Rev. Stephen Baldwin

OT: Judges 13-16

Forgotten Figures: Samson

The first time I heard the story of Samson was in a cartoon during Sunday School at the First Baptist Church of Fairlea. We illustrated his story on a feltboard afterwards, if any of you remember those treasures from another era. 

To me as a kid in Sunday School, Samson was a superhero. A man of incredible strength. The Hercules of the Bible. But after going back and studying it, I’ve learned that Samson was a deeply troubled man. Let’s dive into his story. 

We begin with the book in which his story is found–Judges. Why is the book called Judges? Because it’s about 12 leaders who were said to have “judged” Israel. The judges were not like today’s judges who interpret laws; these judges ruled the land and people in very difficult times. 

The people sinned, God sent a judge to save them, the judge sins, the people sin some more, and God sends another judge. It’s a vicious cycle. It gets worse with every ruler, until it all falls apart…with Samson, the last judge God sends.

Israel was being ruled by a group of people called the Philistines, who lived on and along the sea. Philistine rule was seen as a punishment from God for the Israelite sinfulness. But God didn’t give up on them. 

An angel visited a woman who could not have children. The angel told her she would have a son, but on a couple of conditions. One, no wine or alcohol. Two, no cutting of his hair. Three, nothing ritually unclean. If you follow these rules, the boy will deliver Israel from the Philistines. 

So she had a son. Samson. He grew big and strong, and the spirit of the Lord was upon him, the people said. 

One day he fell in love with a woman. But not just any woman. A Philistine woman. The people who were his people’s sworn enemies. His parents said, “How about a woman…more like you? More like us? Why does it have to be a Philistine?”

But Samson was in love. So they traveled to her village. Along the way, a lion attacked them. Samson tore the lion in two with his bare hands. That’s how strong this guy was. 

He and his beloved decided to get married. In the seven days of feasting leading up to the wedding (fathers, if you think you have it bad now, imagine paying for seven days of feasting in addition to a wedding), Samson challenged the Philistines to solve a riddle about the lion he killed. But they could not solve it.  

So they asked his fiance to find out the answer. She tried, but Samson would not tell her. She begged him for three days, and Samson snapped. He felt the Philistines had taken advantage of his wife and of him in trying to solve the riddle. So he slaughtered 30 of them and went home. Over a riddle. 

Some time later, he went back to the Philistine village to see his wife, but her father would not let him in. He explained that she had taken another husband because of what happened.

Again, Samson snapped. He gathered up 300 foxes, tied a torch to their tails, and set them free in the wheat fields. All of the village’s food was destroyed. 

The Philistines all descended upon Samson at one time to stop him. He looked around for a weapon to defend himself, and all he could find was the jawbone of a donkey. With that jawbone and his supernatural strength, Samson slayed over 1,000 Philistines. 

Is Samson a hero? Was this the purpose for which God called him into existence? 

With that violent outburst, the prophecy was fulfilled and the Philistines were defeated. Samson went on to judge Israel for 20 years. Until he fell in love…again…also with a Philistine woman. Her name was Deliliah. 

The Philistines had been awaiting their opportunity to take revenge on Samson, but they also knew how powerful he was. They convinced Delilah to find out what made him so strong. Sound familiar? 

So each day, she would ask him, “What makes you so strong?”

He told her a series of lies about the source of his strength. Every time she did what he told her would remove his strength, it failed.  

She accused him of lying to her. Then Samson told her the truth. “If you cut my hair, I will lose my strength.” 

So she cut his hair, and he lost his strength. The Philistines arrested him. They gouged out his eyes, chained him in shackles, and took him as a prisoner. This was the part of the kid’s cartoon that I remember so vividly–the enslavement. As a child, I felt deeply sorry for him. Seeing the world’s strongest man enslaved and shackled was enough to make any kid depressed. But again I ask you, is Samson a hero? Was he acting like God’s judge? 

Soon thereafter, the Philistines brought Samson as the entertainment for a party. It was a huge party, with some 3,000 people there to look on at the man who killed their ancestors as he stood in shackles. 

Samson prayed to God for his strength to return. Specifically, he prays to God that he might gain revenge on the Philistines for what they did to his eyes. He began to push on the pillars of the house with all his strength, and he said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” 

The house came crashing down, killing Samson and all the Philistines there. And as the scripture says, he killed more in his death than he did in his life. 

What are we to make of this story? It’s not the cartoon I watched as a kid where Samson uses his strength for God’s good purposes. It’s a cautionary tale. 

How can a man so strong in body be so weak in spirit? He did awful things. Repeatedly. Samson used the gifts God gave him for his own purposes. And look where that left him–blind, in prison, and praying for revenge as he murdered thousands. 

Samson’s story teaches us that the gifts we’re given don’t mean much if we don’t use them for God’s good purposes. Samson was strong, handsome, charismatic, a judge of the nations–gifted beyond measure. Yet he used his gifts for his own glory, and it literally all came crashing down on him.

It reminds me of the old saying, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Just because Samson could overpower his enemies, didn’t mean he should. He didn’t know how to use the gifts God gave him. 

May we all be humble enough to use God’s gifts not for our own glory, but for God’s. Amen.


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