J. Alec Motyer
“He shall begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines ” Judges 13:5
IN His foresight God wrote Samson’s epitaph before he began his life. The epitaph which He wrote said that Samson would begin — and nothing more. His would be a life of promise that would be unfulfilled, a life that failed to attain to the real purpose appointed for him. In the words of the parable of the sower, he would be the seed sown among thorns which brought no fruit to perfection. Without wrongly judging, we can all think of people who fall into that category, Christians who ran well and then began to fall away. Some may have fallen morally, but others have just fallen from spiritual usefulness; at first they gave great promise of fruitfulness but later they were found, spiritually speaking, on the shelf.
Samson began so well. He was a great and loveable giant of a man who lived life with tremendous gusto. At the end, however, we find him blind, bound and buried under the rubble of a Philistine temple. “The Philistines laid hold on him and put out his eyes. And they brought him down to Gaza and bound him with fetters of brass, and he did grind in the prison house” (Judges 16:21).
We need to ponder his story lest we come to the place where we have to confess that although we are true believers who made a good start, we are now bound, not by brass chains but by mini-bondages which threaten our spiritual usefulness and our ability to bring fruit to perfection. Is it possible that this could ever be our divine epitaph: “He began — but he never finished”?
There is a striking unity about the story of Samson, and this is what makes it such terrible reading. The end to which Samson came was not unexpected; it was not against the grain of his life but ran along that grain. His life had tended this way all along, so it was no surprise that he ended as he did. We consider his life to discover signs or evidences of spiritual decline. What indications are there that a life will fail to bring fruit to perfection?
1. He had too narrow a view of separation
In a sense we might say that his view was too broad, but what we mean is that he took too narrow a view of the difference which God seeks between those who are His and those who are not. Samson was a Nazirite. Numbers 6 explains that this means that he was under a vow of three-fold separation: he was to be a total abstainer from alcohol; he would not cut his hair; and he would have no contact with the dead. That was to be his separation: no alcohol, no haircuts and no contact with the dead.
He finished blind and bound in Gaza, but he should never have been there in the first place. Gaza was where he began his life of fornication. He did not apply the Nazirite principle of separation unto the Lord, or he would never have gone to Gaza. He did not apply his vow to places, or he would not have gone there, and he did not apply it to people, or he would not have been with a harlot, and he did not apply it to practices or he would not have been in bed with her. He had too narrow a view of the difference which God expects of us His people.
Samson illustrates the kind of person who has no intention of applying his faith beyond certain narrow limits. Thus far with God — but no farther. He was like the man of whom Jesus spoke in His story of the wedding feast and the guest who had no wedding garment. Such a man insists that he is all right. He was standing at [21/22] life’s crossroads and someone came to him with a good-news invitation to come to the feast, so he rose and followed, but what he did made no whit of difference to his outward life — there was no evidence there of the white linen which is the righteous deeds of the saints. Such a man cannot escape being exposed and expelled.
2. He did not keep his promises to God
Nazirite vows were deliberate, that is to say, they were voluntary. A man could take such a vow for a limited time as an act of special devotion to God. Samson was a permanent Nazirite — “I have been a Nazirite from my mother’s womb” (16:17). He was first a Nazirite by parental dedication and then we may presume that when he reached the years of discretion, he confirmed the parental dedication by his own voluntary decision, so continuing into his adult life what had been imposed upon him from infancy. In the Nazirite, the three abstentions, from alcohol, from hair-cutting and from contact with the dead, were not an end in themselves but were outward and visible signs of what we would call “total consecration”. Samson had therefore made this promise to the Lord: “I promise You that I utterly and completely am Yours: my all is on the altar”.
Now look at him. “Samson said to his father, Get her for me, for she pleaseth me well” (14:3). He was a man dedicated to God, yet he lived for himself. It was not the Lord’s pleasure that he sought, but his own — “Get her for me … she pleaseth me …”. Never mind if she is acceptable to God; never mind if she is a believer; never mind her ancestry; never mind her religion; never mind God; she pleaseth me! Later on we read: “Samson went to Gaza and there he saw an harlot, and he went in to her” (16:1). He was a man pledged to belong to God, but he made no attempt to shun alien loyalties and other attachments and devotions. He did not keep his promises to God.
If we take up the specific separations of his Nazirite vow, we find that he failed to honour them. On the way to his wedding feast, a lion sprang out on him but he turned and rent it apart. When he was on his way down again, he made a point of going over to the carcase of the dead lion and found the honey in it. Here was a Nazirite, groping around in the corruption of a dead body, something he had vowed never even to touch.
He never kept his promise about his hair. He might as well have taken the razor from Delilah’s hand and shaved his own head, for he toyed around with those vows which should have been sacred to God and himself, so that the real blame for his shortened hair lay upon his own conscience. We hardly dare blame him without searching our own hearts. Have we made promises to God which we are not keeping? The Scriptures say: “When you vow to God, delay not to fulfill it, for he has no pleasure in fools”. In moments of spiritual pressure we make promises to God, but when the trial passes we are all too prone to forget or fail to carry through our resolution. How sad if over our life God had to write: ‘A beginner, but one who never fulfilled the original promise’!
