However, this trip was all for naught. When Samson arrives, he is greeted by her father who tells him, “I was sure that you had rejected her; so I gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister prettier than she? Why not take her instead?” Now, this was a perfectly legal custom in those days. If a groom did not take his bride, she was given to the best man. Dad did what he was supposed to do given the circumstances around his daughter’s wedding. And by offering the younger daughter, he is doing what a traditional Philistine would do to satisfy a suitor.
However, Samson isn’t having any of this. This, in fact, simply makes Samson angrier, and he makes a rather curious statement–especially for a chosen judge of Israel, “This time, when I do mischief to the Philistines, I will be without blame.” There is no thought of forgiveness. There is no thought of reconciliation. There is a definitive break between Samson and the Philistines. He blames the lot of them for the loss of his bride-to-be, and he commits what he himself calls “mischief.” Mischief? This is not exactly a trait that we admire these days. This is not a trait that we hold up as a virtue. We rather frown upon mischief makers and believe that God does as well. But Samson is undeterred from his desire for revenge, and so he burns the Philistines’ crops.
The Philistines, in revenge burn Samson’s bride and her father.
Samson, in revenge, strikes “them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”
The violence is ratcheting retaliation after retaliation. Without forgiveness and reconciliation, it is a familiar story to us, both within family structures and on national levels. Each action prompts a reaction, which brings its own reaction, and the seemingly unbreakable cycle continues. And so, the Philistines take up arms and make camp in Judah, “to take Samson prisoner...to do to him as he did to us.” (15:10) Judah is so keen to remain at peace with them that they have no idea that God has raised up a judge to save Israel (v10)! And when they discover that he has, they send 3000 men to hand the judge over to their enemy! They may bear the name of God’s people, but they would rather live at peace with the world and worship their idols than be freed to worship God–and they would rather cut down their own rescuer than risk confrontation with the world.
So they tie up their own judge and take him to the Philistines. Again, though, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power.” Samson breaks his bonds, and “finding the jawbone of a donkey”–a dead animal, though Samson seems to have left his Nazirite vow well behind by now–“he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men”, taunting them as he kills them.
Now, for the first time, Samson speaks to the God who has chosen him, and empowered him. But his prayer is neither humble nor faithful: he basically demands that God help him, and complains that he doesn’t (v18)–which is remarkably clueless of him, since it is God’s Spirit which has rescued him from a lion, from a lost bet, and now from a thousand Philistines. Samson uses God’s strength, but he doesn’t depend on God except when he is in extreme situations (he won’t speak to him again until 16:28, when he is blind and trapped). Yet God is at work through Samson, and provides the water he needs. Thus refreshed, Samson led Israel for twenty years”. But it is not the leadership of the earlier judges. He has not saved Israel from spiritual or physical oppression–it is still “the days of the Philistines.” (Keller, Judges for You)
It is worth taking a little bit of time now to think about how God is at work in all of this process. It is worth taking a little bit of time to think about what is going on in all of this gratuitous violence, sexuality, selfishness and deceit. It is worth thinking about God’s role in this cycle of revenge. From our vantage point, we may recoil at what is going on. We may shake our heads in bewilderment and God’s seeming blessing on these murderous actions. We may consider that our wisdom is better than God’s–after all “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” That may be true, but we need to consider that God’s wisdom is above our wisdom, and God’s work in the world is not like our work in the world.
As we look at this story, we must remember that...in all this, God is at work. Why can Samson kill the lion? “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”. Why is he able to strike down thirty Philistines and steal their clothes? “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power”. God is giving Samson super human strength–the one thing he needs (other than his own character flaws) for him to cause the division between Israel and the Philistines which God’s people, though they don’t realize it, desperately need it. God is starting to save his people by divorcing them from their marriage to their idols and to the world around them. (Keller, Judges for You)
This is important for us to realize as a church. For we are to be both loved and hated by the world at the same time. We are to be both loved and hated by our surrounding culture. We must be, as Jesus said, “be in but not of” the world. How does this happen? We are to be loved by the world because we, as a church, should be willing to pour ourselves out for the world. We are to love the unlovable. We are to provide for those in need. We are to look at our surrounding community, and give until it hurts. When folks think about our congregation, they should think, “Man, the amount of care, compassion, and money they pour out into our community is amazing. We don’t know what would happen to our community if that church were to close its doors.” Sadly, most churches are not invested in such a manner in their communities. If we were, we would be more loved.
But we would not only be loved, because we would also be hated–for our values would not stack up with the values of the world. We would also have a prophetic voice calling people away from their modern-day idols. We should be front and center telling the world, “Sports and athletics will not give your children life-long satisfaction and character.” We should be front and center telling the world, “The idea that sex is simply a physical act with no emotional involvement and that it doesn’t matter who you have it with is fine, ignores its purpose and devalues both the act itself and the people who engage in it. Sex is reserved for marriage alone as a gift from God.” We should be front and center condemning rampant materialism and saying, “Money is a false god who will destroy you if you make attaining it your purpose in life.” None of these messages is popular in our culture and society today. Folks hate it when you put such boundaries upon them. Yet, we don’t announce such things because we want to be liked. We announce them because we are convicted that such truth leads the world away from idols and toward the true God who can satisfy; who can bring fulfillment; who can bring peace.
This is the first lesson we are to learn from Samson’s story. The church cannot seek to be liked by the world and accommodate the world. We must be both loved and hated by the world.
The second lesson is the grace of God that is poured out toward flawed people like you and I–how God can even use our mistakes, sinfulness, and rebellion to work His good.
But how can God use such flawed people–people like Samson–to get his work done? Shouldn’t he only work with people who are good, godly men and women? Shouldn’t he only use the people who have the right beliefs, and the right behavior?
The problem with this is that it puts God in a box. It would mean he is limited by humans, and is only allowed to work when people are being good and making godly choices. It would mean that God does not work by grace, taking the initiative to save; but that he works in response to good works, waiting for people to help him to save.
David Jackman describes how Judges “shoots holes through all of that:” “It is above all a book about grace, undeserved mercy, as is the whole Bible...That is not to play down theological accuracy or to pretend that it doesn’t matter how we behave..[We will still suffer from our sins]. But we can rejoice that he is also in the business of using our failures as the foundations for his success. Let us never imagine that we have God taped, or that we know how he will work, or when. As soon as we start to say, ‘God cannot or will not...until...’ we are wrong footed.” (Judges, Ruth page 22).
The amazing truth is that God works through sinners, and through sinful situations. He keeps his promises to bless his people in the dark and disastrous periods of our lives, as well as through the times when things are going “right.” Not even our own sin will stop him saving us, or using us. Mysteriously, often unseen, and usually far beyond our comprehension, God works through the free (and very often flawed) choices people make: “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28) Amen.