“Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines” (Jdg. 15:20).This text does not conclude, “and the land had rest.” Samson, for all his physical strength, lacked the inner strength needed to put his people ahead of his own raging desires.
Definition of Key Terms
Philistines. Great numbers of these people settled on Palestine’s coastal plains about 1200B.C after an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt. Gradually they penetrated the hill country occupied by Israel, and intermingled with the Israelites. Israel was unable to resist the encroachment, in part because the Philistines had the secret of smelting iron and had weapons superior to anything Israel possessed. Samson conducted one-man war against the Philistines, but never marshalled his people to resist the invaders. The Philistines remained a dangerous enemy through the judgeship of Samuel and the reign of Saul, until crushed by David about a hundred years after the time of Samson.
Samson’s birth was announced by the Angel of the Lord (13:1–24). He insisted on marrying a Philistine, but was deceived and humiliated at the wedding (14:1–15). Revenge escalated into open hostilities in which Samson personally killed a thousand men (15:1–20). But his passion for Delilah led Samson to reveal the secret of his strength (16:1–17). He was captured, blinded, and forced to grind grain for his enemy (vv. 16–22). Samson’s strength returned and he died destroying a Philistine temple, killing thousands of his enemies (vv. 23–31).
Understanding the Text
“Teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born” Jdg. 13:1–25. Samson is one of the few in Scripture whose birth was preannounced to his parents. He shares this honor with Isaac, John the Baptist, and Jesus. Samson’s parents were godly Israelites who believed the prediction and asked God to show them how to bring up their son. This prayer was answered: Samson was to be brought up as a Nazarite—a person set completely apart to God (see Num. 6:1–8). Nazarites drank no wine, did not cut their hair, and were to follow certain other requirements. It is striking that in this and other tales of the judges the author does not editorialize. He simply tells his story, without moralizing or comment. Yet the stories speak for themselves, particularly in Samson’s case. Unlike Jephthah, Samson had loving and godly parents. Even as a teenager “the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him” (Jdg. 13:25). Samson’s many flaws can hardly be traced either to his parents or to God. What a comfort to godly Christian parents whose children have not chosen to follow Jesus. Every tormented mom or dad, who looks back and wonders, “What did I do?” or “What did I fail to do?” can find comfort in the story of Samson. There was no failure on the part of Samson’s parents. The flaws that later destroyed Samson were in Samson himself. “Get her for me” Jdg. 14:1–20. Samson’s desire for a Philistine woman indicates his weakness. God’s Law forbad intermarriage with pagan peoples (Deut. 7:3). Yet Samson was ruled by his desires. His passion for a woman, based merely on her looks, seemed more important to him than God’s expressed will. So, despite his objections, Samson’s father arranged for the marriage. The comment that “this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines” is likely a gloss, or comment by a later editor. But the point is well taken. God is able to turn even our weaknesses to His purposes. A confrontation was stimulated when Samson posed a riddle that the Philistines he challenged could answer only by threatening his bride. Samson’s comment that he had not even explained it to his father or mother (Jdg. 14:16) is interesting. As a Nazarite he was not supposed to touch a dead body. Yet he had taken honey from the body of a lion that he killed. The incident is another indication of his parents’ godly character, and Samson’s own flaws. “I have a right to get even” Jdg. 15:1–20. When Samson learned that his father-in-law had given his bride to someone else, he captured a number of jackals (not foxes) and set them loose in Philistine grain fields with firebrands attached to their tails. Escalation followed. The Philistines burned Samson’s bride and her father to death, and then demanded that the Israelites turn Samson over to them to be executed. The Israelites bound Samson, but after he was turned over Samson broke his bonds and, using the fresh jawbone of a donkey, “struck down a thousand men.” The text sheds light on several aspects of the period and the Samson story. First, the casual brutality of the Philistines is seen in their burning of Samson’s bride and her father (v. 6). Second, the subservient attitude of the Israelites is shown in their failure to support Samson and in their fear of the Philistines, who “are rulers over us” (v. 11). Most revealing of all are Samson’s references to his “right to get even” and to do to the Philistines “what they did to me” (vv. 3, 11). This is the same kind of thinking that characterized the Philistines (v. 10). Samson gave no thought to the oppression experienced by the people he led. His vendetta with the Philistines was personal. Samson hated the Philistines not for what they had done to his people but for what they had done to him personally. God used Samson’s selfishness to “begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” (13:5). But Samson himself is revealed to be a shallow person, without the spiritual depth or concern for others that marks the truly godly. Approaches to the gates of ancient cities were carefully constructed to prevent access. The gates themselves were massive, usually reinforced with metal. Samson not only tore off the gates of Gaza, which weighed many hundreds of pounds, but carried them to the “top of the hill that faces Hebron,” 38 miles away! “Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver” Jdg. 16:1–21. The combined payment of almost 150 pounds of silver was a vast sum for that day. Delilah was as eager to have the money as Samson was to have her! Neither of the major figures in this story merits admiration. Each shows very human weaknesses against which you and I must guard. “He killed many more when he died” Jdg. 16:23–31. Samson’s last prayer suggests he had learned little during his lifetime, for his concern is still with revenge, this time “for my two eyes” (v. 28). The temple to which Samson was brought probably was built on a plan common to such structures of that era. If so, most of the Philistines were gathered on the roof, which was supported by a number of pillars. The crowd, pressing forward to see the captive hero, would have made the whole structure unstable, so that when Samson pushed against the pillars, the temple collapsed. More died with Samson in that fall than Samson had killed during his lifetime. What a difference between this epitaph and that of other judges, which commonly read, “And the land had peace.” Samson brought death to Israel’s enemies. But this morally weak strongman failed to make peace for his own people or for himself.
Now, or Never? (Jdg. 16)
The story of Samson and Delilah is one of the best known in Scripture. Samson’s passion for Delilah is legendary, as is her betrayal of him for money. Yet as we read the story, we’re reminded more of children than adults. Samson and Delilah each desperately wanted what he or she desired . . . now. Reading the story we’re amazed that Samson kept going back to Delilah when what she said and did so clearly showed her intent to betray. But Samson’s passion was so dominating that he cared nothing for the future. His only concern was that his desire be satisfied now. We wonder at Samson’s blindness. It’s so much easier to see a fault in someone else than in ourselves. How often have we made choices because we want something now, without considering the future? How often have our choices been made simply on the basis of our will, without pausing to consider God’s? Samson reminds us that we grown-ups can’t afford to adopt a child’s perspective on life, and let ourselves be controlled by our passions and desires.
In the choice between now and never, never is often best.