Hello. My name is Samson.2 My name means “little sun.”3 I can tell from the looks on some of your faces that you recognize my name. I’m not surprised. After all, when I lived here on earth I was anything but “little.” I was a larger than life legend. I was not a “little sun,” I was an enormous sun. I had a bright and glorious future. I was the most famous man in the world. Everyone knew the name of Samson. And they spoke it with respect. They had to. I was the strongest man who ever lived. If I was on earth today, you’d not only admit me into your Olympics, but you’d have to set up a special category for me. Because I’m the strongest man of all time—bar none. What? You think I’m exaggerating? Overstating my case a little bit? Well, let me tell you the facts and you decide whether my claim is true or not.
As a young man, I fell in love with the wrong kind of woman.4 She was not of my people.5 The woman was a Philistine who lived in Timnah. She was an unbeliever. Yet, the moment I laid eyes on her, I fell in love…or should I say I fell in lust. I knew I had to have her. I told my parents, “Get her for me, she looks good to me.”6 Naturally, my parents were concerned with my decision to marry an unbeliever, but I was a strong-willed child so I eventually broke them down.7 In order to make arrangements for the wedding I had to travel to Timnah. The journey to Timnah was dangerous; rocks and bushes were scattered across the hilly terrain. There were countless perfect hiding spaces for bandits. But I was a bit distracted because I was thinking of my wedding night and honeymoon. Even though I kept scanning the horizon looking for danger, I was not prepared for what happened. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something worse than a bandit—I saw a golden blur flying out from behind some boulders toward me. It was a lion!8 But this lion was not the kind of lion that you’re familiar with. You know, the caged excuse for an animal that sits around all day and eats at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when someone throws him dead meat. Not that kind of a lion. I mean a real lion…a young lion. One who’s learned to think on his feet and to live by its wits. A lion whose body has been honed by constant action and constant killing. One with jaws so strong that it can snap the bones of an animal just like that (snap fingers).
Anyway, this lion suddenly lets loose a roar and launches itself through the air toward me. What would you have done at that instant? Freeze? Cry for your mother? Make a mess? Do you know what I did? Without a moment’s hesitation, as the lion leapt toward me ready for the kill, I bent down and grabbed it from underneath. And as it passed over me I grabbed hold of each end and began pulling. You could hear the cracking of bones and the ripping of sinew and then, suddenly, there was the lion at the side of the road…in two parts. I stood in awe of my own handiwork. And when the carcass stopped twitching, I knew that I was really the strongest man who ever lived.
Still doubt my claim? Still not sure I was the strongest man who ever lived? Let me give you another example, and you can make up your own mind. When I lived here on earth, the Philistines were Israel’s number one enemy. They brutalized and oppressed my people. They had large armies, state of the art weapons, and a thirst for blood. They knew that I was only one the only one who stood between them and their quest for total domination of Israel. So one day the Philistine commanders came to the elders of an Israelite town and said to them: “Give us Samson or we will kill you all!” So a delegation of 3,000 Israelite men came to me and said, “Samson, we don’t want to turn you over to the Philistines—we know that they intend to kill you, but what choice do we have? It’s either you or us. I said to them, “Guys, no worries. I'll take care of myself. The Philistines have no idea who their messing with. What I want you to do is to tie me up with two new ropes.” Not the kind of ropes that you are thinking of! Not binder twine. Not that skimpy yellow stuff you use around the house. I'm talking about rope, real hemp rope. The rope as thick as your arm that is used in seaports to tie up the oceangoing vessels. I told my countrymen: “Tie me up with two new ropes and hand me over to the Philistines.” My Israelite brothers expressed great concern for me, but I told them to trust me and to hand me over to the Philistines. They did so.
My countrymen placed me at the end of a field and a group of thousands of Philistine warriors were waiting for me at the other end of the field. As soon as my countrymen took off, the Philistine army began running toward me. Every soldier wanted to be the man to kill the great Samson. As they came, I just stood there standing bound and helpless before them. As an army of men ran toward me the ground beneath my feet shook like an earthquake. They kept coming faster and faster, their war cry filling the air. When they were about two-thirds of the way down the field, I took my stance. As I began to press against the ropes, I could feel the God’s Spirit come upon me. And those new hemp ropes? They became like charred flax. I snapped them as if they were burnt thread. When the Philistines leading the charge saw what I had done to those ropes, they were not quite as eager to claim their glory. They began to express a new willingness to share their anticipated glory. In fact, they became consummate gentleman and let other men go first. The problem was, however, that the soldiers further back had not seen the ropes snap, and they weren’t stopping. The ones at the back were still running as fast as they could. Before I knew it, soldiers were bouncing off of each other and falling to the ground. There was a melee of confusion.
