Samson is the last in the history of the judges, a period during which the Lord was proving His people as to their ability to trust in Him for government, without any established order.
They had continually failed, and in consequence had become tributaries to those whom they ought to have driven out. There is no neutral place for the people of God. They must either be above the world, testifying against it for God, or they must be servants to it. If Israel be not sustained by God above the nations, they are led away captive by the nations ; they can never exist as equals ; they must be either victors or slaves. Slavery was God's chastening on them for not being victors ; the Lord was not with them. When they departed from the Lord they were weaker than the nations. A Christian is always weaker than the world if he be out of communion, because he has lost the source of his strength, and therefore he is easily baffled by the world, which assails him with all its varied influences.
Judges were raised up by the Lord to deliver the people from their enemies, when they felt their sin in departing from Him, according as He required them to feel it.
The people of Israel at the time of the birth of Samson had been under the hand of the Philistines for forty years, the longest term of captivity which they had endured during the time of the judges. To deliver them from this protracted bondage Samson is raised up, and because it was the last and the severest during this eventful period, we are told not only the manner of the birth of the deliverer, but the mind and expectations of his parents previous to his birth.
Samson must be a " Nazarite to God from the womb." In order to be a deliverer of the people of God from the subjugation into which they had fallen through unholy association, he must be entirely separate from all enjoyments among them. His mother is taught this, and trains him up accordingly. Our early training and the associations which surround us have a peculiar and continuous effect on us in after life. Samson was a Nazarite, but he grew up in acquaintance and intimacy with the Philistines; consequently he never seems to be aware of the great moral contrast which should exist between a Nazarite and a Philistine. Much of this sort of ignorance and want of perception we see among Christians in our own day. There is often an approval of individual Nazariteship, while intercourse and association with the world continues.
Thus Samson's first act recorded (judges 14: 1) is an attempt to form a union where there could be no union. His father and mother cannot understand it, and we read, " they knew not that it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines."
Mark! it was not the union that was of the Lord, but the intended antagonism to the Philistines ; not the means, but the end. Union according to God there could not be. On the contrary, in any attempted union where the elements are much opposed, the differences are the more fully exposed. The means Samson proposed was no divine way; but the intention was divine, while the means were manifestly human, and consequently the marriage is interrupted, while the divine intention is fully answered. It is a great thing to start with a right intention, for if it be of God, sooner or later it must be accomplished, though necessarily at the expense of all that which self has mixed up with it.
Moses desired to deliver his people from Egypt, but when he first attempted it he trusted to resources of his own, and he failed ; but eventually he succeeded gloriously through the power of God. In like manner Peter was ready to die for the Lord, which he eventually did; but how much humbling had he to pass through before he reached the realisation of his desire!
The Lord teaches in such a way and after such a manner that the human element is set aside, and His own power is fully vindicated in us. This truth is beautifully exemplified in the part of Samson's history which we are about to consider. " Samson went down to Timnath, and came to the vineyards of Timnath: and, behold, a young lion roared against him. And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand." Here the Lord teaches him that it is not by an unholy alliance with the world, but by downright opposition to it, that he must overcome, and he practically reaches this in the end.
The truth which grows out of this lesson (a " riddle " to the world) breaks up the marriage, and sends Samson forth in open hostility against the Philistines. Let us consider this discipline a little more minutely. Samson, as we have seen, starts with a right intention ; but, in consequence of natural association with the Philistines, from which he judicially suffered, he attempts to marry a daughter of these uncircumcised people ; but just as he reaches the place where he is to consummate his plan a young lion roars against him. Now God in this way appears to teach him that God's Spirit can enable him to overcome the direct foe without any intervention, for he had " nothing in his hand," much more without any human plan of unsanctified union. Unaided, Samson confronts this terrible foe, and succeeds so completely that through God he " rent him as he would have rent a kid." What a moment that was! A moment when it is a struggle for life or death! How necessary for the heart to believe in the power of the living God in the dark valley of death to know His power in delivering us from the jaws of the lion!,, Such a moment ought to have been to Samson an earnest of the nature of his mission, as the Vision on the road to Damascus was to Paul all his life long, for he was to be a minister and a witness of the things which he had seen, and of " those things in which I will appear unto thee." The character of our first acquaintance with God properly indicates the line He desires to sustain us in our course down here.
