The Bible teaches a Trinitarian view of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons but one God. Jesus is the one who intervenes for his people before the Trinity. He is permanently pleading your case to the triune God.
Do you sense your helplessness and your need for Christ to intervene for you? Perhaps you feel powerless in the face of some difficult relationship or some worry about the future. Or perhaps there is a present difficulty that is too much for you to bear, or some sin that you can’t seem to shake. You can be comforted knowing that Christ has a heart of compassion towards you and he will intervene for you continually throughout this coming year.
Next, The good shepherd cares for his sheep by mediating atonement for them.
See how David makes the necessary atonement to remove the curse on the land.
Verses 3-6, “ And David said to the Gibeonites, ‘What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the LORD?’  The Gibeonites said to him, ‘It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.’ And he said, ‘What do you say that I shall do for you?’  They said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel,  let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the LORD at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD.’ And the king said, ‘I will give them.’”
David asks the Gibeonites how he may make atonement for Saul’s transgression against them. David’s use of the word “atonement” let’s us know that he is aware that a ransom is owed to cover over the sin against these people. “Atonement” means the price that must be paid to settle the debt. The Gibeonites reply that David must give them seven of Saul’s sons, whom they will execute as payment. This reflects the command in Numbers 35 which states, “You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.”
Today, this kind of payment seems brutal and unnecessary. Couldn’t the Gibeonites just let it go? Couldn’t they take riches or land instead? But to view it that way misunderstands life in that time and place. Joshua 9 states that the Israelites literally “cut” a covenant with the Gibeonites. This is the ritual described in Genesis 15, where animals were cut in half and the pieces were placed in two parallel lines. The parties making the covenant would then walk between the bloody animals, taking an oath in which they vowed that if they failed to keep the oath, they invited their own destiny to be the same as the dead animals through which they passed. The oath with the Gibeonites had been taken and then broken, so only blood could satisfy the violation. David understands this and in order to remove the curse of the LORD against his people, he agrees to it.
Verses 7-9 describe who was chosen to make this atonement. “ But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul's son Jonathan, because of the oath of the LORD that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.  The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite;  and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the LORD, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.”
David spares the son of his friend Jonathan. He had given Jonathan his word. In 1 Samuel 20, Jonathan says to David, “do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.”
In contrast to to the evil king Saul, the good king David keeps the oath made years before So the Gibeonites hang these men. And while tragic, it resembles what Saul did. These passages speak to the seriousness with which David approached covenant keeping. In David’s day, if you took an oath, you kept it because there were real consequences if you did not. And if David fails to make this atonement, the famine will continue and even more people will suffer. Though the required actions are gory and brutal, David knows it must be done.
Sometimes, the price of life must be paid so others may live. We think of those who die defending our freedoms in the United States. They are not making atonement, but their efforts are a sacrifice. Here, if death is not carried out, more death will ensue.
Jesus understood this in the greatest sense. He was willing to pay the necessary price to lift the curse against his people. However with Christ, the atoning sacrifice was himself. In John 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The atonement of Jesus reflects the requirements of the covenant stated in Leviticus 17:
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”
Hebrews 9 reiterates this: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Therefore Jesus willingly gave his life as a ransom for the people of God.
Do you sense your need for atonement? The Israelites had a felt need – there was a famine. They were hungry and in great danger! Their good shepherd David did what had to be done for the survival of the sheep. In the same way, the true Good Shepherd has laid down his very life for his sheep. Do you sense your present and continual need for this sacrifice? Pastor Tim Keller has noted that a sense of that need for atonement accompanies those whom he counsels on their deathbeds. He states, “There’s almost a sense of regret: ‘I haven’t lived the life I should have lived.’” Every facet of our lives is riddled with sin: our relationships, our life decisions, our thoughts and desires. Yet Christ has made a sufficient sacrifice to cover all sin. 1 Peter 3 states, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Even if you have been a Christian for a long time, do you realize that the atonement of Christ still stands as your only hope of being at peace with a holy God? Often when someone has been in Christ for many years, the sense of need for the atonement can wane. But your need of his sacrifice is as real today as it has ever been. The Good Shepherd Jesus has made atonement for you and broken the curse against you, and that atonement will secure you in the love of God through the ups and downs of your sin throughout the year ahead.
And finally, the good shepherd cares for his sheep by modeling compassion for them.
Rizpah, the mother of two of the men who are executed, goes into mourning for her sons. She is devastated, and rightly so. I see two reasons for the actions of Rizpah to be included in this passage. First, it shows the devastation of atonement. It’s connected here with a grieving mother who has lost her sons – truly a tragic scene. If you have had to grieve the death of a child, you understand this in a way that the rest of us cannot. But we have all most likely lost someone dear to us. I’m reminded of the followers of Jesus at the cross and how they cared for his body after his death. Loss hurts. And the severe pain of loss accompanies this blood atonement.
Second, her actions explain the actions of David. Look at verses 11-14.
“ When David was told what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done,  David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the men of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa.  And he brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who were hanged.  And they buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father. And they did all that the king commanded. And after that God responded to the plea for the land.”
In the aftermath of the sacrifice to the Gibeonites, David sees the sorrow of Rizpah and honors her sons with an honorable burial. He has compassion on her in her misery. The dead bodies of Saul and Jonathan had been taken by the Philistines and hung on the wall of Beth-shan, but the men of Jabesh-gilead had retrieved them in order to give them a proper burial. Here, David has the bones of Saul and Jonathan brought to the land of Benjamin and buried along with these sons of Saul. David didn’t have to do this. He could have been calloused toward Rizpah, reasoning that he simply did what he had to do for the good of Israel. But he displays the compassion of a good shepherd. He buries the bodies properly. By doing so, he modeled compassion for his people.
Thomas Plante is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. He wrote an article titled, “Can you teach compassion?” to consider whether compassion behavior can be learned or if it is simply inborn. He noted that while some people seem to be more naturally inclined toward compassion, there were many ways to either increase or decrease compassion in a person. Examining college students, he found that opportunities to help the poor or marginalized seemed to increase compassion, while partying and alcohol consumption seemed to hinder compassion development. He also found that observing others who demonstrate compassion had a profound effect. It helped to see others showing compassion.
Jesus models this perfectly for his people. David foreshadows him here, a leader who is able to do the hard things that a leader must do, while being compassionate toward those he leads. In John 11, we see that Jesus is this kind of leader. When he came to the side of the sisters of the recently deceased Lazarus as they mourned the loss of their brother, Jesus saw their weeping and he was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” He even wept. The true Good Shepherd has a heart of compassion, and he modeled compassion for his people.
Where in your life do you need Christ’s model of compassion? In what ways are you tempted to be callous and to turn your head from the sufferings of others? Romans 12 says, “Mourn with those who mourn.” Galatians 6 says, “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” This is the heart of God, as Psalm 103 states, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” God has compassion on his people and calls his people to do the same. Again Galatians 6, “ So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
I noted earlier that today’s passage is the first of six portions of Scripture structured to make a point about David. In chapters 21-24, the author reveals that David loves God and is blessed by him, but in the final analysis, David is shown for the sinner that he is. He is helpless too. Later, in chapter 24, we find David trusting in himself rather that God and bringing a plague of pestilence on Israel. In the end, atonement must be made for the sins of David. Thus we see that David is not the true Good Shepherd. He, like us, stands in need of Christ as his Good Shepherd.
Earlier we read The Nicene Creed together. It was originally composed to clarify that there was never a time when the Son didn’t exist. He is eternal just like the Father and the Holy Spirit. Understanding this is necessary for you and I to see Jesus as the good shepherd we need.
Us being united to God would be like the effect of two magnets being pushed together. They repel one another. Only Jesus can stabilize the connection between God and man. Because he is fully God, he could live a perfect life, die for our sin to give us his perfect record of righteousness. He could do what we cannot to be joined to God. And because he became fully man, he could live and die in our place,
doing what God otherwise could not to be joined to us. God could have no part of sin. And through Jesus, just as God lifted the curse on the land of the Israelites, he has lifted the curse of sin that was on us.
Those who have trusted in Jesus Christ can rejoice in this. Those who have not can know him in this way, by admitting your sin to God and trusting in Jesus as payment for the penalty of your sin. God offers the care of the good shepherd, both this year and forever.