Monday, November 30, 2020

Journey to Bethlehem Pt. 1 - Ruth 1


Many are especially excited for this Christmas season to finally get underway given the year we have all endured. There is something about the holidays that gives people something to look forward to. This season, for believers and unbelievers alike, acts as a finish line of sorts that many are eager to reach after the marathon of the previous months. It is this theme of journeying to a preferred place/end that I’d like to explore over the next couple of weeks in our Christmas series—“Journey to Bethlehem.” In the Bible, Bethlehem proves to be the epicenter of a lot of activity and a lot of blessing. However, it is getting to Bethlehem that proves to be the issue. What is God willing to do to lead his people where he wants them to be? What are God’s people willing to endure on their way to accomplish God’s will? We will answer these question as we journey to Bethlehem today in Ruth 1 and next week in the New Testament. In Ruth 1 we are going to witness four episodes in the journey to Bethlehem for Naomi and Ruth and learn how God can use even the worst experiences in our lives for his incredible purposes.


This important book begins with a less than positive assessment of the situation in Israel: “Not it came about in the days when the judges governed that there was a famine in the land…” (1:1a) In this period between Joshua’s death and Saul’s coronation, God-appointed judges to rule his people and yet, each new judge proved worse at the job than the one previous. This failed leadership led to all kinds of problems.

Judges 2:16-18-Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them…”

Judges 17:6-In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.

In verse 1 of Ruth, the great spiritual famine is brilliantly juxtaposed (placed alongside) the literal famine that Judah was experiencing. In fact, the curse of the famine may be a direct result of the lawlessness and spiritual deprivation that was rampant during this time period.

As the author continues to set the scene, he introduces us to a particular places and people—“and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and two sons”(1:1b). The irony is unavoidable when the reader learns that Bethlehem means “house of bread.” The “house of bread” is without food or any seed for growing such for this family. Because of their seedless situation, this man leaves the homeland to the land of Moab (literally, “the fields of Moab”). This distinction is important because it alludes to the sole purpose of their sojourn, survival.

This move was not easy for several reasons. 1. The Moabites originated in the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter (Gen. 19:30-38). 2. The Moabites’ resisted Israelite passage through their territory when they came from Egypt (Num. 22-24). 3. The Moabite women were know to seduce the Israelites (Num. 25:1-9). 4. Israel maintained a constitutional exclusion of Moab from the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:3-6). 5. Moab had recently oppressed Israel under king Eglon (Jud. 3:15-30). Desperate times, however, called for desperate measures.

Next, the author reveals more about this family—“ The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife, Naomi and the names of his two sons were Maholon and Chilion …” (1:2a). Elimelech, “My God is King” is married to Naomi, “to be pleasant,” and they have two sons: Mahalon (“to be sick”) and Chilion (“to eb finished”) (yikes—doesn’t sound like these two were destined for greatness). Each of these names in their own way point to the intensification of the crisis about to strike Naomi.

The entire family is identified ethically as “Ephrathites of Bethehem in Judah” (1:2b). The author is hoping that the audience will invest in these characters as he describes a tightly-knit family of a Dad, Mom and two boys down on their luck. This makes what happens next so much more shocking.

Having escaped the clutches of famine, this family falls into the unrelenting snare of death—“ Then Elimelech, Naomi’s Husband, died; and she was left with her two sons…”(1:3). Here, the proverbial rug is pulled out from beneath this family unit and hope suffers a desperate blow. The narrator adds that Naomi was “left with” her sons (Lit. “to be left over,” or “to remain” which often speaks of bereavement at the death of another). Naomi is now a widow and she and her two sons bury their father in this foreign land (which, according to Amos 7:17, was considered the ultimate punishment).

All is not lost, however. The line and Naomi’s seed may still be saved as her seed (her sons) can go and carry on the family line. This is what they seek to do in verse 4—“they took for themselves Moabite women as wives” (1:4a). The marriage of both sons raises the hopes once again for the reader that line of Elimelech and Naomi may continue. 

“the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other, Ruth, and they lived there about ten years…” (1:4b). Although little can be said concerning the names of these women and what they mean, it is no secret that they were Moabite women. These marriages must be understood in light of Moses’ prohibition against marriage with pagans (Deut. 7:3-4).  This prohibition should have been reason enough for Naomi to forestall these marriages. Although not ideal and perhaps even forbidden, marriage to these Moabitesses was a desperate effort in order to save what was lost, in much the same way that the journey to Moab was in the first place. Lack of seed brought on by the famine led this family to Moab, and it would be lack of seed necessary for children that would introduce them into these marriages.

In a second round of tragedy and in one climactic blow—“Then, both Maholon and Chilion also died and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband” (1:5a). This left Naomi with no male remnant—neither husband nor children. Things move from bad to infinitely worse as now there appears to be no hope for a restoration of the family line (a restoration of seed in Naomi’s life). Famine and death—what a way to begin a book! What a way to begin a journey! However, what we learn next is that these events, painful though they may be, are the very things that direct Naomi to the place of blessing.


The idea of “returning” to the land from whence she came permeates the remainder of the chapter. In fact, the word “return” is repeated 6 times in verses 6-14 (cf. 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12), the first of which is in verse 6--“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab” (1:6a). The author is emphasizing something about the significance of Naomi’s journey back to the land that should not go unnoticed. By returning to her homeland, Naomi reversed the direction she and her husband had taken earlier. The author therefore creates and apt illustration of repentance that can be enjoyed throughout this passage. In fact, the same Hebrew word for “return” is also used for “repent.” 

Perhaps the reason for her departure paralleled the reason for her sojourn in the first place—“ for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food” (1:6b). Originally, she and her family had left Judah because there was a lack of seed in the land (a famine). It appears that the seed had been restored in her homeland (the famine in Bethlehem was over) and the timing could not have been more perfect. Naomi’s plight in Moab would have been very grim. With no husband or children or seed possibilities, she would soon die in this foreign land. Although she would still face a difficult time in Judah as a lone widow, her odds of survival would have been better among her people.

Already, God’s hand can be traced as we see it lifting the famine in the homeland at the very time that would have helped Naomi best. Although Naomi is no doubt being led by God back to Judah, she was unaware that this leadership was taking place and her life and perhaps believed that this was her only opportunity for survival. However, already the reader can pick up on the reality that God is moving in Naomi’s favor. This doesn’t make the journey easy, but it does make it deliberate.

“So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the lane of Judah…” (1:7).

While on the way home Naomi, taking nothing for granted, urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their own homes in Moab—“ And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go return each of you to her mother’s house…” (1:8a). It would have been quite a stretch for either of them to remarry in Israel. These two girls may have been in their late teens or early twenties, and Naomi took a motherly interest in seeking what was best for them.

Naomi continues by saying “May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me…” (1:8b). It is obvious from this pronouncement of blessing that Naomi loved these girls and thought that they had proved themselves to be loving wives. The word hesed (loving-kindness), is an important word in the book of Ruth (cf. 2:20; 3:10) and throughout the Old Testament. It speaks of God’s covenant loyalty to His people. Not only did it involve grace that was extended even when it was not deserved, it is often shown to accompany human action. Here, Naomi hopes that this kindness would be extended to these women.

After pronouncing the blessing of God’s grace and love upon them, Naomi continues and asks that God would grant each of them a place of rest with another husband—“ May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept…” (1:9). This becomes a key issue in the book also. Marriage in the ancient world meant security for a woman and Naomi wanted these girls to enjoy the security that a husband could bring once again. After pronouncing these blessings upon them she literally kisses them goodbye and they enjoy a good cry together.

