MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 22, 2002 FROM JUDGES 13:1-24
“Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years. 2A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. 3The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. 4Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, 5because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines." 6Then the woman went to her husband and told him, "A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn't ask him where he came from, and he didn't tell me his name. 7But he said to me, 'You will conceive and give birth to a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death.' " 8Then Manoah prayed to the Lord: "O Lord, I beg you, let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born."
9God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10The woman hurried to tell her husband, "He's here! The man who appeared to me the other day!" 11Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, "Are you the one who talked to my wife?" "I am," he said. 12So Manoah asked him, "When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule for the boy's life and work?" 13The angel of the Lord answered, "Your wife must do all that I have told her. 14She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her." 15Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, "We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you." 16The angel of the Lord replied, "Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the Lord." (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the Lord.) 17Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the Lord, "What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?"
18He replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding." 19Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the Lord. And the Lord did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord. 22"We are doomed to die!" he said to his wife. "We have seen God!"
23But his wife answered, "If the Lord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this." 24The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him,”
This week we resume our study of the book of Judges as we come to examine the life and ministry of the judge who, along with Gideon, is the best-known judge in this book—this larger-than-life character named Samson. Samson appears in Judges after Jepthah and three other judges, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon about who very little is said. This morning, we want to divide our treatment of this opening narrative about Samson’s birth into two sections. First, we want to examine God’s intense and direct intervention to prepare Samson for ministry. The author goes to some pains to detail God’s activity during Samson’s pre-natal period and we want to explore this unique interaction between God and his, as yet unborn servant. Second, we want to ask a question which flows from God’s intensive preparation of Samson and that is, “Why?” Why did God go to all this trouble in preparing Samson? In the answer to that question, we will see application to our lives.
Our first truth deals with God’s intense and direct intervention in preparing Samson for ministry. Of all God’s servants in 66 books of the bible, there are only of two God’s Servant’s whose births are attended by such lavish announcements and preparations as Samson’s. Those two would be John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ. Apart from them, no other servant in the bible is afforded the kind of build up God gives to Samson. He stands alone in the Old Testament. Certainly no other judge in the book of Judges even remotely approaches Samson in terms of the attention given to his birth and preparation for ministry. The text reveals at least three ways in which Samson’s preparation is unique in its intensity. The first way is the prenatal visit of the angel of the Lord. You’ll remember that the angel of the Lord also appeared to Gideon to call him but that visit occurred when Gideon was already old enough to begin delivering Israel. In the case of Samson, the angel of the Lord visits his home before he is even conceived. He announces the birth of Samson in a manner consistent with the birth of the patriarch Isaac, the son of Abraham. This announcement in Judges 13 of this birth to this barren woman is in some ways reminiscent of the events surrounding the birth of Isaac.
We know this angelic visit is from God himself not only because the “angel of the Lord” designation typically refers to God but also because in verse 17 when the child’s Father, Manoah asks this angel his name, He responds by asking, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.” Other translations render that word “wonderful.” The idea is that His Name is extraordinary—it transcends human names. God himself comes to announce the birth of Samson to the home of this curious man, Manoah who has no idea who the angel is and whom the author portrays as something of a dolt compared to his more perceptive wife. God calls Samson to the ministry before he is conceived. God told Jeremiah that he had set him apart for his service before he was in the womb but there is no record of Him telling Jeremiah’s parents before he was conceived. Again, this is kind of first person, pre-conception call to a particular ministry is absolutely unique in the Old Testament. Only John the Baptist who, according to Jesus was “the greatest man born of woman” and Christ himself enjoy this kind of pre-conception treatment.
A second way we see God’s intervention in preparing Samuel is in the miraculous conception of Samson. Twice the author tells us that Samson’s mother was barren. She was sterile, unable to conceive. One of the covenant curses on Israel in times of apostasy was barrenness and this woman is perhaps affected by that curse—she is unable to bear children. This stirs thoughts of Sarah, the mother of Isaac and Hannah the mother of Samuel and John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth. That is very select company. Samson’s conception is a divinely enabled miracle. The author implies that if God does not act on this woman’s womb, she and Manoah would have died childless. Yet, through God’s power, Samson is conceived. God himself works against the barrenness of this woman and opens her closed womb to allow Samson to be born.
