Sweeter than Honey; Stronger than a Lion
Samson, son of Manoah, of the tribe of Dan, was annointed of God. Most all of us know Samson’s story. Samson performs feats of strength other men are incapable of doing, only to fall at the hands of Delilah, the woman he loved. He really gets a pretty bad rap. We point to Samson to admonish arrogance, to condemn vanity. We all note Samson the fool who received his comeuppance. Despite the mostly negative outlook on Samson’s life, Hebrews 11:32 identifies Samson as one of the elders who, by faith, had earned the reward. So, what did Samson do right? What did he do wrong? Let’s look into the life of the strong man of old, and glean how we might make ourselves strong today.
First, let’s establish just what Samson was able to do. It’s important to remember that Samson could just do the things he did; God had given him his strength, just as He would grant Solomon wisdom. These two didn’t have to call upon God the way Moses had to call on God in order to part the waters. Samson himself was gifted with strength to use.
Right out of the gate, we all know Samson was strong. In Judges 14:5-6, we have the event wherein a lion attacks Samson on his way to Timnah. The verse says he “rent” the lion. He tore the lion. It is already impressive that he probably lifted this lion, but he tore it—potentially in half, but definitely open. That adds a new dimension to this because to lift a thing, you need only apply force in excess of its weight. Grab a sheet of paper. It’s not hard to pick up, is it? Now grab it on either end and try to pull it apart. That’s harder, right? That’s tensile strength: a material’s ability to resist tearing or bursting. So Samson was strong enough to lay hold on an apparently unfriendly lion and pull it apart. That’s impressive.
Samson was also most likely impressively fast. When the Philistines at Samson’s wedding feast have provided the answer to Samson’s riddle, Samson has to go find thirty good outfits for his guests. In verse 19 of chapter 14, Samson takes off for Ashkelon, one of five capitol cities of the Philistine empire, from Timnah, where he’s getting married. He kills thirty Philistines and takes their robes. The Bible says he does this and returns. It’s only after he returns, hands out the clothes, and leaves in a huff that anyone suspects that he’s left. That’s significant because Ashkelon was 25 miles from Timnah. It should have been an undertaking for him to have left and returned by the end of the wedding party. The fastest humans can only sustain about a 22 mph sprint. Let’s assume Samson’s only that fast. It means he’s probably absent from the feasting for only a few hours, give or take some time depending how hard it is to find and murder thirty grown men.
Let’s see Samson pull off both tricks at once in Judges 16:1-3. One of my favorite feats of our long-locked leader is the time he heads to Gaza, another of the five Philistine capitols. He spends the night at a harlot’s house and the Philistines hear he’s in town. The Philistines gather up in the guard house and around town to get him when he tries to leave in the morning. Samson instead leaves in the middle of the night, gets to the city gates, and leaves with them. Imagine the Philistines all camped out, psyching each other up to get Samson, when suddenly the gates only a few feet away are ripped up from the ground and off the city wall, hauled off by the same Israelite they were supposed to have been waiting for. Samson takes the gates and sets them up on the “top of the hill that is before Hebron.” If it’s the closest hill to Hebron, he took the 1,000-pound city gates on a 35-mile jog through sandy terrain. And if all these Philistines were in the guard house, you have to think they’d have given chase, but no one stopped him, and I doubt they had any doors over their backs.
I’d like to bring up one more aspect to Samson’s gift of strength and power that doesn’t get a lot of publicity. Samson goes alone into two melee fights with the Philistines: an unknown number of assailants in Judges 15:8 and more than 1,000 Philistines arrayed for battle in 15:15. Nothing in these verses seems to indicate that Samson was wounded by his enemies. Now, perhaps by the literal grace of God, every Philistine that swung a sword at Samson simply missed him. However, in Judges 16:19, when Delilah has shaved Samson’s hair as he sleeps, the Bible says she began to afflict him before awakening him. You can see in verses 6-14 of the same chapter that she is trying every ruse he gives her, but she doesn’t afflict him during these early trials. It’s only after she’s sure he’s “told her all his heart” (16:18) that Delilah tries it out. She pricks him or ever so lightly cuts him. She’s looking to make sure he can be harmed. And so I posit that Samson perhaps possessed a degree of invulnerability that protected him. It would seem our boy Samson was a veritable Superman!
Now we know what Samson could do, we have a more concrete idea of his God-given power and strength. Let’s get to the story; that begins in Judges 13. Immediately in verse 1, we find out that Israel has done evil in the sight of the Lord and has been under Philistine rule for forty years because of it. We then come to Manoah and his barren wife, the latter of which is visited by the angel of the Lord. She’s told to refrain from drinking wine and strong drink and any unclean thing because she’s going to have a son. In Judges 13:5, we get the reveal: her son is to be a Nazarite unto God from birth.
So, what do you have to do to be a Nazarite? We get that in Numbers 6:1-21. Let’s run through that passage so we’re all on the same page. In verse 3, we get that a Nazarite did not drink any wine, vinegar, or liquor made from grapes. He couldn’t even eat raisins or fresh grapes themselves. This is because grapes were a symbol of plenty and prosperity. The Nazarite vow was about humility and separation from the world and unto God. In verse 5, a Nazarite is commanded to allow his hair to grow for the duration of his separation; no razor shall come upon his head. Following in verse 6, a Nazarite is warned not to touch any dead body, not even for his own family is he to break this rule. This is a symbol of separation from uncleanness. And these rules were taken seriously. Verses 9-12 are detailed instructions for repenting for having even accidentally breaking these commands. And after all that, you start over the duration of the vow! So here are the stipulations for taking the Nazarite vow: no grapes, no haircuts, no corpses, and no mistakes.
Back in Judges 13:5, we get Samson’s requisite vows and we’re told exactly what Samson was meant to do with his power: “and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” It’s time for the reign of the Philistines to end. God is ready to deliver His people and Samson is not the man for the job. Samson shall only begin to deliver Israel. It’s the efforts of those to follow that will free Israel. Remember, “One sows, and another reaps.”
So let’s move forward to Judges 14:1 and we’ll see Samson’s first strike against the Philistines. Samson sees this Philistine girl in Timnah. He tells his parents he wants to marry her and, despite their protests, insists that they arrange for the marriage. However, verse 4 is an aside to us as the reader; it says, “But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord, that he sought an occasion against the Philistines….” Here we see the first example of Samson as a schemer. He’s looking to pick a fight and this entire wedding ceremony is going to be one big ruse. He doesn’t want his parents in on it because they might give it away. So Samson and his parents head to Timnah to meet this girl and set up the wedding and this is where the lion shows up. Samson is alone in a vineyard when the lion attacks him. Notice that: he was in a vineyard. I’ve heard some say that Samson was in there for a snack. But that would violate the Nazarite vow. Typically the Bible is pretty explicit as to point out when someone has performed some act that they were warned against performing. We can only say he was there. So he kills the lion and doesn’t tell his parents. They meet the woman, Samson likes her, and the wedding is a go. It wouldn’t be a very good ruse if they clearly didn’t like each other, right?
So they head back for the actual wedding in verse 9 and Samson takes a detour to go look at that lion he killed. It must have been a few months because bees have built a hive inside the lion carcass. The area had an arid climate, so most likely the body dried out and was somewhat preserved. If it had putrefied like in many other climates the bees wouldn’t be building there. Samson could use a snack and pulls some of the honeycomb out to eat. Now, some would say Samson is handling a dead body to get the honey out. However, you could also get this image of him reaching cautiously into the gaping hole he put there to get the honey out without touching the sides, like some macabre game of Operation. So he grabs some honeycomb and even takes some back to mom and dad, and he doesn’t tell them from where he got it. Again, he doesn’t want them in on what he’s planning. Even we readers technically aren’t in on it yet.
According to tradition, Samson is responsible for throwing the wedding feast. He didn’t bring any friends, so the wife’s family invited 30 other Philistines to the party to act as Samson’s friends. And now in Judges 14:12-14, we have Samson’s gamble: if the Philistines can guess Samson’s riddle, he owes them 30 changes of clothes. If they can’t solve it by the end of the wedding feast, they owe him 30 changes of clothes. The riddle was,
“Out of the eater came forth food;
Out of the strong came forth sweetness.”
