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SAMSON PLUNGING INTO LIFE.
Judges xiii. 24-xiv. 20.
Of all who move before us in the Book of Judges Samson is pre-eminently the popular hero. In rude giant strength and wild daring he stands alone against the enemies of Israel contemptuous of their power and their plots. It is just such a man who catches the public eye and lives in the traditions of a country. Most Hebrews of the time minded piety and culture as little as did the Norsemen when they first professed Christianity. Both races liked manliness and feats of daring and could pardon much to one who flung his enemies and theirs to the ground with god-like strength of arm, and in the narrative of Samson's exploits we trace this note of popular estimation. He is a singular hero of faith, quite akin to those half-converted half-savage chiefs of the north who thought the best they could do for God was to kill His enemies and bound themselves by fierce oaths in the name of Christ to hack and slaughter. For the separateness from others, the isolation which marked Samson's whole career the reasons are evident. His vow of Naziritism, for one thing, kept him apart. Others were their own men, he was Jehovah's. His radiant health and uncommon physical energy even in boyhood were to himself and others the sign of a divine blessing which maintained his sense of consecration. While he looked on at the riot and drunkenness of the feasts of his people he felt a growing revulsion, nor was he pleased with other indications of their temper. The frequent raids of Philistines from their walled cities by the coast struck terror far and wide—up the valleys of Dan into the heart of Judah and Ephraim. Samson as he grew up marked the supineness of his people with wonder and disgust. If he did anything for them it was not because he honoured them but in fulfilment of his destiny. At the same time we must note that the hero though a man of wit was not wise. He did the most injudicious things. He had nothing in him of the diplomatist, not much of the leader of men. It was only now and again when the mood took him that he cared to exert himself. So he went his own way an admired hero, a lonely giant among smaller beings. Worst of all he was an easy prey to some kinds of temptation. Restrained on one side, he gave himself license on others; his strength was always undisciplined, and early in his career we can almost predict how it will end. He ventures into one snare after another. The time is sure to come when he will fall into a pit out of which there is no way of escape.
Of the early life of the great Danite judge there is no record save that he grew and the Lord blessed him. The parents whose home on the hill-side he filled with boisterous glee must have looked on the lad with something like awe—so different was he from others, so great were the hopes based on his future. Doubtless they did their best for him. The consecration of his life to God they deeply impressed on his mind and taught him as well as they could the worship of the Unseen Jehovah in the sacrifice of lamb or kid at the altar, in prayers for protection and prosperity. But nothing is said of instruction in the righteousness, the purity, the mercifulness which the law of God required. Manoah and his wife seem to have made the mistake of thinking that outside the vow moral education and discipline would come naturally, so far as they were needed. There was great strictness on certain points and elsewhere such laxity that he must have soon become wilful and headstrong and somewhat of a terror to the father and mother. Lads of his own age would of course adore him; as their leader in every bold pastime he would command their deference and loyalty, and many a wild thing was done, we can fancy, at which the people of the valley laughed uneasily or shook their heads in dismay. He who afterwards tied the jackals' tails together and set firebrands between each pair to burn the Philistines' corn must have served an apprenticeship to that kind of savage sport. Hebrew or alien for miles round who roused the anger of Samson would soon learn how dangerous it was to provoke him. Yet a dash of generosity always took the edge from fiery temper and rash revenge, and the people of Dan, for their part, would allow much to one who was expected to bring deliverance to Israel. The wild and dangerous youth was the only champion they could see.
But even before manhood Samson had times of deeper feeling than people in general would have looked for. Boisterous hot-blooded impetuous natures grievously wanting in decorum and sagacity are not always superficial; and there were occasions when the Spirit of the Lord began to move Samson. He felt the purpose of his vow, saw the serious work to which his destiny was urging him, looked down on the plain of the Philistines with a kindling eye, spoke in strains that even rose to prophetic intensity. At Mahaneh-Dan, the camp of Dan, where the more resolute spirits of the tribe came together for military exercise or to repel some raid of the enemy, Samson began to speak of his purpose and to make schemes for Israel's liberation. Into these the fiery vehemence of the young man flowed, and the enthusiasm of his nature bore others along. Can we be wrong in supposing that in various ways, by plans often ill-considered he sought to harass the Philistines, and that failure as a leader in these left him somewhat discredited? Samson was just of that sanguine venturesome disposition which makes light of difficulties and is always courting defeat. It was easy for him with his immense bodily strength to break through where other men were entrapped. A frequent result of the frays into which he hurried must have been, we imagine, to make his own friends doubt him rather than to injure the enemy. At all events he became no commander like Gideon or Jephthah, and the men of Judah, if not of Dan, while they acknowledged his calling and his power, began to think of him as a dangerous champion.
