HAVING lost his special God-given strength when his hair was cut off during his sleep, Samson finally fell into the hands of the Philistines. They didn't choose to kill him, because they wanted to show him off around the country. To make certain that he wouldn't continue to give them trouble, they intended to deprive him of his sight. (Judges 16:15-21.)
Samson's Tragic Penalty
When Samson saw the red-hot irons being pushed toward his head, he threw every ounce of his vigor into trying to snap the thick leather cords binding his arms and legs. Although his natural strength was most unusual, he couldn't even begin to break his bonds without God's help. In that awful moment when the hot iron took away his sight, the Danite realized that it was his punishment because he had fallen for Philistine women. Too late, he finally realized he had fallen for their good looks — their eye-appeal — and not for character. God had warned the Israelites that they should not intermarry with the people of surrounding pagan nations, because they would lead the Israelites away from following God. The Israelites were to be a special, holy people. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6.) Amid growing crowds of yelling Philistines, the wretched, degraded, pain-ridden Israelite was paraded out of town and southward to the city of Gaza, the gates of which Samson had previously carried away. There he was bound with chains and imprisoned. Later his chains were loosened just enough so that he could be put to work at the menial task of pushing a millstone in the grain-grinding room of the prison. (Judges 16:21.) Ordinarily several men were required to keep the heavy stone turning, but the Philistines often forced Samson to move it all by himself until his strength gave out. In the months that followed, the Danite was a great object of interest and ridicule for his enemies. Thousands, a few at a time, came to the prison to watch him struggle with the millstone. At various times he was taken to important public gatherings so that more people would be able to see the pathetic figure who for so long had been their mighty enemy. Meanwhile, Samson's hair was again growing to an unusual length. To show their thanks to their pagan god, called Dagon, for helping them win out over Samson, the Philistines planned a special meeting at a large temple in Gaza. The temple contained a huge image of their idol, to which they intended to make unusual sacrifices. It was to be a most extraordinary event at which all the Philistine leaders were to be present. (Judges 16:22-23.) When the time arrived for the celebration, about three thousand spectators were gathered, including all the rulers, military leaders and other dignitaries and their wives or women friends jammed into the best viewing area. (Verse 27.) The idol Dagon was a towering monstrosity with a human-like head and torso. From the waist down it resembled the rear half of a fish. Before it was a wide stone altar on which sacrifices were to be made. Pompous Philistine priests stood by to await their part in the ceremonies, some of which were disgustingly lewd.
Debauch and Degradation
Because the emphasis was on pleasure in this special celebration, wine flowed freely all day. By noon so many people were in some stage of drunkenness that there arose a chant for Samson to be brought before them. As the hours passed, the demand became louder and louder. The priests of Dagon were greatly discouraged by this turn of events. They felt that the high point of the celebration should be the sacrifices and exciting ceremonial rites, and they realized that an appearance by Samson would probably upstage their part of the show. Accordingly, they sent word to the Philistine rulers present, requesting that the loud demands of the crowd be squelched. The priests were the ones who were squelched, however. It developed that the ones who were most loudly demanding Samson's presence included the wives and companions of the Philistine leaders in the balconies, and it wasn't the wish of the leaders that their ladies should be disappointed. An official order soon went out to bring Samson to the temple. When the Danite appeared before the crowd, a mighty surge of derisive remarks and laughter broke out. Most of the people expected their prisoner to be dragged out by several strong guards. Instead, he hesitantly came on stage with a small boy who led him by the hand! This piece of showmanship to degrade Samson and please the audience resulted in such drawn-out clamor that a high official finally had to appear on the altar to quiet the crowd. "Let us proceed with the ceremonies to show our thanks to our great god Dagon for what he has done for us!" he shouted. "Then we shall bring back the blind Israelite to perform a few feats of strength for us!" (Judges 16:24-25.) This pacified the crowd. The speaker motioned for the boy to lead Samson out of sight, and festivities continued. Samson had been in the temple once before he had lost his sight. He remembered that it was built in such a way that the main structural strength of the building depended on two huge columns. "Lad, lead me to the two main pillars of the temple," Samson said to his young guide. "I can't do that," the boy replied. "I was told to stay right here with you until the sacrifices are over. Then I am to take you out in the sight of the people again." "But I am weary from working at the mill," Samson explained, "and these dangling chains on my ankles are very tiring. If I could prop myself between those two close pillars for a few minutes, I would be a bit refreshed for what I am to do later before the people." (Judges 16:26.)
Samson's Desperate Plan
Samson was hoping the boy would find that the attention of all officers and officials nearby was directed to what was happening out on the altar, so that his young guide would find it easier to do as he was asked. "Well — " the lad faltered, "it's really only a little way to the pillars, and I don't see anyone watching us. Maybe I could get you over there if you'll tell anyone who asks that it was your idea and not mine." "I promise," Samson said. "And I think I can give you some very important advice in return for your favor." The moment Samson was led within touch of the pillars, he quickly felt the distance between them. It turned out, as he remembered, only a few feet. This suited the plan Samson was devising for getting revenge on all the great Philistine leaders. "Thank you for doing this for me," Samson said to his youthful guide. "Now I'm going to give you that important advice I promised you. I want you to leave me at once and run out of the temple as fast as you can!" "Why must I do that?" the lad asked unhappily. "It's my duty to stay with you. If I don't, I'll be beaten!" "It could be worse for you if you don't leave now!" Samson whispered harshly to the boy. "Go before it's too late!" The Israelite realized the value of every second. He spent no more time talking. He bowed his head and silently and fervently asked God to once more strengthen him to the extent that he could perform a feat by which he might be avenged for the loss of his sight by the Philistines. It was God's plan that Samson should feel strongly about this personal request, so that he would make the effort and sacrifice He had in mind. (Judges 16:27-28.) After his prayer, Samson groped out quickly for his young companion, but he felt nothing. "Where are you, lad?" he called out. There was no response. The boy, realizing something was afoot, had quietly scampered out. Samson waited for a few moments, then stepped back between the pillars. He spread his hands and feet out and pressed them against the columns on either side so that he was firmly wedged between the two columns. From that point he squirmed his way upward until he was several feet above the floor. Excited shouts suddenly came to him above the rising babble of the roused crowd. "Get Samson!" someone suddenly yelled. "He's trying to escape!" The Danite heard the sound of frantically approaching footsteps. He knew that he had been discovered. Momentarily he expected a spear or a knife to thud into his body. He had hoped to work higher up the pillars to a point where pressure would be more effective, but there was no more time left for maneuvering. Time was fast running out for a try at one final great feat of strength. "God of Israel, help me to bring death to these Philistines, even though I have to die with them!" Samson prayed.
A Tragic Success
Using all his natural strength, Samson strained desperately against the two pillars. He was at first unable to move them, and relaxed himself a moment for a second try. It was then that God imbued him with superhuman power. Just as some Philistine soldiers were about to reach him and jerk him down, Samson managed to move the pillars. They bowed away from each other, then buckled, the stone blocks slipping out of place to allow all that was above to come thundering to the floor. Samson and the men who were about to seize him were crushed and buried. The two main columns having been connected directly with and supporting the rest of the structure, the whole temple crumpled and came crashing down within a matter of seconds. The wild shouts of drunken celebration abruptly turned to screams of terror as three thousand people plummeted to their deaths on hundreds more people below. Pagan priests at the altar lost their lives at the same time as the idol Dagon crashed face downward in the dust of destruction. In those few seconds when so many of the leaders of Philistia were wiped out along with Samson, the Israelites of southwest Canaan were freed for a time from their oppressors. Without their leaders, the Philistines could do little against the Israelites. In spite of his weakness, Samson's life and his death were not in vain. God used him in a mighty manner for the benefit of his people. (Judges 16:29-30.) Word of the great destruction quickly spread, and the Israelites realized they no longer need have such great fear of the Philistines. Inasmuch as the Israelites suddenly lost their fear of the Philistines, Samson's relatives boldly went down to Gaza to find and claim his body. They took it back to the territory of the tribe of Dan, where Samson was buried next to his father in the family cemetery near his home town. (Judges 16:31.) Because God spoke in the Bible so plainly about Samson's weakness for pretty Philistine women, some people have misunderstood the meaning of Samson's life. Samson's accusers have forgotten that God Himself said He allowed Samson to fall prey to this weakness in order to bring Samson into conflict with the Philistines. Read it in Judges 14:1-4. Samson's accusers have also forgotten that Samson was a man of extraordinary faithfulness to God in every way except for this one major weakness — and in a time when most of the Israelites were steeped in idolatry. Out of his great love for God and for his fellow Israelites, Samson faithfully kept God's commandments and fulfilled all of the requirements of his nazarite vow — except for that one major weakness which God knew he had. Because of the grief brought upon him by his love for Philistine women, Samson struggled even harder to deliver his people from oppression than he would have if no trouble had befallen him. Samson cheerfully, without complaining, accepted the life of trouble and heartache that came upon him in God's service. He laughed at grief and made a joke of disappointment. Who among us has so cheerfully borne grief? Samson wasn't concerned about his sufferings, because he, like Abraham and God's other faithful servants of old, was concerned about God's salvation and the heavenly city made by God, in which they shall have an inheritance after being resurrected. (Hebrews 11:10, 14-16, 32, 35, 39-40.) These men had faith that God would establish that great city on earth as the eternal home of His children. (Revelation 21:1-4.) Samson's great faith in God enabled him to overcome most of his temptations — and he very likely overcame his fondness for pagan Philistine women and repented of that sin while he was in prison.
How Idolatry Starts
Samson was one of the last of the judges. In the period when these leaders were in and out of power in various parts of Canaan, Israel was never quite right with God. After Joshua's death the people went so far into idolatry that God gave them no leaders or deliverers for many years. Without leadership or punishment, people degenerated to the point where each person lived as he thought best (Judges 17:6), a condition which led to all kinds of trouble. God had commanded the Israelites for their own good not to do what they thought best, but to obey Him. (Deuteronomy 12:8.) The Israelites repeatedly disobeyed, doing as they pleased — as they thought best — to their sorrow. For example, to go back to an era before the first judge appeared on the scene, there was a man by the name of Micah, in the tribe of Ephraim, who had stolen a sizable sum of silver from his elderly mother. Considering herself of a religious nature, Micah's mother had in her own way decided to dedicate the eleven hundred shekels to God. She was so upset when she found the money missing that she pronounced a curse on the thief, whoever he was. When Micah heard his mother pray that some evil thing should overcome the thief, he was quite worried. He, too, in a superstitious way, feared the God of Israel, though he didn't know too much about how to please God. Because his parents had not trained him to obey God, Micah was a thief and a scoundrel. Afraid that some evil thing would befall him, however, he confessed the theft to his mother, and gave all the money back to her. She was saddened to learn that her own son would rob her, but at the same time she was so pleased to realize that her son was conscience-stricken that, still doing as she thought right, instead of obeying the scriptures, she offered the money back to him. (Judges 17:1-3.) "I dare not take it," Micah said. "You pronounced a curse on the one who took it, and I don't want that curse to fall on me. You should use the money as you first intended — doing something for God!" Micah's mother agreed. Micah and his mother weren't earnestly looking to God to learn how to live. They didn't obey Him, but lived as they pleased and convinced themselves their way was all right with God, as long as they did some little physical thing religiously. Their religion had degenerated to the level of superstition — a man-made idolatry. Micah's mother had spent hours designing a certain kind of image, or idol, that she thought would be pleasing to God, and her first act was to use some of the silver to have such a carved image heavily coated. The metal worker she hired also melted more of the silver down into a solid metal idol for her. Eager to help in this misguided project, Micah carefully created several small idols such as were found in most pagan homes. He also produced a vestment of the type he fancied should be worn by an Israelite priest. Micah then chose one of his sons, who was full grown, to be a priest. (Judges 17:4-6.) This was another wrong thing to do because only those of the family of Aaron were to be priests in Israel. (Exodus 28:1-5; Leviticus 8:35-36; Numbers 3:10; Deuteronomy 21:5.) No one can appoint himself to God's ministry. (Numbers 16; Numbers 17; Hebrews 5:4.)
Idolatry Caused by Spiritual Neglect
What Micah and his mother were attempting to do, in their superstitious zeal, was to set up their own temple of worship, patterned slightly after what they had heard or supposed it was like at the tabernacle at Shiloh. The farther they got into idolatry, the more religious they felt. The religions of the surrounding pagan nations had been so mixed in with God's laws over the years that very few Israelites could remember what God expected of them. It was somewhat as it is today with so many church denominations that try to decide for themselves how to worship God. Most of them teach and promote ancient pagan beliefs gotten by hearsay and tradition, as in Micah's case, mixing them with a few true Christian principles — something the Bible repeatedly states is loathsome in God's sight. (Deuteronomy 12:29-30; II Kings 17:15.) Micah and his mother had no Bible to instruct them and made little or no effort to learn God's laws on the Sabbaths and during the festival assemblies as they should have. (Deuteronomy 6:1-12; Acts 15:21; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Nehemiah 8:1-3.) Otherwise, they probably would have done things much differently. As it was, Micah in his paganized way felt that he was fairly successful in doing his part to revive respect for God in his part of Israel just as people in false churches do today. He wasn't aware of how wrong he was. One day a young Israelite stranger stopped at Micah's house, explaining that he was a Levite looking for work. When Micah heard this, he became very excited. "I've heard that Levites make the best priests!" he exclaimed. "How would you like to work for me as my priest?" (Judges 17:7-10.)