The story of Samson has to be considered the most famous in the book of Judges as well as one of the classics in the world of literature. It is a story that has been told and retold throughout the generations. Fathers tell it to their sons and mothers to their daughters. When people hear the names Samson and Delilah eyebrows go up and heads shake. We are all familiar with that story.
Sadly however, Samson’s life is one of tragedy, heartbreak and failure. Samson is an example of wasted potential, misused talent and abuse of power. Samson – the world’s strongest man. The over-sexed womanizer. Able to conquer the world but unable to control his own lust.
Now the temptation with a lively story like this is to focus all our attention on the man and the things we learn from him. We turn it into a morality lesson on the perils of pride, anger, greed and in particular – lust. There’s no doubt about it, there are some powerful warnings for men on the subject of lust. But is that what this story is really all about?
Why is this story here? Why did the people of Israel need to hear this? What is God telling us about himself, about Jesus and about ourselves? To answer that we need to go to the beginning in chapter 13, with his birth.
His Miraculous Birth
The chapter opens with a similar refrain we have found so often in the book of Judges.
“And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.” (Judges 13:1)
We’re familiar with the cycle: Israel turns its back on God. God gives them into the hands of their enemies. Israel cries out for deliverance. God raises up the deliver-judge. Except here there is something missing. There’s no ‘crying out’. There’s not even a request for help. The Israelites by this time had become comfortable in their bondage. And so God must intervene.
“There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. And his wife was barren and had no children.” (13:2)
We know something is coming. Barren women are a familiar pattern in the Bible. Think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and then later in the New Testament – Elizabeth. God takes people in hopeless situations and brings about a miracle.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son.” (13:3) [emphasis added]
An angel telling a woman she shall conceive and bear a son? We’ve heard that somewhere before. It gets better.
“Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (13:4–5)
What is this business about being a Nazarite to God? What’s that all about? Nazarite comes from the Hebrew for consecrated or separated. The Nazarite vow involved 3 prohibitions: 1) no cutting your hair, 2) no drinking any alcoholic drink, and 3) avoiding contact with anything that was dead. Normally the vow was voluntary and then only for a specific time. Samson however, was born a Nazarite and was to remain one all his life.
But something else is going on here. Samson is sent by God to save Israel from the Philistines; Jesus is sent by God to save us from our sin. Samson’s birth is announced by an angel; Jesus’ birth is announced to Mary by an angel. Sampson is miraculously conceived in a barren woman; Jesus is miraculously conceived in a virgin. Samson is consecrated to God from the womb; Jesus is consecrated to God from the womb. But that, I’m afraid is where the similarity ends.
His Reckless Life
“Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines. Then he came up and told his father and mother, “I saw one of the daughters of the Philistines at Timnah. Now get her for me as my wife.” (14:1–2)
Now Dads, what would you say if your son came home and told you that he just met the woman he’s going to marry? “What’s her name?” “I don’t know.” “OK, what kind of family does she come from?” “I don’t know.” “Have you actually talked to her?” “No.” “Then how can you say you want to marry her?” “She’s hot.”
His parents try to protest (albeit weakly), “Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?” (14:3)
“There must be a nice Jewish girl you can marry. How about Mordecai’s daughter, she’s a good girl. Or how about Hannah down the street – we hear she’s a great cook.” But Samson is adamant. Get her for me. And they do, even though the law forbids marrying non-Jews. The next verse is crucial; it’s the key to understanding the whole story.
“His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.” (14:4)
God will use Samson’s weakness – his impulsivity and lust to bring about a confrontation between two nations. This was God’s way of prying the Israelites and Philistines apart.
Samson then makes his way down to Timnah to see his girlfriend when a lion suddenly pounces on him. The Spirit on of the Lord rushes upon him and he tears it apart with his bare hands (15:5-6). Some days later Samson returns. He sees as swarm of bees in the lion’s carcass and scoops out the honey and eats it. That’s strike one for your Nazarite vow Samson; you just came into contact with a dead body. But there’s no time to think about that, wedding bells are about to ring. He throws a feast we are told in verse 10, “As the young men used to do.” The word for “feast” in Hebrew refers to a drinking party. That’s strike two Samson, you just compromised another part of your vow.
Samson marries his Timnite girl. At the reception he decides to liven the party up a little with a riddle – 30 suits for his 30 groomsmen they won’t be able to crack it. “Bring it on,” they shout between swigs of brew. “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” They are completely stumped. By day four they are frustrated. They threaten Samson’s wife they’ll burn her and her family alive. So the waterworks and the “you-don’t-love-me” act begins. Samson finally caves in. Before the deadline the Philistines play their trump card:
“What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” And he said to them, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.” (14:18)
What follows is a brutal chain of vengeance and reprisals between Samson and the Philistines that escalate in intensity. The Philistines start it by threatening to burn Samson’s wife. So Samson kills 30 Philistine men to give them the clothes. Then his wife was given to his best man. So Samson destroys the Philistines corn fields by setting fire to foxes tails. In response the Philistines burn his wife and father in law. So Samson murders a bunch of them and then flees to hide. So the Philistine army comes out to find him. And in response, Samson slaughters them with a fresh jawbone from of all things – a donkey (!)
