MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 29, 2002 FROM JUDGES 13:24-14:20

           

This morning, we come to the second literary section of the story of Samson in the book of Judges.  Last week, we saw God’s intense preparation of Samson even before he was conceived.  You’ll recall, He visited Samson’s parents in the person of the angel of the Lord and informed them that he would open the mother’s barren womb and miraculously allow her to conceive a son.  Further, he predicted that he would use their son to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines.  He also decreed that Samson would be separated to God in a special way—a unique form of Nazirite and that the stipulations of his separation to God were so strict that even his mother would have to observe stringent dietary restrictions as she bore him in her womb.  In light of this unique treatment, it is no stretch to say that God had given Samson more potential than any other judge in Israel and more than just about any of God’s servants, period.  This morning, we begin the story after his birth and we find that with all Samson’s promise, with all God’s work on his behalf before his conception, he ended up being the most ineffective judge in Israel’s history and one of the truly tragic figures in the Old Testament.  Let’s begin reading in verse 24, “The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, 25and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.”

            In verse 24 we notice the general statement about Samson, “the LORD blessed him” and in verse 25 the author says more specifically, “the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.” We see that while Samson was still living at home with His parents the Spirit of God began to “stir” him.  The precise meaning of the Hebrew word translated “stir” is uncertain.  What this verse does tell us with certainty is that whatever Samson is going to do to begin the deliverance of Israel, it will be God’s doing.  God is doing the stirring here, not Samson.  There is nothing in the adult life of Samson that would indicate he had on his agenda the deliverance of Israel from the Philistines.  He never raised up an army as other judges did and inexplicably there does not appear to be any strong sense within Samson, that he had, as part of his sense of identity, that he was a man whom God had set apart to deliver Israel.  In spite of all that God has done to establish that fact, Samson lives as if he is oblivious to it himself.  We see proof of that in what is to follow.

            Chapter 14, verse one says, “14:1Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. 2When he returned, he said to his father and mother, "I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife." 3His father and mother replied, "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?"  But Samson said to his father, "Get her for me. She's the right one for me." 4(His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.)”  When Samson went down to neighboring Timnah, which was almost certainly controlled and occupied by the Philistines, we are forced to wonder why he, as one separated to God in such a radical way, was so freely consorting with pagan Philistines.  The author really blows up our preconceptions about Samson when he tells us that this Nazirite, who had been so closely guarded by God through the Nazirite vow he had placed on him, was now telling his parents to arrange a marriage with a godless Philistine woman. 

            There are several issues worth noting here.  First, Samson doesn’t simply request his parents arrange this godless marriage--he demands this.  In both verse three and four, the verb translate “get” as in “get her for me” is an imperative.  This is wrong on at least two counts—in the ancient near east many of the marriage were arranged—it was the father, not the son who selected the son’s wife in many cases—remember the case of Isaac’s marriage arranged by Abraham.  Beyond that, even if the son was given some freedom to choose his partner, nowhere does he have the option of commanding his parents what to do.  Finally and most fundamentally, here is Samson who is called by God to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines but instead he is trying to marry one of them.   This one who had been set apart by God for a life of devotion to Yahweh is chasing after a pagan woman to be his covenant partner.  His parents respond to his demand, asking, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among our people?  Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?" Though his parents could and should have taken a much stronger hand with Samson, at least they see the sin involved in this and castigate the Philistines, calling them “uncircumcised.”

            Have you ever noticed that among all the pagan people of Canaan—most of whom were uncircumcised—the Ammonites, the Ammorites, the other “ites,” the only group of pagans that are explicitly and even repeatedly called “uncircumcised” are the Philistines?  Why, among all of these uncircumcised, pagan people in the area are the Philistines specifically referred to as “uncircumcised?”  The scholars tell us it’s because of all the pagan peoples of Canaan; the Philistines occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder.  Of all the pagan people living in Canaan, there was a special level of disdain for the Philistines and it’s from one of these uniquely disrespected people, who had for 40 years oppressed his own people that Samson selects his wife.  He answers his parent’s protests with yet another emphatic command, “Get her for me.  She’s the right one for me.”  Some translations word that, “She looks good to me.”  What he is saying literally in verse three is, “She is right in my eyes.” 

What Samson probably means is seen in 17:6 where the author comments on the spiritual condition of the nation and says literally, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”[NASB]  The author’s point is to say that Samson judges the fitness of this woman totally according to his own standard and God is out of the picture here.  Deuteronomy 7:3 explicitly states the children of Israel were NOT to intermarry with the pagans in Canaan.   This man who had been set apart for God’s use was, on a conscious level, acting independently from the God.  The author wants us to see that Samson, whatever his calling was, whatever God in his grace had done to separate him for his use, was betraying all that and rebelliously running after a pagan woman.  In this, our first exposure to Samson’s character, the author goes into detail to show what a horrible inconsistency there is between what God had called him to and prepared him for as a child, and the way in which he was living his adult life.

