Read the passage here.
When I was young, I used to enjoy reading comic books. Our parents owned a convenience store and we sold comic books so I could read as many as I wanted. And though it seems like a relatively childish interest, throughout human history (I think) we have always enjoyed stories about larger than life characters – stories about heroes. It’s no coincidence, I think, that superhero movies are among the most popular and profitable genres right now.
The character that we’re looking at today, as we continue in the book of Judges, is Samson. And when I was in Sunday School, Samson was usually presented as the superhero of the bible, known mostly for his feats of great strength. And this is true. But if we’ve been following along in Judges, we know that we should expect that Samson – inasmuch as he should be seen as a hero – is a much more complicated, and ultimately disappointing character than we would hope.
The story of Samson takes up several chapters – it’s the longest single story in the book of Judges. And I thought about breaking it up into several sermons. However, I ultimately decided to keep it to one. So the passage that we’re reflecting upon today is merely the closing verses of the whole story.
Again, these verses tell us the end of Samson’s story. We read about how Samson came to his end. And if we know anything about Samson, we know that he was gifted with great, supernatural strength to overcome Israel’s enemies. So how did he wind up here? Well that’s what we’re going to consider today.
And my basic premise, as we consider Samson’s story, is that what we read today, the end of Samson’s life, is the logical outcome of Samson’s choices and actions. Nevertheless, God’s redemptive purposes for Israel are being done.
So with that said, and keeping that in mind, what is it that we see in Samuel’s story that leads to this ignominious end? Well to begin with, Samson’s story is unique in Judges in that we get a prologue. Samson’s story begins before his birth with a pronouncement from an angel of God. We read in Judges 13:
13:1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.
2 A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was childless, unable to give birth. 3 The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. 4 Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean. 5 You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”Judges 13:1-5
Now there’s a couple of things that I want to note from these verses. Firstly, the first words of the Samson cycle are words that we are familiar with by now: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…” If we remember, in each of the cycles in Judges, we see this repetition of:
- Israel does evil in the eyes of the Lord
- This evil results in oppression
- The Israelites cry out to the Lord
- The Lord raises up a deliverer (judge)
- There is a time of peace in the lifetime of the judge.
And we’ve talked about how this series of cycles is a declining cycle – in each cycle, Israel’s situation gets worse. Well in Samson’s story, the last of the stories of the Judges, for the first time we don’t read that Israel cries out to the Lord for help. In other words, by this point, Israel no longer seeks God.
The second thing that I want to note from these opening verses is that Samson is called to be a Nazirite. So in verse 5, we read:
5 You will become pregnant and have a son whose head is never to be touched by a razor because the boy is to be a Nazirite, dedicated to God from the womb. He will take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.”Judges 13:5
Now we find out what a Nazirite is from Numbers 6:1-21 and is, in brief, one who is dedicated to the Lord. The Nazirite is supposed to hold to three things:
- Abstain from alcohol
- Abstain from cutting one’s hair
- Do not touch a dead body (which presumably has to do with avoiding uncleanness)
Now this becomes important as we consider Samson’s story because, as we will see, he breaks all of the vows of a Nazirite, or one who is dedicated to the Lord.
As we continue on in the story of Samson, the first story that we encounter is of Samson’s marriage. Now at this point I think it’s important to note that an awful lot of understanding Samson’s story depends on understanding the cultural context of the time and peoples. Of course this is always the case when we read scripture. But, as far as I can tell, there’s a fairly high degree of uncertainty at precisely this point. That is, there’s not much agreement as to what, for example, the marriage customs, typical wedding celebrations, or etc. were at this time among the people groups.
I point this out not to discourage your reading or understanding of Judges and the Samson story in particular, but mostly to explain why we’re going through the story so quickly. Rather than focusing on the things that aren’t necessarily clear, I’m choosing to focus on a few of the major elements that seem to be clearer.
So, having said all that, again the first story we encounter (after Samson’s pre-birth narrative) is Samson’s marriage. He sees a Philistine woman and wants her as his wife. And he arranges this through his parents (again, to what extent and in what way this is typical, we don’t really know).
At any rate, it’s in the middle of this story that we get the first of Samson’s broken Nazirite vows. The first vow that Samson breaks occurs in the famous story of Samson and the lion (Jd. 14:5-9), which is in the middle of his marriage story. In short, Samson encounters and kills a lion with his bare hands. And some time later, he returns and finds that bees have made a hive in the lion’s carcass and he scoops up some honey and eats it. Now we have to ask the question of why is this story here? The story may be here to demonstrate Samson’s great strength – which the text indicates is given him by the Spirit of God. But what about the eating of the honey?
Commentators agree that this demonstrates Samson breaking the vow to not touch a dead body. Now the actual law (again, in Numbers 6) may be specifically related to touching a dead human body. But the principle behind the injunction seems undeniably related to not becoming ritually unclean. Without going down the rabbit hole, the story seems to point to Samson’s breaking of the Nazirite vow.
The second vow that Samson breaks has to do with abstaining from alcohol. Now this one isn’t clear – at least it may represent a gap in translation. When we continue on in the story, we see that Samson held a feast with the family (perhaps extended family, perhaps the village) of the young woman he wanted to marry. And we read that he held a feast. The folks who study this kind of thing tell us that the word used for feast here is more or less synonymous with a drunken party – a multi-day drinking binge.
Think of it this way. For many of us (I hope), the word “party” is a pretty innocuous word. It may mean hanging out with friends, cake, or just generally having a good time. But in certain contexts, depending on the people you hang out with, the word “party” may have a very specific connotation. In these contexts, “to party” specifically and unavoidably has to do with the use of illegal drugs. The word translated “feast” here, it is argued, has similar culturally laden connotations.
