From the death of Jephthah to the birth of Samson, some twentyfive years of relative peace had passed by for the nation of Israel. During that time, God raised up three men in succession to administer justice in matters which affected His people; Ibzan, Elon and Abdon, all men of ability, but of whom only brief details are given. We have no reason to doubt, however, that their responsibilities were undertaken faithfully, and, whether their authority was local or national, the Spirit of God has placed their service on record without adverse comment.
Chapters 13-16 of the book of Judges are then taken up with the life and exploits of Samson. It would be perfectly legitimate to ask why more detail is given of his life than that of any other judge when we consider that Samson was certainly no role model. His birth was announced by a heavenly visitor, yet his path through life was marked by the ‘desires of the flesh and of the mind’. He was given prodigious strength, yet at times showed profound weakness. So often his actions display selfish interests yet he is found among the faithful in Hebrews chapter 11. It is precisely because of these contradictions that the Spirit of God has taken time to record so much of Samson’s life, because, ‘these things … were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come’, 1 Cor. 10. 11 RV. Since we are so prone to weakness, to selfishness and failure, the word of God has left no stone unturned to make sure that every warning and example, every instruction and encouragement are brought to our attention in order that we ‘might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God’, Col. 1. 10.
The record of Samson’s life and death are like all other passages of scripture, in that, the more diligently we look, the more we find. Just a fairly superficial reading of these chapters will reveal details which teach us something of God’s sovereignty in election and of the activity of the Holy Spirit in Old Testament times. We learn lessons regarding the principle and power of the flesh and of resisting or yielding to temptation. We cannot fail to see the warning notice concerning, on the one hand, the apparent pleasures of sin, which can only satisfy ‘for a season’, and the deceitfulness of sin that hardens the heart. Plainly displayed upon the surface of Samson’s life is the danger of the unequal yoke, the challenge of a separated and sanctified life. And, running through these chapters, we see the hand of God in discipline upon the life of His servant.
Samson is one of a select number recorded in scripture whose birth was announced by an angelic or theophanic visitor. In this respect he stands alongside Ishmael, Isaac, John the Baptist and the Lord Himself, though, of course, comparison can be by way of contrast as well as by similarity.
Samson’s family were of the tribe of Dan. A divided tribe, whose discontent with their allotted inheritance caused a number of them to search out more land further north to occupy, as recorded in Judges chapter 18. The main part of their inheritance was toward the south-west of the country between Ephraim and the Philistines’ land. Samson lived his life in border country, always dubious territory for the people of God. There, the temptation is to try to accommodate both faithfulness to God and friendship with the world. For Samson the enticement to taste what seemed attractive was at times too strong, and his physical strength was compromised by a moral weakness.
The emergence of Samson is different from others who were raised up to deliver the people of God. On this occasion, although we read as so often before that ‘the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord’, yet even after forty years of subservience to the Philistine nation, there was neither cry of repentance nor plea for deliverance. It would seem that Israel had come to accept the dominion of the Philistines, even to the extent of opposing Samson in his forays against them, Judg. 15. 11-13. But God in His goodness still raised him up as a potential deliverer to bring the people back to Himself.
Once more, as in times past, a sovereign God made fruitful a barren womb to bring blessing to the nation. A God-fearing couple, Manoah and his wife were given the responsibility of bringing up a child for God’s glory. Instruction was given, primarily to the mother, regarding the Nazarite vow which should characterize Samson. Notice however, the question asked by his father Manoah, ‘How shall we order the child, and how shall we do unto him?’ It is essential to seek guidance and wisdom from God in bringing up a family, from very earliest years. Samson’s birth was attended by the Lord’s blessing, and, as he grew up, the Spirit of God began to direct his actions within the borders of his own people.
The opening phrase of chapter 14 sets the scene for much that is brought to our attention in the following chapters as we read that ‘Samson went down’. On five further occasions we read similar words, indicating the moral direction which so often characterized his pathway. By way of contrast, there is only one significant downward movement recorded in the public ministry of the Lord Jesus, when He spoke of Himself as the ‘bread which came down from heaven’, John 6. 41; not here a moral comment on His earthly path, but an immeasurable journey of grace to meet our need! His walk below was in fact an upward progress, from the time of His baptism when He ‘went up straightway out of the water’, Matt. 3. 16, to the time when He was ‘carried up into heaven’, Luke 24. 51, there was nothing to tarnish the perfection of His pathway.
It is in connection with this first movement of Samson from Zorah to Timnath that we encounter a strange dichotomy. On the one hand in verse 4 we see that his journey into Philistine territory was ‘of the Lord’, yet there appears to be much of self-will involved, and not a little of the flesh! We must never overlook or underestimate the sovereignty of God in all matters concerning both His own people and also men and nations of the world. God will bring about His purposes in His own ways and always in a manner consistent with His own character. This, however, does not absolve men from their responsibilities toward God and this will be seen very clearly in God’s dealings with Samson through these chapters.
The first thing we read of Samson as he entered Philistine land is that ‘he saw a woman of Timnath’, and the problems began! Sight is a wonderful blessing, but wrongly directed can lead to sin. It was ‘the lust of the eyes’ which first caused Eve to linger in the atmosphere of temptation. The wise man, giving instruction to his son in Proverbs chapter 4, makes it very clear, ‘Keep thy heart with all diligence … let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee … turn not to the right hand nor to the left’. On his return home, Samson demands of his parents that arrangements be made for the woman to become his wife, for, said he, ‘She pleaseth me well’, literally, ‘She is right in my eyes’. There is evidence in this incident and in what follows to suggest that Samson may have been doted on by his parents. Understandable in a measure, since he was the son they never expected to have, but, nevertheless, having been given clear instruction on how to bring up the child, maybe they had not exercised as firm a hand as was needed.
It seems very evident that whatever he had been taught regarding the Nazarite vow had not gripped his soul as it should. One by one the distinguishing marks are discarded until finally, as we shall discover later, instead of being a man marked out, separated and strong for His God, he becomes ‘weak and … like any other man’, 16. 17.
Against their better judgement, Samson’s parents bowed to his demands and took their journey to Timnath. As he passed through the vineyards, Samson was confronted by a young lion. With extraordinary strength imparted by the Spirit of God, Samson slew the lion with his bare hands, and, apparently, carried on his journey as though nothing had happened, not even bothering to tell his parents!
This opposition may have been a warning from God to prevent him from fulfilling his selfish desires, cp. Amos 3. 8. But, then again, since the Lord had provided an opportunity for Samson to confront the Philistines, and the Spirit of God enabled him to overcome the lion, was this a tactic of the adversary to hinder Samson who was to become the Lord’s scourge to afflict the Philistines? Whichever way we look at this, the lion’s carcass later became the means whereby Samson could begin to challenge the supremacy of the oppressors and ultimately break off their yoke.
(To be continued)