In spite of her advice and the conclusive pronouncement of blessings she gave sealed with a kiss goodbye, these two women, against all expectations , determine to return to Judah with Naomi and appear to give up the possibility of marriage by leaving their home, Moab (“And they said to her, ‘No, but we will surely return with you to your people…’”) (1:10). The resolve of these women to remain with Naomi seems to suggest that Naomi’s sons had picked for themselves excellent wives who demonstrated incredible loyalty to their mother-in-law.

Naomi’s determination to continue back to Judah alone is expressed in her persistent request for the women to leave—“But Naomi said, ‘Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?’” (1:11). Ultimately, Naomi was out of sons, out of seed. This realization would have been enough to discourage any young woman from following their mother-in-law. Usually, when there is no one left to marry, there would be no more interest in the family. In this way, Naomi is telling them that there is nothing left for her to offer them and the one thing she could offer them, she is out of, sons.

Obvious that her first reason proved unsuccessful in discouraging the women before her, Naomi sounds off and introduces the second reason why these two women should go away. Notice that her request grows more emphatic with two commands side-by-side, “Return,my daughers, Go! for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me…” (1:12-13). If the first reason was not enough to deter their interest in Judah (that there was no more seed), Naomi’s second realization would certainly do it! There is no time! Naomi was not about to run to Vegas, have a shotgun wedding, and conceive another child, nurture him to health, wait around until he can marry and then hand him over to one of these girls. Naomi’s prospects were done away with. Although the women must have realized this, the author of the story through Naomi reiterates the lack of seed with this rhetorical question. The answer of which is “of course not!”

Once again, these women lift their voices in agony at the prospect of their plight—“And they lifted up their voices and wept again” (1:14a). The text makes it clear that what these women went through was highly emotional. No more seed. No more time. Faced with these grim realities, what would these women choose to do next?

 “and Orpah kissed her mother in Law but Ruth clung to her…” (1:14). Orpah decides to leave and repay Naomi’s kiss goodbye with a kiss goodbye of her own. In contrast to Orpah’s long-anticipated farewell, Ruth clings to Naomi. Rather than shake free of this Moabitess, Ruth attaches herself to Naomi against all odds and in spite of all Naomi has said. Little does she know that in so doing, she would reap the answer to the prayers of blessing Naomi voiced in verses 8 & 9. In the end, God would award her courage and extraordinary action with an extraordinary blessing. 

Having listened to the choices given and the conversation that took place, which would you have chosen? It is quite clear that either is justified, and the account of Ruth is the one that the author chooses to follow from this point on. Anyone could have left, but Ruth chose to stay. What is more impressive than Ruth’s actions here is the commitment that she makes later.


Naomi tries one more time to discourage Ruth from following her in verse 15--“Then she said, ‘Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods;…” (1:15a). In the biblical world, nations tended to be distinguishable on the bases of ethnicity (hence “her people”), territory (hence “land of Moab”), kingship (hence “Eglon, king of Moab” in Judg. 3:12-17), language (Moabite, Hebrew, etc.) and theology. Just as the Israelites were known in the world as people of Yahweh, Naomi associates Orpah’s return to Moab in reference to not only a change in geography but a return to her gods. 

Naomi actually suggests to Ruth that she should return with Orpah back to her gods—“return after your sister-in-law” (1:15b). So desperate is she to go it alone in her discouragement that she encourages this woman to return to a land of sin rather than remain with her. Her theological perception at this point seems no more orthodox than those of many characters in the Book of Judges. If Naomi represented the highest level of faith in Israel, it is no wonder God had sent a famine in the first place. Sure, Naomi had repented, but she still had a long journey ahead of her both physically and spiritually.

The first words we hear from Ruth’s lips in response to Naomi are among the most memorable in all of Scripture. Few passages in the Bible match this speech in poetic beauty, and the extraordinary courage and spirituality it expresses. This poem exists in 5 major parts that can be distinguished into 5 couplets.

A- “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you;

 B- For where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge

C- Your people shall be my people and your God, my God

B’- Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried

A’- Thus may the lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” (1:16-17).

Just as Naomi’s speeches increase in intensity, so Ruth’s first statement intensifies her joint response to Naomi with Orpah in v.10

Some suggest that such an oath may have been accompanied by a nonverbal gesture, like sliding one hands across one’s neck or in our context pointing our index finger to the temple of our head. With all of this in mind, it is plain that Ruth is making a life-long commitment to her mother-in-law that is unexpected and unparalleled at this point in Israel’s history. She is willing to change everything—her home, her identity, her religion, her allegiance, her life—for a new one with Naomi in Bethlehem.

Ruth’s eloquent declaration of devotion to Naomi leaves the older woman speechless. Although impressed by her skill of communication in the poem itself, the even more beautiful display of her resolve and the determination in her voice were the agents that convinced Naomi to back off and stop her efforts. Soon, the reader will be able to observe first-hand how Ruth makes good on these promises.


The story picks up again in verse 19 with “so they both went until they came to Bethlehem” (1:19a). Remember, although a familiar territory to Naomi, this was a foreign land for Ruth.

No doubt Naomi’s relatives and family had heard of the grief she had experienced since her husband and sons had left the town and headed for Moab more than a decade ago. One can imagine their excitement when Naomi suddenly shows up unannounced—“ and when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them…” (1:19b). Naomi and Ruth’s entrance caused an uproar in the town consisting of soft-spoken comments and a quiet chorus of speculative townspeople.

Shocked at Naomi’s appearance, the women of the town cannot help but ask each other, “can this be Naomi?” (1:19c). This question brings to light a double-dose of surprise. First, they were surprised to see Naomi as they were not expecting their friend back at this point or at all. Second, there is little doubt that the years of grief and deprivation had surely taken a toll on Naomi’s visage, rendering her almost unrecognizable. This one who had left Bethlehem as the “pleasant one,” a robust woman in her prime, had returned as a haggard and depressed old woman.  There is little doubt that although Naomi had changed outwardly, she was welcomed back with open arms by these women who could not believe that their friend had returned. Despite appearances and loneliness, Naomi was home again and that was enough to excite the crowd.

In one stifling outburst, Naomi interrupts the humming crowd with a pointed response, giving public vent to her years of frustration and pain—“She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (1:20a). In the process of getting everyone up to speed she requests that people no longer refer to her as Naomi “pleasant” but Mara “bitter.” In the aftermath of this request, Naomi begins accusing God in four pointed attacks, each with their own indictment.

    A- “For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me

B-I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty

B-…since the LORD has witnessed against me

    A-and the Almighty has afflicted me” (1:20)

In her first accusation, Naomi refers to God with the title of Shadday. This term associates itself with a heavenly council that met at the top of a mountain. As overseer of the heavenly council, Shadday commands all the angelic hosts through whom His providential care and disciplinary judgment of humans is exercised. In Naomi’s mind, it is her perception that God had made her a target His arrows of misfortune, hurling them down from high above her.

In two parallel clauses we are given Naomi’s take on what has happened in her life.

“I             went out           full

Lord      brought back     empty” (1:21a)

On the one hand, if “fullness” is understood as referring to food and satisfied stomach (physical seed), the first statement “I went out full” is false. Otherwise, why would they have left Israel in the first place? On the other hand, if “fullness” is understood in terms of family and descendents (seed of a different kind), then the statement is true. Indeed she had gone out with potential for many offspring and came back with nothing left to sow.  Although, in her mind, she was empty both physically and spiritually, the Lord has now brought her back to food and family.

Naomi continues to accuse the Lord and, in the language, take him to court—“Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?’” (1:21b). Phrases like “the Lord has witnessed against me,” suggest that like Job before her, Naomi believed God had called her to account, found her guilty, and instigated the affliction she experienced in response. For this reason, she once again reminds everyone that “pleasantness” is no longer a suitable name.

