Judges 14 records for us Samson's life, but his story may be surprising to many of us. As we make our way through this chapter, there will be many points that will seem very strange to us. In those moments, let us remember that the words of Judges 14 are also God's words, and there is a reason for these verses to be here.
(A) Courtship - sovereign desire leads to disobedience (Judges 14:1-4)
In Judges 14:1, we are told that Samson went down to Timnah. If we look at the map of the region, this is a factual and geographically accurate description, for Timnah was south of Jerusalem. But this was also a literary device, because this is not the usual route that Israelites were to take, and foreshadows something.
In Timnah, Samson meets "one of the daughters of the Philistines" (Judges 14:1). As we saw last week, names are important to characters, but here, we are never told the name of this mystery woman. What we're told is important, but what we're also not told is just as important. The detail that is repeated again and again is her ancestry, that she is a Philistine, and not an Israelite.
Samson proceeds to relate this encounter to his parents, but notice how he communicates it to them. Samson "told his father and mother" and basically commanded them to get this woman for him to be his wife (Judges 14:2). His statement was full of verbs and given as imperatives. This is certainly not the way we talk to our parents, and it's even more shocking when we remember the Middle Eastern culture of respect and the importance of familial ties then. Samson makes his desire for this woman plain and insists on this. The first 2 verses of this chapter serves as a sort of introduction to this character, and all we see is a man who is intent on expressing his desire for a woman he meets, but frankly, does not know what it means to have a wife.
His parents objected, and they objected on the basis of circumcision (Judges 14:3). Circumcision was a mark of God's people, thus, the Israelites were marked quite clearly in their body. But this sign was given because God intended for His people to live differently, not because they were better than others, but because they were His. They were to live not by the rules of the world and the prevailing culture, but to obey God and live according to His design. This is why Moses in Deut 7:2-4 told the Israelites that they were not to intermarry with the people of the land that they enter, and later, Joshua repeated it again (Jos 23:6-13). Manoah and his wife knew that Samson had a special mission in his life. When they heard him demand that they get him a foreign wife, they objected, not because they were xenophobic, but the bigger question they were asking was this: why do you love someone who doesn't love God?
As we read this chapter, we also notice that there are many references to sight in this passage -- Judges 14:1,2,3,7,8,11. Again and again Samson insisted on marrying her because "she is right in my eyes' Even at the start of this section on Samson's life, Judges 13:1 begins with the common phrase in this book -- "and the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord...". What does this tell us about the nature of Samson's sin. Sight is not just a physical act of looking, but is also about judgement, making sense of something. Everyone of us have eyes that look, assess and judge for ourselves. Judges shows us that there is a war between what we see and deem right, and what God sees. This is the point of this passage -- Samson, even at the beginning of his life, has decided that he will see the world in his own way. This is how he enters the scene! Romans 3 tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, thus we have all done evil in the sight of the Lord. In so many ways, this is just like what Eve did in the Garden, where she "saw that the tree was good for food", it was a "delight to her eyes" and that it was "desired to make one wise" (Gen 3:6).
Judges 14:4 is also a rather puzzling aside. The passage gives us a hint that something else is at work here. We learn that God also works in invisible ways (c.f. Isa 45:15-17). In fact, who can tell God when to stop, or even say that God is not acting (c.f. Dan 4:34-35)? The Bible also teaches us that if God is sovereign, He can do anything that He wants. We like to think about God in the way that we have been taught to think about authority, as some version of a constitutional monarch or an elected president, but He remains distant. We'd rather Him be a set of guiding principles, rather than a real person with a real impact on our lives. Verse 4 reminds us that God does what ever He wants, and sometimes it goes against our logic. But at the same time, it doesn't negate Samson's sins.
As we read these opening verses of Judges 14, we ought to also reflect on our own lives. Are there things that we know we ought no to do, or ought to do, that we rationalize away? Are we insisting on doing what is right in our own eyes?
(B) En route – sovereign success leads to defilement (Judges 14:5-9)
Manoah and his wife seem to agree, and went down to Timnah with Samson (Judges 14:5). Alone and without his parents on this part of the trip, Samson encounters a lion and has so much strength that he is able to tear the lion to pieces (Judges 14:6). What's more important, is the source of Samson's power -- the Spirit of the Lord (Judges 14:6a). This Spirit "rushed upon him", overwhelming and controlling him to provide this power.
