STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 17
November 21, 2004
We have begun our consideration of the last and longest narrative of the career of a judge, that of Samson. We considered the account of his birth and calling in chapter 13 two Lord’s Day evenings back. We pointed out how, in that narrative, as in what follows in the Samson story, all the emphasis falls on the divine initiative. It was God who came to rescue his people and, this time, without their even crying out to him for such a rescue. It was God who raised up a deliver for his people and it will be God who gives deliverance through him, no thanks to Samson who, in so many ways, will be a great disappointment to us. But Samson’s failure only highlight the Lord’s mercy and power, as he uses such utterly imperfect an instrument to accomplish his grace and his judgment in the world.
The chapter divisions in our Bibles divide tonight’s material in two and there is, no doubt, a natural division between the two incidents. However, the concluding verse, 15:20, indicates that all this material belongs to the same section and that the events recounted in this material belong to the same part of the larger narrative.
v.2 No other deliverer in the book of Judges has such potential as Samson. His unexpected and wonderful birth, his calling to be set apart to God throughout his life, and his great strength all lead us to expect wonderful things from him. The Spirit begins to stir in him, as we read in 13:25, but what is the result of that? He travels among the Philistines and becomes enamored of one of their women. What we get, right off the bat, is the story of a foolish and spiritually witless man, self-centered, with apparently little concern for God or God’s covenant.
A key word in this section is the Hebrew word yārad (דרי) which means to “go down.” It occurs five times in this section (14:1,5,7,19; 5:8). In a sense, Samson’s life is all downhill.
Timnah lay in the border region between Philistia and Israel so a clash there was predictable. Joshua 15:10 suggests it lay on the northern border of Israel.
The repetition of the verb “to see” in vv. 1-2 suggests that Samson was attracted to her by her appearance, not for any higher reason. [Block, 425]
v.3 Nothing in the parents’ response indicates any great spiritual concern on their part either. Their concern is ethnic not covenantal. They don’t say what we certainly would have expected them to say, all the more given the circumstances of their son’s birth: “intermarriage with a Philistine is forbidden by the Lord.” Nor do they say, “You have been called to deliver us from the Philistines, not to marry them!” [cf. 13:5; Block, 425]
Samson’s reply indicates that he isn’t interested in such questions either. He favors this woman and that is all there is to it. He is happy, like the rest of Israel, to coexist peacefully with the Philistines.
By the way, while the parents were involved in the actual transaction of marriage, here is evidence that the actual choice of a potential spouse may well have been made by the son or daughter. Arranged marriages were common in the ancient world and in Israel. They were not the only way that couples came together, as the Scripture itself indicates.
Other ANE nations practiced circumcision. What made Israel’s practice unique was its theological significance and the time when it was done. It was usually a rite of passage to adulthood for the male. The Philistines, however, did not practice the rite, and were, therefore, considered particularly barbaric.
v.4 God had his own purposes. More on that later. But it is God’s intention, not Samson’s that leads to what follows.
v.6 Why doesn’t Samson tell his parents? We aren’t told, but the fact that the story is a secret ends up being a crucial ingredient in the plot.
v.7 It seems that this second visit is the first time Samson actually spoke to the girl. At any rate his favorable opinion of her is only confirmed.
v.8 “Some time later” suggests that the parents had by this point completed the negotiations for the marriage.
v.9 Touching the carcass rendered any Israelite unclean, but it was particularly defiling for a Nazirite, who was under special orders not to touch a dead body. Samson showed no concern for purity. He also didn’t care for his parents’ purity, as they were defiled by the same honey taken from the carcass.
v.10 The negotiations are completed and the wedding date fixed. The customary feast was begun.