The narrator continues with “So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth, the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab,…” (1:22a). There is that word again, “return.” Do not miss the significance that Naomi and Ruth’s return on a physical level has been completed. Underscoring the very real emotional and spiritual journey that we just read through and discussed is the change of locality and geography that has taken place. Notice how much “Moab” is emphasized also. It was a big deal for a Moabite to be seen let alone adopted in Israelite society. To “return from the land of Moab” was unheard of and something that would have shocked the original readers. However, unexpected though this may be, Naomi and Ruth had, after a string of famines and death returned “to Bethlehem a the beginning of barley harvest” (1:22b).

They had returned to the “house of bread” (where seed had returned) and would find food. The harvest was ripe and we look ahead with anticipation as to how these women will be filled. Now that the place is set, the time is right, and the people have assembled, all was prepared for God to dish out His incredible blessings, the blessings we will observe in the rest of this extraordinary book.

So What?

It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth and Naomi would find food in the scraps left over after the harvesters. It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth would meet Boaz who would become her husband. It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth and Boaz would have a child and give Naomi a grandchild that would make her the envy of all the women in the town. It would be in Bethlehem that the family line responsible for King David and Jesus, a line which was jeopardized in the death of Naomi’s husband and sons, would move forward. Bethlehem proves to be a place of great blessing in Ruth and Naomi’s life. However, it was tragedy—famine and death—that led them there. As we consider this text and its message against the backdrop of this year and the journey(s) all of us have been on, consider how God’s story is greater  and bigger than the difficult episodes we may come across. Yes, even a depletion of resources (famine in the case of this story), relocation, and death, are not wasted by our sovereign God. In the life of Naomi and Ruth, and in our own lives, even these sources of heartache may be exactly what God uses in our lives to bring us where he wants us —to a place of blessing. Trust him in this season and every season for he is in control, he is writing the story, and while this chapter may prove especially difficult, the story is not yet finished.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Samson's Last Stand- Judges 16:28-31

Have you ever heard of a moral victory? Applied to sports, a moral victory is the idea that certain loses involving an underdog failing to beat a much better team can produce (at times) redeemable qualities. Perhaps the losing team learns a lot, looked better than expected, or can use the loss to propel them forward in the season. Some question whether moral victories actually exist (normally, only winners question the existence of such 😊). However, I want to consider whether there is such a thing as a moral victory of sorts in the life of Samson. In Judges 16:28-31, we finally reach the end of Samson’s story. Although things do not end especially well for him, I’m wondering if there is something redeemable about his defeat that we might learn and apply today as we navigate this world and consider God’s plan for our lives. Today we are going to witness THREE PHASES of the end of Samson’s story in Judges 16:28-31 and discover how we are at our best when God is at his most conspicuous in our lives.

a. The Call-16:28

The last time we saw Samson he was being chaperoned by a young boy between two large pillars with his eyes gouged out. He was also serving as the entertainment at a party that celebrated his defeat and capture. It is not a good look for Samson in Judges 16 verse 27. This is rock bottom. The deliverer of Israel had been brought low because of his reckless flirting with sin and his prideful self-reliance. Every indication in this passage suggests that Samson is finished. However, from this precarious position, Samson cries out to the Lord for just the second time in his life (the first was when he was thirsty in 15:18ff). “When all is lost, Samson knows to whom he must turn” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 467). The first request that Samson makes as part of his call is for God to remember him—"Then Samson called to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, God, please remember me…” (16:28a). Elsewhere in the Old Testament “remember” (zakar) is not the opposite of “to forget,” (as if God has forgotten him). Instead, the verb here means “to take note of, to act on behalf of.” In many ways, after learning that God’s special hand of blessing had left him (which was why he was in such a desperate situation), in this first plea, Samson requests that God’s hand would be reapplied. He even invokes God’s proper covenant name (Yahweh) in the prayer. This may mean that he is appealing to God in light of his covenant relationship with his people (the idea being—“Oh God, don’t forget you promises you’ve made to your people and move in me once again to perform your will on our behalf”).

Specifically, the hand of God is requested so that his strength may return—the same strength that was taken from him when his locks of hair were removed—“and please strengthen me just this time” (16:28b). Samson does not disclose the plans he has for the strength he desires; but it is clear that Samson has learned that without God’s presence in his life, he is weak, unfit, vulnerable, and woefully incapable of success. This is something that was true both for Samson’s own life and true for the people he led. Just as Samson had learned, Israel needed to learn (and we need to remember today), that absent God’s hand, we might as well be blinded and bound.

After calling on the Lord and requesting his presence, Samson reveals the motivation for his request at the end of verse 28—“O God, that I may at once be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes…”. This second half of the prayer gives the reader pause concerning just how much Samson has learned up to this point. Once again, Samson’s focus seems to be on himself. Rather than understanding that vengeance ultimately belongs to the Lord (see Deut. 32:35), Samson wants power to be returned to him so that he might personally enact the vengeance he desires. Also, Samson does not appear to be interested in God’s long-range plan or greater purposes as much as he is getting one more shot to get even with those who have hurt him. “Although Samson is no longer driven by what he sees (14:1), his physical eyes continue to determine his actions” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 468).

Although the prayer is addressed to Yahweh, the first-person pronoun (I, me, or my) is used 5 times. Even here, at the end of his life and after being totally humiliated, Samson is self-absorbed and uninterested in what God may be doing on a larger scale. He cannot see past himself to the greater purposes of God for his people.

b. The Push-16:29-30b

Following the call, Samson prepares to push on the pillars he has been leaning on in the middle of the party venue—“Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and braced himself against them, the one with his right hand and the other with his left” (16:29). These two large cedar pillars on stone bases would have been the major supporting structure for the second floor of the place where, as the text indicated earlier, some 3000 Philistines were partying (see 16:27). It is obvious by now what Samson intends to do and why he had requested to be led to the pillars by his young chaperone (16:26) and what the stubble on his head indicated (16:22). Something big was about to happen. The climax of Samson’s story is finally here.

However, the climax of Samson’s story is really both a tragedy and a triumph. The tragic elements of this finale can be heard as Samson lets out a cry immediately before he pushes against the pillars near him—“And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines!’” (16:30a). Rather than leading Israel in opposition against the Philistines and driving out their influence as the set-apart deliverer of God’s people, Samson declares his total and final identification with the enemy. “What a tragic inversion of the office to which he had been called! The Nazarite, set apart for the service of God, wants to die with the uncircumcised Philistines” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 469). Rather than win a great victory over them as the conspicuous leader of Israel, Samson asks to die with the enemy as one of their captors. This is not some declaration of great sacrifice and selflessness on Samson’s part as much as it is an acknowledgment of defeat and a personal request to take out as many of the Philistines as possible on his way to death.

The text goes on to say “And he bent with all his might so that the house fell on the lords and all the people who were in it” (16:30b). Miraculously, despite Samson’s failures, recklessness, selfishness, and misplaced motivations, God answers Samson’s call and gives him the power to push, resulting not only in Samson’s death, but in the death of those who were attending the party around him. This is the latest and greatest episode of God graciously moving and providing for the undeserving antihero of this story. So why? Why does God do this? Samson doesn’t seem to have learned much? Why reward him with even this victory?

The answer has nothing to do with Samson, but with God’s greater plan. Samson is merely a tool (and a perpetually malfunctioning tool at that) in the hands of God, used to execute his perfect will. Don’t let the narration’s preoccupation with Samson mislead you. On a far greater scale, this story is about Israel driving out the Philistines and their pagan influence. Samson was called and commissioned to lead the charge but failed to do so for so many obvious reasons. That said, even with and through Samson’s failures and embarrassments, God is working out his greater plan by using this selfish braggart to do his bidding and win victories over the Philistines nonetheless.

In fact, this final episode in Samson’s life is actually the greatest victory God achieves through him—“So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he killed in his life…” (16:30c). Isn’t it ironic that the greatest victory God uses Samson to win is the one that ends up taking his life. It would appear that the only way for Samson to get over himself would be to die. Consider this, if the threat of being mauled by a lion, embarrassment before peers at a wedding feast, or humiliation and weakness after a haircut that should have never happened was not able to teach Samson who is really in control, death seems to be the only option to learn that lesson. After all, it is in Samson’s death that God finally achieves the greatest victory of this cycle. “This man, with his unprecedentedly high calling and with his extraordinary divine gifts, has wasted his life. Indeed, he accomplished more for God dead than alive” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 469). Make no mistake, God is willing to use anything and everything in the lives of his people to get them to learn the hard lesson of reliance on the Lord, even if it requires everything from them!

c. The Conclusion-16:31

The conclusion of Samson’s story shows his family scrambling to retrieve Samson’s body from the wreckage at the sight of this last stand in verse 31—“Then his brothers and all his father’s household came down, took him, brought him up, and buried him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father…”. Interestingly, while Samson had lived most of his life in isolation and in the wrong place with the wrong people (the Philistines), his story ends with his return to his family. In fact, his entire clan comes to Gaza to retrieve the body, take it home, and bury it in the family tomb of his father Manoah. Samson may have rejected them in life (traveling outside the region and marrying a foreign woman), but they accepted him back as their kinsman in his death.

As with most of the cycles in Judges, this story ends with a summary of Samson’s tenure—“Thus he had judged Israel twenty years” (16:31b). Though most of that time was spent away from his people and spent committing embarrassing failure after embarrassing failure, Samson, for better or worse, was the leader of his people whom God had called to win victories over the Philistines. In the largely unimpressive and failure-prone list of judges in this book, so far Samson has proven to be the worst of the lot, and yet, even amid his precarious leadership, God is shown to be faithful and continues to graciously provide victories for his people.

So What?

This is the first takeaway from this passage and Samson’s story—Yahweh is a gracious God who gives his people far more than they deserve. Samson is given opportunities that he did not earn to do the right thing and live up to his calling and Israel is given deliverance and victory over the Philistines even though Samson proves selfish and reckless and God's people seems comfortable and disinterested in change. Why does God do this? Because God is about his will and executing his plan regardless of the circumstances and despite his people’s failures. The story is not about Samson or even Israel; it is about God showing himself mighty over this world and the false gods that it worships. Even in Samson’s story, God wins and the Philistine worshippers of Dagon lose.

However, another takeaway from Samson’s story is the lesson of dependency on the Lord. God tries to teach Samson time after time (the hard way) how utterly reliant upon him this deliverer really was. Samson fails to learn that lesson and it cost him his life. This is why the Bible consistently preaches a path of dying to self so as to really know an abundant life. Jesus will say in Luke 9:23-24, “And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, this is the one who will save it.’” We are at our best when God is at his most conspicuous in our lives. We are operating as designed when we are reliant on him. We are most capable to get over this or that when we get over ourselves. Our story is ultimately about him (Christ in me the hope of glory—Col. 1:27) and when we confuse that, God will do what is necessary to teach us that lesson, even if that requires our very lives.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Boastful, Blinded, and Bound - Judges 16:15-27

 Many years ago I was in a defensive driving class. Yes, I was in a defensive driving class as a result of a ticket I received for speeding on the highway. As part of this course, the police officer showed us several videos and still shots of what can result if the laws are not obeyed on the road. Shocking, graphic, and unsettling, these images were intended to scare us into submission. By showing us what has happened in the past, the officer was hoping that we might learn something and prevent similar things from happening as we take to the road. I must admit, it made me think twice about a couple of things and change a few things about the way I drive. Today I’d like to do something similar, although, instead of showing you pictures/videos, I’d like to take us through Judges 16:15-27. It is my prayer by showing you what happened to Samson in this passage, we might learn a thing or two so that we do not see this kind of failure repeat itself in our own lives. In this passage we are going to witness three actions that take Samson from the top to the bottom and we will discover how important it is not to rely on our own strength.\

a) ACTION #1: The Secret is Extracted-16:15-17

We last left Samson in a compromising situation with his new love interest, Delilah. Delilah has been trying to extract the secret to Samson’s strength so that she might share this information with the Philistines and they might bind and torture Israel’s deliverer. So far Samson has been successful in withholding the answer to her inquiry; however, he has been inching closer to revealing too much. Three attempts at discovering Samson’s power source have been thwarted and in verse 15 we arrive at attempt number 4. Delilah says, “…’How can you say, “I love you,” when your heart is not with me? You have toyed with me these three times and have not told me where your great strength is’…” (16:15). Here, Delilah employs the same persuasive tactic of Samson’s first wife back in Timnah (see 14:16-17). She suggests that his love for her cannot be real if he is not fully committed to her and willing to disclose everything.

This tactic appears to apply the right kind of pressure according to verse 16—“And it came about, when she pressed him daily with her words and urged him, that his soul was annoyed to death…” (16:16). No doubt, as in chapter 14, tears and persistent nagging accompanied Delilah’s accusations and claims against Samson here and the pressure is too much for Samson to take. The idiom “his soul was annoyed to death” means that Samson was completely worn out by Delilah’s incessant attempts and had met his limit.

As a result, Samson relents—“So he told her all that was in his heart…” (16:17a) (lit. “bared his soul”). Though it has taken awhile, Delilah is successful at wearing Samson down in her multiple attempts and finally receives what she has been looking for—the secret to Samson’s strength. Make no mistake, sin is patient, persistent, and willing to play the long game to lead God’s people to failure. As strong as Samson is, his mind and spirit prove to lack the same resolve and endurance that Delilah shows as she is about her business. In a game of wits, Delilah proves more resilient that Samson. To Samson, she has proven sweeter than honey and stronger than a lion.

After giving in, Samson “said to her, ‘A razor has never come on my head, for I have been a Nazarite to God from my mother’s womb. If I am shaved, then my strength will leave me and I will become weak and be like any other man.’…” (16:17b). What Samson reveals is telling. First, it indicates that Samson was (believe it or not) aware of his high spiritual and theological calling. Though his actions might indicate otherwise, Samson understood that his life was supposed to be special and set apart to the one true God of Israel. Second, the revelation of his hair and no razor touching his head highlights the one element of his Nazarite vow he had kept. While he had contacted dead bodies (the lion carcass, jawbone, and fresh ropes), entertained relationships with foreign women, and gave himself over to strong drink (all in defiance of his special promise and consecration), he had not, up to this point, cut his hair. His hair was, perhaps, the last remaining vestige of his promise to God that Samson had not broken.  That is, until now. With the secret of Samson’s strength extracted, things move very quickly toward devastation. So far Samson has played with fire without harm, but now he has been burned.

b) ACTION #2: The Strength is Taken-16:18-22

“When Delilah saw that he had told her all that was in his heart, she sent word and called the governors of the Philistines, saying, ‘Come up once more, for he has told me all that is in his heart.’ Then the governors of the Philistines came up to her and brought up the money in their hands…” (16:18). Something about what Samson said this time around and how he said it convinced Delilah and her co-conspirators that this was legitimate and they finally had the answer they were looking for. The Philistines pay off their double-agent (Delilah) and then they execute their plan to bring Samson in.

Given that in every previous attempt Delilah responded to what Samson said with an attempt on his life, I am not sure what Samson expected from her after this last disclosure. Had Samson any sense, he should have seen what would happen next coming a mile away. However, that is the thing about sin and slipping slowly toward devastation—once you go far enough, you cannot see clearly or think straight. Samson is compromised and as a result, he places himself in a compromising situation leading to his demise.

