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PLEASURE AND PERIL IN GAZA.
Judges xvi. 1-3.
By courage and energy Samson so distinguished himself in his own tribe and on the Philistine border that he was recognized as judge. Government of any kind was a boon, and he kept rude order, as much perhaps by overawing the restless enemy as by administering justice in Israel. Whether the period of twenty years assigned to Samson's judgeship intervened between the fight at Lehi and the visit to Gaza we cannot tell. The chronology is vague, as might be expected in a narrative based on popular tradition. Most likely the twenty years cover the whole time during which Samson was before the public as hero and acknowledged chief.
Samson went down to Gaza, which was the principal Philistine city situated near the Mediterranean coast some forty miles from Zorah. For what reason did he venture into that hostile place? It may, of course, have been that he desired to learn by personal inspection what was its strength, to consider whether it might be attacked with any hope of success; and if that was so we would be disposed to justify him. As the champion and judge of Israel he could not but feel the danger to which his people were constantly exposed308 from the Philistine power so near to them and in those days always becoming more formidable. He had to a certain extent secured deliverance for his country as he was expected to do; but deliverance was far from complete, could not be complete till the strength of the enemy was broken. At great risk to himself he may have gone to play the spy and devise, if possible, some plan of attack. In this case he would be an example of those who with the best and purest motives, seeking to carry the war of truth and purity into the enemy's country, go down into the haunts of vice to see what men do and how best the evils that injure society may be overcome. There is risk in such adventure; but it is nobly undertaken, and even if we do not feel disposed to imitate we must admire. Bold servants of Christ may feel constrained to visit Gaza and learn for themselves what is done there. Beyond this too is a kind of adventure which the whole church justifies in proportion to its own faith and zeal. We see St. Paul and his companions in Ephesus, in Philippi, in Athens and other heathen towns, braving the perils which threaten them there, often attacked, sometimes in the jaws of death, heroic in the highest sense. And we see the modern missionary with like heroism landing on savage coasts and at the constant risk of life teaching the will of God in a sublime confidence that it shall awaken the most sunken nature; a confidence never at fault.
But we are obliged to doubt whether Samson had in view any scheme against the Philistine power; and we may be sure that he was on no mission for the good of Gaza. Of a patriotic or generous purpose there is no trace; the motive is unquestionably of a different kind. From his youth this man was restless, adventurous, ever309 craving some new excitement good or bad. He could do anything but quietly pursue a path of duty; and in the small towns of Dan and the valleys of Judah he had little to excite and interest him. There life went on in a dull way from year to year, without gaiety, bustle, enterprise. Had the chief been deeply interested in religion, had he been a reformer of the right kind he would have found opportunity enough for exertion and a task into which he might have thrown all his force. There were heathen images to break in pieces, altars and high-places to demolish. To banish Baal-worship and the rites of Ashtoreth from the land, to bring the customs of the people under the law of Jehovah would have occupied him fully. But Samson did not incline to any such doings; he had no passion for reform. We never see in his life one such moment as Gideon and Jephthah knew of high religious daring. Dark hours he had, sombre enough, as at Lehi after the slaughter. But his was the melancholy of a life without aim sufficient to its strength, without a vision matching its energy. To suffer for God's cause is the rarest of joys and that Samson never knew though he was judge in Israel.
We imagine then that in default of any excitement such as he craved in the towns of his own land he turned his eyes to the Philistine cities which presented a marked contrast. There life was energetic and gay, there many pleasures were to be had. New colonists were coming in their swift ships and the streets presented a scene of constant animation. The strong eager man, full of animal passion, found the life he craved in Gaza where he mingled with the crowds and heard tales of strange existence. Nor was there wanting the opportunity for enjoyment which at home310 he could not indulge. Beyond the critical observation of the elders of Dan he could take his fill of sensual pleasure. Not without danger of course. In some brawl the Philistines might close upon him. But he trusted to his strength to escape from their hands, and the risk increased the excitement. We must suppose that, having seen the nearer and less important towns such as Ekron, Gath and Ashkelon he now ventured to Gaza in quest of amusement, in order, as people say, to see the world.
A constant peril this of seeking excitement, especially in an age of high civilization. The means of variety and stimulus are multiplied, and ever the craving outruns them, a craving yielded to, with little or no resistance, by many who should know better. The moral teacher must recognize the desire for variety and excitement as perhaps the chief of all the hindrances he has now to overcome. For one who desires duty there are scores who find it dull and tame and turn from it, without sense of fault, to the gaieties of civilized society in which there is "nothing wrong" as they say, or at least so little of the positively wrong that conscience is easily appeased. The religious teacher finds the demand for "brightness" and variety before him at every turn; he is indeed often touched by it himself and follows with more or less of doubt a path that leads straight from his professed goal. "Is amusement devilish?" asks one. Most people reply with a smile that life must be lively or it is not worth having. And the Philistinism that attracts them with its dash and gaudiness is not far away nor hard to reach. It is not necessary to go across to the Continent where the brilliance of Vienna or Paris offers a contrast to the grey dulness of a country village; nor even to London311 where amid the lures of the midnight streets there is peril of the gravest kind. Those who are restless and foolhardy can find a Gaza and a valley of Sorek nearer home, in the next market town. Philistine life, lax in morals, full of rattle and glitter, heat and change, in gambling, in debauchery, in sheer audacity of movement and talk, presents its allurements in our streets, has its acknowledged haunts in our midst. Young people brought up to fear God in quiet homes whether of town or country are enticed by the whispered counsels of comrades half ashamed of the things they say, yet eager for more companionship in what they secretly know to be folly or worse. Young women are the prey of those who disgrace manhood and womanhood by the offers they make, the insidious lies they tell. The attraction once felt is apt to master. As the current that rushes swiftly bears them with it they exult in the rapid motion even while life is nearing the fatal cataract. Subtle is the progress of infidelity. From the persuasion that enjoyment is lawful and has no peril in it the mind quickly passes to a doubt of the old laws and warnings. Is it so certain that there is a reward for purity and unworldliness? Is not all the talk about a life to come a jangle of vain words? The present is a reality, death a certainty, life a swiftly passing possession. They who enjoy know what they are getting. The rest is dismissed as altogether in the air.
With Samson, as there was less of faith and law to fling aside, there was less hardening of heart. He was half a heathen always, more conscious of bodily than of moral strength, reliant on that which he had, indisposed to seek from God the holy vigour which he valued little. At Gaza where moral weakness endangered life his well-knit muscles released him. We see him312 among the Philistines entrapped, apparently in a position from which there is no escape. The gate is closed and guarded. In the morning he is to be seized and killed. But aware of his danger, his mind not put completely off its balance as yet by the seductions of the place, he arises at midnight and, plucking the doors of the city-gate from their sockets carries them to the top of a hill which fronts Hebron.
Here is represented what may at first be quite possible to one who has gone into a place of temptation and danger. There is for a time a power of resolution and action which when the peril of the hour is felt may be brought into use. Out of the house which is like the gate of hell, out of the hands of vile tempters it is possible to burst in quick decision and regain liberty. In the valley of Sorek it may be otherwise, but here the danger is pressing and rouses the will. Yet the power of rising suddenly against temptation, of breaking from the company of the impure is not to be reckoned on. It is not of ourselves we can be strong and resolute enough, but of grace. And can a man expect divine succour in a harlot's den? He thinks he may depend upon a certain self-respect, a certain disgust at vile things and dishonourable life. But vice can be made to seem beautiful, it can overcome the aversion springing from self-respect and the best education. In the history of one and another of the famous and brilliant, from the god-like youth of Macedon to the genius of yesterday the same unutterably sad lesson is taught us; we trace the quick descent of vice. Self-respect? Surely to Goethe, to George Sand, to Musset, to Burns that should have remained, a saving salt. But it is clear that man has not the power of preserving himself. While he says in his313 heart, That is beneath me; I have better taste; I shall never be guilty of such a low, false and sickening thing—he has already committed himself.
