Judges: When the Rubber Meets the Road

Sermon by David Felker on July 5

Judges 14-15

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Open your Bibles to the book of Judges, Judges chapter 14. This summer on Sunday nights we are in the Old Testament book of Judges and tonight we are looking at the middle of the Samson story, the middle of the narrative of Samson in Judges chapters 14 and 15. And before we jump in and read, something to help orient us to our text tonight.

I was recently reminded of an old “60 Minutes” interview – one of the most famous interviews in the history of “60 Minutes” when in 1983, Mike Wallace interviewed Yehiel De-Nur who was a Holocaust survivor. And during the interview, De-Nur recounted being at the trial of Adolf Eichmann who was one of the primary organizers of the Holocaust in the Nazi army. There’s a video clip of De-Nur in the courtroom, and so the interview takes place, the “60 Minutes” interview, in 1983, but he’s thinking back decades before from the courtroom in the 1950s, 1960s. And there’s a video clip of De-Nur in the courtroom seeing Eichmann for the first time since he had seen him in the concentration camps. And when he lays eyes on Eichmann, he freezes, and he starts sobbing uncontrollably and he faints. And so in this “60 Minutes” episode the interviewer asked him, “Why did you have a breakdown in the courtroom? Were you understandably overcome by hatred, by fear, by sadness? What was going on?” And De-Nur said it was none of those things. But what De-Nur told Wallace was this – All at once, as he looked at Eichmann, he saw an ordinary man. He looked at Eichmann and saw that Eichmann was a man just like him. He said there was nothing special, nothing super evil about Eichmann. And then De-Nur summarized his feelings by saying these chilling words – “Eichmann is in all of us.”

Now that’s a heavy way to start, but as we’ve been seeing all summer, Judges is a heavy book. And when we looked at these stories of unfiltered evil, when we look in these stories we see a mirror. We see what our hearts are capable of. It gives us a deeper look into our hearts and we see past our cheap defenses, past our denials, past the optimism that we are all prone to. Judges is a messy book, but as I said the first Sunday night in May when I introduced this book, that maybe no other book presents the grace, maybe no other book presents the grace of God more than the book of Judges. The theme of Judges – “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” That God’s grace is greater than our sin. And so this book has been calling us to live out of that. Is this the God that you know? Do you know this God of grace? And so week after week, Judges reminds us, “I am far worse than I imagined, and so I can stop pretending. And I am far more loved than I hoped, and so I can stop running.”

And so tonight we are in Judges chapters 14 and 15, and before we jump in and read, let me pray and ask for God’s help. Let’s pray.

God of all grace, we pray tonight that You would rescue us from routine and we pray that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts would be acceptable to You. If You have drawn us a thousand times, we pray You would draw us again tonight, and we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

We’re going to read tonight Judges chapter 14, verses 1 to 4, and then Judges chapter 15, verses 14 to 16. And so let’s give our attention to God’s Word. Judges chapter 14, beginning in verse 1:

“Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines. Then he came up and told his father and mother, ‘I saw one of the daughters of the Philistines at Timnah. Now get her for me as my wife.’ But his father and mother said to him, ‘Is there not a woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?’ But Samson said to his father, ‘Get her for me, for she is right in my eyes.’

His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines. At that time the Philistines ruled over Israel.”

And then chapter 15, beginning in verse 14:

“When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. And he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men. And Samson said,

‘With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey have I struck down a thousand men.’”

Amen. This is God’s Word.

So last week we began the story of Samson. Samson is the last, the twelfth, and probably the most famous and familiar judge to us. And Wiley said last week that Samson is the most likely to be granted celebrity status. Rembrandt painted a number of scenes from Samson’s life on canvas. Bruce Springsteen sang a song about him. Samson. And yet, he’s so familiar, he’s so famous to us, and yet his story, this story seems beyond us. It seems ancient and archaic and primitive and pretty different than our own world. But I think by the end of our time, like me, you will see that you have a lot riding on this story. You have a lot riding on the Samson story. And I think that you’ll see that Samson’s road might not be all that different from your own. And so Samson, “The Rubber Meets the Road.” We’ve got a lot of text to get through here tonight. I want you to pay attention; if you’ve been with us, you’ve noticed that I consistently get multiple chapters in Judges and Cory and Wiley consistently get a single chapter in Judges. And so if you’re paying attention to length, give me a little bit of grace. We’ve got a lot of text here.

Judges 13 – Samson’s Background

But I just want to sketch first the bones of the story in chapters 14 and 15 and then second, I want to try and draw out a few applications for us. So Samson’s background. Think about this. Chapter 13, there is no other birth narrative for any other judge but Samson. I can’t think of another character in the Old Testament that gets a nativity story but Samson. Chapter 13, this whole chapter dedicated to this child’s birth, to a barren woman, the angel of the Lord prophesied – chapter 13 verse 5 – that “He will begin to save Israel from the hand of their great enemy the Philistines.” Does that sound familiar? An angel coming to a barren woman prophesying? The child will save them from their enemies. Does that sound familiar? That sounds like another nativity scene. Samson. There’s something special about this man.

We’re told that Samson’s mother vowed to God that he would be a Nazarite, devoted to God. The Nazarite vow had three stipulations as told in Numbers chapter 6. As symbols of their devotion, the Nazarite shall not drink fruit off the vine, so no wine, they wouldn’t touch any dead or unclean thing, and they would not cut their hair. And so they never went to the bar or the morgue or the salon. That’s a Nazarite vow. That vow is placed on Samson. That’s to be Samson’s story. He is set apart to the Lord for life. You see this if you look at the end of chapter 13. Samson is born. You see in verse 24, “the young man grew,” and then this phrase that’s not used of any other judge – “The Lord blessed him.” Then you see in verse 25, “The Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him.” And so that’s Judges chapter 13. This is an amazing start. He has potential. He has a bright future. He’s going somewhere. That’s what we’d say. That’s Judges chapter 13.

Judges 14 – Samson’s Marriage  

And then, the rubber meets the road. Then we get to Judges chapter 14, and Judges chapter 14 opens with Samson going to Timnah, so this neighboring Philistine village, and he sees one of the daughters of the Philistines. And there’s this exchange with his parents where Samson very demandingly says in verse 2, “Get her for me.” And Samson’s parents reply, essentially, “Is there not someone in the Lord, is there not someone from the camp of believers?” She is, as they say, “an uncircumcised Philistine.” This is not about interracial marriage but about interfaith marriage, which is forbidden. It would have been against the law of the Lord – Exodus, Deuteronomy – because this Philistine was not in covenant with the Lord. You see, the narrator points out three times, in verse 1, 2, and 3, that she is a Philistine.

And so the Israelites, led by Samson, were to be driving them out. “Can I marry her?” They’re to be driving them out. “Get her for me.” And so chapter 13, you see that this is right after, “He’s got a bright future.” Right after that Samson says, “I’m marrying one of them.” Right after, “You’re going to be the deliverer,” he says, “Get her for me.” And you see this language that he uses in verse 3 – “She is right in my eyes” – this eerie echo of the problem of Israel that we have seen throughout Judges; that they “did what was right in their own eyes.” And so things have never been more hopeless. They are worse than they have ever been. The Israelites, they get worse and worse and worse. They did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and their judge, their savior, their deliverer, he’s getting worse and worse and worse. “She is right in my eyes.”

But then you see in verse 4; in verse 4 is really the hinge and the heart of the whole Samson narrative. This line, “His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.” Much like in the movie “Braveheart” as the Scots are in despair, as they are under England’s rule, and you remember in the movie at the battle of Stirling as the Scottish noblemen are coming to meet with England and the noblemen want peace at all costs. They want the status quo. And so they’re coming to discuss terms. They’re trying to get on the same page about how they will remain under England’s rule. And you remember in the movie as the noblemen head to the center of the field and William Wallace is painted blue and his friends ask him, “What are you going to do?” And he says, “I’m about to pick a fight.” And so he rides to the middle of the field and he does pick a fight and the Scots end up winning the battle of Stirling.

The Lord in verse 4 is saying something similar. “I’m going to pick a fight with the Philistines. I’m going to use Samson to do it.” In other words, God is on the move. God has a plan. He is on the move because He never gives up on His people. He never lets them go. He never fails them. He never fumbles them. He never fails to keep His promises. And so what happens in the midst of this story – we’ll start to move quickly here. You see in verses 6 to 10 that the Spirit “rushed upon Samson.” And although he had nothing in his hand he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. And I’ve got to be honest, I don’t know how one tears a young goat! I think I missed that day in seminary when we went over that verse! But it’s pretty impressive. Samson, under the influence of the Spirit, he takes down a lion with his bare hands. And then later, Samson goes back – you see this in verse 8 – he sees the lion, he sees the carcass filled with honey and then he takes some and he gives some to his family and he goes on his merry way. And then in verse 10, he goes to Timnah for his wedding banquet. And weddings would have been preceded by a seven day party. That word “feast” in verse 10 literally means “a drinking party.”

