Then went Samson to Gaza, and saw there an harlot, and went in to her.…
Samson was not transparent to the vision of those who were nearest him. His true nature was a riddle they could not solve. His phenomenal prowess was not written in the lines of a vast and unwieldy body, or, as imagined by some, in the flowing locks of his hair. It was no mere matter of exceptional physique, of massive thews and sinews, of Titanic proportions visible to every eye. There was more in him than met the eye, or the question would not have been repeated with such despairing urgency, "Tell me wherein thy great strength lieth?" Did it spring from the dignity and exaltation of his lot? Samson was a "judge" in Israel, the "saviour" of his tribe, the liberator of his people, an "uncrowned king"; one of those elect military and moral leaders raised up in an era of gross barbarity and widespread lawlessness to repress irreligion and godlessness, subdue the foes of Israel, call the people back to truth, and goodness, and God, and prepare them for the acceptance of law and order at the hands of His earthly representative, a Divinely-given king. But Samson's strength lay no more in his position than in his body. He had to make his opportunity rather than to take it. Therefore, we repeat Delilah's inquiry and say — if neither in the limbs he used, nor in the place he filled, where then lay his great strength?
I. The first response, with all the uniqueness and definiteness of inspiration, brings us face to face with God. The historian of the judges, with characteristic simplicity and directness, brevity and force, traces Samson's power, by one single and swift step, to Jehovah, and credits his marvellous triumphs to the mighty and immediate movements of the Divine Spirit. His birth is a Divine incident and his nurture the Divine care. He is reared according to the directions of God, and whilst still a young man "the Spirit of God moves him," "strikes" him repeatedly and with increasing force, as the smith hits and welds the glowing metal on the anvil with his hammer; "pierces him "through and through till his pain-born patriotism is unsupportable and he flings himself against the Philistines with the crushing weight of an avalanche. From first to last the hero's life is invested with the supernatural. Samson's power is moral, of the will and spirit, and not merely of bone and sinew. He is not a giant in body and a dwarf in soul. The Spirit of God is the underlying force of his character, and alone secures for him his rank in the long line of mediators of Divine truth, and agents of Divine revelation.
II. Now what is attributed to God directly and at once in the Old Testament is set down to the credit of Samson's "faith" in the New; and accordingly this Divine hero takes his place in the long roll-call of conquering believers, along with Abel and Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, Deborah and David. The language changes, but the fact is the same. It is the view-point that differs. The historian is seated on high, and reads Samson's career from beside the throne of the Eternal. The key-note is the same; both are struck in the high spiritual realm, but the note has different names in the different notations of the old and new economies. In the former case the answer to the question reads, "Samson is of God, and has overcome them; because, greater is He than is in him, than he that is in the world"; whilst the second case is expressed in the language of the same writer: "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." But this is not all. The new description is itself a positive addition to our knowledge — another ray from the Sun of Revelation. The same people do not describe the same facts in different ways without a motive. Fresh forces of the Spirit are at work meeting the fresh needs of living and suffering men, in a fresh and living speech, addressed to the heart and life. "True eloquence," says one of our most recent seers, "is to translate a truth into language perfectly intelligible to the person to whom yon speak." That is what the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews does. In a sustained stream of the purest and most exalted eloquence he translates the histories of Enoch and Noah, Moses and Samson, into the language of the Church and the street, brings them into vital touch with the feelings throbbing in the heart, and makes the Hebrew Christians to realise the unity of their lives, under the new and revolutionary conditions created by Christianity, with those of the fathers of the human race, the founders of the Hebrew nationality, and the prophets and leaders of the revelation of God. In becoming Christians they were not destroying the law and the prophets, but filling out their programme, advancing their ideals, and accomplishing their projects. We can only discharge our obligations to our age as we catch the spirit of the writers of the New Testament, make the use of the elder Christianity they made of Mosaism and Judaism, adopt a language that beats and throbs with the life of to-day, and so reveal the unity of human life, and of all ages in the living and loving God.
III. Bringing Samson, then, out of the ancient Eastern world, and looking at him in the full blaze of all the lights that shine on human character in its making, and on human struggle in its success and failure, what is the answer yielded to the demand, "Tell me wherein thy great strength lieth?"
1. No despicable advantage, surely, was that with which our hero started life. His being was stored with force at his birth. He had an uncommon, I may say, for that day, a uniquely opulent inheritance. He was "born of a good family," though in a bad time; a family that dwelt at the topmost heights of spiritual consecration, had grandly dared in the midst of seething vice and irreligion to choose the most self-suppressing type of personal and domestic life, and dedicate its energies to obeying the most strenuous law of living yet made known, even that of the Nazarite vow. No aspiration soared higher. No range of service was broader. No attitude was less open to question. No position made greater demands on courage, fidelity, and self-sacrifice. Can you estimate the spiritual wealth of such a descent? Have you any measure for the advantages of such a home? Would not every day be an acquisition of power, and may we not readily believe that as "the child grew the Lord blessed him"? Parentage and nurture are among the chief agents for continuing and advancing the spiritual welfare of the world; and so, whilst God was the fountain-head of all the power of Samson, one stream of the spirit-force assuredly came along the line of inherited sanctities and family training, constituting him the typical Nazarite, the chief example of that special phase of the Hebrew religion — at once of its splendid strength and of its possible weakness.
2. Again, Samson's Nazarism, practised from boyhood, nourished by a mother's watchful care, and intensified by his isolation from the rest of the world, must have exercised an incalculable power upon his mind, and fixed in the "porcelain" of his nature the faith that he had a supreme work to do for God, and was responsible to Him, till the last stroke was given. The man who means to do any real work in a brief life must know what not to do. Samson's vow was of signal service in teaching that. The root of his religion was separation, and his vow roused and stimulated his nature, opened his being to the access of God's Spirit with unresisted fulness and all-subduing might, developed the feeling of the sacred inviolability of his life, assured him he could not be hurt so long as he was faithful to his calling, and rendered him susceptible of that strength of will, heroic fearlessness, and resistless dash, which made him indomitable. Samson is a dedicated will; and once dedicated in will to God we are strong for God and by God.
3. The reputation of Samson has suffered from the grim humour marking some of his exploits and the gigantic and boisterous mirth that runs riot through some of his achievements. We men of the West set so high an estimate on strenuous earnestness, rigid intensity, and serious ardour, that we always prefer majesty to grace, sober sincerity to playful humour. The massive dignity and royal gravity of Milton win upon us, whilst the nimble pliancy and occasional sportfulness of Shakespeare are ignored. But we must not forget that great natures are rarely wanting in humour. Samson's natural cheerfulness; his light and cheerful temperament, sending forth a full buoyant river of mirth, was one of the sources of his strength, saving him from the weakness that, in a time of oppression and calamity, nurses care, frets away power, anticipates disaster, and wastes existence. Never quailing before the superiority of his foes, he is as sunny as he is strong, as bright as he is bold, and thus is able to husband his strength for the heaviest demand that the day may bring. Joy is a duty, and of priceless worth is the temperament that makes obedience easy, opening the soul to every genial ray that shines, and closing it to the access of brooding care and darkening anxiety.
4. It was one of the darkest hours in Israel's history. The tribes generally had lost heart and hope, and Judah was so disorganised that, instead of co-operating with Samson, they betrayed him into the hands of the common enemy. Here then was urgent need, and the need provoked and stimulated Samson's faith, as his vow had inspired it. Necessity was laid upon him. The Spirit of God moved him mightily by the sight of the work to be done, the widespread anarchy and confusion, and the vast suffering and misery. Consecrated souls are goaded to battle by the sympathetic pains they feel with the wronged and the oppressed. Oh, for the quick sympathy that sees in every lost soul a call to service, and in every national and social evil a Divine summons to a quenchless zeal in service for God and men!
5. But the function of Samson in revelation would be most imperfectly discharged for us if we did not recognise the teaching of his flagrant and ignominious fall. Nothing external, though it be the purest and best, can enable us "to keep the heights the soul is competent to gain." God, and God alone, is sufficient for continuous progress and final victory.
(J. Clifford, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Then went Samson to Gaza, and saw there an harlot, and went in unto her.