What does that mean? Well, Samson’s just referencing the honey he took from the lion he killed. See the scene he’s set up? Unless one of these Philistines takes a jog through the Timnah vineyards and finds the dead lion, it’s not likely these guys could figure out the riddle if he’d given them seven months! Once they realize how they’ve been duped, they’ll probably attack him and Samson will get his 30 garments any way. He’s built up this whole thing so he can get the chance to fight with the Philistines. Now, all this is speculation because the Philistines instead threaten Samson’s bride to get the riddle’s answer. They even accuse her of being in on the ploy. They threaten to burn down her home with her and her father in it. Now Samson doesn’t want to tell her, but she lays it on thick through the whole wedding feast with crying and declarations that he doesn’t really love her. He finally gives in and tells her and she in turn tells her countrymen. So they let him know the answer, and Samson’s understandably mad because he knows why they found out. So he heads to Ashkelon for some murder and heads back to pay up his end of the deal. Note that when this happens in verse 19, the Holy Spirit has moved upon Samson to head to Ashkelon. Samson’s plan failed and God provided him an alternative. Samson then heads home in a huff and his bride’s father assumes he’s displeased with his daughter and gives her to one of the companions at the feast. This was the tradition back then: if the groom decided he didn’t want his bride anymore, she went to the best man instead.
At the start of Judges 16, Samson heads back to Timnah with a gift for his bride. Her father won’t let him in to see her because he’s already given her to the best man. The father instead offers the younger sister as a bride. Samson says, in Judges 16:3, “This time I will be blameless in the case of the Philistines, when I harm them” (WEB). Samson declares that he’s acting in retaliation this time. Note that this time it doesn’t declare that Samson was angry like the Scriptures had said before. Maybe it’s assumed, but maybe this is the opportunity Samson was looking for to move against the Philistines.
So Samson catches 300 foxes, turns them tail-to-tail, and sets a torch between each pair. The foxes’ tails alight, they take off through the Timnah fields, also setting on fire their entire harvest. Judges 16:5 describes the plants as standing; this means they had harvested the plants and bundled them together to dry out before they pulled the grain off the plants. Timnah was located in a lot of farmland. The Philistine economy is now ruined. They have to get food supplies from elsewhere now. Samson has started to get the ball rolling on freeing Israel from bondage. The Philistines find out the culprit is Samson, the son-in-law of the Timnite. And so the threat they had pressed before comes to fruition: the Philistines set Samson’s bride’s home on fire with everyone trapped inside. Perhaps this was modus operandi for angry Philistines. Samson lets them know he’s going to avenge himself for this act, but then he’s going to stop. He then kills everyone responsible for the death of his in-laws in one massive melee and heads back into Israel territory, specifically the cave in a place called Etam’s rock. It’s a narrow place with poor access, so it’d be hard to go get to Samson with a large group. Samson could easily have defended this point for quite some time. Even though Samson said he was done, he still expected retaliation.
And retaliation came. The Philistines set up a camp in Lehi, in Judah. They marched a military expedition through Dan and into Judah. And the men of Judah were certainly concerned, asking why the Philistines were setting up for war, what had provoked them. The Philistines told them that they had come for Samson, that they wanted to return the favor. Looks like Samson got their attention. Judah doesn’t want a fight so they say, “Well, hold on. We’ll go get him for you.” Apparently it was well known how strong Samson was because the tribe of Judah sent 3,000 men to go get him. They reprimand him for bringing this onto them, “Don’t you know the Philistines are rulers over us?” Samson says he only acted in retaliation. The men of Judah let him know they are going to bind him and take him to the Philistines. Samson asked they not attack him themselves. They agree. (Keep in mind this is the same Judah tribe that was so motivated to fight for Israel back in the beginning of Judges. Oh, how the times have changed.) The men of Judah bind him with new ropes and march him back to the Philistines.
Once the Philistines see him, they all start shouting, probably taunts at Samson and God and praise for Dagon, their half-fish god. Now the spirit of the Lord moves Samson again. He breaks the ropes, grabs the jawbone of a donkey that happened to be nearby, and goes to town on these Philistines. Wielding only a jawbone and unarmored, Samson kills 1,000 Philistines by himself, alone. The rest of them must have fled.
Now about that jawbone, a lot people say that Samson is breaking his Nazarene vow again. He’s not supposed to touch dead bodies. Let me make a different assertion. The Nazarene vow is not a vegetarian vow, right? This means he could still eat meat and what more is a chicken wing than a piece of a dead body? So, like the food he eats, Samson is only interacting with a piece of corpse.
Does it sound like I’m nit-picking at this point? Good! That is absolutely right and that is absolutely the issue: Samson is nit-picking details and excusing himself. Instead of holding fast to the Nazarene vows through which he receives his God-given strength, he dances the line between uncleanness and adhering to tenets of the vow. He’s willing to live his life in a situation that keeps him only a hair’s breadth from calamity. One misstep and Samson could have fallen into the grapevines on his way to Timnah. One errant twitch and he could have touched the lion’s corpse instead of the honeycomb. One moment of not paying attention could have led to Samson drinking wine with his enemies at the wedding feast. Even during his stay at Gaza, he stayed the night at the harlot’s house. Though the Scripture doesn’t indicate any fornication, that place is certainly a lion’s den of temptation. But Samson’s ready to stay there just like he was willing to stay in a relationship with a woman who was constantly trying to figure out how to remove his strength. How could he not have known what the consequences would be for lingering there? He danced that line and finally took a misstep over it. He didn’t even cut his hair himself; Delilah had it done, but God held him accountable for his actions leading up to it.
How many of us live life the same way? We allow ourselves to sit in danger of temptation and sin. We want to pull that honeycomb from the lion; we want to try to pull pleasure and sweetness from uncleanness and death. And I’m not talking just about the people of the world, who would try to worship Jesus through Nimrod’s legacies like Christmas and Easter. I’m talking about us, about you, about me. You hear about those couples that “fool around” but justify it because they hadn’t had “actual” sex yet. Casual drug use and drunkenness? That leaves you vulnerable to making horrible decisions. People still enjoy a worldly attitude and justify it as their “flaw.” And how often have you heard the phrase, “They’ll just have to accept me for who I am.” How often have you said it?
We can only run our lives like that for so long. We wear ourselves thin and become vulnerable. After Samson killed the 1,000 Philistines, he had pushed himself too far. He was exhausted to the point of death and any of the fleeing Philistines could have turned around and finished him right there (Judges 15:18). When Delilah cut his hair, he went out to meet his soon-to-be captors and didn’t even know God had left him (Judges 16:20). We, too, can push ourselves up the brink. We wouldn’t even know God had left us because we’d spent so much time away from Him.
Samson was perfectly okay with simply not sinning, of living his life just this side of the line. God gave us the Commandments to let us know where the line is. Jesus reminded us that the path to avoiding sin lies far from the line. Murder crosses the line, but to live life without hate frees us from the temptation of murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Adultery crosses the line, but to exist free of lust guarantees we won’t fall into temptation (Matthew 5:27-28).
Samson based his foundation on not being wrong, on not having sinned. When we build our foundation on Christ, we can do more. We can build and aspire higher. When Samson is exhausted almost to death at Lehi, he realizes he’s done for if the Philistines turn around. His strength has failed him. He has to lean on God. He pays for deliverance, and God delivers. A nearby rock suddenly splits open and a spring pours forth. Samson drinks from this miraculous spring and is restored. Think about that moment that he’s put his faith in God. He’s just mowed through 1,000 Philistines—and 3,000 men of Judah, and probably some number of the tribe of Dan, are there to witness it. They see him collapse, call out to God, and a spring bursts forth from the rock. And then we get the last verse in chapter 15: “And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.” It’s that moment, when he rebuilds himself on God that establishes his judgeship.
Sometimes God does have to lay us low, to humble us before we can begin to improve. Be thankful because then He can rebuild us at that foundation level, completely build anew. When the Philistines finally capture the weakened Samson, they ensure he won’t be any trouble. They gouge out his eyes and put him to work grinding grain, one of the most demeaning tasks they could’ve given someone at the time. Then, at a festival to Dagon, with all the Philistine lords present, they decide to parade Samson about as a trophy and to make sport of him as he stands before the image of Dagon. But time has passed and his hair has grown back. We can look at this as his restarting his vow. Samson must rebuild himself on God. He is a Nazarite again; he is separate unto God. Samson prays again to God, but this time not for his own deliverance. He prays only to be used for his intended purpose. And his intended purpose was to begin to free Israel from the Philistines. All the lords are present; this would be a devastating blow to the Philistines. He stands between the pillars, the structural focal point of the temple, and pushes. In one final stroke, Samson sets down the foundation for the salvation of Israel as he reestablishes his own, and he lays low the Philistines, down to the foundation.