Last Man Standing — Part One
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Last Man Standing — Part One

2 Samuel 4:1–12  (ID: 3462)

After Abner’s death, Saul’s kingdom continued to disintegrate. Ish-bosheth was assassinated by his own captains, Rechab and Baanah, and a profound sense of fear and uncertainty overshadowed all of Israel. Yet wickedness and dismay are not unique to the Old Testament, teaches Alistair Begg. Sin defiles the human heart, and merely cleaning ourselves up or “getting a little religion” can’t fix it. We need heart transplants. Even in the chaos, though, God remains sovereign. By receiving His mercy, we discover salvation.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 and 2 Samuel, Volume 5

The King and the Holy City 2 Samuel 1:1–6:23 Series ID: 109015

Sermon Transcript: Print

And I invite you to turn with me to 2 Samuel and to chapter 4, and I will read from verse 1. Second Samuel 4:1:

“When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed. Now Saul’s son had two men who were captains of raiding bands; the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, sons of Rimmon a man of Benjamin from Beeroth (for Beeroth also is counted part of Benjamin; the Beerothites fled to Gittaim and have been sojourners there to this day).

“Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled, and as she fled in her haste, he fell and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.

“Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, set out, and about the heat of the day they came to the house of Ish-bosheth as he was taking his noonday rest. And they came into the midst of the house as if to get wheat, and they stabbed him in the stomach. Then Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped. When they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedroom, they struck him and put him to death and beheaded him. They took his head and went by … way of the Arabah all night, and brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David at Hebron. And they said to the king, ‘Here is the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life. The Lord has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring.’ But David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, ‘As the Lord lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, when one told me, “Behold, Saul is dead,” and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?’ And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Let’s pray as we turn again to the Bible:

In the stillness of the morning hour, our gracious God, we look to the pages of your written Word, asking that you will come and enable us to think and to respond and to believe. For the sake of Jesus we ask it. Amen.

Alec Motyer, who has been translated to glory, was as big a help to me, and consequently to us, in our studying the Old Testament. And a friend wrote to me the other day and reminded me of a very good quote from Motyer, which I immediately scribbled down for myself and want to share with you now. This is what he writes: “The Old Testament is the Word of God. It exists not to record, for our … amusement, the quaint notions of ancient man but, for our learning, imperishable principles of divine truth.”[1] So, not so that we might say, “Oh, those are some quaint notions from a long time ago,” but rather that we might find ourselves saying, “Here we are encountering imperishable principles of divine truth.”

Now, I have to keep reminding myself of these kind of things, and I would guess that you probably do as well—rehearsing what has gone before in order that we don’t lose our way in coming back to the next section of the book. We’ve almost arrived now at the moment that we and David have been waiting for, for some considerable time—actually, for approximately a quarter of a century. It’s that long since we met David back in the sixteenth chapter of 1 Samuel, when Samuel had shown up at the house of Jesse with the prospect of anointing someone who was going to be the future king. And you’ll recall that on that occasion, although he’d worked his way through the tallest and the brightest and through the strongest, he still had not reached the individual. And David, you remember, was called—somewhat surprisingly, even on the part of his father Jesse—from out of the fields, only to be anointed by Samuel. And on that occasion, we remember, the Spirit of God rushed upon him.[2]

Now, on that day, as a teenager, when that happened and he went back afterwards back to the sheep again, he could never have guessed at what lay ahead of him on the pathway to the throne of Israel. It’s pretty obvious that it has not been a straight line, that all the roads that have been leading him there have been winding roads. And we have met him first as a shepherd, and then a soldier, a hero of the people, hated by his boss, the king. He’s lived as a fugitive. He’s been assailed by evildoers, confronted by his foes, and he’s had plenty of opportunity to take his own advice, the advice that he gives us in the Twenty-Seventh Psalm: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”[3]

And you realize that as we work our way through this piece of David’s history, when you turn to verses like that in the Psalms, you realize that he writes out of the fullness of his own experience. This is not some kind of theoretical notion that he is suggesting, but he is having to speak to himself, and in the same way that we need to speak to ourselves. It’s not time to pause on this, but we should acknowledge that many of us have been waiting for a lot of things for a lot of time—that some of us have been praying year after year for things that, as yet, we have seen no obvious answer to.

When we read the story of David, we follow in the path of someone whose journey was a circuitous journey, whose pathway was marked by all kinds of obstacles.

And so, when we read the story of David, when we follow the pathway of God’s anointed, we follow in the path of someone whose journey was a circuitous journey, whose pathway was marked by all kinds of obstacles, in the same way that we find ourselves saying, “Well, why, if I am the follower of Jesus, why would it be as difficult as this? Why would things not simply fall into line? Why is it that there seem to be so many bits and pieces that are unjoined together like a dreadful jigsaw puzzle where someone has lost a third of the pieces from the box, and it seems impossible to put it back together again?” David is on that kind of journey.

And his path, as I say, was strewn with obstacles. And the obstacles were largely people. But as we’ve seen, in order for David to become the king, they need to be removed. And they haven’t just been removed one at a time on every occasion. So, for example, both Saul and his son Jonathan died in the same incident. No sooner was David, then, as we have seen, installed as a king in Hebron over Judah than we find that a rival king is established in the North over the other tribes, and this fellow by the name of Ish-bosheth is the puppet king, as it were, of this man Abner. And with that established, the long war then ensued.

And during this long war, one of David’s nephews, Asahel, had been killed by Abner. And Abner, of course, as you know, had been the kingmaker. He’d been the one who had put Ish-bosheth in place. And then we saw how he switched sides in order that he might establish David as the king. And then, when Joab heard about the way in which David had treated Abner, he took matters into his own hands, and he murdered Abner as an act of revenge. Now we’re at 4:1. All right? And Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, is about to go the way of all flesh. He is about to be the victim of another grisly murder.

Now, I sought to outline the chapter for myself just with four words: first of all, considering disintegration—the disintegration of the house of Saul in verses 1–4; and then the assassination in verses 5–7; and then the conversation which takes place between David and these ugly brothers; and then, finally, in verse 12, which we’ll never reach this morning—hopefully this evening—the retribution which is meted out on this murderous pair. All right?

The Disintegration of Saul’s House

So, let’s begin, then, with this notion of disintegration.

The house of Saul has proved straightforwardly to be a house of cards. During the long war, we’re told that the house of David grew stronger and stronger; the house of Saul became weaker and weaker.[4] And Ish-bosheth, who is the central character here before us now, from the very beginning appears as a weak character. He is obviously not like his father. And in fact, back in chapter 2, straightforwardly, we read that “Abner the son of Ner, [the] commander of Saul’s army”—notice the verbs—“took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul … brought him over to Mahanaim, and … made him king over Gilead,”[5] and so on. So he “took” him. He said, “Come on.” He “brought” him: “This is where we’re going.” And he “made” him. And so, he was essentially a puppet king.

The high spot for him was when, you will remember, in chapter 3, he challenged Abner about the fact that Abner had gone in to one of Saul’s concubines, a lady by the name of Rizpah. But that was, I think, his moment in the sun, because you will recall that Abner came back at him with such a volley that it stunned him into a fearful silence. And I think, there in 3:11: “And Ish-bosheth could not answer Abner another word, because he feared him.” All right?

So, he’s got a real predicament. He couldn’t live with Abner, and now he discovers that he can’t live without him. Because the courage—the little that he had—has now left him: “When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed.” He lost whatever grip he had. His situation is hopeless. And what has now begun to happen within, if you like, his palace has filtered out inevitably into the population—that in the same way today, as people say, “Well, what is happening in the White House?” or “What is happening at 10 Downing Street?” or “What is happening in Buckingham Palace?” the word gets out, and whether it is a strong story or a weak story, whatever it might be, it becomes the focus of conversation. And that’s what we discover has happened here: “His courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed.” It’s a bit like later on, when we read of the wise men coming and Herod discovering what was going on, and Matthew records, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”[6] And so you have a very similar situation: “And when Ish-bosheth heard this, he was dismayed, and all Israel was dismayed with him.”

Now, the word that is used there for “dismay” is an important word. It is the word that expresses the sensation that one has when impending doom awaits us—when we have the awareness that “this is not going to be good. If this is the case, what we’re up against is really tough.” It’s a word that is used not a lot, but it is used throughout the Scriptures. And perhaps you will remember its use when, in our studies in Genesis with the story of Joseph, we recalled how, in that great moment when Joseph, if you like, removes his finery as representative of his position of authority in Egypt and discloses himself to his brothers, and they realize, “Goodness gracious! This is Joseph, our brother, that we’ve been speaking to all this time!” And it is recorded for us, “His brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed [in] his presence.”[7] In other words, their knees turned to jelly.

And so the people, “all Israel,” had been convinced by Abner about the opportunity that they were going to have in serving David. That’s what we saw before. Remember, Abner had met with the elders and had said to them, “You know, this Ish-bosheth thing is going nowhere, essentially. I think we will do far better if we go over to the side of David.” You remember how we read that? I hope you do. And so he went off, and he had a feast and a nice time with David, and then he left. But he never got back. So in other words, at this point, the people don’t know. They know that Abner had convinced them about going over to David, but they never heard the report of the meeting with David, because he never made it back to Mahanaim—because he was killed by Joab on the way. Remember, he was brought back.

So, what happens? Well, at the breakfast table of people and in the marketplace, there would be a profound sense of uncertainty whereby people would find themselves meeting one another and saying, “Have you heard the news?” There’s nothing new under the sun, incidentally. No matter where you go in the world, children play at the beach. Everybody loves ice cream. Old men sit around and smoke pipes and talk about old women, and old women sit around and look at old men and say, “How can we make it with these characters?” And so it is that the unfolding story of life is… We ought not to read this and go, “Oh, wow, there’s a very unusual situation.” No, not at all! They would have met one another in the marketplace and said, “Does anyone know what’s going on? Does anyone know what’s going on? I thought Abner would come back with the news. He hasn’t come back. What happened? It appears as though all the things that stabilize us, all the structures that keep us, are crumbling.” Which is, in fact, what was happening. The house of Saul was getting weaker and weaker.

Now, am I the only one who is meeting people in the marketplace in the last seven days and asking the very same question: “Does anyone know what’s going on?” Is there not a fearful sense of uncertainty that almost grips the nation? So here we are, and we’re reading about something that’s three millennia back, and we’re saying to ourselves, “This is what these people were dealing with then, and this is what we’re dealing with now.” And throughout all of history it has been so, in the midst of all of the confusion. That’s why it’s wonderfully helpful to read history and to read those who have commentated on history. Calvin, actually, commentating on this and living in his era, says, “Let us be aware that all is governed by the incomprehensible providence of God … he will guide the things which are ordained to the end that he has determined [in] himself.”[8] He will bring about that which he has purposed from all of eternity.

And so, in actual fact, instead of saying to ourself, “Isn’t it horrible being dismayed as we are?” our dismay may actually lead us to dependence, which would, of course, be a tremendous thing, because most of us suffer from a spirit of independence, of autonomy, of “I’m in charge, I can fix it.” The reason that we find ourselves in such a predicament is because we have actually begun to believe that—that there is no God who orders all things according to the eternal counsel of his will, that we are somehow cast without paddles in a boat that has a huge hole in it on the ocean of a random life.

The Christian says, “No! No. Though the fig tree doesn’t blossom, though there be no fruit on the vine, though the olive all fails,” says Habakkuk, in another kind of day, “yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will joy in the God of my salvation.”[9] That’s what we find all the way through. When the vast army comes over the horizon and Jehoshaphat, as the leader in his day, is confronted by an overwhelming prospect that brings him to dismay, he says to the people, “Well, let us acknowledge where we are before God.” And he lifts his eyes to heaven, and he says, “Lord, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”[10] The psalmist: “I lift my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[11]

God is secretly at work to bring all his purposes to their appointed end.

You see, God is secretly at work. God is secretly at work to bring all his purposes to their appointed end. That is why, you see, the reading of this material, set in the great panorama of the story of God’s plan from all of eternity, ought to help us.

Well, this is Ish-bosheth. This is it. We’re only in verse 1! “When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed.” Well, we’re reading this, and we say, “Well, there must be somebody. Isn’t there somebody that he can lay his hands on? Isn’t there somebody that he can look to?” And we’re introduced to a couple. And here they are. And well, if you immediately read ahead, you’ll realize that they’re really not much help.

But in actual fact, here, as we begin to read it now, he had “two men … captains.” That’s good. “Raiding bands.” Tough guys. That’s good. Baanah and Rechab. Where were they from? Well, they were from the right kind of background, and they have been there within the tribe of Benjamin. Well, there we go. Don’t we have somebody here that can provide encouragement? So, to deal with his dismay, we could look to them? Well, on paper, of course, as we’re first introduced to them, they hold out some kind of potential. But in reality, as we’ll see, they’re just a dreadful threat.

And then you say, “Well, what about verse 4? Why does verse 4 just pop up there? Why do we get introduced to Saul’s grandson all of a sudden? “Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet.” “Well,” you say, “well, that’s a very interesting piece of information. But does it really fit?” Yes, I think it fits. What are we dealing with? We’re dealing with the fact that Abner was the powerhouse behind Ish-bosheth. Abner has died. Ish-bosheth is creaking on his chair. That has reverberated through the entire nation. Now we find ourselves saying, “Well, is there anybody that would be able to step into the gap?” No, because he’s the last man standing. And Mephibosheth was only five years old when his grandfather and his father had been taken away. And now he’s, what, twelve or thirteen? And he’s clearly in no position to lead. He would be incapable of, certainly, fighting in battle. And that’s the predicament. That’s the disintegration.

Ish-bosheth, who had been frightened before the face of Abner, is now neutralized. All of Israel is terrified. It is clear that the regime’s days are numbered. And now we’ll find out what these characters are really like.

Ish-Bosheth’s Assassination

And in verses 5–7, we have this assassination: “Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah…” You’ll notice that they’re introduced first of all as Baanah and Rechab, and then it changes, maybe ’cause Rechab was the leader in this. I don’t know. But it tells us that, in verse 5, they “set out.”

And if we had been around in Mahanaim on the day when they arrived in the noonday sun, there is nothing about them that would have given us any reason to be suspicious. The storehouse, containing wheat, was their destination, a storehouse that was within the province of Ish-bosheth. But clearly they had more on their minds than cereal. This wasn’t, if you like, a routine visit to Whole Foods. In actual fact… Although some of the commentators say, “I don’t know if this was opportunism on their part”—that they actually went to get wheat, and one said to the other, “Why don’t we just kill him while we’re here?” It seems highly unlikely. I think it is premeditated. And the very fact of the timing gives indication of that.

The journey that they would have to take would take them through the night and halfway into the day. And so, if they had planned it out, they would have said, “If we leave now and we go through the night, we will get there just around the time when the whole place is shutting down,” à la Italy or other parts of Europe, for siesta. The people who have been up early, they’ll be tired, and they will be asleep. And so, there they are. And so it was as we’re told: “And they came into the midst of the house,” verse 6, “as if to get wheat, and they stabbed him in the stomach.”

Now, there’s a lot of stomach stabbing been going on. We have to freely admit that, isn’t there? We have just witnessed two brothers up to the same deal. Joab and Abishai had killed Abner in that same manner. That was as a result, of course, of Abner having killed Asahel as a result of Asahel keeping running and taking his spear into his stomach. However, in the case of Joab and Abishai, their murder was an act of vengeance. In the case of the death of Asahel, who took a spear into his tummy, it was, if you like, an unfortunate occurrence in the midst of a battle setting. But when you read this, you say, “What motivates these fellows to stab Ish-bosheth in the stomach?”

Now, it says quite clearly what they did. They “came into the midst of the house,” under the disguise, as it were, of getting wheat, and “they stabbed him in the stomach. Then Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped.” So they stabbed him, and they made their escape. Now, then in verse 7, it repeats this.

Now, if you imagine this in dialogue form—this is how I managed to handle this—if you imagine this in dialogue form, then I think it’ll make sense. It’s a Hebraistic, a Hebrew kind of way of recording things.

So, you see, there we have it. Verse 6: “And they came into the midst of the house as if to get wheat, and they stabbed him in the stomach,” and then they escaped.

Someone says, “What? Is he dead?” Right? ’Cause we don’t know, here in verse 6, if he’s dead. All we know is that they went in the house and they stabbed him in the stomach and then they ran away. Well, if you imagine it in dialogue, the person says, “What? Is he dead?”

And the person says, “Yeah. Listen to what I’m telling you.”

And then he says, verse 7: “They came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedroom,” where he should be private and safe, and “they struck him and [they] put him to death and [they] beheaded him.”

The person says, “This is beyond gruesome!”

And the other person in the dialogue says, “Yeah! You know, when you think about it, that’s exactly what happened to his father!” Because remember, when the Philistines came on Saul in the battleground and found that he was dead, they beheaded him.

“Yeah, but what did Rechab and Baanah want with Ish-bosheth’s head? What did they want his head for? Why didn’t they just leave it behind?”

Well, they brought it to David at Hebron. They traveled some sixty miles, mainly under cover of darkness—which makes perfect sense, because it is such a grisly and macabre picture, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t want to make light of it in any way, but, I mean, did they take turns carrying the head? Did they have it on a trolley? Did they cover it with a blanket? Were they so horribly brutal and calloused by this point in their lives that they couldn’t have cared less? They knew what they were doing, they knew why they were doing it, and they knew what they thought they would get as a reward for their evil deed.

Bad Characters in Need of Mercy

Now, we’ll have to wait until the evening to deal with how that unfolds. Because in my notes, I paused, and I said to myself, “You know, there will certainly be somebody, or there will be people, listening to my voice who, by this point in what I’ve been saying, by this point in seeking to unfold the story, they have already recalled the statement made by Motyer at the beginning. And despite what Motyer says about the Old Testament providing imperishable, eternal truths, there will be some who in their heads are saying, ‘I don’t think so. I think, actually, it is quaint notions for our amusement.’ And the person would then say, ‘So what in the world has this possibly got to do with me?’” And so I’m going to end by seeking to answer that for now.

These two characters were bad. They were bad. I recognize that bad is a bad word at this point in the twentieth century. For people are largely not bad. They may be misguided. They may be poor. They may be psychologically impoverished. They may be uneducated. They may be fearful. But they are not bad. After all, who would ever say what’s bad?

The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.

Now this, my friends, is the point of departure. What the Bible says is—let’s quote the Bible—Jeremiah 17: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”[12] “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Whose heart? Everybody’s heart. That’s the verdict of the Bible: that since sin entered into the world, the good which God has made for the enjoyment of his creation has been marred as a result of the rebellion of man, and the badness is not a badness that is simply out there in the environment, but it is a badness that is at the very core of human beings. If you like, the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, as we often say.

And this, you see, was a real bomb into the lives of those who in Jesus’ day regarded themselves as good and who thought that as long as they managed to make sure that they keep all the bad stuff outside of them, then they will be doing very, very well. And so Jesus, recognizing this, “called the people to him.” This is Mark 7:14. He called the people to him, and he said, “Hear me, all of you, and understand.” Here we go: “‘There[’s] nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’ And when he[’d] entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, ‘… Are you also without understanding? [Don’t you] see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart’”—the very epicenter of human existence—“‘[It doesn’t enter] his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And [so] he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him.’” “What comes out of a person.”

Well, here you go. You see, because you read this and you say, “Can you believe that people would do that, just a cold-blooded murder?” Why all these murders? Have we been so dumbed down in our generation as to simply acknowledge statistic after statistic after statistic, whether it is for the city of Chicago or wherever else it is, where, on an average weekend, murder after murder after murder. Does anybody stop and say, “How did we become like this? Why are we like this? What possesses Rechab and Baanah to go for wheat and stick it in Ish-bosheth’s stomach? Why are they like that?”

Oh, the people say, “Well, it’s a lack of education,” or “It’s a lack of social status,” or it’s whatever else it might be. No, no. The Bible has got it perfectly clear. Listen to Jesus: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these … things come from within, and … defile a person.”[13]

You see, the person says, “Well, you see, I’m not a murderer.” That’s what my friend said to me on the golf course. He said, “You know, I’m not a sinner. Sinners are murderers and people like that.” But the look he gave me—if only looks could kill, you know? But that’s beside the point. That’s beside the point. So, what’s the answer? Well, the person says, “Well, I need to clean my act up. I need to make sure I’ve got to get a little religion in my life. I’ll perhaps start going to Parkside Church and see if anything sticks there at all.” No, I’ll tell you what we all need. This is what the Bible says: a heart transplant. A heart transplant. “I will give you,” says the prophet Ezekiel… God says through the prophet, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.”[14]

You see, these two characters were bad. And in our badness, we constantly seek to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves with other people: “Well, I’m not as bad as him. You should see him. Oh, you should meet her.” So we’ve got this idea that somehow or another, God grades on the curve. And although we might not get an A, at least we might get a C plus, and it might be enough to scrape us through. And the Bible says there’s not a chance of that.

This is the kind of logic in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia is pleading to Shylock, remember? And she says,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.[15]


Now, let me tell you one of the ways you’ll know if you’re a genuine Christian. Here’s one of the ways you will know. Not because you’re gonna come and tell me, “I did this, and I did that, and I did the next thing.” No! When you come and tell me, “I received mercy.” “I received mercy.” That is what the apostle Paul explains: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I [was] the [chief]. But I received mercy.”[16] And justice will be meted out on that final day. We move towards a day when we will stand before the bar of God’s justice. You want to ask him for justice? No! For mercy!

Jesus’ stories were fantastic. Nobody could miss his point. In the Gospel of Luke, when he says, “You know, there was a fellow who was a pretty outstanding chap, and he regarded himself as righteous, and he went up to the temple to pray. A fellow along the corridor was a tax collector. And the Pharisee, who was standing by himself”—you remember this—“said, ‘God, I thank you I am not like them: extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or certainly not like this tax collector.’” So, he justifies himself on the basis of what he is not, and then he seeks to justify himself on the basis of what he is: “I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.”[17] You see it?

I was watching a friend preaching in the open air somewhere in England just before I went to sleep last night. And as the man was explaining the gospel on a board, a man came up and interrupted him and said to him, “Hey, look, it’s got nothing to do with anything, what you’re saying. It’s what a person does that counts. It’s just about what you do.” “That’s the Pharisee,” you say: “It’s just what I do. And I do enough good, and I prevent myself from doing enough bad that I will be pretty well guaranteed safety of passage, because I’m not like Rechab, and I am not Baanah.”

Oh yes you are! That’s the point. And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but he beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And Jesus says, “And I’ll tell you what: this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[18] The tax collector depended on God’s mercy and was pronounced justified. The Pharisee thought he was righteous and sought to justify himself. That is the distinction.

And that is really why we have the entire Bible: not so that, in studying 2 Samuel 4, we could have some quaint notions about some interesting events that took place but in order that these eternal verities may dawn upon us.

If justice be your plea, look out! What we need is mercy. And when we discover God’s mercy, then we discover salvation. And then we have a song to sing.

Can I ask you, as you hear my voice this morning: Have you personally, in your heart of hearts, ever gone to God and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”? And if not, what’s your plan? If justice be your plea, look out! What we need is mercy. And when we discover God’s mercy, then we discover salvation. And then we have a song to sing.

Let us pause for a moment in prayer.

Perhaps someone says, “Well, I don’t really know how to get from where you’re taking me to where I need to be.” Well, maybe a prayer like this you could make your own: “Almighty God, you are rich in mercy, and mercy is what I need. Thank you that Jesus, by his death, paid the penalty for all the wrong of which I’m guilty. Thank you that he bore the punishment that I deserve to grant me a forgiveness I don’t deserve. Almighty God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And God hears those prayers.

[1] Alec Motyer, Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1996), 123.

[2] See 1 Samuel 16:6–13.

[3] Psalm 27:14 (ESV).

[4] See 2 Samuel 3:1.

[5] 2 Samuel 2:8–9 (ESV).

[6] Matthew 2:3 (ESV).

[7] Genesis 45:3 (ESV).

[8] John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel: Chapters 1–13, trans. Douglas Kelly (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 142.

[9] Habakkuk 3:17–18 (paraphrased).

[10] 2 Chronicles 20:12 (paraphrased).

[11] Psalm 121:1–2 (paraphrased).

[12] Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV).

[13] Mark 7:21–23 (ESV).

[14] Ezekiel 36:26 (ESV).

[15] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, 4.1.

[16] 1 Timothy 1:15–16 (ESV).

[17] Luke 18:9–12 (paraphrased).

[18] Luke 18:13–14 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.