Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

19. The Death of Samson (16:4-31)

By and by came Samson’s last and most disastrous love-affair. It seems likely that Delilah was not a Philistine (as is often assumed) but one of his own people. She is not specified as of Philistine race, whereas the others are. Her home was in the valley of Sorek, hard by Samson’s own home. And when the lords of the Philistines sought her cooperation, the narrative says they “came up unto her”, as though implying that she did not live in their territory, but in the hill-country. Other details in the story will be seen to support this conclusion.

Delilah does a deal

The Philistines had now come to recognize clearly that if they were to have any success at all against Samson, it must be achieved by taking advantage of his weakness for women. Delilah, whose name means either ‘she who brings low’ or ‘night vulture’, was probably a common harlot. She had no scruples whatever about agreeing to betray Samson. Was she not in the trade for what she could make out of it? And a quarter of a million pounds (by modern inflation) was not to be sneezed at as payment for a night’s work. It seems likely that the strange figure of 1,100 pieces of silver which each Philistine lord offered Delilah was due to monetary exchange differences between the two peoples.

So, on three separate occasions, Samson found himself once more the butt of incessant cajolery, teasing and petulance. Strange that he was so slow to learn the lesson from his earlier experience at Timnath. Thus there developed between the two of them a half-joking, light-hearted game with a queer, rather grim, undertone to it. Samson would mislead Delilah with his plausible explanations and then suffer himself to be bound, the while enjoying her pouting and assumed childlike ingenuousness. She in turn was acting the part in deadly earnest with all the arts and wiles at her command, for the prize was no triviality.

Her commission was: “Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lieth”; whence it may be inferred that Samson was no brawny mass of muscle; he had none of the extraordinary physique of Goliath, or surely it would not have been necessary for these Philistines to probe for the secret of his strength. Samson, then, should be pictures as a man of normal physique and appearance rather than as a great muscular giant.

At the third attempt Delilah came near to learning the truth when Samson, still with tongue in cheek, had her weaving the seven long plaits of his hair into the warp and woof of the piece of cloth in her loom. But again she found herself thwarted. The very force with which Samson roused himself to go against the Philistines dismantled the primitive contraption as he rushed out dragging the material and half the machine after him.

So it continued each time he visited her, the light-hearted game degenerating into vexation and ill-temper as she “pressed him daily with her words”.

The secret divulged

At last, goaded beyond control, Samson blurted out his secret, and immediately Delilah knew that at last she had the the truth. Had she been a daughter of the Philistines, this Nazarite vow of Samson’s would have been meaningless to her. But being a Jewess, she saw at once the connection between his vow and his unique gift from God. Doubtless she marvelled at her own lack of perception in not earlier connecting the two together.

By this time the Philistine lords had washed their hands of Delilah, having satisfied themselves that she was in league with Samson to fool them in a manner after his own heart. Probably it was only her connection with Samson which saved her from nasty treatment. But now she sent hastily unto them to renew the contract, and they — impressed by the urgency of her message — complied. They “brought the money in their hand.”

That night “she made him sleep upon her knees”. It was a ticklish operation and full of risk. So, most probably, she doped him, for cutting his hair in normal sleep would be the biggest of risks. “She made him sleep.” As he slept, she beckoned for the one who was to help her, and together they hastily and unevenly lopped off his plaits, all the time anxious and fearful lest he should awake. It is unlikely that he was shaved in the modern sense of the word, especially since the word employed to describe the process is used also of the shearing of sheep.

Then came the cry, as on former occasions: “The Philistines be upon thee, Samson.” Whereupon Samson bestirred himself, saying self-confidently (and egotistically?): “I will go out (I will get off scot free?) as at other times before, and shake myself” from this strange drowsiness. But now his strength was gone, not because his strength was in his hair but because the life-long covenant with the God of his fathers which he had so many times abused and disgraced was now utterly broken. “The Lord was departed from him”, and he was become “as one man” (16:7 mg; what a contrast with 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14).

There, in the place where he had wasted God-given time and strength and responsibilities, he now writhed in futile, feeble impotence in the grip of incredulous Philistines whilst Delilah, a bag of shekels in one hand, “afflicted” him with scorn and insults in inexpressible relief that her make-believe game of love was at last brought to a successful conclusion. It is evident that she really hated him intensely.

