The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways

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The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways. That’s my title, and it’s very apt for the Book of Judges, which we’re diving back into this evening. We’ve got to the life of Samson, and we’re at chapter 14, on page 257. It’s headed in the NIV ‘Samson’s Marriage’, so you might think that we’re in for some romance. Somehow, though, romance doesn’t seem quite the right word when Samson’s involved. Sex and violence would be closer to the truth – because these are degraded and dangerous times.

I have four questions for us to consider as we get into this chapter.

First, WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT SAMSON?

In chapter 13 Samson is born. This is what the angel of the Lord tells Samson’s mum in 13.5:

… you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.

In other words, God’s going to use him big time to begin kicking the Philistines out of Israel. The symbol of this will be that he’ll be hairier than the hairiest 70s rockstar. No crew cuts. No aftershave. Plenty of heroics. Then there’s more in 13.24-25:

The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the LORD blessed him, and the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him…

God’s got his hand on this man’s life. Even in his youth something begins to stir in him. It’s going to mean that he’s never content just to accept the status quo and doff his cap to the alien Philistine overlords. It’s God’s irresistible and powerful Spirit. That’s what we need. Pray for young men in this land blessed by God, stirred by his Spirit and eager for a lifetime of warfare against the forces of anti-Christ.

Jumping years ahead, the result of this whole sequence of events that we’re coming on to in chapter 14 is what Samson describes in 15.18 as “this great victory”. Then look at the last verse of chapter 15:

Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.

And you can see how the Philistine intelligence dossier on Samson sums up his impact on them further on again in 16.24. Their hated enemy Samson is described there as…

… the one who laid waste our land and multiplied our slain.

So Samson wins, rules, and destroys the enemy. Not totally. That was never part of the deal. But he certainly starts the process, as the angel of the Lord promised he would.

Secondly, WHAT’S THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING THIS?

Here’s an amazing thing. Samson himself never seems to have a plan to do any of that. He’s swept along by a combination of his hormones, instincts, rage, aggression, sweet tooth and love of a practical joke. From his parents point of view, he’s gone badly off the rails – and it’s hard to disagree with them. Look at how things take shape. 14.1:

Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman.

That is, he didn’t just see a young Philistine woman. He SAW a young Philistine WOMAN. There’s a difference. The men know what I mean. Verses 2-3:

2When he returned, he said to his father and mother, I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.
3His father and mother replied, Isn't there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife? But Samson said to his father, Get her for me. She's the right one for me.

Point one. A son – especially one of God’s people – shouldn’t boss his parents about. I should say here that’s not a dig at my own son. Not in any sense. In no way.

Point two. God’s people don’t marry God’s enemies. That’s God’s law. There’s chapter and verse on that. Imagine the son of a devout Christian family coming home and telling his mum and dad he’s going to marry the atheist daughter of Richard Dawkins. They won’t like it. But Samson’s not the sort to let his parents’ Godly wisdom get in his wilful way. It seems to them that Samson is careering off the rails before he’s even begun to fulfil his divinely appointed potential. Just think of the countless Christian families who’ve been through that kind of thing. What an ocean of anguish.

But what comes next here is the key to this entire history that Samson’s embarked on. Pay attention, because in many ways it gives us a key to understanding our own messy, unsatisfactory, sometimes disappointing, sometimes devastating lives as well.

What comes after verses 2-3 is verse 4. No surprise there. But what verse 4 contains is a surprise. Now you’ll see that verse 4 is in brackets. Sometimes the NIV puts verses in brackets as if they’re asides of no great significance when in fact they are critically important. Jot these down if you want to see what I mean: Deuteronomy 1.2; Mark 7.19b. Judges 14.4 is another case in point. If anything, it should be in capital letters, not brackets. This is what it says:

(His parents did not know that this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.)

The pagans were ruling over God’s people, and God had decided it was time to deal with them. This sequence of events triggered by Samson wanting to marry this pagan girl was going to be God’s method of provoking the necessary confrontation with the Philistines.

