A Matter of Life and Death: A Samson Sermon

The following is the text of a sermon I preached this past Sunday as a guest speaker at Toronto Chinese Alliance Church.  The congregation has been working its way through a sermon series on the book of Judges.  I was assigned the daunting task of preaching on the Samson story (Judges 13-16).

For the past week, my thoughts have been preoccupied by a single figure. A blustery and boisterous man, noted for his both his crudity and his cruelty. A man whose track record of troubled relationships with women is well-known. A man who is thought to stand as a paragon of strength and power, despite the strange coif of hair on his head. A bully, who always seems to be the last man standing. A man seemingly tasked with the responsibility of making his nation great again. You could be excused if you thought I was speaking of Donald Trump, but the figure I have in mind is, of course, Samson.

Samson is the twelfth and final judge of Israel depicted in the book of Judges. While more pages are devoted to Samson than to any other single character in Judges, this riddle-telling, swashbuckling figure remains a riddle of a man. The stories of Samson’s escapades have been described by one commentator as “an embarrassment for evangelicals.”1 Another commentator has noted that the chapters encompassing the Samson story “may represent the least-preached best-known text in the Bible.”2  So in assigning me this portion of Scripture, your elders have placed before me an enormous challenge. What on earth are we to make of this man who seems to be a cross between James Bond and the Incredible Hulk? What are we to make of a deliverer of Israel whose only gift from the Holy Spirit appears to have been enormous physical strength, which existed side-by-side with equally enormous character flaws? It is at this point that we would do well to heed the advice of the great British Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, who reminded his people that, “The Old Testament biographies were never written for our imitation, but they were written for our instruction.”3

So let us turn to the story of Samson as it has been recorded for us in the book of Judges. Right off the top, let me say, just as we did not have time to read Judges chapters thirteen to sixteen in their entirety during the service this morning; in the same way, it is simply impossible for one sermon to explore all of the intricacies of this complex story. So I would hope that in the days ahead you will take the opportunity to take your Bibles in hand and read and reflect further upon these chapters.

The story of Samson begins at the start of chapter thirteen. There we read, “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” (13:1). Since you’ve been working your way as a congregation through the book of Judges, I suspect that in hearing this verse many of you will recognize the presence of a pattern that recurs throughout the book. The pattern runs something like this: (1) the people of Israel turn from God and do evil in the sight of the Lord; (2) God then gives his people over to the hands of their enemies; (3) as they suffer under the yoke of a cruel oppressor, the people cry out to God for deliverance; (4) hearing their cries the Lord raises up a judge to deliver his people and restore justice to the community. That’s the general shape of the recurring pattern, but alongside of this pattern there is also what we could call a trajectory. And this trajectory is a distinctly downward movement tracing the people of Israel’s descent into moral anarchy and outright idolatry, resulting in a bloody inter-tribal civil war. The story of Samson occurs near the end of this trajectory and there are some distinctive signs of this descent present within the text itself. We are told in 13:1, that the Israelites, having done evil in the eyes of the Lord, are delivered into the hands of the Philistines. According to the well-established pattern of the book of Judges, we would expect God’s people to cry out for deliverance, yet this time the people remain silent.4 No one cries out.

Yet God is not limited by the faithlessness of his people. The theological word we have for this reality is grace. Despite the fact that no one cries out for deliverance, God takes the initiative and the angel of the Lord appears to a barren woman in the small hillside town of Zorah. A miraculous birth is foretold – the barren woman will give birth to a son! This is not the first annunciation scene in the Bible in which an angel appears to announce a future birth (see Gen 16:7-14, 18:1-16, 25:21-23). Nor is it the first time that the Lord has brought life from a previously barren womb (see Gen 18:10-15, 25:21, 29:31, 30:22-23). The presence of both of these biblical motifs at this point in the story serves to heighten our expectations surrounding the child to be born. The angels own words further ramp up our anticipation: “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because 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” (13:3-5). Now a Nazirite was someone who had consecrated themselves to God for a particular length of time by taking a special vow. During the time that they were consecrated or set apart for God’s service, Nazirites were to abstain from alcohol, to avoid coming into contact with dead bodies, and to refrain from cutting their hair (Num 6:1-21). At the conclusion of their time of consecration they would cut their hair and offer it to God in the form of a burnt-offering. However, Samson is not your run-of-the-mill Nazirite, rather he is to be a Nazirite from the day of his birth until the day of his death. Furthermore, he is completely consecrated to God by no choice of his own, but solely as the result of the will of God. This child on the way will surely be a remarkable figure. Towards the end of chapter thirteen, we are told that as he grew the Spirit of the Lord began to stir Samson (13:25). Previously in the book of Judges, the Spirit of the Lord often came upon judges when it was time for them to assemble an army to battle their oppressors, but here the Spirit raises up a one-man wrecking crew to battle the foe.5

