The Tragedy of a Misspent Life

Samson, the Bible strong man, is surely one of the most enigmatic and tragic figures in the Scriptures. Such were the dramatic contrasts in his personality and behaviour that he almost provides a parallel to Robert Louis Stevenson's fictional Dr. Jekell and Mr. Hyde. A man of great strength and crippling weakness. A man called to be a leader who became instead an independent loner. A man of faith who was defeated by sinful compromise. A man whose name means "Sunny" who ended his days in darkness. His story is the stuff of legends. But the story of Samson is not a myth. It is all too sadly true. For further study of Samson's life, here are two fine books: Robust in Faith, All the Men of the Bible. The first, by J. Oswald Sanders, calls Samson "The Champion Who Became a Clown." The second, by Herbert Lockyer, calls him "The Man of Contrasts."

Samson's 20-year judgeship comes near the end of the period of the judges in Israel. He came from the tribe of Dan, whose territory lay along the Mediterranean cost, just north of the land occupied by the Philistines. Samson confronted the Philistines in the west, while Samuel was judging the people further east. Their judgeships overlapped. The record of Samson's life is found in Judges 13--16.

1) What was happening in Israel as the story opens (Jud. 13:1)?

1b) According to Judges 2:11-12, what kind of "evil" were the Israelites involved in, during the time of the judges?

INSIGHT: The Philistines were an idol-worshiping Gentile people. Tall and white-skinned, they did not have the Semitic ancestry of the Jews. (They are sometimes referred to in the Bible as the "uncircumcised"--Jud. 14:3, etc.) Philistia was a great seafaring nation, with advanced knowledge in metallurgy that gave them superior weapons of war for that time. The people settled along the Mediterranean coast of Canaan, around the time of Abraham. "Philistia" was eventually used as a name for the whole area. The Greek form of the word is Palaistine (or Palestine). This pagan nation caused trouble for the Israelites until the time of King David. During the period of the Judges, the Lord allowed the Philistines to oppress His people as a means of disciplining their disobedience and unbelief.

2) What problem and later blessing did Manoah's wife have (Jud. 13:2-3)?

INSIGHT: "The Angel of the Lord" is treated as Deity in the Old Testament (cf. Jud. 13:22). From all the evidence, He seems to have been the pre-incarnate Christ.

3) What special restrictions were to be placed upon the boy (Jud. 13:5, 7)?

INSIGHT: The word "Nazirite" (or Nazarite) means one who is separated (or holy). Becoming a Nazirite involved a special vow of separation to the Lord (Num. 6:2). Such a vow was usually taken--either by a man or a woman--for a set period of time. But occasionally there were individuals who were Nazirites for life. Samson is one, and likely John the Baptist is another.

4) According to the Law, what were three key elements of a Nazirite vow (Num. 6:3-4; 6:5; 6:6-7)?

INSIGHT: Each of these things provided a reminder or a picture of spiritual truth. 1) That the believer is to find his joy primarily in the Lord, not in earthly pleasures (cf. Ps. 104:15); 2) That he needs to be willing to bear reproach, for the Lord's sake (cf. I Cor. 11:14; Heb. 13:13); 3) That he is committed to live a holy life, separated from sin and corruption--represented by the physical death which came upon creation as a result of Adam's sin (Gen. 2:17).

INSIGHT: The birth of Samson is described (Jud. 13:24), but the account then skips forward to his adult years.

5) What are we told about Samson, as the record of his life and deeds is introduced (Jud. 13:24-25)?

INSIGHT: Physical abilities, as well as spiritual endowments, are a gift of God. The Spirit of God came upon Samson, giving him supernatural strength so he could help deliver Israel from Philistine oppression (Jud. 13:5).Often, in Bible story books, Samson is pictured as a large man, with rippling muscles. But that was not necessarily the case. It could well be that he was a man of ordinary stature, without any outward evidence of special strength. His powers were miraculous, and not based on his physique.

6) What was the result of Samson's early contact with the Philistines (Jud. 14:1-2)?

6b) In spite of his godly parents' objections, Samson insists. Why (Jud. 14:3b)?

INSIGHT: This early comment of Samson's is a key to his contradictory character. Though he had faith in God, he was all too often ruled by fleshly passions.

INSIGHT: The statement of Judges 14:4 that his desire to marry a Philistine woman was "of the Lord" does not mean that God approved of it. Rather, it simply means that a sovereign God was going to use his foolish action to ignite an intense conflict between Samson and the Philistines.

7) What was the first instance when Samson made use of his supernatural strength (Jud. 14:5-6)?

INSIGHT: The wording of vs. 5 seems to suggest that his father and mother were with him. But vs. 6 indicates they were not. The second sentence in vs. 5 seems to describe a separate incident.

8) On a later visit to Timnah, when he went to claim his bride, what did Samson observe (Jud. 14:8)?

8b) And what did he do on that occasion (Jud. 14:9)?

INSIGHT: Significantly, by touching the carcass, Samson thoughtlessly violated one part of his Nazirite separation.

INSIGHT: At Timnah, Samson's wedding feast was attended by thirty young Philistine men. As was the custom, the feasting continued for a week. (If wine was served during the celebration--and it is almost certain it was--it is possible Samson violated another provision of his vow at this time.) But he seems unconcerned about it. For their entertainment, Samson posed a riddle.

9) What was the riddle (Jud. 14:14)?

10) What did Samson offer as a prize for solving the riddle (Jud. 14:12)?

11) By what means did the young men discover the answer (Jud. 14:15)?

INSIGHT: When they were successful and told Samson the answer, he had to admit they were right. But he was enraged by their devious method of getting the solution (Jud. 14:16-18).

12) How did Samson provide the prize for the thirty men (Jud. 14:19)?

INSIGHT: Without his knowledge, the woman he had married was given to his best man, instead (vs. 20). When Samson brought her a gift, expecting to be received by his wife, her father turned him away (Jud. 15:1-2).

13) What did Samson do to get revenge (Jud. 15:3-5)?

13b) With what response from the Philistines (Jud. 15:6)?

INSIGHT: Yet again, Samson retaliated, killing many of the Philistines (Jud. 15:7-8). This caused the Philistine army to go searching for him in Judah, in order to arrest him (Jud. 15:9-10). The people of Judah did not appreciate having the Philistines in a hostile mood toward them.

14) What did the army of Judah do to keep the peace (Jud. 15:11-13)?

14b) What was the outcome of this (Jud. 15:14-16)?

15) What did Samson do at Gaza (Jud. 16:1)?

INSIGHT: City gates in that day were large and heavy. But they often had a smaller door within the larger gate, allowing for the passage of an individual in or out without the need to open the gate. The men of Gaza surrounded the place where Samson was, intending to kill him. But he escaped in the night. Coming to the city wall, he simply ripped its small door off its hinges and walked off carrying it with him! (Jud. 16:2-3).

INSIGHT: There is a puzzle here. Samson has just committed an immoral act with the enemy of God's people. Now God gives him supernatural strength to escape! How can this be? Perhaps the church at Corinth can be seen as a parallel. Paul says of them, "You are enriched in everything by that you come short in no gift" (I Cor. 1:4-7). But he also says, "You are still carnal...and behaving like mere [unsaved] men." And regarding their attitude toward immoral conduct in the church, "You are puffed up and have not rather mourned" (I Cor. 3:1-3; 5:1-2).

16) What conclusions can we draw from this?

16b) What conclusions should we not draw from it?

INSIGHT: Once again Samson becomes immorally involved with a Philistine woman. The lords of the Philistines promised Delilah money if she could discover the secret of Samson's great strength (Jud. 16:4-5). Three times, Samson teased her, with false information (Jud. 16:7, 11, 13).

17) What do you notice about this last suggestion of Samson's that shows he is dangerously playing with fire (Jud. 16:13)?

17b) Can you think of an example of a person doing this sort of thing today (trying to get as close to the fires of sin as possible without getting burned)?

17c) What is wrong with this practice?

17d) What should a Christian seek to do instead?

INSIGHT: Each time, Samson was able to cast aside restraint and he was once more able to defend himself. But the end of the game was near. Day after day, Delilah pestered him to tell his secret, saying, "How can you say, 'I love you,' when your heart is not with me?" (Jud. 16:15-16).

18) What is wrong with this argument, and with the whole situation?

19) What did Delilah do when Samson at last revealed his secret (Jud. 16:18-19)?

INSIGHT: In this way, Samson violated the third element of his Nazirite vow. It is clear that Samson's ability was sovereignly given by the Lord, and not fully conditioned on his good behaviour. However, there are limits to the "day of grace." God, who had been gracious to Samson over and over again, finally withdrew His empowering presence.

20) How did Samson respond when he was awakened (Jud. 16:20)?

INSIGHT: This is one of the saddest verses in the Bible. It speaks of a man who has played with temptation so long he has become careless of the danger, and insensitive to its affects on him.

21) What happened to Samson then (Jud. 16:21)?

INSIGHT: If this was a small hand grinder, the task was considered women's work. If it was a larger one, it was the work usually done by an animal. In either case it was meant to humiliate the conquered champion of Israel.

22) What further indignity did Samson suffer (Jud. 16:23-25)?

INSIGHT: The Philistines took no notice that Samson's hair began to grow again (Jud. 16:22). But with it, there was an apparent return of his supernatural strength. Based on his later words (vs. 28), it would seem that Samson was truly repentant in prison, and he cast himself upon the grace of God.

23) What does Samson request of the slave boy who had led him into the temple of Dagon (Jud. 16:26)?

INSIGHT: Dagon was an ugly stone idol with a fish's body and a man's head. It may have been a fertility god, and god of the harvest. (Having Samson grind grain would then be an attempt to show Dagon was superior to Jehovah.) The temple of the idol was full of Philistine men and women, plus another 3,000 "on the roof"--perhaps a roofed in area surrounding a central open courtyard where Samson was displayed (Jud. 16:27).

24) What two things did the blind man do then (Jud. 16:28, 29-30)?

25) So many of Samson's feats of strength seem petty and self-centred. Why did God help him get revenge this last time? (Compare Jud. 16:23-24, and Isa. 42:8.)

INSIGHT: After this slaughter of the Philistines--killing more people than Samson had killed in his lifetime (vs. 30)--the dead man's family came and claimed his shattered body. They buried it between Zorah and Eshtaol, where the Lord had first come upon him (Jud. 16:31; cf. 13:25).

26) What important fact is given about Samson in Hebrews 11:32-34?

26b) Based on this passage, do you think that Samson realized his great strength was a gift of God?

26c) What then was his basic problem? And what do you see as the basic lesson of Samson's life?

26d) How can we avoid this in our own lives?

INSIGHT: God gives to each of His children certain gifts and abilities we are responsible to use for His glory and the good of others. But there are two dangers to be avoided. 1) Taking our gifts for granted, and assuming the power to exercise them properly lies within us, rather than coming from the Lord. 2) Focusing on our areas of strength and failing to realize we each also have areas of particular weakness. (We may forget this, but Satan certainly does not!)

27) Is it possible for an area of strength to also be an area of potential weakness? (Explain.)

28) How can we protect ourselves from this danger (Matt. 26:41; I Cor. 10:12-15; Gal. 6:1)?