It was God who was behind all this. And, not surprisingly, Samson’s mum and dad couldn’t see that. They just saw Samson being stupid. Which he was. What’s more, Samson couldn’t see it either. He just saw the girl. Let’s just say his mind wasn’t on international relations. None of them really knew what was going on. But behind it all, God had a plan. He’d determined to further the cause of his kingdom through Samson’s apparently chance sighting of a young woman from the enemy camp. Everything that happens in chapters 14-15 must be seen in the light of 14.4. They didn’t know, but this was God at work.

Which brings me to my third question.

Thirdly, WHAT’S THE STORY?

I find those trailers they show before a film very useful. They condense the entire story of the film into two minutes. It’s great because by the end of the trailer you know the story, you’ve seen the best bits, and you no longer need to go and see the movie. Now, Judges is far more exciting and important than the latest rom-com, so please go away and read these chapters for yourself. But here’s the plot-spoiling trailer.

Samson eyes the Philistine woman. He heads off to meet her. On the way he kills a lion with his bare hands. He doesn’t tell his mum and dad.

By the way, perhaps that’s because he couldn’t face the conversation: “Hi mum.” “Hello sweetheart, what have you been up to?” “O, nothing. I did kill a lion with my bare hands.” “Did you poppet? How nice. I do hope you didn’t get any marks on those new trousers.”

Samson meets the young woman and fancies her even more. Later, he goes back to marry her. On the way to the wedding feast, he sees the dead lion’s carcass which has become a kind of bee hive full of honey. He takes the honeycomb, eats some and gives the rest to his parents. The parents meet the girl, who he marries. The wedding reception lasts seven days. In those days the bride didn’t bring along bridesmaids but thirty men to be bridegroom’s companions. A kind of stag do and wedding reception combined.

Samson decides to have some fun with them and tells these Philistine blokes a riddle. If they don’t get it, they have to give Samson thirty outfits. If they do, Samson must give them thirty outfits. His riddle is this:

Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.

The Philistine blokes can’t work it out. They get nasty and threaten Samson’s new bride that they’ll torch her and her whole family if she doesn’t find out the answer and give it to them. She cries and cries for days all through the wedding and uses every bit of emotional manipulation she can muster against Samson. He can’t take it any more and tells her the answer. She tells her compatriots. They tell Samson the answer and claim their thirty Versace outfits. Samson loses his rag. He says to them:

If you had not ploughed with my heifer,
you would not have solved my riddle.

I think he was calling his wife a cow. Not nice, just before your wedding night. Burning with rage, he goes to the next Philistine town, slaughters thirty of their men, strips off their clothes, takes the thirty outfits back, hands them over to the Philistines who were waiting for their prize, and heads off. Samson’s dad gives Samson’s wife to Samson’s best man, thinking that Samson wouldn’t want to have anything more to do with her. Big mistake.

That brings us to chapter 15. More on this next week, but what happens is this. Some time later Samson returns, intending to sleep with his wife, and discovers that she’s with his best mate. Samson’s dad recommends his wife’s attractive younger sister to him as an alternative. Bad move. Samson burns down the whole Philistine harvest. They burn his wife to death. War breaks out. Samson kills a thousand Philistines, defeats them, and becomes the leader of the Israelites for twenty years.

That’s the sequence of events. Not pretty. But back to 14.4 – our key verse:
this was from the LORD, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines…
That’s astonishing, isn’t it? But it’s also typical of God. Samson’s philosophy is just “Give as good as you get and then some”. But God has other plans. This is one big stinking mess. But it’s from the Lord.

So to my fourth question:

Fourthly, WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LEARN FROM THIS?

When we’re dealing with Bible narratives, we have to make sure the lessons we take for our own lives are the lessons the Bible draws out – no more, no less.

So, for instance, what do we make of 14.16-17?:

16Then Samson's wife threw herself on him, sobbing, You hate me! You don't really love me. You've given my people a riddle, but you haven't told me the answer. I haven't even explained it to my father or mother, he replied, so why should I explain it to you?
17She cried the whole seven days of the feast. So on the seventh day he finally told her, because she continued to press him. She in turn explained the riddle to her people.

Here are four lessons.
One. Wives, don’t betray your husbands.
Two. Wives, don’t use emotional blackmail.
Three. Men, don’t marry a Philistine woman. They’re trouble.
Four. Women, above all, don’t marry Samson. He’s even more trouble.

That’s all sound advice. But those kinds of lessons are not the main things the Bible itself draws out of this mess. Here are three.

First, the Spirit of God empowers his servant. Samson does extraordinary things beyond normal human capability. How? By the power of the Spirit of God. That’s explicit in the narrative. We’ve already seen how Samson was stirred by the Spirit of God at the end of chapter 13. Then look at 14.5-6:

5…suddenly a young lion came roaring towards him. 6The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat.

I saw a lion in Africa last year. They have a languid, musclebound, awesome power. The missionary and explorer David Livingstone became famous in Victorian England for his encounter with a lion while he was exploring Africa. He was mauled, but survived, with a permanently damaged arm. That was enough to make Livingstone a larger than life hero. Samson just ripped the lion apart. How? By the power of God’s Spirit. Please don’t try this at home. We don’t have the same calling as Samson. But the principle applies. God empowers his servant with his Spirit, to do his will – even a sinful, deeply flawed servant like Samson, and you and me.

You can see it again in 14.19:

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon [Samson] in power. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of their belongings and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle.

God’s purpose through Samson was to judge and defeat the evil Philistine enemy. Thankfully he has other plans for us. His purpose for us is to make disciples of all nations. That’s way beyond human strength. How can it be accomplished? When the Spirit of the Lord comes upon us in power. And that’s what happens to us through faith in Christ. He’s the perfect, sinless, saviour. He’s the Son of God. His saving work through his life, death and resurrection was enabled by the Spirit of God coming on him in power. And he pours out his Spirit on all who put their trust in him and give themselves to the cause of his Kingdom. The Spirit of God empowers his servant.

Secondly, God uses messy and sinful lives to bring about his purposes. He even uses Samson. Maybe we flinch from God’s messy methods. We’d rather God only used nice, good people to do his work. But God uses sinful lives. And that’s such good news. Because it means that he can use you and me too.

That doesn’t excuse or condone sin. We have to battle continually to purge our lives of sin with the help of God’s Word and Spirit. But praise God our messy and sinful lives do not rule us out from being used by God. In fact we’re exactly the kind of material he’s always used for his purposes. Have you ever studied the family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1? Along the line there are adulterers, idolaters, and murderers. But they led to Jesus, our sin-bearing saviour. God uses messy and sinful lives to bring about his purposes.

Thirdly, God is at work to liberate his people from their enemies. God’s work is often – even mostly – behind the scenes. Like Samson’s mum and dad, we don’t see it at the time. “They did not know that this was from the Lord.” Just think about some of the things God was using to turn his plans into reality in Judges 14: sexual attraction; a marriage proposal; a lion; a swarm of bees; honey; party games; violent threats; emotional blackmail; burning anger; even direct violence.

Once again, none of this excuses evil for a moment. But that God works even through evil to set his people free is unmistakeable in Judges and in the Bible as a whole. The supreme example is in Acts 2.23, where the apostle Peter cries out to the crowd at Pentecost:

“This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead…

It was wicked. It was the most evil act the world has ever known. But God was at work to set his people free from sin and Satan and death. He’s at work still, growing his Kingdom and taking the good news of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

And it’s not just the big events he uses. It’s little things too, like swarms of bees and honeycomb. We saw that last week during the Christianity Explored taster sessions – little providential details that are easy to miss, but that to the eyes of faith confirm that God’s at work by his Spirit setting people free. Like the apparently spontaneous, accidental seating plan that puts just the right two people on the right tables on the right evening. Sometimes we get a glimpse. Mostly we miss it altogether. But praise God, he’s at work today among us to liberate his people from their enemies, as he was in the life of Samson.

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