After such a remarkable prologue, we enter into the details of Samson’s career with great expectations. How will this promised deliverer, who has been consecrated to the Lord, act to bring about the salvation of Israel? With bated breath we turn to chapter 14 and wait to hear the first words uttered by the boy after he has grown up . . . “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife” (14:2). What on earth is going on here? The one born to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines wants to intermarry with them! His parents quite reasonably object saying, “Come on now Samson. Isn’t there a good Zorahite girl you could set your sights on?” But Samson will not be talked out of it. He replies, “Get her for me. She’s the right one for me” (14:3). The narrator then tells us, “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” (14:4). The narrator’s comments frame the tension that runs throughout the rest of the Samson story. The LORD is looking for an occasion to confront the Philistines, but He seems to be the only one.6 Samson’s parents appear set on avoiding the Philistines at all costs. The people of Judah seem to be content in acquiescing to Philistine rule. In chapter fifteen, when Samson begins to stir things up with the Philistines following the implosion of his first marriage, the people of Judah come to him saying, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” (15:11). Furthermore, the only type of conquest over the Philistines that Samson seems to be concerned with is the kind that takes place in the bedroom!

Now, it is possible to see Samson standing in for the entire people of Israel at this point.7 Like the people of Israel, Samson was from birth set apart as holy to the Lord solely on the basis of God’s gracious election. Samson’s chasing after foreign women is reminiscent of the words of the prophets which repeatedly describe Israel as chasing after and prostituting itself to foreign gods (see Jer 3:3; Ez 16:1-34; Hos 1-4; Mic 1:7). After the people of Israel were miraculously rescued from Egypt, they immediately began to grumble and complain against Moses and the Lord at Meribah saying, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” (Ex 17:3). In a similar way, after the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson allowing him to miraculously overcome one thousand Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone as his only weapon, Samson immediately cried out, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” (15:18). Like Israel, who was set apart by God’s call for God’s purposes, but was constantly longing to be like the surrounding nations, Samson reveals the secret of his strength to Delilah saying, “No razor has ever been used on my head, because I have been a Nazirite set apart to God since birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man” (16:17). It is very difficult to discern why Samson revealed his secret to Delilah, in light of the fact that he surely knew she was going to betray him. Our best guess may perhaps be found in the words of Samson himself, namely that he longed to escape his divine calling and simply wanted to be like other men. However, as one commentator has observed, “a reluctant saint is a tragic saint.”8 Like Zedekiah, the last king of Judah who was blinded by the Babylonians and taken into exile (2 Kgs 25:7), Samson has his eyes put out by the Philistines and is led in chains to Gaza. In the story of Samson, we are presented in summary form with the story of Israel. This is hinted at right from the beginning of chapter 14 where Samson speaks of his desire for the woman of Timnah. In the NIV translation, Samson says in 14:3, “She’s the right one for me.” And then in 14:7 we are told that Samson “liked her.” Both of these phrases are translations of Hebrew constructions that could be more literally translated as “she was good in Samson’s eyes.”9 This resonates with the recurring refrain which characterizes the moral degeneracy and spiritual bankruptcy of God’s people at the end of the book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was good in their own eyes” (17:6, 21:25 – my paraphrase). However, this doing what is good in one’s own eyes is not limited to the people of Israel, it is, in fact, associated with the plight of all human beings. If we go back to to the book of Genesis, we see that it was doing what was good in one’s own eyes that brought about the initial calamity which introduced Sin and Death into the world. Following her conversation with the serpent about the forbidden fruit, we are told that “when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it” (3:6). In a sense then, Samson not only stands in for Israel, he also represents the common man and woman.

Samson lives out the counter-intuitive reality of the fallen human being. Doing what is right in his own eyes, results not in his freedom, but rather leads into bondage at the hands of the powerful Philistines. The situation is perhaps even more insidious with respect to the tribe of Judah in the Samson story. In doing what is right in their own eyes they have come to a place where they don’t even recognize that there is any problem with their bondage. They now simply take for granted that being ruled over by the Philistines is the normal state of affairs. The plight of Samson and the people of Judah point us toward the precarious plight of fallen humanity. In exercising our prerogative to do what is right in our own eyes, we simultaneously find ourselves in the deepest bondage to the powers that rule this world.