So far we have the merest hints by which to go, but the narrative becomes more detailed when it approaches the time of Samson's marriage. A strange union it is for a hero of Israel. What made him think of going down among the Philistines for a wife? How can the sacred writer say that the thing was of the Lord? Let us try to understand the circumstances. Between the people of Zorah and the villagers of Timnah a few miles down the valley on the other side who, though Philistines, were presumably not of the fighting sort there was a kind of enforced neighbourliness. They could not have lived at all unless they had been content, Philistines for their part, Hebrews for theirs, to let the general enmity sleep. Samson by observing certain precautions and keeping his Hebrew tongue quiet was safe enough in Timnah, an object of fear rather than himself in danger. At the same time there may have been a touch of bravado in his rambles to the Philistine settlement, and the young woman of whom he caught a passing glance, perhaps at the spring, had very likely all the more charm for him that she was of the strong hostile race. History as well as fiction supplies instances in which this fascination does its work, family feuds, oppositions of caste and religion directing the eye and the fancy instead of repelling. In his sudden wilful way Samson resolved, and his mind once made up no one in Zorah could induce him to alter it. "The thing was of the Lord; for he sought an occasion against the Philistines." Perhaps Samson thought the woman would be denied to him, a straight way to a quarrel. But more probably it is the outcome of the whole pitiful business that is in the mind of the historian. After the event he traces the hand of Providence.
As we pass with Samson and his parents down to Timnah we cannot but agree with Manoah in his objection, "Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren or among all my people that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?" It was emphatically one of those cases in which liking should not have led. An impetuous man is not to be excused; much less those who claim to be exceedingly rational and yet go against reason because of what they call love—or, worse, apart from love. General rules are with difficulty laid down in matters of this sort, and to deny the right of love would be the worst error of all. So far as our popular writers are concerned, we must allow that they wonderfully balance the claims of "arrangement" and honest affection, declaring strongly for the latter. But yet such a difference as between faith and idolatry, between piety and godlessness, is a barrier that only the blindest folly can overleap when marriage is in view. Daughters of the Philistines may be "most divinely fair," most graceful and plausible; men who worship Moloch or Mammon or nothing but themselves may have most persuasive tongues and a large share of this world's good. But to mate with these, whatever liking there may be, is an experiment too rash for venturing. In Christian society now, is there not much need to repeat old warnings and revive a sense of peril that seems to have decayed? The conscience of piously bred young people was alive once to the danger and sin of the unequal yoke. In the rush for position and means marriage is being made by both sexes, even in most religious circles, an instrument and opportunity of earthly ambition, and it must be said that foolish romance is less to be feared than this carefulness in which conscience and heart alike submit to the imperious cravings of sheer worldliness. Novels have much to answer for; yet they can make one claim—they have done something for simple humanity. We want more than nature, however. Christian teaching must be heard and the Christian conscience must be re-kindled. The hope of the world waits on that devout simplicity of life which exalts spiritual aims and spiritual comradeship and by its beauty shames all meaner choice. In marriage not only should heart go out to heart, but mind to mind and soul to soul; and the spirit of one who knows Christ can never unite with a self-worshipper or a servant of mammon.
Returning to Samson's case, he would possibly have said that he wished an adventurous marriage, that to wed a Danite woman would have in it too little risk, would be too dull, too commonplace a business for him, that he wanted a plunge into new waters. It is in this way, one must believe, many decide the great affair. So far from thinking they put thought away; a liking seizes them and in they leap. Yet in the best considered marriage that can be made is there not quite enough of adventure for any sane man or woman? Always there remain points of character unknown, unsuspected, possibilities of sickness, trouble, privation that fill the future with uncertainty, so far as human vision goes. It is, in truth, a serious undertaking for men and women, and to be entered upon only with the distinct assurance that divine providence clears the way and invites our advance. Yet again we are not to be suspicious of each other, probing every trait and habit to the quick. Marriage is the great example and expression of the trust which it is the glory of men and women to exercise and to deserve, the great symbol on earth of the confidences and unions of immortality. Matter of deep thankfulness it is that so many who begin the married life and end it on a low level, having scarcely a glimpse of the ideal, though they fail of much do not fail of all, but in some patience, some courage and fidelity show that God has not left them to nature and to earth. And happy are they who adventure together on no way of worldly policy or desire but in the pure love and heavenly faith which link their lives for ever in binding them to God.
