Samson: Judges 13-16

1.  Numbers 6:1-8

1 The LORD said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the LORD as a Nazirite, 3 they must abstain from wine and other fermented drink and must not drink vinegar made from wine or other fermented drink. They must not drink grape juice or eat grapes or raisins. 4 As long as they remain under their Nazirite vow, they must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, not even the seeds or skins. 5 “‘During the entire period of their Nazirite vow, no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the LORD is over; they must let their hair grow long. 6 “‘Throughout the period of their dedication to the LORD, the Nazirite must not go near a dead body. 7 Even if their own father or mother or brother or sister dies, they must not make themselves ceremonially unclean on account of them, because the symbol of their dedication to God is on their head. 8 Throughout the period of their dedication, they are consecrated to the LORD.

2.  We are not going to address that passage this morning but, instead, we are going to put flesh on the bones and look at the life of a Nazirite. Of all the three most visible Nazirites in Scripture (Samuel, John the Baptist and Samson) the most famous of the Nazirites is Samson found in Judges 13-16. Samson comes at the end of the line of 12 judges who presided over Israel. As Ray Stedman says, “Judges covers a period of about three hundred years. It is the story of a continually repeated cycle of defeat – of decline, discipline, and then deliverance. Over and over again God sent judges to the people of Israel to deliver them from persecution and bondage into which they had fallen and under which they had suffered for many weary, painful years.” In every case, Israel reverts to its previous sins and Samson is an illustration of Israel at its lowest point. He is 300 years of failure compressed into the life of one man.

3.  The birth story in Chapter 13.

This is the flare before the star collapses – the final appearance before God hands them over to the results of their own behavior. Judges 21:25. “In those days Israel had no king and everyone did what was fit in their own eyes.”

Only two other Nazirites are dedicated from birth – Samuel by Hannah and John the Baptist by Elizabeth. Here we do not know the mother’s name but like the other two accounts the mother is faithful and the father is doubting. It takes a special act of God to get the father on the same page. The Orphan conference confirmed this same thing. It is more often the mother who is moved and the father needs to be brought along.

25% of the entire account (a full chapter) is on the birth story. We are preconditioned by our reading of John the Baptist, Jesus and Samuel to have high expectations for Samson from the start. If we read it as if for the first time we would naturally think that great things will come from the life of this child. After all, God has spent a great deal of time and effort preparing for the birth of this child. It is a miracle and we make some assumptions about how the child will be. Everything tells us he will be someone who will deliver the people from their circumstances and their rebellion against God. We soon understand that not every miracle has a happy ending but that pretty much goes against everything we have been taught about miracles. This is one of those that does not have a happy ending but the ending is the only way it could have happened. We’ll see what that means.

Our first clue is the angel’s response to their desire to know how to raise this special child. There is no answer. They are on their own with what proves to be a parent’s nightmare. What could the angel have said when you consider what Samson became? Had they been told what was in store for them they might have decided not to have the child after all.

In fact, the whole story of Samson forces us outside our categories about how God acts in our lives. There is nothing in the life of Samson that seems to merit his being motivated by the Spirit of God as we understand it. It is, for me, one of the most challenging passages in the Bible. What does it mean to be consecrated? I think of the second verse of the hymn, “I Am Thine, O Lord”. “Consecrate me now to they service, Lord, by the power of grace divine; let me soul look up with a steadfast hope, and my will be lost in thine.” How do we square that idea of consecration with the life of Samson?

4.  A brief outline of the story:

We know nothing about his childhood but from the start he is spoiled, demanding and shows no judgement. Like the story of the boyhood of Jesus it says he grew and the Lord blessed him and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him. But he shows no hint of kindness or love or what we would call the evidence of a life stirred by the Spirit. He marries the daughter of the enemy on impulse, is betrayed and disappointed. Betrayal and disappointments are constant themes in his life. He leaves and his first wife is given to his best man. He sets fire to the fields out of revenge and his former wife and father-in-law are burned to death as a result. He is cruel and vindictive. He is totally self-absorbed.

His own people don’t know what to do with him and they give him up to the Philistines. He kills a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. He is a killing machine. No one can touch him.

In Chapter 16 he openly sleeps with a prostitute and humiliates the whole town. But then he meets Delilah – another daughter of the enemy – and she discovers the secret of his strength. I could not help but think of something a pastor friend tells couples when he marries them. “Today you have given each the power to bless and the power to destroy each other.” It’s true in this case. What should be the most precious trust in a marriage, the full knowledge of a husband and his “secrets” is distorted and perverted to betray him. Of course, as we will talk about later he is intentionally skating on thin ice because he believes himself to be indestructible. He is captured, blinded, forced to grind corn like an ox. His final revenge comes when the Philistines bring him out to have him perform at a celebration. He brings down the whole government and 3,000 people die.

5.  Spurgeon’s insights: “His whole life is a scene of miracles and follies.”

There is power in people who are consecrated – even if they are consecrated to the wrong thing. They have an almost supernatural strength to overcome obstacles and persevere. It is not just an interest but an absolute dedication to something. They give up part of their lives for it. “What cannot a consecrated man do? I do believe if he had the whole world against him, he would prove more than a match for them all. He would say, “Heaps upon heaps, with the jaw-bone of an ass have I slain my thousand men.” How many examples of that do we have? Many. People who overcome by sheer will.

Reading a positive article on Tim Tebow in the New York Times is a surprise but it was in the paper by author Frank Bruni.

“But Tebow tends to have his worst 45 minutes of play when it matters least and his best 15 when it matters most. And while he makes many mistakes, their cost is seldom exorbitant. These aren’t so much skills as tendencies — inclinations — that prove to be every bit as consequential as the stuff of rankings and record books. He reminds us that strength comes in many forms and some people have what can be described only as a gift for winning, which isn’t synonymous with any spreadsheet inventory of what it supposedly takes to win.
This gift usually involves hope, confidence and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way. For Tebow that state of mind comes from his particular relationship with his chosen God and is a matter of religion. For someone else it might be understood and experienced as the power of positive thinking, and is a matter of psychology. Either way it boils down to stubborn optimism and bequeaths a spark. A swagger. An edge.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about optimism. When peddled generically by unctuous politicians, it can seem the ultimate opiate, a cop-out and fallback when there’s nothing more substantive to sustain you. But optimism can have an impact. It’s what radiates from Tebow and fires up the Broncos. And therein lies a lesson about leadership with a resonance beyond football.
After Tebow took over, the Broncos didn’t add a whole, half or even quarter roster of better players. But he told his teammates, “Believe in me.” And he must have done so with a persuasive charisma. They clearly have a renewed belief in themselves — and are performing better than before.”

That is the consecrated leadership we think about when we hear the word consecrated or dedicated or called.

The secret strength of a truly consecrated person. “There is no strength in man of himself. Samson without his God was a poor fool indeed. Never think that you have the power of your own; rely wholly upon the God of Israel; and remember that the channel through which that strength must come to you must be your entire consecration to God.” It’s too true for all of us that we are not content to let our weaknesses be used. We don’t like weakness and we want to siphon off just a bit of the glory.

What is the danger of a consecrated person?

The first is pride.  We believe we have done this in our own strength. We congratulate ourselves on our own accomplishments and what we have done with our own hand. We compare ourselves to others and find them somehow not up to our own standards and we find subtle ways to glorify ourselves. We are not obvious about it but we encourage others around us to make us proud of what we have done. We do not want a “Nathan” around to correct us. We want admirers and fans, don’t we?

The second is self-sufficiency. You are a self-made man. You have done all this and you can do anything else. Do you remember the film version of Richard Nixon’s interviews with David Frost. Nixon admits that something he did was illegal but then says, “If the President does it then it is not illegal.” That is the snare of self-sufficiency and being above the law. “The moment we begin to think that it is our own arm that has gotten us the victory, it will be all over with us – our locks of strength shall be taken away, and the glory shall depart from us.” That was God’s warning from the very beginning because He knew what would happen when they became successful.

