INTRODUCTION: The Samson story is the final “judge” account in the book of Judges, and in many ways, this story says it all. In chapter two, the author gave us a pretty clear statement about the outline of the book. Israel sinned by turning away to follow foreign gods, the Lord allowed foreign nations to oppress them, the Israelites cried out for deliverance, and God raised up a savior. Then the problems started all over again. Othniel, Ehud, Barak (along with Deborah), Gideon, and Jephthah, as well as few minor figures (Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon) played the role of deliverer, but the sin and compromise continued. The Samson story is the final one in this cycle of sin, oppression, and deliverance, and it communicates the main message the author has been attempting to communicate thus far about Israel’s spiritual state and the Lord’s gracious response—all embodied in the story of the so-called hero—Samson himself.
Samson was from the tribe of Dan, whose allotment was in the southwest of Israel, bordering the territory controlled by the Philistines. The tribe had not been faithful at fulfilling God’s mandate to conquer the Canaanites and seize control of their inheritance. In 1:34, we are told that the Amorites (one of the original people groups of Canaan, and sometimes a “catch-all” term for Canaanites in general) prevented the Danites from seizing control of the valleys. The tribe of Manasseh had a similar problem (Joshua 17:16). The Danites’ response was to seek new territory rather than fulfill God’s mandate. In Judges 18:1, we find a group of Danites wandering about Israel looking for a new place to settle. The story of this latter event is hard to place chronologically, but even though it is one of the last accounts in the book, it probably occurred earlier, rather than later. Samson’s family, at any rate, did not relocate with their kinsmen, who conquered a city far to the north and established themselves there (the city of Dan). They still lived in the territory of their tribal allotment, though at this point the Philistines were their oppressors rather than the Amorites.
One undeniable reality in the book of Judges is that God’s people were guilty of compromise. Most of the tribes failed to subdue the native Canaanites who were left after Joshua’s conquest. Each was guilty of pursuing idolatry. As the author observed, “There was no king in Israel. Each man did what was right in his own eyes.” Not only was the worship of God unimportant, but in many cases God’s people showed no concern for God’s holiness or righteousness. Each did whatever he wanted. Some of Ehud’s actions were questionable. Gideon ruled without God’s approval and fostered idolatry. Abimelech was an abusive tyrant. Jephthah seems to have sacrificed his daughter. And in the Israelite culture of that day, these leaders fit right in. Samson, the last judge recorded in the book, epitomizes what was wrong with Israel. Despite his great gifts and enormous potential, he exhibited all of the characteristics of Israel’s spiritual compromise. His is Israel’s own story in miniature. Our prayer should be that his might not be our story as well.
CHOSEN BY GOD (13:1-7). This story begins like the others. Israel had sinned and God gave them over to enemies. In this case, the Philistines were the oppressors. Unlike other stories, however, the text does not indicate that the people cried out. In fact, the people seemed relatively content to exist under Philistine domination, at least for a while. In 15:10, after Samson had burned Philistine fields, 3000 men from Judah tracked the Danite down and complained that his actions had raised the ire of the Philistine rulers. Rather than seeing Samson as an agent of God’s deliverance, they saw him as a nuisance.
Still, God was gracious. He intended to use Samson to begin the process of throwing off the Philistine yoke. Of course, ultimate victory did not occur until the reign of David, probably 100 years later (or more). But in spite of Israel’s sin and seeming complacency, the Lord raised up a deliverer. Several aspects of this story are unique:
The Lord spoke first to Samson’s mother before the child was conceived. In previous instances, the Lord spoke either to the deliverer himself or through the agency of a prophet. In this instance, God placed his hand upon the deliverer before conception.
The Lord placed upon the child a high calling. He was to be a perpetual Nazirite from conception. The Nazirite vow, described in Numbers 6, was a temporary vow of separation, of consecration, undertaken willingly by someone with a desire to make this special vow. The individual making the vow set themselves apart for special service. As Numbers 6:8 says, “All the days of his separation he is holy to the Lord.” Not only was Samson separated for God’s use, his calling was perpetual and from the very beginning. His calling was unprecedented. God’s word reveals no other instances of such a calling, certainly not prior to Samson.
