MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 3, 2002 FROM JUDGES 16:23-31

 

            This week, we conclude our treatment of the story of Samson.  Up to this point, we have noted that the author’s portrayal of Samson has been anything but positive.  The popular conception of Samson is that, although he had a few chinks in his armor he really was an Old Testament superhero who was victimized by Delilah.  If we are honest with the text, we simply cannot see him that way.  More accurately, Samson was a self-centered, vengeful man driven by his carnal passions but God used him in spite of his huge character flaws because Yahweh had decreed that he would use him.  That is the only valid appraisal of Samson one can draw from the text of Judges.  That textually-driven understanding creates some tension for some people when they read in the faith chapter in Hebrews chapter 11:32-34, “And what more shall I say?  I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”  How do you explain the apparent contradiction between this account, which is so positive, and the text of Judges, which obviously portrays not only Samson, but the other three judges mentioned in a very different light?

            The answer to the question comes down to the question, what is the aim of the author of Hebrews in interpreting their lives the way he does?  What is his point in highlighting their lives?  In order to see how this text and the Judges text fit together, we must understand the point the author is making in Hebrews 11.  Dan Block, speaking of this chapter explains it this way; “This chapter is not an exegetical lecture on Old Testament texts but a sermon on faith, which is the key to accomplishing anything for God.  The author is convinced, and rightly so, that divine resources are applied to human needs by faith.  The message is that if anything positive was accomplished during the dark days of the judges, it was the work of God…the author of Hebrews 11 hails Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah as agents of God through whom remarkable victories were achieved.  Although the view of the persons named is uncompromisingly favorable, strictly speaking the author of Hebrews makes no comment on their character.  For that we must consult the book [Judges] itself.

            We know the point of these Old Testament examples is to inspire us to faith because in 12:1 tells us, “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  But we must also remember that faith is a gift.  I have known people who had incredible faith to trust God to do miraculous things through them but they themselves were spiritually immature.  Some people are just gifted with a capacity to trust God in extraordinary way.  Those same people may sin grossly and regularly because, as we know from the recent history of evangelical leaders, there are people who are extremely gifted and whose lives may indeed stimulate faith in us for the way they boldly take risks for God, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we would want to spend any serious time with them.  In some way, Samson did express faith, but that does not mean that he was in any way a man of God.  Paul says in First Corinthians 13:2, “if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” 

            Because Paul uses that as an example, that seems to means its possible to have mountain-moving faith but have a loveless heart that makes you a spiritual zero before God.  That may create tension for us but what it should do for us is to realize and be sobered by the fact that it is possible to be very gifted and even have great faith, but have no love for God or man.  When we see that the point of Hebrews 11 is actually very narrow and that is to inspire faith by pointing to faith-filled persons (who may or may not have loved God), that helps us to see how Samson could be viewed so positively in this chapter while the story in Judges gives a very different perspective.

            Now, let’s look at this morning’s text in Judges 16 beginning with verses 23-31. You’ll recall that at this point, Samson has given in to Delilah’ nagging and revealed the secret of his strength.  His hair has been cut, Yahweh has departed him, his eyes are gouged out and he is taken captive by the Philistines where he is doing slave labor for them in prison.  The story continues in verse 23,  Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, "Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands."  24When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,  "Our god has delivered our enemy into our hands, the one who laid waste our land and multiplied our slain."   25While they were in high spirits, they shouted, "Bring out Samson to entertain us." So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them.  When they stood him among the pillars, 26Samson said to the servant who held his hand, "Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them."

27Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. 28Then Samson prayed to the Lord, "O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." 29Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.  31Then his brothers and his father's whole family went down to get him. They brought him back and buried him between Zorah and Eschtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He had led Israel twenty years.”

         Let’s unpack this story by making three observations about Samson.  First, notice Samson’s deep humiliation.  When King Saul and Jonathan were killed, David lamented their death saying, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.”  That sentiment also applies here to Samson.  The context of this scene is important.  The people are gathered at some sort of Philistine temple or palace—a public assembly hall of some sort and they are there to celebrate the capture of Samson.  Samson is the main attraction here, but for all the wrong reasons.  He is led out as a trophy of Dagon, the satanic Philistine god.  The pagans are praising their god because he has delivered Samson into their hands.  Samson has been reduced from being a powerful instrument of God to a symbol of the triumph of paganism.  He is a spectacle—all eyes are on this man, who has stricken so much terror into their hearts.  Now, instead of inspiring fear, he inspires laughter and amusement.  After the people have arrived and are in high spirits they shout in verse 25, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.”  Because of his sin, Samson has been transformed from an object of terror to an object of ridicule.  There are few things more humiliating than being publicly mocked and for one of God’s people to be mocked by “uncircumcised Philistines” was about as bad as it could get. 