A third way we see the intensity of God’s intervention is in God’s unique Nazirite charge to him and his parents. The angel tells Samson’s mother in verse five, “the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God…” The description of what a Nazirite was is spelled out in Numbers chapter six. There we read that a Jewish man or a woman who wanted to be intensely separated to God for a season was free to make a special vow to the Lord, the vow of the Nazirite. The purpose of this vow was to dedicate him or herself to the Lord for a period of time in a very pronounced way. They were considered during this time separated to God in a unique way and as part of this vow, the person had to abstain from drinking wine or any other intoxicating drink or having his or her hair cut. They also were prohibited from touching a corpse even if the deceased were his or her parents or siblings. These persons were considered in a special way “holy to the Lord” during the time of their Nazirite vow.
As uniquely separated as this class of people were under this vow, God dictates that Samson was to be in a class by himself in terms of being set apart to God. His particular Nazirite experience was to be far more demanding than the already stringent Nazirite stipulations of Numbers chapter six in at least three ways. First, he was to be a Nazirite from conception. Don’t miss this. Before Samson is conceived, God places his mother under these same Nazirite dietary restrictions so that her unborn child [who ate and drank what she ate and drank] would not be defiled by anything she ate or did. We can’t miss the obvious pro-life implications of this text. Samson, from the moment he is a fertilized egg is viewed a person by God and not only a person, but a person who can be spiritually defiled by the eating and drinking habits of his mother! What does this say about God’s view of abortion? This text should fuel our passion to defend the unborn. In verse 13 the angel of the Lord says to Manoah (reading from the more literal NASB), “Let the woman pay attention to all that I said. “She should not eat anything that comes from the vine or drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thin; let her observe all that I have commanded.” The Lord even reminds her to not eat any unclean thing, which was not only applicable to Nazirites, but to everyone. The reason God reiterates this prohibition against unclean food is probably because given the context of a back-slidden Israel; it was probably a necessary reminder. God didn’t want this backslidden nation’s ignorance of, or apathy toward his food laws to contribute to this little one’s defilement. The point is clear--God was being extra scrupulous and demanding of this, as yet unconceived child.
A second unique feature of Samson as a Nazirite is--he would be under these strict obligations all his life, not just for a certain period of time. In verse seven, the mother-to-be tells Manoah of the Lord’s instructions and says, “the boy will be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death.” This went well beyond the terms of the vow spelled out in Numbers six and the intention is clear—this man was to be uniquely separated to God his entire life, not just for a particular period of time. He was to be “holy to the Lord” all the days of his life. This is a radical call to holiness. A third unique facet of Samson’s life as a Nazirite is that this lifestyle was divinely imposed, not voluntary. The Nazirite vow by definition was something you voluntarily placed yourself under. The only other instance in Scripture where this was imposed upon another person was when a barren woman named Hannah in First Samuel chapter one promised the Lord that if he would grant her a son, she would never let a razor touch his head. Other than that one circumstance, this vow was prescribed in Numbers chapter six was to be self-imposed. Yet here in Judges 13 God himself imposes it upon Samson. God goes further than his own law prescribed in the case of Samson. The bottom line is this: God directly intervened in Samson’s prenatal life to set him apart in a way unique in the Old Testament.