Nevertheless, God has not been trumped—God is NEVER trumped!  In fact, the next verse tells us that God, far from being check-mated by this carnal man, is in fact well in control of the situation.  The author in verse four shocks us again when he says, (His parents did not know that this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.)  This verse provides the template through which we are to see the entire Samson narrative.  The author here takes us from the time/space events of Samson’s rebellious life in Canaan to the throne room of God’s secret counsel.  Here we discover that God is not wringing his hands over the “disappointment” Samson has become with his betrayal of all his intense preparation.  Indeed, God is instead using his wayward servant’s waywardness to achieve his goal.  God is using Samson with all of his adolescent self-centeredness to pick a fight with the Philistines.  As we said last week, the Jews are apparently not all that anxious to throw off the rule of the Philistines as they have their other pagan oppressors.  God however has decreed that his people will survive intact as a people and a Messiah will one day be born out of his national people Israel.  So, during this period of time when his people are threatened with the complete loss of their national and genetic identity Yahweh, lacking any strong desire of the Jews to be free, independently instigates a conflict that will begin the process of the Jews’ deliverance from the Philistines.  He doesn’t finish the job of ousting the Philistines until King David arrives on the scene, but that long process of Philistine purification begins here with Samson.

With that lens of God’s sovereign control over Samson’s sinfulness, we continue with verse five, “5Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. 6The Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done. 7Then he went down and talked with the woman, and he liked her.”  Here we see proof of the fact that, although Samson had no place for God, Yahweh still saw fit to use this self-centered vessel.  The scene is placed in an interesting context—the NIV says they were “approaching” the vineyards of Timnah.  The more literal translations say that he “came to the vineyards of Timnah” or, “came as far as the vineyards of Timnah.”  The point is, the author explicitly mentions that Samson is in a vineyard when he is attacked by the lion and the question we should be asking is, “what on earth is he doing in a vineyard?”  We saw from chapter 13 that he was under a Nazirite vow and that meant he could not eat any grape products or drink any intoxicating beverage.  Samson has no business here and we see that at the moment God is performing this great miracle to spare his life, he is in all probability breaking his Nazirite vow.  That’s grace!

Samson is surprised by this lion attack—it comes without warning.  We read, "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power.”  The author establishes that what is to happen in this encounter with the lion is miraculous and not owing to any personal prowess of Samson.  This is a miraculous feat of strength and not reproducible by natural means.  The Hebrew actually says, “The Spirit of the Lord RUSHED upon him”—communicating both suddenness and intensity.  The Spirit of the Lord wasn’t a “gentleman” here—He didn’t ask permission and there is nothing in the text to indicate Samson asked for this enablement.  God unceremoniously seized this man and took over.  It would never have occurred to a man being charged by a lion, “You’ll know, I think I’ll rip this one like a young goat.”  That is NOT what a person, even a physically powerful person, thinks when a young lion is charging at them.  The Holy Spirit took Samson’s reflexes and divinely enabled him to do with this lion what a naturally empowered person could never do.  The lion in the scripture is a symbol of dominance and strength and power and fearsomeness while the kid goat represents weakness and vulnerability.  Samson takes this intimidating, fearsome and powerful animal and literally rips him limb from limb with his bare hands.  After the incident, perhaps because he is afraid no one will believe him, he keeps this miracle a secret from his parents.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Samson’s parents acquiesced to his demands for this Philistine girl because they had obviously arranged the marriage.  We see this implied in verse eight which begins, ““8Some time later, when he went back to marry her, he turned aside to look at the lion's carcass. In it was a swarm of bees and some honey, 9which he scooped out with his hands and ate as he went along. When he rejoined his parents, he gave them some, and they too ate it. But he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the lion's carcass.”  This text is not for the squeamish.  Samson is on the same road a bit later and he is curious to see what is left of this lion so he turns aside to look for the remains.  The lion’s carcass had decayed so as to create a cavity large enough for bees to live and they had already made a good amount of honey.  The point of this account in the story is not to detail the symbiotic relationship between honeybees and dead lions.  This detail is obviously important to the later events of the story involving this cryptic riddle Samson tells.  But beyond that, the author again shows us that Samson has taken his Nazirite vows and thrown them to the wind.

First, we know from Number 6:6 that as a Nazirite he is not to touch a corpse and the scholars tell us that meant animal as well as human.  Beyond that, Leviticus 11 tells us that ALL Jews would be considered unclean if they touched a carcass of an animal.  Samson is defiling himself first as a Jew and second as a Nazirite when he reaches down inside this lion’s carcass.  The fact that he defiles himself is clearly not a concern to him.  Not only does he pollute himself but when he gives some of the honey to his parents without telling them where it came from, under the law he also defiled THEM by bringing them into contact with something that had touched a dead animal.  One scholar summarizes the evil of this act saying, “His parents had sanctified him, but now he desecrates them” [Block, 430].  This graphic little vignette shows us again just how far detached Samson has become from his pious roots.

            The story continues in verse 10, “10Now his father went down to see the woman. And Samson made a feast there, as was customary for bridegrooms. 11When he appeared, he was given thirty companions. 12"Let me tell you a riddle," Samson said to them. "If you can give me the answer within the seven days of the feast, I will give you thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes. 13If you can't tell me the answer, you must give me thirty linen garments and thirty sets of clothes."  "Tell us your riddle," they said. "Let's hear it."14He replied,  "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet."  For three days they could not give the answer.”   Again, we see at least two more indications of Samson’s profound compromise of his Nazirite vows.  First, he throws this bridegroom’s feast.  The Hebrew word in the context means a weeklong drinking bash that would be a much longer version of the debauched contemporary expression of this known as “the stag party.”  Samson not only attends this, he but as the groom he hosts it; showing once again that the stipulations of his Nazirite vow have long ago been placed in his rear view mirror.  Second, he engages in this manipulative riddle. 

Ancient near eastern riddles, like the riddles of today are intended to test a person’s cleverness and quickness of mind.  Samson here tells a riddle that was humanly unsolvable because it was rooted in this extraordinarily unique experience of his eating honey out of the carcass of a dead lion.  This experience would not have been in any way accessible to these men.  This is comparable to challenging someone to tell you what you are thinking at the present moment.  The only way to know such a thing is by supernatural revelation!  The necessity of supernatural revelation to solve the riddle went far beyond the expected norms of a riddle telling—this was unfair.  This riddle wasn’t just hard; it was for all intents and purposes impossible.  Granted, these men were foolish enough to agree to his stupid terms, but Samson made this deal look very appealing.  If these men were to lose the wager it would cost them only one outfit apiece while Samson would have to cough up 30 changes of clothes.  The truth is clear: Samson wanted a new wardrobe to begin his married life and through gambling and trickery, he would try to con it out of these 30 men who had come to his stag party through the use of this unsolvable riddle. 

            After the men are understandably stumped for three days, they respond in kind in verse 15, “15On the fourth day, they said to Samson's wife, "Coax your husband into explaining the riddle for us, or we will burn you and your father's household to death. Did you invite us here to rob us?"  16Then Samson's wife threw herself on him, sobbing, "You hate me! You don't really love me. You've given my people a riddle, but you haven't told me the answer."  "I haven't even explained it to my father or mother," he replied, "so why should I explain it to you?" 17She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.”  These men haven’t exactly majored in chivalry themselves.  They come to a party as presumed strangers, enter into a foolish wager and when it is clear they will lose the bet, they threaten to torch their own countrymen.  This tells us as much about Samson as it does about these men—the men he hung out with are not exactly Sir Walter Raleigh! 

At any rate, Samson’s terrified wife does what she can to try to compel her husband to give her the answer to the riddle and Samson tells her, “I haven’t even explained it to my father or mother… so why should I explain it to you.”  So much for “leaving your father and mother” and cleaving to your wife—making HER your most intimate confidant.  Dan Block has rightly said from this statement of Samson’s that he has yet to “cut the aprons strings.”   Finally, Samson, in what will become a pattern later on with Delilah, gives in to her nagging and she in turn acts to defend herself and her family from being incinerated by giving these rogues the answer to the riddle.  The finale of the story begins with verse 18.  18Before sunset on the seventh day the men of the town said to him, "What is sweeter than honey?  What is stronger than a lion?"  Samson said to them, "If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved my riddle."  19Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon him in power. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of their belongings and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he went up to his father's house. 20And Samson's wife was given to the friend who had attended him at his wedding.”

            The men tease Samson by giving him just enough of the answer to the riddle to let him know that they possessed the complete answer and that is sufficient for Samson.  Hypocritically, Samson is incensed that they “out-cheated” him and in what is truly a classic example of bridegroom insensitivity says, “If you had not plowed with my heifer, you would not have solved the riddle.”  To refer to your new bride as a heifer—a beast of burden--was no more socially acceptable then than it would be now.  The irony is that this woman whom Samson said was “the right one” for him and for whom he had compromised both the law of God and his own unique call as a Nazirite he now characterizes as a “heifer.”  Do you hear the irony there?  That heifer over there is the right one for me.” 

In spite of Samson’s insensitivity and his hypocrisy, once again in verse 19 God literally “rushes” on him—violently and dramatically exerting his power through him and Samson, in another fit of supernatural strength, picks a fight with the Philistines by killing 30 of them single-handedly for the purpose of removing their clothes to repay his gambling debt.  You don’t have to be a marriage counselor to discern from this text that Samson is more than a little put off with his bride for telling these men the answer to the riddle, so instead of going back to work things out with his new wife, he goes back to his father’s house--once again showing that he really doesn’t understand much about commitment in general and marriage in particular.  As the plot begins to thicken into the mess we will explore next time, we read that his new bride is given away, presumably by her father, to one of these 30 men who had won the bet.  This case study in personal immaturity and God’s sovereign use of it continues as the story develops further.

            As we conclude, let’s make two applications to our lives from this text.  One lesson we can learn from this story is:  if God can use Samson to accomplish his will, he can use you. As we have seen, even with all the intense preparation God does for Samson, when it comes right down to it, you would be hard pressed to find a more reluctant servant of God in the bible.  Jonah ran in the opposite direction from God’s command but at least he lived with an awareness of God’s call on his life and in the end, with the help of a bit of sub-aquatic coercion, accomplished his mission.  In the case of Samson, he seems to be so detached from God that the Lord uses his tragically predominant features--his self-centeredness and his thirst for personal vengeance to accomplish he will.  The point is not that God does not ask our best of us as we serve him or that we are free to be rebels because God can and does use them.  It is simply this—there are some in this room who have spent years in ministry paralysis—you have repeatedly refused certain ministry opportunities because a little voice in your head tells you, “you aren’t good enough, you are mature enough, you aren’t radical enough, you aren’t experienced enough” to do this ministry.  Behind many of those thoughts is the FALSE assumption that the success of a particular ministry is ultimately dependent upon our gifts or abilities or experience or some other personal quality. 

The story of Samson eviscerates those lies and powerfully demonstrates something it is very easy to forget and that is this: the One who ultimately does the ministry is God.  Allow the way God uses this pathetic piece of humanity named Samson to remind you that ultimately it is God who does the ministry and if he can use a Samson, who doesn’t appear to be the least bit interested in being used, he can use you.  Away with false humility—away with the godless, paralyzing fear of man!  You can be assured you will make many mistakes and will do many wrong things as you seek to be used of God in a particular ministry, but if God is big enough to use a carnal, spiritual rebel like Samson, he can pick you up and use you.  Again, this is not a license to give God less than our best or to endlessly continue to minister in areas where you are not seeing at least some confirmation that God is in it.  It is simply breathing in the liberating truth that the ministry is not about us, it is about God and if you have a desire to do something or sense God’s call to do it, don’t let your own insecurities stand in the way of obedience.

A second lesson Samson teaches us here as a negative lesson is: we must refuse to be driven by our sensual pleasures.  Throughout the story of Samson we see this pattern of behavior in Samson.  In the case of his marriage, he is driven by his senses instead of God’s law.  He sees a girl he likes and he tells his parents to get her for him and the fact that she is a pagan Philistine is not even on his radar screen.  He sees her, he wants her, he demands her.  Likewise in the case of the honey in the lion, he sees the honey, he wants it, so he takes it without respect to the law or his call as a Nazirite.  Finally, he wanted a new wardrobe so he gambles to get it without regard to a sense of ethics or fair play.  He was sensually driven and when you are driven and controlled by your senses the end will always justified the means.  If God’s will is not the determining factor, we will ultimately do what our insatiable flesh wants.

We see this all the time in the North American church and it is much more subtle today because unlike Samson, we don’t have to engage in blatantly unethical behavior to get what we want because we are a wealthy people who can just go out and buy it.  For us, we see something, we want it, we buy it.  At one level this is no different than Samson because the determining factor is not the will of God but the size of our bank accounts and at the end of the day we are driven not by what God wants but what WE want—our senses, our insatiable, covetous desires determine what is best for us rather than the will of God.  The only controlling factor is, can we afford it?  And sadly, for far too many believers even that is irrelevant as long as their credit cards hold out.  How many of us before we make a purchase beyond our ordinary survival needs hold it before God and seriously ask, “What do you think?”  Or do we simply make a decision on the basis of the intensity of our desire—“I REALLY want it—I can afford it, I will buy it.”  That’s GODless and whenever we do that we are living on a purely sensual level, just like Samson. 

Just because we can afford something does mean it is God’s will that we have it.  The rich man in Christ’s story of the rich man and Lazarus could afford all his purchases too, but his appetite for the things of this world blinded him to the plight of the beggar outside his gate.  Lazarus hasn’t left us—he’s still clearly seen in a 1000 manifestations if we have not been blinded to the needs of others by our own lust for consumption.  How we use money is not about our “freedom in Christ” because it’s not our money.  We are not free to spend HIS money on discretionary articles without HIS blessing.  We are not financially autonomous; we simply are his earthly money managers.  We must repent of being sensually driven or we are on this level no better than Samson.  God has many lessons to teach us through Samson.  May the Lord give us the grace to listen to what he is saying to us.

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