Misjudging Mephibosheth

2 Samuel 16

"It is human to err." True, yet that does not excuse it, especially here a fellow-mortal is unjustly condemned by us. Appearances are proverbially deceptive: we need to get beneath the surface in order to form a right estimate. Gossip is never to be credited, in fact should not be heeded at all. Only from the mouths of two or more reliable witnesses is an accusation against another to be given a hearing. Even then there must be a fair trial accorded, so that the one accused may know what he is charged with, and have opportunity to defend himself and refute the charge. Only arrant cowards stab in the back or under the cover of darkness. A safe rule to be guided by is never to say anything behind a person’s back which you would be afraid to say and are not prepared to substantiate before his face. Alas, how commonly is that rule violated in this evil day! How ready people are to imagine and believe the worst, rather than the best of others—few have escaped this infection.

"Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). The setting of those words is worthy of note. The Lord Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath day, and His enemies—ever seeking some pretext to condemn Him— were angry. He had flagrantly disregarded their dicta: He had acted at complete variance with their ideas of how the Sabbath should be kept holy. Therefore they at once jumped to the harsh conclusion that the Redeemer had desecrated the Sabbath. Christ pointed out that their verdict was both an arbitrary and superficial one. Circumstances alter cases: as the circumcising of a child on the Sabbath, if that were the eighth day from its birth, (v. 23). It is the motive which largely determines the value of an act, and it is sinful to guess at the motives of others. Moreover, the reign of law must not be suffered to freeze the milk of human kindness in our veins, nor make us impervious to human suffering.

"Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). Is not this a word which is much needed today by both writer and reader? There is a twofold danger to be guarded against. First, to form too favorable a judgment of people, particularly of those who profess to be Christians. Words are cheap, and gushiness is never a mark of reality. That a man calls himself a Christian, and sincerely thinks himself to be so, does not make him one. The fact that he is a great reader of the Bible, a regular attender of religious services, and is sound in his morals, is no proof that he has been born again. "Lay hands suddenly on no man" (1 Tim. 5:22): look for the marks of regeneration and be satisfied you have found them, before you address any one as a Brother or Sister in Christ. It is our own fault it we are imposed upon by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

On the other hand, there is just as real a danger of forming too harsh a judgment of people, and imputing to hypocrisy what is genuine. A man is not to be made an offender for a word, nor does he deserve to be snubbed because he fails to fawn upon and flatter you. We must not expect everyone to pronounce our shibboleths or see eye to eye with us in everything. A kindly heart often beats beneath a gruff exterior. A babbling brook is very shallow, but still waters run deep. Not all are endowed with five talents. Others may not have had the same opportunities and privileges you have enjoyed. Let not a single action alienate a friend: bear in mind the general tenor of his conduct towards you. Be as ready to forgive as you desire to be forgiven. Remember there is still much in you which grates upon others. When wronged pray over it before you pass a verdict. Many a person has afterwards bitterly regretted a hasty decision. Take all the circumstances into account and "judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment."

We have begun this chapter thus because the passage we are about to consider (2 Sam. 16:1-4) shows us David grievously misjudging one who was affectionately attached to him. David was unwarrantably influenced by "appearances." He gave ear to an unconfirmed slander against an absent one. He at once believed the worst, without affording the accused any opportunity to vindicate himself. He was one to whom David had shown much kindness in the past, and now that a servant brought to him an evil report, the king accepted the same, concluding that the master had turned traitor. It is true that human nature is lamentably fickle, and that kindness is often rewarded with the basest of ingratitude; yet all are not unthankful and treacherous. We must not allow the wickedness of some to prejudice us against all. We should deal impartially and judge righteously of everyone alike: yet only divine grace— humbly and earnestly sought—will enable us to remain just and merciful after we have been deceived and wronged a few times.

Later, David discovered that he had been deceived (2 Sam. 19:24-30) and was obliged to reverse his harsh verdict; but this did not alter the fact that he had grievously misjudged Mephibosheth and had harbored unjust prejudices against him. And this incident, like many another narrated in Holy Writ, is recorded, my reader, for our learning and warning. We are prone to misjudge even our friends, and because of this, are in danger of crediting false reports about them. But there is no reason why we should be deceived, either for or against another: "He that is spiritual discerneth all things" (1 Cor. 2:15 margin). Ah, there is the seat of our trouble: it is because we are so unspiritual that we so often judge according to the appearance, and not righteous judgment. A jaundiced eye is incapable of seeing things in their true colors. When the regenerate walk after the flesh, they are just as liable to be imposed upon as are the unregenerate. And this, as we shall see, was the cause of David’s sad error.

