Late last night I was scrolling through my Facebook news feed and came across an article shared by a friend titled “Samson: A Strong Man Made Weak.” The article is a blog post by John MacArthur in Grace to You’s “Profiles of Godliness” series, which is an online adaptation of MacArthur’s book Twelve Unlikely Heroes. I’ve not read the book, but was interested to read MacArthur’s take on Samson.
Samson is probably every Sunday school boy’s favourite Bible character. What boy doesn’t dream of growing up to have the super strength that Samson displayed throughout the biblical record of his life? A veritable one man army, he was the closest thing history has ever known to a bona fide superhero.
Of course, as we mature in the Christian faith we come to realise that there are large parts of Samson’s life that we do not want to emulate. For all his physical strength, Samson displayed glaring ethical weakness. He is hardly the role model that we want to hold up to our children. And yet he was a man of faith (Hebrews 11:32).
There are certainly hints of Samson’s very real faith in the record of his last act of strength in Judges 16—MacArthur notes that “when he was weakest, the Lord used Samson in the mightiest act of his astonishing life”—but for the most part he was a man who displayed character flaw after character flaw. It is difficult to read the account of his life and not feel saddened by a sense of squandered potential.
And yet, God used him. He was Israel’s God-appointed saviour (Judges 13:5).
It has long been noted that Samson is exceptional among the judges for the fact that he did not amass an Israelite army to fight God’s enemies. It appears that one of the tasks of a judge was to do just that. The judges were appointed by God as leaders. They were to lead Israel against the nation’s enemies. Samson acted alone. To be sure, he had the supernatural strength to do so, but it has often been suggested that his failure to amass an Israelite army and to lead them against the Philistines was a failure to fulfil his God-appointed task. MacArthur certain takes this view when he writes,
It is sadly ironic that, though identified as one of his nation’s foremost judges, Samson never made any attempt to drive Israel’s enemies out of the land. In fact, he was happy to interact with the Philistines, even to the point of marrying one of them. Though he was only interested in serving himself, the Lord would superintend Samson’s selfish choices to secure Israel’s deliverance and ensure Philistia’s demise (cf. Judges 14:4).
I myself have accused Samson of poor leadership in this regard. But while I don’t think that he ought to be raised as a paragon of virtue, I recently came to question this approach to the study of his judgeship. As much as we are tempted to question his leadership as a judge, we would perhaps do equally well to question Israel’s leadability as a people. One specific incident in the record of his life makes the point with particular force.
In Judges 15, Samson finds that his wife has been given in marriage to his best man. In retaliation, he catches three hundred foxes and, tying burning torches between their tails, releases them in the Philistine fields and burns their crops. The Philistines immediately garner a small force to exact revenge for this act and raid Lehi in Judah. When the men of Judah discover that the Philistines are after Samson, they gather a force of three thousand and go to speak to Samson. Their words are rather sad: “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done?” They then inform Samson that they have come to hand him over to the Philistines (Judges 15:9–13).
As prone as we are to rebuke Samson for his poor leadership, we ought probably to pause and ask some questions about Israel’s attitude. There is no hint in their words that they were prepared to stand with Samson against the Philistines. Instead, in utter resignation, they complained, “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us?” What was Samson thinking? Did he not realise that the Israelites were weaker than the Philistines? Did he not know that there was no hope of victory? Why did he not just give in like the rest of them?
As I was preparing recently to teach on the account of Samson’s judgeship, I read the much publicised story of English cricket’s black sheep, Kevin Pietersen, scoring a career-best 326 in an English county cricket game. The story became such big news because, at the time, English cricket was careening out of control. It seemed to a watching world that English players had given up. The team had crashed out of the World Cup and had subsequently struggled in competitions against West Indies and New Zealand. It was clear that something needed to be done, and the cricketing public was wondering whether Pietersen was the man to do it. By all accounts, he was not a man that the players and management wanted in the team, but cricketing enthusiasts were arguing that, despite glaring reported character flaws, he was at least a man who would do something. Unlike much of the team at that time, he would not just sit back and be beaten.
English cricket has come a long way since then, performing admirably against the Australians, but the point still stands. Whatever else might be said about Kevin Pietersen, he is a player who stands up and fights—like a modern-day (cricketing) Samson.
Whereas the Israelites had resigned themselves to defeat, Samson was a man who was prepared to fight. Seemingly, he was alone in his resolve, but he was resolved to fight nonetheless. David, around the same period in Israel’s history, faced similar lone resolve when he marched out to fight Goliath while the entire Israelite army hid behind him.
Even as we wonder why Samson never led an Israelite army against the Philistines, perhaps we would do equally well to wonder why the Israelites never rallied behind Samson to be led against the Philistines. While the Israelites had passively accepted Philistine oppression, Samson was not satisfied with the status quo. God used him because he fought. And the resolve to fight is an admirable quality.
There is much in Samson’s life that we do not want to emulate as Christians, but one lesson that we can take from the record of his life is that we must have the resolve to fight. We must not capitulate to a godless culture and resign ourselves to the fact that all is lost. “The weapons of our warfare … have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). As we face oppression from a godless culture, will we seek to bind the samsons of the Christian faith and hand them over to the Philistines, or will we rally behind them and fight with them against our oppressors?