The story of Samson is famous for its potent mix of sex, violence, death and power–exactly the stuff of a contemporary summer action film! But if we read it as part of the whole narrative of the book of Judges, we will find it to be at least perplexing and probably disturbing. As Israel’s spiritual condition grows worse and worse, the scene seems to be set for a great judge/leader, perhaps the greatest of all. And chapter 13, with its annunciation, prepares us for a wonderful, powerful deliverer.
Instead, we find by far the most flawed character in this book: a violent, impulsive, sexually addicted, emotionally immature and selfish man. Most disturbing of all, the “Spirit of God” seems to anoint and use his fits of pique, pride, and temper.
Samson is now a grown man, stirred by the Spirit of the Lord. But at the start of chapter 14–and through the rest of his life–he will be stirred by a much more worldly impulse. One day, he “went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman”. Returning home, he says (literally) to his parents: “Have I seen a woman, in Timnah, of the daughters of the Philistines. Now get her for me as a wife.”
His parents no doubt remember the angel’s prediction that Samson would deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. So imagine their distress when Samson comes home and instead of fighting Israel’s enemies, wants to marry one of them! They protest that there must be a woman in their wider family, or at least in Israel, whom he could marry: “Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” The word “uncircumcised” is key here. Circumcision was a sign that a family was in a personal covenant or relationship with God, as part of his people. Their issue was not a racial one. It’s about marrying someone who is outside the Lord’s covenant!
But Samson is not willing to listen. “Get her for me,” he rudely insists. He then says (literally): “She is right in my eyes.” This is the approach to life and morality that we have seen all Israel adopting: doing what is evil in God’s eyes, because it was right in their own. Samson is a leader who reflects Israel’s real spiritual state, rather than God’s ideal for his people. Here we are seeing Israel writ small, in one man’s life.
First, Samson is impulsive. He is a completely sensual man, in the most basic definition of the term. His senses control him–he reacts to how he feels about what he sees, without reflection or consideration. He sees–and so he takes. This general impulsiveness leads to a specific weakness that we will see as the story proceeds; namely a total lack of sexual self-control.
Second, Samson is unteachable. He is dismissive of parental counsel and authority. The book of Proverbs extensively explains how proud and foolish it is to be unwilling to listen to the advice of others. Put it in its cultural context, Samson’s pride here is even more extreme. In our day it would be more normal for a son to talk back to his parents, but that was not the case in ancient Israel! Impulsive and unteachable. It is a good summary of the state of Israel as a whole. (Keller: Judges for You)
We can already see that Samson is not going to be the judge we were hoping for! ...Samson goes among Israel’s enemies in order to marry an unnamed Philistine who does not know God. It is important that he found her in Timnah–deep in Israelite territory–and that he was free to come and go among the Philistines. The Philistines were settled and living normal lives inside Israel. They were “rulers” over Israel, yet their “occupation” seems completely peaceful. Samson thought nothing of marrying one of them.
This should prompt us to realize that something has been missing from this Judges cycle. Israel has not cried out for rescue from oppression. There is no resistance to their enslavement. Later in the narrative, the men of Judah simply take it as a fact that “the Philistines are rulers over us.”
In short, Israel’s capitulation to the Philistines is far more profound and complete than any of their previous enslavements. In the past, Israel groaned and agonized under their occupations by pagan powers, because their domination was military and political. But now the people are virtually unconscious of their enslavement, because its nature is that of cultural accommodation. The Israelites do not groan and resist their “captors” now because they have completely adopted and adapted to the values, mores and idols of the Philistines. Like Samson himself, the Israelites were eager to marry into Philistine society, probably as a way to “move up” in the culture. The Israelites no longer had a recognizable culture of their own, one based on service to the Lord.
We can’t exaggerate the danger to Israel. The Israelites were on the brink of extinction. Within a couple of generations, they could have been completely assimilated into the Philistine nation. (Keller: Judges for You)
What does God do when his people are not just accommodating, but becoming assimilated into the world? 14:4 is the crucial verse in the Samson narrative, the key to understanding the whole story, and the answer to that question. “His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines.”
God will use the very weakness of Samson–“his fraternization” with the Philistines, his sexual appetite, his vindictiveness and temper–to bring about confrontation between the two nations. Samson’s weaknesses result in a “blood feud” that leads to more conflict, and finally the division between the two nations that is so desperately needed.
As the story goes on, we will see everyone acting out of their own ungodly character. They are all responsible for what they do. But we will also see God using it all to ensure that the two nations are alienated, so that his people will not totally lose their distinctiveness. God remains unconditionally committed to his covenant promises. He has promised to love them and give them an inheritance and never break his commitment to do so. Here he is so faithful to his promises that he not only fulfills them in spite of their sin, but even through their sin. He uses their own sinfulness to bring about deliverance. (Keller: Judges for You)
The rest of this chapter is dedicated to show how God begins using Samson’s failings and frailties to bring about the separation of the Philistine and Israelite cultures. It begins the horrendous split that will lead to God’s deliverance of his people–a deliverance that they don’t even realize that they need.
It starts with Samson encountering a lion. The Spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson, and Samson tears the lion apart. While this may sound like self-defense and self-preservation, it is also important to note that in killing the lion, Samson has touched a dead body. He has broken his Nazirite vow! But he doesn’t care. He is too consumed with the Philistine woman he wishes to marry. He doesn’t go cleanse himself before the Lord–he continues to head to visit her.
A few days later, he walks back by the carcass of the lion, and once again, Samson breaks his Nazirite vow by scraping honeycomb off the lion’s body. This time, he goes to see his parent’s and brings impurity upon them! So consumed with his own self-important, self-satisfaction, and feeding his own hungers, he thinks nothing of his parents’ purity.
And then, his hunger drives him deeper. Before getting married, a seven day festival held for Samson and his bride-to-be. On the first day of the festival, Samson’s desire for wealth drives him to boldly make a wager with the guests. “Tell me the answer to this riddle by the end of the festival, and I will give you each a robe and coat. Fail, and you each give me a robe and a coat.” The guests agree, and Samson puts forth his riddle based on his encounter with the lion.
The guests are stumped, but they don’t want to lose the bet. They don’t want to give up any of their wealth, so they threaten Samson’s bride-to-be. “Find out,” they demand. “Or we will kill you and your family.” The cycle of anger and self-interest is escalating.
Samson’s bride-to-be doesn’t tell Samson about the guests’ dishonorable intentions. She doesn’t go to him for help. Instead, she manipulates him. She turns on her tears. For three. Whole. Days! Imagine hearing someone you cared about crying to you for three whole days! Would you finally give in? Samson did. He told his bride-to-be the answer to the riddle. And she told the other guests. And they answered the question.
Samson then offers one of those memorable lines in scripture. Bet you didn’t think you would ever read anything like it in the Bible, did you? “‘If you had not ploughed with my heifer, you would not have found out my riddle.” These are not exactly terms of endearment now, are they?
And then violence ensues. The Spirit of the Lord wells up on Samson, and Samson kills 30 men to get their robes and coats. In anger, Samson returns to his parents, and his bride-to-be is given to the best man.
Our text ends here for the night. Next week, things will go from bad to worse. The violence and hatred will continue to escalate. And God is a player right in the middle of it. God is ripping his people out of a bad situation and bringing them into a more wholesome relationship with him. He is tearing them away from their idolatry and bringing them back to worship Him. He is saving them even though they have no need of their need of saving.
As this sermon comes to a close, I want to take a moment to hang one application of this text out here. “Strange though it seems, God in his mercy is using his people’s weakness to make sure there is not peace between them and the surrounding cultures. God’s people today as then, need to not be at peace with the world–because “friendship with the world is hatred toward God.”–James 4:4 Why? Because if we are like the world, we will love idols and forsake God; we will, as James puts it, be “adulterous people.” It is the mercy of God that he does not allow the world to love the church for very long. It forces his people to recognize that we are not part of the world–that we have a different Lord and Savior–and finally cry out to him to rescue us from ourselves and rule us despite ourselves.” (Keller: Judges for You) Next week, we will see how God continues to accomplish this. Amen.