When the Judges Ruled: Samson (1)

As children, we enjoyed the story of Samson. We pictured him with bare hands ripping apart that young lion (14:5-6).[1] We loved to watch him handle those three hundred bewildered foxes as he set fire to the dried bush tied between each pair of tails (15:4-5) before throwing them among the dry, ready-to-harvest corn of the Philistines. Carried by wind, flames roared through the standing corn, swirled over the low ditch to engulf the vineyards, and reached out to embrace the olive trees. Within minutes, this unexpected fire had left the Philistine garrison facing reduced rations in the immediate future or starvation in the rainy season. We thrilled to see Samson extract the promise of safe conduct from the quislings among his brethren before allowing them to tie him up and hand him, the perpetrator of this sabotage, over to the Philistine guards. Soldiers of the garrison, glad that they had no need now to meet their fearsome enemy in the open field with whatever weapon he could reach, were happy enough to drag Samson off, bundle him into headquarters and let their commander deal with him.

We children smiled knowingly, realizing the strategy involved, and were totally unsurprised when we read, “And when he came into Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it” (15:14-15).[2] The polysyndeton builds up a dramatic, fast-moving picture. To our young minds, Samson was a magnificent figure as he cut his way through rank after rank of the Philistines, not with a two-edged sword flashing in the sunlight but with the fresh jawbone of an ass – so fresh indeed that it would seem that bits of flesh still stuck to it. Israel had been stripped of every piece of iron that could become a weapon, but even under such conditions God used Samson. To us, his name, meaning “splendid” or “sun-like,” fitted him.

Perhaps it never occurred to us as children to ask why the nation of Israel, redeemed out of Egypt under Moses and settled in this land of Canaan by Joshua, should now need a judge like Samson to deliver them from the Philistines. The answer is presented in the opening verse of the section (13:1): “And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.”

The Conduct of the Saints

The “evil” is explained earlier in the book: “And the children … did evil in the sight of the Lord, and forgat the Lord their God, and served Baalim and the groves” (3:7). Now we have the seventh and last time the expression “did evil” is used in this book. God meant His redeemed to be holy. It seems unbelievable that a redeemed people should become enslaved by the very idolatry for which the Amorites had been sentenced to death. The Amorites’ lifestyle had become so depraved and bestial that God had acted, using Israel as a surgeon uses the knife to excise a cancer. Now Israel was turning to worship the very same gods.

The Chastisement of the Saints

A holy and jealous God (Jos 24:19) must discipline His wayward saints. Chastisement is meant to bring the nation to repentance and restoration, and God allowed the Philistines to infiltrate down the coast and take possession of what had belonged to Israel. These infiltrators became settlers in the land, and soon most of Canaan was under their control.

The Call of the Saviour-Judges

Ministering in two different areas of the land at the same time, Samuel was called by God to present the grace of God to deal with their sin, while Samson would proclaim the power of God to deal with their subjection. As far as the record goes, these two life-long Nazarites never met. But under their ministry, Israel had at last realized the reason for their subjection to the Philistines. Scripture speaks plainly: “Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only” (1Sa 7:4) before the second battle of Ebenezer. This putting away of the idols was the result of repentance and confession of sin; Samuel played a big part in this recovery. It will be noticed that Baal (which means “master” and was the god of prosperity) was a challenge to the authority of Jehovah. If you wished for material prosperity and wealth, bring in those little idols – no one will notice. The feminine side was represented by the idol of Astarte, the Babylonian goddess of fertility who was worshipped in the groves: this was a challenge to the affection for Jehovah.

NT Truth (1) – When Christ is admitted as Lord, all the idols from my unsaved days are gone. I bow to the authority of my Lord coupled with affection for His person. Any idol allowed into the heart ultimately steals time, talent and treasure formerly given to the Lord. The only answer is repentance and confession of sin and the clearing out of the idol.

But the God who disciplined His people for sin is the God who can and will deliver them when there is confession and cleansing. Samson comes into the story at this point, and we note the sovereignty of God in preparing the man. That God had for Samson a particular part to play in the testimony is clearly shown by the choice of Manoah’s wife in the tribe of Dan as the mother of Samson. She was a godly woman, outstanding in faith, and yet in her child-bearing role she reflected the condition of the nation (barren), with no fruit for God in the family – until God intervened. Other barren wives in Scripture are found exercised about their condition, as can be seen in Rebekah (Gen 25:21-22), Hannah (1Sa 1:9-18), and Elizabeth (Luk 1:7ff.). A faithful God responded to the pleas, and soon arms were filled with new life. There is no indication of any exercise in this home, which reveals a lot about the spiritual condition of the tribe of Dan. The initiative came from God.

NT Truth (2) – The local assembly is the congregational testimony for God in our age of grace. Saved souls bow to the Lordship of Christ and gather in His Name alone (denominationalism divides); they are gifted and graced by the Holy Spirit (clericalism denies); they are governed by Scripture, not tradition. Even in an assembly of believers there can arise a period of barrenness, and it demands spiritual exercise.

The Purpose of God Revealed – In a Servant

“The Angel of the Lord,” named thus ten times in chapter 13 and twice called the “Angel of God,” appears on two occasions to the wife of Manoah confirming the fact that she would bear a son and that “he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (13:5). No previous judge had been given such a prophetic anticipation of his work, but to deal with Philistines God required a special kind of man – so special that Jehovah has to give his mother notice of both his coming and his care.

The years of Philistine bondage move to the twenty-year mark (15:20), and at last Samson begins to show signs of concern for his fellow Israelites, who increasingly are being dispossessed of all they own by their Philistine masters and are reaching the nadir of bitter despair as they feel the bite of divine chastisement for their sin. This conscience of sin is being reinforced by the prophet Samuel, five years older than Samson, who is moving through the land calling for repentance and confession of sin. Samson’s ministry to show that power belonged to Jehovah was meant of God to reassure His people, and at the same time warn the Philistines to treat them with respect. Though under discipline, they were still His people.

There are four occasions recorded when the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson and used him as a weapon so that Israel could see the availability of power to them. These occasions were demonstrations of power: in the camp of Dan (13:25) – so his brethren need not doubt that God is using him; in the vineyard (14:6) where he should not have been – yet God is gracious; in the city (14:19); and in the hill country (15:14). If the occasions appear somewhat trivial, when seen against the national movements of earlier judges, we remind our hearts that Samson is still in training and Jehovah has big plans for him. Even as children we were aware that this training period revealed weaknesses in Samson which should have been put right. There are two that should be pointed out since their recurrence is inexcusable.

First, there comes to light in Samson a desire to please women – in this case, his intended wife. This becomes almost a character defect in Samson, since it turns upon the issue of authority – whom will Samson obey? This question should not need to be asked of a Nazarite. Samson has a lot to ponder – why the lion on the path?

The other matter that gives concern is that after his victories there is no suggestion of blowing the trumpet, as did Gideon (6:34), to gather the warriors of Israel after him. Is this effective leadership? If he had, surely his brethren would have rallied round him and united to break the Philistine yoke. It is rather a sad comment but Samson never acted in any way as a charismatic leader, able to rally his brethren; he acted alone on every occasion, never consulting his brethren and never calling for others to follow him. It must also be pointed out that his brethren never displayed any interest in what he was doing or offered him any support in the doing of it. They charged him indeed with being the trouble maker while they got the blame and suffered for it. They seemed to be quite comfortable living under the Philistine yoke and didn’t want to be disturbed. We watch that lonely figure retire to his mountain crag, alone and thirsty (15:18) – discouraged and dissatisfied. Sometimes the path of service for God is a lonely path if the saints ministered to are out of touch with God. The action they took after his death (16:31) seems to indicate some measure of regret, perhaps even remorse for how they behaved while he lived.

NT Truth (3) – Believers must be exercised, from conversion, as to the part they can fill in the service of God. Acknowledging Christ as Lord begins with salvation (Rom 10:9), then submission in adult baptism by immersion (Act 10:48), followed by separation from the world in assembly fellowship (1Co 1:1-3), where they can take the part for which the Holy Spirit has gifted them (Act 9:6). When God saves sinners, it is not merely to save from hell, but He has a place for them to fill in testimony on earth (Eph 2:8-10).

If this son of Manoah was to be used for God against the Philistines, then he must come under the Vow of the Nazarite (Num 6:1-23). For Samson, this vow was not voluntary, as it would normally be, but obligatory. He would be a Nazarite from his birth until his death. It is a matter to be noted that the only other lifelong Nazarite in the OT is Samuel, whose ministry was around the same time as that of Samson but in another area. Both were opposing the Philistines, whose oppression continued until David arrived on the scene The condition that governed the arrival of Manoah’s son is that the Law of the Nazarite (Num 6:1-23) must be accepted personally by his mother, and become the law of the home, thus bringing the father into the picture; the most important point is that she was to train her son in all the implications of this law which expressed the highest degree possible of absolute devotion to Jehovah. In this godly home, Samson was to be nourished and brought up – guarding his appetite, his associations and his appearance – preparing him for his life work.

NT Truth (4) – For the believer in this age of grace, the Nazarite vow is not optional. Devotion to Christ as Lord begins the moment the soul is born again and continues for a lifetime. “I am crucified with Christ” is the death of the old man – the man I was up to conversion (Rom 6:6). Beyond the cross, the new man, patterned on Christ, appears. The reality of the cross means an end to me – “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20); it means an end to my flesh – “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh” (Gal 5:24); and between me and the world stands a cross “by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world” (Gal 6:14). My heart – the authority it owns and the affection it allows – is engaged with the Lord. It is thus idol-proof. If the saved sinner has followed divine guidance, such will be found in a NT assembly spoken of as “House of God” (1Ti 3:14-15) where he will develop character of “man of God” (1Ti 6:11).

To be continued.


[1]¹ In this article, when the reference quoted is from the book of Judges, the book will be omitted.

[2]² All Scripture references in this article are from the KJV.