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Enough Rope to Hang Himself: A Meditation On Samson (Judges 13)

28 Jul

The apostle Paul, in one of the very last letters that he ever wrote, encouraged the young Timothy with these words:

14But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3.14-17 NIV)

When Paul wrote those words, he was speaking of what we call the Old Testament. He would have referred to them as the law, the prophets, and the writings. But surely, when he wrote that “all scripture is profitable” or that “the scriptures can make you wise for salvation” he did not have chapter 14 from the book of Judges in mind.

The period of the Judges is most difficult to handle. The dark period of Israel’s history just keeps getting more and more dark. The brightest light, Deborah, was a woman of faith and worship (see Judges 4-5), but Gideon’s light began very dimly, grew brighter and brighter before ending very dimly (see Judges 6-7). Abimelech and Jephthah were disappointments, to say the least. If the reader of the book of Judges is not totally confounded by now, we are left to deal with the story of the most famous judge of all: Samson.

Samson’s life began with great fanfare. His mother was a barren woman, making him a miracle child along the lines of Isaac, Samuel, and John the Baptist. His birth was so significant that the second person of the Trinity appeared to his mother to announce the good news (see Judges 13.3). His parents appear to be people of faith, a rarity indeed during this historical time period, and so they received the calling of Samson to be a Nazirite set apart to God as good news indeed. Their son would “begin the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines.”

Unfortunately, it seems that Samson was unaware of the divine calling upon his life. Not once in his life did he act for the greater good of Israel. All of his struggles were personal vendettas. He showed no signs that he was sent to begin the deliverance of Israel. For Samson, it was all about him. Moreover, he showed no indication that he embraced his calling to be a Nazirite set apart to God from birth, a reality that is even more clear in the 14th chapter, our text for today.

What are we to do with Samson? If his story is profitable for teaching, correction, and training in righteousness, what truths do we learn and apply from this twisted story? That is the question that hangs over our reading of the text.

A Stirred Up Samson Is A Good Thing?

Chapter 13 of the book of Judges told us about his birth and early life. The chapter ends with the Lord blessing Him and stirring him up (see Judges 13.24-25). While the reader is left to anticipate the good things to come, Samson soon disappoints.

1Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. 2When he returned, he said to his father and mother, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.” 3His father and mother replied, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” But Samson said to his father, “Get her for me. She’s the right one for me.” 4(His parents did not know that this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.) (Judges 14.1-4 NIV)

So quickly the boy who was stirred by the Spirit of the Lord turned into the spoiled brat. He saw a woman and decided that “she’s the right one for me.” Literally, Samson said to his parents, “she is right in my eyes.” This is the exact same phrase that is used in the concluding summary of the book of Judges: “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21.25). Literally, “everyone did right in their own eyes,” the same two Hebrew words as in 14.3.

His parents were greatly concerned over his request. Being the people of faith they were, they were shocked that their son would choose a wife from among the uncircumcised, from outside the covenant people of God. The Law is missing in action during the days of the judges, but it does seem that Samson’s parents are aware of the teachings of Moses at least in some basic framework. Moses told the Israelites,

3Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’S anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. (Deuteronomy 7.3-4)

They did not want Samson to marry an “uncircumcised Philistine,” and their emphasis seemed to be more upon her faith than her nationality.

But Samson did not care about whether or not she was among the covenant people of God, just like he did not care much for Nazirite vow. She seemed right in his eyes, and he demanded his parents consent. It is worth noting that in an age where the father’s ruled the family clan, Samson’s parents were at his beck and call. How might his life have been different if they had refused his request and put him in his place?

But the most shocking part of the story is that “This was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel” (Judges 14.4). We can assume that “this” refers to Samson’s desire to marry this uncircumcised woman. But why would the Lord, who commanded his people not to intermarry with the Philistines, now stir Samson’s heart to desire this woman? It seems that God is leading Samson to do something that God has commanded him not to do.

What the text tells us is that the Lord was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines because they were ruling over Israel. What the text does not tell us is that Israel was seeking the Lord to confront the Philistines for them. In other words, while the Philistines had been ruling Israel for forty years (see Judges 13.1), there is no evidence that the Israelites were either unhappy with this turn of events or crying out to the Lord for deliverance. So, not only was the Lord working to deliver Israel, He was also working to bring about the repentance of the Israelites. So, He was working to liberate a people who did not know they needed liberation, and the leader of the “no liberation needed party” was none other than Samson. So what we might see in verse 4 is that the Lord is sovereign over Samson’s disobedience to humble His people so He can bring them to deliverance. Using the vernacular of Texan, God was giving Samson enough rope to hang himself.

