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Samson the Terrorist: A Meditation on Judges 16.23-31

01 Sep

Just before leaving the office to come to prayer meeting, I was checking my email one last time, and I saw a very disturbing news story on Yahoo News. It seems that there has been another tragedy at a church, this time in New York. The Fourth Street Baptist Church in New York City was gathering tonight for a very special church wide celebration. Their Youth Choir had just won a citywide competition, and part of the prize was a choir tour to Washington DC. The church was having a very special pot luck dinner in their fellowship hall to celebrate the hard work of their youth. In the middle of the meal, with the fellowship hall packed with somewhere around 200 people, a 54 year old construction worker by the name of Hasib Hussain,[1] entered the building. He quietly walked to the center of the hall, and chained himself to the center post. As soon as the church elders realized there was a problem, they began to approach the man. But before they could say anything, the main pulled a cord on his vest, detonating a bomb.

The initial reports, and they are very sketchy right now, are that there are only 17 survivors. No one really knows how many people were in the fellowship hall at the time, but the explosion impacted much more than just those in that crowded room. The fellowship hall was on the first floor of a three story building, and there were multiple groups also meeting in the two stories above the fellowship hall. At least one source was quoted as saying that multiple Bible study groups were meeting on the third floor, and that the second floor housed their day care center. No one has been able to determine if there were any children still in the facility at the time of the explosion. But you can see the pictures on the internet, and the roof of the building is resting on the rubble on the first floor. The top two floors pancaked the bottom floor.

Little is known about the terrorist. A city traffic camera caught a man parking his car on the street in front of the church, and walking into the building wearing a bulky jacket. He matches the description given by one of the survivors, and police have already tracked the license plate and have been to his home. While he did not leave any suicide note, police did find significant evidence of bomb making materials and several automatic weapons.

Within minutes of the tragedy, Al Qaida, the terrorist organization, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, leading authorities to believe that it was a tightly coordinated event. In their statement, Al Qaida rejoiced that Hussain was able to kill more Christians in his death than he ever would have been able to while alive.

Just a Story…

Now I should probably tell you before you get too emotionally involved in the story, that the events I just told you about did not take place. There is not a Fourth Street Baptist Church in New York City, at least not one that I am aware of. There was no suicide bomber, and there are no victims. The story was totally fabricated in my mind. Well, sort of.

The reason I made up this story was not just to play with your emotions, and I do apologize for that. But, I wanted you to hear the words of Scripture that we are going to read tonight with different ears; I wanted you to see it with new eyes. Actually, the story I just told you was a modern day version of the events from the life of Samson as told in Judges 16.23-31.

The story of Samson is one of the great “riches to rags” story of the Bible. By every standard of measure, Samson was an abject failure. He never lived into his calling. His mother was one of the “barren women” in the Bible blessed by God with a special son. His birth was announced by the angel of the Lord, none other than the pre-incarnate Christ. He is the only person named in the entire Bible who was set apart to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth. He was born to “begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” And he was gifted by God with the incredible gift of abnormal human strength (see Judges 13.1-5).

But he never valued his vow as a Nazirite. He participated in drinking parties (Judges 14.10), touched dead animals (Judges 14.8), and gave away the secret of his strength allowing his hair to be cut (Judges 16.19). He never once acted for the good of Israel, but always used his God given strength in self-serving and vengeful ways. By the time the Lord left him (Judges 16.20), Samson was a man who had squandered God’s gifts in wasteful living. Samson was the original Prodigal Son (see Luke 15.11-32). And in the last chapter of his life, we find him coming to his senses in the pig pens of the Philistines.

21Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding in the prison. 22But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. 23Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.” 24When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying, “Our god has delivered our enemy into our hands, the one who laid waste our land and multiplied our slain.” 25While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. When they stood him among the pillars, 26Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” 27Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. 28Then Samson prayed to the LORD, “O Sovereign LORD, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29Then 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, 30Samson 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. 31Then his brothers and his father’s whole family went down to get him. They brought him back and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He had led Israel twenty years. (Judges 16.21-31 NIV)

It is hard not to hear this story with two sets of ears. With one set of ears, we hear the ever unfolding story of Samson, the Prodigal Son, the colossal failure who we hope is coming home at the end of his life. But with the other set of ears, we hear the fictitious story of Hasib Hussain, or we wonder what makes Samson different than just another terrorist. Perhaps wrestling with one question will actually help us to understand the answer to the other, so we will deal with them both simultaneously.

The Prodigal Son?

There are some signs that Samson was indeed the Prodigal Son who had reached the depths of despair and was now coming to his senses. For only the second time in the Samson narrative, he prayed. It might not have been the most mature prayer, and like the first prayer (Judges 15.18), it was a selfish prayer (“let me get revenge”), but it was a prayer nonetheless. And for the first time, Samson recognized that his strength was a gift from God. He finally saw that the reason he was able to do great feats was because the Lord strengthened him. He did not just grab the pillars and push; this time, he asked God for strength. This was a step in the right direction, but we would like to have seen more confession and repentance along the lines of David after Bathsheba (see Psalm 51). But in a very dark period where the Law of the Lord was all but totally absent, we are left to be satisfied with baby steps of faith.

The period of the Judges is a stark reminder of what it looks like when the Words of the Lord disappear from the community of faith. Everyone is left to do what seems right in their own eyes (see Judges 21.25), and the righteous acts that many come up with are horribly ignorant of the will of God (see Judges 11.30-31 and the vow of Jephthah). But God is not totally absent from His people, nor has He totally withdrawn from His plan to redeem a lost and dying creation. His covenant with Abraham is still in place (see Genesis 12.1-3), and He will raise up a man after his own heart who will be the forerunner of the Messiah. The story of Samson takes place in the dark days of Israel’s history, but even God is sovereign over the rebellion of mankind.

The story of Samson must always be cast in the light of his original calling. Samson was born “to begin the deliverance of Israel” (Judges 13.5). Unlike the other judges (Gideon, Deborah, etc.), Samson would not finish the deliverance of Israel but only begin it. Samson, sinful and selfish Samson, was an instrument in the hands of the Lord. God worked through Samson to deliver His people and to draw them into deeper faith.

The Hero of Faith?

But we cannot totally dismiss Samson as just a sinful, selfish man who wasted the good gifts of God because the New Testament includes him in the Faith Hall of Fame. In Hebrews 11, where the apostolic writer catalogs the great stories of men and women who followed God in faith through great difficulties, we read the following words:

32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. (Hebrews 11.32-34 NIV)

The writer of Hebrews not only omitted Deborah, who was the only real bright light of the book of Judges, but included Gideon (who ended up his life by leading the people to false worship – Judges 8.27), Jepthah (who sacrificed his daughter in the fire – Judges 11.30-36), and Samson. Looking back on Samson, the apostle saw that Samson’s weakness was turned to strength and that he became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies “through faith.” Samson, for all of his failure, was a model of faith, at least in the last moments of his life. He knew that he was weak, but he believed that God could strengthen him to be powerful in battle so that the foreign armies might be routed.

The Terrorist?

Which brings us back to the praimary question at hand: was Samson a terrorist? Was what Samson did in the Temple of Dagon any different than my made up story of an Al Qaida operative bombing a church in New York City? I think we must admit that the answer is, in many ways, both “yes” and “no.”

On many levels, the answer is “No,” Samson was not a terrorist for several reasons. First, the definition of terrorism is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Samson was not operating a systematic campaign of terror against the Philistines. He was at war with a group of people who had attacked him personally and who were oppressing his people. Remember, Samson’s action were taken while he was being held captive as a prisoner of war.

Second, terrorists attack innocent people. The people who were the victims of Samson’s final act were not innocent. They had brought out Samson to “perform,” a word that means “to laugh at, to mock, or to make sport of.” The text leaves to our imagination what they might have done with or to a blind man to make sport of him, but we are told that 3000 men and women joined in the mockery. They were hardly innocent. Terrorists set off bombs in marketplaces or city buses or fly planes into office buildings where hundreds of innocent people gather as they go about their ordinary life. Samson was dragged out of prison to be abused and mocked by over 3000 men and women. One might say that Samson acted in self-defense.

Third, terrorists use man made weapons. Samson’s destruction was the work of God much like the fall of the walls of Jericho (see Joshua 6). Had God not given Samson the strength, he never would have been able to push over the pillars of the Temple. When God acts directly, it can hardly be considered the work of one religious fanatic.

But, the Christian reader must admit that Samson could be considered a terrorist in one very crucial way: his actions were religiously motivated. God acted in judgment against the Philistines for one very important reason: they gathered to praise their god, Dagon. And this was not the only time the Philistines would credit Dagon for a victory over the God of Israel. Years later, the Philistines would capture the Ark of God and bring it to the Dagon’s temple in Ashdod (see 1 Samuel 5). As a result, the Lord’s hand was against the Philistines and brought upon them devastations and tumors. So horrible was the hand of the Lord that the Philistines returned the Ark of God to Israel just to gain relief. In the same manner, the Philistines had gathered in Dagon’s temple in Gaza to lift up the name of Dagon as a superior god to Yahwah. God was defending His Name by demonstrating His superiority over the false god of Dagon.

So, some might say, that Samson was a religious terrorist, one who wanted to kill those who worshipped another god besides the God of Israel. And while we hate to think of Samson as another Hasib Hussain, there is some truth to the analogy. We believe that the Most High God will bring history to a conclusion with the second coming of the Messiah. And on that day, the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.

8He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power 10on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.  (2 Thessalonians 1.8-10)

The Scriptures teach us that when Jesus returns, He will return as a mighty warrior, full of vengeance and wrath. John’s vision of the returning Christ is quite vivid:

11I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. 12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. (Revelation 19.11-16)

So yes, we do believe that there will come a day when the Lord will judge all of the nations, and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and who worship any other god will be judged and “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.”

But there is one major difference between the followers of Christ and terrorists like Hasib Hussain. We believe that the judgment to come will be carried out by the Lord Himself. The Lord caused the walls of Jericho to fall. The Lord brought down the temple of Dagon. And the Lord will strike down the nations. As followers of Christ, we are called not to use the weapons of this world to spread the Good News but to use the weapons that are divinely powerful for the destruction of spiritual strongholds (see 2 Corinthians 10.4-6). We are called to proclaim the Good News, to speak the truth in love, to pray for our enemies, to suffer for doing what is right, and to heap burning coals on our enemy’s heads by attacking them with kindness and charity (see Romans 12.17-21).

Samson might have been the one to push on the columns, but he was not the one to cause the temple of Dagon to collapse. Only the power of God could have caused those pillars to move, and the death of over 3000 Philistines on that day was caused by the hand of the Lord upon a people who were worshipping other gods and mocking the Most High God. Samson was not a terrorist, but a tool in the hand of the Lord. That might be a fine line to draw, one not easily seen by the followers of Dagon, but the difference is quite significant for a follower of Christ. We are called to “not take revenge but to leave room for the wrath of God” (Romans 12.19). We are called to love our enemies and to let God deal with judgment.

In the end, Samson offered himself to God as an instrument of His wrath, knowing that he could do nothing on his own. He was weak, and humble, and contrite. Perhaps the Prodigal did come home after all.


[1] This is the name of the man who detonated the bomb on the bus in Britain on July 7, 2005. As this story was made up, I didn’t want to make up a name that might incriminate a totally innocent person, so I borrowed the name of a known terrorist.

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Posted by on September 1, 2010 in Sermons - Judges

 

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