Samson—Light and Shadow
IT would be unjust to consider this as a finished picture of the man of strength. In all that we have said we have endeavoured to establish by good reasoning and clear reference. But it would be unjust to pronounce upon any life after merely looking at a few incidental points in its course. That is a danger to which all criticism is exposed. We are prone to look upon vivid incidents, and to omit all the great breadths and spaces of the daily life, and to found our judgment of one another upon peculiarities, eccentricities, and very vivid displays of strength, or very pitiful exhibitions of weakness. This is wrong; this is unjust. Samson has indeed done many things that have startled us. We have been inclined to say now and again in the course of our study, This is the man—the whole man; in this point, or in that, we have the key of his character. Now the reality is that Samson is a greater man than the mere outline of the romantic part of his history would suggest. There was another man than that which we have just seen pass before us—the great giant, the man who played with things that were burdens to other men, the man who was infantile in mental weakness on many occasions; there is another man within that outer Prayer of Manasseh, and until we understand somewhat of that interior personality we cannot grasp the whole character of Samson. We must judge men by the mass of their character. Who would not resent the idea of being tested by the incidents of a few months, rather than being judged by the level and the general tone and the average of a lifetime? Man does not reveal himself in little points, except incidentally and illustratively: hence we must live with the Prayer of Manasseh, and so far as history will allow us to do so we must become identified with him: when we get to understand his motives we shall begin to comprehend his conduct, and when we put together the night and the day, the summer and the winter, the fair youth and the white old age, then we may be in some degree prepared to say what the man in reality was. When this rule of judgment obtains we shall get rid of all pettish ness of criticism, all vain remark upon one another: before pronouncing the final judgment, and especially a harsh verdict, we shall say: We do not know enough about him; we have only seen a few points in the man; he seems to be a greater and fuller man than he disclosed himself to be on the occasions when we saw him; had we seen more of him, and known more of him, we should have come probably to a more generous conclusion. That is the rule of Christian charity, and whoso violates it is no friend of Christ. He may show a certain kind of critical ability, and the very malice of hell in the power of sneering, but he knows nothing about the agony and the love of the Cross.
Is the life of Samson, then, comprehended within these few incidents which have just passed before us? The incidents upon which we have remarked might all have occurred within a few months. What was the exact position of Samson in Israel? He judged Israel twenty years. How often is that fact over" looked! we speak of the great strong Prayer of Manasseh, the elephantine child, the huge monstrosity, but who thinks of twenty years" service—the consideration of all the necessities of the people, the frown which made the enemy afraid, the smile which encouraged struggling virtue, the recognition which came very near to being an inspiration? Who knows what headache and heartache the man had in prosecuting and completing the judgeship? Who can be twenty full years at any one service without amassing in that time features, actions, exhibitions of strength and weakness, sagacity, folly,—all of which ought to be taken into account before pronouncing final judgment? Thus may it be with us, or it will go hard with us in the day of partial and prejudiced criticism. Who will condemn you for one little month in your life? Then you were in very deed a fool; you know it; you own it: you broke through the sacred law; you did things you dare not name; you reeled and stumbled and fell, but were up again in a moment. Shall he be judge of your life who saw the reeling and the falling? or shall he be judge who knows that for ten years, twenty, or more, you walked right steadily, a brave soul, charged with generous thoughts, and often doing good with both hands? So it must be with all men. But we are prone to break that rule. How small we are, and unjust, herein; we will turn off a friend who has served us twenty years because of one petulant word which he spoke! Who has the justice, not to say generosity, to take in a whole lifetime, and let little incidents or great incidents fall into their proper perspective? Until we do this we cannot ply the craft of criticism: we are ill Judges, and we shall do one another grievous injury.
Some physical constitutions are to be pitied. Samson"s was particularly such a constitution. He seemed to be all body. He appeared to have run altogether into bone and muscle. He was obviously only a giant. How seldom we see more than one aspect of a man! call up any great name in Biblical history, and you will find how often one little, or great, characteristic is supposed to sum up and express the man. We call up the name of Moses, and think of nothing but his meekness: whereas, there was no man in all the ancient gallery of portraits that could burn with a fiercer anger; he brake stones upon stones, and shattered the very tablets written by the finger of God. We say, Characterise Jeremiah, and instantly we think of his tears, and call him the weeping prophet: whereas who concealed an eloquence equal to his?—a marvellous, many-coloured eloquence, now so strong, and now so pathetic: now all lightning, and now all tears. We must beware of the sophism that a life can be summed up in one little characteristic. Herein God will be Judge. Some men cannot be radiant. They may think they are, but they are only making sport for the Philistines when they are trying the trick of cheerfulness which they cannot learn. Other men cannot be wise. If they have conceived some plan of Song of Solomon -called Wisdom of Solomon, and submit it to you, and take it back again, they set it upside down, and forget exactly where it began and where it ended. They are to be pitied. Weakness is written right across the main line of the face; weakness characterises every tone of the voice. They are not to be judged harshly. Blessed be God, the judgment is with himself, and what if the first be last, and the last be first?
Is there hope of renewal for overthrown men? One would hope so:—"Howbeit the hair of his head began to grow again after he was shaven"—( Judges 16:22). Is this real renewal or only apparent? It was not the hair that was in fault, but the soul. We have seen that the strength lay not in the hair, but in the vow which that hair represented and confirmed. If the matter had been one purely of person adornment, the hair might have grown again on the strong and noble head, and covered it as luxuriantly as before; but it was the soul that was shorn of its honour; it was the spirit that parted with its oath. How difficult to renew a broken character! Thank God, it is not impossible. It cannot be done mechanically,—that is to say from the outside, by skilful manipulation, by obedience to tabulated rules and orders,—"Ye must be born again:" it is not enough to renew the profession, to rehabilitate the reputation, to seem to be just as you were before,—"Ye must be born again." Samson"s hair comes, the locks are as raven-like as ever, but has the soul been renewed; has the strong man cried mightily unto God for the restoration of his character? That is the vital point, and to trifle with it, pass over it hurriedly, is to lose the wisdom and the music of the occasion. Looking at men outwardly, we say, They seem to be as before; all the outer semblances are excellent, but who are we that we should judge what has taken place within? Outwardly the circumstances may be as before, but the man himself should take care as to what has happened within his soul. He should hold himself in severe and close monologue upon this matter, saying, These people form a good opinion of me; they think now I am a sober, upright, reliable man; I am regular in my church attendances, I keep up with the foremost in the public race, and the general impression seems to be that I have recovered myself,—but have I done so? I will not look at the outer Prayer of Manasseh, but at the heart. Is that steadfast toward God—constant in holy love, burning with pure zeal for righteousness and truth? Man must not judge me in these matters—I must therefore judge myself the more austerely and exhaustively. Blessed are we if we can apply such criticism to ourselves; and blessed if outward appearances dimly typify a spiritual life, an unseen and undying probity of mind.
Samson died a curious death. He prayed in his blindness that he might yet show himself a strong man. The Philistines would have sport: Samson would that the occasion of sport might be turned into an occasion of what appeared to him to be just vengeance. Said he: Let me touch the pillars of the house; lay my poor hands on the pillars of this unholy place. And the giant"s hands were lifted and put upon the pillars, and Samson cried mightily towards the heavens and shook the pillars, and the house fell, and he himself died with innumerable others. It was a poor way out of the world. But judge nothing by the death scene. In many instances the death scene amounts to nothing. Many a man has gone to heaven straight from the act of suicide. Many a man has died into heaven about whom we are prudently silent, because of some little or great incident which has disturbed our judgment of his character. It is not enough to leave the last transaction to be completed in a few moments of words without sacrifice, of profession without possible realisation. And some may have died and gone to heaven about whom we have our secret fears. Let us entertain no such apprehensions about any man whose twenty years of life lies open for public judgment. Nothing was said at the last; nay, more, the poor man got wrong within the last year of his life: he slipped, he fell, he was laid up a long time; what happened then between him and his Lord we cannot tell; but we have before us an instance or two of such secret and unreported interviews. The man who saw his Lord and plunged into the water, and came to him, had a talk with Christ all alone, and after that he became the most fervent of the apostles. The man is not to be judged by what he did in the last week of his life. It is the life that God will judge—the tone, the purpose, the main idea of the life. What is life indeed but a main idea—a grand central thought and aspiration? We shall delude ourselves and do injustice to others by thinking of collateral circumstances, things on the surface, things that come and go. Many a man has stolen who is no thief. Many a man has been overcome by strong drink who is no drunkard. Many a man has been guilty of innumerable weaknesses who is a strong man in the soul and heart of him. That these generous constructions may be perverted is perfectly possible; but I would rather that wicked men should pervert them than that the men who need such encouragement should go away in despair. We cannot tell what the dogs will do, but the children must nevertheless be fed. If any man should leave this study of Samson saying that licence has been given to do this or that which is wrong, he but aggravates his profanity by a final falsehood. On the other hand, many a man must be cheered, or he will be overwhelmed in despair, and we shall never hear of him any more. What is the central purpose of your life? what is the main idea? Answer that in the right way, and God will be merciful to you.
We have still to notice the most important point of all, which, in the mere matter of literal sequence, ought to have come earlier. Samson said he would go out and shake himself as at other times—"and he wist not that the Lord was departed from him "( Judges 16:20). All the outer man was there, but it was a temple without a God. The giant was as grand to look at as ever, but his soul was as a banqueting-hall deserted. And Samson knew it not! that is the painful point—the unknown losses of life, the unconscious losses of life: power gone, and the man not aware of it,—is there any irony so humbling, so awful to contemplate? We may be walking skeletons: we may be men without manliness; we may be houses untenanted: yet the eyes are where they always were, and just as bright, the voice is as vibrant as in olden time; and yet the divinity is dead. And for a man not to know it! We have had experience of this in other than merely religious directions. The writer that used to charm thinks he writes as well as ever, and only the readers are conscious that the genius is extinct: the right hand has forgotten its cunning; the writer does not know it; having filled his page, he says, That is as bright as ever: I never wrote with greater facility: in my old age I have become young again;—he wist not that the spirit of genius had departed from him. So with the preacher. He supposes he preaches as energetically and as happily and usefully as ever; he says he longs for his work more than he ever did; and only the hearers are conscious that the man has been outworn by all-claiming, all-dominating time. The statesman, too, has lost his wizardry: he cannot see afar off; yet he supposes himself to be as great as in his most lustrous prime. All these are common incidents, and are referred to simply to show that they point towards the most disastrous effect of all—that a man may have lost the Spirit of God, and not be aware of his loss. Others look on, and pity him. The prayer has lost its pleading tone; the tears which stream from his eyes are but common water; the upward look sees nothing but cloud; the universe has become a great blank space: the stars glitter, but say nothing; the summer comes, but creates no garden in his soul; and the man does not know it. Who dare tell him? This points towards a possible ghastly condition of affairs. The Church is as large as ever, but Ichabod is written upon its door. The old words are all said, one by one with formal pomp and accuracy, but they are only words—no longer bushes that burn and are not consumed. Again and again remember that the point is that the man did not know it. Had he known it, he would have been a better man; had he really felt that the Lord had gone out from him, he might have begun to cry at last like a child, if he could not pray like a priest How is it with us? Put the question right into the very centre of the soul. We may have more words, more dogmas, more points of controversy, more little orthodox idols; but what are we in the heart, the spirit, the purpose of the mind? Seeing that this great danger is before us, there is one sweet prayer which every day should carry to heaven from our pleading soul. A child can pray it; an angel cannot add to it. That deep, high, grand, all-inclusive prayer is—"Take not thy Holy Spirit from me,"—take health, take friends, take happiness, take all the world values as good and necessary, but take not thy Holy Spirit from me! "Holy Spirit, dwell with me."
Almighty God, our hope is in thy Son; other hope in very deed we have none. We have hewn out unto ourselves cisterns, but we have found them to be cisterns that could hold no water. So by this experience, so sad and deep, we have come to know that there is no help for man but in the living God, the Saviour of all, who will have all men to be saved. We lay down our arms of rebellion, we renounce our various inventions, and we now come to thee, empty-handed, full of sin in the heart, conscious of great and aggravated wickedness, and casting ourselves upon the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, we say each for himself, God be merciful to me a sinner! We know thine answer; it is a reply of love: where sin abounds, grace shall much more abound; wherein we have grieved thee, we shall be mightily brought back again to thy side, to take part in thy praise, and to be active in thy service. May the time that is past more than suffice; may our inquiry be about the few days that remain; with earnestness, simplicity, fidelity, may we gird ourselves to the work that lies before us, and with all-burning zeal, most constant love, may we do thy will gladly, hoping only for a reward in thine own heaven. Help us in all our life. Its necessities are as numerous as its moments. Our life is one crying want. Let our life be turned into a sacred prayer, by being lifted upwards towards the all-hospitable heavens, and no longer left to grope in the earth for that which can never be found there. As for our burdens, we shall forget them if thou dost increase our strength; our sins shall be cast behind thee, our duty shall be our delight, and our whole life a glowing and acceptable sacrifice. Guide men who are in perplexity; soothe the hearts that are overborne by daily distress; save from despair those who think they have tried every gate and beaten upon every door without success or reply: save such from the agony and blackness of despair; at the very last do thou appear, a shining light, a delivering day, wherein men can see what lies about them, and address themselves to their tasks with the help of the sun. Be round about us in business; save us amid a thousand temptations; direct us along a road that is sown with traps, and gins, and snares; take hold of our hand every step of the journey, and in thine own good time bring us to rest, to death—to life. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Judges 14". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany