‘But I Wasn’t There’: Lessons on Injustice from King David

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. So much to grieve.

Beyond these recent tragedies, there’s an egregiously long history of injustice toward black lives in America. This compounds and layers our sense of grief now. At some point, the discussion is no longer simply about this life, and this life, and this life; to move forward, we need to talk about 400 years of racial injustice.

As this history comes into focus, many white Americans will defend themselves, saying, “But I wasn’t there.”

Isn’t there a more biblical way to respond?

Mistreated Minority Group

In 2 Samuel 21, we see how King David responded to a similar situation in Israel about 3,000 years ago.

The story begins with a mystery: a bizarre famine has parched Israel for three years. Then the Lord reveals the problem: “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death” (v. 1). By this time, Saul is history. Yet the Lord’s judgment remains over the land as God’s people continue to ignore previous injustices perpetrated against a specific minority group. 

At some point, the discussion is no longer simply about this life, and this life, and this life; to move forward, Americans need to talk about 400 years of racial injustice.

Who were the Gibeonites? Their history is complex. They had first appeared in the Bible’s storyline many generations earlier, when they had tricked Israel into a covenant of peace with them. But God still expected the Israelites to honor their commitment of peace (Josh. 9).

As the generations passed, the Gibeonites maintained their ethnic identity. Did they have physical features that made them distinct from the Israelites? Did the Israelites think the Gibeonites spoke with an accent? Even after many generations, this group was still recognized as Gibeonites. They were still recognized as a minority ethnic group among the people of Israel.

Why did Saul put the Gibeonites to death? The narrator tells us, “Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down.” His motivation was disturbing: he did this “in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah” (v. 5). However God-honoring his motives may have sounded (“for the people of Israel and Judah!”), the result was simply evil. In his nationalistic pride, Saul did what many majority groups have often done throughout history: violently hated and persecuted a specific minority group.

I wish this were a historical anomaly. It’s not. 

Minorities in My Own Family Tree

On one side of my family tree, my grandmother was Armenian. Her family narrowly escaped death under the Turkish regime in the Ottoman Empire. Before 1915, there were perhaps more than 2 million Armenian people living in modern-day Turkey. Nine years after their government turned against them, there were only about 500,000. Seventy-five percent of the entire people group died, disappeared, or fled for their lives. To this day, the Turkish government denies accusations (and the proofs) of genocide. As you might imagine, this denial has done nothing to foster healing or reconciliation. 

All five of my kids come from family trees that survived brutal opposition and inhumane evil that was endorsed, executed, and enabled by government policies.

On the other side of my family tree, my grandfather was born in 1919 to a Jewish family in Poland. While he was a child, his mother immigrated to the United Sates with two children and without all of the proper paperwork. I assume you’re familiar with the history of what happened to millions of Jewish people who remained in Europe. 

Three of my kids share my genes. In the grace of adoption, two of my five children were born in Florida with African American parents. 

All five of my kids come from family trees that survived brutal opposition and inhumane evil that was endorsed, executed, and enabled by government policies. 

Back to King David

We don’t know the extent of Saul’s atrocities against the Gibeonites. The Bible tells us starkly that Saul had “planned to destroy” them (v. 5). Under King David’s reign, perhaps the Israelites were “ready to move on” from that part of their history. To be sure, there’s no record that David’s administration ever passed or upheld any racist policy against the Gibeonites. Perhaps the Israelites had begun to forget. 

But do you know who hadn’t forgotten? The Gibeonites (vv. 3–5). If no one has tried to kill you today, it doesn’t erase the memory of how your grandfather was killed or how your grandmother was mistreated. Imagine if it had been your mother or father. Changes in government policy are important, but they will not immediately create a culture of trust.

The Lord hadn’t forgotten either. Even years later, when official government policy had changed, the Lord didn’t want this evil to go unaddressed. 

Even years later, when official government policy had changed, the Lord didn’t want this evil to go unaddressed.

How would David respond to this moment of conviction? The unfolding story is complex and multifaceted (as justice is often is today). I’ll highlight three elements of David’s response:

  1. David listened. He didn’t start with self-defense. He took time to hear from the Gibeonite minority group (vv. 3–6). Listening is where compassion and wisdom begin. “A fool,” however, “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his own opinion” (Prov. 18:2). 
  2. David did something. The goal wasn’t to simply placate the agitated minority group and then just go back to the way things were. He sought justice related to the evils of the past (vv. 8–9). This is no doubt where some of the complexity was felt in David’s day; it’s disputable even on the grounds of the Mosaic law whether David should’ve allowed for seven members of Saul’s household to be hanged in this instance. But that is what he ordered. (And if that sounds ancient and barbaric to our modern ears, perhaps we should withhold judgment at least long enough to remember that not long ago an international court sentenced 12 Nazi officials to execution by hanging after the Nuremberg Trials.) 
  3. David cared about the condemned. Justice is multifaceted. This chapter pauses in an unexpected way to describe the grief of Rizpah, the mother of two of Saul’s executed sons. We watch the peculiar details of her peaceful protest, which lasted for months out in the desert at the site where her sons were hanged. Then we watch David­—heart moved by a mother’s grief—show honor to Saul’s sons. David goes further and orders his men to retrieve the bones of Saul and Jonathan, so they can finally receive a fitting burial (vv. 10–14). Saul had many serious faults—remember not only his mistreatment of the Gibeonites, but also his venomous opposition to David. Yet David honors the house of Saul to the end. In David’s kingdom, however imperfect it was, even the guilty and the condemned were treated with a measure of dignity.

Finally, the rain of God’s blessing begins to fall anew across the land (v. 14).

Why is the rain finally free to fall? A simplistic reading might lead us to think that the seven men, hanged for the sins of the people, were an atoning sacrifice. I don’t see that. First, remember that it’s questionable whether David should have allowed their execution, and, second, that even after their execution the drought continued for months. 

From a human perspective, what was the tipping point in the story? I suggest that it was not seven more dead bodies that made the difference. Instead, it was a heart of repentance. 

David discovered this truth: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17). 

A prophet from a later generation put it like this:

With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? . . . . Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:6–8)

What pleased the Lord was brokenhearted humility. David could have insisted, “But I wasn’t there!” Instead, when reminded of the pain and guilt of the past, he chose to humble himself, listen, and do something.

So, Today?

Today, the church of Jesus Christ has an atoning sacrifice that has already removed the guilt and shame of the past. We have an atoning sacrifice that reconciles us to God. This same atoning sacrifice “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) that otherwise exists between Jews and Gibeonites (and Armenians, and Turks, and white- and black- and brown-skinned people). That atoning sacrifice has been made, forgiveness is our inheritance, and the dividing wall is demolished by grace.

David could have insisted, ‘But I wasn’t there!’ Instead, when reminded of the pain and guilt of the past, he chose to humble himself, listen, and do something.

But we also have history. Not long ago in America we literally built brick walls so that white Christians wouldn’t have to sing about amazing grace in the same room as black Christians. To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened in my lifetime. But it did happen in my father’s, only one generation ago. 

How will we respond? The cheap response insists, “But I wasn’t there!” I’m convinced there’s a better path forward. This is vital for our mission, for our unity, and for the glory of our Redeemer. In 2020, God is giving us a unique opportunity to say, “We care about what has happened. We care about what is happening. We want to humble ourselves, and listen, and do something. We don’t want to go back to the way things were before. As people who serve the God of all justice, we want to seek justice for all.”