I took full advantage of this situation and began walking towards the dazed men. Of course, I immediately realized that I didn't have a weapon. How typical! Why is it that the Philistines always have all the good weapons? I began to frantically look around for anything that I could use. Lo and behold, I found a dead donkey. As I kicked at the donkey carcass in frustration, I realized that it was relatively fresh. The teeth were still in the jawbone! So I picked it up and began to use the donkey's jawbone as a sword. As the soldiers enveloped me I went wild. Spinning one way and then another Going low one moment and swinging high the next. As I danced my deadly dance, Philistines began to scream…and die! When the dust finally settled that afternoon, a thousand Philistines lay dead, and the others were running for their lives. I overcame any human odds!
Still not sure I was the strongest man that ever lived? Still need more evidence? I’ll give you one more story. One day I decided to go to Gaza, a Philistine city on the seacoast (16:1–3). I was looking for a woman so I disguised myself well and began to mingle with the people who filled the busy streets. As I began to relax in my supposedly anonymity, I saw a drop-dead lady of the night. I liked what I saw so I paid money and slept with her.9 In the middle of the night, when I was finished, I prepared to leave. But then I recognized that the men of Gaza had identified me. They were going to wait for reinforcements and try to prevent me from leaving their city. It was relatively easy for them to do this. Gaza, like all Philistine cities, was surrounded by large walls. Walls higher than you could throw a stone over and wide enough to ride a chariot on. These were huge stone walls built with the strength they needed to keep enemies out. The gate was considered the strength of the city. And this one was strong all right. It went from the ground up to the top of those walls. It was made of solid hardwood, six feet thick, and was mounted with solid bronze hinges to huge post driven ten to fifteen feet in the ground. As if that were not enough, the entire structure was reinforced with bronze bars. It was immense! No one could leave the city once the gate was shut. The Philistines knew I would be trapped.
I began to suspect something was up in the middle of the night as I began to make my way back home. As I walked through the streets I saw people looking out their windows and whispering: “We have him! At long last Samson is ours!” As I turned the corner and saw those massive gates shut and locked, the plan of the city fathers became obvious. They had me trapped like a lion in the cage (or to they thought). I don’t know what you might have done in that situation. Try to hide, maybe? Try to pick the lock? Scale the wall? That wasn’t my style. That’s not Samson. I didn’t quiver in fear. I walked straight and boldly right through town until I came to the main gate. I stood in the courtyard for a moment and then turned around to make sure everyone knew who I was. Then I walked up to those gates. I spat on my hands, bent down, and grabbed hold of the reinforcing bar. Boy, I was glad they put it there! It made a great handle. Then I began to pull…harder and harder. As I pulled, I began to feel the inner warmth of God’s Spirit as He began to course through my body. As I pulled harder and harder the supernatural heat spiked with intensity. I began to hear creeks, and then groaning, and finally the snapping of timbers as the gate came wrenching right out of the ground. A lesser man might have just dropped it on the ground and walked away. But I decided that would not be humiliating enough. So I lifted the gate up on my shoulder and carried it to the top of that hill twenty–eight miles away and dropped it there. They could go get a team of forces and pull it back if they wanted to, but it wasn't good enough for me just to escape from that town. I wanted to embarrass them. That was the strength of their city and I stole it. I am the strongest man that ever lived. No question. No argument.
What bothers me, however, is that when people like you remember me, they think of me only as a strong man not a great man. And I could have been great. I should have been great. Even my birth was special. It was announced by the angel of the Lord. By God Himself! I was His gift to a barren couple and to a nation in distress. The angel told my parents: “You are going to have a son—a son with a mission in life. The purpose of his life is to set Israel free from the Philistines.” My mission was clear; my path of life had been laid out in front of me. Then the angel of the Lord went on: “The only thing you need to know, the only thing that he must remember, is that he must be raised as and live like a Nazirite.” What makes a Nazirite so special? Three simple rules.10 My mom told them to me over and over again when I was growing up. Parents are like that sometimes.
My problem was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of obedience. Remember how I told you about my visit to Timnah for my upcoming wedding? Well, I had to make another trip back to set things in order. But this was no easy task. Timnah was quite a distance and the terrain was difficult. As I made the trip, I felt like my stomach was eating away at itself. I may be the world’s strongest man, but I am still a man, and I have a ravenous appetite. Finally, I came to the spot in the road where I ripped the lion and a half. I decided to take a look at the damage I did. Bees had made hives right there in the carcass. There was honey! All I could see was food! I didn’t even think, I just plunged my hand into the heart of the hive and pulled out some honeycomb. I can tell you that nothing had ever tasted sweeter!
