By Elton Higgs
The story of Samson in the book of Judges (Judges 13-16) is one of the two longest narratives in the book, and the saddest and most incredible of all. How can a man endowed with such a gift from God, and born with such promise, be so utterly and stupidly reckless? It seems that God wanted to show in him how personal exploitation of a gift from God, without regard to the holy purpose for which God intended it, leads to a folly as great as the holy gift. It ends up as a supreme example of God’s strength being made perfect in weakness, as the blind and bound Sampson, in one final reckless act, slays more Philistines in his death than he had in his lifetime.
Samson’s story begins with a kind of annunciation and a supernatural conception and birth (Judges 13), strangely foreshadowing the birth of Jesus. At the center of these events is the strict charge that Samson be dedicated from birth as a lifelong Nazirite, which required that he never cut his hair, that he imbibe no strong drink, and that he have no contact with dead bodies (see Num. 6). Although his final violation of the first of these is at the climax of his story, he had already by that time violated the first two, as well as having gone against the spirit of God’s sanctification of him by being sexually promiscuous. But at the core of his downfall is his failure to realize that God’s gift of supernatural strength to him was itself holy, and that to use it to satisfy his own pride was to set himself up for a profound fall.
The marvel is that God went along with his self-indulgence for so long, for we are told that he judged Israel for twenty years (Judges 15:20), presumably holding the Philistines at bay for that entire period. At first, God is behind his apparently reckless and inappropriate actions, as he goes down to Timnah to get a Philistine wife, “seeking an opportunity against the Philistines,” an action he took because it was “from the Lord” (Judges 14:4). In all the rest of his great feats, even though we can infer that he revels more and more pridefully in doing them, God was still using him to deliver His people from their oppression.
It was only at the end of this period that he had his disastrous encounter with Delilah (Judges 16). The narrator of the story does a superb job of teasing out the degrees of Samson’s downfall, showing how the hero taunts Delilah and her Philistine masters with false (but increasingly true) answers to her pleas to be told the secret of his strength. When he commits the final desecration of his Nazirite sanctification, and his hair has been cut and the Philistines are upon him, he says to himself, “’I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). I think that must be among the most poignant statements in all of biblical history. When Samson’s eyes are gouged out, it is but a physical confirmation of his spiritual blindness which had occurred long before.
Another mark of the inspired literary quality of this tragic story is that the account of Samson’s first great feat of strength, the killing of a lion and later finding honey in its carcass, foreshadows God’s final act of strength through a helpless (but enlightened) Samson. As the following poem indicates, Samson’s use of the experience with the lion to pose a riddle to his enemies was, ironically, even deeper than he himself knew.
(“Out of the eater came something to eat,
out of the strong came something sweet.” – Judges 15:14)
How strange that honey could grow
In the carcass of a lion,
Lying broken by Samson’s hands.
And now those hands are full of sweetness
Where before they dealt out death.
The breath of God blew here,
Although the strong man shares not yet
The transmutation God has wrought.
The day will come when One
Who gave him more than lion’s strength
Will make him brim with honey, too;
There will occur a true encounter
With the Source of that sweet lion:
When all is ripe and strength has run its course,
An empty Samson will be filled once more,
And God will scoop the honey of His vengeance
From the broken bones of a lion-hive.
–Elton D. Higgs
Image: “Empty” by Anthony. CC License.