There are certain stories in the Bible that almost everyone knows. These narratives reveal something so basic about human nature that people who never go to church and never read the Bible know them anyway. A handful of Bible stories fall into this category: David and Goliath. Cain and Abel. Abraham and Isaac. Samson and Delilah.
Pause for a moment over the last one. It is a story that is altogether true, and yet has become legendary. It has been told and retold and told again throughout the course of a hundred generations. There is in the story of Samson and Delilah the stuff of real human drama. It is one of the great classic tragedies of all literature—sacred or secular. It is a story that fathers tell their sons and mothers tell their daughters and Sunday School children learn soon after they start coming to church. It’s one of those stories which having heard it, you realize you are coming to the essence of the man and the essence of the woman. Just to know the story is to know what the people are all about.
Didn’t You Used To Be Samson?
This morning I want to talk to you about a forgotten episode in Judges 16 that occurs just before Samson and Delilah. This passage is often overlooked but I believe it holds the key to Samson’s tragic fall. Everything you need to know about the background of the text can be summarized in just a few words.
Having reached the pinnacle of his career and having accomplished everything a man would want to accomplish, in one sudden, violent turn Samson went from the top right down to the bottom. In Israel his name was a household word, his picture was on every wall, his deeds were celebrated by poets and priests. He had it all and he lost it all.
Samson’s fall came at the height of his career. That really is the most shocking fact. In the end he was trapped by the same thing that trapped him in the beginning. After all these years, the thing he struggled with in the beginning—that thing reached out and bit him on the heel and finally brought him down.
Samson’s Mid-Life Crisis
The key to the story is found in the last verse of Judges 15. “Now Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.” (15:20) That’s exactly the kind of verse we would tend to pass right over, but it’s very crucial to properly understand what is about to happen. Samson, from such a great beginning, went down, down, down and then came back and won a great victory and delivered his people. He was about 20 years old when he burst on the scene. This verse is telling us that he led Israel for 20 years. From the time he was 20 until the time he was about 40: twenty years of peace, twenty years of prosperity, and twenty years of relative freedom from the Philistines. So it was that Samson, as he approached the mid-life years, began to feel restless. He began to feel ill at ease. He began to wonder if there wasn’t more to life. And Samson at the age of 40 begins to take a turn for the worse.
Not that it appeared obvious. I imagine his old friends looked at him and said, “At last he has conquered his problems.” They would have said, “When he was growing up, he had quite a temper. Back in those days, you didn’t want to get him mad at you.” And when his buddies would get together and talk would turn to the old days, someone was bound to say with a snicker, “He used to be the biggest skirt-chaser in town.” They would laugh and then somebody would say, “I guess he just grew up or something.” It truly looked like Samson had finally put all his problems behind him.
The Hardest Thing You Will Ever Say
The truth of the matter is, Samson hasn’t put all his problems behind him. He’s covered them up. He’s ignored them. He’s played them down. He’s pushed them away. He’s managed to live a pretty straight life. Samson never really dealt with the problems that plagued him way as a young man. And now at the end of twenty years, those same problems are about to come out of hibernation and trip him again. Only this time they’re not just going to trip him. The same problems he refused to deal with are the same problems that are going to bring him down now.
That’s the way it always is, isn’t it? The hardest thing that you will ever say in your life is, “I have a problem.” Nobody likes to say that. Samson is just like you or me. He wanted to forget what had happened. He wanted to rock along peacefully, to pretend the things of the past were in the past. And as long as they were twenty years behind him he didn’t want to have to worry about them anymore. But the jig is up. It’s time to pay the piper. Because he hasn’t dealt with his problems, they’re going to come up again, and this time they are going to destroy him.
One Wild And Crazy Night
The story begins in Judges 16:1 when Samson does a very unusual thing. One day Samson went down to Gaza where he saw a prostitute. Gaza was a Philistine city about 25 miles away from Zorah where he grew up. Gaza was not only a Philistine city, it was also the headquarters for the Philistines. It was where they had the temple of Dagon—the god they worshipped.
It was a crazy thing for Samson to do. It would be like Michael Jordan coming to downtown Chicago one Friday night and hoping he wouldn’t be recognized. The odds weren’t in his favor. Everybody in Gaza knew Samson; he was Public Enemy Number One. Maybe he thought he was far enough away that either they wouldn’t recognize him or maybe word wouldn’t get back to Israel. Who knows? It was an insane chance to take. In one sense it wasn’t a “chance” at all, because there was absolutely no chance the mighty Samson could slip in and out of the capital city of the Philistines unobserved. No chance. None whatsoever. It’s like the stories we sometimes hear about certain preachers and politicians who take such reckless chances with their private lives that it almost seems as if they have a professional death wish. Maybe that’s what is happening here. Maybe Samson is fed up with the unending pressure of 20 years at the top of the heap. Maybe he’s so fed up with the humdrum that he almost doesn’t care if he gets caught. That kind of thing happens all the time and more so as successful men approach the mid-life years.
So Samson leaves his own people once again. He goes to the capital city of the Philistines and there he sees a prostitute. He went in, the Bible says, to spend the night with her. By the way, Samson is the only man in the Hall of Fame of Faith in Hebrews ll who ever slept with a prostitute.
The word got out. No surprise. When the people of Gaza found out that Samson was in their city, they surrounded the place where he was and they lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. It’s not hard to read their thinking. They expect Samson to spend the whole night with the prostitute, which means they can capture him at dawn. Verse 2 says, “They made no move all night saying, ‘At dawn we’ll kill him.’” But Samson crossed them up. He stayed with the prostitute only until the middle of the night.