The Lord gave a magnificent gift in connection with his calling—incredible strength. Several times when Samson used his great strength, the text tells us that the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and then he performed a magnificent feat (for instance 14:6, 14:19, and 15:14). The Nazirite vow set Samson apart for God’s service, and in this unique calling, the Holy Spirit empowered Samson to perform mighty feats of strength for the purpose of beginning to deliver Israel from the Philistines (13:5).
Samson was given a high calling, was empowered by the Holy Spirit, and was given magnificent gifts for use in the service of God. Certainly this was true of Israel as well. They were called by God to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), even before they were gathered together as a nation or had set foot upon the Promised Land. Stretching all the way back to Abraham, God had indicated that through these people God would bless all the nations of the earth. A high calling indeed! Israel was God’s chosen nation. What had become of this great people? The story of Israel’s failure is sadly represented by Samson’s own failure.
RECKLESS AND IMMATURE (14:3, 19-20; 15:3-5, 18). From the moment Samson entered the narrative, weaknesses in the hero’s character emerged. Yes, he showed tantalizing glimpses of the power and potential he possessed, but far too often he “did what was right in his own eyes.” For instance:
Despite his parents’ admonition, he stubbornly pursued marriage to a Philistine woman.
After his curious game with the young Philistine men had turned sour, Samson struck down 30 Philistines in order to obtain the resources to pay off his bet.
After the woman’s father gave her to another man, Samson set fire to the fields and orchards around the village.
Only when he reached the limit of his physical ability did he call upon the Lord for help.
Throughout its history up to this point, Israel had played dangerous games, showed reckless disregard for God’s teachings, and called upon the Lord only when the situation grew dire. Perhaps Samson was the hero Israel deserved. Certainly he did the opposite of what the Lord revealed he should, just as Israel often did. He showed no regard for God’s holiness or right worship, and seemed concerned only with his own glory rather than the Lord’s.
EMAMOURED OF FOREIGN WOMEN (16:1, 4). Samson’s preoccupation with Philistine women continued after his first attempt at marriage failed miserably. First he satisfied himself with a prostitute in Gaza, and then fell in love with the soon-to-be-infamous Delilah. Throughout Samson’s exploits, the secret of his strength had been just that—a secret. The Philistines got the best of him and discovered this secret by manipulating his greatest weakness—lust for Philistine women. This is what makes the Samson story so poignant and so tragic. What if Samson had heeded his parents’ advice and married an Israelite girl? None of the events of chapters 14-16 would have happened and Samson could have utilized his great strength in other ways—perhaps to do even greater things. And yet Samson is not alone. Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s pursuit of idols was likened to a woman giving herself to prostitution (first occurring in Exodus 34:15). God had called his people to faithfulness, and yet their lust for the exotic had constantly drawn them away from Him. Samson pursued his passions with reckless abandon, and it brought tragedy.
IN BONDAGE BECAUSE OF SIN (16:21-27). The result of Samson’s love affair with lust resulted in the unthinkable. His incredible gift was taken away from him and he was left in bondage to his enemies. God had informed Israel that this would be the consequence if his people continually gave their love to foreign gods (Leviticus 26:27-33, Deuteronomy 28:64-68). Here Samson experiences this judgment himself. His strength is taken away by the Lord, his eyes are taken by the Philistines, and he lives a humiliated existence. This is a far cry from the lofty calling of his Nazirite vow! It is the dreadful consequence of sin.
CRYING OUT FOR RESCUE(16:28). As Israel had many times in the past, when the consequences of sin were visited upon them, they turned to the Lord. Here Samson does the same, although even here his faith is tinged with a desire for revenge. Clearly Samson still had faith in God’s sovereignty and his love for Israel, but perhaps wholehearted repentance was lacking.
Samson’s story is both tragic and representative. Just like Samson, the Israelites pursued their lust for pleasure and security rather than their love for the Lord. The results speak for themselves. Most poignantly, this story challenges us to search our hearts and investigate how serious our love for the Lord is. Do we put on an air of piety, but on the inside our hearts lust for all the wrong things? Are we serious enough about God’s calling upon our lives to pursue his will no matter the cost?