William Stringfellow was an Anglican layperson and lawyer. After graduating from the Harvard Law School, he opened up a practice in the African-American community of East Harlem where he served the poor and downtrodden. As he immersed himself in the Scriptures and sought to make sense of the daily struggles that his clients faced, he came to the startling realization that Death is the reigning power in our world today. Stringfellow writes, “Death is – apart from God himself – the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem to be for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers – the idol of idols – is death.”10

Now as the idol of idols, Death is sometimes worshiped outright. For example, we see this when a B1 Stealth Bomber flies over a football stadium to the roar of the crowd just before kick-off. Or when presidential candidates brag about carpet-bombing Syrians out of existence or torturing and assassinating the family members of ISIS. But more often than not Death exercises control over us in a more subtle way by drawing upon our fear of Death. The influence of our contemporary cultural fear of Death extends into all areas of our lives. It is evident in the way celebrations of life have come to replace the traditional Christian funeral service of death and resurrection. It is evident in the way we are willing to sacrifice our environment, the poor, and those of other countries to the whims of the market, the interests of multi-national corporations, and the geopolitical designs of the state so that we can continue to be free to shop, consume and do whatever seems good in our own eyes.

Our Western culture has seemingly inscribed as its greatest good the ability of everyone to do what seems right in their own eyes. Culturally, we call this freedom, but is actually nothing but slavery to what Pope John Paul II perceptively called “the culture of death.”11 Perhaps nowhere has this been clearer in recent days here in Canada then in the publication last week of the report prepared for Parliament by the Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying. The report makes 21 recommendations for how the Federal Government should address assisted suicide and euthanasia. Many of the recommendations are deeply disturbing. 12 Among them are recommendations that assisted-suicide should not be restricted to the terminally-ill and that it should be made available to those suffering from mental illnesses and, in some cases, to minors. While physicians who object to assisted suicide are not at this point expected to provide what the report euphemistically refers to as “medical assistance in dying,” they are expected to refer their patients to another physician who would be willing to help their patient end their life. In addition, all publicly funded institutions are expected to provide “physician-assisted dying” services. While these recommendations are deeply problematic for Christians, they also introduce real tensions into the self-understanding of the medical profession itself. Historically, the medical profession has been built upon the premise of saving lives. The ancient Hippocratic Oath, which remains influential in some circles, is often introduced by the summary statement, “First, do no harm!” But now doctors are expected to be agents of death. In our culture’s desire to create the space for everyone to dispose of their lives in a way that seems good in their own eyes, we stand in danger of creating a space where the most vulnerable may end up being sacrificed on the altar of Death.

Returning to our Bible passage for this morning, it is important to observe that the great-turning point of the Samson story occurs after the once-mighty hero has been blinded, bound, and subjected to mockery and humiliation. Perhaps it was the gouging out his eyes that liberated Samson from the desire to do what was right in his own eyes. Whereas before he had called upon God out of his fear of Death, Samson’s new prayer reveals that he is no longer afraid of dying, but is willing to give his life over to God in His service. It is in the midst of the Temple of Dagon that the once mighty warrior cries out to God for help. He has nothing left to offer, other than his broken, beaten, blinded self. But that is more than a formidable weapon in God’s hands. Following the collapse of the Philistine Temple, the narrator tells us, “Thus he killed many more when he died then when he lived” (16:30). The narrator can say “many more,” because the causalities include not only mortals, but also Dagon, the god of the Philistines.13

By the grace of God, Samson fulfilled his calling. And it is entirely by the grace of God, for even in his death Samson remains a rather ambiguous figure. Even his final prayer seems to remain contaminated by a selfish desire for personal vengeance (16:28). Furthermore, as the angel had promised, Samson only began to deliver the people of Israel from the Philistines. Full deliverance from the Philistine threat would have to wait until the days of King David and beyond that full deliverance from the regime of Death would have to wait until the arrival of David’s Son, the Messiah Jesus.

The story of the deliverer Samson, ultimately points us to the person of the True Deliverer. The true Israelite and the true human being, who did not do what was right in his own eyes, but rather lived from the freedom that can only be found in doing the will of the Father. The one who feared God, more than he feared Death. Our Champion, who in his strength handed himself over to be blindfolded and bound, mocked and ridiculed. Like Samson, he “worked as a strong man and suffered as a weak one.”14 However, in His dying he did more than topple over an inanimate statue and slay his thousands, in his dying He destroyed our death and in His rising he restored our life.15 As Samson, took the gates of Gaza upon his shoulders and carried them up the hill of Hebron; our Christ, in rising from the grave has shattered the impregnable defenses of Death and carried away the infernal gates.16 Samson toppled the god of the Philistines, but our Jesus drove out the prince of this world (Jn 12:31). Hear how the book of Hebrews describes the work of our pioneering Champion: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (2:14-15).