The good news is that God is sovereign over both the evil intentions of people and over our sins and mistakes. It brings great comfort to know that God can work His will through those who might stand in opposition and for those who fall short of the glory of God. With all his might, Pharaoh tried to stop the Exodus, but God was sovereign over the unrepentant King of Egypt. There is great hope in the sovereignty of God.

A Funny Thing Happens on the Way to Timnah

So, God was going to use the mess that Samson was about to create. After convincing his parents to “get this woman” for him, they go down together to Timnah.

5Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. 6The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. 7Then he went down and talked with the woman, and he liked her. 8Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion’s carcass. In it was a swarm of bees and some honey, 9which he scooped out with his hands and ate as he went along. When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they too ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion’s carcass. (Judges 14.5-9 NIV)

A funny thing happened on the way to Timnah: Samson gets separated from his parents. I guess this should not be too surprising, the young brat wondering away from his parents. What is surprising is that Samson winds up in a vineyard. While we are not told that he ate any of the grapes, we can say that a person committed to the Nazirite calling of avoiding the fruit of the vine would not be caught hanging around a vineyard any more than a Baptist deacon committed to total abstinence would be caught hanging around a bar. Okay, that might have been a bad example, but you get the point.

While near the vineyard, Samson was rushed by a young lion. At that instant, the Spirit of the Lord “rushed” on him and he tore the lion apart with his bare hands “as he might have torn a young goat.” Personally, I find that last phrase more than amusing. I can’t remember the last time I tore a young goat apart with my hands, but it must have been both easy to do and commonplace to do it during the days of Samson. Either way, Samson was not impressed enough with the event to mention it to his parents. The reader is not told why Samson didn’t share this life experience with his folks, but we will see why it is important as the plot unfolds.

The good news is that Samson does a little bit more research on this woman who “looks right” to him. He went down and talked to the woman, and he liked her. We should notice that this “woman” goes unnamed throughout the entire story. The women in Samson’s life, his mother and his fiancé, are both unnamed. The one woman in Samson’s life whose name lives on in perpetuity will be Delilah. I am not sure if that means anything or not, but it is worth noting, I think.

On his return trip to marry this unnamed, uncircumcised Philistine, he happened by the carcass of the lion he tore apart with his bare hands. Again, the Nazirite calling is not too important to Samson for he was supposed to stay away from dead bodies, presumably of any kind. Instead, he saw the rather odd situation where a swarm of bees had built a hive in the carcass and had been there long enough to produce honey. Samson, never one to ignore something that might be pleasing to his eyes, scooped out some honey and ate it as he walked. He also brought some home to Mom and Dad, but he did not tell them from where it came. This detail will be significant as the story unfolds.

Riddle, Riddle…

The day finally comes for the happy couple to be married. Samson, and his Mother and Father go down to Timnah for the occasion.

10Now his father went down to see the woman. And Samson made a feast there, as was customary for bridegrooms. 11When he appeared, he was given thirty companions.

12“Let me tell you a riddle,” Samson said to them. “If you can give me the answer within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes. 13If you can’t tell me the answer, you must give me thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes.” “Tell us your riddle,” they said. “Let’s hear it.” 14He replied, “Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.” For three days they could not give the answer.

15On the fourth day, they said to Samson’s wife, “Coax your husband into explaining the riddle for us, or we will burn you and your father’s household to death. Did you invite us here to rob us?”

16Then Samson’s wife threw herself on him, sobbing, “You hate me! You don’t really love me. You’ve given my people a riddle, but you haven’t told me the answer.”

“I haven’t even explained it to my father or mother,” he replied, “so why should I explain it to you?” 17She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.

18Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him, “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Samson said to them, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle.”

19Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of their belongings and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he went up to his father’s house. 20And Samson’s wife was given to the friend who had attended him at his wedding. (Judges 14.10-20 NIV)

Every once in a while, a significant word is lost in translation, and verse 10 is a perfect example. The word translated “feast” in the NIV is misteh which is probably best translated “drinking party.” So here we have Samson giving the customary seven day drinking party for the men involved in the wedding. Again, where oh where has the Nazirite vow gone?