Samson heard the trampling of feet in the streets and was warned of physical danger. When midnight came he lost no time. But he was too late. The liberty he regained was not the liberty he had lost. Before he entered that house in Gaza, before he sat down in it, before he spoke to the woman there he should have fled. He did not; and in the valley of Sorek his strength of will is not equal to the need. Delilah beguiles him, tempts him, presses him with her wiles. He is infatuated; his secret is told and ruin comes.
Moral strength, needful decision in duty to self and society and God—few possess these because few have the high ideal before them, and the sense of an obligation which gathers force from the view of eternity. We live, most of us, in a very limited range of time. We think of to-morrow or the day beyond; we think of years of health and joy in this world, rarely of the boundless after-life. To have a stain upon the character, a blunted moral sense, a scar that disfigures the mind seems of little account because we anticipate but a temporary reproach or inconvenience. To be defiled, blinded, maimed for ever, to be incapacitated for the labour and joy of the higher world does not enter into our thought. And many who are nervously anxious to appear well in the sight of men are shameless when God only can see. Moral strength does not spring out of such imperfect views of obligation. What availed Samson's fidelity to the Nazirite vow when by another gate he let in the foe?
The common kind of religion is a vow which covers two or three points of duty only. The value and glory314 of the religion of the Bible are that it sets us on our guard and strengthens us against everything that is dangerous to the soul and to society. Suppose it were asked wherein our strength lies, what would be the answer? Say that one after another stood aside conscious of being without strength until one was found willing to be tested. Assume that he could say, I am temperate, I am pure; passion never masters me: so far the account is good. You hail him as a man of moral power, capable of serving society. But you have to inquire further before you can be satisfied. You have to say, Some have had too great liking for money. Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, notable in the first rank of philosophers, took bribes and was convicted upon twenty-three charges of corruption. Are you proof against covetousness? because if you can be tempted by the glitter of gold reliance cannot be placed upon you. And again it must be asked of the man—Is there any temptress who can wind you about her fingers, overcome your conscientious scruples, wrest from you the secret you ought to keep and make you break your covenant with God, even as Delilah overcame Samson? Because, if there is, you are weaker than a vile woman and no dependence can be placed upon you. We learn from history what this kind of temptation does. We see one after another, kings, statesmen, warriors who figure bravely upon the scene for a time, their country proud of them, the best hopes of the good centred in them, suddenly in the midst of their career falling into pitiable weakness and covering themselves with disgrace. Like Samson they have loved some woman in the valley of Sorek. In the life of to-day instances of the same pitiable kind occur in every rank and class. The shadow falls on men who315 held high places in society or stood for a time as pillars in the house of God.
Or, taking another case, one may be able to say, I am not avaricious, I have fidelity, I would not desert a friend nor speak a falsehood for any bribe; I am pure; for courage and patriotism you may rely upon me:—here are surely signs of real strength. Yet that man may be wanting in the divine faithfulness on which every virtue ultimately depends. With all his good qualities he may have no root in the heavenly, no spiritual faith, ardour, decision. Let him have great opposition to encounter, long patience to maintain, generosity and self-denial to exercise without prospect of quick reward—and will he stand? In the final test nothing but fidelity to the Highest, tried and sure fidelity to God can give a man any right to the confidence of others. That chain alone which is welded with the fire of holy consecration, devotion of heart and strength and mind to the will of God is able to bear the strain. If we are to fight the battles of life and resist the urgency of its temptations the whole divine law as Christ has set it forth must be our Nazirite vow and we must count ourselves in respect of every obligation the bondmen of God. Duty must not be a matter of self-respect but of ardent aspiration. The way of our life may lead us into some Gaza full of enticements, into the midst of those who make light of the names we revere and the truths we count most sacred. Prosperity may come with its strong temptations to pride and vainglory. If we would be safe it must be in the constant gratitude to God of those who feel the responsibility and the hope that are kindled at the cross, as those who have died with Christ and now live with Him unto God. In this redeemed life it may316 be almost said there is no temptation; the earthly ceases to lure, gay shows and gauds cease to charm the soul. There still are comforts and pleasures in God's world, but they do not enchain. A vision of the highest duty and reality overshines all that is trivial and passing. And this is life—the fulness, the charm, the infinite variety and strength of being. "How can he that is dead to the world live any longer therein?" Yet he lives as he never did before.