Samson, reasoned with by his parents, waved their objection royally aside and ordered them to aid his design. It was necessary according to the custom of the country that they should conduct the negotiations for the marriage, and his wilfulness imposed on them a task that went against their consciences. So they found themselves with the common reward of worshipping parents. They had toiled for him, made much of him, boasted about him no doubt; and now their boy-god turns round and commands them in a thing they cannot believe to be right. They must choose between Jehovah and Samson and they have to give up Jehovah and serve their own lad. So David's pride in Absalom ended with the rebellion that drove the aged father from Jerusalem and exposed him to the contempt of Israel. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth, the yoke even of parents who are not so wise as they might be and do not command much reverence. The order of family life among us, involving no absolute bondage, is recognized as a wholesome discipline by all who attain to any understanding of life. In Israel, as we know, filial respect and obedience were virtues sacredly commended, and it is one mark of Samson's ill-regulated self-esteeming disposition that he neglected the obvious duty of deference to the judgment of his parents.
On the way to Timnah the young man had an adventure which was to play an important part in his life. Turning aside out of the road he found himself suddenly confronted by a lion which, doubtless as much surprised as he was by the encounter, roared against him. The moment was not without its peril; but Samson was equal to the emergency and springing on the beast "rent it as he would have rent a kid." The affair however did not seem worth referring to when he joined his parents, and they went on their way. It was as when a man of strong moral principle and force meets a temptation dangerous to the weak, to him an enemy easily overcome. His vigorous truth or honour or chastity makes short work of it. He lays hold of it and in a moment it is torn in pieces. The great talk made about temptations, the ready excuses many find for themselves when they yield are signs of a feebleness of will which in other ranges of life the same persons would be ashamed to own. It is to be feared that we often encourage moral weakness and unfaithfulness to duty by exaggerating the force of evil influences. Why should it be reckoned a feat to be honest, to be generous, to swear to one's own hurt? Under the dispensation of the Spirit of God, with Christ as our guide and stay every one of us should act boldly in the encounter with the lions of temptation. Tenderness to the weak is a Christian duty, but there is danger that young and old alike, hearing much of the seductions of sin, little of the ready help of the Almighty, submit easily where they should conquer and reckon on divine forbearance when they ought to expect reproach and contempt. Our generation needs to hear the words of St. Paul: "There hath no temptation taken you but such as man can bear: but God is faithful Who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able." Is there a tremendous pressure constantly urging us towards that which is evil? In our large cities especially is the power of iniquity almost despotic? True enough. Yet men and women should be braced and strengthened by insistence on the other side. In Christian lands at least it is unquestionable that for every enticement to evil there is a stronger allurement to good, that against every argument for immorality ten are set more potent in behalf of virtue, that where sin abounds grace does much more abound. Young persons are indeed tempted; but nothing will be gained by speaking to them or about them as if they were children incapable of decision, of whom it can only be expected that they will fail. By the Spirit of God, indeed, all moral victories are gained; the natural virtue of the best is uncertain and cannot be trusted in the trying hour, and he only who has a full inward life and earnest Christian purpose is ready for the test. But the Spirit of God is given. His sustaining, purifying, strengthening power is with us. We do not breathe deep, and then we complain that our hearts cease to beat with holy courage and resolve.
At Timnah, where life was perhaps freer than in a Hebrew town, Samson appears to have seen the woman who had caught his fancy; and he now found her, Philistine as she was, quite to his mind. It must have been by a low standard he judged, and many possible topics of conversation must have been carefully avoided. Under the circumstances, indeed, the difficulty of understanding each other's language may have been their safety. Certainly one who professed to be a fearer of God, a patriotic Israelite had to shut his eyes to many facts or thrust them from sight when he determined to wed this daughter of the enemy. But when we choose we can do much in the way of keeping things out of view which we do not wish to see. Persons who are at daggers drawn on fifty points show the greatest possible affability when it is their interest to be at one. Love gets over difficulties and so does policy. Occasions are found when the anxiously orthodox can join in some comfortable compact with the agnostic, and the vehement state-churchman with the avowed secularist and revolutionary. And it seems to be only when two are nearly of the same creed, with just some hairsbreadth of divergence on a few articles of belief, that the obstacles to happy union are apt to become insurmountable. Then every word is watched, each tone noted with suspicion. It is not between Hebrew and Philistine but between Ephraim and Judah that alliances are difficult to form. We hope for the time when the long and bitter disputes of Christendom shall be overcome by love of truth and God. Yet first there must be an end to the strange reconcilings and unions which like Samson's marriage often confuse and obstruct the way of Christian people.
