When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. Having put him to sleep on her lap, she called a man to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the LORD had left him. Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding in the prison. Judges 16:18-21.
Everyone who has ever been through Sunday School knows the story of Samson and Delilah … as do art lovers (paintings by Rubens and van Dyck), opera buffs (work by Camille Saint-Saëns) and poetry readers (Milton wrote an epic poem Samson Agonistes).
Because of their idolatry, Israel has once again fallen into the hands of the Philistines, but God has chosen from birth an Israelite named Samson to deliver them (Judges 13.5). Although the Holy Spirit is in Samson (Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14) and has given him tremendous strength so that he can tear a lion to pieces single-handed (Judges 14:5-6) and slay 1,000 Philistines with just the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:14-15), Samson has a weakness for Philistine women that (as we see in this morning’s reading) is his undoing.
After leading Israel for twenty years, he becomes involved with Delilah, a Philistine woman who is bribed by the Philistine high-command to discover the secret of Samson’s great strength. After giving her a number of false answers, Samson finally confesses what he presumably believes to be true: that his strength comes from his long hair which has been kept long as a sign of his devotion to God. So Delilah waits until he is asleep then has someone shave his head; and as his hair falls to the ground, Samson’s strength fails and he is captured and mutilated by the Philistines.
But his strength is not, of course, in his hair or any other aspect of his outward devotion to God; his strength is in the Spirit of God who indwells him. And his strength fails only when he no longer has the Spirit empowering him. That is the direct cause of Samson’s defeat, failure, captivity, and ruin; and that cause is put here in the starkest of terms. “The Lord had left him”.
So can the Lord leave me? Or are things different now? We are fond of quoting Matthew 28:20 where Jesus says “I am with you always” and Hebrews 13.5 where God says “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you”; but we should not forget that that last saying is itself a quotation from Joshua 1.5 and only echoes what Moses had promised to all God’s people who would later include even Samson: “The LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). So what am I saying? That the Lord is not true to his promises? That the Lord does leave us even though he has said he never will?
No. This is all just playing with words. The Lord did leave Samson, but only in the sense that he withdrew his supernatural empowering from him; and when Samson prayed “O Sovereign LORD, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more,” (Judges 16:28), his strength returned and he pulled the temple of Dagon down on the Philistines (Judges 16:30). For the Lord hadn’t really left Samson at all … he was there all the time listening, waiting, longing to be called back into the relationship that Samson had broken by his sin.
And I can break my relationship with the Lord too. I can let my love grow cold. I can fall into sin but refuse to acknowledge it or repent of it. I can grieve the Holy Spirit. And if I do these things it will be as if the Lord has left me. I will lose my power because it is his power and he will withhold it until I return to him in repentance and need.
But Samson’s tragedy was a double one. We are told that “he did not know that the LORD had left him”. How can I not know if the Lord has left me — even in this sense that I am talking about? By a slow neglect of the relationship. By a gradual falling away in matters of prayer and listening to the Word. By a steady cooling of fellowship. By a gentle drifting back into the world. It can be like dozing on an airbed close to the shore as the tide is going out … and, as the story of Samson shows me, it can be very dangerous.