I’m not interested in politics. The problems of the world are not in my department. I’m a saloonkeeper.
—Rick Blaine, Casablanca (1942)
BLACK WIDOW Doctor, we need you to come in.
BRUCE BANNER What if I say…no?
—The Avengers (2012)
Long Ago and Far Away In Philistine Territory…
“So we have three thousand men.”
“And our only objective is to capture and restrain one man?”
“Hmm. And how many men does the enemy have?”
“The last estimate was one thousand on the next hill.”
“So we take out the resistance leader with our three thousand and hand him over to the enemy’s one thousand? Is that right?”
“Hmpf. And you don’t suppose anyone has thought about taking on the enemy directly… since we do outnumber them three to one?”
“No. No, of course not. Are you crazy? That would be….”
“Right. No. I agree. I don’t want to get dragged into a battle. I mean….”
“Of course not. No one does.”
“Right. So we grab Samson, turn him over to the Philistines, and graciously bow out.”
“That’s the gig. It’s kind of a bad deal for Samson, of course. But we wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t stirred up so much trouble.”
“Right. You’d think he’d get the whole go-along-to-get-along thing.”
Oppressed Again Naturally
The Philistines were a coastal tribe with Egyptian roots. Their major cities were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, Gaza, and Ekron. They oppressed southern Israel, particularly the tribe of Judah, for forty years. This was roughly coincident with the Ammonite oppression to the east that Jephthah brought to an end.
Despite forty years of Philistine domination, Israel was slow to repent. Philistine rule seemed mild, and Israel floundered in spiritual complacency. Yet God in mercy raised up a judge out of the tribe of Dan (Judg. 13). His name was Samson. He was to begin the work of deliverance that Samuel, Saul, and David would complete.
Samson was set apart to God from his mother’s womb. He was a Nazarite, a priest-like warrior wholly dedicated to God’s service (cf. Num. 6). He was not to drink wine or touch dead bodies. But the most obvious testimony to his calling was his hair. He wasn’t to cut it… ever.
As long as Samson pursued his calling as a Nazarite and judge, God’s Spirit gave him supernatural strength. Interestingly, the movies and Bible storybook pictures may have missed the mark. Perhaps he didn’t look like Arnold in Conan the Barbarian. His power after all, at times seemed a complete surprise to his enemies. Onward.
Samson’s Long War With The Philistines
God moved Samson to stir up conflict with the Philistines. Early in his career Samson thought it would be a good idea to marry a cute Philistine girl (Judg. 14). At his marriage feast, he proposed a wager over a riddle he had concocted. The Philistine men accepted the challenge, and then realized they were out of their depth. They threatened Samson’s bride, and she badgered Samson for the riddle’s solution. Rather than trust the Lord, she succumbed to the fear of man. After a week, Samson gave in and told her the solution. She told the Philistines; they told Samson.
To pay off his debt, Samson went to nearby Ashkelon, killed thirty of the enemy, and took their clothing. He handed over the clothing to those who had answered his riddle. Then, in anger, he went home. Meanwhile, his future father-in-law gave Samson’s bride to another man.
Later, when Samson returned to visit his wife, he discovered what had happened (Judg. 15). Samson judged the Philistines guilty of theft: by their threats they had destroyed his marriage and his hope for seed (children). He set out to destroy their seed (their agriculture) in return. He collected 300 foxes and tied them together in pairs, tail to tail. Then he put flaming torches between their tails and threw the foxes into the fields. The standing grain, the sheaves, even the nearby vineyards and olive orchards, all went up in an enormous blaze.
The Philistines were not amused. They took out their anger on Samson’s former father-in-law and bride. They burned them to death. Samson again passed judgment. “And he smote them hip and thigh with a great slaughter” (15:8). He piled up their corpses like so many sacrificial animals. Then he headed back into the land of Judah.
The Philistines gathered an army of a thousand men and went up into Judah to capture Samson. Judah assembled a militia of three thousand to intervene before Samson’s actions resulted in all-out warfare. Judah’s leaders went to Samson and asked him to surrender. The deal was that they would tie him up and hand him over to the Philistines, but they wouldn’t harm him themselves. Samson agreed. (Judah was supposed to be the royal tribe, the one that would bear the scepter.)