And so in all of this, in all of this in verses 6 to 10, with the lion, with the bees and the honey and with the drinking party, in all of this Samson is playing a dangerous game. Samson is playing loose with his promises. He’s holding his vows, he’s holding his promises loosely. Samson made a vow to never touch a dead thing and yet he compromised his call, he defiled himself and his parents by touching this dead lion. Samson made a vow to never drink and he throws a drinking party. And so you see, his life is beginning to unravel. And if you think this is archaic, if you think this is primitive – that a man plays a dangerous game with his vows, his obligations, his promises – here’s a man who would give way to his desires rather than keep his promises; if you think that sounds crazy, look around you. If you think that’s primitive, look inside you – that a man would be captive to his desires, so captive that he would endanger his life by following those desires. I don’t think that’s crazy at all. Samson is a reckless man. I don’t think that’s archaic or primitive; it happens every day. People we love, people we’re close to, people in our communities, in our families, people like us, perhaps even ourselves. And so this is a sober warning to us.

Then you see in verses 11 to 14 during the party, just for sport and to gain wealth, Samson gambles with these thirty Philistine companions. And he comes up with a riddle; a riddle with a wager. If they solve the riddle, they get the money. If they don’t solve the riddle, then Samson gets the money. And there should be no way they can solve this riddle. They weren’t there. And in the eleventh hour, the clock is ticking, the deadline is coming up, you read what they do. They can’t solve it, verse 15, they go to Samson’s wife and they threaten to burn her. They threaten to burn her alive and her father’s house unless she finds out the answer for them, unless she helps them win the bet. And so of course she caves and she cheats, she finds out the riddle right before the sun goes down, and Samson loses the bet. And so then you see Samson goes in verse 19 to a neighboring city. He murders thirty Philistines. Verse 20, Samson’s wife was given over by her father to one of those Philistine companions. And so Samson is furious. And then there’s this whole back and forth war between Samson and the Philistines.

Judges 15 –Samson Defeats the Philistines  

And what you see is, God is doing in Samson what He promised to do all the way back in chapter 13 – that He is beginning to save Israel from the Philistines. Because what does Samson do? Chapter 15 verse 5, Samson goes and he burns their crops. He burns their crops with these torches in between the tails of foxes. They retaliate in verse 6 and they burn his wife; they murder her and her father’s house. Chapter 15 verse 8, Samson slaughters the Philistines that attacked his wife. It says that “He struck them hip and thigh with a great blow.” And then chapter 15 verse 10, the Philistines forget about Samson and they go after the Israelites; they go after the Israelite tribe Judah. And what do the men of Judah say? They say that they want to be left alone and they say they will give over Samson if the Philistines will leave them alone. And so chapter 15 verse 11, because they know something of Samson’s reputation, they take to capture Samson three thousand men. And so they capture him, they deliver him to the Philistines because they don’t want any trouble. So they give over their deliverer, they give over their savior, their judge, because they don’t want to disrupt the status quo of their lives. They’re saying, “We don’t want you. We don’t want to change. We don’t want to be saved.”

And Samson, you see, he allows himself to be captured by the men of Judah and then he’s given over to the Philistines. And when he’s in the Philistines’ camp, he breaks free of captivity. Chapter 15 verse 14, the Spirit of the Lord – the same language – the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him and he kills, not 30 Philistines, he kills 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. And so Samson, through the Spirit of the Lord, he delivered a great salvation for Israel that day. That’s the story. That’s chapters 14 and 15.

The Lesson We Learn from Samson

But where does this land? And I think there are a lot of things we could say, but I’m sure we are meant to look in at least three directions. I think there’s one lesson we learn from Samson, there’s one lesson we learn from the Israelites, and there’s one lesson we learn from God here in these chapters. And so, first lesson from Samson. I think we’re meant to learn the Biblical distinction between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. So in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 and 14, Paul tells us that the gifts of the Spirit are the God-given skills for doing, but the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 is the character traits of being. So love, joy, peace and patience. Tim Keller says “Spiritual gifts are what we do. Spiritual fruit is who we are.” David Brooks, in his New York Times best seller, “The Road to Character,” he says that there are two sets of virtues – the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. And the resume virtues, Brooks says, are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the virtues that you want said about you at your funeral, whether you’re faithful or forgiving or kind.

And I want you to notice in chapters 14 and 15, Samson’s story is full of resume virtues. Even though he’s in Hebrews chapter 11, he’s in the hall of fame of faith, his story is full of resume virtues and he’s lacking in eulogy virtues. His story is full of the gifts of the Spirit but he bore very little of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, Samson is greatly gifted by God. We read three times in these chapters that “the Spirit rushed upon him.” In all of the other judges we don’t see that language. We see the language that “the Spirit was on them” or “the Spirit held them” but in Samson’s story, over and over again, “the Spirit rushed upon him.” And so we see these mighty acts of valor, we see these mighty acts of strength, and yet he lacked the eulogy virtues. He lacked character. He lacked the fruit of the Spirit.

We see this again and again. He broke his Nazarite vows. Throughout his story, he has an inappropriate relationship with how many women. One minister noted that one point that the narrator is trying to make – Here is a man who can overpower a lion – he’s that gifted, he’s that talented – he can overpower a lion but he cannot control his own sexual appetite. And so Samson is competent, but he lacks so much of the inner character and grace of God. Here’s the question. Tim Keller asked it so well in his Judges commentary. “If Samson has God’s Spirit, shouldn’t we see him growing in holiness? Shouldn’t we see some progress? How can he be so empowered by the Spirit and yet show no patience, no humility, no self-control? How can this be?” And Keller says it’s possible to possess the gifts of God, the gifts of the Spirit, and yet lack so much of the grace of God. It’s possible to be very competent in a calling but lack the inward character that the Holy Spirit intends to produce in our lives. It’s possible to be so caught up in the doing that we neglect the being.

And so I think the question is, “What about you? What about your life? Is there competency but very little character? Is there giftedness but very little godliness?” You see, Samson was talented. If you’re a talented person, then Samson’s story should make you tremble. We want to do something with our lives. We want to be somebody. We want to accomplish something. And those pursuits are not wrong. We are to pursue and use our gifts in this world. But in the midst of that pursuit, the question is, “Who are you becoming? Who are you becoming?” And our lives tell on us. Our real lives, they tell us what we think the path to real life is. And so where does your deeper ambition lie? On what you accomplish or on who you are becoming? On which do you spend more time? On which is your energy more occupied? We think that we are something because we have a few gifts, but who are we becoming in that pursuit. I think that’s the first lesson for us.

The Lesson We Learn from Israel

The second lesson, this time from Israel. I think we learn the lesson of the danger of becoming just like the world around us. And so if you’ve been with us this summer, you have seen that the book of Judges is a very repetitive book; it’s cyclical. And so again and again and again, the people, they abandon the Lord. They give their hearts to other gods. They do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Again and again and again. And they experience, then, the slavery of sin and then they cry out to the Lord and God sends a deliverer; He sends a judge. Again and again and again, that has been the pattern. I want you to look in chapter 13 verse 1. What is missing in the story of Samson? What is missing in that pattern? What do the people not do in the story of Samson? They don’t cry out. They don’t groan. And so the people are not in misery. They’re comfortable. They’re so comfortable that when the Philistines come to them in chapter 15 verses 9 to 13 to retaliate, when they come to them because Samson had burned their crops, the Israelites are determined to avoid confrontation at any cost. They’re determined to keep the status quo.

And so what do they do? They hand over their savior just to keep the peace. And what do they say? Chapter 15 verse 11, “Samson, don’t you know who our rulers are? Don’t you know who rules us?” See, earlier in the book of Judges there’s all this friction between the Israelites and all of these Canaanites tribes. There was friction, there was fighting, there was hostility. Here in Samson’s story, they are getting along just fine and it’s quiet and it’s gradual, and then it’s total. They’re comfortable with the Philistines. They’re comfortable with the culture around them. “Samson, don’t you know who our rulers are?” And so their value system, their passions, their priorities, their way of life, it’s gradual, it’s quiet, but it’s total. They have lost their distinctiveness.