In the experience of Samson in the valley of Sorek we find another warning. We learn the persistence with which spiritual enemies pursue those whom they mark for their prey. It has been said that the adversaries of good are always most active in following the best men with their persecutions. This we take leave to deny. It is when a man shows some weakness, gives an opportunity for assault that he is pressed and hunted as a wounded lion by a tribe of savages. The occasion was given to the Philistines by Samson's infatuation. Had he been a man of stern purity they would have had no point of attack. But Delilah could be bribed. The lords of the Philistines offered her a large sum to further their ends, and she, a willing instrument, pressed Samson with her entreaties. Baffled again and again she did not rest till the reward was won.
We can easily see the madness of the man in treating lightly, as if it were a game he was sure to win, the solicitations of the adventuress. "The Philistines be upon thee, Samson"—again and again he heard that threat and laughed at it. The green withes, the new ropes with which he was bound were snapped at will. Even when his hair was woven into the web he could go away with web and beam and the pin with which317 they had been fixed to the ground. But if he had been aware of what he was doing how could he have failed to see that he was approaching the fatal capitulation, that wiles and blandishments were gaining upon him? When he allowed her to tamper with the sign of his vow it was the presage of the end.
So it often is. The wiles of the spirit of this world are woven very cunningly. First the "over-scrupulous" observance of religious ordinances is assailed. The tempter succeeds so far that the Sabbath is made a day of pleasure: then the cry is raised, "The Philistines be upon thee." But the man only laughs. He feels himself quite strong as yet, able for any moral task. Another lure is framed—gambling, drinking. It is yielded to moderately, a single bet by way of sport, one deep draught on some extraordinary occasion. He who is the object of persecution is still self-confident. He scorns the thought of danger. A prey to gambling, to debauchery? He is far enough from that. But his weakness is discovered. Satanic profit is to be made out of his fall; and he shall not escape.
It is true as ever it was that the friendship of the world is a snare. When the meshes of time and sense close upon us we may be sure that the end aimed at is our death. The whole world is a valley of Sorek to weak man, and at every turn he needs a higher than himself to guard and guide him. He is indeed a Samson, a child in morals, though full-grown in muscle. There are some it is true who are able to help, who if they were beside in the hour of peril would interpose with counsel and warning and protection. But a time comes to each of us when he has to go alone through the dangerous streets. Then unless he holds straight forward, looking neither to right hand nor left,318 pressing towards the mark, his weakness will be quickly detected, that secret tendency scarcely known to himself by which he can be most easily assailed. Nor will it be forgotten if once it has been discovered. It is now the property of a legion. Be it vanity or avarice, ambition or sensuousness, the Philistines know how to gain their end by means of it. There is strength indeed to be had. The weakest may become strong, able to face all the tempters in the world and to pass unscathed through the streets of Gaza or the crowds of Vanity Fair. Nor is the succour far away. Yet to persuade men of their need and then to bring them to the feet of God are the most difficult of tasks in an age of self-sufficiency and spiritual unreason. Harder than ever is the struggle to rescue the victims of worldly fashion, enticement and folly: for the false word has gone forth that here and here only is the life of man and that renouncing the temporal is renouncing all.
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