When Samson came to the Philistine army, they shouted against him. Instantly, the Spirit of God came upon Samson, and he snapped his bands as if they were burnt flax. He picked up the jawbone of an ass and turned it into a weapon. He charged into the Philistine ranks and took out a thousand men. He named the battlefield “Jawbone Hill” (Lehi).
The text says that, after this, Samson judged Israel for twenty years (15:20). For the most part, Samson had done well. He had stirred up the antithesis between Israel and the Philistines. He had prodded Israel—Judah, especially—out of her complacency and compromise. He had shown God’s people what Yahweh could and would do through those who trusted His promises. But then Samson got on the crazy train.
Samson Looking For Hookers In Gaza
Samson went to Gaza. There he saw a prostitute and hired her services (16:1). The Philistines heard about this and plotted to catch him in the morning. But at midnight Samson rose up. He escaped the city and took the city gates with him, an incredible feat. Samson had sinned, but somehow God’s Spirit hadn’t deserted him. At least not yet.
Now we come to the part of the story that everyone knows. Samson had an affair with a Philistine collaborator named Delilah. The Philistine lords and leaders paid her to find out the secret of Samson’s great strength. In their minds, there was clearly some sort of magic at work. Delilah pressed Samson for his secret, and Samson played with her. He gave her silly answers. But he didn’t break off the relationship; he didn’t run. Eventually she wore him down. He told her that his supernatural strength was connected to his Nazarite vow and that if his hair were shaved off he would become weak and like other men (v. 17).
Delilah helped Samson fall asleep on her knees and then had his long hair shaved off. The Philistines came for him, and Samson rose to face them. “And he wist not that the Spirit of the LORD was departed from him” (v. 20). The Philistines took Samson, put out his eyes, and brought him to Gaza. There, in a prison house, he ground grain like an ox. His hair began to grow once again, and we learn that God’s mercies do endure.
Samson’s end was victory in tragedy. The Philistines threw a great sacrificial festival to celebrate their victory over Samson and over his God. They brought Samson out to mock him. Surrounded by Philistines, Samson prayed for God to strengthen him one last time (v. 28). He grabbed hold of the two pillars that held up the whole temple structure and pulled them down. He died in the ruin, but he took the five main lords of the Philistines with him, lots of Philistines priests, and thousands of others. His family later found his body and buried him with honor.
The writer of Hebrews lists Samson among the heroes of faith (Heb. 11:32). He believed God’s promises. He battled in terms of those promises, and yet he yielded to his sexual appetites in the face of those promises. He did much, but perhaps he could have done more. He began Israel’s deliverance but wasn’t able to complete it. He was an example to the next generation, an example of faith on one hand and an example of sexual compromise on the other. His last victory was impressive, but it ended his twenty-year campaign. Even today, most people remember his failures more than his victories.
History is a battlefield. There is no neutral ground. We either follow the Lord’s Messiah into battle, or we war against Him (Matt. 12:30). There are no other options. Abraham Kuyper used the word antithesis to drive home the nature and extent of the spiritual and cultural war that is Earth’s history. Christ claims all of human life and culture as His own, but at every point Satan would deny Him this claim. Jesus will win because in principle and in fact He has already won (Eph. 1:20-22; Col 2:15). But the implications of His victory still need to be worked out on Earth and in history (1 Cor. 15:25; Matt. 28:18-20). And so the battle continues, and we must each choose our role.
We may play the role of Philistines— friends of this world, but enemies of God and His kingdom. We may play the role of Israel and Judah, claiming God’s grace for eternity, but cowing before the enemy in the broader battlefield of society and culture—betraying Christ for “peace in our time.” We may imitate Samson and win a few shocking victories in the culture wars while we lose the war in our own hearts and in our own families. As we’ve seen, this is a role most tragic. Or we can be men and women after God’s own heart and live our lives in terms of His promises each and every day without compromise.