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Samson the man of God

Judges 16:4-22

After this Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah,  who lived in the valley of Sorek.   The Philistine chiefs called on her,  wanting her to coax from him the secret of his great strength,  and how he might be captured and bound.   "If you do this for us,  we'll each give you eleven hundred silver shekels."

So she asked Samson:  "Tell me where your great strength comes from  -  what it would take to bind you and make you captive."   He replied:  "If I were tied up with seven new bowstrings I'd lose my strength and be like any other man."   The Philistines brought her the bowstrings and she tied him up with them.   She had men hidden in another room,  and she called out:  "The Philistines have come for you,  Samson!"   He snapped the bowstrings just as a thread breaks when fire touches it.   So they remained ignorant of the secret of his strength.

She said to him, "Look,  you're playing games with me,  you're lying to me.   Now tell me how you can be tied up."   So he told her,  "If they bind me with new ropes that have never been used,  I'll be as helpless as anybody else."   So Delilah tied him with new ropes.   Then she called out:  "The Philistines have come for you,  Samson!"   And the men were lying in wait in the other room.   But he snapped the ropes off his arms like thread.

Delilah said to Samson, "You are still making fun of me,  telling me lies.   Tell me how you can be bound!"   "Well,"  he said,  "if you weave my seven locks of hair into a loom,  and fasten them with a peg,  I'll be as weak as other men."   She soothed him to sleep,  took his locks of hair and wove them into the loom,  and then shouted:  "The Philistines have come for you,  Samson!"   But he woke up and pulled his hair loose.   Delilah said to him,  "How can you say you love me when you obviously don't trust me?   Three times now you have you have made a fool of me!"

She kept on at him day after day.   He got so sick of her nagging that in the end he told her the truth:  "No razor has ever touched my head,  because I have been a Nazirite,  dedicated to God from birth.   If my head were shaved my strength would leave me and I would be no different from others."

Delilah realised that this time he had told her the truth.   She summoned the Philistines one more time.   They came bringing the money.   She lulled Samson to sleep in her lap,  and called in a man to cut off his seven locks of hair  -  and his strength left him.   Then she called out:  "The Philistines have come for you,  Samson!"   He awoke from sleep,  imagining he could get loose and escape as always before.   He did not realise that Yahweh had turned away from him.   The Philistines seized him,  gouged out his eyes,  and took him down to Gaza.   They shackled him with bronze chains,  and put him to work turning the mill in the prison.  

But the hair that had been shorn off began to grow again.



The story of Samson has caught the attention of a great many artists,  dramatists and musicians.   Handel composed an oratorio on the life of Samson.   Rembrandt painted the scene of Samson's wedding feast,  and Milton turned the story into a great dramatic poem.   But my favourite picture of Samson is one of those big Victorian narrative paintings,  done by a man with the biblical name of John Solomon.

The moment Solomon has chosen is Samson's horrified discovery that while he has slept in Delilah's lap his hair has been shorn away.   He has lost his amazing strength and he's helpless among his enemies.   In the painting Delilah crouches against a wall,  bare-breasted,  black-haired.   There's a half-terrified,  half-triumphant smile on her face as she holds out the shorn locks of her lover's hair.   On the opposite side of the picture a door is swinging open and armed soldiers pour into the room.   One frightened fellow crawls away on the floor,  still clutching a pair of scissors.   He's the barber,  and he only wishes he was out of it all.

But the centre of the picture is filled with the sight of six brawny men struggling to contain Samson himself with ropes twisted around his huge chest and thighs.   Samson is kneeling on a tumbled couch,  his head pulled back by a clutching hand,  at the moment before his final collapse.   His eyes are fastened on Delilah,  as though he's quite unaware of the physical struggle going on around him.   His face shows an agony of love and accusation:  how could you have done this?

It's quite a scene.   But there's one thing missing.   It's worked out entirely in human terms;  the tragedy of a human relationship broken and betrayed.   The hero,  already in the toils of the Philistines,  has all the painter's sympathy;  and he delights in the creation of a vengeful,  triumphant temptress.   There is no sense whatever of the majestic operation of God's providence found in the Bible story:  'Then Samson arose from sleep thinking  "I shall break free as I did before,  and shake myself clear."   But he did not know that Yahweh had turned away from him.'

Behind the man Samson stands the tremendous figure of God,  working out the salvation of Israel through the life of a human being.   There are constant reminders of this other dimension to the story.   When Samson confronts a lion,  we're told  'the spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily'.   When he shocks his parents with the decision to take a Philistine wife,  the writer remarks  'But his father and his mother did not know that it was from the Lord,  who was seeking an occasion against the Philistines'.

We can no longer take this old Hebrew view that God intervenes directly in human history,  picking a quarrel with the Philistines through Samson so as to get into a fight and destroy them.   The cost in human terms seems too high.   And I find it hard to reconcile this Philistine-hating God with the universal love which Jesus declared was the true nature of his Father.   But we miss out too much altogether,  if like the Victorian painter we only see human beings left on their own to hurt and betray and hate each other.

I see Samson as just such a human being.   A proud,  self-willed,  passionate man;  a mixture of folly and extraordinary greatness.   Yet a man who mysteriously served God's will for his world.

Of course we're no Samsons.   He was larger than life,  bigger in triumph and disaster than we'll ever be.   But the deepest word of this ancient story can be as true for us as it was for Samson.   If life is anything more than a murderous battle for survival,  with sex and greed and racial hatred and self-interest to drive us on,  then that's because God works his loving purposes through us,  now and in every generation.   We get all mixed up.   We're carried away by fits of passion.   Our lives make strange,  crooked patterns.   It's often hard to see the sense in them.

But that's how it was for Samson and all the others in his life story.   And faith declares confidently that he was God's servant,  God's man.

  © Colin Gibson



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