In verse 26, Samson asks his servant to help him find the pillars, but the text literally says, “Samson said to the boy [literally, young boy] who was holding his hand…” Again, the contrast with Samson’s former state is painful.  We have seen this man rip a young lion to pieces with his bare hands, kill 1000 Philistine with the jawbone of a donkey, lug a city gate 40 miles uphill on his shoulders and completely dominate anyone who opposed him.  Now, he is dependent upon a young boy to lead him around.  In Samson, we see a truly epic fall from grace and the application we should make to our own lives is NOT to sit back and cluck our tongues at Samson.  As we said last week, this is what sin does to people and.  Samson’s life becomes a metaphor for the destructive effects of sin on a person.  Sin enslaves people.  Samson’s sin put him in shackles and completely dominated him.  Sin does that.  Paul speaks of the enslaving power of sin under the law in Romans 7:14, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin… 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

         Sin seeks to dominate us, control us and place us in the pathetic position of being driven to do what we feel we HAVE to do rather than to do what we want to do.  God warned Cain about the power of sin before he murdered Abel in Genesis 4, “…sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”  Sin is a power and we must see that it is crouching at our door, waiting to fall upon us, bind us and carry us to hell in its demonic shackles.  Sin crouched at Samson’s door and he like Cain, fell prey to its power because he was not watching out—there was no vigilance, no sense of healthy fear.  We MUST see sin for what it is and Samson’s life provides a tragic case study of the devastation sin brings to a person.

         Sin not only enslaves people, but as we said of Samson sin also brings humiliation.  With Samson’s permission his sin transformed him from an object of dread and terror to an object of scorn and ridicule.  Our unchecked, unrepentant sin, when revealed to other people puts on display for others to see our hypocrisy, our carnal, self-centered hearts.  It causes others to hold us up for ridicule and when we suffer ridicule because of sin, we bring shame not only to ourselves and to our families, but more importantly to the gospel, to Christ and to his church.  Samson not only tarnished his own name, but also his family, the people of God and Yahweh.  In this story, God brings swift and dramatic vindication to his name, but at other times he chooses not to do that. 

         Because of God’s grace there is a blessed flip side to Samson’s humiliation and that is Samson’s redeeming victory.  We know this was ultimately God’s victory and but let’s focus on what happened here.  Its very difficult to know the configuration of this building or to know precisely how the toppling of two pillars could bring down a balcony or roof and cause this great loss of life.  All we know is what’s in the story.  Clearly, Samson has an intuitive understanding that if he can, by God’s grace take out these two pillars that would, quite literally, “bring the house down.”  We know that is precisely what happened and it was a great victory.  The impressiveness of the victory is brought out by the author in two ways.  First the author stresses the fact that there were some very important Philistines at this celebration of Dagon’s victory over Samson.  In fact, this story opens with this detail in verse 23, “Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled…” He stresses this fact again in verse 27, “all the rulers of the Philistines were there.” You would never see this in our nation today because if disaster were to occur, we would lose ALL our leaders in one fell swoop.  That is precisely what happened here.  Samson would have never had the opportunity to personally kill all the rulers of the Philistines, but because he was the centerpiece of this great celebration in tribute to their god, Dagon, all these leaders were all in attendance at this temple in one place. 

         Beyond the strategic importance of wiping out the entire national leadership team, the raw number of pagans who are killed in this final episode of Samson’s life is also noteworthy.  Verse 27 lists the number at about 3000 men and women and verse 30 tells us that in this final flurry of vengeance Samson “killed many more when he died than while he lived.”  There is an efficiency to this massacre that is striking.  With just one great, God-empowered heave Samson takes out the entire ruling cadre of the Philistines and 3000 others including himself.  We can only imagine what the horrible scene must have been after this with Samson’s family picking through the rubble to get at Samson’s body for its return home for burial in his father’s tomb.

         A third truth to focus in on regarding this man is Samson’s enduringly corrupt heart.  There is a strong line of continuity between this act of Samson’s and the others in his life that is easy to miss in the midst of this incredibly dramatic, Hollywoodesque, final curtain call of Samson’s.  Notice that even though this act of deliverance is the most potent of Samson’s life, his motive remains, as it has always been, personal vengeance.  Let’s take verse 28 and break it down into its pieces.  Samson says, “O Sovereign Lord, remember me…” That’s good, Samson is showing his dependence upon God—this is perhaps the faith that Hebrews 11 is referring to because he admits that the only way anything good will happen here is if God remembers him.  The next phrase in the NIV is, “O God, please strengthen me just once more…” Again, so far, so good—in faith he calls on God one final time to work through him by a miraculous feat of strength.  The third phrase says, “…and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” 