I think it certainly begs the question for the Church and for the Christian – just as God’s people here, certainly God’s people now, is it possible that we assimilate into the culture and we don’t even realize it, and it’s quiet and it’s gradual and it’s total? “Don’t you know who our rulers are?” And so I think the question is, “What are those places where God’s Word is clear?” Our holiness. Our tongues. Our greed. Our racism. Where are those places where God’s Word is clear, and yet there’s an absence of conflict because we are enslaved to the status quo; we are enslaved to our comfort. “Don’t you know who our rulers are?” I think this passage challenges all of us to self-examination.

The Lesson We Learn from God

So a lesson from Samson, a lesson from the Israelites, and then third and last, a lesson from God. And so we looked earlier at chapter 14 verse 4. The hinge and heart, the key to this whole Samson story, that “His father and mother did not know that it was from the Lord, for the Lord was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines.” In other words, God is using it all. So the lion and the bees and the riddle and the jawbone – God is using it all. God is on the move. He is using all of the mess. As one commentator said, “Our redemptive heroes, we want our redemptive heroes washed with Clorox and sprinkled with perfume.” That’s how we want our heroes. That’s not Samson.

In 1939, Winston Churchill famously described the Russians as “a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma.” “A riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma.” And so it is with Samson. That is Samson. But you see, God here, again, is drawing a straight line with a crooked stick. Without ever applauding the crookedness of the stick, He is able to work in and through sin, sinlessly, even Samson’s temper, his violence, his sensuality, the good, the bad and the ugly, as Samson and the Israelites are responsible for the free decisions they make, as are we, God is on the throne and He is sovereignly overriding and ruling over it all to bring about a conflict here to disrupt the status quo, through Samson, in order to rescue His people. And so God is still and always at work to accomplish His purposes. He is on the move and that is for one reason – to be faithful to His promises.

We see this again and again and again in the book of Judges. See, things are more hopeless here than they’ve ever been. They’re worse and worse and worse, but God is committed to them. He is committed to bring a Messiah through them who is going to save them and it’s not Samson. It’s the greater Samson who came to His own and they received Him not – the greater Samson, Jesus Christ. And so what this means is that everything you see Him do in grace here, it is because of His grace to you; it is because He was thinking of you by name. It is because no one can snatch you from His hand. “I know that Israel has turned away from Me. I think that they’re not even crying out to Me, but there are the Smiths and I’m going to save them. And there are the Hensons and I’m going to save them. And there are the Edwards and I’m going to save them. And so I must act on behalf of My people to bring about the Messiah to keep My promises.” And so you see here that God is on the throne and He is the God who saves by grace.

Let me close with this. There is a professional hockey player named John Scott. And I only know about two members in our church who watch hockey and keep up with hockey, and so this is for you. But John Scott is a career, what sports people call, “a journeyman.” Meaning that he journeyed between a number of different teams because he was never really a great player. He never got a long term contract. He scored just eleven goals in eleven seasons, which is forgettable. He’s kind of a nobody in the NHL. And the NHL, back in 2016, did an interesting thing where, with their NHL All-Star Game, they opened up their voting completely to fans. And so what happened was, the fans voted for John Scott, this nobody, they voted for him to go to the NHL All-Star Game, even though he had done nothing to deserve it. And so at the All-Star Game, this nobody was voted on the roster and in the game he really fumbles into two goals. So he scored eleven goals in eleven seasons in his entire career, and in the All-Star Game he fumbles into these two goals and he was named the 2016 NHL All-Star Game Most Valuable Player. And so John Scott was called up onto the podium with the commissioner and he’s handed a million dollars and the keys to a car and he did nothing to deserve it. John Scott.

Friends, we don’t deserve the grace of the Gospel. We do not deserve it. Milton wrote an epic poem on the life of Samson, and in that poem, he has the Israel chorus sing to Samson, “O mirror of our fickle state! O mirror of our fickle state!” And we can look at Samson’s life and we can sing that too, “O mirror of our fickle state!” He is the mirror of our fickle state. Samson. Jephthah. Gideon. Story after story after story. It is grace upon grace upon grace. And that is your story too. And so Judges tells us, it tells us, “Sit down.” Judges says, “Sit down. You must sit down and let God love you in the only way that He will, and that is full of grace.” Amen. Let me pray for us. Let’s pray.

God of all grace, we pray tonight that You would give us fresh eyes to see and ears to hear and that You would put a new song on our lips of Your amazing grace. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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