What do you know about Samson? Is he a Bible character you particularly admire or respect?
His story, told in four chapters in Judges, is full of foolish choices. He had a special weakness for Philistine women. His last Philistine girl friend, Delilah, kept bugging him to tell her the secret of his strength. Twice he lied to her, and twice she sent Philistine men to capture him. What kept him from turning his back on her instead of finally telling her the truth?
His death amounts to suicide.
And he had such a great start in life!
Samson’s call and strength
The angel of the Lord appeared to Samson’s mother, a barren woman. The Bible does not name her, but think of the other barren women in the Bible who eventually bore illustrious children: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hanna, Elizabeth.
The angel told this woman that she would bear a son whose mission was to begin to deliver Israel from its bondage to the Philistines. He also told her that her son was to be a Nazirite from his birth. That meant that she, too had to keep the nazirite vow during her pregnancy.
The Nazirite vow, described in Numbers 6, set people apart from the rest of society in three ways:
- They were not allowed to eat or drink anything made from grapes (especially wine, but also vinegar and raisins)
- They were not allowed to cut their hair.
- They were not allowed any contact with a dead body–even a parent or sibling who died.
Most often, a man or woman would take the Nazirite vow for short periods of time. It was special time of fellowship with God and separation from everyday routine. Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist were called to a life-long Nazarite vow.
At the end of Judges 13, we read that as Samson grew, the Lord blessed him and that the Holy Spirit began to stir him. That means that Samson began to display superhuman strength at times.
That strength was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit and therefore not something Samson always had. He had to ask for it.
It is a mistake to think of Samson as some kind of over-muscled body builder who looks to the most casual observer as stronger than anyone else. Samson’s appearance and natural abilities must have been very ordinary. Otherwise, the Philistines would not have bribed Delilah to find his secret.
Samson as a symbol
Many times, the Bible uses one person or thing to stand for something larger.
Samson personifies the entire nation of Israel of his day. The way he treated his status as specially chosen mirrors Israel’s status as the chosen race.
Perhaps that explains his preference for foreign women. Israelites in general were forbidden to marry them.
When Samson demanded that his father Manoah get a Philistine bride for him, Manoah protested, but got the desired bride. He would have been within his rights to choose a suitable bride for his son and compel him to marry her. We might ask, why didn’t he? Perhaps, then, we should take Manoah as a type of divine love in permissive will.
Samson’s desire for foreign women also mirrored Israel’s desire to worship Canaanite gods. The Bible says Samson’s choice was from God, but that can only mean that Samson began began to walk in God’s permissive will rather than his intentional will. Unlike other times, Israel seems content under Philistine rule. They didn’t know they even needed a deliverer. Certainly Samson’s antics made their rule a little less benign.
God accepted Samson, spiritual weakness and all, and used him to advance his (God’s) purposes. Samson would have been even more useful if he had remained faithful to his calling, but God used him as he was.
Samson’s lack of discipline
From that time on, we see Samson motivated by his own desires for women, for practical jokes, and for revenge. He could not give up Delilah even though his own self-interest clearly demanded it.
So he got a haircut and lost his supernatural strength as a result. Imprisoned and blinded, Samson seemed to end his life in abject failure.
The Philistines, though, had reckoned without one important clause in the nazirite vow: if a person broke the vow, he was supposed to shave head and let the hair start to grow back. One week later, he would start a new vow.
The Philistines put him on public display for a feast so they could taunt him. He asked for his supernatural strength again in order to get revenge–his only recorded prayer.
God complied, and Samson broke two structural pillars. The entire temple collapsed, killing him and all the Philistines in it. At the end of his career, his success was measured in the number of Philistines he had killed. That’s all. He had not begun any kind of deliverance.
The only time Samson’s name appears outside the book of Judges is in Hebrews 11:32, the list of Old Testament heroes of the faith. Verse 38 says that the world was not worthy of him. How can a man who failed so completely to live up to his promise and calling make it into that list?
God’s grace to Samson
First, the failure to begin any kind of deliverance was not entirely Samson’s fault.
All of the other judges got military support from the people. By Samson’s time, they were quite willing to live under Philistine rulership and behaved more like rabbits than people willing to trust God for any positive change. The men of Judah, instead of rallying around Samson as a leader and deliverer, arrested him and turned him over to the Philistines.
Second, Samson did keep the Nazirite vow all his life. If he had drunk wine at his wedding feast, that would have canceled his vow as surely as his haircut.
True, his taking honey from the corpse of a dead lion came close to a violation, but think of how difficult it must have been for him to give the customary wedding banquet and not drink wine.
He did not cut his hair; the Philistines forcibly cut it for him. Keeping a vow all his life that was made for him, and not of his own will showed no little faith and commitment.
And third, Samson judged Israel for twenty years. The Hebrew word for judge includes the concept of deciding controversy and executing judgment. No one appointed or elected the judges, and they did not inherit their office. In the book of Judges, most of them come to our attention through some kind of heroic deed before a description of how long they judged. But Deborah judged Israel long before she became involved in a military operation.
Just as they had with Moses, people would come to these leaders with their disputes and problems, seeking advice and resolution. If any of these heroes failed to try to be helpful, or if any were found to give unwise or unfair judgment, people would have stopped coming to them. That Samson judged for a long time indicates that his people saw him as a wise and just man.
Samson’s life shows yet again that a man can make spectacular blunders and still walk in God’s blessing. God takes faith and commitment very seriously, and what faith and commitment Samson had was genuine. His failures kept him from fulfilling his calling, but God never abandoned him.
Samson’s lesson of God’s grace to us
That should give everyone great comfort. Every believer has a calling, whether we recognize it or not.
If we recognize it in ourselves, we can allow the Holy Spirit to rise up in us not for our own selfish ends, but to redirect our lives to more holy living and more complete commitment.
If we recognize God’s calling in others, we might also see flaws and weaknesses that keep them from achieving it. In that case, we should prayerfully and lovingly minister to them. That is, we should encourage them to redirect their own lives to more perfectly serve God.
Finally, if God did not give up on Samson, he won’t give up on me–or you.