"And when David was a little past the top of the hill, behold, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him" (2 Sam. 16:1). The topographical references connects with 15:30 and 32. On leaving Jerusalem David and his little band had crossed the Kidron, and ascended Olivet. They were making for Bahurim (v. 5), which was a low-lying village in the descent from Olivet to the Jordan. Ultimately, they pitched camp at Mahanaim, on the far side of the Jordan (17:24). Thus it will be seen that they were passing through that portion of the land which was allotted to the tribe of Benjamin (see Josh. 18:11-28), which was the territory of Saul’s tribe, and that was surely dangerous ground for him to tread! This is the first point for us to carefully weigh, for it is one of the keys which opens to us the inner significance of our present incident.

There is nothing meaningless in God’s Word, even the geographical details often contain deeply important instruction, pointing valuable spiritual lessons, if only we take the trouble to search them out. This is what we have to do here, for the Holy Spirit has given us no direct hint that the direction which David was now taking furnishes a clue to his subsequent conduct. In making for the territory of Saul’s tribe, David was (typically) entering upon the enemy’s ground should the reader deem this a rather far-fetched conclusion on our part, we would ask him to note that in the verse which immediately follows our present passage, we are plainly told that there came out "a man of the family of the house of Saul . . . and cursed" David! Surely that was the devil as a "roaring lion" raging against him. Now to come on to the enemy’s ground, my reader, is to give him an "advantage of us" (2 Cor. 2:11), and that is to come under his power; and when under his power our judgment is blinded, and we are quite incapable of judging righteously.

But there is another little detail here, a confirmatory one, which is necessary for us to observe, if we are to view this incident in its true perspective. Our passage opens with the word "And," and common-place and trivial as that may appear, yet it is a vital link in the chain of thought we are now endeavoring to follow out. That "And" tells us we must connect what is recorded at the beginning of chapter 16 with that which is narrated at the close of 15. And there, as we saw in the previous chapter, David was guilty of dishonest subterfuge, counselling the priests to feign themselves the faithful servants of Absalom, when in reality they were David’s spies. Therein the king was manifestly acting in the energy of the flesh seeking by his own carnal efforts to "defeat the counsel of Ahithophel" (15; 34), instead of leaving it with the Lord to answer his prayer to that end (15:31).

Here, then, is vitally-important practical teaching for you and me, dear reader. If we are not to be misguided by superficial appearances and to judge "righteous judgment," then we must avoid these mistakes that David made. The two small details we have dwelt upon above, explain why he so grievously misjudged Mephibosheth. If, then, we are to have clear discernment, which will preserve us from being deceived by glib-tongued imposters and taken in by apparent acts of kindness toward us, we must walk after the Spirit and not after the flesh, and tread the paths of righteousness and not get on to the enemy’s territory. "He that is spiritual discerneth all things" (1 Cor. 2:15): yes, the "spiritual," and not the carnal. As we have said above, it is our own fault if we form a wrong judgment of others—due to making the mistakes David did. "If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light" (Matthew 6:22).

"And when David was a little past the top of the hill, behold, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him, with a couple of asses saddled; and upon them two hundred loaves of bread, and a hundred bunches of raisins, and a hundred of summer fruits, and a bottle of wine" (v. 1). Those who have not followed us throughout this series of chapters should turn to 1 Samuel 9, where not a little is recorded of these two men. Mephibosheth was the grandson of Saul, the archenemy of David, yet to him David showed great kindness because he was the son of Jonathan (4:4), with whom David had made a covenant that he would not cut off his kindness to his house forever (1 Sam. 20:11-17). In 2 Samuel 9 we read, "The king called to Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said unto him, I have given unto thy master’s son all that pertained to Saul and to all his house. Thou therefore, and thy sons, and thy servants, shall till the land for him, and thou shalt bring in the fruits, that thy master’s son may have food to eat: but Mephibosheth thy master’s son shall eat bread always at my table. Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants" (vv. 9,10).

Ziba, then, was a man of some importance, for he had twenty servants, yet both they and his sons were commanded to serve Mephibosheth. This it is which explains his conduct in our present incident: Ziba was not content to be manager of the considerable estate of Mephibosheth, but coveted to be master of it; and covetousness is ever the mother of a brood of other sins. It was so there: so carried away was he by his evil lust, Ziba scorned not to resort to the basest treachery. He concluded that now was a favorable opportunity for furthering his base design. Having laid his plans with serpentine cunning, he put them into execution, and apparently with success, But "The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment" (Job 20:5), and so it proved in this case.

Ziba was determined to procure from David a royal grant of his master’s estate, and then, whether David or Absalom prevailed in the present conflict, his desire would be secured. To obtain that grant two things were necessary: first, Ziba himself, must obtain favor in the king’s eyes; and second, Mephibosheth must be brought into decided disfavor. The opening verse shows the measure Ziba took to accomplish the first. He met the fugitive king and his band with an elaborate present: it was well timed and appropriately selected. Ziba posed as one who was not only loyal to David’s cause, but as very solicitous of his welfare and comfort. But as Thomas Scott says, "Selfish men are often very generous in giving away the property of others for their own advantage." Looking at this detail from the divine side of things, we may see here the mercy of God in providing for His own, as He ever does—even though He employs the ravens to feed them!

"And the king said unto Ziba, What meanest thou by these?" (v. 2). David was habitually cautious, and at this critical juncture he had need to be doubly so. His own spoiled son had risen up against him, securing a large following, and when such an one as Ahithophel had gone over to his side, the king knew not whom he could trust. Yet, while this sad situation warranted the utmost caution, it certainly did not justify a readiness to believe the worst of everyone—there is a happy medium between losing all confidence in human nature, and having such a blind trust in men that any charlatan may impose upon us. David did not, then, immediately accept Ziba’s present but issued this challenge: was it a subtle trap, or the liberality of a generous man kindly disposed toward him?

"And Ziba said, The asses be for the king’s household to ride on: and the bread and summerfruit for the young men to eat; and the wine, that such as be faint in the wilderness may drink" (v. 2). This was the means used by this wretched Ziba to ingratiate himself with David: "A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men" (Prov. 18:16). Rightly did Matthew Henry ask, "Shall the prospect of advantage in the world, make men generous to be rich; and shall not the belief of an abundant recompense in the resurrection of the just, make us charitable to the poor?" Surely that is the practical lesson for us in this verse: "And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations" (Luke 16:9).

"And the king said, And where is thy master’s son? And Ziba said unto the king, Behold, he abideth at Jerusalem: for he said, To-day shall the house of Israel restore me the kingdom of my father" (v. 3). Having wormed himself into the king’s heart—for being so largely swayed by his emotions, David was peculiarly susceptible to kindness—Ziba now undertook to blacken the character of his master and turn David utterly against him. He represents Mephibosheth as ungrateful, treacherous and covetous. How often masters and mistresses suffer unjustly from the lies of their servants! "A wicked man taketh a gift out of the bosom to pervert the ways of judgment" (Prov. 17:23). "It is true indeed that David did not know that Ziba was wicked. His unexpected kindness came at a time when almost every other hand was either paralyzed by terror, or else armed against him in active enmity. No doubt at such a moment, it required great self-possession to pause, and to withhold the tongue from rashly pronouncing judgment. But David was a king, and it behooved him to be wisely cautious" (B. W. Newton).

"Then said the king to Ziba, Behold thine are all that pertained unto Mephibosheth" (v. 4). David credited the foul calumny and without further inquiry or consideration condemns Mephibosheth, seizes his lands as forfeited, and makes a grant of them to his servant. What a solemn warning is this for us! What pains we should take to confirm what we hear, and thus arrive at the real truth of things. As an old writer quaintly said. "God has given us two ears that we may hear both sides." But sooner or later the truth will come to light, as it did in this case. When at last David returned in triumph to Jerusalem, Mephibosheth met him and had opportunity to vindicate himself. How bitterly must the king have then regretted his hasty verdict and the cruel wrong he had done him by crediting such vile reports against him!

"And Ziba said, I humbly beseech thee that I may find grace in thy sight my lord, O king" (v. 4). Yes, words are cheap, and backbiters are generally flatterers. But note well that Ziba did not accompany the fugitive king! No, he thought too much of his own skin for that, and was determined to be on the safe side, no matter what should be the outcome of Absalom’s rebellion. "Anxious apparently lest he should suffer if Absalom were to succeed, he seems to have retired to Shimei and the Benjamites, to secure his interests with them; for he was found, when the king returned, in the train of Shimei—that same Shimei who had cursed David" (B. W. Newton). Thus, when David arrived back again in Jerusalem, Ziba was in the ranks of the king’s enemies!—whereas Mephibosheth was among his most loyal subjects.