Thursday 2 February 2012

God of war (Judges 15)

After some days, at the time of the wheat harvest, Samson went to visit his wife with a young goat. And he said, “I will go in to my wife in the chamber.” But her father would not allow him to go in. And her father said, “I really thought you had utterly hated her, so gave her to your companion. Is not her younger sister more beautiful than she? Please take her instead.”

And Samson said to them, “This time I shall be innocent in regard to the Philistines, when I do them harm.”
Judges 15:1-3

Samson isn’t the kind of guy you want to upset. You want to make sure he is always happy. You want to make sure he never ever loses his temper. Because Samson’s a lot like the Marvel cartoon character, the Hulk. “When Samson angry... Samson smash!”

And that’s the reaction of his father-in-law in the beginning of the story here in Chapter 15. Samson visits his wife with a gift – a young goat (maybe she might have appreciated some chocolates instead, but a young goat was a thing of value) – and this picks up from the events of his wedding day back in Chapter 14. There in verse 19, Samson in “hot anger” went back to his father’s house, but not before killing thirty men to steal their clothes in order to repay a bet he had lost on his wedding day.

But now Samson is back. The goat’s probably his way of saying, “Sorry for leaving you at the altar, honey... oh, and for killing all those cousins of yours on the way home. No hard feelings.” What Samson doesn’t know, of course, is that his wife has been given to another man (his “best man” according to 14:20) by his father-in-law.

The reason for this? Verse 2: “I really thought you utterly hated her.” After all, Samson was the one who walked out on his wife – on his wedding day of all days. The marriage was not even consummated (hence verse 1, “I will go in to my wife in the chamber” – that’s what he had come to take care of). So, Daddy thought, Samson must not have wanted her at all and gave her away. It all sounds rational. It all sounds reasonable, even. After all, Dad managed to save his daughter from dying an old maid. But then look at what Dad says next, “Is not her younger sister more beautiful than she? Please take her instead.”

You see, these two daughters were to their father as that goat was to Samson. They were just things of value. “Take this daughter instead,” Dad said to Samson in an attempt to placate him, to appease his psychotic murdering son-in-law who could easily tear him limb from limb. Samson brought a goat; Dad brought out his younger daughter. Same thing.

But it didn’t work. Verse 3: And Samson said to them, “This time I shall be innocent in regard to the Philistines, when I do them harm.” Meaning: “Now, I’m really mad.”

But also, what Samson meant was, “Now, I’m right to get mad.”

So Samson went and caught 300 foxes and took torches. And he turned them tail to tail and put a torch between each pair of tails. And when he had set fire to the torches, he let the foxes go into the standing grain of the Philistines and set fire to the stacked grain and the standing grain, as well as the olive orchards.
Judges 15:4-5

How he did this, I have no idea. Samson rounded up 300 foxes, tied them up in pairs by their tails, somehow attaching a flaming torch between each pair. Presumably the foxes would then try to run off in opposite directions but end up zig-zagging through the fields setting fire to the grain in the process. It was mad and yet it was also quite brilliant. Samson single-handedly destabilised an entire nation’s economy. He destroyed all their food supplies (both the “stacked grain” as well as the “standing grain”). He even targeted their olive orchards, which, for an agrarian society, was at the very heart of their wealth. There was method in his madness.

Samson wanted revenge and he knew where to hit where it hurt.

Then the Philistines said, “Who has done this?” And they said, “Samson, the son-in-law of the Timnite, because he has taken his wife and given her to his companion.” And the Philistines came up and burned her and her father with fire.
Judges 15:6

Last week we saw how Samson’s wife was forced into the impossible situation of either betraying her husband or risk being burned with her father’s household. “Entice your husband to tell us what the riddle is,” they said to her in 14:15, “lest we burn you and your father’s house with fire.” She did what they told her to and yet here we read that they burn her anyways. Notice that it wasn’t just Dad’s fault for making Samson mad. “The Philistines came up and burned her and her father with fire.”

For Samson, it was yet another reason to get mad.

And Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will be avenged on you and after that I will quit.” And he struck them hip and thigh with a great blow, and he went down and stayed in the cleft of the rock of Etam.
Judges 15:7-8

Samson was not out for justice. He wanted vengeance. He says, “I will be avenged.” You have done this – not to my wife; not to her family – you have done this to me. What followed was more violence and more death.

