Samson - A Strong man’s Weakness Audio
I love movies. I especially love those thrillers where the hero overcomes all odds to defeat the villains and save the weak and helpless victims. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Bruce Willis overcoming incredible injuries to win out in Die Hard, or Arnold Schwarzenegger finally getting the better of the evil Terminator or one of the countless James Bonds overcoming whichever evil enemy of civilisation it is this year, I love to see justice done and the helpless helped.
But of course these are all fictional characters. They’re not real, are they? No more so than Superman or Batman. But then they’re also the stuff of myth and legend, the sort of stories that have been told from time immemorial, often stories based on real events, real people, in the time before history was written down.
Well, today we’re going to be thinking about one of the real heroes of history, a man who was Arnie and Bruce and Bond put together. Samson was a real person, born around the 12th century BC, but endowed with supernatural strength by God, who had chosen him to save his people from their oppressors, the Philistines. The sign that he’s chosen by God for this special task is that he’s to be a nazirite. That is, he’s to drink no wine or strong drink, eat nothing unclean and not cut his hair. And as a result of God’s special calling he grows up to be the strongest man in the universe. Unlike Gideon, who we looked at last week, he doesn’t need to be encouraged to stand up to his enemies. He doesn’t need to call out the tribes of Israel to fight the Philistines because he’s a one-man army. All he needs is the jawbone of a donkey and he can kill any army that stands against him.
Yet as we read through the story we discover that he isn’t entirely the man of steel that we thought he was. Far from being a He-man he’s really just an ordinary hu-man. In fact, he could well be one of the heroes of modern literature: a flawed specimen of a man who never quite lives up to his potential until the final fateful act of heroism that takes his life.
Here in his story we discover something universal about the human condition. In fact we discover three things that Christians today would do well to take to heart.
1 The best start in life can be wasted
How often do you hear people blaming their failures on their upbringing, or their lack of opportunity as a child? How often are parents blamed for the poor decisions their children make?
Well Samson could never have done that. Samson would never have been on the government’s list of endangered children. No, he gets about as good a start as you could hope for. God chooses him before he’s born. God appears to his parents in the form of an angel to tell them how to raise him. His whole life they raise him as someone set aside to serve God. His training is that of a holy man, not unlike that of a priest. And he’s gifted with extraordinary strength, strength that’s to be used to defeat the enemies of Israel. And he knows it because he feels God’s Holy Spirit beginning to work in him.
As the story progresses we see examples of his exploits. He kills a lion with his bare hands. He kills thirty men in Ashkelon. He kills a thousand men at Lehi. Ropes can’t hold him. But then disaster hits. He gives away the secret of his strength and he’s defeated.
You can imagine his mother and father watching his exploits and tearing their hair out as he goes from one bad decision to the next. They must have wondered what they’d done wrong, mustn’t they?
Well sometimes children bring disaster on themselves, despite all the best efforts of their parents. And that’s certainly the case here with Samson. He couldn’t have had a better start in life: God’s blessing, the gift of superhuman strength, an awareness that he was the one God had chosen to save his people; and yet he ends up in a prison, blinded and shackled, doing the humiliating task of grinding corn, the task normally given to an ox or a mule.
So can you see the important lesson for us to learn from this story. Most of us here today are privileged to some extent. For some it’s by education, for others it’s by wealth, others by birth into the right family perhaps; and even without any of those, all of us are privileged in the fact that we live in the country we live in.
Many of us are talented in some area of life. Perhaps you’re an athlete, or a musician, or a writer, or a thinker. Perhaps you’re good with numbers, or good at drawing or working with your hands. Perhaps you have natural leadership gifts.
But whatever it is we possess, it can all be thrown away in a moment if we succumb to moral weakness the way Samson does. You see the second lesson we learn from Samson is:
2 The Peril of an undisciplined sexual appetite.
If you wanted to summarise Samson’s character, the word that might come to mind is immature.
The way he behaves is often frivolous, like when he makes an idle bet with the young Philistine men at his wedding feast. He’s vindictive: like when the Philistines trick him out of his prize he kills thirty of their countrymen. When his father in law gives his bride away he sets 300 foxes alight and burns down the Philistine crops and vineyards and olive groves. And most seriously, his sensual appetite seems to be insatiable. If he were around today he’d fit beautifully into that hedonistic culture we see all around us, where everything is aimed at pleasing the senses.
As a result we see a string of sexual encounters played out before us that would make someone gasp.
Take for instance the encounter with a prostitute in Gaza. He spends half the night with her and then in the middle of the night he gets up, tears out the gateposts of the town and leaves them up on top of the hill. It’s a bit like one of those undergraduate pranks you read about, or perhaps that you took part in only worse.
Then there’s the woman he seeks to marry in Timnah: a Philistine and therefore not acceptable as a wife for an Israelite. But does that stop him? No. He returns to his parents and tells them to get her for him as a wife. His parents know this is wrong. They counsel him to look among the Hebrew women for a wife. But Samson likes what he’s seen and he wants it. And his parents give in.
Now the editor gives us a small editorial note at this point to assure us that God is in control. Although Samson is acting sinfully in seeking to marry a Philistine woman, God is planning to use his foolishness to punish the Philistines.
