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Bible Commentaries
Judges 16

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 7-31


"The judges are twelve in number, reckoning either Deborah or Barak as a judge and omitting Abimelech, whose status in fact depended wholly on his descent from Gideon, and who was in effect not a ’deliverer’, and a ’judge’ only in the sense of a local ruler on his own account." [Note: John Gray, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, p. 189.]

Israel’s Judges
JudgeScriptureIsrael’s OppressorsLength in Years
OthnielJudges 3:7-11MesopotamiaCushan-rishathaim8
(ca. 1358-1350 B.C.)
(ca. 1350-1310 B.C.)
EhudJudges 3:12-30Moab
(with Ammon & Amalek)
ShamgarJudges 3:31Philistia
DeborahChs. 4-5CanaanJabin20
(ca. 1250-1230 B.C.)
(ca. 1230-1190 B.C.)
GideonChs. 6-8Midian
(with Amalek & Arabia)
Zebah & Zalmunna740
(ca. 1180-1140 B.C.)
TolaJudges 10:1-223
(ca. 1117-1094 B.C.)
JairJudges 10:3-522
(ca. 1115-1093 B.C.)
JephthahJudges 10:8 to Judges 12:7Ammon18
(ca. 1123-1105 B.C.)
IbzanJudges 12:8-107
ElonJudges 12:11-1210
AbdonJudges 12:13-158
SamsonChs. 13-16Philistia40
(ca. 1124-1084 B.C.)
(ca. 1105-1085 B.C.)

The total number of judges cited is 12. By selecting 12 judges the writer may have been suggesting that all 12 tribes of Israel had apostatized. One writer argued that these 12 judges each did their work in a different month, thus adding another impression of completeness to the record. [Note: J. G. Williams, "The Structure of Judges 2:6-16:31," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 49 (1991):77-85.] The writer also recorded seven examples of oppression and deliverance (by Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson). This sevenfold scheme gives the impression of totality to Israel’s degeneration. This suggests that the writer may have viewed these disasters as fulfillments of the curses in Leviticus 26 where the number seven occurs four times (Leviticus 26:18; Leviticus 26:21; Leviticus 26:24; Leviticus 26:28; cf. Deuteronomy 28:25). [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 145.]

Certain formulaic expressions appear in Judges 2:11-23 and then recur in the record of Israel’s apostasy (Judges 3:7 to Judges 16:31). However, as noted in the table below, they appear with less frequency as the narrative proceeds. Having established the pattern, the writer did not feel compelled to repeat these expressions as frequently since the reader learns to anticipate them as the narrative unfolds. The breakdown of these expressions is a rhetorical device that parallels and reflects the general moral and spiritual disintegration in Israel as a whole. [Note: R. H. O’Connell, The Rhetoric of the Book of Judges, pp. 19-57; and J. Cheryl Exum, "The Centre Cannot Hold: Thematic and Textual Instabilities in Judges," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (July 1990):410-31.]

The Israelites did evil (Judges 2:11-13).Judges 3:7Judges 3:12Judges 4:1Judges 6:1Judges 10:6Judges 13:1
Yahweh gave them over (Judges 2:14).Judges 3:8Judges 3:12Judges 4:2Judges 6:1Judges 10:7Judges 13:1
The Israelites cried out (Judges 2:15; Judges 2:18).Judges 3:9Judges 3:15Judges 4:3Judges 6:7Judges 10:10
Yahweh raised up a deliverer (Judges 2:16; Judges 2:18).Judges 3:9Judges 3:15
Yahweh gave the oppressor to the deliverer (Judges 2:18).Judges 3:10Judges 3:28
The land had rest.Judges 3:11Judges 3:30Judges 5:31Judges 8:28

Verses 1-3

Samson’s weakness and strength at Gaza 16:1-3

Gaza lay on the sunny Mediterranean coast in the heart of Philistine territory. It was probably a popular vacation site for compromising Israelites as well as the Philistines. Perhaps Samson went there to enjoy the amusements that flourish in such places and to show off his physique on the "muscle beach" of his day. As the judge assigned to destroy the Philistines, his presence there for recreational purposes was inappropriate to say the least. It also reveals his great self-confidence since after 20 years of judging Israel he was undoubtedly a wanted man in Philistia. In contrast, Samuel, who was only a few years younger than Samson, was at this time ministering as a faithful circuit-riding judge in Israel’s heartland (1 Samuel 7:15-17). Samson’s birth was probably close to 1123 B.C. and Samuel’s about 1121 B.C. [Note: See my notes on 1 Samuel.]

