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In the preface to The Character of the Happy Warrior, Wordsworth notes that 'the cause of the great war with the French naturally fixed one's attention upon the military character, and, to the honour of our country, there were many illustrious instances of the qualities that constitute its highest excellence. Lord Nelson carried most of these virtues that the trials he was exposed to in his department of the service necessarily call forth and sustain, if they do not produce the contrary vices. But his public life was stained with one great crime, so that, though many passages of these lines were suggested by what was generally known as excellent in his conduct, I have not been able to connect his name with the poem as I could wish, or even to think of him with satisfaction in reference to the idea of what a warrior ought to be.'
Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her as an eagle renewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and unscaling her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means, and in their envious gabble would prognosticate a year of sects and schisms.
To the history of Samson, one of his favourite Scriptures, Milton returns in his Reasons of Church Government, where he frequently compares the Hebrew champion's career and character to the rulers. 'I cannot better liken the state and person of a king than to that mighty Nazarite, Samson; who, being disciplined from his birth in the precepts and the practice of temperance and sobriety, grows up to a noble strength and perfection, with those his illustrious locks, the Laws, waving and curly about his godlike shoulders. And, while he keeps them un-diminished and unshorn, he may with the jawbone of an ass, that is, with the word of his meanest officer, suppress and put to confusion thousands of those that rise against his just power. But laying down his head amongst the strumpet flatteries of prelates, while he sleeps and thinks no harm, they, wickedly shaving off all those bright and weighty tresses of his laws and just prerogatives, which were his ornament and strength, deliver him over to indirect and violent counsels, which, as those Philistines, put out the fair and far-sighted eyes of his natural mind, and make him grind in the prison house of their sinister ends, and practise upon him; till he, knowing this prelatical razor to have bereft him of his wonted might, nourish again his puissant hair, the golden beams of law and right, and they, sternly shook, thunder with ruin upon the heads of those his evil counsellors, but not without great affliction to himself.'
References. XVI. 17. H. P. Liddon, Penny Pulpit, No. 1111. XVI. 20. R. J. Campbell, Sermons Addressed to Individuals, p. 73. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 413. W. J. Bach, A Book of Lay Sermons, p. 247. S. Baring-Gould, One Hundred Sermon Sketches, p. 121. XVI. 20, 21. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iv. No. 224.
A Forfeited Gift
I. The fall and the death of Samson are illustrative of a recurrent human experience. Unfaithfulness to a Divine gift results in its withdrawal. In a sense all men are divinely gifted, though their gifts differ both in quality and in degree, which is precisely what we ought to expect. Suppose Samson had lived and died like the great lawgiver of Israel who can think about Moses without believing his estimate of manhood is better for that life? Joshua, who, inspired by a greater than himself, hearing his Divine call, 'Moses my servant is dead, now therefore arise,' rose captain of Israel, faithful to the call, was faithful to the last, in his dying hour calling Israel before him. 'Choose you this day whom ye will serve.' Elijah, the most picturesque of them all, a solitary figure in a decadent age, defying all the untoward tendencies of his time, witnessing for God and in the sublimity of his death impressing Israel for good like Samson, but oh, in what a different fashion! Suppose that Samson's life and death had been as these for he was called to the first place just as these were? He had his opportunity and he put it away.
II. Vocation may be forfeited, and there is no tragedy so sad, no end so melancholy, as that in which a man discovers that he has been living for long without God and without the gift that ought to have led him to great things. You have had your gracious opportunity, your season of vision, and whatever kind of man you are it will be of no use to you in the great day of reckoning for you to deny the moment when the opportunity came. Do we know the opportunity when it comes? Are we clear as to the moment when we stop our ears and close our eyes and turn our feet from the pathway of duty? You know perfectly well if this gift that is in you is debased, and when you know it you have rightly judged in the day of dread discovery that the Spirit of the Lord has departed.
III. It is sometimes said that the word of the prophet has no hearing in these days. Men are indifferent to the claims of the Christ. God has but little place in their lives. Now, is it true of the men who reject God and Christ, and the Bible, and with it all the ideals and associations that belong of right thereto is it true that they are living the life of the highest they can see? When you exchanged something else for Christ, did you choose a higher or did you choose a lower? If you choose a lower, putting from you the higher, on whatever hypocritical pretext your choice was made, you did it knowingly, and you forfeited a great opportunity and you thrust from you the Divine gift. Recognize that the Divine gift rests upon you for just what you are and where you are, and that it can be withdrawn, and it may be so. You are not living to your highest, and yet you could in the strength of the Lord God.
R. J. Campbell, Sermons Addressed to Individuals, p. 73.
His eyes were the first offenders, which betrayed him to lust; and now they are first pulled out.... It is better for Samson to be blind in prison than to abuse his eyes in Sorek: yea I may safely say, he was more blind when he saw licentiously, than now that he sees not; he was a greater slave when he served his affections, than now in grinding for the Philistines. The loss of his eyes shows him his sin; neither could he see how ill he had done, till he saw not.
Samson's hair grew again, but not his eyes. Time may restore some losses, others are never to be repaired.
In his fifth lecture on Heroes, Carlyle applies this incident to Benthamism, which, he avers, 'you may call heroic, though a Heroism with its eyes put out. It is the culminating point, and fearless ultimatum, of what lay in the half-and-half state, pervading man's whole existence in that eighteenth century. It seems to me, all deniers of Godhood, and all lip-believers of it, are bound to be Benthamites, if they have courage and honesty. Benthamism is an eyeless Heroism: the Human species, like a hapless, blinded Samson, grinding in the Philistine Mill, clasps convulsively the pillars of its Mind; brings huge ruin down, but ultimately deliverance withal.'
Those who would take away the use of our reason in spiritual things would deal with us as the Philistines did with Samson first, put out our eyes, and then make us grind in their mill.
Ruskin, in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, asks, How did the art of the Venetians 'so swiftly pass away? How become, what it became unquestionably, one of the chief causes of the corruption of the mind of Italy, and of her subsequent decline in moral and political power? By reason of one great, one fatal fault recklessness in aim. Wholly noble in its sources, it was wholly unworthy in its purposes. Separate and strong, like Samson, chosen from its youth, and with the Spirit of God visibly resting on it, like him, it warred in careless strength, and wantoned in untimely pleasure.'
In his essay on Old Mortality, Stevenson describes the career of a brilliant, soulless, fellow-undergraduate, 'most beautiful in person, most serene and genial by disposition... a noble figure of youth, but following vanity and incredulous of good; and sure enough, somewhere on the high seas of life, with his health, his hopes, his patrimony, and his self-respect, he miserably went down.... Thus was our old comrade, like Samson, careless in the days of his strength.'
References. XVI. 21. J. Aspinall, Parish Sermons (2nd Series), p. 89. XVI. 21-31. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Judges, p. 250. XVI. 22. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxiii. No. 1939.
Compare Carlyle's grim description of British opera. 'One singer in particular, called Coletti or some such name, seemed to me, by the cast of his face, by the tones of his voice, by his general bearing, so far as I could read it, to be a man of deep and ardent sensibilities, of delicate intuitions, just sympathies; originally an almost poetic soul, or man of genius, as we term it; stamped by Nature as capable of far other work than squalling here, like a blind Samson, to make the Philistines sport.'
How Not to Pray
We have heard these words until we are heartsick of them. There are some words we cannot do without; we know they are lies, we mean them at the time, or at least we think we mean them; and lo, in a little while the remembrance utterly fades, and we come back upon the old spot with the old hammer, with a false repercussion, with a smiting that we promised should never be renewed.
Samson would gather himself up for a grand final effort; he said in effect, O Lord, the Philistines have taken away mine eyes, I am no longer what I was, I am no longer a prophet and servant of Thine, I am no longer a judge in the country, I am a poor fool; I gave up my secret, I was fallen upon by cruel wretches, they are laughing at me and mocking me with a most bitter sarcasm; Lord, remember the old days, direct my hands, some of you, to the pillars on which this house stands, and now, Lord, this once, the last time, give me back the old Samson, and I will tear these Philistines down as a palace might be torn down by an earthquake: Lord, this once, only this once; I pray Thee let the old strength come back, and I will be avenged for my two eyes. It was very natural, it was most human, it was just what we would have done under similar circumstances, and therefore do not let us laugh at the dismantled giant.
Let us accommodate the passage, so that it may become a lamp which we can hold over various points of life.
I. Now let us note three things about this prayer. First of all, the prayer was to the true God. It was not offered to an idol or to a graven image of any kind or to a mere filmy ideality, a shadowy half-something that was wraith-like, apparitional, but not nameable or not approachable in any suitable and substantial way. This prayer went up directly in the line of the true throne. It was the Lord God of Israel, it was the cry of necessity to the Giver of all good. Know then that we may be praying to the right God; that is no guarantee that we shall get the answer which we desire.
II. What ailed this poor prayer? what was its mortal disease? The mortal disease of this prayer uttered by Samson was that it was offered in the wrong spirit. It is the spirit that determines the quality. 'That I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.' It was a prayer for vengeance. That prayer comes easily to the natural spirit. We love to magnify the individual, and to think that individualism is personality. Prayer is self-slaughter, in so far as the will and the supreme desire of the heart may be concerned. Prayer is self-renunciation; prayer says, Lord, Thy will be done, not mine. Thus the Divine will is done by consent human and Divine, and is the law, in its own degree of the universe; the soul then falls into the rhythmic movement of the creation, and the man is translated out of individuality into personality in its broadest definitions, and he is part and parcel of the great unity which swings like a censer round the altar Divine.
III. In the third place this prayer was answered, but answered in judgment. Samson had his way, but his way killed him. We will not say anything about Samson's character, we have too much to say about our own; it does not do to stretch our hands across the centuries that we may smite some downtrodden man, but we must begin at the house of God. The judgment must begin in every man's own secret soul. But this we may say; for the eternal comfort of the race it is written according to the blessing pronounced by father Jacob, 'Gad, a troop shall overcome him: but he shall overcome at the last'. So we come upon the familiar thought of intermediate and final victories. We were caught in all the sins; the decalogue was flying round us in splintered, shattered pieces, the devil was triumphing over us, but we overcame at the last. It was a long time in coming, but the purpose of God cannot be set aside, and if we diligently, humbly, and reverently entreat the Divine presence, and if we be heartily ashamed of our sins, and name them one by one in the face of the noonday sun, and smite upon our hearts and say, 'All these sins are ours, and we repent them,' who can tell whether God will be gracious unto us, and give us a nail in His tabernacle, and one small place in His great providential plan?
Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. III. p. 32.
In his introduction to Woolman's Journal Whittier has occasion to speak of the magnitude of that evil which Woolman set himself to grapple. The slave-trade had rooted itself in all departments of American life. 'Yet he seems never to have doubted for a moment the power of simple truth to eradicate it, nor to have hesitated as to his own duty in regard to it. There was no groping like Samson in the gloom; no feeling in blind wrath and impatience for the pillars of the temple of Dagon.... He believed in the goodness of the Lord that leadeth to repentance; and that love could reach the witness for itself in the hearts of all men, through all entanglements of custom and every barrier of pride and selfishness.'
Death is no such terrible enemie, when a man hath so many attendants about him, than can winne the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over Death; Love slights it; Honour aspireth to it; Grief flieth to it.
References. XVI. 30. Phillips Brooks, The Law of Growth, p. 253. A. P. Stanley, Sermons on Special Occasions, p. 274. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iii. p. 388.
A man's life is his whole life, not the last glimmering snuff of the candle.... It is neither the first nor last hour of our existence, but the space that parts these two not our exit nor our entrance upon the stage, but what we do, feel, and think, while here that we are to attend to, in pronouncing sentence upon it.
'Silent was that house of many chambers,' writes Mr. Meredith of Lassalle. 'That mass of humanity, profusely mixed of good and evil, of generous ire and mutinous, of the passion for the future of mankind and vanity of person, magnanimity and sensualism, high judgment, reckless indiscipline, chivalry, savagery, solidity, fragmentariness, was dust. He perished of his weakness, but it was a strong man that fell. His end was a derision because the animal in him ran him unchained and bounding to it. A stormy blood made wreck of a splendid intelligence.'
References. XVI. 31. Bishop Alexander, The Great Question, p. 145. XVII. 3. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 261.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Judges 16". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany