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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters


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SAMSON'S tragical story has been treated in three ways. Some commentators on the Book of Judges have treated the story of Samson as an excellent piece of Hebrew folklore. They have collected out of all the ancient books of the world wonderful tales of giants, and heroes, and demigods, with their astonishing feats of strength in war, and in love, and in jealousy, and in revenge; feats more or less like the feats of strength and of revenge we have in Samson. They have produced remarkable parallels to Samson's exploits out of Atlas and Cyclops, Hercules and Odin, and many suchlike mythological characters. And then their work on Samson has been done when they have illustrated his history with romances and legends of sufficient likeness and richness. Some evangelical preachers, again, have gone out to the opposite extreme, and have displayed Samson to us solely as a type and pattern of Jesus Christ. They have selected texts out of Samson's extraordinary history, and they have suspended excellent New Testament sermons on these adapted texts; hanging great weights on small wires. The former is the mythical way of dealing with Samson's history; the latter is the mystical way. But there is a third way. And the third way is the way that Paul takes, not only with Samson, but with all the patriarchs, and judges, and kings, and great men of Old Testament times. We have this apostle's way with all those Old Testament men and women set before us again and again in his own conclusive words: 'For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.' And again, 'All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.' And again, 'Now, all these things happened unto them for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore let him that thinketh be standeth take heed lest he fall.' And yet again, 'Therefore, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.' Now, neither the mythical nor the mystical method shall be followed upon Samson tonight. All my leanings and all my drawings, all my reading and all my experience-all combine to make me to sit at Paul's feet, and to pursue, so far as I am able, Paul's expository and homiletical methods. While listening attentively, then, to all that the mythologists and the mystics have to say on Samson; having done so, I feel all the move safe and sure in asking you to look at Samson as John Milton looked at Samson when he treated him with such 'verisimilitude and decorum.' For 'Tragedy, as it was anciently composed, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems: therefore said by Aristotle to be of power by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and suchlike passions; that is, to temper and reduce the passions to their just measure.'

What more could God, or man, or angel of God have done for Samson that was not done? Every man must work out his own salvation with his own hands, or not at all; but, short of doing for Samson what neither God nor man could do, what more could God or man have done that was not done? From his birth, and for long before his birth, the gifts of God were simply showered on Samson. He had a father and a mother of the very best. Over and above what the Bible tells us about Samson's father and mother, Joseph us, in supplement of the Bible, tells us that there was 'one Manoah, a person of such virtue that he had few men his equals, and without dispute he was the principal person in his country. And Manoah had a wife celebrated for her beauty, and excelling her contemporaries.' Now, Manoah and his wife had been prepared to be the father and mother of a great deliverer of Israel. And they had been prepared in the same way that God had often taken to prepare the parents of those children who were predestinated to be great and famous men. Like Abraham and Sarah, like Isaac and Rebekah, like Jacob and Rachel, like Hannah, like Zacharias and Elizabeth, and like many more, it was as it were by a special and immediate act of creative power that Manoah and his wife got Samson their son at the hand of God.

And not only was Samson to be separated to God's service from his mother's womb; but, in order to make his separation and dedication both sure and easy and natural to him, his mother was separated and dedicated to God long before her child was born. 'Of all that I said to the woman let her beware. She may not eat of anything that cometh of the vine, neither let her drink wine nor strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing: all that I commanded her let her observe,' said the angel of the Lord a second time to Manoah. 'Not,' says Joseph Hall, 'that there is more uncleanness in the grape than in the fountain; but that wine finds more uncleanness in us than water finds; and that the high feed is not so fit for devotion as abstinence.'

Desire of wine and all delicious drinks,
Which many a famous warrior overturns,
Thou couldst repress; nor did the dancing ruby,
Sparkling, outpour'd, the flavour, or the smell
Or taste that cheers the heart of gods and men,
Allure thee from the clear crystalline stream:
.… Nor envied them the grape.
Whose heads that turbulent liquor fills with fumes.
But what avail'd this temperance not complete
Against another object more enticing?
What boots it at one gate to make defence,
And at another to let in the foe,
Effeminately vanquished?.…

'I am weary of my life!' said Rebekah to Isaac over the marriage of Esau, and in terror of a like marriage of Jacob. And both Manoah and his wife said the same thing over Samson's marriage. How twice happy are those parents who get a child born in the Lord, and then live to see their child married in the Lord! What a crown of blessing it is to a godly mother to get a second daughter in her son's wife; and what a happy father he is who gets a second son in his daughter's husband! But, then, all the more, what a gnawing sorrow it is when a son or a daughter marries away outside of all sympathy with their father's house! Better, cries many a mother's broken heart-better they had never been born than to be so mis-married. Samson's father and mother never saw another happy day after that day when their son-miraculous birth, Nazarite vow and all-went down to Timnath and saw a woman, a daughter of the Philistines, and said, Get her for me to wife! Then his father and his mother said to Samson, Is there never a woman of the daughters of thy brethren, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines? Was it for this day they had sanctified their unborn child? In his misery Manoah declared that he would never all his days pray for anything after this, lest it should turn to his bane, as his prayer for a son had so turned. For how is a child who brings such shame on his father and mother ever to fulfil the promise of his birth? How shall the son-in-law of an uncircumcised Philistine ever deliver Israel? Nor did all Samson's riddles, and jests, and sports, and revenges against the Philistines scatter or relieve the cloud that his first fatal step had brought down on his father's and his mother's heart.

Though we look with fear for it, and almost expect it, and though Josephus actually says it, yet we are not told it in the Bible, and we simply cannot believe Josephus, that Samson broke his Nazarite vow. Could we believe Josephus in what he writes, what a treasure-house for Bible readers he would be! But wherever Josephus stands without corroboration and confirmation, we simply cannot believe a word he says. We shall, therefore, set it down to Samson's credit that, with all his licence and with all his riot, he never became a drunkard. But, then, as it always comes into my heart when I read of Samson's total abstinence-

What boots it at one gate to make defence,
And at another to let in the foe?

You are making a gallant defence at one gate, but what about all the other gates; and, especially, what about the gates on the other side of the city? You keep, with all diligence, this and that gate of the body, but what about the more deadly gates of the soul? Plutarch tells us of a great Roman who was very brave; but, then, he was very envious of other brave men, and his envy did himself and them and the state more mischief than if he had been a coward. You work hard for God at your books and your visiting as a minister or as a Sabbath-school teacher, but you restrain prayer. You stand up for use and wont in public worship, and in pulpit and in published doctrine; but, then, you hate and hunt down the men who innovate upon you in these things. You go out, like Samson, against the enemies of God and His Church, but all the time you make your campaign an occasion for your own passions, piques, retaliations, and revenges. You do not touch wine, but how do you stand to all Samson's other sins? Death and hell will come still more surely into your hearts through the gates of envy, and ill-will, and hatred, and pride, and revenge, and malice, and unbelief, and neglect of God in prayer, than at those more yawning gates that all decently living men make a defence at. What avails this 'temperance not complete'?

Young men are not raised up among us nowadays with Samson's size and strength. The age of the Judges was a rude age, and God condescended to its rudeness, and raised up rude instruments to shape it. Samsons in body are not born among us in our day, but Samsons in mind are sometimes given us in room of them. And it is not seldom seen that our greatly gifted youths work as little deliverance for themselves and for us as Samson did for Israel. You hear of some young man's Samson-like feats of strength at the University or at the Divinity Hall. He rose from his shoulders upwards above all the men of his time. What was toil and defeat to them was but child's-play to him. Samson rent a lion that roared against him, as if it had been a kid. In the quickness and versatility of their minds our young Samsons set us riddles to which we Philistines cannot supply an answer. They make sport of our slow wits. They tie firebrands to foxes' tails, and turn the foxes in among our standing corn. But we endure it all, looking on it all as but the rough sport of young giants, and we wait with hope for the day when they shall be found working painfully among those very cornfields and vineyards over which they are now making their too destructive sport.