There I was eating at home with honey dripping down my arms and all over my beard into my mouth and I felt good. You know how when you finally get food, how wonderful that sugar rushes? You can feel the strength just coursing through your body again! Now I knew that I could make the rest of my journey. And then I remembered… I remembered what my mother had said and what the angel of the Lord had said…that I wasn’t to touch any unclean thing. And I realize that by doing this I had touched a carcass and broken my vow. I waited and looked at the sky for lightning to come or God to swallow me with an earthquake or…but nothing happened. Hmmm…maybe my parents were wrong. Nothing happened. Maybe sin isn’t that serious.
I went on and arrived at Timnah and we threw the world’s greatest wedding and bachelor’s party. Of course, all the Philistine guys are checking me out. You know what that’s like. They want to see if I’m a real man, and I’m trying to prove that I’m one of the guys. And you know, I’m a man’s man, and everyone else is pounding it back. What’s one Philistine beer? So I knocked one back and suddenly I realized that I had broken the second Nazirite vow.
I looked around, wondering if God would hit me with a fireball. What would be the consequences of my sin? I didn’t pause for quite as long this time. I wasn’t quite as afraid, but still I wondered what God would do. And you know what He did? Nothing! Nothing at all! I began to think that maybe all this sin talk was overblown. After all, the first two vows were broken and nothing happened. Life just went on. Not with that woman, by the way. Things didn't work out. There’s another story there. A lot of dead Philistines at the end of that story too. But life went on. Without a serious girlfriend.
Then one day I thought I had met the answer to my prayers. I met the woman of my dreams. She had black hair, olive skin, and eyes that could just melt you. Boy, could she fill a dress! This was a woman! Her name was… Delilah.11 She was the perfect woman; she had everything a man could ever want. You couldn’t imagine anything else. Except for one little thing… she was perfect except… she was a nag. She was easy on the eyes, but she was a nag! When she got something under her skin, she just kept going and going and going until she got it. And she wanted to know the secret of my strength. She would say, “Samson, if you love me, we’ll have an honest, transparent relationship. Tell me the secret of your strength.”12 She fluttered her eyes. She tossed her hair. Nonetheless, I held out! Three consecutive times I deceived her
Finally, Delilah said to me, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have deceived me these three times and have not told me where your great strength is” (16:15). After hearing her words, I finally broke. In my anger and exasperation, I told Delilah about the one Nazirite vow I had not broken. I told her about how I was never to cut my hair. As I looked into her eyes, I was sure I could trust her. That night, I fell asleep with my head in her lap. I trusted her with my life, but I was betrayed. As I slept, she had someone come and cut my hair and time yet. Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are here! Samson, the Philistines are here!” I got up as I had so many times before. I thought, “This is getting old, you know what I mean. We’ve done this so many times. Don’t you guys ever learn?” But this time was different— the Lord had departed from me. I was like a lamb being led to the slaughter. The Philistines seized me, gouged out my eyes, and put me in bronze chains. I became a grinder in their prison.13 They kept me caged up like an animal. (However, during my captivity my hair began to grow again.) The Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to rejoice. They exclaimed, “Our god has given Samson our enemy into our hands.” When the Philistines saw him, they praised their god and said, “Dagon has given our enemy into our hands. The great destroyer will destroy no more!” They then called for me to entertain them. The crowds chanted, “We want Samson!” “We want Samson!” They wanted to mock me for entertainment. This was the most humiliating moment of my life.
The Philistines made me stand between the pillars where I could be easily seen and scorned. . I was even in the hands of a boy who was leading me by the hand from place to place. I then asked the boy to let me feel the pillars on which the house rests so that I may lean against them. I then called out to the Lord and said, “O Lord God please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” (16:28). I grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced myself against them and said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” I then used every ounce of my strength and brought the house down on 3,000 people. I killed more in my death than in my life!14
My name means “sunny,” yet I ended up in the darkness, blinded by the very enemy I was supposed to conquer. God gave me every advantage, and I threw it away in favor of doing what was right in my own eyes to my own undoing.15 I was the strongest of all men, but I was weakened and defeated not by soldiers or armies but by one woman! I, the strong one could not entangle myself from “the weak one.” It may seem harsh, but it would have been better for me to have become physically blind earlier in my life. It could have prevented my sexual sin.16 It was only after my eyes were taken away from me that I prayed for the first time.
My fall can be traced back to two things: (1) I didn’t know my weaknesses, and (2) I didn’t know my strength.17 Mistakenly, I didn’t see God as the real source of my strength. Instead, I saw only myself (see 15:14–17). Consequently, God allowed my strength to be taken from me so that in painful circumstances I could learn that without the powerful God, I am powerless.
I live with the haunting reminder that God didn’t take my ministry away from me. I gave my ministry away. I forfeited not only my physical life but my spiritual legacy. I’m remembered as a strong man, not as a great man. If I could share with you one lesson it is this: No one gets away with sin. Not me, not you.