The text reveals, “And she made him sleep on her knees, and called for a man and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. Then she began to humble him, and his strength left him” (16:19). While earlier the guards in Gaza seeking Samson’s life had slept through Samson’s escape and removal of the gates (16:1-3), here Samson somehow sleeps through a major haircut that allows Delilah to torment him and the Philistines to overpower him. “Then she began to humble him” actually means “she began to torture Samson.” It is the same word Delilah used in setting forth her agenda in verse 6 (“So Delilah said to Samson, ‘Please tell me where your great strength is and how you may be bound to afflict you”) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 460).

The deed now done, she tests Samson with the same test he had passed three times prior—“She said, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ And he awoke from his sleep and said, ‘I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.’” (16:20). This has been the story of Samson’s life—he has come and gone as he pleased without consequence. Remember, Samson believed himself invincible. No one had ever been able to tell him what he could or could not do (Block, Judges, Ruth, 461). However, there was one important difference between this episode and those before—“he did not know that the Lord had departed from him…” (16:20). Here lies the ultimate secret to Samson’s strength—the source of his power. Ultimately, it wasn’t Samson’ hair that empowered him. It was the Lord. The hair represented his connection to the Lord (the Nazarite vow). Because Samson showed no respect for the Lord, never gave credit to the Lord for his victories, and seemed to replace reliance on the Lord with reliance on himself, the Lord hands Samson over to his sin by allowing him to go it alone in his own limited human strength. After all, that is how Samson has been operating anyway. If Samson wanted to follow his own way in his own strength, now he really could.

Consider this, sometimes the worst thing God could give you is exactly what you want. Samson wanted to eb self-reliant and now he would finally get it.

With the hand of the Lord now removed from Samson’s life, the Philistines have no problem whatsoever in apprehending their victim—“Then the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes; and they brought him down to Gaza and restrained him with bronze chains, and he became a grinder in the prison…” (16:21). The irony is not lost on the reader here as the Philistines torture their victim. “Overnight this man is transformed from one whose life is governed by sight and whose actions are determined by what is right in his own eyes into a blind man with eyes gouged out. Overnight a life of coming and going as he pleases turns into a life of bondage and imprisonment. Overnight the person who has spent his life insulting and humiliating others becomes the object of their humiliation. Overnight a man with the highest conceivable calling, the divinely commissioned agent of deliverance for Israel, is cast down to the lowest position imaginable: grinding flour for others in prison.” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 462).

Though Samson’s saga is highly personal, the rise and fall of this deliverer serves as an analogy for the people Samson was supposed to lead—the nation of Israel. Like Samson, if God’s people continued to persist in sin and entertain the pagan influences around them, they too will be seized, spiritually blinded, exiled, imprisoned, humiliated, and forced into labor. The same might be said of God’s people today. These same fates await those who trade dependency on the Lord for entertaining themselves with sinful pursuits or relying purely on their own strength to get through life. Though it may not happen all at once or right away, sin and self-reliance leads to spiritual captivity, blindness, exile, and slavery of all kinds.

Though Samson had been given every opportunity to lead an incredible life and successful ministry as judge, he has been utterly humiliated. In verse 21 we find him at rock bottom. Though his name means “sun,” by verse 21 Samson’s sun has set.

However, while all might seem lost for this failed deliverer, a small comment in verses 22 draws attention to a silver lining lurking on the periphery of an altogether ominous sky (Crenshaw, Samson, 501). Verse 22 reads, “However, the hair of his head began to grow again after it was shaved off…”. Miraculously, this comment reveals that somehow God is not yet done with Samson and, despite his gross failure, the Lord might still have use for this antihero.

c) ACTION #3: The Success is Celebrated-16:23-27

Before we get to that, the Philistines revel in their victory over Samson in verses 23-27. First, we witness a pagan praise service. From the governors we see the following: “Now the governors of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to celebrate, for they said, ‘Our god has handed Samson our enemy over to us.’…” (16:23). In the ancient pagan world your confidence in your god(s) was dependent on successes you gained over your enemies. Because the Philistines were finally successful over Samson, the governors frame the victory theologically by offering sacrifices to the false god Dagon and giving him credit (something that Samson does not even do with respect to Yahweh following his own victories).

The Philistine masses join the refrain upon seeing Samson in verse 24—“When the people saw him, they praised their god for they said, ‘Our god has handed our enemy over to us, Even the destroyer of our country, who has killed many of us’…” (16:24). For these Gazites, Samson may have won battles against them in the past, but they had won the war.

Following the praise service, the Philistines throw a party and ask for Samson to serve as the entertainment: “It so happened when they were in high spirits, that they said, ‘Call for Samson, that he may amuse us.’ So they called for Samson from the prison, and he entertained them. And they made him stand between the pillars…” (16:25). Though the ruins of this temple have not been discovered, excavations in and around this region confirm the type of structure we read about here where the roof and upper story of a large meeting place were supported by two cedar pillars slightly less than three meters apart set on round stone bases (Block, Judges, Ruth, 466). Standing in the middle of these pillars for all to see is the trophy of their victory, a blinded Samson, helpless and bound.

The narrative briefly zooms in on Samson, escaping the jeers and insults of the crowd, and reveals the following in verse 26—“Then Samson said to the boy who was holding his hand, ‘Let me feel the pillars on which the house rests, so that I may lean against them.” While there is certainly an element of foreshadowing here that sets up the next passage, this comment also serves to illustrate to just how weak and vulnerable Samson is at this low point. Earlier he tore a lion apart with his bare hands, killed 1000 men with the jawbone of a donkey, and ripped the city gates off their hinges. Here, a small boy is all that is needed to keep him in custody. This serves to show that absent the presence of God, even the mighty are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

As the description of the party continues, the momentum seems to shift in a different direction—“Now the house was full of men and women, and all the governors of the Philistines were there. And about three thousand men and women were on the roof looking on while Samson was entertaining them” (16:27). Those who already know the end of the story can see how this description sets up what will happen later, but let us consider how those who would have read this for the first time might interpret this. The Philistines seem to be validated here. They had captured the champion of Israel (flawed though he may be, he was still their deliverer). Everyone who was anyone was there to join the celebration which seemed to exalt Dagon and undermine the God of Israel and his chosen leader. However, this is not how the story ends.

So What?

But before we get to the ending of Samson’s story, let us consider what lessons we might learn in Samson’s “rock-bottom” episode. First, prideful self-reliance might seem to work for a season, but it ultimately leads people to utter failure. As in Samson’s mind, our world might glorify the idea of total independence and yet, God’s people ought not fall for this trap. Samson finally gets what he seems to want in this passage—total autonomy—and he learns very quickly that he, in and of himself, is not all that strong or all that spectacular. When God leaves him, so does the power, perseverance, and provision. As a result, Samson is vulnerable to attack, helpless, and easily enslaved. This is the dirty bait and switch of our enemy too. The world and its many mouthpieces tempt us with the idea of self-reliance, promising freedom and control of our fate only to capture us, blind us, bind us, and take us where we do not want to go. When we show God the door, we might as well show power, perseverance, and provision out as well.

Samson was not created, called, and commissioned to go it alone or perform in his own strength and neither or we. This is why Jesus is adamant in John 15, “Abide in me and I in You. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you aide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (15:4-5). Are you connected to the vine? Is God’s presence in your life today?

Perhaps God is not in your life today or perhaps you have been brought very low, like Samson was in the passage. Perhaps today is a call to repentance and maybe today you need to confess your dependency on the Lord. Believe it or not, it is not over for Samson, and it does not have to be over for you either!

