The Judges: Samson

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Judges 13-16

Samson was a man of both legendary strength and incredible weakness. We read his story as both an encouragement and a caution.

The book of Judges covers the period of biblical history between the entry of the twelve tribes of Israel into the land of Canaan and their unification into one kingdom with the inauguration of the monarchy in the days of Samuel, Saul, and David. This period lasted for several centuries, and conditions during this time can best be summarized in one word: chaotic.

The story that Judges tells, however, is far more than merely a narrative of a sad time in ancient Hebrew history. It would be a serious mistake to see nothing more in this book than a description of the interplay of various social, economic, and military forces. It’s really an account of the way that God deals with those whom he calls to follow him.

There is a clearly discernable pattern throughout the book of Judges. God’s people—either one tribe or several in a given region—grow careless of him and neglect his word and his will. Because of their sin God allows an enemy to gain the upper hand, and his people languish in the oppressor’s grip.

When their misery and suffering becomes more than they can stand, the people cry out to God for deliverance, and he in mercy raises up a leader for them. The judge, as this leader is called, then recalls the people to the Lord and leads them to a victory, a victory clearly won by God’s might, not by human strength or skill. And this victory then sets the people free from enemy oppression, at least for a time.

There follows a period of peace, prosperity, and blessing, which eventually leads again to spiritual carelessness and indifference to the things of God, and the whole sorry cycle is repeated. More than that, as any student of church history will tell you, it’s a recurring pattern for us as well.

Samson the Judge

Today we come to the story of Samson in our series of studies on the judges of Israel. Let’s take just a moment to recall the nature of the judge in the Old Testament. To start with the name, “judge” is a bit misleading to our ears. For us, a judge is an interpreter of the law, a state official who presides over legal trials in order to administer justice fairly and impartially.

In ancient Israel, it was quite different. The biblical word translated “judge” referred to a charismatic leader who led the people of Israel — or some portion thereof — to victory against their enemies. “Judge” in Hebrew means a “deliverer” or a “champion,” not a law-giver as we see most clearly in the example of Samson. The judges that we read about in the Bible were military leaders, not officers of the court. And given Israel’s overall weakness and disunity, more often than not they functioned like guerilla leaders or special forces teams. Some judges guided small bands of soldiers in hit-and-run attacks (as did Jephthah). Some conducted political assassinations (like Ehud, the left-handed judge) or waged psychological warfare (think of Gideon and his three hundred men with their torches and trumpets).

Samson is the last of the judges whose story is told in the book of Judges. When we turn to Samson’s story we find that it begins with a sad but by now familiar refrain:

And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord gave them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years. (Judges 13:1, esv)

Apart from a couple of brief references earlier in the book of Judges (3:2-3; 10:7), this is our first introduction in the Bible to Israel’s primary enemy during the time of Samson, Samuel, David, and Saul. The Philistines came to be seen as the supreme enemies of God’s people. In fact, the word philistine in English has come to mean one who has no sense of judgment or one who opposes the good and the right. The Philistines were sea-faring people who had migrated from Asia Minor to settle in the coastal area to the west of Judah. This strip of land continues to make news as a trouble spot between the people of Israel and their neighbors to this very day. Today it is known as Gaza, which was the name of one of the five major cities of the Philistines in Old Testament times. But the overall territory takes its name from the Philistines themselves: it is Palestine.

Samson could not have had a more promising start in life. Like several other notable biblical heroes, his parents experienced a time of barrenness when they could have no child. As with Sarah and Isaac, Hannah and Samuel, and in a unique way with Mary and Jesus, the Lord would give Samson to his mother as a child of special promise. We read in Judges 13 how the angel of the Lord appeared first to Samson’s mother and then later to his father in order to foretell the birth of this very special son.

Along with the promise came certain requirements his parents had to observe for him. The boy was to be brought up strictly as a Nazirite (13:5; cf. Numbers 6:1-21); that is, a person totally dedicated to the Lord, as symbolized among other things by never having his hair cut. And when Samson did come along, the biblical writer says, he began life well. “And the young man grew,” we read, “and the Lord blessed him. And the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him” (Judges 13:24-25, esv). So everything looks good at the outset for this new champion, a man with unparalleled gifts and limitless prospects for doing good and accomplishing some great thing for the people of God.

Samson and Delilah

But of course, that’s not at all how things turned out, as we all know from Samson’s sad but familiar history. His story is a tragic one. Artists have long been drawn to it, from the great English poet John Milton’s epic Samson Agonistes, which he wrote in the 17th century, down to the film or televison versions of his story in our day. Samson’s life lends itself well to dramatization, after all, there’s a lot of excitement, violence, and bloodshed, beautiful women, terrible betrayal, the hero’s terrible loss and suffering, and finally, a sort of Götterdamerung climax where everybody dies in the last chapter. And that’s not even to mention all the sex (which the biblical account acknowledges frankly though without dwelling on it.) So no wonder Samson’s is a popular, well-known story.

But what in the world does it mean for us? What does it have to say to us or teach us? Samson is a highly unusual judge, to put it mildly. Consider these several characteristics that set him apart from what we would tend to think of as a faithful servant of God.

First, Samson is strictly a loner. Most of the judges were commissioned to lead the people to victory over their enemies, but Samson works entirely on his own. He is capable of remarkable, almost Superman-like deeds of strength and daring, but they have no real impact on anyone else in Israel. In fact, the only mention of any Israelite force comes in Judges, chapter 15, where we read that 3,000 men of Judah came to get Samson so they could turn him over to the Philistines and stay out of trouble with their foreign overlords. This is hardly the stuff of which heroes are made. The fact is, nothing that Samson did accomplished anything of lasting significance for the people of Israel. All he did was to kill a large number of Philistines.

Second, Samson is a paradox. What an irony his life presents! So strong, and yet so weak; capable of great feats and even greater folly; a champion and a chump, all at once. Samson is a would-be deliverer through whom God does execute judgment upon the idolatrous Philistines, but at the same time he is himself the personal embodiment of Israel’s sin in becoming so entangled with them. He’s a living example of why the Lord had warned his people so strongly against marriage alliances with their pagan neighbors. Samson is a divinely chosen, Spirit-endowed leader who is also vain, self-indulgent, violent, rash, impulsive, sensually minded, destructive, and above all, unbelievably stupid.

Third, Samson is worldly. He seems really to care about nothing except eating and drinking, women and fighting. He betrays his vow of dedication to the Lord for the sake of a woman who only want to betray him for money. He doesn’t believe in much of anything himself. Even when his hair was cut, symbolizing Samson’s betrayal of his calling and his abandonment by God, he didn’t think that much of anything had changed. The Bible, in one of its saddest lines, says this: “He awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). And when Samson prayed for strength at the end (v. 28), he appeared to be motivated more by desire for revenge upon those who had taken his eyes than desire for the Lord’s vindication or glorification.

So what are we to make of this sad story? Samson’s life is mainly a cautionary tale. He serves mostly as a negative example showing us how not to live, and demonstrating the tragic consequences of setting your mind on the world and the flesh rather than on God. But is there anything else we can take away from his life story behind the obvious lessons: don’t marry an unbeliever, don’t fall asleep in a strange woman’s arms, don’t give away the secret of your spiritual strength (which is faithful obedience to the Lord’s commands). There is this one thing. Samson’s life, whatever its tragic flaws, is also at the same time an illustration of the power of God to use even the most imperfect servants to accomplish his twin purposes of bringing judgment to those who despise him and deliverance to those who trust him. For that we can all be thankful. And I can hope that maybe — just maybe — God could use even someone like me in some small way to serve his purpose.