1 Timothy 4:8
Deuteronomy 7:3–4; 21:18–21
1 Corinthians 10:12–13
1 I have relied heavily upon the work of my doctoral director and dissertation reader, J. Kent Edwards, who wrote a sermon entitled, “Samson: The Strong Weak Man” (Judges 13–16) in his book Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 147–55. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Edwards for helping me to improve my skills in narrative preaching.
2 Baylis writes, “While Jephthah delivers Israel east of the Jordan, Samson becomes a judge in the west (chaps. 13-16). The writer gives more space to Samson than to any other judge. He was chosen to be judge before birth, so his beginnings rival those of Samuel, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. Certainly much should be expected from this man. But he is woefully disappointing. He regularly disregards the law, intermarries with the Philistines, and uses his delivering power to carry out acts of incidental violence. Why spend so much time on Samson’s failure? Because he climaxes the message of Judges. His life matches that of the nation itself. Samson, like Israel, had a special calling but deserted it to pursue his own desires. His power, though great and bestowed by Yahweh, did not deliver because his life was marked by unfaithfulness to Yahweh and intermarriage with the nations of the land.” Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross: Understanding the First Half of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 175.
3 Samson is derived from the Hebrew word for “sun” (shemesh) and probably refers to “that which is distinguished, the pinnacle, one who is strong.”
4 Commenting on Samson’s qualification as judge, Block remarks, “Like most of the other judges, Samson was an unlikely candidate for leadership in Israel. The narrator seems to stress that what accomplishments were achieved were all to YHWH’s credit, produced in spite of, rather than because of, the man.” Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary (Nashville: Holman Reference, 1999), 51.
5 The Lord had given Samson a godly heritage, and he had been raised to honor the Lord; but when Samson fell in love, he wouldn’t listen to his parents when they warned him. Samson had wandered four miles into enemy territory where he was captivated by a Philistine woman and decided to marry her. This, of course, was contrary to God’s Law (Exod 34:12–16; Deut 7:1–3; 2 Cor 6:14–18). Samson was living by sight and not by faith. He was controlled by “the lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) rather than by the Law of the Lord. The important thing to Samson was not pleasing the Lord, or even pleasing his parents, but pleasing himself (Judges 14:3, 7; see 2 Cor 5:14–15). Michael J. Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges, Part 2: Samson,” Bsac 162:648 (October 2005): 431 observes: “Samson is also a picture of the nation. Israel was faulted for living among and intermarrying with the Canaanite enemy. After Samson’s birth narrative (Judg. 13) the rest of his life story centers on his pursuit of Philistine women. Samson is an example of Israel’s “playing the harlot after other gods” (2:17; 8:27, 32).”
6 Lit. “She is right in my eyes” (Judg 14:3, 7). The narrator here illustrated and foreshadowed his theme from the epilogues, where “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). It is likely that the attraction was both physical and cultural. Crenshaw explains some of the differences and advances in Philistine culture that would have made their women attractive to Israelite men. See James L. Crenshaw, Samson: A Secret Betrayed, a Vow Ignored (Atlanta: John Knox, 1978), 81.
7 The failure of Manoah and his wife will be discussed in the final sermon on the book of Judges.
8 Did God send the lion as a warning to Samson that he was walking on the wrong path?
9 Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges,” 431, writes, “The Philistine woman and her father are unnamed (14:1) as is also the harlot from Gaza (16:1). Once again the fact of their being unnamed might be the narrator’s way of saying that they represent all or any Philistines.”
10 Like John the Baptist, Samson would be a Nazirite from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:13–15). The word Nazirite comes from a Hebrew word (nazir) that means “to separate, to consecrate.” Nazirites were persons who, for a stated period of time, consecrated themselves to the Lord in a special way. They abstained from drinking wine and strong drink; they avoided touching dead bodies; and as a mark of their consecration, they allowed their hair to grow. The laws governing the Nazirite vow are given in Num 6:1–8.
11 Delilah means “the weak one” or “the longing one.”
12 Waltke notes, “The Philistines offer Delilah a fantastic sum of money [1100 pieces of silver (Judg 16:5)]—more than a lifetime of earnings for the average worker.” Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 611.
13 Block, Judges, Ruth, 462, notes that the Philistines were following an ancient Near Eastern custom. Prisoners were blinded and then forced to do menial tasks of slaves and women. So Samson, ironically, ended up doing a woman’s job. The man, who had incredible strength over other men was defeated in his greatest weakness, that of foreign women, to end up emasculated and doing the task of a woman.
14 I believe it is likely that Samson talked to the Lord as he turned the millstone, confessing his sins and asking God for one last opportunity to defeat the enemy and glorify His name.
15 Block, Judges, Ruth, 431.
16 Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matt 5:27–29).
17 The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”