Then he got up and he took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and he tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill which faces Hebron. (16:3)
There are two things you need to know about this. First, when it says he ripped up the doors of the city gate, it doesn’t mean a hollow core door. It means it was a thick wooden door anchored by iron posts on either side and held in place with iron hinges. To rip out a door like that would take enormous strength. To pick it up and carry it even one foot would be a tremendous feat. The door would have weighed almost 700 pounds. Second, by carrying off the doors of the city gate, Samson was humiliating the Philistines once again. Nearly all the ancient cities were surrounded by a thick wall, which meant the gate was the main entrance. The gate symbolized the safety and security of the city. And for Samson to take the city gate and to put it on his shoulders and to carry it away like that—not only was it a feat of incredible strength—it was also his way of humiliating the Philistines and saying, “See, not only can you not catch me, I’m going to destroy the symbol of your security.” He carried the doors and put them on top of the hill which faces Hebron in the land of Judah. That was where the people of God lived. He put them up there as if to say, “You can’t stop me. You can’t catch me. I can do anything I want.”
A He-Man With A She-Weakness
You may wonder why this little episode is in the Bible. How does this story of Samson and the prostitute fit in with Samson and Delilah? The answer is transparent. Samson had a problem with women. He never liked the Philistines. He hated them all his life. But he could never stay away from the Philistine women. What Samson wanted, by going down to the prostitute in Gaza, was sex without commitment. He wanted love with no strings attached. But there’s no such thing as sex without commitment or love with no strings attached. He thought he was going to get it by going to a prostitute and having his physical needs satisfied. Then he would slip out during the night, rip off the gate, set it down on the hill, go back home, wash his hands and nobody would be the wiser
It seems at first as if Samson has gotten away with it. It seems that the man of God has gone into a prostitute, has ripped off the doors of the city gate, has gone back home and now he’s back there laughing with the boys. It looks like Samson has really gotten away with one here.
No Free Sex
When Samson slept with the prostitute the real price he paid was on the inside. Years ago a Philistine woman had said, “You don’t really love me” (Judges 14:16). And soon enough Delilah is going to say, “How can you say, ‘I love you’” (Judges 16:15). It’s the same old cycle repeating itself over and over again. Try as you might, you can’t prove that you love someone by going down to a prostitute, because that’s just sex for money. And strangely enough, when Samson did that, it drove him into the arms of Delilah. Do you understand what I’m saying? By going to a prostitute, not only did his real needs go unmet, he just inflamed his passions and ended up with his head in Delilah’s lap.
That’s why this story is in the Bible. Society tells us, Go ahead, you can have a one-night stand, you can have your fun, you can walk away from it, and you can just move on. The world says, “You can say it was just for fun.” But it’s not true. It’s never just for fun. There’s no such thing as sex without commitment. There’s no such thing as love with no strings attached. That’s what Samson is about to find out.
Samson has now done two things that are going to get him into serious trouble. First, he has enraged the Philistines by ripping off their city gate. Second, he has inflamed his old passion for women and for illicit sex. A fire rages inside him, and there is going to be nothing but trouble ahead. This is the little fall that sets him up for the big one.
You may wonder why I bring up this story at this time. And then maybe you don’t. It does have an amazingly contemporary sound, doesn’t it? It’s a story of reckless behavior by someone who should have known better. It could have been ripped from the pages of any newspaper in America. I don’t want to make a political point other than to note that what happened in the White House isn’t unique or new in any sense. It’s as old as the human race.
Certainly the story of Samson and the prostitute of Gaza stands as a cautionary tale to all of us. Here are some of the obvious lessons:
1) Just because we think we have conquered a certain sin doesn’t mean it will stay conquered forever.
2) The price of long-term spiritual victory is continued vigilance coupled with self-discipline and regular accountability.
3) God sometimes lets us suffer the consequences of our sin as a means of grace so that when we are humbled, we will return to him with a truly broken heart.
4) A healthy sense of our own sinfulness and an honest admission of our weakness can protect us from foolish mistakes and stupid choices.
5) A lifetime of obedience can be ruined in a moment of sinful passion.
6) If we think that we are somehow immune to certain temptations—and that what others have done we would never do—we are arrogant, self-righteous fools. We may be in greater danger than the people we criticize.
7) God lets some people fall so that others will learn not to sin.
8) Judgment and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive. We may be judged and forgiven at the same time.
Write two verses of Scripture over this tragic story of Samson and the prostitute at Gaza. The first is Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The second is I Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore if any man thinks that he is standing firm, let him take care lest he fall.”
Where is the grace of God in all of this? We see it in two ways. First, the grace of God appear at the end of Judges 16 when blind Samson—having been captured and publicly humiliated by the Philistines–returns to God just before he dies. Second, we see God’s grace in the fact that this strange story of Samson and prostitute is recorded in the Bible. It is a “severe mercy” and a warning from God who loves us too much to let us take our sin lightly.
Why did Samson go to Gaza? Because he was self-confident. Because he had lived for twenty years without ever dealing with his basic problem. And since he’d lived problem-free for twenty years he felt like he didn’t have a problem anymore. Oh, Samson, what a fool you were.
And what fools we are if we don’t learn from what his mistakes.
We read this story, Lord, and a thousand fugitive thoughts go through the mind. We watch Samson throwing his life away and we say, “How stupid.”
Grant that we might have a better estimate of our own weakness. Help us to see that what happened to Samson could so easily happen to any of us.
Renew within us the spirit of self-discipline. Show us anew the danger of dabbling with temptation. Lead us to the place where we will yield our desires to you.
Thank you for the alchemy of the Holy Spirit, through which the base metal of our passions is transformed into pure gold for your kingdom. Amen.