That brings us to chapter 16. By this time you would think that Samson would have learned his lesson about women, but he was a slow learner. He falls for yet another Philistine woman named Delilah. When the Philistine leaders found this out, they made a deal with her: 1,100 shekels of silver each if she discovers the source of Samson’s strength. Delilah sees diamonds; she simply can’t resist.
So Delilah dresses in something seductive, puts on her most charming voice ever and says, “Honey, tell me, how exactly you can be defeated?” Samson answers,
“If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, then I shall become weak and be like any other man.” (16:7)
You have to wonder why he’s not out the door. The very fact that he lies to her proves he knows what’s going on. And if Samson has any doubts, they are laid to rest when after she ties him up, a squad of Philistines burst out of the bedroom closet. The game goes one, each time Delilah trying hers powers of persuasion and each time Samson responding by tricking her. Finally Delilah plays the ex’s “you-don’t-love-me” card and he gives in. He tells her all that is on his heart.
“A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazarite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.” (16:17)
Samson, Samson – what have you done? After telling her his secret, she lulls him to sleep by placing his head on her lap and running her fingers through his long hair. Then comes the shears. Before he knows it, the gold locks are all gone. That’s strike three, his Nazarite vow has now been completely broken.
When Samson wakes up, he assumes nothing has changed. He’ll go out as he has done so before. And he’ll overpower the lot of them.
But he did not know that the Lord had left him.” (Judges 16:20)
The Philistines thought the source of his strength was magic. Samson thought he was the source of his strength. Both were wrong.
His Tragic Death
The final scene opens with the Philistines nobles gathered at Dagon’s temple to offer a great sacrifice for defeating their enemy. It’s a huge crowd – over 3000 of them positioned on the roof above. Samson says to the young man leading him, “Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests.” And then, for the first time in his life Samson actually prays.
“O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” (16:28)
Hebrews 11 tells us the Samson was a man of faith; and surely this is the only place in the entire story where it could be said Samson exercised true faith. “Strengthen me once more,” he asks. Here is an actual acknowledgement of dependence on God’s grace. God answers his prayer, not because his hair had grown back but because he asks in faith. Even though Samson forgets God, God never forgets Samson.
And so what do we learn from the story? Why did the people of Israel need to hear this? And why do we need to hear it today?
1. Samson’s story is Israel’s story. Samson is a mirror of Israel. In Samson, Israel was to see herself. A nation raised up out of nothing, richly gifted by God, but plays around with other lovers, assuming the whole time all is well, and expects God to be at their disposal whenever she wants him. She is a people who does not know that Yahweh may depart from her.
2. Samson’s story is a story of us. We’ve all heard the Samson sermons – “Beware of the seductive power of greed and lust. It will destroy you.” Yes it will, but that’s not what this story is teaching us. That’s moralism; be good, try harder. That’s not the gospel. The gospel says can’t overcome sin on our own. That’s why we need a Saviour.
You see, we’re all like Samson, whether we struggle with his particular sins or not. If I don’t believe I really need God, I’m just like Samson. If I misuse the gifts and the opportunities God has given to me, using them for myself rather than for God’s glory, I’m just like Samson. If I believe I can sin and get away with it, I’m just like Samson. The lesson of Judges 16 is not, “Don’t be like Samson.” The message of Judges 16 is that we are like Samson – enslaved to sin and unbelief.
3. Samson’s story points us to our need for a Saviour. We are told that those who died with Samson were more than all he had killed his entire life. And so the promise of the angel is fulfilled: “he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (13:5). The next time the Philistines appear in the Bible is in 1 Samuel, but Israel is no longer ruled by them; Israel is at war with them. And that war continues for centuries all the way to king Hezekiah. But never again are the Israelites ruled by the Philistines as they are in the times of Samson.
Samson’s death is a picture of the death of Christ. Both are betrayed, Samson by Delilah and Jesus by Judas. Both are handed over to Gentile oppressors. Both are chained, tortured, mocked, and put on public display. Both chose to sacrifice themselves. Both died with their arms outstretched. And both enabled God’s people to triumph over God’s enemies by their deaths.
By His death, Jesus defeated our two great enemies, sin and death. First, He saves us from the penalty of our sins, dying in our place and bearing the punishment for sin so God can forgive all of our sins – past, present and future. That is how God can make the amazing promise, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). Second, he saves us from the power of sin in our lives. We’re all like Samson, slaves to unbelief, selfishness, anger and lust. But all that changes when Jesus dies. When I put my faith in Christ as my Saviour, He comes into my life and makes me a new person with a new heart. When He died I died. When He was raised I was raised. Sin had no power of him and so it has no power over me.
Jesus’ death freed me from sin’s rule just as Samson’s death freed Israel from the Philistine rule. That doesn’t mean that I don’t sin any more just like it didn’t mean that Israel’s problems with the Philistines ended with Samson. What changed is that I now have the power through Christ to say no to sin and refuse to let it reign over me.
That’s why true recovery begins with acknowledging we cannot save ourselves. We cannot overcome sin. But Jesus can – if we’ll only trust Him.