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DAUNTLESS IN BATTLE, IGNORANTLY BRAVE
GIVEN a man of strong passions and uninstructed conscience, wild courage and giant energy, with the sense of a mission which he has to accomplish against his country’s enemies, so that he reckons himself justified in doing them injury or killing them in the name of God, and you have no complete hero, but a real and interesting man. Such a character, however, does not command our admiration. The enthusiasm we feel in tracing the career of Deborah or Gideon fails us in reviewing these stories of revenge in which the Hebrew champion appears as cruel and reckless as an uncircumcised Philistine. When we see Samson leaving the feast by which his marriage has been celebrated and marching down to Ashkelon where in cold blood he puts thirty men to death for the sake of their clothing, when we see a countryside ablaze with the standing corn which he has kindled, we are as indignant with him as with the Philistines when they burn his wife and her father with fire. Nor can we find anything like excuse for Samson on the ground of zeal in the service of pure religion. Had he been a fanatical Hebrew mad against idolatry, his conduct might find some apology; but no such clue offers. The Danite is moved chiefly by selfish and vain passions, and his sense of official duty is all too weak and vague. We see little patriotism and not a trace of religious fervour. He is serving a great purpose with some sincerity, but not wisely, not generously nor greatly. Samson is a creature of impulse working out his life in blind almost animal fashion, perceiving the next thing that is to be done not in the light of religion or duty, but of opportunity and revenge. The first of his acts against the Philistines was no promising start in a heroic career, and almost at every point in the story of his life there is something that takes away our respect and sympathy. But the life is full of moral suggestion and warning. He is a real and striking example of the wild Berserker type.
1. For one thing this stands out as a clear principle that a man has his life to live, his work to do, alone if others will not help, imperfectly if not in the best fashion, half-wrongly if the right cannot be clearly seen. This world is not for sleep, is not for inaction and sloth. "Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with thy might." A thousand men in Dan, ten thousand in Judah did nothing that became men, sat at home while their grapes and olives grew, abjectly sowed and reaped their fields in dread of the Philistines, making no attempt to free their country from the hated yoke. Samson, not knowing rightly how to act, did go to work and, at any rate, lived. Among the dull spiritless Israelites of the day, three thousand of whom actually came on one occasion to beseech him to give himself up and bound him with ropes that he might be safely passed over to the enemy, Samson with all his faults looks like a man. Those men of Dan and Judah would slay the Philistines if they dared. It is not because they are better than Samson that they do not go down to Ashkelon and kill. Their consciences do not keep them back; it is their cowardice. One who with some vision of a duty owing to his people goes forth and acts, contrasts well with these chicken hearted thousands.
We are not at present stating the complete motive of human activity nor setting forth the ideal of life. To that we shall come afterwards. But before you can have ideal action you must have action. Before you can have life of a fine and noble type you must have life. Here is an absolute primal necessity; and it is the key to both evolutions, the natural and the spiritual. First the human creature must find its power and capability and must use these to some end, be it even a wrong end, rather than none; after this the ideal is caught and proper moral activity becomes possible. We need not look for the full corn in the ear till the seed has sprouted and grown and sent its roots well into the soil. With this light the roll of Hebrew fame is cleared and we can trace freely the growth of life. The heroes are not perfect; they have perhaps barely caught the light of the ideal; but they have strength to will and to do, they have faith that this power is a divine gift, and they having it are God’s pioneers.
The need is that men should in the first instance live so that they may be faithful to their calling. Deborah looking round beheld her country under the sore oppression of Jabin, saw the need and answered to it. Others only vegetated; she rose up in human stature resolute to live. That also was what Gideon began to do when at the divine call he demolished the altar on the height of Ophrah; and Jephthah fought and endured by the same law. So soon as men begin to live there is hope of them.
Now the hindrances to life are these-first, slothfulness, the disposition to drift, to let things go; second, fear, the restriction imposed on effort of body or of mind by some opposing force ingloriously submitted to; third, ignoble dependence on others. The proper life of man is never reached by many because they are too indolent to win it. To forecast and devise, to try experiments, pushing out in this direction and that is too much for them. Some opportunity for doing more and better lies but a mile away or a few yards; they see but will not venture upon it. Their country is sinking under a despot or a weak and foolish government; they do nothing to avert ruin, things will last their time. Or again, their church is stirred with throbs of a new duty, a new and keen anxiety; but they refuse to feel any thrill, or feeling it a moment they repress the disturbing influence. They will not be troubled with moral and spiritual questions, calls to action that make life severe, high, heroic. Often this is due to want of physical or mental vigour. Men and women are overborne by the labour required of them, the weary tale of bricks. Even from youth they have had burdens to bear so heavy that hope is never kindled. But there are many who have no such excuse. Let us alone, they say, we have no appetite for exertion, for strife, for the duties that set life in a fever. The old ways suit us, we will go on as our fathers have gone. The tide of opportunity ebbs away and are left stranded.