Monday, November 9, 2020

Flirting With Disaster- Judges 16:1-14


One of the most epic Broadway productions ever created is “Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Regardless of what many think about the subject matter, few question the brilliance and beauty of its many songs. The show follows a peculiar relationship between a young blossoming opera singer (Christine) and her mysterious vocal teacher (the Phantom lurking in the shadows). The tension lies in who this young opera singer will choose in love—an old friend and hero figure (Raul) or the mysterious and disfigured Phantom whose passion for Christine has him stopping at nothing to lure her into his clutches. At one point in the show, the Phantom sets up a production in which Christine has the lead and shares a duet with the male protagonist. These two are to sing a song entitled “Past the Point of No Return.” However, after the show gets underway and this pivotal tune approaches, the Phantom himself assumes the role of the male lead in the show and ends up singing this telling song with Christine, his love interest. It is a powerful moment in which Christine realizes that, given all that has transpired up to this point, she really might be falling for the Phantom after all. You can cut the tension with a knife. So many little things lead to this moment and it is a fitting analogy for the scene we arrive at in Judges 16. As Samson’s story continues, our protagonist inches closer and closer to disaster and in verses 1-14 we watch the slow but inevitable pull toward utter failure (the point of no return). It is my prayer that by examining two relationships Samson entertains in this passage we might learn how to avoid the devastation sin can bring in our own lives and avoid the point of no return.

a. Samson Flirts with Disaster (Samson and the Harlot)-16:1-3

In the last episode of Samson’s life we saw him take a couple of baby steps in the right direction. His role as deliverer finally became public (while before it was hidden/private) and he finally had sense enough to call upon the Lord for help (when he proved thirsty). The reader might expect more positive steps moving forward as Samson serves as judge for his people. However, those with this expectation will be sorely disappointed. As the narrative moves into chapter 16, the story takes a sharp turn for the worse and in the span of a single verse we learn how Samson foolishly visits a prostitute in Gaza—“Now Samson went to Gaza and saw a harlot there, and went in to her” (16:1). Earlier, Samson was shown to think with his eyes and be led by his sexual desires into a quick marriage with a foreigner (which ended in disaster by the way-see chapter 14). Here, Samson appears to exhibit a total lack of self-discipline and impulse control and as a result, he forgets the whole marriage idea, chases what he is really after anyway (physical satisfaction), and he commits adultery with a stranger. In this short account, Samson behaved in a way that said, “I have needs and I’ll go anywhere to anybody to fulfill them.” However, we learn next that his pursuit of satisfaction in the wrong place did not just put him at odds with God’s will and ways, it placed him in a vulnerable situation.  

The Philistines, still hell-bent on killing Samson, learn of Samson’s whereabouts (perhaps from the prostitute herself), and immediately travel to the area to take him captive—“ When it was told to the Gazites, saying, ‘Samson has come here,’ they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the gate of the city. And they kept silent all night saying, ‘Let us wait until the morning light, then we will kill him…” (16:2). Knowing that the gates would be closed at night, these guard patiently wait until morning for the arrest, assuming that is when Samson would attempt to leave. To understand what happens next a bit better, the reader must understand what city gates looked like. Flanking both sides of the gate on the interior of the city wall you had guard houses where soldiers would sleep in a series of rooms inside. It is obvious by what happens next that these guards were asleep inside these nearby structures, waiting until morning to apprehend their victim.

As the guards were catching some Zs “Samson lay until midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the city gate and the two posts and pulled them up along with the bars; then he put them on his shoulders and carried them up to the top of the mountain which is opposite Hebron…” (16:3). Regardless of how Samson was able to slip by these guards at night, remove the doors, and carry them some forty miles up a mountain, his removal of these huge doors foreshadows the coming disaster that will overtake this same city by the end of this chapter (Chisholm). God had obviously empowered Samson once again to escape death at the hands of the Philistines in a spectacular way. God does this not because Samson deserves to be rescued, but because God has bigger plans for Samson that are coming later.

In this short account, Samson’s desire to fill his fleshly needs in an inappropriate way places him at unnecessary risk. While he escapes this time unscathed by the threats surrounding him, this may not always prove to be the case. After all, wisdom literature in the Bible teaches that prostitutes reside in the gateway to death (Prov. 6:26; 7:24-27). In this short account you have a prostitute and Samson tearing down a city gate. What looks like an escape is actually an entrance into a habit/path leading to his ultimate demise (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 417).

b. Disaster Flirts Back (Samson and Delilah)-16:4-14

While in verses 1-3 Samson flirts with disaster, in verse 4-14, disaster flirts back. The text reads, “After this it came about that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah” (16:4). So much is introduced in this opening of the next episode (the longest episode) in Samson’s saga). First, the problem is introduced with “he loved a woman.” This is not to say that women are the problem, but Samson’s lack of wisdom in the women he chooses to love and the many multiple women he enjoys intimacy with, time and time again, proven to be an issue. One commentator has said that here we have the ultimate answer to the riddle that Samson introduced in 14:18—Samson’s love of women is sweeter than honey and will also prove stronger than a lion (Block, Judges, Ruth, 453). This woman was from the valley of Sorek—a woman with allegiances to the Philistines (Danger, Danger, Danger!). Also, in this introduction of the story, we learn this woman’s name—"Delilah.” This is the first time a woman is namd in Samson’s story. Why is this particular woman given a name? Perhaps the answer lies in her name’s meaning. Scholars believe it could be a combination of the Arabic dalla which means “to flirt” and d + lylh meaning “of the night.” (Uh oh!). This is the woman Samson chooses to love this time around—a woman with a questionable name from a questionable background. We might assume, given what we have already learned from Samson, that so long as she looked good and satisfied his sexual needs, that is all that mattered to him. However, once again, his rush into a relationship with a questionable woman will render him vulnerable to disaster. His association with the wrong people in the wrong places will place him in a compromising position.

Seeing this new relationship as an opportunity to apprehend Samson, “The lords of the Philistines came up to her and said to her, ‘Entice him, and see where his great strength lies and how we may overpower him that we may bind him to afflict him. Then we will each give you eleven pieces of silver,’…” (16:5). By now the Philistines have learned that there was something special with Samson that helped him evade capture—his strength. They needed to find his kryptonite (his vulnerability) and they enlist this feme fatale to find it. This episode of Samson’s life has all the makings of a blockbuster spy movie—a hero, a female double agent, money, sex, intrigue, etc. (Block, Judges, Ruth, 454).  

As the story unfolds, multiple attempts ensue that have Delilah seeking to discover the source of Samson’s strength. All these attempts begin the same way—a question—“So Delilah said to Samson, ‘Please tell me where your great strength is and how you may be bound to afflict you.’…” (16:6). Anyone else find this question a bit curious? Can anyone say red flag? Can you imagine if a love interest asked how you could be rendered vulnerable enough to be bound and tortured?

What is perhaps even more shocking than this question is Samson’s answer (yes, He ANSWERS HER!). “Samson said to her, ‘If they bind me with seven fresh cords that have not been dried, then I will become weak and be like any other man.’…” (16:7). Before we get to the answer itself let us consider why Samson doesn’t immediately dump this girl and move on to someone else following this peculiar request. It is obvious that in addition to being impulsive, lacking in self-control, and unwise, Samson is especially prideful. He believes that he is invincible. After all, had he not enjoyed success after success against his foes up to this point? Samson probably thought to himself, “what can this woman do to me?” Rather than flee, he flirts with danger, entertains her request, and even tries to poke fun at her and the Philistines by giving a bogus answer.

What is worse, his specification of “fresh” and “undried” sinews means that he in no way respects his Nazarite vow (you know, that promise he was supposed to keep from birth that would set him apart for God’s special service). These cords would have been made with fresh tendons from dead animals and would have put him in contact with that which was ceremonially unclean. Samson has already entered relations with women that were considered unclean, eaten honey out of a dead lion, enjoyed strong drink at a raucous party, and used a fresh jawbone of a donkey to kill 1000 men. All of these behaviors in their own way transgressed toe standard he was supposed to keep. Here, his Nazarite commitment takes another nosedive.

