Some stories we read because they inspire us and lift us up; some stories we tell because they warn of what could be if we continue down the path that we’re currently on. Some stories, like Samson’s, are a beautiful blend of both.
Samson’s story begins like so many others in the Bible: a childless couple is visited by an angel who tells them that they will have a child. But this child comes with stipulations: he will grow up a Nazirite, a people set apart for God who will not drink wine or eat bad food, and who will never shave his head. Isn’t it ironic that anytime there’s a “you will not do this,” there’s always a time when that very thing happens?
The man and his wife are quite intentional about obeying the rules that God has laid out. They even go so far as to seek out the advise of God in how to best parent this child– and it’s evident in the ways that they raised him to behave. But again, we all know that the best parenting can still lead to problems, that we all have a mind of our own and we don’t always listen to good advice.
Initially, it says that “He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him” (Judges 13:24-25). Initially, Samson was ‘the man after God’s own heart’ that we see in Abraham, David, the disciples, etc. Now, none of them were without their times of struggle and Samson is no different.
Somehow, Samson went from Godfearing and Godpleasing to Samsonpleasing and a sense of false fearlessness. Somehow, Samson saw his strength and power as a shield of invincibility that meant he was untouchable. Somehow, Samson, like many of us, got caught up in the grind, the typical, and lost sight of the miraculous and the amazing… and the Godly.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way, but these are the words of a real-life person struggling with their faith, and where they stand in the world. I wonder, if Samson would’ve been the writing, expressive type, if he would’ve written this:
I used to be deeply involved in my [faith community] and committed to my faith. I started to find I believed a little–or a lot–differently from my friends. When I talked about these changes, people didn’t know what to do with me. I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with my new questions and old relationships and have felt lost, but also freer. I had no idea there were other people like me struggling with the same thing. (from Faith Shift by Kathy Escobar)
Or, maybe Samson was just a dumb jock and he blundered into the stories that follow…
One day, Samson went to a Philistine city (somewhere he shouldn’t have been) and saw a young woman there (who he shouldn’t have been looking at) who he told his parents was “the one” (who he shouldn’t have even considered!) (Judges 14:1-4). They tried to talk him out of it- to marry a woman of his own race and religion, but he would have none of it. An aside tells us that God himself had fed this desire in Samson’s heart because he wanted to use Samson to overthrow the Philistines. Sometimes, God lets us run the course of our rabbit hole meandering, because we need to figure it out for ourselves– and God is no puppet master.
The first feat of Samson, like Hercules, comes soon after, when he tears apart a lion with the Spirit of the Lord upon him; he later returns to the site and finds honey bees have created a honeycomb inside the lion’s carcass and he eats some. He’s so tickled by the situation that he tells a riddle to the men of his new wife’s town; when they’re unable to answer it, they convince his wife to find out the answer and reveal it to them. Upon discovering that he’s been betrayed, Samson rampages to a neighboring town and kills thirty men there to achieve the promised reward for the men who solved the riddle.
The second feat is just as vindictive: when Samson’s new father-in-law gives his wife away to a second man, Samson is so angry that he ties three hundred foxes to lit torches and sends them running through the fields and vineyards of the Philistines, burning them all to the ground. The Philistines respond violently, killing his wife and her father, and Samson hides in his own hometown. When his neighbors see that the Philistines intend to find Samson by whatever means possible, they whine to him that he must turn himself in. He lets them take him prisoner, and when he’s brought to the Philistines, his third feat is unleashed.
There, the man upon whom God’s favor rests snatches up the jawbone of a donkey, and slays a thousand men. For his troubles, Samson was rewarded by leading the Israelites for twenty years. And the Philistines keep trying to find ways to remove him as a threat because they can’t seem to stop him. So the Philistines employ a beautiful woman named Delilah to seduce, entrap, and conquer Samson- they know his fondness for women, but they don’t know that they will set in motion the story that leads to Samson’s third and final feat.
Delilah sets out to find out what the source of Samson’s strength is. Three times, Samson gives her the wrong answer, she reports back to the Philistines, and they fail to defeat him; he finally relents and tells her that he can’t ever cut his hair, and, while he sleeps, they shave him bald. His power has been muffled, stripped from him, like Superman in the presence of green Kryptonite. As he lies there helplessly, these men who have longed for revenge gouge out his eyes and lead him away in shackles. He is put to work as cattle would be, driving the wheel for grinding with his strength, reduced, like the prodigal son, to the work of something less than human, a reminder that the spirit of the Lord is no longer upon him.
We don’t know for exactly how long he sweats all day, taunted and beaten; we don’t know how many nights he lay there in the dark, which wouldn’t have been any different than his days, only lonelier; we don’t know what he thought about, whether it was repentant or angry or a combination of both. But we can imagine.
Then, one day, the Philistines drag Samson to entertain the guests at a party, to gloat and celebrate how they have defeated the mighty champion of the Israelites. They see that he’s blinded, in chains, and beaten, and they assume that he is finished, without threat, or power. But Samson prays- the first time we see him pray- “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.”
That one prayer restores his strength but not his sight; in that one prayer, he is returned to his supernatural strength, his Hulk-like power, and with one final effort, he brings the entire house down on himself, on the officials and politicians, on his enemies and the enemies of God. In that final moment, Samson’s vision, if not his sight, was restored and he remembered who he was. This is a defining moment- a spark where Samson recognizes whose he is, who made him, and what God called him to be.
Ultimately, when it mattered most, Samson remembered the prayers his parents had taught him, remembered who he was and whose he was, and he acted in faith that God would give him the victory. It’s a story that inspires us to believe inspire of the odds… and reminds us of the cost when we fail to follow through when we know what we’re supposed to be doing.
It’s ironic: sometimes when we can’t do what we’re used to, whether it’s get out of bed in the morning (because we’re sick), or go the places we want to (because a car is in the shop), or do what we want to do (because we lack the money), we sit around and examine our own lives and see things the way they are for the first time. Sometimes, we need a good long look in the mirror of our souls where we really are, who we really are, and what needs to change.
I imagine it’s what was going on inside the heart of Samson, when he was blinded. I imagine he saw his pride and lusts and apathy that had governed his decision making. I imagine that he recognized that the good things he had been made for, ruling over his people justly, leading them well, battling evil in the form of the Philistines- that somehow what had started off good had corrupted him, and gone to his head. I imagine he remembered the songs and Scriptures his parents had taught him. I imagine he remembered what it was like to have the Holy Spirit come upon him in power… and how it felt when he was without it.
I wonder if we don’t need our own moment of introspection, our own reflection over our own spiritual inventory. Are we living in the grace of God or are we just faking it? Are we really following what God wants for our lives, doing what Jesus would do if he were us? Are we rising above the challenges that the world throws at us… or are we bogged down by the inconsequential and unimportant?
In Romans 8:31-39, Paul reminds us that God is with us, that we are more than conquerors because God is with us. It’s the kind of truth that I believe Samson remembered, standing chained and blinded between the pillars of that palace. I’m sure he could’ve been bogged down in what might’ve been, in what he should’ve done. I’m sure there were plenty of moments of self-pity, apathy, and grief.
But in the closing moments of his life, Samson made a choice. He made a choice to go for it, to believe that God was in charge and to give it all he had. It’s the kind of moment that begs a sports analogy…
It’s the baseball team down to its final out that sends its most experienced but wounded player to the plate.
It’s the soccer team that finds it all rests on this last penalty shot, and the only player left is hanging on with a badly sprained ankle.
It’s the football team whose season hangs in the balance, too far to throw it or kick it, the team that recognizes that it must go for it on fourth and long.
Paul understood the stakes. He knew that as he approached the end of his life, there was nothing else that mattered as much as following Jesus. He believed that in Jesus, nothing could separate him from the love of God.
Samson understood the stakes. He’d been shamed, wounded, and humbled, but he had one more round in him. He was like the quarterback recognizing that the other team is chomping at the bit, bringing the blitz, as the clock is clicking toward zero, and it’s fourth and long.
For so long, Samson had lost sight of what was really important. He’d put more stock in what he could do than in who gave him the power to do it; he’d forgotten the lessons of his childhood, the way he was supposed to act, and instead fallen for believing that he could do whatever he wanted. Samson had fallen in love with his own exploits, succumbed to the pride of what he’d done. Samson had been blinded by his own reputation, deafened by what others had to say in praise of his mighty feats.
But when it mattered most, when he could make things right again, he would go for it on fourth and long, with nothing in himself to cling to and everything on the grace and mercy of God. That’s how Samson’s story of dire warnings for us about pride, lust, and faithlessness, turns into an inspirational story of power and faith. [It’s why my friends, the Merritts, chose to make their athletic line of Christian-inspired shirts www.7samson.com because Samson was a flawed warrior, but one who can inspire us to do and be more.
Samson went blind so that he could really see. But he finally recognizes that his place, his purpose, was tied to fighting for God against the Philistines. That was his job, what he was put on earth to do, and it was not too late for him to be that person. He’d spent so long chasing things that didn’t matter like pleasure and the praise of others, but that he could still be faithful even after all he’d done and focus on the audience of one.
And in the moment when it mattered most, he prayed- and God delivered.
So what do you see when you inspect yourself? When you look into your spiritual mirror, what’s needs to change? What has God put you here for and what are you doing about it? Have you been faithful for so long that one more thing seems to be a stretch or are you simply trying to figure out how to make time to be at church week after week? Is it the big things that you are called to seek or is it merely getting the little things in order, one by one?
Too often, we fall for thinking that just showing up in church is enough. We give God that hour a week, and figure we’ve checked it off our lists. But there are some dangerous truths in the story of Samson.
You can be baptized, consecrated to God, and still not be a follower of God.
You can show up on Sunday morning and say all the right things, but if your life doesn’t reflect what your lips say during worship, it doesn’t really matter.
You can be a ‘good person’ your whole life, and when the clock is ticking down to zero, you can still not have anywhere to stand.
Samson knew his words and deeds had to go together. In James 2, the apostle writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Samson knew faith needed to be met by actions, by a life lived to the glory of God.
Sure, this is Old Testament action, the battle between good and evil played out in a war. Our war isn’t physical, us versus them, but against selfishness, against oppression, and addiction, and hunger, and hopelessness, against apathy and thinking that this is all about us.
We know that God wrote a new chapter in the way that people understand good versus evil when he sent Jesus. Sure, Jesus preached about how to let go of the things that hold us back and spent time with people working out their issues. But when push comes to shove, Jesus hung there nailed to a cross and in his defining moment, on fourth and long, he chose to die. Unlike Samson, he didn’t take his enemies to death with him, but instead, gave them a shot at eternal life. Jesus made the cross an emblem of freedom, an emblem of death-to-life, a reminder that while the hopelessness of our sin and death can feel overwhelming… this isn’t how the story ends.
Earlier, before his crucifixion, in Matthew 16, Jesus said that whoever wanted to follow him needed to take their cross up and daily, to put down all of the other junk they’d been carrying so that they could be fully “in” with him. It sounded good- but then Jesus went out and made the cross even more than a symbol. He made the cross in itself a defining moment, one that we’re supposed to wrestle with for ourselves.
Are you wrestling with it? Do you consider the defining moments of Samson and Jesus’ life and see places where you chose wrong, or right? What are you going to do about it?
Ultimately, the story of Samson leads us to more questions about ourselves. I can answer them for you, but only for myself. But I think we’re called to pray about them, to consider them, and figure out how we can move forward in faith to love God better.
What do you need to put down? What do you need to be blinded from so that you can see God? What needs to happen for you to recognize that time is of the essence because God can use you to help bring the kingdom of God upon the earth?
Are you committed? Are you fully present to God, to contribute your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? Or are you holding something back, content just to check the whole church thing, the whole belief thing, off the list, or are you really engaged, the way Samson initially was, bathed in the Holy Spirit of God?
It’s fourth and long. Ball is snapped, it’s time to make a decision. Are you ready to stand up and be counted?