Following my attempt to resurrect Jephthah’s reputation, I now turn my attention to Samson. In some ways, Samson is even harder to rehabilitate due to his popularity (or should I say “infamy”) in children’s Bible story books. We’re all familiar with the narrative and the moral: “Don’t be like Samson who committed adultery, murder, and suicide.”
The popular caricature is also supported by various commentators, as this sampling of quotes demonstrates:
“Samson was dominated by lust, pride, and a passion for revenge.”
“His life seems to have revolved around illicit relationships with prostitutes and loose-living women.”
“His exploits read like the actions of an uncontrollable juvenile delinquent.”
“His last act involved a refusal to leave God to work out his own vindication by lawful means, whose dying prayer stands in sad contrast to the dying prayer of our blessed Savior, and who can only be spoken of as coming to an unhappy end.”
Even the usually reliable Don Carson succumbs:
“But he had never been able fully to come to terms with his separateness. He had always secretly wanted to be as other men and to enjoy the pleasures that they enjoyed (a temptation that is surely common to Christians today). In Delilah he saw a chance, perhaps his last chance, for the happiness he had always wanted. In giving in to her request, Samson virtually invited Delilah to release him from his Naziriteship; to make him the ordinary man he had always wanted to be.”
A Lost Cause?
Is resuscitating Samson a lost cause? I don’t think so, for the following reasons.
First, Samson had the clearest divine call of all the judges, a calling that he also fulfilled (Judges 13:5).
Second, he judged Israel faithfully for 20 years (Jdg. 15:20; 16:31). We are told this twice to underline the significance of this lengthy, lonely, faithful, and heroic service – defeating Israel’s enemies and delivering Israel from its oppressors.
Third, although the majority of the Bible’s coverage covers only the summer before Samson’s twenty years of leading Israel (Judg. 13-15) and the last year of his life (Jdg. 16), yet it is a relatively short time compared to his 20 years of faithfulness. Unlike this valiant attempt to explain away Samson’s behavior in chapter 16, I don’t downplay the seriousness of Samson’s sin in the last year of his life. But it still doesn’t cancel out the predominant tone of Samson’s life as one of courageous and loyal service of God and country.
Fourth, the Bible records the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Samson more than upon any other judge (Jdg. 13:25; 14:6; 15:14).
Fifthly, and most importantly, God puts him in the Hall of Faith, in the same wing as David, Samuel and the prophets (Heb. 11:32). This gives us the most important prism with which to view Samson. Indeed, when we read the following verses, we wonder if the Apostle had Samson, and Judges 16 specifically, in mind:
Who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens…Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment.
Then listen to the Apostle’s climactic words in his review of all the Hall of Faith-ers. He says the world was not worthy of them (v. 38), and that “all these obtained a good testimony through faith” (v. 39). Also, I don’t see any reason not to apply to Samson the words that describe earlier heroes of faith in Hebrews 11: “These all died in faith” (v. 13).
Which brings us to his perplexing death. As we all know, Samson ended up in a Philistine prison having backslidden in the arms and the bed of Delilah. But there his hair began to grow again, indicating a return to his Nazarite vow of total commitment to God. Then, when paraded and mocked before the blaspheming Philistines, he calls upon God in prayer, using his covenant name, LORD. No longer is he relying on his own strength but he is looking to God to help him judge one last time.
Here it’s important to remember that Samson is not simply a private individual, but is a judge, appointed by God to judge on His behalf. As the commentator, Luke Wiseman, put it:
In this prayer we find no reference to himself as a private individual but only as the recognized servant of Jehovah. Unless this is borne in mind, the prayer is scarcely intelligible…This was no utterance prompted by personal revenge, for it was Samson’s commission from the beginning to deliver Israel from the Philistines…In his capacity as a servant and representative of Jehovah he prays that he may be avenged on them.
C. J. Goslinga put it like this: “He died for the honor of His God and for the benefit of his people and was herein a type of Christ, whose death likewise meant the defeat of God’s enemies and the salvation of his people.”
This wasn’t a suicide, but an act of self-sacrifice on the battlefield for the benefit of Israel and the glory of God. As Matthew Henry explains, “Nor was he a self-murderer in it; for it was not his own life that he aimed at…but the lives of Israel’s enemies, for the reaching of which he bravely resigned his own, not counting it dear to him, so that he might finish his course with honor.”
Saint and Savior
Which all hints that Samson was not only saved by Christ, but he also saved like Christ, the ultimate Judge. As that most Christ-centered of Old Testament writers, Robert Gordon, put it:
And here, again, who can fail to remember the purpose and the manner of Christ’s death? It was for the vindication of his Father’s honor as the Lawgiver and the Judge, that he submitted to insult, and ignominy, and death; and when, in apparent weakness, and loaded with the taunts and reproaches of ungodly men, he bowed his head and gave up the ghost, he at that moment achieved a victory the most glorious, both in its nature and in its consequences, inasmuch as he spoiled principalities and powers, and made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in his cross.