In my earlier study – “Jephthah, possibly my favourite Bible character”, who operated in that period between Israel entering the Promised Land and having kings reign over them, which we call the time of “The Judges”, I reflected on one unlikely judge – Jephthah, who God used to deliver His people.
Today, I would like to reflect upon an even more unlikely judge, Samson. Strangely enough though, while it is unlikely that the story of Jephthah gets told in Sunday School, that will not be the case with Samson. Between Jephthah and Samson, there were three “judges” who led Israel, of which we know very little, beyond they had lots of children between then and one brood married outside the clan, with few verses are devoted to them. Not so with Samson; four whole chapters (Judges 13-16) are devoted to his exploits, which make a cracking good yarn with many twists and turns and a great ending that you can tell the children providing you cut out the parts of the story (of which there are several) which need an “X” certificate.
Samson was a Nazarite – an Israelite who was consecrated to the service of God, under vows to abstain from alcohol, let the hair grow, and avoid defilement by contact with dead bodies (Numbers 6), not that he had any choice in the matter and who was a not good exponent, for he was, in biblical parlance, a carnal man, given he lusted after women, usually of dubious character, although this was to be a significant factor in at least two cases in the unravelling of the story, but which God used. But before we get into the story, including some of the less salubrious details, we must get the context right and, when it comes to the Book of Judges, a key theme is revival and suppression. Samson emerges in one of those periods of suppression and when God takes pity on His suppressed people.
The story begins: “And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years. And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and bare not. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto the woman, and said unto her, Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son. Now therefore beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing: For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” Judges 13:1-5.
I reckon the story of Sampson would rival that of any myth that features in the “holy” books of other religions, even though it will not resonate with the modern mind, more inclined to dismiss its actuality. But the great thing about God and the Bible is He is not answerable to any of us or bound to explain His decisions, and He will do whatever He chooses and chooses all sorts of unlikely people to do His bidding. Given His character, what God does is always perfect. So it was with Samson, who He filled with His Spirit, knowing He would be a carnal man and, moreover, used his carnality as the route by which he would deliver Israel. As we now know, the secret of his strength was not that he was the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Mr. Universe, but rather he grew his hair long. Therein lay his strength or to be more precise, that of the God of the Nazarite. He came to the attention of the Philistine oppressors perchance, following his marriage to one of their women and God using this for him to be henceforth a thorn in their side.
The crux came when the Philistines demanded and threatened the Israelites that if they did not hand Samson over to them they will exact retribution. The Israelites acceded to their request and hand over their deliverer, but this was the opportunity for Samson to do his game changing act which rid the Israelites of their oppressors, by killing many of them (as graphically portrayed here). After years of relative peace, Samson enters into his second and even more significant liaison with a Philistine woman, Delilah. For it was she who elicited from him the secret of his strength and by cutting his hair the Philistines were able to capture him, gouge out his eyes, put him to slave labour as a grinder and then as a showpiece to entertain the masses. All of which brings us to the spectacular finale.
During the months that followed, Samson’s hair grew, and it was at one of these show times, while in the temple dedicated to the Philistine god, he did his final act – the best ever. “And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left” Judges 16: 28-29. Throughout his life we don’t get the impression Samson was a God fearing man that wanted only for God to be honoured etc., yet the hand of the Lord was on Samson during all his life and answered his prayer and just maybe at the end he recalled the solemn vow of the Nazerite.
When we look at the Book of Judges, it is clear God used the most unlikely persons to save His people from their enemies. We thought of Jephthah, are thinking of Samson and will be thinking soon of Gideon. While we may look around us, with consternation, at the world at this time of COVID-19 lockdown and our world leaders, He raises up deliverers for such a time as this: “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence” 1Corinthians 1:27-29. As for Samson, while his strength was in his hair, it really was because of the Lord who gave strength to this ever so flawed man, who uses such to do His will.
I like to end with a personal reflection as to why the story of Samson particularly resonates and finally a poem which I found particularly moving. Recently, in a discussion with a friend, he shared his frustration that there is so much wickedness about him, with the Lord’s enemies acting with importunity against the Lord’s people, with many being duped. He felt he needed to say and do something, even if it cost him his life. I recall some years ago watching a film in a wartime setting when an army officer was exposed for treason and who requested one last chance to redeem himself, which was an act of heroism that cost him his life yet saved the lives of his comrades.
My counsel to my friend (and me) was to bide our time and, if we were to end our days with one act of nobility, we might do no better than consider Samson, of whom we read at the end: “And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life” Judges 16:30.
The boy who held his hand
They gouged them out,
I could not bear to look:
Empty and raw and cruel.
I would not look:
The shock of emptiness,
Knowing that he would not see.
I watched the shaven head bowed low
Rocking with the rhythm of the grindstone.
Round. Round. Round.
I watched the needless shackles:
Heavy and hard,
Biting the flesh that needs no binding.
It does not matter that his eyes are gone:
I am his eyes,
He sees through me.
He has to see through me, there is no other way.
And I have wept the tears he cannot weep,
For all those careless years.
And I have learned to love this broken man,
While he has learned at last to fear his God.
I am not afraid to die:
Happy to be his eyes this one last time.
Taking his hand,
Leading with practised care,
Step by guided step
Into the place where he can pray,
O Sovereign Lord.’
And as the pillars fall, I cry