There is an interval of some months after the marriage has been arranged and the bridegroom is on his way once more down the valley to Timnah. As he passes the scene of his encounter with the lion he turns aside to see the carcase and finds that bees have made it their home. Vultures and ants have first found it and devoured the flesh, then the sun has thoroughly dried the skin and in the hollow of the ribs the bees have settled. At considerable risk Samson possesses himself of some of the combs and goes on eating the honey, giving a portion also to his father and mother. It is again a type, and this time of the sweetness to be found in the recollection of virtuous energy and overcoming. Not that we are to be always dwelling on our faithfulness even for the purpose of thanking God Who gave us moral strength. But when circumstances recall a trial and victory it is surely matter of proper joy to remember that here we were strong enough to be true, and there to be honest and pure when the odds seemed to be against us. The memories of a good man or good woman are sweeter than the honeycomb, though tempered often by sorrow over the human instruments of evil who had to be struggled with and thrust aside in the sharp conflict with sin and wrong. Very few in youth or middle-life seem to think of this joy, which makes beautiful many a worn and aged face on earth and will not be the least element in the felicity of heaven. Too often we bear burdens because we must; we are dragged through trial and distress to comparative quiet; we do not comprehend what is at stake, what we may do and gain, what we are kept from losing; and so the look across our past has none of the glow of triumph, little of the joy of harvest. For man's blessedness is not to be separated from personal striving. In fidelity he must sow that he may reap in strength, in courage that he may reap in gladness. He is made not for mere success, not for mere safety, but for overcoming.
We are not finished with the lion; he next appears covertly, in a riddle. Samson has shown himself a strong man; now we hear him speak and he proves a wit. It is the wedding festival, and thirty young men have been gathered—to honour the bridegroom, shall we say?—or to watch him? Perhaps from the first there has been suspicion in the Philistine mind, and it seems necessary to have as many as thirty to one in order to overawe Samson. In the course of the feast there might be quarrels, and without a strong guard on the Hebrew youth Timnah might be in danger. As the days went by the company fell to proposing riddles and Samson, probably annoyed by the Philistines who watched every movement, gave them his, on terms quite fair, yet leaving more than a loophole for discontent and strife. In the conditions we see the man perfectly self-reliant, full of easy superiority, courting danger and defying envy. The thirty may win—if they can. In that case he knows how he will pay the forfeit. "Put forth thy riddle," they said, "that we may hear it;" and the strong mellow Hebrew voice chanted the puzzling verse:
"Out of the eater came forth meat;
Out of the strong came forth sweetness."
Now in itself this is simply a curiosity of old-world table-talk. It is preserved here mainly because of its bearing on following events; and certainly the statement which has been made that it contained a gospel for the Philistines is one we cannot endorse. Yet like many witty sayings the riddle has a range of meaning far wider than Samson intended. Adverse influences conquered, temptation mastered, difficulties overcome, the struggle of faithfulness will supply us not only with happy recollections but also with arguments against infidelity, with questions that confound the unbeliever. One who can glory in tribulations that have brought experience and hope, in bonds and imprisonments that have issued in a keener sense of liberty, who having nothing yet possesses all things—such a man questioning the denier of divine providence cannot be answered. Invigoration has come out of that which threatened life and joy out of that which made for sorrow. The man who is in covenant with God is helped by nature; its forces serve him; he is fed with honey from the rock and with the finest of the wheat. When out of the mire of trouble and the deep waters of despondency he comes forth braver, more hopeful, strongly confident in the love of God, sure of the eternal foundation of life, what can be said in denial of the power that has filled him with strength and peace? Here is an argument that can be used by every Christian, and ought to be in every Christian's hand. Out of his personal experience each should be able to state problems and put inquiries unanswerable by unbelief. For unless there is a living God Whose favour is life, Whose fellowship inspires and ennobles the soul, the strength which has come through weakness, the hope that sprang up in the depth of sorrow cannot be accounted for. There are natural sequences in which no mystery lies. When one who has been defamed and injured turns on his enemy and pursues him in revenge, when one who has been defeated sinks back in languor and waits in pitiful inaction for death, these are results easily traced to their cause. But the man of faith bears witness to sequences of a different kind. His fellows have persecuted him, and he cares for them still. Death has bereaved him, and he can smile in its face. Afflictions have been multiplied and he glories in them. The darkness has fallen and he rejoices more than in the noontide of prosperity. Out of the eater has come forth meat, out of the strong has come forth sweetness. "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." The paradox of the life of Christ thus stated by Himself is the supreme instance of that demonstration of divine power which the history of every Christian should clearly and constantly support.
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