Next, and akin, there is fear, the mood of those who hear the calls of life but hear more clearly the threatenings of sense and time. Often it comes in the form of a dread of change, apprehension as regards the unknown seas on which effort or thought would launch forth. Let us be still, say the prudent; better to bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Are we ground down by the Philistines? Better suffer than be killed. Are our laws unjust and oppressive? Better rest content than risk revolution and the upturning of everything. Are we not altogether sure of the basis of our belief? Better leave it unexamined than begin with inquiries the end of which cannot be foreseen. Besides, they argue, God means us to be content. Our lot in the world however hard is of His giving; the faith we hold is of His bestowing. Shall we not provoke Him to anger if we move in revolution or in inquiry. Still it is life they lose. A man who does not think about the truths he rests on has an impotent mind. One who does not feel it laid on him to go forward, to be brave, to make the world better has an impotent soul. Life is a constant reaching after the unattained for ourselves and for the world.
And lastly there is ignoble dependence on others. So many will not exert themselves because they wait for some one to come and lift them up. They do not think, nor do they understand that instruction brought to them is not life. No doubt it is the plan of God to help, the many by the instrumentality of the few, a whole nation or world by one. Again and again we have seen this illustrated in Hebrew history, and elsewhere the fact constantly meets us. There is one Luther for Europe, one Cromwell for England, one Knox for Scotland, one Paul for early Christianity. But at the same time it is because life is wanting, because men have the deadly habit of dependence that the hero must be brave for them and the reformer must break their bonds. The true law of life on all levels, from that of bodily effort upwards, is self-help; without it there is only an infancy of being. He who is in a pit must exert himself if he is to be delivered. He who is in spiritual darkness must come to the light if he is to be saved.
Now we see in Samson a man who in his degree lived. He had strength like the strength of ten; he had also the consecration of his vow and the sense of a divine constraint and mandate. These things urged him to life and made activity necessary to him. He might have reclined in careless ease like many around. But sloth did not hold him nor fear. He wanted no man’s countenance nor help. He lived. His mere exertion of power was the sign of higher possibilities.
Live at all hazards, imperfectly if perfection is not attainable, half-wrongly if the right cannot be seen. Is this perilous advice? From one point of view it may seem very dangerous. For many are energetic in so imperfect a way, in so blundering and false a way that it might appear better for them to remain quiet, practically dead than degrade and darken the life of the race by their mistaken or immoral vehemence. You read of those traders among the islands of the Pacific who, afraid that their nefarious traffic should suffer if missionary work succeeded, urged the natives to kill the missionaries or drive them away, and when they had gained their end quickly appeared on the scene to exchange for the pillaged stores of the mission house muskets and gunpowder and villainous strong drink. May it not be said that these traders were living out their lives as much as the devoted teachers who had risked everything for the sake of doing good? Napoleon I, when the scheme of the empire presented itself to him and all his energies were bent on climbing to the summit of affairs in France and in Europe-was not he living according to a conception of what was greatest and best? Would it not have been better if those traders and the ambitious Corsican alike had been content to vegetate-inert and harmless through their days? And there are multitudes of examples. The poet Byron for one-could the world not well spare even his finest verse to be rid of his unlawful energy in personal vice and in coarse profane word?
One has to confess the difficulty of the problem, the danger of praising mere vigour. Yet if there is risk on the one side the risk on the other is greater: and truth demands risk, defies peril. It is unquestionable that any family of men when it ceases to be enterprising and energetic is of no more use in the economy of things. Its land is a necropolis. The dead cannot praise God. The choice is between activity that takes many a wrong direction, hurrying men often towards perdition, yet at every point capable of redemption, and on the other hand inglorious death, that existence which has no prospect but to be swallowed up of the darkness. And while such is the common choice there is also this to be noted that inertness is not certainly purer than activity, though it may appear so merely by contrast. The active life compels us to judge of it; the other, a mere negation, calls for no judgment, yet is in itself a moral want, an evil and injury. Conscience being unexercised decays and death rules all.
Men cannot be saved by their own effort and vigour. Most true. But if they make no attempt to advance towards strength, dominion, and fulness of existence, they are the prey of force and evil. Nor will it suffice that they simply exert themselves to keep body and soul together. The life is more than meat. We must toil not only that we may continue to subsist, but for personal distinctness and freedom. Where there are strong men, resolute minds, earnestness of some kind, there is soil in which spiritual seed may strike root. The dead tree can produce neither leaf nor flower. In short, if there is to be a human race at all for the divine glory it can only be in the divine way, by the laws that govern existence of every degree.
2. We come, however, to the compensating principle of responsibility-the law of Duty which stands over energy in the range of our life. No man, no race is justified by force or as we sometimes say by doing. It is faith that saves. Samson has the rude material of life; but though his action were far purer and nobler it could not make him a spiritual man: his heart is not purged of sin nor set on God.
Granted that the time was rough, chaotic, cloudy, that the idea of injuring the Philistines in every possible way was imposed on the Danite by his nation’s abject state, that he had to take what means lay in his power for accomplishing the end. But possessed of energy he was deficient in conscience, and so failed of noble life. This may be said for him that he did not turn against the men of Judah who came to bind him and give him up. Within a certain range he understood his responsibility. But surely a higher life than he lived, better plans than he followed were possible to one who could have learned the will of God at Shiloh, who was bound to God by a vow of purity and had that constant reminder of the Holy Lord of Israel. It is no uncommon thing for men to content themselves with one sacrament, one observance which is reckoned enough for salvation-honesty in business, abstinence from strong drink, attendance on church ordinances. This they do and keep the rest of existence for unrestrained self-pleasing, as though salvation lay in a restraint or a form. But whoever can think is bound to criticise life, to try his own life, to seek the way of salvation, and that means being true to the best he knows and can know; it means believing in the will of God. Something higher than his own impulse is to guide him. He is free, yet responsible. His activity, however great, has no real power, no vindication unless it falls in with the course of divine law and purpose. He lives by faith.
Generally there is one clear principle which, if a man held to it, would keep him right in the main. It may not be of a very high order, yet it will prepare the way for something better and meanwhile serve his need. And for Samson one simple law of duty was to keep clear of all private relations and entanglements with the Philistines. There was nothing to hinder him from seeing that to be safe and right as a rule of life. They were Israel’s enemies and his own. He should have been free to act against them: and when he married a daughter of the race he forfeited as an honourable man the freedom he ought to have had as a son of Israel. Doubtless he did not understand fully the evil of idolatry nor the divine law that Hebrews were to keep themselves separate from the worshippers of false gods. Yet the instincts of the race to which he belonged, fidelity to his forefathers and compatriots made their claim upon him. There was a duty too which he owed to himself. As a brave strong man he was discredited by the line of action which he followed. His honour lay in being an open enemy to the Philistines, his dishonour in making underhand excuses for attacking them. It was base to seek occasion against them when he married the woman at Timnah, and from one act of baseness he went on to others because of that first error. And chiefly Samson failed in his fidelity to God. Scarcely ever was the name of Jehovah dragged through the mire as it was by him. The God of truth, the divine Guardian of faithfulness, the God who is light, in Whom is no darkness at all, was made by Samson’s deeds to appear as the patron of murder and treachery. We can hardly allow that an Israelite was so ignorant of the ordinary laws of morality as to suppose that faith need not be kept with idolaters; there were traditions of his people which prevented such a notion. One who knew of Abraham’s dealings with the Hittite Ephron and his rebuke in Egypt could not imagine that the Hebrew lay under no debt of human equity and honor to the Philistine. Are there men among ourselves who think no faithfulness is due by the civilised to the savage? Are there professed servants of Christ who dare to suggest that no faith need be kept with heretics? They reveal their own dishonour as men, their own falseness and meanness. The primal duty of intelligent and moral beings cannot be so dismissed. And even Samson should have been openly the Philistines’ enemy or not at all. If they were cruel, rapacious, mean, he ought to have shown that Jehovah’s servant was of a different stamp. We cannot believe morality to have been at so low an ebb among the Hebrews that the popular leader did not know better than he acted. He became a judge in Israel, and his judgeship would have been a pretence unless he had some of the justice, truth, and honour which God demanded of men. Beginning in a very mistaken way he must have risen to a higher conception of duty, otherwise his rule would have been a disaster to the tribes he governed.
Conscience has originated in fear and is to decay with ignorance, say some. Already that extraordinary piece of folly has been answered. Conscience is the correlative of power, the guide of energy. If the one decays, so must the other. Living strongly, energetically, making experiments, seeking liberty and dominion, pressing towards the higher, we are ever to acknowledge the responsibility which governs life. By what we know of the divine will we are to order every purpose and scheme and advance to further knowledge. There are victories we might win, there are methods by which we might harass those who do us wrong. One voice says, Snatch the victories, go down by night and injure the foe, insinuate what you cannot prove, while the sentinels sleep plunge your spear through the heart of a persecuting Saul. But another voice asks, Is this the way to assert moral life? Is this the line for a man to take? The true man swears to his own hurt, suffers and is strong, does in the face of day what he has it in him to do and, if he fails, dies a true man still. He is not responsible for obeying commands of which he is ignorant, nor for mistakes which he cannot avoid. One like Samson is clean handed in what it would be unutterably base for us to do. But close beside every man are such guiding ideas as straightforwardness, sincerity, honesty. Each of us knows his duty so far and cannot deceive himself by supposing that God will excuse him in acting, even for what he counts a good end, as a cheat and a hypocrite. In politics the rule is as clear as in companionship, in war as in love.
It has not been asserted that Samson was without a sense of responsibility. He had it, and kept his vow. He had it, and fought against the Philistines. He did some brave things, openly and like a man. He had a vision of Israel’s need and God’s will. Had this not been true he could have done no good; the whole strength of the hero would have been wasted. But he came short of effecting what he might have effected just because he was not wise and serious. His strokes missed their aim. In truth Samson never went earnestly about the task of delivering Israel. In his fulness of power he was always half in sport, making random shots, indulging his own humour. And we may find in his career no inapt illustration of the careless way in which the conflict with the evils of our time is carried on. With all the rage for societies and organisations there is much haphazard activity, and the fanatic for rule has his contrast in the freelance who hates the thought of responsibility. A curious charitableness too confuses the air. There are men who are full of ardour today and strike in with some hot scheme against social wrongs, and the next day are to be seen sitting at a feast with the very persons most to blame, under some pretext of finding occasion against them or showing that there is "nothing personal." This perplexes the whole campaign. It is usually mere bravado rather than charity, a mischief, not a virtue.
Israel must be firm and coherent if it is to win liberty from the Philistines. Christians must stand by each other steadily if they are to overcome infidelity and rescue the slaves of sin. The feats of a man who holds aloof from the church because he is not willing to be bound by its rules count for little in the great warfare of the age. Many there are among our literary men, politicians, and even philanthropists who strike in now and again in a Christian way and with unquestionably Christian purpose against the bad institutions and social evils of our time, but have no proper basis or aim of action and maintain towards Christian organisations and churches a constant attitude of criticism. Samson-like they make showy random attacks on "bigotry," "inconsistency" and the like. It is not they who will deliver man from hardness and worldliness of soul; not they who will bring in the reign of love and truth.
3. Looking at Samson’s efforts during the first part of his career and observing the want of seriousness and wisdom that marred them, we may say that all he did was to make clear and deep the cleft between Philistines and Hebrews. When he appears on the scene there are signs of a dangerous intermixture of the two races, and his own marriage is one. The Hebrews were apparently inclined to settle down in partial subjection to the Philistines and make the best they could of the situation, hoping perhaps that by and by they might reach a state of comfortable alliance and equality. Samson may have intended to end that movement or he may not. But he certainly did much to end it. After the first series of his exploits, crowned by the slaughter at Lehi, there was an open rupture with the Philistines which had the best effect on Hebrew morals and religion. It was clear that one Israelite had to be reckoned with whose strong arm dealt deadly blows. The Philistines drew away in defeat. The Hebrews learned that they needed not to remain in any respect dependent or afraid. This kind of division grows into hatred; but, as things were, dislike was Israel’s safety. The Philistines did harm as masters; as friends they would have done even more. Enmity meant revulsion from Dagon worship and all the social customs of the opposed race. For this the Hebrews were indebted to Samson; and although he was not himself true all along to the principle of separation, yet in his final act he emphasised it so by destroying the temple of Gaza that the lesson was driven home beyond the possibility of being forgotten.
It is no slight service those do who as critics of parties and churches show them clearly where they stand, who are to be reckoned as enemies, what alliances are perilous. There are many who are exceedingly easy in their beliefs, too ready to yield to the Zeit Geist that would obliterate definite belief and with it the vigour and hope of mankind. Alliance with Philistines is thought of as a good, not a risk, and the whole of a party or church may be so comfortably settling in the new breadth and freedom of this association that the certain end of it is not seen. Then is the time for the resolute stroke that divides party from party, creed from creed. A reconciler is the best helper of religion at one juncture; at another it is the Samson who standing alone perhaps, frowned on equally by the leaders and the multitude, makes occasion to kindle controversy and set sharp variance between this side and that. Luther struck in so. His great act was one that "rent Christendom in twain." Upon the Israel which looked on afraid or suspicious he forced the division which had been for centuries latent. Does not our age need a new divider? You set forth to testify against Philistines and soon find that half your acquaintances are on terms of the most cordial friendship with them, and that attacks upon them which have any point are reckoned too hot and eager to be tolerated in society. To the few who are resolute duty is made difficult and protest painful: the reformer has to bear the sins and even the scorn of many who should appear with him.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 15". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12