Samson offers them a riddle, which was a form of entertainment in the Middle East at this time. Perhaps we can think of this as a primitive party game, an early form of Pictionary. The reader knows instantly that the riddle comes from his unique experience of having torn the lion apart and finding honey in its carcass. It seems odd to the modern reader that the reward for discerning the meaning of the riddle would be 30 sets of clothes. We could be reading into the story, but it is possible that Samson’s offer was due to the fact that the 30 companions given to him did not come to the feast with the appropriate clothes (compare the parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22.1-14). If this was the case, then perhaps Samson was personally offended at this lack of respect which might explain his violent response.

Regardless, the 30 companions were not able to solve the riddle, so they threatened his fiancé that if she did not find out the answer that they would burn her, her father, and their entire household to death. The Philistines were certainly not a “kinder, gentler” people. Caught in an incredible situation, the fiancé begged Samson to tell her the meaning of the riddle. On the seventh day, Samson was worn down with her nagging, and he told her the meaning of the riddle.

Briefly, we ought not to miss the parallels between Samson’s fiancé and Delilah. They both try to manipulate Samson into sharing information with them that they fully intend to share with those who could hurt Samson. We see these as acts of treason, but at the same time we see the actions of Jael (see Judges 4) and Ruth (see Joshua 2) as noble. This caused one author to write an article called, “What if Judges Had Been Written By A Philistine?”[1] The point of the article is that villainy and heroics are often determined by the perspective of the reader. The actions of a spy can either be seen as the brave actions of an American hero or the treachery of a Benedict Arnold. This woman was a hero to the Philistines, but a traitor to Samson. Regardless, he certainly learned nothing from this event when he came face to face with Delilah.

Samson must not have been as dumb as the Philistines thought he was because he knew instantly how they were able to discern the riddle. But, a deal is a deal, and he was going to fulfill it. He walked about 20 miles to the Philistine stronghold of Ashkelon, and he “struck down” 30 men. The word means to “strike, hit, beat, or kill” so we don’t know for sure whether or not he killed the 30 innocent men. But, he definitely left them stripped and beaten. He then took those clothes to the 30 companions.

Without a doubt, the reader is again struck by the notion that Samson carried out his revenge with “the Spirit of the Lord upon Him in power.” Does that mean that the Spirit of the Lord directed Him to attack 30 innocent men or does it mean that the sovereignty of God was making sure that the situation came out in such a way that the will of God was in place? A good parallel might be to consider the nation of Babylon as an instrument of God’s judgment upon Israel. While Babylon was raised up by God to remove His people from the land of promise, He also judged them for their ruthless behavior and cruelty in war (see Habakkuk 2-3). Just as God was sovereign over the unrepentant King of Babylon, so was He sovereign over the misguided Samson.

He left the wedding feast in a huff, and headed back to his father’s house. His fiancé was given in marriage to his best man, presumably because she was abandoned by Samson.

Finding the Profitability in Samson’s Story

That is the story that we are left to read in Judges 14, but what remains is to struggle with what in this story might be profitable to us for teaching, rebuking, correcting, or training in righteousness.

The primary word of encouragement and teaching that I get out of this story is to be reminded of the sovereignty of God, and that nothing can keep Him from doing His will. Whether it is the planning of sinful men and women or my own mistakes and sinful behavior, God can cause all things to work together for His good. What may seem like an out of control evil in the world is always under the sovereign will of God. This truth brings great comfort to God’s people as we suffer under horrors beyond our control. This too is under the power of God, and we can trust Him.

It also reminds us that we might make plans, but the Lord is directing our paths. This is what the writer of Proverbs says: “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16.9). This is both a comfort and a challenge. We may be moving one direction with all of our might, but the Lord will still accomplish His will. We may board a boat for Tarshish and think we are outwitting the Lord, but He is sovereign over the seas (see Jonah 1-2). We cannot outwit the Lord. Sooner or later, His sovereignty will win the day, if nothing else, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.

But the same promise is also a comfort, knowing that the when our best intentions still miss His plan, the Lord can sovereignly guide our misguided steps to His destination.


[1] Susan Ackerman, “What If Judges Had Been Written By A Philistine?” Biblical Interpretation 8.

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Posted by on July 28, 2010 in Sermons - Judges

 

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