Shame and helpless captivity

The Philistines were taking no chances. At any moment there might come to Samson one of those incredible accessions of superhuman strength which had made his name to be feared from Ekron to Gaza. So, there and then, as he lay bound in the very place of his sensuality and self-indulgence, they ruthlessly and savagely gouged out his eyes — those eyes that had been his downfall from the beginning (for almost the first thing that is written concerning him is that “he saw a woman”). And, tortured as he was by the searing pain of this cruel and vengeful deed, and tortured yet more by bitter self-reproaches, Samson was brought to Gaza and led in triumph through the crowd of spiteful jeering Philistines.

It is possible that Peter makes reference to this enticement and capture of Samson: “They allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness....While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage. For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world....they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning” (2 Pet. 2:18-20). If the allusion is to Samson these phrases take on a good deal more force; compare also 2 Timothy 2:4,5.

Once the initial humiliations were over — and how vile they would be can be left to the imagination — Samson settled down to the weary wretchedness of the prison-house where, hour after hour, blanketed by the misery of ‘total eclipse’ and the treadmill boredom of grinding, grinding, grinding, he pondered a thousand times the paths his feet had trod. He realised with renewed humiliation how ignobly he had let egotism and animal appetite lure him from his high and holy calling as a saviour of his people.

New birth

He would realise, too — and with thankfulness — that in giving him his life, even as a blinded prisoner, God was graciously giving him an undeserved opportunity to start afresh. For had he died summarily in Sorek by a thrust from a Philistine spear, he had died a reprobate. Even so, there seemed but little that he could do in token of his belated spiritual renewal. He could only renew in his penitence the Nazarite vow which he had so signally disgraced. So “the hair of his head began to grow again after he was shaven”, and with it grew his restored fellowship with the God whose Name he had besmirched among the heathen. God gave him also once again the strength he might have used in earlier days to better purpose.

But why were the Philistines such fools as to allow him his hair again? One can only assume that Delilah had explained to them the spiritual significance of his unshorn locks, and thus they reasoned: ‘His God cast him off, and will now have no more use for him.’ They little knew the graciousness of the God of Israel!

And meantime, in his penitence, Samson renewed his Nazarite vow. Did he get word through to his fellow-Israelites that the appropriate sacrifices (Numbers 6) be offered on his behalf?

Before long there came round the great religious festival of Dagon, the god of the Philistines. Opinion is divided as to the character of Dagon worship. On the basis of a doubtful derivation from the Hebrew word for ‘fish’ and the finding a half-man, half-fish deity in Syria, it has been conjectured that Dagon was ‘of fishy form and mind’, perhaps indirectly reminiscent of Philistine origins in Crete across the sea.

However, it is now pretty firmly established that Dagon was a god of harvest (the Hebrew word for corn is dagan). Hence, when the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant in the time of Samuel they were punished with a plague of rats in time of harvest, and, as corollary, the ravages of bubonic plague (1 Sam. 5:9-12; 6:4). Temples dedicated to Dagon have been found at Mari (18th Century) — far away from Philistia, at Ugarit in Syria (14th Century), and at Bethshan (11th Century). And it may well be that Sam-son’s grinding of corn — woman’s work — was a device for consecrating his labour to Dagon, their god of harvest.

At this festival, naturally enough, Samson was brought out so that all might gloat over his discomfiture. Had he not been the chosen representative of Jehovah, the God of Israel? And was not this humiliation of Samson the humiliation of Jehovah also and the exaltation of Dagon who had brought the redoubtable enemy into their power? So they rejoiced in a shout and hymn of praise: “Our God hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us.” In the original the words rhyme.

They little realized that this gloating against the God of Israel decided their fate, and that of Dagon, for no man can indulge in that sort of vainglory and get away with it. Four hundred years later Sennacherib, mighty monarch of Assyria, was to find that out (Isa. 37:12-20; “Isaiah”, HAW, p. 47ff).


Samson was brought to the temple, the roof of which was packed with spectators. The Hebrew text says three thousand. This would imply a structure twenty times as big as the average ecclesial hall. The Sinaitic LXX says seven hundred (a hundred for each lock of Samson’s hair!). There in the open space before it, for the entertainment and jubilation of these uncircumcised, he danced an Israelite war-dance (s.w. 2 Sam. 2:14). There is no hint in the text that he performed feats of strength to glorify their capture of him.

