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The Death of Saul's Seven Sons


Emeritus Prof.H.Hanko answers a question about the death of Saul's seven sons, treating the justice of God and corporate responsibility.

The Death of Saul’s Seven Sons

A brother writes, "Reading II Samuel 21, it seems unjust that seven of Saul’s sons are put to death for their father’s sins against the Gibeonites, which instance is not recorded in Scripture (as far as I can see)."

The history of this event is somewhat complicated and, in some instances, as the questioner mentions, not always clear. What is clear is the following. When Joshua and the Israelites fought against the Canaanites, Joshua made peace with the Gibeonites (Josh. 9:3-27). At the time that peace was made, the elders of Israel swore an oath not to kill the Gibeonites (15).

Many centuries later (the period from the exodus of Israel to the reign of Saul is generally considered to be about 400 years), Saul came to the throne in Israel. He apparently killed some of the Gibeonites with whom Israel had made peace. The questioner observes that this event is not mentioned in Scripture. It is possible, however, that the reference is the bloody murder of 85 people by Doeg, the Edomite, at the command of Saul (I Sam. 22:17-19). The basis for this conjecture is that, according to I Samuel 22:6 and 23:19, Saul was staying at this time in Gibeah.

However that may be, David was aware of this dastardly deed, for he was not surprised when the Lord explained that the famine in the land of Canaan was due to Saul’s murder of some Gibeonites, in violation of the oath Israel swore to spare their lives. At the request of the Gibeonites themselves, seven sons of Saul were executed (II Sam. 21:1-11).

It seems as if it was in connection with the killing of Saul’s sons and the protection of the two bodies by their mother, Rizpah, that David took the bones of Saul and Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead and buried them in the family burial ground in Zelah (12-14).

Several questions arise in connection with these strange events. One question is: Why did the Lord wait a rather long time between Saul’s murderous deed and His punishment of it on the nation of Israel? A second question is: What did the burial of the bones of Saul and Jonathan have to do with the appeasement of God’s anger? For it was only after this burial of the bones of Saul and Jonathan that "God was entreated for the land" (14).

But the questioner is concerned about another matter. Where is the justice in killing seven sons of Saul for a sin that Saul committed? That is probably the easiest part of the whole matter to answer. The answer is that in God’s dealings with men (and angels) there is a corporate responsibility involving men in the same organic relationship. Ultimately, the whole world is united in one corporate unity, for Adam’s sin in Paradise was, and is, the responsibility of the entire world: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12). But there is also organic unity and, therefore, corporate responsibility in nations, in races and in families. What one individual within a given group does is the responsibility of the whole organic unit.

Corporate responsibility exists in families. God visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him (Ex. 20:5). Corporate responsibility is a part of the life of nations. All Israel suffered at the defeat of the army at Ai, because one man (Achan) had stolen things from Jericho (Josh. 7). The whole Northern Kingdom of Israel was given over to idolatry and finally was brought into captivity because of the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. Judah went into captivity to Babylon for its horrible sin of idol worship, and so godly Daniel and his three friends, not personally guilty of Judah’s sin, had to go along.

Corporate responsibility is a fact in all of life, also in our present day.

But a new corporation was formed by God’s grace, the corporation of a new nation, a new people, the church. It is the corporation of Christ and His elect. It is a gracious corporation in which the whole church is responsible for what Christ did in His holy life and on the cross. This is why Christ’s righteousness can be and is imputed to all the elect. And so, as in Adam all died, so also in Christ are all made alive (I Cor. 15:22).

Saul had sinned in breaking the oath that Israel, under Joshua, had sworn to the Gibeonites. All the Israelites, within that national corporation, were obligated to keep that oath. Saul broke it, quite possibly in his hatred and fear of David, whom God had anointed in Saul’s place. Israel was responsible for Saul’s sin. Justice had never been done regarding Saul’s cold-blooded murder. Now, during David’s reign, God was punishing Israel. Assuming this was in connection with the events in I Samuel 22, we read that when Saul killed Ahimelech and 84 others, he killed "both men and women, children and sucklings" (19). What could be more just than that Saul’s family was now killed in retribution? And so it was.

Why God waited so long to bring justice to the Gibeonites, I do not know. I do know, as the old proverb has it, that the mills of God’s justice grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. The current US president’s sin of approving and encouraging same-sex marriages is a great sin. Justice has not yet been meted out, but it will be. Woe to those who are responsible in our country for such terrible sin. Sodom and Gomorrah were not spared; shall America escape judgment? We are all responsible—unless we confess this sin and flee to Christ by faith that we may hide in the shadow of the cross.

I must make one more remark. Corporate responsibility is openly and almost universally denied in our day. The reason why it is denied in the church is because the dreadful heresy of Arminianism has swept the church. Arminianism knows no corporate responsibility. In Arminian thought, it is every man for himself. Arminianism is Pelagianism. And, as the Canons of Dordt express it, Pelagianism is born in hell (II:R:3). The whole matter of corporate responsibility is fundamental to the Reformed faith. It is part of the foundation. It is a truth that must be preserved at all cost.

The questioner included another question related to this one: "The wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites in the land, men, women and children, has to be justified too; perhaps Romans 9:21 gives the answer." Romans 9:21 reads: "Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?"

I do not think Romans 9:21 is an answer to the question, except that Romans 9:21 teaches election and reprobation. God’s supreme sovereign determination in election and reprobation stands behind all God’s dealings with men. But that is not the emphasis in the killing of the Canaanites.

First of all, one must remember that the slaughter of the Canaanites was the historical fulfilment of God’s curse of Canaan, Ham’s son, spoken by Noah (Gen. 9:25-26). Here, too, the whole matter of corporate responsibility enters in, for the generations of Ham were corporately responsible for Ham’s reckless and sinful behaviour during Noah’s drunken sleep.

It is also true, however, that the Canaanites had filled the cup of iniquity and had made themselves ripe for judgment. Is the slaughter of the Canaanites any worse than Israel’s song in captivity? "O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones" (Ps. 137:8-9).

There is a point here, though, that badly needs emphasis. In an important sense, God does not need to be justified. I would shrink back from any thought ever of doing this. The point is not only that God has the right to do with His creatures as He pleases, but also that any questioning of His judgments upon the wicked is a slur on God’s holiness (Rom. 9:20-21). The problem is not that God does terrible things in His fury against sin; the problem is that man thinks too carelessly of God’s holiness. If only we knew and understood and believed how holy God is, then we would have no trouble understanding His righteous wrath against sinners.

Finally, it is against the holiness of God that we must measure the terrible nature of our sin. We are so inclined to wink at sin, overlook, it, consider it a minor thing and excuse it with all kinds of spurious reasonings. But let us stand once, as Isaiah did, in the blazing light of that holiness: what then? Let us cry out with the prophet, "Woe is me" (Isa. 6:5)! Prof. Hanko

Last modified on 08 July 2013
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Additional Info

  • Volume: 14
  • Issue: 15
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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