Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: At the Pulpit (11/15/07)
TITLE: A Sermon in Sackcloth
By Richard Barnett
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The high place lies one mile south of Gibeon. A great Canaanite standing stone, a massebah, crowns the summit. From the high place you can see everything within the walls of Gibeon, which occupies a lower, saddle-backed hill.
Gibeon witnessed the first skirmish in David’s struggle for the kingship of Israel (2 Samuel 2:12-32). Today, three years of drought and famine throughout Israel force David to consult an oracle in the Lord’s name. When the oracle blames King Saul for murdering some Gibeonites, David summons the Gibeonites, who nurse an ancient grudge that began with something too trivial to record. The Gibeonites call it a case of bloodguilt and demand blood vengeance. Hoping to end the drought, David complies.
The Gibeonites impale their victims during the first days of the barley harvest, in our month of May. Our English Bible reads “hanged,” but hanging is merciful compared with the execution of Saul’s seven sons and grandsons—all those not protected by David’s oath to Jonathan. The Gibeonites even hate Saul’s memory too much to grant the seven a decent burial.
“Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds of the air touch them by day or the wild animals by night” (2 Samuel 21:10, NIV).
Now Rizpah takes the pulpit. As Saul’s concubine, Rizpah bore him two sons. After Saul’s death, she became the excuse for a dispute between Saul’s heir, Ishbosheth, and Abner, Saul’s cousin and general (2 Samuel 3:6-10).
Rizpah comes today to minister to her dead sons. She lacks the strength to take their remains down from the stakes. She can only spread her sackcloth on the standing stone.
Sackcloth, coarsely woven from black goat hair, is the traditional garb of mourning and repentance. Rizpah spreads her sackcloth upon the rock to proclaim that the land of Israel mourns for the seven princes. She guards their impaled corpses through summer heat until the first rains in October.
This discarded plaything of powerful men thus becomes the originator of non-violent protest. Rizpah guards the bodies against vultures and crows circling overhead and hyenas skulking below the hilltop. This nobody of a woman delivers an eternal sermon against injustice.
Rizpah’s sermon in sackcloth shows us, first, that it takes courage to withstand authority and public opinion. As one of Saul’s family, Rizpah risks a stoning from the moment she approaches the high place.
Second, Rizpah’s sackcloth upon the rock teaches that protest should never harm or dishonor those whom we would help. Peaceful protests like Rizpah’s can accomplish their purpose without self-defeating violence and hate. David’s action appeases only the Gibeonites. The drought will end only when David relents and orders the honorable burial of the slain princes. Rizpah’s silent sermon brings no grief or loss to the innocent. It does not harden opposing sides beyond reconciliation.
Third, Rizpah’s sackcloth upon the rock reminds us how we depend on women to stir our consciences. Women like Rizpah show us our duty, and they add iron to our souls and backbones to make sure we do our duty.
David should know killing innocent people never buys God’s favor. Perhaps David’s sensible wife Abigail intercedes for Rizpah because he repents before the vengeful Gibeonites can silence his voice and music forever. We hear echoes of Rizpah’s living sermon whenever we notice how the Psalms of David condemn injustice and support its victims.
We who do not live in fear today cannot ignore the plight of those who do. Zeal for doctrine or devotion without concern for others plays into the hands of injustice. We might as well join the oppressors if we forget Rizpah’s example.
First, we can pray for victims of terror and injustice, and insist on the protection of human rights and needs by all governments and institutions. Next, we may practice vigilance in upholding truth and opposing injustices in our society. Lastly, we can extend compassion to victims of injustice through direct support, personal help, and lives of moderation that do not exploit others.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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