The question which leads to the second half of our treatment of this narrative and which should be in all our heads about now is, “why?” Why did God, in this horribly sinful context of apostate Israel choose to directly intervene and take these extraordinary preparatory measures with Samson? This question becomes even more mind-boggling when you read the rest of the Samson story and discover that Samson, whose life even before conception, was so carefully measured to be set apart for God was, in actual practice, ANYHING BUT separated to God! The rest of his life recorded in Judges is an utter betrayal of this scrupulous preparation by God. At first glance, this makes no sense at all. For an angel of God to visit say, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus before they are conceived—that makes sense to us given what we know of them…but Samson? We don’t have much trouble seeing why God would, before his conception call the great prophet Jeremiah into ministry…but Samson? We have no trouble understanding the need for a miraculous conception in the case of Isaac, the child of promise—that only fits--or even in the case of the great prophet Samuel…but Samson? The mothers of Isaac, Samuel and John the baptist are obvious candidates for God to divinely enable THEM to conceive—but how does the mother of Samson fit in that category? Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth are titanic biblical figures but does anyone remember the name of Samson’s mother? No, because it’s never even given! Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth…and an unnamed woman--there is a disconnect here, isn’t there? Why was it necessary for Samson to be miraculously conceived? Finally, why is Samson selected by God to be a uniquely set apart person within an already uniquely set apart class of people, the Nazirites? This text screams this question: Why did God do all this in the case of Samson?
Here are three reasons. First, God made these unique preparations during Samson’s prenatal period to manifest his scandalous grace. If you are familiar with the book of Judges you will notice there is a glaring difference between this opening account of Samson’s ministry and the initiation of every other significant judge. In each of these other instances where the Jews are being oppressed by their pagan neighbors, they cry out to the Lord for deliverance. We saw this cry in the case of Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon and the Jephthah/Abimelech cycle. Here in chapter 13 it says in verse one that the Lord, in response to their idolatry had “delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.” If in every other important judgeship, the author writes, “and the people cried out to the Lord for help” why does he not include that here? The answer is simple--because they didn’t cry out—they simply didn’t feel the need for deliverance. They were so thoroughly back-slidden or apostatized by this point—they just don’t feel the need for a deliverer. Evidently, they were so captivated by the carnal pleasures of these fleshly Philistines they were willing to suffer a bit of persecution in order to continue enjoying it. As proof of that consider the fact that later on, we see Samson keeping regular company with the Philistines even to the point of wanting to marry a Philistine woman. In fact, the only reason he initially fights against the Philistines is because they used his wife to coerce him into revealing the answer to a riddle he had posed to them at his bridegroom feast. Up to that point it appears that the Jews were quite content to fraternize with the Philistines. They were utterly blind to the threat posed by the pagans to their national survival—blinded by their own carnal lusts, which their Philistine pagan religion allowed them to freely satisfy.
Do you see the unsearchable grace of God here? Here are his people, seemingly quite comfortable to live among these pagans, even enduring persecution from them. They are so spiritually lost they don’t even have the health to cry for help. The pagans, spiritually speaking, have a knife to their throats and God’s people are so drunk on the carnal, pagan pleasures they don’t even realize severe peril they are in as a people. So God doesn’t wait for a call for deliverance he knows will not come. Acting purely on his own initiative and from nothing but grace he begins to deliver his people. He Himself comes in the form of the angel of the Lord and gives the necessary instructions and miraculously opens the womb of this woman to provide a deliverer for His people. And one more startling detail--after he does all this for this couple and provides them with a miraculously conceived son, what do they in their paganized minds do in response? The mother names him “Samson.” Aside from telling us what a weak man Manoah was because it was the man who named the children not the woman, Samson literally means “little sun” which as one scholar has commented is a name “which is if not outrightly pagan is dangerously compromising” [Block, 419]. They name their little deliverer after a created thing. It’s as if God did everything for this couple except name the child and the woman messes that up. This is grace. These Jews had not even asked for a deliverer yet he, out of nothing but sheer grace, provides one for them. What a glorious God of grace we serve!! What an unspeakable comfort to know he is like his!