But that doesn’t take away from Samson’s wilfulness in ignoring his parents’ advice, does it?
Then when the wedding feast starts and he’s given 30 men to accompany him as was the tradition of the time, he plays a childish game in order to avoid paying for what was probably the expected gift to his 30 companions. He asks them a riddle that isn’t really a riddle. No-one could ever guess it unless they’d seen what he’s just seen. It’s a bit like one of those insult jokes your kids might ask you: like, “How do you keep an idiot waiting?” [pause] A: I’ll tell you later.
But here it isn’t just an innocent insult. Here it’s an act of utter rudeness, trying to avoid the social responsibility of the bridegroom for whom a feast has been provided by the community.
Then when they manage to use his wife to wheedle the answer out of him, does he accept it with good grace, have a laugh about it, congratulate them for outwitting him? No. In a fit of churlish anger he goes down to the city of Ashkelon, kills thirty of the men and strips them of their clothes which he then gives to his companions.
Now we mustn’t think that because God uses his anger to attack the Philistines that makes it all right. It doesn’t. Had he acted righteously in the first instance, and in fact had he acted righteously throughout his life, who knows what he might have achieved.
But still, God continues to use him. After he’s sent the burning foxes through their fields the Philistines burn the woman he was meant to marry, along with her father. And in retaliation, Samson picks up the famous jawbone of an ass and proceeds to kill 1000 men single handed. Again we see the great hero, overcoming the enemies of his people, yet clearly for the wrong reason.
But then along comes Delilah. You could almost have predicted that this would happen couldn’t you? His sexual appetite is unsated. He obviously has a thing for Philistine women. Perhaps it’s that they’re the forbidden fruit. So the day comes when he falls in love with a woman, a Philistine woman, named Delilah. Naturally, the Philistines see their chance. They go to Delilah and offer her a fortune if she’ll just find out what gives him his superhuman strength. Here’s where we discover just how stupid Samson has become; or perhaps how blinded by love he is. She tries four times to get him to tell her his secret and each time he escapes. But eventually she wears him down. She uses all her feminine wiles on him. She nags him, she pleads with him. She accuses him of not really loving him and eventually he gives in. They come and shave his head and as he knew would happen, his strength departs.
Now there’s nothing magical about his hair. It’s merely symbolic of his obedience to God. And in a sense this is the last straw. He’s already been disobedient, in his indulgent lifestyle, in the fact that he handles dead bodies, something that was forbidden to nazirites, even eating honey from the carcass of a lion, and of course, in marrying a Philistine. But now this is the last straw. If he can’t keep this secret when he knows she’s going to betray him, then God will take away the strength he relies on so much. And with poetic irony, the first thing they do is to poke out his eyes, those eyes that have got him into so much trouble.
If only he’d been able to control where his eyes rested, maybe things might have been different. Do you remember, Jesus said “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:28)
We live in an age when we’re encouraged to look with lust; when people determine their self-worth on the sexual encounters they have, or their attractiveness to the opposite sex; when people dress to look sexy; when our assessment of others is tainted by a media that puts forward certain physical ideals for us to measure up against, when people pay exorbitant amounts of money to plastic surgeons to reshape their bodies to match a stereotype. That’s why this lesson of Samson is such an important one for us today. Undisciplined sexual appetites will in the end bring you to ruin.
But this isn’t quite the end. As the story draws to a conclusion we read these words: “But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.”(16:22)
Samson had blown it hadn’t he? All that early promise down the tube, all for the sake of a hot woman. But then we realise that
3 Failure need not be the end to everything - Our failures are not God’s failures.
Remember when I mentioned the result of the wedding feast bet, I mentioned that the editor explains that what’s happening here is part of God’s plan. God is so gracious to us isn’t he? He knows that we’re fallen human beings. He knows that even the greatest of us is flawed at some fundamental level. But he chooses to use us despite our failings. In fact if you look through the list of great men and women of the Bible, virtually none of them were without failings, were they? They’re almost all flawed characters. Yet God uses them. You and I are flawed in various ways, yet God chooses to use us, provided we allow him to. Well, listen to what happens at the end of the story: 16:28: “Then Samson called to the LORD and said, ‘Lord GOD, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.’” Samson remembers who he is. Perhaps his experience has been enough to give him the humility he needs to finally call on God for help. And so he prays that God would strengthen him just this one more time so he can finally fulfil something of God’s plans for him. Mind you there’s still that vengeful spirit isn’t there? He’s still the real Samson, the flawed Samson. But now his speech is directed to God in humility, acknowledging that his strength comes from God and God alone. And as a result he achieves the greatest victory of his life.
Paul reminds us in 2 Cor 12:9 of God’s empowering presence even when we feel at our weakest. He says: “God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Of all the heroic figures of the Bible the only one without flaws was Jesus Christ. And here’s the good news. His power and righteousness are given to us as gifts to be taken up by us; to take away our failings; to fill in the gaps in our ability to please God; to help us keep going in our service of God.
Failure is a given. Weakness is a given. But neither of them are reasons for giving up. Neither are reasons for not trying in the first place. What they are, in fact, are reasons for working hard at godliness; working hard not to lose the advantage that we start with; reasons for constantly calling on God for his power and enabling; reasons for asking God to fill us with his Holy Spirit so we can please him in everything we do.