Some days later, on another trip to Timnah to "take her" (Judges 14:8). He sees the carcass of the lion and found out that their was a swarm of bees in the lion. Samson would have known that he should avoid the dead animal, because it was clearly stated in the law of Israel (Lev 5:2-3), and also part of his vow (Num 6:6-12). The Israelites were not allowed to touch dead animals for it was unholy. Death was linked with the curse, and it was a mark of the fall. God's people were to stay away from it because they were called to live holy lives. But here, Samson reached for the carcass for no other reason than because he wanted it. He also took some to give it to his parents and hid the source from them. In these verses, twice we hear that he did not tell his parents what happened -- both with killing the lion, and taking the honey from the carcass. This is a man who does as he pleases and sins when he wants to sin. Does this surprise you, that the Bible has a hero who would live as sovereign and defy the expressly revealed rule of God? But Samson is in the Bible, and while he serves God's bigger plan of salvation for Israel, his life also serves as a warning to us. Samson is a man who enjoyed extraordinary success and power, but he left his desires unchecked, and repeatedly acted as he wished. Over and over again, Samson disobeyed and rebelled against God.
(C) Wedding Feast – sovereign pride leads to violent disgrace (Judges 14:10-20)
In Judges 14:10, Samson finally marries the woman (who is still unnamed) and he prepares a feast and attracts a crowd. At this feast, his pride and arrogance was on display as he prepared a riddle for the people. This challenge was initiated by him, and so were the stakes of the challenge (Judges 14:12-13). The people accepted the challenge (Judges 14:13b), and while they were stuck initially (Judges 14:14), they wrangled the answer from Samson's wife eventually after issuing some threats against her and her family (Judges 14:15-17). In their reply, they could have answered simply with the answer in a statement, but notice that they replied with a question instead (Judges 14:18a). Their arrogance was clear and obvious too.
Samson responded to the riddle, the deal and the defeat in anger, for he perceived that he was defeated and even humiliated. He answered the riddle with a crude response, likening his wife to a "heifer" and pointing to how they manipulated his wife (Judges 14:18). He then went down to Ashkelon and destroyed 30 men of the town to take their garments in order keep up his side of the deal (Judges 14:19), and he eventually went back to his father's house (Judges 14:19b). As if this was not enough, the narrative ends by telling us that his wife was given to his best man (Judges 14:20). Judges 14 reads more like a tragedy. Samson, who started out this chapter so full of himself ends the same chapter without his wife, hope, moral judgment and everything is wrong. He is disgraced and bitter.
What does this passage mean for us today? What constructive warning and hope can we take away from this passage? Judges 14 shows us the failures of a human hero, and the sin problem that runs in all our hearts. Sin blinds us to our God's glory, will and purpose, and cause us to see only our desires. Prov 4:20-27 contains a father's wise instructions, words that Samson should have heeded. It is a call to live in a certain way, to look at some things but to turn away from other things. It calls the son (and us) to walk down one path but not another. If we don't look at the daughter of the Philistine, the power, the success, then what should we look at? We need to answer this for ourselves because something else is always being dangled in front of us.
Samson shows us that Christians can make a mess out of their lives. We should all know that firsthand. But Samson serves to point us to the God of grace, who uses such flawed people too. Tim Keller writes:
“But how can God use such flawed people – people like Samson – to get his work done? Shouldn’t he only work with people who are good, godly men and women? Shouldn’t he only use the people who have the right beliefs and the right behaviour?... It would mean he is limited by humans, and is only allowed to work when people are being good and making godly choices. It would mean that God does not work by grace, taking the initiative to save….”
The failures of Samson here point us to Jesus, the true Samson. Jesus did not seek to please Himself but bore the reproaches of us all (c.f. Rom 15:1-4). Romans 15:1-4 shows us what we ought to look at instead. Jesus is the only one who denied Himself a drink so that he might thirst for us. On the cross, Jesus was doing all that Samson was doing wrongly. He said no to His own desires, so that we can get our heart's One desire. We are not to look at this world and what it has to offer -- the woman, the honey, the carcass. Instead, we are to turn and fix our eyes on this true Samson who kept Himself for His bride -- us. When we see that He loved us and gave Himself up for us (Gal 2:20), how can we continue to live according to what is right in our eyes?
What is God saying to you today? As you look at Samson, what are you learning about Jesus Christ?