Why Delilah? RBT Notes – Judges 16.1-22, 20th April

If it’s not exactly a death-wish, what else would describe Samson’s attitude to the Philistines? Couldn’t he find a prostitute in the land of Israel? Of course, but he has to go and find one in an enemy city, and he must have done that to invite danger (vv.1-2). His heaving off the city gates and lugging them up a hill is one more opportunity to show his contempt of the Philistines, through a vain display of strength. Why do it? And why were the Philistines so set on taking him alive? Did they plan to match Samson’s ridicule of them by making him a living spectacle as their prisoner?

And why oh why Delilah? There were pretty women in Israel. And why didn’t he ditch her after the first episode of her betraying him? Instead, he lies to her about thongs, new rope and the power of the loom to take his strength (vv.6-14). Why do it? He’s teasing her, and more than that, he’s teasing the Philistines, goading them to anger. Actually, he’s playing with his own life. He might just live to regret it.

Samson knows that the Philistines are going nowhere. Neither is Delilah, and neither is Samson. ‘She prodded him day after day until he was tired to death’ (v.16). Samson was never the patron saint of patience. So when Samson is thoroughly fed-up with her and tells Delilah about the secret of his strength, she is sure that this is the honest answer (v.19). The trap has been set, but it’s hard not to think that Samson walked into it himself.

His head is shaved, and his strength is gone. There is no Spirit of God to empower him as the enemy comes – ‘he did not know that the Lord had left him’ (v.20). Powerless, alone, overpowered, blinded and imprisoned, he is a picture of wretchedness. It’s a misery of his own making. Sex, danger and power. Hardly new stuff, is it? And it’s been the downfall of many a professed servant of God for centuries.

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Why, Samson? Why does he do it? And why, Jesus? Why did He do it? Why did Jesus give Himself to His enemies? Why was He taken, bound, humiliated and wounded? There seems no wisdom in how Samson behaved. There is a world of wisdom, divine wisdom, in how Jesus allowed himself to be taken. Samson was proud, impatient, rash and vain. Jesus was humble, patient, wise and gave glory to God in in His obedience, ultimately in His willingness to die for the sins of lost people. And, just as Samson’s hair grew again (v.22), we believe in resurrection grace, the grace of God that comes from the prison of Jesus’ tomb to bring new life. This is our real leader. Let’s rejoice in Him.

Burning Man. Judges 15 – RBT Notes, 19th April

 

Our chapter is all about fire: the fire of anger, the fire of revenge, the actual fire used to destroy and murder, and then the fire of thirst. In it all there is the fire of God’s anger against His enemies. On such stuff the world runs. Anger is everywhere, driving, manifesting, destroying, and also accomplishing human purposes. And man’s anger, however ugly and sometimes devastating, is under the rule of God.

Samson was after sex (v.1). What else explains his sudden return to Timnah with a goat (the Samson equivalent of a dozen roses), after he had stalked off in a murdering rage when he was beaten over his riddle? Probably with a trembling voice the girl’s father explains that she’s unavailable, and suggests he look at her sister (v.2). Cue rage.

Samson settles on a plan to bring spectacular damage to Philistine property. Just think how hard it must have been to catch these foxes, tie them in pairs, and then, as they shriek and writhe in terror, attach burning torches and let them run into the crops. And all the while he must keep out of the way of the Philistines (vv.3-5). Burning anger (and this anger will burn) often fixes itself on strategies which need stone-cold planning.

As the fields burn the Philistines rage, and they turn their own fire on Samson’s woman and her family (vv.5-6). This is more than Samson can handle, and we are into a predictable cycle of his rage met by Philistine response, with the hapless Israelites unwillingly drawn into the crisis (vv.7-13). Again, the Spirit of God works in Samson, bringing power to break his binding and slaughter a whole Philistine army with a piece of bone, and to sing a victory song (vv.14-17). The closing scene is of a petulant Samson (what else?) demanding water from God, who graciously supplies him (vv.18-19).