         That phrase drains all possible virtue from Samson’s request because once again we see, as we have seen in every other instance, Samson is motivated solely by personal vengeance in order to achieve his own personal best interest.  Think about what Samson SHOULD have been concerned about.  Remember, ancient near eastern people held that in order for them to achieve a victory over an enemy, their own patron god must first triumph over the god of the god of their enemy.  So here is Samson in the middle of this pagan worship service to the satanic Philistine god, Dagon and because he has been captured, all these Philistines assume that their god Dagon was greater than Samson’s God—the God of the Jews, Yahweh.  The fact that he, through his sin with Delilah has allowed the impression to be created that Yahweh is a defeated God doesn’t even show up on Samson’s radar screen.  The fact that he has allowed himself, the divinely called deliverer of Yahweh to be nothing more than a supposed trophy for Dagon doesn’t register for Samson.  The fact that his sin has occasioned the glorification of Dagon and ridicule to come upon not only himself but also the Lord doesn’t seem to matter to Samson. 

         Beyond that, his countrymen, the people of Yahweh remain under the oppression of the uncircumcised Philistines and here he stands as God’s deliverer of his people playing the role of a clown providing entertainment for these enemies of God.  The prayer that Samson should have prayed would have resembled this one, “Oh God, forgive my foolish sinfulness that has allowed reproach to be brought on your holy name and for allowing it to appear that you, the Lord God Omnipotent, have fallen to Dagon—Oh God, take my life as a worship offering to you, but Lord, for your glory once more empower me that your name might be vindicated and that your people might be delivered from the hands of these uncircumcised Philistines.”  That’s the prayer of a repentant deliverer of Israel.  Instead, we get this self-centered prayer “Let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” and in verse 30 this sappy, over-the-top, melodramatic, “Let me die with the Philistines!”  He’s not offering his life to God as an offering; he is one final time, as he has done so many times before, identifying himself completely with the Philistines.

Samson’s final burden in life and which he felt at the moment of his death was not for God or his people or of his role as God’s deliverer of his people, it was for revenge for the loss of his eyes.  Notice, Samson takes no responsibility for the loss of his eyes.  There is no sign that Samson admits that the fact that his eyes are gone is fundamentally HIS fault for playing foolish and carnal games with Delilah.  No, instead of owning any of his own mammoth responsibility here, he plays the blame game and puts it all on the ticket of the Philistines.  Samson is as pathetic in death as he is in life.  He died as he had lived, looking out for number one.   The fact that God DOES choose to use Samson to bring this massacre is in no way an endorsing of his selfish requests.  It is merely one final instance where God, IN SPITE of Samson’s carnality, fulfills the promise he made before Samson was conceived to use him to begin to deliver his people from the Philistines.  Although God uses Samson’s sinfulness we should never see him as blessing it.

The point of application for us from Samson’s heart is, we can be doing many good things and ministries that are used by God, but may indeed be sinful because our motives are sinful.  We live in an age of pragmatism where in the church the bottom line is often, how much ministry can we crank out involving the greatest number of people and NOT the motivation of our hearts.  As we see in the case of Samson, God uses people who do things out of selfish motives.  Paul admits this in Philippians 1:15-18, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill... 18But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.  Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,”   That does not mean that this is right, it is simply Paul’s admission that the message of the gospel is not bound by people who preach with dark hearts.

In this life, we may actually do much good for people, while being motivated by thoroughly self-centered desires.  We must understand that God is more concerned with the attitudes and desires of our hearts than how many spiritual gifts we have or our willingness to use them for our own glory.  The sobering truth is that it is possible for us to be used mightily of God and, because our hearts have not been transformed, wind up in hell.  Jesus said this very thing in Matthew 7:22-23 as he anticipates judgment day. “Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers.”  There are people who have ministries of prophecy and deliverance and miracles who will not be in heaven.  In First Corinthians nine, Paul testifies to the incredibly disciplined life he led so that his life would ring with integrity and he says the reason he disciplined himself so stringently was, “so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  Paul opens the possibility that he, arguably the most dynamically used man in redemptive history apart from Christ, would be disqualified from heaven if he didn’t continually guard his heart through strict spiritual discipline.

We must never fall into the trap of thinking that because we are gifted and God can use us to minister to others, that that means we have a one-way ticket to heaven.  God looks upon the heart and what indicates whether you are heaven bound is not the impressive ministries we may have but the unmistakable fruit of the Holy Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  Jesus said in John 13:34, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We must never forget that our life in Christ as individuals and as a church is ALWAYS two-fold.  That is, not only are we to continue the earthly ministry of Christ, but we must also reflect the character of Christ.  We must learn from the tragic example of Samson that without the heart of Christ, the “good” things we do in the name of Christ will do nothing for us in the judgment except add to our condemnation.  May God give us the grace to hear the clear warnings signaled by the life of Samson.

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