Like Any Other Man - Judges 13-16
H. F. Helps, Bristol
Of all the judges of Israel, Samson is perhaps the most colourful. His great strength not due as far as we know to abnormal physical proportions; the unorthodox methods he employed to defeat the Philistines; his encounter with the lion; his apparent fondness for speaking in riddles and a number of other things, all tend to cast a glamour over him that docs not belong to the other judges.
Because his character, like the feet of Nebuchadnezzar's image, was a combination of strength and weakness, we hardly know where to place him among the great men brought before us in the Old Testament. That he has a place, however, will be seen by referring to Hebrews II. Four of the judges of Israel are named in this list of famous men and Samson is among them.
In trying to assess his character we shall have to take into account the spiritual conditions that obtained in the days in which he lived. Those conditions, as the book of Judges shows, were anything but conducive to spiritual life. And we rightly conclude that, if Samson was anything for God, he was so in spite of, and not because of, the influences that surrounded him. The spiritual life of the nation that had begun to decline after the death of Joshua had reached its lowest ebb, and some of the things recorded in the book of Judges are almost fantastic. As if to give some explanation of the evil deeds he records, the writer now and again breaks in upon his narrative to remind us that 'In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes'. Indeed, these are the closing words of the book. It is, then, against such a background that we must view the life of Samson.
One of the first things recorded of Samson is that 'the Spirit of the Lord began to move him at times . . . between Zorah and Eshtaol'. The words are significant because they seem to imply, as far as Samson is concerned, a limit to the Spirit's activity, well-defined geographical boundaries to which the Spirit of God confined Himself, and to which, if he desired the Spirit's power and leading, Samson would have to limit himself. This implied restriction on the movements of Samson was, of course, in keeping with the fact that he was a Nazarite. Because of his vow he did not have the same liberties as enjoyed by other men. At first Samson accepted these restrictions, and as a consequence we read three times 'And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him', with the result that he began to deliver Israel out of the hands of the Philistines. But Samson's history shows that he did not continue to accept this divine curtailment of his liberty. It is not easy to say exactly where the point of departure from the will of God came but as we read on it becomes evident that if there were times when Samson was moved by the Spirit of God, there were also times when he was actuated by his own natural desires and inclinations. And no doubt there were occasions when he was prompted by a double motive. Such seems to be the case in the matter of the wife he chose. It was undoubtedly true that in this matter it was of the Lord that he sought an occasion against the Philistines. But Samson's reply to the entreaties of his parents reveals another side of his character with which we become all too familiar as the story unfolds. It may well have been that his parents had reminded him of the injunction laid upon all Israelites forbidding marriage with the enemies of God's people, Deut. 7. 3. But Samson replies, 'Get her for me; for she pleaseth me well'. The real significance of this reply will be seen by noting the marginal reading of chapter 14. 3, where the literal reading of the Hebrew is 'Get her for me; she is right in my eyes'. This last clause immediately brings to mind the dominating words of the book of Judges, 'In those days . . . every man did that which was right in his own eyes'. And when Samson, the man whom God intended to be different from the rest of the nation, said that, he was on the way to becoming, to use his own words, 'Like any other man'.
Chapter 16 brings us to the closing scene of Samson's life. The wide boundaries of Zorah and Eshtaol, which he had found so irksome, had given place to the narrow limits of the prison house in Gaza. And in verse 28, Samson prays 'Strengthen me . . . only this once'. What he was really asking was that the Spirit of God should once more move him as He had in days gone by. And the fact that he prayed 'only this once' shows that he was aware that he had forfeited such a privilege, and that what could have been a normal experience for him would now be something exceptional and extraordinary.
The full tragedy of Samson's failure, however, can only be seen by noting what happened to two other great men referred to in the book of Judges. Chapter 4 describes the death of Sisera, captain of Jabin's army. The crowning shame of Sisera's death was that he was slain by a woman. 'The Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman', 4. 9. In chapter 9 another great man is brought before us, Abimelech, a wicked and unscrupulous person who had made himself king in Israel. He was besieging a tower, and 'a certain woman cast a piece of millstone upon his head, and all to break his skull'. Then said Abimclech, 'Draw thy sword and slay me, that men say not of me, A woman slew him'. The fate that had overtaken Sisera, and the shame that the wicked Abimelech wanted at all costs to avoid had fallen upon Samson the man of God. For surely, as he laid his head in the lap of Delilah, it could be said of him, 'A woman slew him'.
When Samson died in Gaza, his brethren brought him back and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol, the place where in early days he had felt the Spirit's power, and to which in the purposes of God he belonged.
What are the lessons to be learned from such a life? In the first place we must recognize from the beginning of our Christian life that the disciple of Christ has not the same liberty as other men have. We are called to walk the narrow and restricted way. What that way is each believer must determine for himself. But having marked out its boundaries, we shall find, like Samson, that there is also in our case a limit to the Spirit's activity, and a sphere outside of which we cannot expect Him to use us.