 

‘Man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’ (James 1.20). This is true. If we think we can seethe and shout – or worse – and are doing the work of God, then we are dangerously wrong. God never honours our sinful anger. In every situation there is a Christ-honouring way to be self-controlled. The Spirit of the Lord has come upon Christians to help us to deal with anger, not to dish it out to others. There are situations we face where a deep anger in our hearts is the right response to sin, whether our own, or someone else’s. The beauty of a man or a woman alive in Christ is not that they don’t become angry, but that their anger is expressed in bringing the grace of God to a situation. That might mean telling the truth in love, working hard for change where there has been hurt, or stepping out to face God’s enemies with lives and words of grace. May God give us more of Samson’s rage against all that God opposes, and much of the Spirit of Jesus Christ to burn with a holy zeal.

Grace which is sweeter than honey. Judges 14 – RBT Notes, 18th April

Five scenes and four secrets. This is a great chapter is you like danger, suspense, intrigue and murder; if you’re trying to trace the hand of God on His Covenant People, it’s another hard one. We know that God is working through Samson, as our writer reassures us that this is the case, but the result of the chapter seems to be an anticlimax, with only 30 enemy dead and a backlash against the Israelites being inevitable. A strange tale about a strange man. Could God be working, even through this man and His mess? Obviously.

The first words we hear Samson speak are no surprise: ‘Get me’ (v.2). Never mind that it’s a pagan woman who’s people are Israel’s oppressors that Samson’s after. If love is blind, then lust is blinder. Samson brushes off his parents’ panicked response by issuing the same demand, and they all go off into enemy territory after Samson’s intended. Then we learn the first of a handful of secrets which passage contains: it’s that God is in this (v.4). God is superintending a young man’s demands. The parents don’t know it, but we do, and we should be encouraged. God is the God who even rules the winds and waves of teenage longing.

Then the next secret is Samson’s Spirit-empowered killing of the lion (vv.5-7). Why Samson doesn’t tell his parents we don’t know. A lion was a Philistine symbol, so the clue is there for us, that God plans are still on track to avenge Himself.

On the return journey the young man finds his honey. Again, he keeps a secret – Manoah and his wife don’t know that the honey was from the lion’s carcass (vv.8-9). Why the secret? I’ve no idea. My own theory – feel free to ignore it if you think it’s wrong – is that spoilt kids can be very secretive. If your life is a sum total of demands, then honesty is too disempowering.

And next, a secret solution to a riddle. Samson is ‘given’ 30 friends at the bridal festivities, and sets them a riddle. He then sits back, enjoying their misery, because there’s no way they can answer it (vv.10-14). They are as mad as Samson is confident, and make terrifying threats to Samson’s intended in order to get their answer, and she in turn infuriates her fiancé into telling her the answer (vv.15-18). When the men solve the riddle, this is more than Samson’s wounded pride can handle, and he is consumed with rage (vv.18-19). In fact, he’s consumed by God’s Spirit. He ditches his bride, not before he’s murder 30 other men, and given their clothes to the companions to make good his promise (vv.19-20). And those murders- shocking, gross, rage-driven – are an act of God. We don’t have to like it, and I don’t even think we have to strive to justify the ways of God, but we do have to reckon that He was working through a man who, by all standards, was a pretty nasty piece of work.

 

Don’t you just love the Old Testament! So many shocking stories, so much injustice, so much suffering, so few answers. I’m not saying that should we revel in the details, but we must delight that God has given us a book which shows us real life. This is Iife. The Bible is not a book of pious just-so stories, or a nice collection of religious poetry. The Bible is filled with gritty, gory and often dreadful stories of people who think, feel and often act just like us. This book of horrors is the book which we claim is breathed out by God (2Timothy 3.16), whose every page is there for our instruction. And we need this more than we’ll ever realise.

So what can we learn from Judges 14? Just this: God is at work in the mess. We don’t always see His hand, and we don’t always discover His mind. God wanted to avenge Himself on the Philistines, we know (v.4). Judgment is real. And then, the other lesson is that God uses odd-balls and sinners, even spectacular sinners. Think Samson, and then think Saul of Tarsus, saved from his violence to serve Christ. Finally, we learn how beautiful saving grace is when discovered in a man who forewent the blessing of marriage, who was rejected by his companions, and who was encircled by the very lions He could have torn apart (Ps.22.13), but which He surrendered to. There you have Jesus.

And because of the things we have hope.

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Enter Samson. RBT Notes – Judges 13, 17th April

Samson. If he listened to music, it would be heavy metal. If he ate out, it would be a Steak House (16oz steak a minimum requirement, no salad). TV would be WWF wrestling. Car? Scrap that: motorbike? Anything very fast, and very loud. Meet the man who was total testosterone, as well as a servant of God, however strange, and ultimately, however flawed.

Two scenes describe the announcement of Samson’s imminent birth. As with everything about this man, they’re larger than life. The Angel of the Lord comes to the wife of a man named Manoah. These are sad days, for the nation, as it’s under Philistine control, and for this couple, as they’re unable to have children (vv.1-2). That’a a good time to hear good news, which is what this unnamed woman receives (v.3). She’s told that the child will be a Nazirite, and if she’s sketchy on her Bible knowledge (it’s explained in Numbers 6), the Angel tells her that this means he will be set apart to the Lord, and will neither drink wine nor cut his hair as a sign of being set apart for God. Even his mother must stop drinking wine in her pregnancy. What’s more, he will grow up to be the deliverer of Israel (vv.4-5).

Manoah is rocked when he hears this news. Not only has he got to adjust to the thought of fatherhood, but he’s going to have a unique son. He prays, that God may send a messenger to tell the couple about how to bring him up. This isn’t a request for basic parenting help, but it’s his plea for some kind of understanding about what it’ll mean to bring up this special child (vv.6-8).

So, he asks, and the angel comes. Two strange things happens: firstly, the Angel tells them precisely nothing new (vv.13-14). We don’t know if Manoah is more disappointed with this, or more overawed at this messenger and the realisation that he really will be the father of a special child. The second and greater shock is the discovery, not just of who their son will be, but of who this messenger is. They’ve not got the clue that the Angel’s name is ‘Wonderful’ / ‘Beyond understanding’ (v.18). What happens next, as the messenger disappears into the fire of the sacrifice, causes Manoah to shout out in terror (vv.19-21). Notice that the Angel of the Lord / Lord and God names are interchangeable here. This is not the place to discuss the Trinitarianism implicit in the Old Testament, but it’s vital to note that this messenger, in the eyes of this couple, is God Himself.

imageAnd He’s merciful. Manoah’s wife reasons that they can be confident in His mercy. He was not consumed by fire, and neither will they be. After all, He’s given them a commission to bring up this would-be Deliverer child, so He has purposes of grace for them to fulfil (v.23).

Samson is then born, and the Spirit is with him (v.24-25). An ordinary child, but one marked out by God. A son given after an announcement from heaven, who is destined to rule. A son who is the gift of God’s power. A son born in an ordinary, obscure place, who will have a most extraordinary life. It could be the Lord’s Messenger, Himself, couldn’t it? So many of these birth details parallel the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Spirit-anointed Deliverer of His people. And one day His death, like Samson’s, will mean the end of God’s enemies. Let’s watch Samson and see how his wild, uncompromising life will point us to Jesus. And also look, for the great difference: where Samson conquers by strength, Jesus conquers through apparent weakness.

Craving Attention? RBT Notes – Judges 12.8-15, 16th April

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Do you want to be known?

History remembers just a tiny few. Most of us lead unexceptional lives, in the eyes of others. Christians are called to be faithful in following Jesus Christ, consistent in serving Him, and willing to serve the needs of others, however insignificant that might look to the world, or the church. Most of us will never be remembered for living for Jesus.

Today we read about three leaders who between them led Israel for 25 years. No one pulls their names out in a Bible quiz: Ibzan, Elon and Abdon are Bible unknowns, Bible also-rans. Their lives are sandwiched between two attention-grabbing leaders, the reckless Jephthah and the wrecking-ball called Samson. They were the headline-grabbers. Everyone remembers them. But not these three.