At the heart of all this is a guy who simply does whatever he wants. Worryingly still, he gets away with it. When kids throw a tantrum, they might hold their breath or start chucking food on the walls, but there’s a limit to the destruction they can cause. The adults know that, and more importantly, the kids themselves learn that over time. But this guy doesn’t. He does whatever feels right. In Chapter 14, he sees a Philistine girl he likes and that’s reason enough to take her as his wife – irrespective of his parents’ wishes, irrespective of God’s wishes. That’s what his father-in-law was getting at when he pushed his younger daughter in front of Samson, “See, see... isn’t she more beautiful in your eyes?” The people around Samson know him well enough. They know that he is one huge walking appetite that constantly needs filling up. There is no right or wrong for Samson. Everything is about what Samson wants and what Samson needs. That’s his justification – for anger, for rage, even for murder.

And yet what we are going to see next is God using Samson’s appetite and sinfulness for God’s sovereign purpose. What we are going to see is God’s will fulfilled not in spite of Samson anger, but through his selfish anger – to reveal God’s plan and to bring about God’s salvation.

But first, in order to do that, God is going to use Samson to spark a war!

Then the Philistines came up and encamped in Judah and made a raid on Lehi. And the men of Judah said, “Why have you come up against us?” They said, “We have come up to bind Samson, to do to him as he did to us.” Then 3,000 men of Judah went down to the cleft of the rock of Etam, and said to Samson, “Do you not know that the Philistines are rulers over us? What then is this that you have done to us?” And he said to them, “As they did to me, so have I done to them.”
Judges 15:9-11

Samson’s really done it now. What started out as a bar-room brawl has now escalated into a full-fledged war between two nations. The Philistines deploy their tanks and military forces to the borders of Judah in an attempt to find and capture Rambo, and understandably, the people of Judah are freaked out to wake up the next morning only to find a battalion of  tanks parked up their front driveway! “Why have you come up against us?” they ask. The answer? One single man is responsible: Samson did this to us and we have come to repay the favour.

The people of Judah are shaking in their boots. So what they did next was motivated purely by fear – they were fearful of war. They were fearful of destruction by a superior force. And yet, what we also see is that the men of Judah were immensely fearful of Samson. They gather 3000 men, not to face the enemy, but to betray a fellow countryman. There at Samson’s hideout, the rock of Etam, 3000 men stood surrounded one man, Samson, just to bring him in and turn him over to the enemy.

If you look back to the very beginning of Judges Chapter 1, there we see Judah leading the charge into enemy territory. Judah was the strongest and bravest of all of the clans of Israel, defeating an army of 10,000 men in Bezek (Judges 1:4). And if you look ahead to verse 16, we find out the number of Philistine soldiers encamped at the border of Judah – one thousand men. That is, here are 3,000 men of Judah fearful of an army one-third its size; here is Judah, 3,000 men strong but fearful of one man, Samson. In the book of Judges, the tribe of Judah start out bold and courageous. They end up fearful and cowardly.

They say to Samson – almost matter-of-factly – “Don’t know the Philistines are rulers over us?” Here is a generation that has accepted defeat. Here is a generation which has chosen not to fight. They have given up and given in to another power – not God, but man. The Philistines are rulers over us – that’s a pretty damning statement. The Philistines are in charge now, not us. And definitely, not God. In their minds, it’s Samson who needs to get with the program.

For the past few months at Rock Fellowship we have been journeying through the book of Judges and what we have encountered again and again are cycles of our sin and God’s salvation. Each generation of God’s people go through cycles of (1) rebellion against God through idolatry and sin; they face (2) judgement from God who hands them over to their enemies; they then (3)cry out to God for help in repentance; (4) God answers by sending a judge to save them; (5) there is momentary peace in the land; (6) the judge dies and the people soon forget God’s help and fall back into sin.

Look how this generation of Israelites began back in Judges Chapter 13.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
Judges 13:1

It is the beginning of a new cycle. Israel did evil before God. God punished Israel by giving them over to their enemies. But then? Nothing. No cry for help. No repentance before God. God does, however, raise up Samson as a judge – from birth, I might add – but this is not in response to any form of repentance or call for help. And two chapters later, here in Chapter 15, we find out why.

“Don’t you know the Philistines are rulers over us?”

The Israelites had given up. God was no longer in charge over their lives; the Philistines were. It was a pitiful situation. The fear of man had led a whole generation of believers to compromise their faith in God. The fear of man had led these Israelites to betray one of their own brothers. Even Samson could see this. He had to ask them for an assurance that they would not kill him themselves. For the first time in the story, we see a hint of fear in the mighty Samson, or should I say, shame. He is fearful of their betrayal and ashamed of their cowardice.

And they said to him, “We have come down to bind you, that we may give you into the hands of the Philistines.” And Samson said to them, “Swear to me that you will not attack me yourselves.” They said to him, “No; we will only bind you and give you into their hands. We will surely not kill you.” So they bound him with two new ropes and brought him up from the rock.
Judges 15:12-13

“We will surely not kill you,” they say to Samson. All they would do was hand him over to be killed. All they would do was tie him up, escort him outside of their border and surrender him into the hands of the enemy. That’s all they would do. They were rationalising their sin: “We aren’t going to hurt you.” They were justifying their sin, “There is nothing else we can do. The Philistines are in charge.”

But the truth is: God is the one who is in charge. And God would do something about the situation.

When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him. Then the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him, and the ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands. And he found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men. And Samson said,

“With the jawbone of a donkey,
heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of a donkey
have I struck down a thousand men.”

As soon as he had finished speaking, he threw away the jawbone out of his hand. And that place was called Ramath-lehi.
Judges 15:14-17

Samson takes down the entire Philistine army – single-handedly! It’s like the opening scene of one of those Hollywood movie trailers where the deep-voiced commentator goes (ala James Earl-Jones), “One man... against impossible odds! One man against an army, armed with nothing else.... but a jawbone!”

Now, in case we miss the turning point of the story, don’t forget that just moments earlier, Samson was fearful of his own people’s betrayal. Moments earlier, Samson was bound “with two new ropes” and escorted to the border by 3,000 Israelite soldiers.

And as he approached the Philistine forces , they celebrated their victory over Samson! “The Philistines came shouting to meet him” (Judges 15:14). “We have won!” they thought.

But then we read, “The Spirit of the LORD rushed upon (Samson)”. God empowered Samson with super-human strength. And in case we missed how extraordinary God’s intervention was, it even tells us that his hand-cuffs turned to jelly: “The ropes that were on his arms became as flax that has caught fire.” God unmistakeably did this. God turned the tables on the Philistines.

You might even say: God caused this war.

Not Samson. Yes, his selfishness and thirst for vengeance led him from one conflict to another. But God chose this guy to be the judge. God empowered him with his Spirit. God made the ropes on his hands fall apart. Samson was God’s means to God’s end.

Not the Philistines. Yes, they had overpowered this generation of Israelites. But right from the beginning of Judges 13, it reads, “The LORD gave them into the hands of the Philistines”. God empowered the Philistines, too, enabling them to rule over Israel.

And certainly not the Israelites. They shrank away from the fight. They had given up the fight, even though God had commanded them to subdue the land. But God steps in, raises a judge and trouble-maker who is Samson – a man who, certainly loves to fight – and starts a war between the two nations.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Samson is far from perfect. In fact, Samson is downright selfish, impetuous, proud and sinful. But that does not mean that God is unable to use Samson for his purposes to save.

To save? Yes, to save. In fact, that’s the word Samson uses in the very next verse. He calls it a “great salvation”.

And he was very thirsty, and he called upon the LORD and said, “You have granted this great salvation by the hand of your servant, and shall I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” And God split open the hollow place that is at Lehi, and water came out from it. And when he drank, his spirit returned, and he revived. Therefore, the name of it was called En-hakkore; it is in Lehi to this day.
Judges 15:18-19

Salvation means rescue. Rescue from harm. Rescue from evil. Rescue from death. That’s what it means to be saved. Salvation means rescue.

But here the bible is giving us a bigger picture of what it means to be saved. It is the defeat of evil. It is the defeat of God’s enemies. It is the defeat of death. The picture the bible paints of salvation here in this episode of Samson’s life is that of war and conflict.

The “great salvation” by the hand of Samson was a great act of violence. He killed 1,000 men and pilled their bodies in a mound so high, he could even sing, “Heaps upon heaps... have I struck down a thousand men.” It was a brutal, bloody, gory scene of death. But in that we see a picture of the great salvation God had given Samson – the death of this army. Samson marks his victory by naming the hill, Ramath-lehi, which means Jawbone Hill (We’ll look at the significance of that in just a few moments).

But also, we see God’s great salvation in a second scene right after – in the giving of the water to quench Samson’s thirst. “And God split open the hollow place that is at Lehi, and water came out from it.” Samson names that place too, En-hakkore – “The spring of him who called”. That too, was God’s salvation come to Samson, but this time it was a scene of God’s great patience and generosity with Samson.

Samson is still Samson. He is doing what is right in his own eyes – he isn’t thinking, “How can I do God’s will and help my people turn back to God?” Absolutely not! He is taking revenge on his enemies and boasting about his own strength. “With the jawbone of a donkey have I struck down a thousand men.” I did this. Me.

Also, don’t miss the significance of the jawbone. The narrator takes great pains to describe how “he found a fresh jawbone... and put out his hand and took it, and with it he struck 1,000 men.” The fact that it was fresh meant that it was probably still bloody and was part of a corpse. And Samson’s parents had been instructed since his birth to make sure that he kept his vows as a Nazirite, one of which involved never-ever touching a dead corpse (well, actually this was a blanket prohibition for all Israelites). Samson goes out of his way to defy God’s word. Yet the amazing thing is he ends up doing God’s will.

Even when calls out to God in thirst, it looks like a ridiculous situation doesn’t it? “God, you have saved me, but now are you going to let me die?” We might be tempted to give him two tight slaps to wake him up from his stupidity. What does God do? God miraculously splits a rock to open a fresh spring of water. What does Samson do? He boasts! He names that place “The Spring of the One who Called”. Not “The Spring of the One who Answered”. No, it’s Samson who rang the right number, who got God to answer on the phone, and who was responsible for this miraculous spring of water. This was Samson’s spring.

Samson is still Samson. But God is still God.

He is the God who saves his people even when they reject him. He is the God who hears his people when they cry out to him. He is the God who is patient, gracious and loving towards men and women who are sinful, rebellious and ungrateful. God is still God.

We forget that often and easily. When circumstances change. When we change. We forget that God is unchanging in his holiness, his power and his love. God is always holy. God is always in charge. And God is always gracious and loving even when we are not.

And what the bible does is remind us again and again that God is God.
1.       God is our ruler
Not the Philistines. Not your overbearing boss at work. Not even if you live in a country run by dictators and corrupt politicians who oppress you because of the colour of your skin or the God whom you worship. God rules over all kingdoms, all parliaments, all presidents. He establishes all governments to ensure justice and peace. They may fail in this regard, and leave them in power long enough, they will fail. But God is always in charge.

The truth of this hits home when you consider nations with rulers and governments who do not acknowledge God’s sovereignty. Romans 13:1 says, “There is no authority except from God.” That includes the United States. That includes North Korea.

In such situations we remember Jesus who said to Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11) God had given Pilate, the Roman governor, the authority to execute Jesus on the cross. Even through the events of the murder of his Son, God was sovereign. God was in charge.

And like the Israelites in Samson’s day, so the Israelites at Jesus’ trial, denied that God was in charge over their lives. What did they cry out before Pilate when he taunted them, “Shall I crucify your King?” (John 19:15)

“We have no king but Caesar.”

With that last damning statement, they crucified Jesus. They had rejected him as the Christ. They had rejected God as the King. Yet in doing so, Pilate and the chief priests and the people of Jerusalem and the Roman guards and the executioners and the friends who abandoned Jesus and even Judas who betrayed Jesus, were all doing the will of God. God was sovereign over the cross. Jesus was crowned through his crucifixion.

The cross reveals the ultimate rejection of God as King. The cross displays the ultimate sovereignty of Jesus as the Christ.

2.       God will defeat all his enemies
The salvation of God’s people means the defeat of God’s enemies. That was what happened in the Exodus – the Red Sea which gave safe passage to Israel was the same waters that swallowed up the entire Egyptian army. That was what happened here in Judges: one moment the Philistines are rejoicing over their captive, Samson; in another, Samson is standing over a mountain piled with their bodies.

And the bible tells us the certainty of this final judgement comes to us through the cross of Jesus Christ.
“He had fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
(Acts 17:31)

The cross is God’s announcement, not simply that Judgement will come, but that Judgement has already come. God has fixed the day. God has appointed Jesus, the man. We know this how? Because God has raised Jesus from the dead.

3.       God will save his people
The last verse of Judges 15 reads, “And he (meaning, Samson) judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years.” (Judges 15:20)

Samson is the anti-hero. No one voted for him. No one asked for his help. Yet God chooses Samson from birth to be saviour and judge over a people who do need help; who do need a saviour, whether they are willing to admit or not. In the face of man’s rejection and sinfulness, God is still gracious to save.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance,” the apostle Paul begins in 1 Timothy 1:15, as he summarises the message of the gospel, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And then he adds, “of whom I am the foremost.”

Who did Jesus come to save? Sinners. Who are you if you call yourself a Christian? A sinner.

Jesus did not come to save good people, moral people, righteous people – because there are none. He came to die for and to take the sin of rebellious people. Bad people. And if you are a Christian, that’s you. That’s me.

God is gracious. I am sinful. And Jesus came for me. That’s how the gospel works.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
(Ephesians 2:4-6)

As tempting as it is to stop here, I think this passage from Judges 15 requires us to think more about how God works in response to our fear of man and our inaction over sin. In particular, many may read these verses and be troubled by a blood-thirsty character like Samson and how God actually uses him to stir up trouble at a time of relative peace. And yet as uncomfortable and perhaps, as embarrassed, as we may be as Christians, with such descriptions of violence and war today, we forget that this is the context of the book of Judges. Indeed, it is the very language of the bible.

Each generation of believers in Judges finds new reasons to shrink back from the mandate given by God to subdue the Promised Land. Each generation shrinks back from the battle. And in each and every generation, God raises an Othniel “who went out to war” (Judges 3:10), an Ehud who assassinates the Moabite king (Judges 3:12-30), a Deborah who has to kick general Barak in the backside to get him to launch an attack on the Canaanites (Judges 4-5), the timid pimple-faced Facebook-addicted hacker, Gideon, whom God calls a “mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12) and ends up taking down over 120,000 men in battle (Judges 8:10), and now a Samson, the superhero with a short fuse. With each judge in each generation, God is leading his people back into, and not away from, the war.

Some dismiss such language as archaic. It’s just the Old Testament, they say, when God was angry and men were uncivilised. They say that Jesus came to preach peace, love, joy, happiness – not war, destruction, death. And yet this is the same Jesus who says to his disciples, “Do not think I have come to bring peace on the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Or at Christmas-time when we read that the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” we miss the verse before describing them as a “multitude of heavenly host”, which could be just as accurately translated as a multitude of “armies” – a reference to the common expression found in the Old Testament of God as the “Lord of hosts”, which simply means the God of armies. These are God’s angelic military forces announcing the coming of the Commander-in-Chief, the birth of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most striking image of war and conflict is found in the pages of the last book of the bible. Revelation 12:7 reads, “Now war arose in heaven,” followed by a great struggle between God’s angels and the devil, pictured as a red dragon in opposition to God, and especially towards Jesus. Almost immediately, however, we find out that the dragon and his minions are defeated (Revelation 12:8), and Satan is thrown out of heaven. “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!” There is victory in heaven. Not so, on the earth. “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows his time is short!”

The devil is defeated. But precisely because he knows this, it tells us that he goes off to “make war... on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 12:17)

It is saying this: If you are in Jesus; if you hold to the message of cross – the devil has you in his sights. What do you do? Verse 11 says you overcome the devil with the blood of Jesus Christ shed on the cross.

And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
Revelation 12:11

The Christian life is a battle. Against the devil. Against the world. Against sin. And the only weapon we have at our disposal is the only weapon we need. It is the gospel. Jesus Christ has conquered the devil. Jesus Christ is the true king of heaven and earth. And Jesus Christ has taken my sin, given me new life and lives in me through his spirit. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ is the victorious saviour over the devil, death and sin through his work on the cross on my behalf.

And until he returns on that final day of judgement and salvation, Jesus Christ enables me to stand by grace, through faith, on this gospel of peace.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
Ephesians 6:10-13

Our call to war to love the captive soul
But to rage against the captor
And with the sword that makes the wounded whole
We will fight with faith and valour
When faced with trials on every side
We know the outcome is secure
And Christ will have the prize for which He died
An inheritance of nations

(“O Church Arise”, by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend)

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