The skeptics who believe the Bible to be nothing more than a collection of fairy tales written by men who want to use the “fear of God” to oppress the weak need look no further than the book of Judges to find fodder for their assault. 2 Timothy 3.16 notwithstanding, it is very difficult to find something worthy of “training in righteousness” in the stories of Jepththah, Abimilech, or Samson. A follower of Christ who reads these stories just can’t wait for the Lord to descend in some fashion and correct the error of the ways of His people. How refreshing it would have been for something akin to the fate of Ananias and Sapphira (see Acts 5.1-11) to happen to some of these characters so that everyone would straighten up and fly right.
But I am not one of those who take these stories to be fairy tales. For me, these are the stories of God’s people, and the folly that comes from following others gods and doing what is right in our own eyes. It is also a story of grace, of God’s compassion to continue to rescue and reach out to a group of people who obviously are not worthy of His love and compassion. In that way, these stories are a precursor of our own salvation. When God found us, we were dead in our sins, following Satan, gratifying the cravings of our sin nature, and were objects of God’s righteous wrath (see Ephesians 2.1-10). There was nothing within ourselves to commend us to God. Even so, God poured out his mercy and grace upon a wicked lot of people. He made us alive by giving us new birth. He transferred us from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God (see Acts 26.17-18). And He gave us a new heart, one set free from the bondage to sin so that we might be slaves to righteousness (see Romans 6.17-18).
All of that is to say that we were no better off than Jepththah or Samson before Christ redeemed us. We did what was right in our own eyes (see Judges 21.25), and our attempts at righteousness were little more than filthy rags (see Isaiah 64.6). But praise God, He was merciful and gracious to us while we were sinners (see Romans 5.8), just like He was gracious to Samson.
As we read these confusing stories, we must also remember the basic principle of progressive revelation. While the heavens declare the glory of God (see psalm 19.1) and God has made known to every person His eternal power and divine nature through creation (see Romans 1.20), the exact nature of God could only be known by mankind if God graciously revealed Himself. If God had never made the specifics of His divine nature known to us, we would never know of His holiness, forgiveness, or passion for justice. God revealed Himself to creation progressively over time. This is not to say that the nature of God changed over time, but it is to say that God revealed Himself little by little throughout the history of creation. The self revelation of the eternal Triune God was more complete in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ than it was when God revealed Himself to Abraham. Paul understood much more about God than Joshua did because God had revealed more of Himself through Christ than He did during the Exodus experience. So, we can cut Samson some slack because He lived in a period of salvation history in which God had yet to reveal Himself fully.
However, the period of the Judges, and the life of Samson, are vivid reminders that when humanity abandons whatever amount of self-revelation that God has given, the result is not pretty. When left to our own wisdom to decide issues of morality or to develop a description of the divine being, our foolishness will always lead us to create a god in our own image, and to create a morality according to what seems right to us. The Law is horribly absent from the period of the Judges. Gideon nor Samson seem to know nothing about it, and the Levites seem to be completely failing to do their job of teaching the people the ways of the Lord. The result was not pretty. When we reject God’s self-revelation and venture to come up with our own opinion of what god is like and how this god wants us to live, we are destined for darkness.
But wonderfully, our sovereign God is able to do great things through pretty poor specimen of humanity. As the old preachers used to say, “God can hit a straight lick with a crooked stick.” God was able to accomplish His will through sinful and foolish people, of whom Samson was the team captain. Have you noticed that the stories of the Old Testament characters get better as God’s self-revelation increases? David, while not perfect, had a heart for the Lord, and this was primarily because of His love for the Law, a love that caused him to meditate on it day and night (see Psalm 119). The Old Testament prophets speak passionately of justice, but that passion was the result of God revealing Himself to them time and time again. But when God’s self-revelation is absent, as in the period of the Judges, the people get off track very quickly. And yet through the darkness, God is somehow able to bring salvation history to His conclusion.
Having said all of that, let us return to the story of Samson. When we last left him, his anger had erupted against the Philistines who had figured out his wedding day riddle by getting his fiancé to spy against him (see Judges 14). In his anger, he attacked 30 other Philistines in Ashkelon and stole their clothes to pay the agreed upon sum for discerning his riddle. He then returned home “burning with anger.” Assuming that his daughter had been left at the altar, his fiancé’s father gave her to one of the groomsmen to be his wife. But sometime later, Samson decided to return to collect his fiancé.
1Later on, at the time of wheat harvest, Samson took a young goat and went to visit his wife. He said, “I’m going to my wife’s room.” But her father would not let him go in. 2“I was so sure you thoroughly hated her,” he said, “that I gave her to your friend. Isn’t her younger sister more attractive? Take her instead.” 3Samson said to them, “This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.” 4So he went out and caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail to tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails, 5lit the torches and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines. He burned up the shocks and standing grain, together with the vineyards and olive groves. (Judges 15.1-5 NIV)
The self-centered Samson returns to Timnah to consummate the marriage. He brings with him the usually romantic gift that any guy would bring to smooth over the fact that he left his fiancé at the altar on their wedding day: a goat. The reader is not told whether Samson was just clueless as to what makes a girl’s heart beat with love, or if he was insulting her by valuing her with the value of a goat. Either way, he was met with a surprised ex-father-in-law who informed Samson that his daughter had been given to another. And who could blame him since she had been left at the altar?
But true to Samson’s form, he decided in his heart to get revenge. What is most disappointing in the story of Samson is that he never once acted like a man called by God to “begin the deliverance of Israel” (see Judges 13.5). He always acted like a man who is out for himself, out to exact revenge upon anyone who harmed him in any way. Perhaps that is why Samson was only called to “begin the deliverance of Israel” and not really to “deliver Israel.” God would deliver Israel despite the strong arms and thick skull of Samson.
Samson skillfully caught 300 “foxes.” The Hebrew word can mean either fox or jackal, and since jackals are more likely to run in packs, some think that Samson caught jackals instead of the loner foxes. He somehow managed to tie a torch to each pair of foxes, and then turned them loose on the fields and vineyards of the Philistines. In a land where grassfires have done so much damage, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how rapid the fire must have spread and the damage that must have been done.
6When the Philistines asked, “Who did this?” they were told, “Samson, the Timnite’s son-in-law, because his wife was given to his friend.” So the Philistines went up and burned her and her father to death. 7Samson said to them, “Since you’ve acted like this, I won’t stop until I get my revenge on you.” 8He attacked them viciously and slaughtered many of them. Then he went down and stayed in a cave in the rock of Etam. (Judges 15.6-8 NIV)
The never ending cycle of retribution got hotter and hotter. Samson’s theme Bible verse should have been James 1.20, “Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.” The fool, according the book of Proverbs, gives full vent to his anger (see Proverbs 29.11), and Samson was never one to hold back any of his anger. But God was sovereign over Pharaoh, and He was sovereign over Samson. His will would be done.
For just a moment, we can take our gaze off of Samson to be reminded that the Philistines were a wicked lot of people. They burned Samson’s fiancé and her father to death in retribution for the damage done by Samson. While vengeance upon the wicked is not the righteous life that God requires (see Romans 12.19), an even greater evil is the tortuous death of the innocent, something the Lord hates (see Proverbs 6.17). This serves to remind us that the Lord was just to judge the Philistines for their wickedness.
9The Philistines went up and camped in Judah, spreading out near Lehi. 10The men of Judah asked, “Why have you come to fight us?” “We have come to take Samson prisoner,” they answered, “to do to him as he did to us.” 11Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.” 12They said to him, “We’ve come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines.” Samson said, “Swear to me that you won’t kill me yourselves.” 13“Agreed,” they answered. “We will only tie you up and hand you over to them. We will not kill you.” So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. (Judges 15.9-13)
Here we notice once again that the Israelites seem comfortable with the Philistines ruling over them. They have at least come to the place in their life that they have accepted the rule of the Philistines . They do not come to Samson with their 3000 soldiers hoping to be led by Samson to be free from the Philistines. Instead, they came to Samson with ropes to arrest him and hand him over to the Philistines. How lost Israel truly was.
Samson turned himself over to the crowd on the condition that they will only hand him over to the Philistines and not try to execute him themselves. The mob tied him up with not one, but two new ropes, convinced that the new ropes would be enough to hold him.
14As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. 15Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. 16Then Samson said,
“With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”
17When he finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone; and the place was called Ramath Lehi. (Judges 15.14-17 NIV)
Called to begin the deliverance of Israel, the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him and the ropes were easily broken. He grabbed the nearest weapon, the jawbone of donkey, fresh enough that it still had the teeth set in the bone, and used it to kill 1000 fighting Philistines. One still wonders why the 3000 Israelites didn’t jump at the chance to fight alongside Samson to find freedom from Philistine rule.
But we should notice the song of praise that Samson gives in verse 16. If we compare his short song with the song of Deborah (Judges 5), we see a stark contrast. While Deborah sang to the Lord about what the Lord had done, Samson reveled in the works of his own hand. In essence, “Look at what I have done.” Samson saw no reason to give praise to the Spirit of the Lord who rushed on him in power so that he was able to do what he did. He even called the place “Jawbone Hill” instead of “The Lord Victorious” or some other name to give praise to the Lord.
18Because he was very thirsty, he cried out to the LORD, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” 19Then God opened up the hollow place in Lehi, and water came out of it. When Samson drank, his strength returned and he revived. So the spring was called En Hakkore, and it is still there in Lehi. 20Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines. (Judges 15.18-20 NIV)
This latest disturbing snapshot of a selfish man if capped off with a strange ending. After the great victory, the mighty warrior was thirsty. He cried out to the Lord, something that gives us a ray of hope that perhaps he at least prayed sometime. But even that prayer is childish and manipulative. He recognized that God had given him a great victory, but then prays in dramatic fashion to keep from dying of thirst. God brings forth water from the rock, something that God is prone to do, and Samson was revived in his strength.
But notice what the spring was called: “The Caller’s Spring.” Samson did not name the spring as “The Lord Provides,” but he named it in such a way to bring the focus on the caller. In the end, Samson remains a mystery man. The mystery is not in his complex character, for we seem to have a grasp on his selfishness and cluelessness. The mystery is that God was able to use such a man to “begin to deliver Israel.”
But perhaps the story of Samson is meant to cast a shadow that leads us to another man who would finish the deliverance from the Philistines. One day, another mighty warrior would stand toe to toe with a great Philistine warrior. But this mighty warrior would be a man after God’s own heart, a man who loved the Law and meditated on it day and night, a man who understood his calling to be the leader of a nation, not just a lone ranger making himself happy. The disappointment of Samson serves to highlight the treasure of David. The disappointment of Samson causes the reader to long for one who would both deliver Israel and lead Israel to true worship of the one true God. Samson leaves the reader hungry and thirsty for the righteousness of David.
At least we can say of Samson that he left us wanting more.