Delivered by our Champion from the fearsome reign of Death, we are now free to walk in the light of Life. We have been set free not only to oppose death-dealing legislation, but to embody in our life together the positive sign of life lived under the reign of the Lord of Life. Through his triumph over the grave and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, Christ is fashioning you, the people of Toronto Chinese Alliance Church, to be an outpost of the Kingdom of Life amidst a culture of Death.

The church has stood as a beacon of light and life in a darkened landscape wherever it has been true to its calling. In the first centuries of the church, the demographics of many congregations began to become dominated by women. This was a direct result of the church’s commitment to the Lord of Life. In the first century Roman world, as it still is in some parts of the world today, it was much more desirable to have a baby boy than a baby girl. So when parents arrived at the city dumps to abandon their unwanted baby girls so that they would die of exposure, the Christians were there to take them in and raise them as their own. In the Middle Ages, Christian monasteries began to bear witness to the Kingdom of Life by opening what at that time they referred to as “hôtel-Dieu” or “hostels of God.” The sick and the poor, refugees and travelers, were all welcomed to these hostels where they were able to receive medical care. Today we call the descendants of these institutions hospitals. In the 20th century, Dame Cicily Saunders, an Anglican nurse played a key role in the birth of the hospice movement which focused on providing care for the chronically and terminally ill. Today the palliative care movement stands as the major alternative to physician assisted suicide.

You too are called to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of Life and it starts right here at the Table of the Lord. Just as Samson, pulled honey from of the carcass of the lion and presented it to his mother and father (14:8-9), our Lord Jesus Christ has snatched life from the jaws of death and set a meal before his family. He tells us his broken body is food, his poured out blood is drink. In other words his death brings us life. In a world of death-determined scarcity, there is always enough for everyone at the table of the One who multiplied the loaves and fishes (Mt 14:13-21). Whereas the politicians appearing on the twenty-four hour news cycle of CNN and Fox News speak of destroying and dividing people from one another, the King of Life invites all people to his Table in anticipation of the day when many will come from the east and the west and take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God (Mt 8:11). Each time we receive the bread and raise the cup we are given a foretaste of the great wedding banquet of the Lamb (Rev 19:9), when the Lord will prepare a feast of rich food for all people, when every tear will be wiped away and death will be swallowed up for ever (Isa 25:6-8). Jesus tells us that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” but he has come that we “may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). For he is the bread of life that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (Jn 6:32-33). So as we come to the Table, let us “lift up the cup of salvation” (Ps 116:13) and say, “Cheers to our Champion!” Amen.

  1.  Barry G. Webb, “A Serious Reading of the Samson Story (Judges 13-16),” Reformed Theological Review 54, no. 3 (September 1995): 110.
  2. Joseph R. Jeter Jr., Preaching Judges (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2003), 101.
  3. Charles Spurgeon, “Our Champion (1906),” Spurgeon’s Sermons, vol. 52, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  4.  Barry G Webb, The Book of Judges (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2012), 350.
  5. John H Walton, Victor Harold Matthews, and Mark W Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 567.
  6.   Barry G. Webb, The Book of the Judges an Integrated Reading (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 163.
  7.  “The story of Samson is the story of Israel recapitulated and focused for us in the life of a single man.” Webb, “A Serious Reading ,” 116.
  8. Ibid., 119
  9. Most of the commentators make this observation.
  10. William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (repr. 1973; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 81.
  11. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae. In The Encyclicals of John Paul II, edited by J. Michael Miller, CSB., (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1996), 791-894.
  12. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have been important advocates for life throughout the process and are continuing to coordinate and make available important resources for Christians.  Also worth reading is McGill theologian Douglas Farrow’s “Canadian Culture of Death: An Open Letter.”
  13. Webb, “A Serious Reading,” 118.
  14.  Caesarius of Arles, quoted in John R Franke and Thomas C Oden, eds., Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005), 163.
  15. This is an echo of the memorial acclamation used in some Eucharistic liturgies.
  16. This is a recurring typological interpretation in the Christian tradition of the story of Samson carrying the gates of Gaza. See for example, Charles Spurgeon, “Our Champion”; and Gregory the Great, quoted in Franke and Oden, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 158.

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