But Samson was slow to learn; and, untaught by this marvellous instruction, he pursues his own plan, enters into a contract, and in due time returns for the purpose of ratifying it. In doing so he must repass the spot where he had known such signal deliverance, and which was to yield still further instruction for him if he would but give heed to it. Turning aside to contemplate his conquered foe, he finds honey in the carcase of the lion, and shares it with his parents who knew not from whence it came. This gives rise to the riddle which Samson knew, but could not apply to his own circumstances. Alas! how often is this the case with us, and how much sorrow does our wilfulness entail on us, because we do not receive the word in faith, as adapted to ourselves ; for it is evident that we never adopt any truth practically unless we are convinced of its suitability to our own circumstances ; nor, I believe, does the Lord intend us to use it until we be thus convinced. And this explains why we are so often permitted to persist in our own plans, after we have learned truth, which, if truly received, would supersede them altogether by casting us distinctly on God. The secret of our strength with God must ever be a riddle to nature. The power made known to Samson was a perfect mystery to the Philistines.
Samson in propounding his riddle shewed the great separation and uncongeniality of mind between the Philistines and himself, and his intended wife is in the same moral distance. A union attempted under such circumstances must issue, as it does here, in the cause of the Philistines being preferred to that of her acknowledged lord. Her devotion to him gives way before the fear of her own people, who threaten her with ruin unless she betrays him. Had she but clung to him as she ought to have done in true devotion, he would inevitably have saved her from the catastrophe she dreaded ; but failing to do this, she betrays the one she ought to have suffered for. A sad and true picture of Christendom, and with a voice to each of us! Samson is betrayed by the one whom he most trusted, and where naturally he least expected treachery ; but the Lord turns it into blessing, and the marriage is interrupted. He must relinquish it in order to pay the penalty to which he had subjected himself by the disclosure of his secret to the Philistine. Thus the conflict with the lion in the way had at last worked out what God had purposed it should with regard to Samson, who had been so slow to learn it, when he ought to have done so. The riddle " out of the eater came forth meat " -that is, the truth revealed to Samson through that conflict-was the eventful cause of his unholy alliance being broken off, while the divine intention which he had proposed to himself by the union was ratified by the rupture of it. The Philistines now use the knowledge of God's secret which they have acquired unjustly, and this justifies him, empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, to render a righteous recompense to them. First, Samson goes down to Ashkelon, slays thirty of them, takes the spoil, and gives the promised change of garments to those who had expounded the riddle. And afterwards, in consequence of their unjust disposal of his wife, he lets loose three hundred foxes with firebrands in the midst between their tails, and bums up all the standing corn, the vineyards, and the olives. Samson's mistakes are mercifully counteracted, and true service wrought by him. The debt, which the Philistines had made him liable to by unrighteous means, is paid by retribution on themselves. So should it be now with the servant of Christ. As Christendom has unrighteously acquired the divine secret, and thereon founds its claim to be the church of God, he should avenge, in true spiritual conflict, all the false acquisitions which the world has appropriated from the word of God. This is very peculiar discipline. The servant finds himself in association with Christendom which is avowedly in possession of God's truth, which to the natural man is a riddle, and which is only used by him for carnal purposes, and to resist the claim on those who possess the reality. Now by means of this very truth, the true servant not only discharges the unjust claim, but in doing so draws the line of separation between himself and the mere professor.
The second exploit, occasioned by Samson's wife being given to his friend, excites the Philistines to greater violence and they wreak their vengeance, not on Samson, but on the one who had betrayed him and her father's house, which they burn with fire-the very fate which she had so feared, and the threat of which had caused her to act unfaithfully to Samson; this teaches us that whatever we seek to escape from, through unbelief and unrighteousness - is sure to be our eventual doom. We may escape from it for a moment, but our escape is, after all, the sure road to it. This act, however, increases Samson's right of vengeance, and we read, he " smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter: and he went down and dwelt in the top of the rock Etam."
Samson had now, after varied exercises and trying services, become such an eminent foe to the Philistines, that they muster their forces and demand his life. When the servant of God will give no quarter to the world, and they can in no wise circumvent him, then their open hostility will burst forth. The same spirit that in all its malignity cried against the Lord, " Crucify him, crucify him! " now in the Philistines seeks the life of Samson: and Judah, that tribe from which Shiloh should come, manifests towards him the same lack of godly principle which afterwards characterised them when they delivered the Lord Jesus to Pilate. " Three thousand men of Judah went to the top of the rock Etam, and said to Samson, Knowest thou not that the Philistines are rulers over us? what is this that thou hast done unto us? ... And they said unto him, We are come down to bind thee, that we may deliver thee into the hand of the Philistines." What a trying moment to Samson! his purposes and acts to be so little appreciated by his own people, on whose behalf he had fought. How similar (only in untold moral distance) to Him of whom it is said, " He came unto his own, and his own received him not." What peculiar sorrow must the true servant endure from those he is serving most earnestly! To be disowned and condemned as useless after having wrought the most signal service is a very bitter trial; but Samson is equal to it. And still further, in the power of God and the gentleness of His grace, he will not touch his own people, however ungracious to him, but only engages them solemnly that they will not fall upon him themselves. Notwithstanding this, they bind him and bring him down from the rock. And the Philistines shouted against him, and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were about his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and he took it, and slew a thousand men therewith.
Now mark! Samson had been delivered from both association with and subjection to the Philistines, and had retreated to the rock Etam in Judah as at once Israel's deliverer and the Philistines' terror ; but Judah is unbelieving and delivers him over to the enemy. This leads to the manifestation of Samson's power and his right or title to judge Israel, which is noted in the last verse of this chapter. He has now reached the position which he was appointed to fill and which the Spirit was leading him through many exercises to occupy.
We must not omit to notice the conclusion of the above manifestation and victory. After he had by means of a jawbone laid heaps upon heaps, and sung in ecstasy of soul after his work, he threw away the jawbone, and then his own personal wants afflict him. " He was sore athirst." Great services for others will not supply the soul's necessities, which can only be supplied from the Lord. However brilliant our services our own souls will famish unless directly sustained by the Lord, for mere service never sustains. On the contrary, the greater the service the more shall we be conscious of our own necessity and dependence on God for personal support. The greatest service will not supply one drop of relief to the weary soul. From God alone that must come. And thus in answer to Samson's cry God relieves him, and he calls the name of the place En-hakkore, " the well of him that called." He commemorates, not his service, but his dependence on God ; and now that he is proved in dependence, as well as in service, it is recorded that Samson judged Israel twenty years.
We may now pause in the narrative to review this early stage of Samson's history in the double light which it appears to bear. We have seen that his projected union with a Philistine was an unholy alliance, and that God had to discipline him in order to teach him its unsuitability, and we have traced the discipline. This is true regarding him as an Israelite and a Nazarite, but I think the action also bears another aspect, which appears in the words, " they knew not that it was of the Lord," that is, that it was almost a necessary consequence of the judicial position to which he was born liable, even that of subjection to and association with the uncircumcised. Though a Nazarite, he was on account of the condition of the nation exposed to this corrupt association and was responsible for it; and while, on the one hand, he is taught to deliver himself from it, on the other he is allowed to propose a union which was an admission of the liability entailed on him but which he personally had no part in creating. This union was not allowed because in itself unholy, but the proposition answers the double purpose in the instruction of God ; on the one hand being an admission of the consequences of the nation's sin, and on the other an opportunity for Samson, through God's power and training, to extriccate himself from it and to become the deliverer of His people. In the same sense a man is born into the world liable to the penalty of Adam's sin before he has committed any act of sin. So in Israel. So in the church. Each one is liable to all the forfeitures and penalties as well as the privileges attaching to the whole, and he cannot assume the privileges without discharging the liabilities which are the real impediments to the enjoyment of the privileges. This was Cain's mistake; in offering a meat offering he assumed the position of a man acceptable to God before he had answered to the penalties on him because of sin. The same principle holds good in the church. We must bear its ruin as well as assume its privileges and dignities.
But the man of strength must not lie under these consequences without an effort to avenge the wrong and to extricate himself, his kindred, and his people. He repudiates nothing to which he is justly liable, but neither does he increase the embarrassments by contributing personally to the moral failure of his people. Consequently Samson was a Nazarite from his birth, and for that very reason was the only one suited to take the place of servant and deliverer. In a word, while personally separate, he admitted the judicial alliance between Israel and the Philistines by proposing affinity with one of their nation. Incongruous it was, but so much is first allowed in order that Samson, the man of strength, might avow Israel's humiliated position, and no more is necessary or sanctioned in the counsels of God. A righteous ground is soon found for preventing the alliance and emancipating the people from the bondage of their oppressors. By fair conflict he reaches the rock Etam, and there established as deliverer of the people he judges them twenty years.