“When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” Deuteronomy 8

The third is when a consecrated person begins to change his purpose in life and live for himself. The pastor who begins to keep up their popularity at the expense of preaching the truth. The person who desires comfort and wealth over service and sacrifice. “I must look to myself, I must see my nest feathered, that must be the object of my life. I am not speaking of the ministry merely, but of all the consecrated; and as sure as ever we begin to make self the primary object of our existence our locks are shorn. Now, says the Lord, I gave that man strength, but not to use it for himself. Then I put him in a high position but not that he might clothe himself with glory; I put him there that he might look to my cause, to my interests; and if he does not do that first, down he shall go. And so, if you live in this world, and God prospers you, you get perhaps into some position, and you say, “Here I am; I will look out for myself; I have been serving before but now I will look to myself a little.” Very well, do it sir and you are a ruined man.

Finally, the disgrace.

Slowly, by degrees and not suddenly but over the course of a lifetime a person misuses their gifts and ends up as sport for the world and a disgrace to his family, his friends and himself. It is never sudden but comes from hundreds of small choices and hidden failures but ends in collapse. The beginning of every disaster movie is an unnoticed failure – a crack in a dam wall or an airplane wing, a dial not working, a screw that has vibrated loose. It is always something small and unnoticed. It is an oversight invisible to everyone but us. That was Samson’s life and the life of everyone who follows his example. Samson’s life was a symbol of the history of the book of Judges. One bad decision after another and doing what was right in their own eyes.

Six Short Observations:

1.  John Milton from Samson Agonistes. “But what is strength without a double portion of wisdom but vast, unwieldy, burdensome, proudly secure, yet liable to fall.” Samson had a great gift but no wisdom or discipline and it ruined him. Dad used to say, “That man thinks he is as big as his gift.” His strength was not in him. There was no wisdom or discernment or maturity – only physical strength. If you look at each verse where it says he was moved by the Spirt of God – all of them describe a sudden outburst of physical strength or anger.

2.  What was his epitaph? “He killed many more when he died than while he lived.” A tragic legacy for someone with such gifts. Samson was a guided missile with one purpose – to defeat an enemy and bring down an entire government. There was nothing else of value he accomplished in his life. For me, this is the crux of the story. Yes, Samson was consecrated in the sense that he was singled out and set apart for a particular purpose but that purpose did not mean his life was in any way how we think of consecrated, was it? We equate consecrated with spiritual maturity and a longing to be more Christ-like. That was not Samson. He was, in my opinion, raised up in the same way as Pharaoh in Romans 9:17. “For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” In the same way Samson was set aside to accomplish a particular purpose with his life – and he did. He brought down the whole leadership of the Philistines in a way he could not have in a military campaign. The end of his life was the fulfillment of his purpose. I think that is why the angel was silent. Samson was born to do one thing and that would have not been understood by his family.

3.  He was a weapon – not a leader. He was, as Peggy Noonan said about Newt Gingrich, a human hand grenade who pulls the pin and says, “Watch this”. He never led the people in battle or to victory. He betrayed and was betrayed. His whole life was focused on himself alone. But, and this is important, unlike others he never led the people astray to worship other gods. That may be because he only worshipped himself.

4.  His was a life shaped by grandiose illusions and self-defeat. He was perhaps the first full narcissist in the Bible. In the book Malignant Self-Love Sam Vaknin lists several characteristics of the narcissistic personality:

They misjudge their own importance and consider themselves to be indispensable and worthy of special rights, perks, and privileges. When they find out otherwise, they are devastated and furious.

They infuriate other people and their pride in their own accomplishments makes others work to cut him down to size and see him humiliated.

The irony is that narcissists, who consider themselves worldly, discerning, knowledgeable, shrewd, learned, and astute – are actually more gullible than the average person. This is because they are think they are playing with other mere mortals. They are betrayed by the very people they think they can trust. They hold themselves immune to the consequences of their actions.

They believe they are destined for greatness and when they are crossed they react with revenge and violence – even at the risk of their own lives. They blame everyone else around them for any failure. It is never their fault.

So, is there anything redemptive in the life of Samson? Samson was bad to the bone. We have to think there is because in Hebrews 11:32 we read of him again.

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning;[e] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. 39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Perhaps God really means it when he says “only together with us would they be made perfect.” We know so much about their imperfections and flaws. Perhaps the same is true for us. If there is hope for Samson there is hope for us when we have misused our strengths, wasted our gifts, not lived up to God’s calling and even harmed our friends and family. God can redeem…and he does.

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