In response to what Delilah was told, “the lords of the Philistines brought up to her seven fresh cords that had not been dried and she bound him with them” (16:8). Imagine this: your love interest asks how you can be captured and afflicted, you teasingly answer, and then she returns later and ties you up using the tools you specified. While it might sound crazy to us, Samson believes he is playing a game—a game that he believes he cannot possibly lose.

His assumption seems to be credible as Delilah’s first attempt fails—“Now she had men lying in wait in an inner room. And she said to him, ‘The Philistines are upon you Samson!’ But he snapped the cords as a string of tow snaps when it touches fire. So his strength was not discovered…” (16:9).

This leads to a second attempt to capture Samson--“Then Delilah said to Samson, ‘Behold, you have deceived me and told me lies; now please tell me how you may be bound.’…” (16:10). Red flag number 2. His love interest seems persistent in her attempts to render him helpless. Anyone else might be bothered by this, but Samson thinks this is fun! Remember, this man believes he is invincible.

“He said to her, ‘if they bind me tightly with new ropes which have not been used, then I will become weak and be like any other man’…” (16:11). New ropes did not seem to be a problem earlier when the Israelites tried to hand him over to the Philistines earlier. While Samson knows this, Delilah may not.

“So Delilah took new ropes and bound him with them and said to him, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ For the men were lying in wait in the inner room. But he snapped the ropes from his arms like a thread…” (16:12). The second attempt on capturing Samson fails just like the first.

Will the third time be the charm? “Then Delilah said to Samson, ‘Up to now you have deceived me and told me lies; tell me how you may be bound.’…” (16:13a). As we count the number of attempts and red flags given off by this woman, let us also count the number of opportunities Samson is given to flee the scene and not follow this path any further. This is the third attempt from Delilah against her lover and Samson has had just as many opportunities to leave and move on from her to avoid unnecessary risk.

However, instead of calling it quits, he continues to play the dangerous game and, inches ever-so close to giving away what he believes to the be answer to his strength—"And he said to her, ‘If you weave the seven locks of my hair with the web [and fasten it with a pin, the I will become weak and be like any other man.’…” (16:13b). Now he is really playing with fire since his hair represents the key to his strength (Block, Judges, Ruth, 458). The reader holds her breath knowing that Samson is not gaining an upper hand against those who would wish him ill as much as he is veering closer to disaster.

“So while he slept, Delilah took the seven locks of his hair and wove them into the web]. And she fastened it with the pin and said to him, ‘The Philistines are upon you, Samson!’ But he awoke from his sleep and pulled out the pin of the loom and the web…” (16:14). Three attempts at Samson’s life and three attempts thwarted. However, as many of us already know, this winning streak will only last so long, especially if in every new attempt Samson grows more and more compromised and moves closer to giving himself up.

So What?

This passage reveals much concerning how anyone, even God’s chosen deliverer, can slip into sin. First, seeking to meet legitimate needs in illegitimate ways can have people at the wrong place doing the wrong things. Samson was looking for sexual satisfaction which, in and of itself is not wicked, but something God created to be enjoyed in a specific way (in the context of marriage). However, Samson satisfies this need in an illegitimate way by visiting a prostitute. These misguided impulse control issues also lead him into a questionable relationship with Delilah where we learn another lesson—pride can leave anyone feeling invincible and throw them open to utter failure. Samson believes he cannot lose the games that Delilah plays with him when all the while he inches closer to disaster. This leads to the third lesson, failure often does not come all at once, but is a product a many small steps in the wrong direction. So far Samson has been relatively unscathed by the attempts on his life. However, the steps that he has taken, whether he realizes it yet, have already brought him past the point of no return. We will watch things unfold next week.

But before we move on, I wonder if there are those among us who are looking to satisfy legitimate needs in illegitimate ways. Maybe it isn’t sex, but acceptance, companionship, relationships, respect, peace, relief, or something else that is not evil at all. However, maybe you are seeking to satisfy these legitimate needs in the wrong places, at the wrong times, or in the wrong ways.  Perhaps today is a day of correction in which you need to say “no” to a few things, people, or practices that are leaving you vulnerable to failure. I wonder if there are others listening who believe they are invincible. Something about making it through this difficult year relatively unscathed might have you believing that you cannot be touched or that you are somehow above the kind of failure we read about here. Maybe today is a day to be reminded of the fact that there but for the grace of God go I. ANYBODY given the right set of circumstances is vulnerable to egregious failure and often the thought of believing it can’t happen to you is the first step in the wrong direction. I wonder today if people hearing this have not “failed” yet but have already taken steps in the direction of disaster. Maybe you are a quarter way, halfway, or 75% of the way to the cul-de-sac of devastation and maybe until now you have not realized it. Maybe today is a day to turn around and run full speed in the opposite direction. Do not follow the way of Samson. As it was for Samson, unfortunately, so it is for all too many. The road to disaster often feels good, is well lit, and is one many take with confidence until they reach what is at the end. Do not go down that road today.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Thirsty Braggart - Judges 15:9-20

 Growing up in a house with young kids is a real joy and treasure, especially at the end of the day. I love coming home and being caught up on all that has gone on while I’ve been away at work—where the kids have been, what they have done, what new treasures they’ve brough into our house, etc. My daughter, Audrey, ends up being the one who fills me in most of the time, providing me with the run-down (“I did this, Henry did this, Heidi did this, We went here,” and so on). She is good at giving credit where credit is due. This got me thinking about the passage we are going to be studying today. Many incredible feats of strength and surprising spectacles have transpired in the life and times of Samson (tearing apart lions, man-handling an entire village, etc.) and yet, Samson doesn’t seem to be in the least bit interested in giving credit where it is due. Instead of thanking God for providing him his strength, he foolishly points to himself (when all the while it has been himself that has gotten him into all the trouble in the first place). This unfortunate trend continues in Judges 15:9-20 as Samson’s role moves into the public eye and the conflict between he and the Philistines spills over and becomes a conflict between the Philistines and the nation of Israel. Today we are going to witness three events that successfully force Samson into his public role of deliverer in Judges 15:9-20 and learn about the value of continued dependency on the Lord and giving God the glory for both the big and little ways in which he comes through for his people.

1) Samson is Forced into Custody-15:9-13

When we last left Samson, he was hiding in a cave in Etam after having destroyed the Philistine town of Timnah. This followed a personal dispute involving his first wife that ended with burned crops and many dead. Thus far, Samson has acted on his own in his dealings with the Philistines, and as a result, he has incurred the wrath of the entire pagan nation. While it may look like chaos, all of this is being used of the Lord to set the Israelites against the Philistines. God’s people had grown too comfortable with this pagan nation and had even entertained many of their customs, practices, and ungodly behaviors. The Philistines must go for God’s people to do what they have been called to do on the world’s stage and Samson is proving to be the instigator that will set these two people groups against each other. After all, the Philistines cannot and will not stand for Samson doing what he did to one of their cities. What began as the Philistines verses Samson is going to turn into the Philistines verses the Israelites. Things begin to escalate in this direction in verse 9 of chapter 15—“Then the Philistines went up and camped in Judah and spread out in Lehi” (15:9). Here, the Philistines confront the men of Judah with a small army, believing that they are giving the runaway Samson refuge.

Their approach comes as quite a shock to the men of Judah who ask “Why have you come up against us?” (15:10a). Remember, up to this point Samson has gone about his escapades in Philistine territory by himself. Because he has not involved God’s people in what was going on, they have been left in the dark and find it especially curious that this Philistine army is nearby. Luckily, the Philistines explain what is taking place—“And they said, ‘We have come up to bind Samson in order to do to him as he did to us.’…” (15:10b). Here the men of Judah learn that one of their own, their deliverer, has offended their oppressor. What will they do in response?

