The eighth sermon in a summer series
on Joshua and the Judges
The story of Samson is another Biblical tragedy…but a tragedy like the story of Job in our Readings today, which for all its tragic events, ends with the light of redemption. Yes, we learn a little bit about Samson during our Sunday School days. His hair and his great strength. Delilah and that haircut. And how Samson brought down the house at the Philistine party in the temple of Dagon. But if all we know about Samson are fragments of childhood stories, well, he easily becomes a mythic figure, an Old Testament Hercules, or, worse, a kind of Biblical Bizaro!
But if we want to make comparisons to fiction, the saga of this man of strength shares a lot in common with the life and fate of Mary Shelly’s famous gothic monster created by Dr. Viktor von Frankenstein. In Shelly’s novel, more so than in the Boris Karloff movie, Frankenstein’s Promethean creation wanted to be loved. But he was feared. The creature said to his creator, “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel.” And Samson is definitely that, a man torn between God and the devil!
The story of this powerful judge opens as the others have opened, v1, “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.” Israel is faithless, but God remains faithful to the promise He made to Abraham. And though He disciplines His people by the Philistines, yet, in His faithfulness, God raises up another judge to deliver them. But…how God goes about it sounds so…mystifying!
V2, “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.” V3, “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.’”
An angel, an annunciation, a miraculous conception and birth? Sound the trumpets! Sing the carols! Decorate the tree! “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, goodwill toward men!” Well…yes and no. Yes, Samson will be a Savior like our Lord. But, no, God’s ways are not our ways…and the salvation which comes by Samson’s hand is going to be as troubling as our Lord’s path to His cross.
The angel gives Samson’s mother-to-be some specific instructions. V4, “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.”
Okay, so what’s a Nazarite? Back in the Book of Numbers, Moses outlined the possibility of a man or woman taking a special vow of service to God. “Nazarite” comes from the Hebrew word meaning to separate, to consecrate, for some special purpose.
And Moses specifies the two identifying features of the vow: no wine or strong drink the entire time the person is under the vow, and no cutting of the person’s hair. When the time of the vow is over…or when the person’s consecration to God gets violated…then their head is shaved, certain sacrifices are offered, and they may again drink wine. You can see, then, why the Delilah scene is going to be significant!
Well, the rest of chapter 13 tells how Samson’s mother runs to tell her husband, Manoah, about this conversation. Manoah is apparently skeptical. V8, “Then Manoah prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, please let the man of God whom You sent come again to us and teach us what we are to do with the child who will be born.” Well, the man’s wife already told him what the angel said. “No razor. No wine.”
But, the angel does appear again. They ask, v12, “What is to be the child’s manner of life, and what is his mission?” The angel replies in effect, “I already told you! No razor. No wine.” Of course the man and his wife want more details. Who wouldn’t?! But that’s all they get. And the angel is gone.
V24, “And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the Lord blessed him.” The language is so very similar to St. Luke’s description of Jesus’ youth. Certainly we might expect, if we didn’t know any different, that wonderful things are about to unfold. In fact, v25, “…the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him…” “To groan in him,” might be a better way to say the Spirit is doing!
Now, over the next three chapters of Judges, Samson’s life unfolds. It is a violent story! Step by step, the course of Samson’s life seems designed to contradict all the wonder of his birth.
What frequently happens with Samson is that preachers use him as some sort of object lesson of what a Christian should be… dedicated/consecrated to God…well…except for the big man’s frequent embarrassments of his parents, his destructive outbursts of anger, and his rather unbridled appetite for women! But, you know…outside of that…“Go thou and do likewise!”
But setting aside the foolishness of trying to use Samson as a paradigm, such an approach misses the point of Samson’s story. It’s NOT as if Samson could have been a great man except for his personal failings. Nor is it, as a footnote in my study Bible suggests, that God was still able to use Samson despite his many violations of his Nazarite vow. No! As the author of Judges tells it, God’s hand is fearfully and wonderfully at work in this man beyond some Pharisaic scruples over the man’s behavior.
Again…it’s so similar to something Frankenstein’s monster said in the novel, “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy, and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change without torture such as you cannot even imagine.” Samson’s life is monstrously tortured.
Well, one day young Samson goes to town, and a Philistine girl catches his eye. 14:2, “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.’” Not exactly the plan his mom and dad had in mind. Not exactly keeping the Law about intermarrying with Gentiles. But Samson wants what he wants!
An example of his appetite going too far? Not so fast. V4, “His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for He was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.” God is at work in this…even crossing His own Law…because, as the New Testament will make very plain, there is something greater with God than His Law…and that is His mercy and His redemptive grace!
Well…on another trip to see his girlfriend Samson is attacked by a young lion, v5. Oh, but Samson is strong on account of all his hair, yes? No! Contrary to popular notion, it’s not his hair that gives him his strength. V6, “Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces…” God is the strength behind this violence, because God is setting the stage for a blow against the Philistines.
And on the way to visit his girlfriend a few days later, Samson sees that the carcass of that lion has become a hive for honeybees. A riddle begins to buzz in his mind. Starting in v10, Manoah and his son go to Timnah to arrange this distasteful marriage and to throw the expected big party to celebrate.
Well…while everyone is in good spirits, Samson puts a challenge to the party-goers. V12, “Let me now put a riddle to you. If you can tell me what it is within the seven days of the feast…” [he’ll buy them all the latest fashions…if not, he says, “You pay me!”]
The riddle? V14, “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet.” Samson has in mind that dead lion with the honeybees making their honey. But the Philistines, try as they might, can’t come up with any answer.
So they threaten Samson’s new Philistine wife with violence if she doesn’t get the answer. She pesters Samson for seven days with her tears. V16, “You only hate me; you do not love me…you have not told me [the answer to the riddle].” Her tears are his kryptonite, and he tells her. She tells the party-goers. And on the last day, as Samson prepares to enjoy his little victory, v18, they announce, “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” And Samson mutters, “If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.”
He loses his bet. V19, “And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him…” That phrase, which the writer uses again and again with Samson, implies a violent rushing of God’s Spirit to produce the violence by Samson’s hand! And in that rushing, violent Spirit, Samson goes to the Philistine city of Ashkelon, kills 30 men, takes their garments and gives them to the party-goers. “In hot anger he went back to his father’s house.” And his wife, v20, goes to his best man!
So God has won the first of many victories over Israel’s enemy…but it took a big bite out of Samson. Such tragic, Frankenstein violence! Ah…but as we sang earlier, “[Do not] think amid the fiery trial That God hath cast thee off unheard, That he whose hopes meet no denial Must surely be of God preferred.” Because once again, we are hearing echoes of Jesus’ crucifixion in the story of Samson. Which means…we can also anticipate something better to come. But it’s going to get much darker before that dawn.
Still…as monstrously dark as it’s going to get in the second half of our story, the life of Samson will yet come to sing in the words of our hymn: “God never yet forsook in need The soul that trusted Him indeed.”
Next time…shades of Jesus…and a pointed reminder to us… when Samson is at his weakest…we will see him at his strongest.