Samson’s weakness for women stands out in the record of his evening with the Gaza prostitute (Judges 16:1). This was unquestionably inappropriate behavior for a Nazirite whom God had called to deliver Israel from the very enemy he was romancing. Any reference to the leading of the Lord is notably absent here (cf. Judges 14:4). Samson’s weakness contrasts with his strength throughout this chapter. Here we see his moral and spiritual weakness.

Why did God continue to use Samson since he was so morally impure? Part of the answer has to be that God had chosen to use him and was patient with him. God’s patience allowed Samson the opportunity to repent and to experience God’s blessing instead of His judgment (cf. 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Corinthians 11:31). Unfortunately Samson responded to God’s patience by taxing it to its limit. While the heavenly Father is patient, He is not permissive. That is, He does not allow unacceptable behavior to continue indefinitely without discipline.

Evidently the men of Gaza decided that they would capture Samson as he left the city the next morning. Consequently they slept at the gate of the city that night (Judges 16:2). Samson left early, however, about midnight. Presumably God caused Samson’s enemies to sleep through his exit. Pulling the city gateposts out of the ground and carrying off the whole gate with its bar and frame must have caused considerable noise.

"As the gates of ancient cities were often nail-studded and covered with metal to prevent them from being burnt during an attack, the weight may have been greater than that of the timber itself." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 174. For a diagram of a typical city gate complex and a discussion of the difficulty of removing the gates undetected, see Block, Judges . . ., p. 450.]

It is not clear how far Samson carried the gates. The mountain "opposite Hebron" (Judges 16:3) is the site in question. Some writers believed Samson carried the gates 40 miles to a hill opposite Hebron. [Note: E.g., Block, Judges . . ., p. 451.] Many commentators believed that the writer had in mind a hill overlooking Gaza in the direction toward Hebron. [Note: E.g., Wood, Distressing Days . . ., p. 326; and Lindsey, p. 407.] This is the traditional interpretation. Hebron stood about 38 miles east of Gaza and at a higher elevation. It occupied the highest hill in southern Canaan. While Samson may have been able to carry the gates all the way to Hebron, his purpose in transporting them seems to have been to mock the men of Gaza. He would probably have impressed them significantly enough if he had planted the gates at the top of the nearby hill that was clearly visible from Gaza. The traditional interpretation appeals to me for this reason. Here the emphasis is on Samson’s superhuman physical strength.

Verses 1-31

4. Samson’s final fatal victory ch. 16

To this point in his history Samson had demonstrated some faith in God, even though "the exploits of Samson read like the actions of an uncontrollable juvenile delinquent." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 155.] However, his unwillingness to remain dedicated to God resulted eventually in his loss of strength, his enslavement, and his death.

Verses 4-21

Samson and Delilah 16:4-21

The first three verses present Samson sowing "wild oats." Judges 16:4-21 picture him reaping a bitter harvest (cf. Galatians 6:7).

Samson allowed a woman to seduce him again. She lived in the Sorek Valley between Samson’s home area of Zorah and Eshtaol and the Philistine town of Timnah. The place itself was a compromise between Israelite and Philistine territory. Her name "Delilah" is evidently Jewish and probably means "devotee" or "worshipper." [Note: Ibid, pp. 453-54, offered three other possible interpretations of her name.] However she seems to have been a Philistine, possibly a temple prostitute. [Note: Lindsey, p. 407.] Her devotion to the Philistines is obvious in the text, and her devotion to their gods may well have motivated her actions in this instance. Evidently she and her family had chosen to live among the attractive and advanced enemies of God’s people.

