One Bible study method I’ll often employ is to imagine how a Bible story might look if it was a movie. Maybe I’m biased, but I think the Bible has some of the best potential stories for the silver-screen. Who wouldn’t want to see the destruction of Jericho in IMAX? Or Christopher Nolan directing the David and Goliath story? But perhaps the greatest example of a biblical character who is tailor-made for a movie is the Old Testament figure of Samson. (They tried that in 2018, though, and it bombed!) Samson is the guy who’s always depicted as this buff, macho superhero, of sorts. He’s the Hercules of the Bible. His life is riddled with countless scenes that are, at once, cinematic and captivating.
Reading through Samson’s escapades can very quickly encourage us to look at him like some ancient comic-book character. Like the time when he tore a lion in two pieces with his bare hands (Judg. 14:5–6). Or the time when he ensnared three hundred foxes, tied their tails together, lit their tails on fire, and set them loose in Philistine farm-country (Judg. 15:4–5). Or the time when he fought-off 1,000 soldiers with nothing but a donkey’s jawbone (Judg. 15:15).
Samson is certainly alluring, but you’d be quite mistaken if you envied him. His story is, perhaps, the Bible’s most cautionary of tales. It is a tragedy in its truest form. This is readily understood if you contrast the way his life began with how it ended.
Samson came into this world with an abundance of hope attached to his name. From the time he was born, he was supposed to represent the long-anticipated Deliverer of Yahweh’s people. Indeed, Samson’s nativity bears a number of striking similarities to our Savior’s birth (Judg. 13:1–7) with an angelic messenger announcing his birth, a mother to whom pregnancy seems far-fetched, to a father who can’t seem to wrap his mind around the news his wife just told him. There are even the hopeful notes of salvation surrounding his arrival, too: “For behold, you shall conceive and bear a son…and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judg. 13:5).
Being the only example of a “nativity story” in Judges further alludes to the divine promise associated with his birth. He was born into a time of darkness, with Israel disjointed and the Philistines dominating the landscape. But, through Samson, the sun was to start shining again. Samson literally means, “like the sun.” His life’s mission was brimming with the hope of salvation. This is evidenced in the fact that, from birth, he was to be set apart for Yahweh’s service (Judg. 13:4–5). This “Nazirite Vow” was a significant religious code that could be voluntarily entered into (Num. 6:1–8). Pledging to uphold this vow, however, meant that your life was held to a different standard.
This vow isn’t some arbitrary footnote in Samson’s adolescence. Rather, it is central to understanding the tragedy of his story. Despite being blessed by God and gifted by God and chosen by God, Samson grew to be quite content with wasting those gifts on himself. He squandered his divine mission for sport. He played around with pleasure and power, reckoning himself an invincible force of nature. He evidenced a flippant care for the things of God throughout his life. Indeed, Samson’s ultimate weakness ended up being Samson.
While in Gaza (Judg. 16:1–3), he starts to become infatuated with a prostitute. The men of the city become aware of his presence and concoct a plan to ambush him and kill him. Samson cavalierly waits around till midnight before leaving, taking the entire gate apparatus to the city along with him. This segues into the oft-cited and winding tale of his love affair with Delilah (Judg. 16:4–17). The Philistines are fed up with Samson’s continued elusiveness, so much that they place all their bets on the wiles of Delilah to charm Samson into divulging his secret. This leads to an agonizing back-and-forth between Samson and Delilah, with Samson lying to her about where his “great strength lies” on multiple occasions.
Each time Delilah conspires with the men of Philistia to ambush him, Samson comes out on top. The culmination to this story comes about when Delilah decides to play the “emotions” card (Judg. 16:15–16). She won’t leave him alone, pressing him daily with the logic that he didn’t really love her if he wouldn’t divulge his “secret.” Eventually, Samson gives in, telling her “all his heart”: “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man” (Judg. 16:17).
Samson was brought low at the end of his life because his pride got in the way. His feats of strength led him to believe that he was strong in and of himself.
Samson has misinterpreted much of his life’s calling. His strength wasn’t “in his hair” but in his vow to God the Father, by which he was consecrated to his service. The length of his hair was merely the outward sign of the inward devotion that was supposed to drive his actions. Cutting his hair was a visible representation of Samson’s disregard for all that he was chosen by God to do. As his hair was being “cut off,” we are made to see it as an indication that he had effectively “cast off” his service to the Lord and all the obligations went along with that (Judg. 16:18–20). We are brought at last, to that “record scratch” moment:
“And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes and brought him down to Gaza and bound him with bronze shackles. And he ground at the mill in the prison” (Judg. 16:21).
The one who was “like the sun” is now thrust into darkness. Israel’s supposed deliverer — the one they hoped would unshackle them from their captors — is himself in shackles. The mighty warrior who once used the jawbone of a donkey to slay an entire host of Philistine soldiers is now reduced to the function of a donkey in a Philistine mill. The same one who trifled with his calling to judge the Philistines is now being paraded around like a trifling Philistine plaything (Judg. 16:23–25).
How did it end up like this? This wasn’t how things were supposed to go? The easy answer is the most accurate: pride. Samson was brought low at the end of his life because his pride got in the way. His feats of strength led him to believe that he was strong in and of himself. Rather than going to war with the world, he instead, made his bed with pride and pleasure and prostitutes. This is what pride does. It takes you to places you never thought you’d go. “Pride goes before destruction,” Scripture warns, “and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18). As soon as you begin to think that your strength is what brings about your success, you’re on the fast-track to repeat Samson’s pitiful plunge of pride. The gifts he was given and the accomplishments he achieved were never meant to bloat his ego. They were meant to showcase what God can do through human weakness (1 Cor. 1:26–30). You and I are not strong, we’re not sufficient in and of ourselves — and that’s good news. Samson had to come to grips with that news the hard way.
With Samson in shackles, the Philistines celebrate the supposed deliverance their god had given them. They exacerbate his shame by leading him into the middle of the courtyard to jeer at him. He is positioned between the pillars of the house, where, blind and weak as he was, he heaves a word heavenward: “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judg. 16:28). It’s a prayer of deep humiliation, hinting that he finally understood where his strength came from. In fact, we’re given a subtle hint that his heart is changing back in verse 22, which tells us that his hair had begun to grow again. This isn’t confirmation that his strength was “in his hair.” Rather, this is a glimpse that, however feebly, Samson had begun to remember his vow, his God.
And so Samson flexes against the pillars and cries out to Yahweh to let him be useful again. Remarkably, God hears him and answers him: “Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life” (Judg. 16:30). This goes to show that no matter how far away they wander, God always hears the prayers of his children. In the deepest, darkest pit of failure, Samson finally learned what it meant to serve his Lord. It means death — to yourself, to your wants, to your desires, to your plans. And, in that way, he exists to point us to the true and better Samson to come.
Samson’s final act of sacrificial service points us to the perfect sacrificial service of God’s only Son who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). And whereas Samson reluctantly served the Lord in his death, our Savior willingly accepts the death of the cross in order to bring salvation into the world. “Samson died to crush his enemies with him,” wrote 18th century Anglican Robert Hawker. “But Jesus died for his enemies to have life” (2:161). Samson might have begun the work of delivering Israel (Judg. 13:5), but the true and better Samson brings that work to completion (Matt. 1:21). In fact, he finishes it for good.