Remember, while this personal conflict between Samson and the Philistines has developed into an international crisis, this is exactly what God wants. He wants the Israelites to finally take up arms against their pagan oppressor. However, rather than rise together and rally around their God-appointed deliverer, the men of Judah seek the easy way out and sell Samson down the river. Verse 11 reads, “Then 3000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam and said to Samson, ‘Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us?’ And he said to them, ‘As they did to me, so I have done to them.’…” (15:11).

Instead of acting like proud Israelites in full support of their leader, the men of Judah prove to be dutiful subordinates of the Philistines sent to retrieve their deliverer out of his hideout (Block, Judges, Ruth, 443)—“They said to him, ‘We have come down to bind you so that we may give you into the hands of the Philistines.’ (15:12-13a). For the Israelites, Samson is not an asset, but a liability that threatens their security and relative comfort. I say “security” loosely as the Israelites are under oppression and one may wonder how secure they really were under the control of pagans. I say “comfort,” but realize that their comfort was placed in an unrighteous and idolatrous context. Just because it may have felt safe and good to be ruled by the Philistines does not mean that is what God wanted for them.

Once approached, “Samson said to them, ‘Swear to me that you will not kill me.’ So they said to him, ‘No, but we will bind you fast and give you into their hands; yet surely we will not kill you.’ Then they bound him with two new ropes and brought him up from the rock” (15:12-13a). Can you imagine a more humiliating position to be in as God’s-appointed deliverer? You are being arrested by your own countrymen and they have to draw you up out of a hole to retrieve you. As shocking an image as this proves to be, even this will be used to carry out God’s will for his people.

2) Samson Slays His Enemies-15:14-17

The next event of this passage takes us to when the Philistines were to intercept Samson from Israelite custody. Picture this, the Israelites are about to hand over their leader to the very people oppressing them. In what should have been a victorious battle scene in which God’s people drove out this wicked nation, we see a fearful and timid people trying to make peace with those who have no business being there in the first place. Thankfully, God shows up in a big way and makes moves that are in keeping with his will despite his people’s failure—“When he came to Lehi, the Philistines shouted as they met him. And the Spirit of the Lord came upon him mightily” (5:14a). I cannot conceive of a better occasion for God to act in an obvious and deliberate way. Israel needs to be inspired out of their stupor and the Philistines need to be put in their place. When God shows up here, he can accomplish both simultaneously.

Whenever God’s Spirit shows up in the book of Judges, incredible things happen. Even in Samson’s life and tenure, it was when God’s Spirit came upon him that he tore a lion apart! This note of God’s empowerment is important as it reveals who should get the credit for Samson’s successes and Israel’s victories. It is God’s power acting to perform God’s will for God’s glory that ultimately matters.

This particular expression of God’s power allows Samson to shed the ropes that bound him—“so that the ropes that were on his arms were as flax that is burned with fire, and his bons dropped from his hands” (5:14b). There is no natural cause for “new ropes” to disintegrate in the way they do here. The supernatural power of God unleashes this deliverer from what binds him, giving him the ability to exercise his God-given strength in a spectacular way.

Now freed, Samson goes on the offensive with the only tool he could find nearby—“He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, so he reached out and toot it and killed a thousand men with it” (5:15). What makes this incredible feat more impressive is that the jawbone found was “fresh,” indicating that it was still relatively soft and had not yet hardened. None but God could be behind such a feat of strength and efficiency with so feeble a weapon. However, despite the unmistakably supernatural nature of this event, I am not sure that Samson even recognizes who is enabling him to do what he accomplishes here.

They say that old habits die hard and perhaps none are more difficult to break than narcissism. We can see this in Samson’s celebratory exclamation of verses 16—“Then Samson said, ‘with the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey I have killed a thousand men.’” In contrast to previous songs in the book that take time to give God credit and praise, not a word is shared about God’s enabling power here. Samson claims all credit for himself, which causes the reader to wonder if he is even aware of God’s involvement in his life. What a tragedy!

“When he had finished speaking, he threw the Jawbone from his hand; and he named that place Ramath-lehi” (15:17). Samson memorializes his achievement by renaming the place “Jawbone Hill.” Some believe that this “hill” refers to the mound of Philistine corpses that fell at the hand of Samson in this episode (YIKES!). Though empowered by God to break free and gain this victory over the Philistines, Samson soils the potential for praise by claiming all the credit and punctuating it with a morbid and self-serving display of pride. Will Samson ever learn that he is only great insofar as God enables him to be great? When left to himself, he has proven to be a disaster and totally in need. Perhaps the third event of this passage will remind him of that.

3) Samson is Nourished-15:18-20

As God continues to establish Samson’s public role of deliverer (a role that he has chosen to keep to himself up to this point), something happens in Samson’s life that should have reminded him of just how dependent on the Lord he really is. “Then he became very thirsty, and he called to the Lord and said, ‘You have given this great deliverance by the hand of Your servant, and now shall I die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” (15:18). This is interesting on several levels. First, this is the first time that Samson calls out to the Lord in his story. He does not call out to the Lord for victory over the Lion, the village of Timnah, or the Philistines that would seek to kill him. He also does not call out to the Lord on behalf of his people who are under oppression. No, instead he calls out to the Lord first when he develops a personal need. He is thirsty. Also, what makes this request so ironic is that while he recognizes God’s ability to empower him in big ways (earning him big victories), he questions God’s willingness/ability to provide for him in the small and simple ways. While we ought to commend Samson for finally crying out to the Lord, we might be left unimpressed by the tone and attitude with which he does it.

That said, despite all that Samson proves to be, God answers this cry in verse 19—“But God split the hollow place that is in Lehi so that water came out of it. When he drank, his strength returned and he revived…” (15:19). The same God who had empowered Samson to win over the Philistines is the same God who split open the seem of a rock to nourish him and replenish his strength. What grace! What love is seen is God’s willingness to refuel his self-centered and reckless servant.

Even this great display of lovingkindness from the Lord is turned into an occasion for Samson to draw attention to himself. The text goes on to say “Therefore he named it En-hakkore, which is in Lehi to this day…” (15:9b). Most scholars seem to think that the best translation of the name given to this spot it “the spring of the caller” (Block, Judge, Ruth, 447). This name focuses not on God who provided the water, but on the thirsty Samson who prayed and asked for it. How is that for thankfulness?

Regardless of his personal failures, what results from these events in the life of Samson is he goes from a rogue deliverer to the public leader of God’s people. He has, through his isolated escapades dragged Israel herself into conflict with the Philistines. Again, this is what God wants to drive out the pagan influence from his people and their land. Samson, for better or worse is the leader of that people and “he judged Israel twenty years in the days of the Philistines” (15:19b-20).

So What?

Among other things, this passage reminds us that God is the enabler behind anything and everything good (big and small). Whether Samson recognizes it or not, the text of Judges 15 makes it abundantly clear that it was God who empowered Samson to escape his captivity and gain victory over the Philistines. However it was also God that satisfied his thirst and replenished his strength. While we might rail against and scorn Samson for so flippantly turning the graces of God in his life into opportunities for self-aggrandizement, how often do we prove to behave the same way in our own lives? How often do we fail to give God the glory for the major victories in our lives? How often do we forget to say thank you for the simple graces that sustain us each and every day?

After all, doesn’t Paul say in Romans 7:18 “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.”? Does not Jesus remind that “apart from him we can do nothing” (John 15:5)?

No matter what this next season may bring for, we cannot forget to give credit where it is due for sustaining us and carrying us through. As precarious as our world may prove to be today, I imagine it was worse still in the days of the Judges. The same God who extended his grace and favor to an undeserving people then will continue to do so now. He is our God; we are his people. May we live a life that gives him glory and honor and praise accordingly as we persevere and remain on our mission to the end. Don’t believe for a second that your victories and successes are your own doing. It is the Lord that sustains his people in both the big and the little ways. May he alone be praised.