"It is strange that Samson’s three loves should have been numbered amongst his inveterate enemies, the Philistines." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 175.]

Samson posed a great threat to the Philistines. The leading lords of the Philistines initiated the plan to capture him, and they offered a reward that would have made Delilah rich (Judges 16:5). "Eleven hundred . . . of silver" was a fortune since a person could live comfortably on "10 . . . of silver" a year (Judges 17:10).

Samson may not have possessed an abnormally muscular physique since the Philistines did not know where he got his great strength.

"The Philistine princes thought that Samson’s supernatural strength arose from something external, which he wore or carried about with him as an amulet." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, p. 419.]

Moral compromise always makes one vulnerable to temptation. We see this in Samson’s case and in Delilah’s in these verses. Temptation usually comes in attractive packages. The wrong companions can lead us into temptation (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:33). Temptation is persistent (cf. Matthew 4). Yielding to temptation starts us on a toboggan slide. We find ourselves going faster and faster downhill, and soon we can get off only with great personal pain.

The seven fresh cords (Judges 16:7) were probably common catgut cords that the Philistines used for bowstrings and the strings of their harps. If so, they were unclean for Samson since they were dead animal parts. Perhaps Samson specified seven of these since the Israelites regarded seven as a complete number. New ropes (Judges 16:11) had not held him previously (cf. Judges 15:13-14), but perhaps the lords of the Philistines were unaware of this.

It is difficult to understand exactly what Samson meant when he instructed Delilah to weave the locks of his hair with a web and pin (Judges 16:13-14). The commentators all struggle with what the writer wrote and what Delilah did. Apparently Delilah wove Samson’s long hair with some kind of loom and left it fastened in this primitive machine.

". . . The words in question are to be understood as referring to something that was done to fasten Samson still more securely." [Note: Ibid., p. 421.]

"Ironically, the words ’tightened it with [=’drove’] the pin’ (titqa’ bayyated, Judges 16:14) are the same ones used of Jael, who drove the tent peg into Sisera’s head (Judges 4:21). Though Delilah did not kill Samson in the same way, she was to become as important a heroine among the Philistines as Jael had been in Israel." [Note: Wolf, p. 476.]

The fact that Samson told Delilah to do something to his hair (Judges 16:13) suggests that he was giving her a clue to his strength. She did not pick this up but kept hounding him for his secret. Finally he gave in (Judges 16:17; cf. Judges 14:17).

Why did Samson continue to give Delilah reasons for his strength even when she threatened him with violence by the Philistines? He may have done so because they were playing a game together and teasing each other. Samson liked riddles (Judges 14:12). He seems to have uprooted Gaza’s gates in sport too. Samson thought he was playing "Here come the Philistines!" but really he was playing Russian roulette.

It is incredible that Samson would have told Delilah the secret of his strength if he had thought she really intended to betray him. Evidently Samson had so much self-confidence because of his physical strength that he thought he could control this situation. He even appears to have felt that he was stronger than God. He expected God to behave on his terms rather than submitting to God’s terms, namely, his Nazirite vow. Sin, if persisted in, makes a person irrational and vulnerable. Such is its deceitfulness (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:18; 2 Timothy 2:22). Samson thought he was strong, but really he was weak. Contrast the apostle Paul’s attitude in 2 Corinthians 12:10.

"This man is indeed all brawn and no brain." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 463.]

"The hypocrisy of Delilah, pretending to love but all the time plotting the death of her lover, can be left without comment." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 177.]

It is for this behavior that she has become an infamous figure in history. Like Judas Iscariot, Delilah betrayed a friend for money.

The reason Samson lost his strength was only secondarily that he allowed Delilah to cut his hair. The real reason was that "the Lord had departed from him" (Judges 16:20). When God’s Spirit departed from someone under the Old Covenant, the results were disastrous (cf. 1 Samuel 16:14; Psalms 51:11).

"Forty years, Samson had kept one part of his vow. He had broken all the other parts, but he had kept his hair unshaven, as a sign of his commitment to God. He had not made a very strong commitment or felt a deep faith, but he had trusted God at least in this. There was no magic in his hair. It was only a symbol of his separation to God. But if his hair was shaved, Samson’s feeble dedication would crumble completely." [Note: Inrig, p. 252.]

There is some question about whether Samson, a lifelong Nazirite, was subject to all the normal restrictions on temporary Nazirites, and whether he really broke all three of the typical Nazirite restrictions. He may have only broken the one involving his hair, or he may have broken two. [Note: For further discussion see Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Identity Crisis: Assessing Samson’s Birth and Career," Bibliotheca Sacra 166:662 (April-June 2009):155-62.]

"The fact that God worked through Samson need not denote approval of his lifestyle. In God’s sovereignty the Holy Spirit came on men for particular tasks, and this enduing was not necessarily proportionate to one’s spirituality. The Spirit’s power enabled men to inspire Israel (Judges 6:34; Judges 11:29) and to perform great feats of strength (Judges 14:6; Judges 14:19; Judges 15:14). But it was a temporary enduement, and Samson and later Saul tragically discovered that the Lord had left them. The NT experience of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit was not known in OT times." [Note: Wolf, p. 381.]

Samson was fatally unwise in sharing his secret with Delilah. His willingness to do so seems traceable to his lack of appreciation of two things. He failed to appreciate his personal calling by God and the fact that his strength lay solely in God’s power working through him as a holy instrument. These are the same failures that Israel manifested and that resulted in her experiencing a fate similar to Samson’s during the period of the judges. They have caused many other servants of God to fall since Samson’s day too.

Samson’s spiritual blindness resulted in his becoming blind physically (Judges 16:21). The Philistines seized him in Gaza as he had seized the Philistines’ gate there (Judges 16:3). The same Hebrew verb occurs in both verses, highlighting the comparison. Since he chose to be the slave of his physical passions rather than his God, God disciplined him with physical slavery (cf. Galatians 6:7). The Philistines may have tied him to a large millstone like an ox and compelled him to pull it in a circular pattern, or he may have ground a hand mill.

"Grinding a hand mill was the hardest and lowest kind of slave labour (compare Ex. xi. 5 with xii. 29); and both Greeks and Romans [later] sentenced their slaves to this as a punishment . . ." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, pp. 423-24.]

"This occupation was not only menial, it was humiliating, since it was invariably women’s work . . ." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 179.]

Poor blind Samson found himself chained in the prison in Gaza where he had performed his greatest feat of strength (Judges 16:3). Previously he had demonstrated great physical strength there, but now he was very weak.

Verses 22-31

Samson’s triumph in death 16:22-31

A spark of hope flickered in the darkness of Samson’s prison cell. His hair began to grow back (Judges 16:22). In grace God permitted Samson’s hair to return, symbolizing the possibility of his renewed commitment to Yahweh. However, God did not restore Samson’s eyesight. God always gives opportunity for divine service after failure, but we may not be able to serve Him as we could in the past.

We might suppose that the Philistines would have been careful to keep their captive’s hair cropped. Whether because they considered their blind slave incapable of escaping, or because they failed to recognize the importance of his hair, they did not. They were in their own way as blind as Samson. Along with his hair, Samson’s dedication to Yahweh, which his hair symbolized, began to return (cf. Judges 16:28). This was the real reason his strength returned.

As mentioned previously, the Philistines were very religious. They thanked Dagon, their chief god, for Samson’s capture (Judges 16:23). The Philistines were singing songs that the Israelites should have been singing for Yahweh’s deliverance of them, but they had not trusted and obeyed Him. Samson had given the enemies of Yahweh opportunity to blaspheme Him (cf. 2 Samuel 12:14). Perhaps the writer recorded so much of their praise here because it turned out to be totally without basis very soon.

Samson, who, as we have seen, was fond of riddles, tricks, and entertainment, became the object of sport for those he had previously taunted (Judges 16:25). He became the tragic clown, but he finally "brought the house down."

"A number of sites of ancient heathen temples have been recently discovered, and since they show certain common characteristics it is likely that the temple of Gaza was of a similar pattern. In all probability the officials and dignitaries were in a covered portion looking out upon a courtyard where Samson was made a spectacle, but separated from it by a series of wooden pillars set on stone bases, supporting the roof, on which the crowd gathered. It may be conjectured that the spectators on the roof, pressing forward to gain a good vantage-point, had made the whole structure unstable. Samson must have been aware of the form of construction and of the possibilities in such a situation. The performance over, or temporarily halted, Samson was brought between the pillars (25b), just under the shelter of the roof, so that the dignitaries within the portico could have a closer look at him." [Note: Ibid., p. 180. See also Amihai Mazar, "A Philistine Temple at Tell Qasile," Biblical Archaeologist 36 (1973):43-48; and ibid., Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E., pp. 319-23.]

Samson’s humiliation was even greater because a young boy now led the former "Philistine terror" around as easily as a goat (Judges 16:26). His weakness appears greatest at this point in the story. Sensing his opportunity, Samson prayed to God for strength (cf. Judges 15:18).

"This is the only time we ever read of Samson praying before he used his strength. Now his strength was disciplined by faith, but it took failure to teach him this response." [Note: Inrig, p. 263.]

"The theological message toward which each of the cycles [chs. 14-15 and ch. 16] moves centers on prayer and divine response, and the position of answered prayer at the end of each cycle is emphatic. In xv 18-19 Samson asks for life. . . . In xvi 28-30 he prays first for vindication, then for death. In both cases he is dependent wholly upon Yhwh, who alone holds the power to grant life and death and who acts in response to human supplication." [Note: J. Cheryl Exum, "The Theological Dimension of the Samson Saga," Vetus Testamentum 33:1 (1983):34.]

The fact that Samson addressed God as "Adonai Yahweh . . . Elohim" (Judges 16:28; Master, covenant keeping God of Israel, Strong One) is significant. It definitely suggests that during the lonely hours of darkness in his cell Samson had repented. He apparently had confessed his lack of appreciation for God’s grace, calling, and power in his life and had rededicated himself to the Lord. He begged God, from whom He had departed, to remember him and to strengthen him supernaturally one more time. Samson desired to return to his calling as God’s deliverer of His people and to take vengeance on his enemies for robbing him of his eyes. God graciously heard and answered His servant. His prayer was for the glory of God and in harmony with God’s will. Nevertheless personal vengeance still motivated Samson too.

"Even Samson’s turn back to God is marked more by his desire for personal revenge against the Philistines than for deliverance for his people. In essence, Samson remains, to the very end, selfish, just as he remained until nearly the very end, clueless (see Judges 16:20). That both Samson and the Israelites demonstrate such persistent unfaithfulness and self-assertion, thus thwarting God’s purpose to deliver them from Philistine oppression, means that Judges 13-16 functions as a call to repentance, as does all the prophetic literature." [Note: McCann, p. 109.]

"The fact that Samson took hold (AV, RV; lit. grasped, RSV) of the two central pillars indicates that, exerting his strength, he pushed forward either directly towards or directly away from the open courtyard. Had he pushed sideways he would not have ’grasped’ the pillars. Aided by the weight of the crowd above, who would be pressing forward since Samson was now out of their sight, the main supporting pillars were now displaced, causing them to slide off their stone bases. When the roof collapsed many would be killed instantly; others would be crushed in the ensuing panic." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 181.]

We should not regard Samson’s death as suicide but as martyrdom (cf. Hebrews 11:32). He died in battle.

"’Samson’s deed . . . was not suicide, but the act of a hero, who sees that it is necessary for him to plunge into the midst of his enemies with the inevitable certainty of death, in order to effect the deliverance of his people and decide the victory which he has still to achieve.’" [Note: Otto von Gerlach quoted by Keil and Delitzsch, p. 425.]

In his death Samson vindicated Yahweh over Dagon. He also killed more of Israel’s enemies than he had slain in his 20 years of previous ministry (Judges 16:30). While this is a complementary note, it also reminds us of the tragedy of Samson’s failure as a judge. He could have routed many more Philistines if he had walked with God. The "brothers" who buried him (Judges 16:31) could have been members of his tribe or extended family, not necessarily members of his immediate family.

"The Philistines’ hatred of Samson must have been mitigated by respect for his achievements and they made no apparent effort to abuse his corpse or to refuse him burial in his family tomb (cf. the dishonoring of Saul’s body, 1 Samuel 31:9-10). The treatment of a body after death was a matter of importance in the ancient world . . ." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 181.]

Some writers have commented on what they call the "Samson syndrome."

"One of the greatest values I see in the story of Samson is its demonstration of the Samson Syndrome. This is the tendency among some church leaders to operate from a personal power model and not understand its consequences. And for others it is a tendency to ignore our physical, emotional and spiritual limits-to not realize that when ’our hair has been shorn’ we cannot go out and beat up on Philistines, even though we want to." [Note: G. Lloyd Rediger, "The Samson Syndrome," Church Management-The Clergy Journal 60:7 (May-June 1984):78.]

"The essence of the Samson syndrome lies right here: the presumption that one can indulge the flesh and at the same time know the Spirit’s fulness [sic]." [Note: Ted S. Rendall, "The Samson Syndrome," The Prairie Overcomer 27:7 (July-August 1984):19.]

Samson’s life is one of the greatest tragedies in history and literature, and it should be a warning to every believer. Samson had many advantages. God chose him even before his birth (Judges 13:7; cf. Ephesians 1:14). He received excellent training from godly parents who encouraged him to maintain his dedication to Yahweh (Judges 13:8; Judges 13:12; Judges 14:3). He enjoyed God’s blessings (Judges 13:24). Moreover the Holy Spirit empowered him with supernatural might (Judges 13:25; Judges 14:6; Judges 14:19). Nevertheless Samson chose to yield to his physical passions rather than maintain his dedication to the Lord (cf. Esau).

"’The man who carried the gates of Gaza up to the top of the mountain was the slave of a woman, to whom he frivolously betrayed the strength of his Nazirite locks.’" [Note: Ziegler quoted by Keil and Delitzsch, p. 400.]

"’Samson, when strong and brave, strangled a lion; but he could not strangle his own love. He burst the fetters of his foes, but not the cords of his own lusts. He burned up the crops of others, and lost the fruit of his own virtue when burning with the flame enkindled by a single woman.’" [Note: Ambrose quoted by Keil and Delitzsch, pp. 417-18.]

"His life which promised so much, was blighted and ultimately destroyed by his sensual passions and lack of true separation to the Lord." [Note: Cundall and Morris, p. 181.]

Samson’s unwillingness to discipline himself physically was a symptom of his unwillingness to discipline himself spiritually. This lack of discipline in serving the Lord as He required resulted in Samson’s enslavement and finally in his premature death.

Still Samson’s life should also be an encouragement to all believers. The record of Samson’s experiences teaches us that God will use people who are far from perfect. God is patient with His sinning servants even though His patience has an end. There is hope that God may yet again use His servants whom He may have had to set aside because of their sins. It all depends on whether they truly repent and rededicate themselves to Him. [Note: See Robert U. Ferguson Jr., "The Danger of Playing Games with God," Pulpit Digest 64:468 (July-August 1984):31-34; and Samuel Cassel, "Strong Man: A Scripture Study of the Weaknesses in Strength," Foundations 2 (1959):264-68.]

"The prophetic books-including the book of Judges (and especially the book of Judges at its lowest point with Samson and the aftermath in chaps. 17-21)-are powerful statements of hope; not hope in ’culture heroes’ like Samson, but rather hope in a God whose grace is greater than our ability to comprehend and whose commitment to justice, righteousness, and peace surpasses our understanding." [Note: McCann, p. 94.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Judges 16". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/judges-16.html. 2012.
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