What Could Have Been?
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 15
Last Sunday we began studying the adult life of Samson. Samson is definitely one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible. His athletic feats capture the imagination and make for some incredible stories. He’s also a fascinating personality who experiences wide mood swings and wavers between brilliance and complete stupidity.
And the narrator does a tremendous job of capturing Samson’s persona and helping us understand him while also leaving us to scratch our heads at times hungry to know more. And finally, Samson is fascinating because his failures act as a mirror on our own hearts. Even as we are shaking our heads in disbelief at his foolishness, we shamefully have to admit, “Yeah, my heart plays the same tricks on me.
And so Samson is a compelling character, but I emphasized last Sunday that God is the real hero of the story. In particular, by this point in Judges Israel is a slug of spiritual lethargy. They really don’t care about obeying God’s Law, they are happy serving idols, and they have accepted life under Philistine oppression. They have no desire to resist.
As such, the key verse for understanding God’s agenda in the story of Samson is 14:4. God intends to use Samson, both the good and the bad, to stir the conflict that will ultimately lead Israel back to the Lord and out from the Philistine thumb.
God began that process in chapter 14. Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman, but the wedding turned into a brawl rather than a peaceful celebration. The Philistines cheated Samson out of winning a bet, and Samson killed 30 Philistines to pay his loses. He is so mad at his bride for betraying him that he leaves her and goes home to his parents. His father-in-law assumes Samson has abandoned his wife, so he marries her to the best man.
It’s all a crazy mess that God is using to redeem Israel from under the Philistine thumb. But if we thought Judges 14 was tense Judges 15 raises the tension 10 times higher as God continues driving a wedge between Israel and Philistia. And again God does this, not through Samson faith and godliness but through his petty childishness. As such, even though Samson will win some great victories, we are left wanting more and wondering what could have been had Samson been fully devoted to the Lord. Therefore, my outline is built on 4 unsatisfying victories for Samson. His first victory is…
I. Samson destroyed the Philistine crops (vv. 1–5).
Judges 15 is built on a vicious cycle of revenge. The Philistines do something to make Samson mad, and then he gets revenge. Then they get revenge on him, and he gets revenge on them. It continues to escalate. Therefore, Judges 15 begins with the first…
Philistine Provocation (vv. 1–2): The story picks up a few months after Samson abandoned his wife and returned to his parents’ home. Samson has cooled off, and now he is lonely. He begins to remember how beautiful his wife is, and he decides he wants her back, if only for a night. That’s shocking but remember that Samson is a man of passion, not logic.
He’s also a proud man who thinks he’s invincible and can have whatever he wants, so he decides to visit his wife even though Samson is not very popular in Timnah. Samson knows he blew it, so he figures he better bring along a gift, so he takes a kid along with him.
I can’t help but laugh at this, because it’s the most guy thing ever. In our context, it’d be like a husband blowing it badly, and then showing up that night with a wilted carnation thinking it will fix everything.
So out of the blue Samson’s father-in-law hears a knock on the door, and when he opens it there stands Samson holding his goat. Samson hands him the goat and says, “I’m here to spend the night with my wife.”
And dad turns white as a ghost. Samson doesn’t know that he gave his daughter to another man, and Samson has a reputation of getting really angry and killing people.
He has no choice but to tell the truth, so he stands up straight and tells Samson he can’t go in because he already gave her to another man, but he quickly adds “I have an even better deal for you. You can have my younger daughter, who is even more beautiful.”
Samson is not impressed. He is furious, not because he loves his wife, but because someone messed with his turf. And he doesn’t care how great the younger sister is; no one tells Samson what to do. He is determined to get revenge.
Samson’s Revenge (vv. 3–5): He devises a brilliant but nasty plan for inflicting pain. He goes out in the wild and somehow captures 300 foxes. The Hebrew word can also refer to a jackal, and that’s probably what he caught. Jackals are similar to coyotes. Because they live in packs, it would be easier to catch a large group of them.
Still it’s incredible that Samson caught them, and it again speaks to his creativity and athleticism. And then he uses them in a cruel tactic of destruction. He ties the jackals together in pairs, so that rather than running in a straight line, they will zigzag more slowly. And then he ties a torch between them and sends them out into the Philistine fields to burn them.
Verse 1 said he did this during the wheat harvest, which adds to the destruction. The fields are dry with plenty of fuel. With the wildfires we get here, we can imagine how this went. As the jackals run through the fields, they quickly ignite, the fire spread rapidly, and with all that dry fuel there was no stopping it.
The fires were devastating (v. 5). They destroyed the fields, the grain stacks, the vineyards, and the olive groves. It is true that the Philistines deserved God’s judgment, because they were oppressing God’s people. Therefore, this is a step toward God’s ultimate purpose of delivering Israel.
But considering what God had called Samson to be—a mighty spiritual and military deliverer, it’s disappointing that this is how he is spending his time. Samson ought to be rallying Israel against the Philistines and burning idols, not fields over some selfish argument. But Samson is mostly just about Samson, and he is so wrapped in his passions and petty competition with the Philistines that he doesn’t see God’s bigger purpose.
Does that ever happen to us? Do we ever get so caught up in winning an argument, making a point, or getting revenge that we lose sight of what really matters? It happens all the time. Marriages are destroyed over the dumbest stuff, because, “I have to make my point,” or “She isn’t going to walk on me like that,” or we refuse to let go of hurt. And families go to war all the time over a few dollars or some minor difference.
And sadly even churches split because people are so determined that they have to win some stupid battle that they don’t see or don’t care that they are destroying the name of Christ and damaging people’s faith.
It is so important that we learn how to step back and calmly see what really matters. Very rarely are the things we get angry about worth sacrificing your marriage, your family, the church, or any other relationship. So swallow your pride, put aside your differences, and fix it. But Samson didn’t do this, so rather than fighting for Israel’s independence, his petty conflict with the Philistines continued resulting in a second unsatisfying victory.
II. Samson slaughtered some Philistines (vv. 6–8).
Philistine Provocation (v. 6): As you would imagine, the Philistines are furious about the fires, so now they want revenge against Samson. However, they fear Samson too much to attack him directly, so they take out their anger on Samson’s wife and her father, since their actions provoked Samson to burn their fields. They capture Samson’s wife and her father, and they burn them as Samson burned their fields.
It’s ironic that in Judges 14 Samson’s wife passed the solution of his riddle to the Philistines to avoid having them burn her family, but now she and her father are burned anyway as a result of events stemming from her deception.
Still, it’s a terribly brutal But it’s no surprise that a society with no moral anchor would commit such a brutal act for such a minor offense. When sinners are not anchored to God’s authority and law, their sinful passions never take them to a good place. And so the Philistines have their revenge, but of course Samson cannot let them have the last word.
Samson’s Revenge (vv. 7–8): When Samson hears about what they did, he’s furious, which is kind of surprising. Knowing Samson, you’d think he’d be happy that his wife and father-in-law got punished for betraying him. But again, Samson is an egomaniac. He can’t tolerate the idea that anyone is in control but him or that anyone has the last word but him.
Therefore, Samson again neglects God’s greater purpose of delivering Israel to continue the petty cycle of revenge. Interestingly, he tells himself in v. 7 that he’s going to end the cycle with one more act of revenge.
That’s never how it works, is it? The only way to effectively end such an awful cycle is to rise above it. That’s so important to remember when you are in a conflict. Returning harsh words with harsh words or harsh actions with harsh actions doesn’t fix anything. You have to rise above it.
But Samson doesn’t. Instead, he attacks the Philistines “hip and thigh with a great slaughter.” This is a cryptic statement that doesn’t tell us a lot. For one, we don’t know for sure what is meant by “hip and thigh.” It’s probably an expression for a particularly ruthless slaughter. We also don’t know if he attacked soldiers or civilians and how he attacked. But we can assume that Samson got his pound of flesh and killed a lot of Philistines.
And like the last section, this should strike us as bittersweet. On the one hand, the Philistines were the enemies of God’s redemptive purposes for Israel. Therefore, we should rejoice that God is judging Israel’s enemies and that Samson is taking the conflict God wanted to another level.
It really is incredible that all the mess of this story doesn’t frustrate God’s plan; rather, God is working through all of it to accomplish is perfect and sovereign will. Praise God that he is sovereign and faithful. And praise God that we can trust him to keep his promises to us, especially his promise to finish his work of salvation. Nothing, not even my foolishness can stop God’s sovereign purpose.
And yet it’s also disappointing to see Samson squander his God-given potential because he can’t see past his own selfish interest. Imagine what Samson could have done if he had a heart like Ehud. And it’s sobering to ask the same question of ourselves. Certainly, God is sovereign, and he will accomplish purpose with us or without us.
But from a human perspective, how much ministry and how much blessing do we miss because we are chasing our own sinful passions, or we are just living life without an eternal focus. We spend whole days making money and doing tasks, and we don’t pursue holiness, or we never consider what the Great Commission should mean for me today.
The fact that God is using you doesn’t mean you couldn’t be doing more to reach the lost, to build disciples, and to advance the church. If the story of your life was played back like Samson’s what would your legacy be? Would it be said that you squeezed everything out of your gifts or that you were a 10-talent Christian who could have been a 100 talent Christian had you tried? Consider your life and make sure you are doing everything God desires.
Well, returning to the story, Samson hoped the conflict was over and that he could go live peacefully. Again, he has no ambition to free Israel from the Philistines. Therefore, he retreats to a secluded mountainous area in the land of Judah (map). But of course, it’s not going to be that simple. The cycle of revenge will continue resulting in a 3rd unsatisfying victory.
III. Samson slaughtered a Philistine army (vv. 9–19).
Philistine Provocation (vv. 9–13): The Philistines aren’t going to let Samson just walk away after all he’s done, so they send an army to capture him, which BTW, indicates how much they feared this one man.
And the people of Judah are afraid. When the Philistines say that they have come to get Samson, the Judahites quickly assemble their own army of 3,000 men to go get Samson so that they can deliver him to the Philistines.
Notice how they confront Samson in 11. How dare he make the Philistines mad? They want peace at any cost. And they go on to say, “We don’t want to kill you Samson; we just want to hand you over to the Philistines.” They had to know the Philistines wanted to embarrass and execute Samson, but they won’t stand with him. What a bunch of spineless weanies!
It’s significant that Judah is the one begging for peace, because Judah had been the largest and godliest tribe. At the beginning of Judges God said Judah was to lead Israel into battle as they continued the conquest. But now Judah wants to negotiate with the enemy. And they don’t rally behind God’s anointed deliverer; they arrest him and turn him over to the Philistines.
That’s why I said last week that unless God intervened, Israel was on a path to full immersion in Philistine culture.
Samson’s Revenge (vv. 14–19): Well Samson agreed to go with them, and so they arrest him and bind him with 2 new ropes. And when the Philistines see Samson bound, they begin to shou. I’m pretty sure they weren’t doing a camp cheer. They are cursing and mocking Samson and licking their chops to torture and murder him.
But v. 14 says, “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him…” Apparently the Judahites take off running, so Samson needs a weapon. There happens to be, “a fresh jawbone of a donkey” nearby, so he grabs it. The fact that it is fresh means that it was probably still sticky with rotting flesh, but Samson is desperate. He grabs it and begins to fight.
The Philistines charge, but incredibly they are no match for Samson. When he is done, he has killed 1,000 armed soldiers with nothing more than the jawbone of a donkey. It’s a remarkable feat. He deals another crushing blow to the Philistines in keeping with God’s purpose, and he ENDS the conflict that has stretched through Judges 14–15.
It again speaks to Samson’s great gifts and especially to the mighty work of the Spirit through Samson. And again it makes you wonder what Samson could have done if he actually cared to accomplish God’s purpose.
But the story is not over. In vv. 16–19 we again see the crazy mood swings of Samson. First, after the battle is over and Samson stands in the midst of 1,000 dead Philistines, he proudly celebrates what he has accomplished. God had ultimately given the victory, and yet notice his arrogance in vv. 16–17.
First, he writes a poem to commemorate his victory. It’s highly poetic but it is highly arrogant. Samson doesn’t give any credit to the Lord; he just celebrates himself. And then he names the place “Ramath Lehi,” which literally means, “Jawbone Hill.” It’s his way of saying, “Look at what I did, with nothing more than a jawbone.” It’s such distasteful arrogance.
And so at one moment is celebrating his own glory, but then he suddenly swings to despair in vv. 18–19. Samson had exerted a lot of energy fighting the Philistines, and now he is alone in an arid land. He’s “very thirsty,” and he freaks out, and for the very first time, at least in the story we have recorded, he cries out to the Lord. But this is not a prayer of humble submission; it’s more of an accusation and a demand (read).
It’s pitiful and ridiculous considering all that God had done, and yet God graciously answers his prayer. God knew that there was water flowing under the rocks, and he spits open a rock, creating a natural spring, which the narrator notes continued to flow at least to the day when he was writing.
Of course, Samson never misses an opportunity to commemorate big events, so he also names the spring “En Hakkore.” You’d think he’d give it a name that celebrates God’s kindness, but instead, En Hakkore means “Spring of the Caller.” It doesn’t celebrate God’s kindness; it celebrates Samson’s prayer as the source of the spring. All you can do is shake your head.
God is so kind isn’t he, even when we are foolish and pig headed. It’s a reminder to us that when God answers our prayers and gives us our desires, it’s not because we had such incredible faith. Oftentimes we pray out of fear and frustration, and yet very often God graciously gives us our requests anyway. He is so kind and faithful.
Well, as I said, this victory effectively ends the vicious cycle of this chapter, and so Judges 15 ends by briefly noting a 4th unsatisfying victory…
IV. Samson judged Israel (v. 20).
In light of his incredible feats and the obvious anointing of the Lord, Israel makes Samson their leader. And for 20 years, they live in relative peace under his guidance and protection. God doesn’t tell us much about these 20 years. Maybe Samson made some reforms and destroyed some idols. At the very least, he’s pushing them out little by little from the Philistine thumb and toward God’s purpose for Israel to be a holy nation to the Lord.
Again, it’s incredible to see God work and to see his faithfulness and grace. God was determined to deliver Israel no matter how lethargic Judah was and no matter how arrogant Samson was. This is because God always keeps his promises. God had said that he was going to raise up a mighty king in Israel, and God always keeps his word.
Christ came, and Christ died for our sins, which is the ultimate bedrock of God’s grace. And Christ will come again to establish his kingdom. God will fulfill his redemptive plan. And if you have never been saved, it’s all a good reminder that God’s favor is never rooted in our goodness but in God’s faithfulness and grace. In seeing God’s favor on Samson, recognize that you are also a sinner, who desperately needs grace. And the grace of salvation is available in the cross of Jesus, if you will come to him in repentance and faith.
If you are saved, be encouraged that God will be faithful to his redemptive promise to you. Just like God carried Israel along, he will carry you along. He will change you and grow you until he brings you to glory. Praise the Lord that he is faithful!
But the last phrase of v. 20 reminds us that Samson’s leadership left a lot wanting, because even if Israel enjoyed some peace and independence, these are still “the days of the Philistines.” As the angel prophesied in Judges 13, Samson only began to deliver
As such, it’s another unsatisfying victory. Of the 6 major Judges, Samson is by far the most physically gifted. He had endless potential, but he accomplishes the least. He’s the only one who is unable to drive Israel’s enemy away and cripple them for generations.
And so this chapter is a powerful testimony to the fact that God will accomplish his purpose. He’s not dependent in the least on us. But it also reminds us of the tragedy of unfulfilled potential. If someone were to write a story of your life, like Samson, what would be said? Would your story be a story of untapped potential or of discipline? Would it be said that God worked in spite of you or through you? And will you have the joy one day of standing before Christ and hearing him say, not that you were incredibly gifted but that, “You were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”