3. He played with temptation
There is no need to go over the whole sordid story of Samson’s dallying with Delilah, but its details show us how he tarried in the place of temptation. Time and again she asked him why he was so strong, and instead of a downright refusal he bluffed her with explanations which proved false. Still she persisted, and still he foolishly toyed with the idea, until at last he could keep it up no longer. Proverbs 7 tells us of a young man foolishly walking around an area of evil and succumbing to its temptations, as unhappily many young women as well as men still do today. As an inspiring contrast we are reminded of Joseph’s behaviour in Potiphar’s house, how he ran away because he remembered his God. Surely Paul had this scene in mind when he wrote: “Flee fornication!” Don’t have any truck with it; leave your coat and your belongings there if you must, but run right away. Those who play with temptation, tarrying in the place where Satan can make them his victims, will find that in the end Samson’s epitaph will be theirs: “a beginner only; one who never went through to the end”.
4. He assumed that what was given to him by grace belonged to him by right
This assumption is a further factor in spiritual declension. Let us try to follow through this statement. When Delilah woke him with the warning about the Philistines, he said: “I will go as at other times and shake myself” (16:20). [22/23] He had told Delilah that if he were shaven his strength would depart from him, but he did not really believe it. When he shook himself, however, nothing happened. His mistake was to assume that what was his by the grace and gift of God belonged to him by right, as though his was a natural strength. He had got to that place of self-sufficiency in which he forgot that he was walking on mercy’s ground and tried to walk the roads of life in his native strength in expectation that the Lord would be with him. “He wist not that the Lord was departed from him”, imagining, as they did in the church of Laodicea, that he was rich and increased in wealth, having need of nothing, as though virtue lay in him and not in grace and mercy. This is a sin which is natural for our human hearts. We do not want ever to be dependent on grace alone; we want to be self-sufficient, but in fact when we begin to despise grace and imagine that we have rights of our own, then we are in great danger of waking up to find that the Lord has departed from us.
5. He misunderstood the patience of God
All along God had stood by Samson, even when he was in Gaza with the harlot. It was hard for him to believe the possibility that God had departed from him. When the Philistines tried to lock him into the city, he was so mightily empowered by God that he picked up the gate with its bars and posts and carried it for about forty miles up to the top of a hill. Even at that time the Lord had stayed with him and maintained his great strength. So it continued, for all the time that Samson was bartering himself away to Delilah, the Lord still stood by him so that he escaped out of one difficulty after another. The Lord still waited with him and patiently continued to maintain his strength. It was so easy for Samson. He could look back over a life of so many victories and mighty deeds that he could persuade himself that his giantlike power was native to him.
This, however, was a colossal mistake. The things which were but indications of God’s gracious patience, he took for granted, as though God were approving of him and favouring him, whereas all that He was doing was patiently giving him time for repentance. “God is long-suffering towards you”, says the Scripture, “not willing that any should perish”. It also says that God’s goodness is meant to lead to repentance. How foolish, then, for any of us to imagine that God is complacent towards our sins! How absurd to think that we can get away with them, without God noticing or caring. The time may come when God’s patience is exhausted. Over us, as over Samson, He may at last say: “That is enough”!
6. He finished in failure
And so Samson’s life was sadly cut short (16:30). To add to all the other indignities, he was called to make sport for the Philistines, and when allowed to rest asked the lad who was leading him to bring him to the pillars which supported the house. “And Samson called unto the Lord and said, Oh Sovereign Lord, remember me I pray thee, strengthen me, I pray thee only this once O God, that I may be avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes”. We notice how self-centred the man still is. When he was in early manhood he said, “Get her for me; she pleases me well” and now He says, “Lord I want to get my own back on these people who have humiliated me”. He finished as he had begun. And he rightly said, “Let me die with the Philistines”, for he had been mixed up with them all his life and now it was fitting that he should die with them. He lived unseparated and now he must die unseparated! Oh, the solemnity of it! Here was a man concerning whom God had a purpose to accomplish deliverance for His people, but he never finished the work which he had begun.
In His foresight, God had said that it would be like this, that Samson was only a beginning man who would never bring fruit to perfection. He had been self-seeking, he had followed his own fancies and lacked the separation that belongs to God’s true people, and then he had to go into the presence of God with no real change. He had to take into God’s presence the self-seeking and unseparatedness which had marked and marred his life, and so his story is recorded for us that we may be warned of the dangers and ways of spiritual decline and renew once more our vows of devotion and separation as becomes those who spiritually are Nazirites — separated unto the will of God. “Wherefore, brethren, give the more diligence to make your calling and election sure; … for thus shall be richly supplied unto you the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:10-11). [23/24]