Another powerful indicator of the grace of God that we will see more clearly in the weeks to come is in the fact Samson gave God very little “return” on his significant “investment” in him. With all this wonderful fanfare—this painstaking, scrupulous instruction and preparation on God’s part, we would expect to see in Samson a practically unparalleled life of separation and devotion to God. God had undeniably placed a spiritual silver spoon in his mouth. But as we know, with all this justifiable anticipation for a magnificent man of God to emerge, Samson ends up being a colossal, unimaginable disappointment. He never gathers an army around himself—what deliverance he does do is foisted upon him by God when his own mammoth ego is bruised and he acts in childish vengeance against the Philistines. Most of his great promise as a deliverer is spent delivering himself out of self-inflicted predicaments. God does so much to pave the way for a great man of God and Samson, with all of his potential ends up a laughing stock among even the pagans—an object of ridicule among those who hated God.
Why would God allow this? For the same reason he make sea creatures that live so far beneath the surface of the ocean that they display some of his very best engineering genius but which no one ever sees. He does it for the same reason he goes to the trouble of making snowflakes, which fall by the billions, into delicate, crystalline works of art? Why does he do that? Why does he make this kind of “investment” in Samson when he knows Samson will almost totally squander his God-placed potential? Because he is a God of lavish grace who displays his glory in undiscovered fish and intricate individual snowflakes. We must get this: his work and preparation in the lives of people is NOT primarily done to get something out of them, but to show forth his glory in lavish displays of his grace. Do we know this God? That’s a very foreign God in our capitalist culture where we invest for a large return. In many cases, our God is more like the college football coach who is constantly reminding his star players of their big scholarships and how much time and energy they have cost him as their coach. God is not like that at all because that attitude implies that God NEEDS us on His team and we had better justify all his work on our behalf. NO! We surrender and die for God, not because we must repay God, but because, in response to His profound goodness and grace to us, we joyfully delight in surrendering every drop of our blood for him. God does this pre-conception work in Samson to display his scandalous grace
A second reason for this intense preparation of Samson is to illustrate God’s invincible sovereignty. As we said, God is not invited into this mess of Philistine oppression. But, He IS the God of his people Israel and he intends that his nation will survive so, whether He is invited or not, he sees to that and does what is necessary even though his people are willingly, energetically committing national and spiritual suicide. When he delivers them he is not giving them what they want, but what they need. There is a lie in the church that says, “God is a gentleman and will never come where he is not invited.” That may sound very magnanimous but that is a ridiculous thing to say about the Owner of the universe about whom the Scripture says, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.”[Psa. 115:3] An absolutely sovereign God doesn’t have to wait for an invitation to directly intervene in any situation or life! He often does wait for us to ask him so that he may be glorified by answering our prayers--“you have not because you ask not,” but He does not NEED an invitation from us. One of the lessons from the life of Samson is that in spite of the seemingly Herculean efforts on the part of Samson to be an utter failure as a deliverer—he is a tragic clown—God miraculously uses even his own sin and his own shameful spiritual compromise to help bring down the Philistines. The truth line is: Before Samson was born God said this man would begin to deliver the Israelites and in spite of a horribly uncooperative Samson, that is precisely what Samson did—He began to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. God predestined Samson to do what he did and there was nothing even Samson could do to stop that. When God predestines something to happen it will, period. If we can’t bank on that then we might as well throw out God’s promises to one day reign upon this self-destructive planet.
Now, God’s invincible sovereignty should not lull us to sleep or keep us from praying for his kingdom to come or evangelizing our neighbors—may it never be! Because the same God who “does what HE pleases” calls us to preach the gospel to the nations “and then the end will come.” For a faithful child of God, the knowledge of God’s sovereign control over world affairs and the salvation of sinners brings not apathy, but a sense of great privilege and excitement that God would call us to be part of his sovereign plan in this world and in the lives of others. God’s work in Samson’s life put on display his invincible sovereignty.
A third and final reason God works so distinctly in Samson’s life is to personify Israel in the person of Samson. It is nothing less than striking the parallels between the life of Samson and the life of Israel especially during this period of the Judges. One of my Old Testament professors lists seven ways in which God sovereignly and intentionally works in Samson’s life so as to display in him the pattern of his work among the Jews as a people and their response to Him. Here they are quickly. First, “Samson is a wunderkind [child prodigy] miraculously born by the will of God.” Do you see the parallels here? God miraculously creates Israel from the loins of Abraham and the barren womb of Sarah through Isaac and Samson is also miraculously conceived and born of God’s will. Second, “Samson is called to a high life of separation and devotion to Yahweh” God took Israel out of the pagan nations and called to come out from these pagan nations and be separate—to be HIS people—to “be holy, even as I am holy”—to represent His holy character among the nations. Likewise Samson was called to a separate life within the context of Judaism and this call was, like Israel’s, to last indefinitely. Third, “Samson has a rash, opportunistic and immature personality.” That characterizes Israel as well—these people whom God repeatedly calls “stiff-necked.”
Fourth, “Samson is inexorably drawn to foreign women, like Israel was drawn to foreign gods.” When Samson seeks to marry a Philistine woman, his parents ask him in 14:3, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” It was baffling to Samson’s parents that he could not find a suitable wife among the entire Jewish nation but even more astonishing is the fact that the Jews would prefer foreign gods to the true God, their own patron God, Yahweh. Fifth, “Samson experiences bondage and oppression of the enemy.” He pays for his waywardness just like Israel as a nation does. Sixth, “Samson is blinded.” Samson loses his eyesight when his eyes are gouged out but Israel is spiritually blinded by their own adulterous hearts. Seventh, “Samson is abandoned by Yahweh and doesn’t know it.” In chapter 16 after he consents to having his hair cut off, the Spirit departs from Samson and he doesn’t realize it. Likewise, when God withdrew from Israel and says virtually nothing to them during several periods of their history, they appear to be completely oblivious to his absence.
Do you see these striking parallels? This is how we should understand Samson—we should see him through this lens and that will help us to rightly understand the story of his life. Beyond that, it should serve as a warning to us. The warning of Samson’s life to us is based in the fact that if there were ever a group of people who had a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths it is North American evangelicals. Our parents may not have had a prenatal visit by the angel of the Lord but we have something profoundly more powerful. We have Jesus Christ—we have the gospel—we have the cross, the blood—we have the Spirit in a new way. We have a better covenant with better promises. We may not have the physical strength of Samson but we have so much more than he had. In addition to all we have in Christ, in our culture we have the word of the living God sitting on our shelves—all the law and all the prophets—the gospel--the apostolic record of truth at our personal disposal 24 hours a day. We have bible study tools and a free political environment to gather together in fellowship. We have money, money, money to purchase whatever spiritual resources we need. Anyone in this room can get a more comprehensive education in the truth of God today than the pastors and seminary professors could get only a few generations ago and without ever going to seminary. God has given us so much—his grace is so clearly manifest to us as a people.
And yet in many ways our lives more closely resemble Samson—the typical man of backslidden Israel than Jesus Christ, the representative God-man of the New Testament church. We lust after the things of this world—we have all these spiritual riches yet we are so easily seduced by the Philistine culture we live in. We gripe, we whine, we complain, we covet—there’s never enough. We are spoiled—we are soft—we are self- absorbed. If your life were to be truthfully recorded, would it more closely resemble Samson or Jesus Christ? We dare not cast stones at Samson. There are doubtless a startling number of us who God has stopped striving with years ago and we never noticed. He hasn’t abandoned us—but He isn’t actively act work in our lives because, truth be told, we don’t want him to be. When he moves into our lives, he destroys our comfort zones—he stretches us, he calls us, he woos us, he convicts us and all things considered, many of us would rather just sit on the sidelines and play Christian cheerleader, vicariously getting our spiritual thrills by watching other believers we admire. We should see Samson’s narcissistic, self-centered life as a warning to what can happen to people when, instead of pouring out their lives in grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ, instead take God’s blessings and selfishly spend them on themselves. May God give us ears to hear what he is saying to us.
Page last modified on 10/2/2002
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