But it often happens with our promised deliverers also that they fall far short of far weaker men in the after-work they do for themselves and for us. A common man, over whose birth no angel did wondrously, will often at the end of the day far outstrip his brilliant neighbour who started with all heaven and all earth looking on with applause and expectation. Genius is genius; but the oil-fed lamp of an honest mind and a humble heart will, not seldom, light its owner better home. Weak men must husband their strength. They have neither time nor strength to spare on those Samson-feats that end in a day's amazement, but work no deliverance in the land. And, moreover, the very diligence and assiduity that their few talents compel them to, keep them from those idle and ruinous dalliances with the Delilahs of the flesh and of the mind that more affluent men are more easily led into.

But, still, in spite of it all, Samson actually judged Israel for full twenty years. At the same time, for some reason or other, a reason we can only guess at, the sacred writer tells us not one single word about what we would give a great deal tonight to know. Not one word are we told, neither about what kind of cases came up before Samson, nor how he managed his court, nor about the wisdom, or otherwise, of his judgments, nor about the manner of life that Israel lived for that whole generation under her gigantic judge. We sometimes hear it complained in our day that all the romance of the world is used up; that there is little or nothing left to the ambitious man of genius of these latter days but the most barren and most trampled spots of sacred and profane history. And, as a sad consequence to them and to us, that our dramatists and tragedians can never again give us such masterpieces as their forerunners have left behind them. Well, were I a sacred dramatist, I would ask for no better scope for my craft tonight than just the twenty years of Samson's judgeship. The whole magnificent drama of Samson Agonistes begins and ends, according to ancient rule and best example, within the space of twenty-four hours. Well, here are twenty untouched and absolutely silent years, during which the plot was laying deep and thickening fast toward the terrible catastrophe of Milton's masterpiece. Those twenty loaded years stand beckoning for a Milton or a Wells or a Browning to enter them, and to give us out of them a companion and a key to the Agonistes-a poem grave enough, moral enough, and profitable enough to satisfy the master of all these matters himself. Such an artist would let us see Samson repenting of having broken his mother's heart, and repenting with the passion of a hundred penitents poured into one. He would let us see the Lord turning again to give Samson another chance. He would let us hear evil men in Israel mocking at Samson and his seat of judgment because of Timnath and Gaza. He would raise pity and anger wherewith to purge our hearts as we saw Samson striving to do only what was right, with men of Belial all about him waiting for his halting, and dwelling on all his past wrong-doing. And his chorus would purge our breasts with fear and with terror as they lifted the veil and let us see the passions of lust, and jealousy, and hatred, and revenge that were all the time tearing at the great heart of Manoah's miserable son. Till one of those passions, even after he had judged Israel twenty years, again broke out, and laid Samson low, never to rise again in this world.

Myself my sepulchre, a moving grave.
Prison within prison,
Inseparably dark!
Nothing of all these evils hath befall'n me
But justly; I myself have brought them on,
Sole author I, sole cause. If aught seem vile,
As vile hath been my folly.

But man's extremity is God's opportunity. And in such words as were possible to Samson's Old Testament biographer, that sacred writer tells us that in Samson also, where sin abounded, grace did much more abound, and that God's strength was made perfect in the day of Samson's weakness. That dark cell in Gaza-in Gaza, the scene of some of Samson's greatest sins-that shameful cell was a house of God, and a place of prayer and repentance to Manoah's overtaken and overwhelmed son. What a past Samson looked back upon as he sat at the mill! What he might have been! What he might have done! How he might have departed to his fathers and left Israel! Three thousand years dissolve, and this is Gaza. This is the mill with slaves. This man, and that man there, is Samson over again. Only, over again against light and truth that Samson never saw. 'What profit is there in my blood,' our Samson cries, 'when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise Thee? Shall it declare Thy truth? Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me. Lord, be Thou my helper. Turn my mourning into dancing, my dreaming into earnestness, my falls into clearings of myself, my guilt into indignation, my sin into fear, my transgression into vehement desire, and my pollution into revenge. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy; when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He plead my cause, and execute judgment for me; He will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold His righteousness. Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, He will have compassion on us; He will subdue our iniquities, and Thou shalt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.'

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Samson'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. 1901.

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