It is odd that the wedding feast was held in the house of the bride and not that of the groom as we find everywhere else in the Bible. However, this may reflect Philistine custom rather than Israelite. In that case we have further evidence here of the Israelites’ conforming to the customs of the pagans around them.
v.11 In other words, this was what we call a “stag party.” It was a drinking bout and, in the nature of the case, would have involved Samson’s violation of another element of his Nazirite vow, that of abstaining from alcoholic drink. There is debate among the commentators whether the 30 were simply the customary “friends of the bridegroom” needed to make a feast or were the Philistines’ effort to surround Samson because they were worried about this intruder.
v.13 It is possible that riddles and other games were also regular features of these pre-wedding feasts. The game seems stacked in the Philistines’ favor so they bite.
v.14 The riddle lies in the paradoxes: a consumer produces food and a strong person sweetness. [Block, 433] In Hebrew there is in the riddle a typical assonance, a likeness of sound among the words, a partial rhyme.
v.15 The irony is that this is precisely what happened to the woman even after they blackmailed her into doing what they asked of her (15:6).
v.16 Samson displays callousness toward his bride as he displayed the same toward his parents earlier.
v.17 Nagging doesn’t usually pay dividends but here it did.
v.18 “Before sunset on the seventh day,” that is, at the very last moment, when Samson thought he had won.
v.19 He kept his promise but not in the way the Philistines expected. Samson gives what he promised but in a brutal, mocking way that must have infuriated the men who had cheated him.
v.20 The final statement of the episode is one of those pregnant sentences that foreshadows things to come.
15:1 The wheat harvest was in May. While Samson had left the wedding in a huff, he apparently had no intentions of giving up his bride. So he appears again to reclaim her. He is unaware that she had been given to another.
v.2 Samson’s father-in-law can do nothing about the situation of his eldest daughter and proposes what he no doubt thought was an honorable alternative. But Samson is a man who wants what he wants and will be told by no one what he can and cannot have.
v.3 The very common Hebrew verb השׂע (‛āśâ), to do or to make, is a key word in this section, especially in the sense of to do something to someone in retaliation. Here the NIV’s “really harm them” is literally “do evil to them.” We have the same verb in v. 6 – “Who did this?” – in v. 7 – “Since you did this” – in v. 10 – “to do to him as he did to us” – in v. 11 – “I merely did to them what they did to me.”
v.5 Remember, we were told that it was time for the wheat harvest. Some of the fields had been cut (the shocks) and some were yet to be harvested (the standing grain), but it was all ready to burn. Why he tied the foxes together isn’t made clear. Perhaps in their efforts to get free they were more likely to zigzag through a field and stop from time to time so as to let the fire get well and truly lit. [Block, 441]
v.6 The Philistines apparently accept that Samson was the woman’s rightful husband. But in their brutality they accomplish the very outcome that they had threatened and the woman had sought to avoid by deceiving Samson in the first episode. Then the Philistine men had threatened to burn her and her father’s household if she didn’t get them the solution to the riddle. She did what they asked and suffered the fate anyway. Such is the cruel futility of pagan life.
v.7 If they thought punishing the wife and father-in-law would mollify Samson, they misjudged their man.
v.12 Instead of asking Samson to lead them in battle against the Philistines, as Israel had done on previous occasions in the book of Judges, these men want to negotiate peace. The men of Judah are as interested in getting rid of Samson as the Philistines are. Indeed, Samson isn’t sure that the men of Judah won’t kill him themselves. Throughout church history, this has often been the fate of men God has raised up as deliverers
v.13 New ropes are stronger, less likely to break.
v.15 Why bother to describe the jawbone as “fresh.” Well, a fresh jawbone was still part of a corpse and so another violation of Samson’s Nazirite vow.
v.16 Unlike the Song of Deborah, there is not a word about God. Samson takes all the credit for himself.
v.17 “Jawbone Hill.”
v.18 Samson finally acknowledges the Lord, but only now, when he feels a personal need. His fears are only for himself, not for the people of God, not for the name of the Lord, not that he has a divine summons that he has not fully discharged. And any reader of the story so far can’t help but wonder why he should worry about the uncircumcised Philistines. He had been perfectly willing to marry one of them, to cohabit with them, to live among them.
v.19 “Caller’s spring.” Not “Yahweh Jireh,” the Lord will provide! Samson seems to name the spring after himself.
v.20 There is no reference, such as we had regularly before, of the land enjoying rest. Israel still lived under Philistine oppression. Remember, God said that Samson would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines. All of Samson’s efforts are those of a guerrilla. He leads no army against the Philistines. His achievements are personal, rather small in scale, compared to the great victories in battle won by judges before him. His attacks are also all prompted by his own misbehavior. [Block, 441]
There is no doubt that the key statement in all of this material is that in 14:4:
“…this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the
What follows is clearly the orchestration of the Lord. The perceptive reader of 14:6 realizes that the lion jumping out to attack Samson was from the Lord, to create the circumstances that will lead to Samson’s attack upon the Philistines. It seems an irrelevant detail at the time, but it sets in motion a chain of events that serves the Lord’s purpose. One thing leads inexorably to another. The appearance of a beehive in the lion’s carcass later is also indicative of the hand of God. Bees do not normally inhabit carcasses; flies and maggots do. The original readers of Judges would have been well aware of this and would have detected the Lord’s hand in this strange and unexpected development. And, at every point, where the opportunity has been created to do harm to the Philistines, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon Samson, grants him superhuman strength, and enables him to kill a large number of the enemy: first 30 men, then many more, finally a thousand.
But, in all of this, Samson is hardly the devoted servant of the Lord, seeking to fulfill his divine calling as the deliverer of God’s people. He appears to be operating entirely for his own reasons. Left to himself, in other words, Samson would never have become involved in God’s agenda. But the Lord has his plans and he uses Samson to fulfill them. He needs to keep his people separate from the Philistines at all costs, though at the time they seem perfectly content to cohabit with them, even to remain subject to them. So God acts through Samson (even through his selfish and sinful preoccupations) to disturb the comfortable status quo between Israel and the Philistines. [Block, 424]
As one scholar describes Samson:
“Samson is disrespectful of his parents, callous toward his Nazirite calling, without any loyalty to his own people, compromising in his ethic, rude to his wife, flippant with his tongue, and driven by lust, eroticism, and appetite. The only way in which good can come from this man is by Yahweh overpowering him with his Spirit and driving him to the task of delivering his people, something he is not naturally inclined to do.” [Block, 437-438] He not only fraternizes with the enemy, he is content to become one of them. In all of this, as we said last time, Samson is a representative of Israel herself.
But even his sin does not prevent him from being an instrument in God’s hand. My pastor in Aberdeen, Scotland, William Still, used to describe situations like these as instances of God “using sin sinlessly” and that is precisely what we have here. Indeed, this history wouldn’t have unfolded as it did had it not been for Samson’s sinful foolishness, his ineptitude, and his violation of his vow. He wants to marry a Philistine woman, which was a clear violation of God’s law; he touches a corpse when he gets honey from the hive and so violates his Nazirite vow; he drinks and gambols with a company of Philistine men and violates that vow again – that leads to the affair of the riddle –; he is overcome quite easily by his nagging wife; the men of Judah, content to be a part of pagan Canaan, think that they can ameliorate the situation. But God isn’t interested in peace between Israel and Philistia. He wants war. So, Samson’s flight to Judah escalated his personal vendetta into a larger conflict and led to the death of many more Philistines. And so it goes through this material. In other words, Samson’s sins (and to a lesser extent Israel’s sins) are part of the fabric of this account of God’s wreaking vengeance on his enemies the Philistines. The Lord used Samson’s sinfulness to accomplish his holy purpose.
This is hardly the only time this happens in the Bible. I have commonplaced my Bible on this theme at Romans 9:18 where we read of the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart precisely so that he could display his grace and power in the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt. He made Pharaoh unwilling to do the right thing, even the sensible thing, so as to demonstrate to the entire world his power and grace. I have a great many texts written in the margin there that, in one way or another, exemplify this same divine control over and orchestration of events through human sin so as to accomplish the divine will. You remember, of course, the evil events that led to Joseph’s long sojourn in Egypt. He would later tell his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” And so it has often been the case.
In Deut. 2:30 we read:
“But Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let us pass through. For the Lord your
God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him
into your hands, as he has now done.”
In Joshua 11:20 we read something similar:
“Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace
with the Israelites, who took them all in battle. For it was the Lord himself
who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might
destroy them totally…”
When Rehoboam so foolishly refused to listen to the advice of his father Solomon’s wise counselors, we read in 1 Kings 12:15:
“…this turn of events was from the Lord, to fulfill the word the Lord had
spoken to Jeroboam…”
There are many such statements in the Bible, a number of them in the New Testament.
In speaking about the rebellion of men at the end of the age, we read in 2 Thess. 2:11, “for this reason, God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned…” Or, in Rev. 17:17 we have this:
“For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to
give the beast their power to rule until God’s words are fulfilled.”
We’ve had something like this already in Judges. In 9:23 we read that God sent an evil spirit between Abimilech and the men of Shechem. His intention, of course, was to punish both and he used their own sinful, selfish, cruel behavior to bring them all under his judgment.
Now there are several things that we can say about this divine use of human sin to accomplish God’s will.
1. First, it illustrates in the most dramatic way how absolute is divine sovereignty and how unqualified the Lord’s control over everything that happens in this world. Man cannot by his sinning escape that divine rule and they do not. So far from escaping God’s rule, in their rebellion against him, in their constant breaking of his commandments, they only further his purposes. Samson violated every sacred rule of his faith and of his special calling as a Nazirite set apart to God. He failed to care about his calling and failed to fulfill it. So far from doing the Lord’s will as the man set apart to deliver Israel from the Philistines, Samson wanted to marry a Philistine woman and maintain a jovial and peaceful co-existence with the enemies of God. But, led by God’s inflexible will, he found himself at war with the Philistines. His sins led him to do what God had intended him to do. All of the provocations that led to his killing Philistines were the result of his own sinful behavior. Samson was not the deliverer God had set him apart to be by his own choice, he did not fulfill God’s purpose because of any holy impulses within his own heart, but God used him nonetheless to deal with the Philistines. That is how subject sinful human beings are to the sovereign rule of God. If we will not serve him in holiness, he will use our sins to accomplish his will. That should send a shudder through every rebellious heart. There is no escaping the will and the control of God. Even in our rebellion God will accomplish his will.
2. Second, God’s use of Samson’s sins and the sins of many other men to accomplish his will, does not in any way excuse the sinner. Samson is presented to us in this narrative as a man going about his business with no regard for the law and the name of his God. We have not yet seen, as we will in the next chapter, how terribly Samson himself will suffer for his sinful folly, but we have intimations of this already. He loses his wife, the woman he wanted to marry. He is estranged from his own people and countrymen. He ends up alone and thirsty, a man with no friends and none of the respect and regard of others that his calling and his great power should have won for him. And he has no one to blame for his misery but himself. God uses him in spite of himself. But what is clear here and in the entire Bible is that God does not force Samson to act against his own will. Samson is a most willing sinner. God uses Samson’s willful sinning to achieve his ends. And this is true in every case. Judas made his own bed. The fact that God used his perfidy to accomplish the salvation of the world in no way excused Judas. The fact that God used Joseph’s brothers’ envy and hatred and selfishness to prepare the way for Israel’s deliverance in Egypt in no way excused the sins that sent Joseph ahead of his brothers to Egypt.
3. Third, God’s use of Samson’s sin in no way implicates God himself in any of Samson’s wrongdoing. God employs Samson’s sins to accomplish his will but he does not make Samson sin and does not excuse his sinning. This is a mystery. The Bible confesses God’s sovereign control over human sinning, it even is willing in many cases to say that God appointed certain sins in a willing sinner’s life, but God remains untouched by the moral stain. He uses sin sinlessly. And so it must be. God is holy and cannot sin. But he is also sovereign and maintains his rule over a sinful world and a sinful mankind and even a sinful church. We are face to face here with a great deep. The Bible does not teach us how to answer the questions that spring to mind in the face of these facts. It simply tells us that God rules over all, including over the sinful wills and actions of mankind, but remains himself pure and sinless. As James, who knew all about God’s absolute sovereignty, even over the sinful actions of men, reminds us: “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. “ [1-13].
What we have in this narrative is, as 14:4 makes clear, a statement about God more than about Samson. Samson is taken up with himself. He is a selfish, sensual man. He wants what he wants and cares for little beside. Utterly unaware, he stumbles about killing Philistines here and there in his self-centered rage, all the while doing what God intended that he do and striking a blow against God’s enemies.
This is the God Luther called Deus Absconditus, the hidden God. He acts without man’s knowing, does his will without man’s realization or intentional cooperation, and, at the end of the day, has produced the result he sought both through the acts of human beings and in spite of them.
This is reason both to fear God – for we cannot escape his rule – and to love him – for he acts on his people’s behalf even when they will not. It is far better to do God’s will by being his willing servant than by being his dupe and every human will be one of the other. But while living in a sinful world that seems dominated by the evil that men do, it is a good thing to know that man’s sin, so far from defeating God, is itself the means to the accomplishment of his will.