STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 16
November 7, 2004
We have come to the last narrative of a judge. The chapters that conclude the book, 17-21, are a kind of epilogue. They don’t concern the career of any judge but narrate a civil war in Israel, a civil war that was the bitter fruit of Israel’s apostasy and God’s judgment of his people.
v.1 The formula – “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” – that we have seen so often before now appears for the last time. We may presume that the evil in question had to do with her worship of Canaanite gods and the unholy way of life that proceeded from that worship. However, on this occasion, we are not told that Israel cried out to the Lord as she had so often before. Indeed Manoah and his wife seem simply to want to stay out of the Philistines’ way. Even Samson seems often more interested in fraternizing with, even in marrying Philistines than fighting them. In 15:11 we will learn that the men of Judah had lost the crusading spirit they had at the beginning of the book, and had accepted the inevitability of Philistine rule and simply wanted to maintain as peaceful co-existence with their masters as possible. It is only the Lord who was “seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines” (14:4). [Webb, 163] Israel has become so spiritually dead that she no longer has any expectations other than those of a pagan and worldly calculation. She has become so Canaanized that she has come to accept the misery that comes with that lifestyle. All the initiative to provide deliverance for Israel lies with the Lord.
v.2 That is the area of Dan next to Judah before the migration northward of the tribe of Dan that will be related in chapter 18.
v.3 In other words, the fact of this woman’s childlessness had not escaped God’s notice. He is going to intervene. We are not told that the woman had cried out to God, as Hannah would later do. This is all the Lord’s idea. But, in any case, what is disclosed in the account of Samson’s miraculous birth is that the issues of barrenness and fertility, life and death, are in the hands of Yahweh.
v.5 Samson’s mother must conduct herself in a particularly devout manner while carrying this child that the Lord will give her. Apparently the idea is that for this child, set apart from his conception to be the servant of the Lord, the same standards that will apply to his life after he is born should apply to his pre-natal life as well. So if he is not to drink wine, as we will read in v. 7, he is not to drink it in his mother’s womb.
The Nazirite vow, as you remember from Numbers 6, was a vow of separation to the Lord. It was undertaken by men or women who wished to give special thanks to the Lord or consecrate or dedicate themselves to him in some greater degree. It was ordinarily temporary. In Samson’s case it was to be permanent. The Nazirite vow required that one abstain from alcoholic beverages, that his or her hair not be cut during the duration of the vow, and that he or she not touch a corpse. All Israelites were bound not to eat unclean foods, but the nation had, in all probability, long since ignored that law and so the woman is reminded of it. Of course, ordinarily the Nazirite vow was voluntary. Here it is imposed on the child from before his birth.
And why? Because he will begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. (In fact that deliverance will not be completed until the time of David.) It is a striking thing to say: he will begin to deliver… We already know, at the beginning, that he will not complete the job. Begin is a leitwort, or key word, in the Samson narrative. We find it here at the beginning in the announcement of his birth and again in 13:25, when the Spirit began to stir in Samson, and in two moments at the very end. In 16:9 we read that he began to be subdued when his hair was shaved off and in 16:22 that his hair began to grow again after it had been shaved.
v.7 It is important for us to hear once again the nature of Samson’s calling because as the narrative of his life proceeds we are going to wonder if Samson knew or cared that he had such a calling. He certainly will not act like it.
The angel of the Lord – and he was an angel, not merely a messenger, as we will learn later in the chapter – did not say that he would be a Nazirite until his death. Samson’s mother either divined that to be the angel’s meaning or, perhaps, has had some premonition about what all of this must mean.
v.8 It sounds pious enough, though we wonder what more he needs to know than what has already been said to his wife, but subsequent events make us feel that Manoah probably resented the fact that the angel had appeared to his wife and not to him. He seems to want to take control of the situation, as we will see.
v.9 Once again the angel comes to the woman, bypassing Manoah. He isn’t going to be manipulated by Manoah.
v.11 The conversation that follows is somewhat comical. Manoah tries to extract all the information he can and the angel replies with curt answers that reveal little. [Block, 408]
v.12 The NIV’s translation “rule for the boy’s life and work” may better be translated, “what is the destiny or divine assignment of the child?” Manoah wants to know what is to become of his boy. But the angel doesn’t tell him that.
v.14 In other words, you must do what I already told your wife to do.
v.15 We are not told why Manoah made this offer. It may simply have been to meet the conventions of ancient hospitality, as an expression of gratitude, or a desire to keep the angel longer so that he can talk to him more. As we will learn at the end of v. 16, while Manoah realizes the eminence of the figure before him he does not yet realize that he is more than a man.
v.16 “No thanks.” The angel puts Manoah off and suggests that he should have a better idea of who he is and what is going on here. It may also be that “since table fellowship assumes oneness, that is, shalom between the parties, by rejecting the invitation to a meal the visitor comments on the spiritual condition of the nation as a whole and this household in particular.” Israel is in no state to enjoy fellowship with God. Burnt offerings must come first. [Block, 413]
v.17 Manoah pries still further.
v.18 Manoah’s question is answered with another question. Manoah should realize who it is that is speaking to him. But like the rest of the Israelites he is dull and spiritually witless.
v.22 There is a superficial accuracy to what Manoah says because no one can see God and live (Ex. 33:20). But his wife is the better theologian. They hadn’t, in any case, seen God. They had either seen an angel or the Lord himself in the form of a man.
v.25 The woman is clearly the more sympathetic and admirable character in the narrative and in a striking reversal of custom, she names her son, not Manoah. There is no indication that the Lord had told her to give her son this or any other name. Samson itself, as a name, is the Hebrew word for the sun, together with a diminutive ending, hence “little sun,” or “sunny boy.” A variety of explanations have been offered for the name, the most likely, alas, is that it is derived from the local Canaanite sun worship. Beth Shemesh, a town that was only a few miles from Zorah and Eshtaol, is translated House of the Sun [Block, 416-417].
We are also not told what the stirring of the Spirit within Samson amounted to. Was it the development of his great strength or some sense of his calling to deal with the Philistines? We don’t know. As following events will indicate, it does not seem to have been a deepening godliness or pure desire to serve the Lord.
What is going to be clear as we proceed through the Samson narrative is the general identification of Samson with Israel. Samson was born in a marvelous way and so was Israel, not only through the patriarch Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, but spiritually speaking, by the calling of God and her redemption from Egypt. Samson was separated to God. So was Israel. “Be holy for I am holy,” the Lord said to her again and again. Samson disregarded that separation and that holiness to which he had been called just as Israel had disregarded it. He was attracted to foreign women and so was Israel, spiritually speaking. She played the harlot. She committed spiritual adultery with the gods of the nations around her. Samson was blinded and so was Israel. Both he and she suffered terrible judgment because of disregard for God’s covenant. Samson remained God’s servant, despite his unfaithfulness and despite his heavy punishment, just as Israel remained God’s people, despite her infidelity and God’s heavy hand upon her, and Samson’s enemies and Israel’s are, nevertheless, the Lord’s enemies and suffer God’s wrath accordingly. In Milton’s recreation of the story in Samson Agonistes, he has the chorus say, as it contemplates the blind, fallen Samson, “O mirror of our fickle state.” (line 164) [Webb, 172] Israel may see herself in her hero.
But the message of chapter 13, the opening scene in the Samson narrative, is very clearly and emphatically the message of the divine initiative. There is no crying out on Israel’s part for deliverance from the Philistines as there had been before. There is no weeping and praying on the part of this woman. She has no children and cannot have children, but the Lord’s marvelous provision for her is not in answer to her prayers, as it was somewhat in Abraham’s case, as it definitely was in Isaac’s case, and it would be in Hannah’s case. This is much more a case like that of Mary, who was visited by the angel Gabriel and told of the marvelous son that she was to bear. Mary had every expectation of bearing children. She was young and she was engaged. Indeed, she would later bear children with her husband, a number of them. Gabriel did not come to her because she was pleading for help. He came, as it were, unsought and unannounced with news of the salvation of the world. And so it was here in Judges 13. In some ways, so little do this woman’s particular life, her piety, or her prayers have to do with what happens, that unlike Sarah and Hannah and Mary we do not even know this woman’s name.
The angel of the Lord comes and makes an announcement. He says that a child is to be conceived – no doubt in the natural way – and that the Lord God already has an assignment and a calling for this boy who is to be born. The parents must exercise a certain unusual consecration. We wonder if they did. Samson does not seem to have grown up a very wise man, or a very godly one. He does not seem to have gained much character from growing up in the home of his parents and, so far as we know, from being their only child. One would have thought that the circumstances of his conception and birth would have made these two parents extraordinarily faithful nurturers of the heart and the faith and the godliness of their boy. Nothing in the text that follows suggests that they were. In fact, we get a contrary picture, of ineffective parents who hardly knew what to say to their son when what needed to be said should have been obvious to anyone. We wonder, indeed, if they kept Samson from wine when he was growing up. It is hard to believe, frankly, that he kept himself from it in his adulthood. When he was enjoying his seven day wedding feast with the Philistines in chapter 14, are we to believe that he drank no wine; that he alone asked for iced tea? A man who wanted a Philistine for a wife seems unlikely to have cared over much about not drinking wine! Who knows for sure, but nothing about the grown-up Samson speaks very highly about his parents’ piety.
But the Lord comes upon him nonetheless as the chapter comes to an end. He is being prepared to deal with the enemies of the Lord and to deliver God’s people from them. Nobody asks for this. Nobody prepares for this. The cast of characters is all, at the last, a disappointment. Clearly there will be no success if Israel’s deliverance depends at all on them! The Lord is going to do what must be done. He may use others, but it will be his doing from first to last and the course of this narrative makes that painfully and perfectly clear. And, of course, the story of the annunciation to Mary, which bears so many similarities to this account in Judges 13, conveys the same message. The Lord is sent to do what must be done for the people of God. They don’t understand his mission and they do not contribute to it. They are, at best, vessels through which God’s grace is poured out; otherwise they are only spectators of his work and, too often, positive impediments to the Lord’s accomplishment of his mission. That is how much our salvation is God’s doing and not our own.
Now in all of this, as we know, the nature of salvation itself is being painted on a larger
canvas. Samson may be Israel in a representative form, but we are all Israel in our natural state and condition. We are all rebels against God; we have all rejected the summons that came with our entering into human life; we are all blind to our rebellion; we are all content to be miserable in sin rather than find true joy in the only place where it can actually be found: in submission to God. We are all disposed to forget every true instinct that has ever surfaced in our hearts – as Israel was inclined to forget her cries to God and the help that came in answer to them – and we are all defiantly unresponsive to the truth that is taught us.
And, accordingly, our salvation is and must be a divine initiative. And so the Bible everywhere says it is. When the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of woman, born under law, that he might redeem those under law. When we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us. Whom God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son… And those he predestined he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified he also glorified. Over and over again in the Bible we are told that God saved us. He didn’t help us to save ourselves. He didn’t get salvation started so that we could finish it. He didn’t provide us with the materials of salvation so that we could combine them into an actual stairway to heaven. So often in the Bible salvation is represented as having been accomplished apart from us, without our consent or involvement, even against our inclinations (we were God’s enemies!), and, in our case, long before we even made our appearance in the world. The deed was done, the die was cast, the issue settled long before we even existed! Even in the matter of our coming to possess and to experience salvation in Christ, the Bible leaves us in no doubt that this too is a sovereign work of God’s grace. Our rebellion is overcome, our blindness is healed, our wills are bent, our hearts are warmed and suddenly we find ourselves Christians, followers of Christ.
Paul is the great exemplar of the Christian convert in the New Testament – the account of his conversion is given three times in Acts and once in Romans – and this is the dominant motif of that narrative: a rebel made to submit, a blind mind whose eyes were opened, a hard-hearted man made soft and compliant by the Spirit of God, a persecutor of the church turned into its champion by the sovereign power of God against every intention of the man himself.
But, in the Bible and in church history, the supreme example of this salvation that is not in any way of our own making or in any respect our own accomplishment is the salvation of infants. They are conceived in sin and are by nature rebels against God. The Bible teaches us that in no uncertain terms and the observation of life confirms it. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that no creature is more selfish than the baby in the cot.
“If infants do no injury, it is for lack of strength, not for lack of will.” [I, vii,(or 11)]
I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby. He could not yet speak and, pale with jealousy and bitterness, glared at his brother sharing his mother’s milk. Who is unaware of this fact of experience?
And, yet, into such fallen infant hearts the grace of God comes, sometimes, perhaps often as early as when the child is still in his mother’s womb, and from his earliest years he is susceptible to training in righteousness, to be sorry for and humble in the knowledge of his own sins, to be eager to trust in Christ whom he is confident will cover his sins by his grace, and to embrace the summons that was issued to him to serve the Lord his God from the headwaters of his life. Early on he finds in his own heart the experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit and the love of God.
He certainly did nothing to obtain this grace, it came to him long before he knew to ask for it. He did not contribute even instrumentally to his salvation. He did not even open his hand to receive Christ’s gift as does the older person who finds Christ in the middle of life. It was all done unawares. Within him but without his knowledge, his agreement, or even his acquiescence. The Lord made that little heart willing as surely as he set that heart to beating in the first place.
This is especially our confession as Reformed Christians. We were all, as the Scriptures says, no matter when or how God’s grace came to us, we were dead, lifeless in our sins and transgressions. We were unable as well as unwilling to submit to God’s law. We were born into this condition, couldn’t and wouldn’t escape it. It is the index of our lostness and our helplessness that we refuse to admit that we are estranged from God, that we are inveterate rebels against him, that we love our sin and hate him. This is the biblical doctrine of original sin, that we come into existence in a state of intractable alienation from God.
Charles Hodge, writing in the 19th century about this doctrine of original sin, said
“He who denies this doctrine, as taught in our Confession of Faith, and in
the writings of the Reformers, however good Christian he may be, cannot be
a good Calvinist; a logical necessity is laid upon him to abandon most of the
distinctive peculiarities of the Calvinistic system. If there be one doctrine
which lies more broadly than any other at the base of this system, that is that
doctrine, and if this be removed, the whole structure must fall.” [Biblical
Rep. and Princeton Review, IX, 11 (April 1837) 220]
It is the affirmation of the spiritual helplessness of mankind from conception that lies at the bottom of all Reformed thinking about salvation, because it lies at the bottom of all biblical teaching about salvation, as it lies at the bottom of this episode in Judges 13. The divine initiative is the story of salvation, whether in election, or redemption, or calling, or regeneration and the new birth, or sanctification, precisely because we are, in ourselves, never willing and never able to take that initiative ourselves, much less actually defeat our enemies. God alone must do this; God alone can.
It is a dismal story often repeated in church history that the loss of a true appreciation of divine grace and a true belief in Christ’s salvation begins with a refusal to believe that human beings are as lost as the Bible says they are, that they were conceived in sin and death – that they come into this world as into living death, as Augustine put it (I, vi (or 7) – and are helpless either to change their situation or even to assist God in changing it. It is a doctrine so offensive to human pride that immense pressure is always being applied against it.
In 1757 two books appeared in colonial Massachusetts. One was Samuel Nile’s The True Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin. The second was Samuel Webster’s A Winter Evening’s Conversation upon the Doctrine of Original Sin. At that time colonial Christianity was still largely Calvinistic and evangelical. Both of these books attacked the Reformed doctrine of original sin. In both books we find the theological equivalent of “no taxation without representation.” It would not be fair for God to condemn us for sins we had not ourselves personally committed – which must be true, of course, if we come into existence already sinful and corrupt, already under God’s wrath, already helpless to save ourselves. This was Adam’s doing, the Bible says. We have inherited his corruption. Within a generation the Calvinistic Christianity of the colonial era had not only become Arminian, but was well on its way to becoming Unitarian. That is, denying the radical bondage of human beings to sin, it contrived a doctrine of salvation in which God and man cooperated, each as important as the other. And very soon after that it had moved on, as such thinking always does, to a view of salvation in which God was scarcely necessary at all because there was hardly anything that man needed saving from.
Judges, from beginning to end, forces us to see the natural condition of human beings, even the most favored human beings. It holds our noses to the stench of human sinfulness and folly, chapter after chapter. It does not allow us to turn away from the inbred and intractable folly of human beings – even the better and wiser ones – their powerful attraction to what is wrong and their always weak and temporary inclination to do what is right. And why? Is it because, like some modern TV producer, the author of this book knows that nothing attracts readers more than corruption vividly described? Does he want to sell copies and he knows that nothing will do that better than Samson with his prostitutes leading to Samson’s tragic end? No, it is because here is a lesson that everyone must learn upon pain of death. A lesson people are averse to learning more than any other lesson in the world. A lesson that has to be taught and taught a thousand times to a single soul to make sure he has not only learned it but to keep him from forgetting it once he learned it – as he is always inclined to do.
The recognition of human sinfulness, and the corresponding and inevitable recognition that salvation is of the Lord – in origin, in plan, in provision, in execution, in continuation, and in consummation – is the sum of all wisdom and the way to heaven. This recognition, painful as it is, embarrassing as it is, hard as it is to live with, is the engine of saving faith. People who are confident in themselves, people who think well of their powers, people who do not, in desperation, look to God for help because they know themselves helpless go to hell. People who realize that they came into this life fundamentally damaged and incapable of lifting themselves out of the moral and spiritual morass in which they find themselves and in which they find themselves so willing to remain, those are the people who go to heaven. Those are the people whom God takes to heaven.
This same honest reckoning with the power of sin in one’s heart and life is the engine of gratitude and love. A great gift has been given to you and God had to pry your hand open to place it in your palm, and then with his mighty power close your hand over his gift and keep it closed lest you drop it; a great power has been exerted on your behalf. You were hurtling to doom, unaware, uncaring, utterly indifferent to your situation before a holy God. And he intervened. He took the initiative. He made you all over a second time, a new creature, born again. No one but he could have done this; no one but he would have!