Then Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night. (2 Samuel 21:10).
This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day. On that day most churches will be honoring mothers and the contributions they have made to the lives of their children. As part of the celebration, ministers will be talking about biblical mothers. Generally, sermons about biblical mothers use Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary, and a few other notable women as examples of mothers who love their children and set a positive role model for mothers today.
One mother who probably will never be remembered on Mother’s Day is Rizpah. Ask yourself this question: how many sermons about Rizpah have you heard preached from the pulpit? Probably, you have never heard or you have never preached a sermon about the extreme demonstration of love Rizpah displayed on behalf of her sons. Today, I want to honor Rizpah and her love for her children. Here is her story:
During the days of king David there was a severe famine over all the land that lasted three years. The time of the famine is unknown and except for the reference in 2 Samuel 21:1-10, there is no other reference to this famine in the Bible. Not knowing the reason for the famine, David went to inquire of the Lord in order to ascertain the cause of the famine and the reason the Lord was punishing Israel.
The Lord answered David’s prayer and he was told that Saul and his house were guilty of the massacre he had inflicted upon the Gibeonites. Nothing is known about this event and what caused Saul to shed Gibeonite blood. The Gibeonites were part of the original inhabitants of the land. With their tricks, they deceived Joshua and the people of Israel. Their deception led Joshua and Israel to make a covenant with them.
According to 2 Samuel 21:2, Saul, because of his zeal for the honor of Israel and Judah, tried to destroy the Gibeonites. Saul persecuted the Gibeonites and planned to exterminate them so that they would be completely removed from all the territory of Israel (2 Samuel 21:5). It is possible that the Gibeonites had done something wrong and Saul had used the occasion to exterminate them from Israel.
Because of the revelation from God that Saul’s bloodshed caused the famine, David called the Gibeonites together to decide how to repair the wrong done to them. David said to the Gibeonites: “What shall I do for you? And with what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the Lord?” (v. 3).
The Gibeonites refused to take any money from Saul or from his family. They also recognized that they were not allowed to kill anyone in Israel. When David asked again what he could to make amends for the crime committed against them, the Gibeonites answered:
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 handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the LORD” (2 Samuel 21:5-6).
To save Israel from the famine, David agreed to their request. In making his selection, David spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, because of the promise he had made to Jonathan. In order to select the seven descendants of Saul, David selected Armoni and Mephibosheth, the two sons of Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, Saul’s concubine. David also selected the five sons of Merab, Saul’s daughter and the wife of Adriel, the son of Barzillai the Meholathite.
The Gibeonites took the seven descendants of Saul and impaled them on the mountain before the Lord. The seven were impaled at the beginning of the barley harvest.
There, at the foot of the cross, “Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night” (2 Samuel 21:10).
The sackcloth was a type of clothing worn when mourning for the dead. Out of love for her dead sons, Rizpah kept a watch over her dead sons “from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens” (2 Samuel 21:10), that is, from March until October.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says that when a person was impaled (or crucified), the body should be removed at the end of the day: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree.” The sons of Rizpah remained on the stake more than six months and Rizpah stayed with her sons until it rained.
The reason the bodies were left on the cross was because they were making atonement for Saul’s sin and they had to remain there until the end of the drought. The coming of the rain was a sign that God’s judgement had come to an end and that the sins of the nation had been forgiven.
Day and night, week after week, Rizpah kept a dreary watch over her dead sons, scaring away scavenger birds from feeding on their bodies during the day and not allowing wild animals to eat their bodies at night.
This demonstration of maternal affection is very moving. Her action is the action of a loving mother moved by grief, deeply affected by the agony her sons suffered on that cruel cross. Her attempt at protecting the integrity of the exposed bodies of her sons reveals the fire of love which burned intensively in Rizpah’s heart.
The tragedy and the agony of Rizpah has been captured in the poem by Felicia Hemans:
The Vigil of Rizpah
Who watches on the mountain with the dead,
Alone before the awfulness of night?
A seer awaiting the deep spirit’s might?
A warrior guarding some dark pass of dread ?
No, a lorn woman! –On her drooping head,
Once proudly graceful, heavy beats the rain;
She reeks not–living for the unburied slain,
Only to scare the vulture from their bed.
So, night by night, her vigil hath she kept
With the pale stars, and with the dews hath wept.
Oh! surely some bright Presence from above
On those wild rocks the lonely one must aid!
Even so; a strengthener through all storm and shade,
The unconquerable Angel: mightiest Love!
May the memory of this loving mother be a blessing to all!
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary