Samson is a most unlikely holy man. His story reminds us that God works through all kinds of people, not just the stereotypical saints who are - as the writer of Hebrews puts it - too good for a world like this.
There is a pattern running through Samson’s complicated love life. Although he’s dedicated to God he genuinely believes in multiculturalism. His isn't the kind of faith which refuses to meet and mix with people who hold different beliefs. Nor is he the kind of person who will contemplate a fling with someone from a different cultural community but only gets serious with a partner from their own kind.
His rebellion against the Philistines begins quite by chance, when he meets and marries a Philistine woman, only to be betrayed by her. During the wedding feast she nags him into revealing the solution to a riddle that he’s posed as a bet with some of the wedding guests: ‘Out of the eater came something to eat; out of the strong came something sweet.’
It's difficult not to sympathise with her. The guests threaten to burn her father’s house down and kill her unless she can coax the answer to the riddle out of him. And instead of going to Samson and telling him what's going on, she gives in to their demands.
Because he loves her, Samson eventually explains that he killed a lion and then found a bees’ nest full of honey in its carcass. As a result Samson loses the bet and has to kill 30 innocent Philistines just to steal the things he needs to pay the gambling debt. Then he goes on the run, abandoning his fickle wife and never realising, apparently, the dilemma that she faced. It’s hardly an edifying start to his crusade and of course it marks an abrupt end to his marriage, although he later tries for a reconciliation.
But Samson never learns from his mistakes. He falls in love a second time, with another Philistine - Delilah, and because he loves her he turns a blind eye to her deceitful nature and makes the fatal mistake of revealing the true source of his power.
Again it’s a triumph for the sheer persistence of nagging. For a long time Samson teases her, indulging her propensity for tying him up because he thinks she likes playing games and because he imagines that he’ll always be able to end the game when he starts to feel threatened by it.
The story makes clear that Delilah and the Lords of the Philistines never really understand the true source of his power. Although, as part of the oath dedicating him to God, he’s supposed never to cut his hair, Samson cheerfully reveals this to Delilah knowing that she is likely to have his head shaved. He imagines that even so he will be able to escape, and when he can't she’s convinced that she has stumbled upon his secret.
But Samson’s hair isn't the true source of his strength, because he’s able to bring the house down at the end of the story before his hair has completely grown back. The Philistines think he’s still powerless because his hair is still short, and they even obligingly show him where the pillars holding up the roof are. If Samson has made a fatal mistake in trusting Delilah, the Philistines now make a fatal mistake in thinking that they know what makes him strong.
So what is the true source of his power? It's his commitment to God. He loses his strength because he shares the secret that he’s a Nazirite, someone who’s supposed to put God first in his life above everyone else and all other things, even love itself.
It's a bit like a Freemason revealing all the secret rites and ceremonies of the lodge to the uninitiated. It may be mumbo jumbo, but that's not the point. If they believe that they’ve betrayed the Order then they’ve crossed a line. Psychologically they’ve aligned themselves with the rest of the world against their fellow Masons.
By putting his love for Delilah before his love for God, Samson crosses a line. When he wakes to find his head shaved, he knows he’s gone too far. His spiritual conviction that God is on his side deserts him.
We could argue that some of the things Samson had supposedly done in the power of God were not very godly anyway. His murderous behaviour during his guerrilla campaign against the Philistines marks him out as the worst kind of religious fanatic - someone who switches from an easy-going tolerance and openness to blind hatred just because of one betrayal, brought about by those bullies at his wedding. But the point is that that he believes God is with him and that belief is the source of his strength.
When he allows Delilah to betray him that self-confidence abandons Samson, until the moment when he gets the chance for revenge. Then for the first time he prays, ‘Lord remember me, and strengthen me only this once.’
Samson makes it into the Bible only because he’s a folk hero of his nation’s resistance to oppressors like the Philistines and because his spectacular suicide attack seems to be a victory for Israel’s God over the god Dagon. But in this modern age of suicide bombings and religiously motivated violence that's not the message we can take from his story.
For us the message has to be about finding strength - spiritual strength not physical power - through trust in God. As St Paul says, ‘Grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’
Samson, the proverbial strongman, is reduced to weakness when he loses his confidence in God’s protection but, in the face of insults, hardships, persecutions and calamity, he finds strength again. Samson uses it to wreak revenge but I think we have to use God’s strength to work for salvation, to build up struggling churches, to make mission contemporary and relevant to the communities around us, to achieve things which, relying purely on our own strength, would be impossible.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews asks, ‘What more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.’ He specifically mentions Samson by name, but that mention of winning strength out of weakness couldn't be more appropriate and must also be a reference to him.
Samson, the guy who can kill lions with his bare hands and slay whole regiments with the jawbone of an ass, turns out to be a symbol of how spiritual weakness can disable and imprison us. But he also teaches us that when we turn to God, instead of relying on our own strength, we’re never forgotten. His grace will be sufficient for us.