This is the first epoch in Samson's history. The second is how he again became mixed up with the Philistines on a lower level and how he suffered for it. In the first we have seen how he sought an alliance only for an occasion, and how wondrously he was helped and raised up to be judge of the people ; but now, seeking association for mere natural desire, although his strength acts when he repents, yet he never after resumes his position at Etam as judge of Israel, and this has a distinct voice to us. If we own the ruin of the church with the purpose to discharge the liabilities thereby saddled on us, we shall be helped righteously in freeing ourselves from them, but if we return to the association in " the great house," for which we have felt responsible and for which we have answered, we are sure to be involved therein, and though afterwards we may do individual acts of valour, yet we shall never again be able to resume the position of witness for God or deliverer of His people.
Samson went down to Gaza (chap. 16), and saw there a harlot and went in unto her. Here he renews the unholy association and yet he is made aware of the Philistines' machinations against him and is enabled in a marvellous way to defeat them, for " he arose at midnight, and took the doors of the gate of the city, and went away with them, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders, and carried them up to the top of the hill which is before Hebron." Surely this was a warning to Samson, though with a marked deliverance. How often does the soul recover from the first step backwards in a very remarkable manner with great evidence of strength, though it be only at midnight, that is, there may not be so much testimony as a great deliverance. Paul's going to Jerusalem is an example of such a retrograde step ; and at midnight, too, escorted by Roman soldiers, he outwits and escapes his enemies. Blessed indeed when such discipline leads the soul (as it did with Paul) to avoid such association again! But Samson refuses to learn, and we next read, " He loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, and her name was Delilah." This introduces us to the most pitiable and humiliating incident in the life of any of God's servants. No amount of treachery on the part of Delilah (who is the world in type-a combination of allurement and malice) can awaken Samson to the real character of her to whom he has allied himself Where must have been his sensibilities when he could keep up the closest intimacy with one who sought his confidence in order to work out his ruin? At first he does not confide in her, and while he retains his reserve and keeps his divine secret he is safe, however humbling his position as a mighty man to be in the hands of a false woman. Truly, when we see how the strongest may be deceived, and so far that the most palpable proofs will not disabuse their minds of the fearful spell, we may say, " let no man glory in his strength." Great is the mercy of our God, who, even in a downward course, guards us to the furthest possible point. Samson is always victorious until he communicates the secret of his strength-the mark of his Nazariteship and separation to God; but the moment he betrays this he has relinquished the source of his strength, he has lost his mark as God's servant-one that it was not for uncircumcised ears to know of. As long as this mark remained, God succoured and honoured him. We often find that God supports His servant who retains the secret of separation, even though he may be lured by natural attractions ; but when this mark is relinquished He succours no longer. There is but a small step between the allurements of the world and its deadly wrong. And so was it with Samson. Yielding first to allurement, he next surrenders the mark of separation, and is finally delivered into the hands of the Philistines and his eyes put out. What a picture of every servant of God who pursues a like course, and thus becomes a " withered branch " and a prey to the ungodly world! What bitter, painful discipline Samson must now undergo! Bound in fetters of brass, he " grinds in the prison house "-the effect of his own self-will and surrender of his true place of separation. In the prison his hair begins to grow again ; the mark of separation is renewed, but his eyes are gone! A solemn truth for us! The mark is restored and strength is active, but only in death is its power seen.
Now as practically by the death of Christ all foes of every shade have been overcome, so the death-scene alone remains as a place of testimony for a servant like Samson, who has sunk with eyes open into the unholy association which he once so much opposed and which he had renounced when restored in heart. When the hair has grown, the only spot or place of testimony for him is death-death to himself openly and practically, and it is in it he manifests that God is with him. The restored Nazarite is one who proves his repentance by the completeness of his self-surrender, he dies : it is not " hair " that marks him, but death. Samson died with the wicked, but in the last wrench-that terrible judgment laid on man because of sin-Samson glorified God, for he " slew more in his death than in his life." The true epitaph this of every soul which has learned the power of Christ's death, for there the conqueror overcomes every foe, even him who has the power of death, to the praise and glory of God, and teaches us that as death is the only correction or cure of the lusts of the flesh, it is the servant's greatest help against the flesh, and hence we who are His are already delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, etc.
Such is the end of Samson. A man unequalled in strength, and most valiant in using it: an end, humbling indeed to the flesh, but glorifying to God as vindicating His unerring wisdom and discipline with His servants. May we all learn to walk more separate, to preserve our Nazariteship, if we would be witnesses for our Lord and preserved from the oppression of the world! And may we learn from Samson's history, on the one hand, how easily we are led to surrender it when we once fall into association with the world, and, on the other, how though our testimony may have been marred by failure, we may yet glorify God, if in the calmness and steadiness in which we carry about in our body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus may be manifest in our body.