And is that so bad? Why are some people, including believers, so desperate to have a name for themselves? Why are some Christian leaders so desperate for attention? Why are most of us so much more happy to serve Christ if people are watching us, or get to know about it, than if it’s an act of faith which goes unnoticed? Are we so weak in our faith? Are we so in love with our own passing reputations? Is the eye of God upon all that we do (and want, and think) so insignificant?

 

What do you want to be known for?

These men all have two facts recorded about them, that they led, and that they died. Two have another fact about them, that they tried to do the best for their kids, though they made very dubious decisions for them, including intermarriage (Ibzan, v.9), and expensive status symbols (Abdon, v.13). Although not stated, it’s pretty obvious that each had multiple wives in order to have so many offspring. And that’s it. Like ours will, their epitaphs read ‘work, family, death.’ No headstone has room for anything else.

As a Minister of the Gospel I’ve buried successful people as well as unknowns, and a few who’d made a wreck of their lives. The hardest funerals are always the ones where all you’ve got to talk about in the address are the earthly successes of the deceased. Give me an ‘unknown’ any day, as long as I can talk about the saving grace of God in Christ in their lives. This grace alone transforms death into a victory, as it takes broken people and remakes them as the sons and daughters of God, bound for the joy of heaven.

We really can endure being unknown on the world’s stage. Approval ratings are fickle, and ultimately meaningless. The people who have most influenced me are those who have no idea that they’ve made a name in my eyes for living lives which are full of the Spirit of God, seen in godly service. No one will ever write about them, but their names are written in my memory, and their examples are a constant spur to me. They make me want to be known simply for being a bit like Jesus.

 

Who already knows you?

These three leaders in our chapter made it into the list of the Judges. God raised them up to that honour. He used them, with all of their imperfections. They are in His Book. You and I, because of Jesus, are on a page, in a book. Our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 21.27). He knows us, and that is enough.

Bury your ambitions for approval and applause in the tomb of Christ. And trust in a sure and certain resurrection of something altogether more God-honouring from that same tomb, a life flowing with His Spirit and committed to His praise.

‘If you bite and devour each other.’ Judges 12.1-7 – RBT Notes, 15th April

Jephthah’s leadership currency is on the rise. The Gileadites think he’s great. He’s delivered them from the Ammonite threat. Now they are presumably looking at a future under Jephthah’s reign. That’s also a prospect which is probably getting the Ephraimites very cross. They are a large, powerful tribe. The last thing they want is to be ruled by an upstart from the wrong side of the river.

That’s certainly the background I think we can reasonably assume as the Ephraimites come knocking at Jephthah’s door. They say they are mad at not being in the conquering army. Maybe they feared the rumours that they were too scared to get involved. Most likely, they were looking for a pretext for defying Jephthah and challenging his possible future rule over them by making this outrageous threat (v.1).

The rest is accusation, insult, and reprisals. It’s yet another needless and horrible confrontation and savagery amongst the people of God. This bloodshed proves that they don’t actually need the enemies of God, they’ll destroy each other quite happily themselves (vv.2-7).

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The warning and the parallels are obvious. ‘If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other’ (‭Galatians‬ ‭5‬:‭15‬), Paul warns a squabbling church. We feed our envies, nurse our rivalries, and sometimes take up arms to defend our reputations or personally-cherished opinions. We can drag up the past (‘you didn’t help me’), or divide over our differences (‘you’re not like the rest of us’), and when we do this we sound dangerously like the people of Jephthah’s day. It’s nothing new, just a terrible rerun of the hostilities. And I’m no prophet, but allow me to predict the results: disaster.

 

‘If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand’ (‭Mark‬ ‭3‬:‭25‬). ‬‬The people of God have to listen to their Master. Unity isn’t a call to Christians who have ditched Gospel truths and hold agreeing with each other as the sum-total of discipleship. Unity is the call of God to all true believers in Jesus. We have a great Master, and a new and great commandment: ‘love one another’ (John 1.34). With grace, we can.