In other words, and in short, what we are seeing here is that Samson is breaking yet another one of his Nazirite vows.
Now at this point, I want to remind us that Samson, despite what we’re seeing in the story so far, remains chosen by God. He is the judge that is going to deliver Israel from their oppressors. And so, as we continue on in the story we see that Samson gets married to the Philistine woman (and remember that it is the Philistines who are oppressing Israel). Again, there’s some more detail to the story that we’re passing over, but we read in chapter 15 that Samson gets into a conflict with the Philistines over his wife. Samson destroys the crops of some of these Philistines and they come to take him away. This is where we get the famous story of Samson killing a thousand men, a thousand Philistines, with the jawbone of a donkey.
Now, again, I hope you’ll forgive me for passing over this story so quickly. But what’s most interesting to me about this story is that Samson kills all of these Philistines, one thousand of them, by himself. There’s no doubt that the power to do so comes from God – we read that “The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him” (15:14). But what strikes me about this account is that, in every other story we get of Judges, what they do is gather the Israelites together (or various tribes of Israel) to defeat their enemies. They bring the nation together. Samson does not do this. Samson defeats these Philistines, but it is his victory, not Israel’s.
At this point, in chapter 16, we finally get to the story that most of us know in relation to Samson – the story of Samson and Delilah. We read that Samson met and became enamored with a woman named Delilah. Delilah conspires with the Philistines to find out how to overcome Samson. After a series of deceits, each of which Samson overcomes, Samson finally succumbs to Delilah and tells her his secret. The secret to Samson’s strength laid in his hair – if one were to cut off Samson’s hair, he would become as weak as any other man. Samson, having revealed this secret, is overcome by the Philistines and captured.
As you will surely recognize, this is the third of the Nazirite vows that Samson breaks. And for the third time, though we haven’t explored this, Samson is led not by a desire to be dedicated to God, but by his desire for a woman (I’m not suggesting that the woman is the problem here – it’s that Samson is led by his passions).
And so we find ourselves at our passage today. With Samson held captive by the Philistine, robbed of his strength, and crying out to God. And we’ve gone through the story of Samson very quickly – there’s an awful lot of details that deserve attention and consideration that we’ve skipped. But we’ve gone through the whole story so that we can put Samson’s current situation in the appropriate context. And in reading our verses today, Judges 16:23—31, we are not digging into these verses in particular, but merely reflecting on how the outcome of Samson’s life, much like the life of the whole nation of Israel, results from a failure or unwillingness to live up to their calling in God.
To reiterate, in the story of Samson, we see a person who was chosen by God to deliver the Israelites from their oppressors, the Philistines. Samson, as a Nazirite, was dedicated to God, set apart for God. However, Samson failed to live up to his calling. Instead, he chose to pursue his own passions, his own desires, and his own priorities. Even in his defeat of the Philistines, Samson never brought the nation together under God (something we see again here, in his final act). He sought revenge against his (own) enemies, but as far as we can tell, he had no interest in the nation of Israel, the people of God.
Therefore, in the context of the story, Samson’s outcome, his final moments, are very much a result of the choices and actions of his life. Samson’s life is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it is very much a logical consequence.
However, there can be little doubt that God is present in and through Samson’s life. Now this is a little bit curious because Samson can hardly be said to be a Godly man in this story. However, throughout the story, especially in those instances where we see Samson exercise his strength, we see that God is working through him:
- 14:6 The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat.
- 14:19 Then the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle.
- 15:14 As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. 15 Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men.
- 16:28 Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.
Now there are some things to consider here about the nature of sin, grace, how does God use rebellious people, or does the fact that God used Samson mean that he wasn’t ungodly, and etc. But the main thing I want to focus on requires us to once again remember that the story of Samson is a part of the story of Israel which is a part of the story of God’s redemption in history. Or, to put it another way, God’s purposes and plans cannot be thwarted. God is working – God has worked (in Jesus Christ) and is still working.
I know we’ve said this before and I don’t want to keep beating the same drum, so let me try to say it this way. God told Abraham that He would be the father of many nations. That through him, all nations on earth would be blessed. But if we had put our faith in Abraham, we would be sorely disappointed. God gave Moses the law and the law was thought by many to be the key to the blessing which was spoken to Abraham. But if we put our faith in Moses, we would be sorely disappointed. And Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land and conquered their enemies and established Israel in the land of Canaan. But if we put our faith in Joshua, we would be sorely disappointed. Gideon, Samson, King David, Solomon, all were used by God, but the kingdom of God is not to be found in any human being, it is not to be found in any human effort, but it is only to be found in Jesus Christ. It is only found in God.
Everybody loves heroes. Everybody loves those figures who are larger than life. We love people with big accomplishments, big successes. We want to be like those people. We want to be those people.
Samson had every opportunity to be one of those biblical heroes. Now I acknowledge that I’m painting Samson with a pretty broad brush. But as a Nazirite, Samson was supposedly dedicated to God. But was Samson ever really dedicated to God? Was he ever interested in what God was doing? Or was Samson only dedicated to Samson?
But Israel’s hope and future, our hope and future, does not depend on human figures like Samson. All of us are imperfect, sinners. All of us have gone astray. Each of us has turned to our own way. But our hope and future depend solely on the work God has done in Jesus Christ. So, we keep our eyes fixed on him. We listen intently to his calling. And we trust that He will lead us in the way He wants us to go.