Then, the show over, they led Samson into the temple itself that there he might be inspected at closer quarters by the nobility: “And they set him between the pillars”, the twin pillars (their Jachin and Boaz) in the middle of the building which bore the main load of the roof and fulfilled the function of the keystone of an arch. Macalister’s excavations at Gezer, not many miles away, revealed that there was some such plan about the heathen temple there. Other digs at Gaza and Tel-en-Nasbeh have shown chiefs’ houses built to a similar pattern.

Samson had evidently been in that temple in the days of his sight, and there he had noted the structural weakness. Now, at last, here was an opportunity to work for the deliverance of his people the like of which would never come his way again. In his day he had wasted many an opportunity of using his great strength to a good end. The lesson had now been learned. He would not waste this one. But, now, if there was to be achievement, it must not be for vainglory but by strength from God and to the glory of God.

So he prayed as he had never prayed before. The Septuagint Version says he wept. It was a double prayer. First, for himself as a miserable sinner, unfit to stand there as the representative of the God of Israel, unfit to be aught but a castaway from His presence: “O Lord God, remember me!” Remember me! — as David was remembered. “Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old. Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord” (Psa. 25:6,7). Remember me! — as the thief on the cross was remembered: “Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

And as these two were both justified by their faith, so also in this hour was Samson; so that his name also is inscribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life: “And what shall I more say (of those who pleased God by their faith)? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens” (Hebrews 11:32-34). To his first prayer Samson added another which was not so much for himself as it might seem: “Strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be avenged of the Philistines for one of my two eyes” (RVmg).

It has to be remembered that from the point of view of the Philistines, Samson’s cause was the cause of the God of Israel; humiliation of Samson was the humiliation of Jehovah. So it follows that the obvious way, maybe the only way, in which the Lord would be vindicated before that unholy crew, was through the vindication of His servant. And yet — as Samson’s prayer makes plain — the finest thing that could happen now could not wipe out entirely the ignominy of the past. So he could not regard this final stroke for which he sought divine help as, at best, more than vengeance for one of his two eyes.

That Samson’s assessment of the situation was a correct one is shown by the signal response to his prayer. “And he bowed himself with all his might.” The situation is such as to set the imagination racing. There in the gaudy obscene temple of Dagon, crowded with hundreds of the stalwart swash-buckling nobility of the Philistines accoutred in all their finery, this long-haired unimpressive Israelite with the featureless face of the blind braced himself between the two central pillars, with shoulders against one and his feet against the other (for the Hebrew word means ‘he stretched himself’).

The Israelite captive boy whose duty it was to be eyes to Samson realised now what his revered fellow-countryman sought to achieve, and darting nimbly through the throng, he was out to the open sky and safety before any could hinder him. To him, surely — under God — is owed the record of the Nazarite’s prayer of faith. Samson’s effort caught the attention of some who at first laughed uproariously at what he attempted, and spat on him with contempt. But Samson strained again, the muscles bulging stiff and hard in every part of his body. One of the pillars shifted slightly. A woman screamed and pointed in terror. Two young braves swore vigorously and threw themselves frantically on the naked straining Israelite, but in vain; as he made his final effort they might just as well have tried to bend a block of granite.

Another muttered prayer escaped from Samson’s lips: “Let me die with the Philistines.” The pillars shifted again, and yet again. Then, with a resounding crash, that overloaded roof came thundering down bringing with it more pillars, masses of masonry and a dense crowd of Philistines whose holiday was now ended. Screams of fright and yells of pain rent the air, but from most there was just — silence. And a great cloud of dust ascended up to heaven. Samson’s God had avenged him of one of his two eyes.

News of this last and greatest exploit was carried by Samson’s faithful, fleet-footed friend to the villages of Dan, and, mustering in a body, they marched fearlessly into Gaza. Unmolested by the Philistines (busy looking for fragments of Dagon), they disinterred his body from the mighty heap of rubble and carried it reverently back for interment in the tomb of his parents who had lived only long enough to be bitterly disappointed in the hopes they centred in their child of promise. Yet, one day, they will have rejoicing in him.

Learning from Samson

The two main lessons from the life of Samson are simple and clear:

  1. The consecrated life must be a consecrated life. Facing simultaneously in opposite directions is impossible, although many still attempt it. There can be no serving God and Mammon. Wherefore, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.”
  2. “There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared.” There is no life so foul that it cannot be made sweet by the grace of God. Let there be only a humble facing of the fact that “in me(that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing”, and with it a prayer that God will do with one’s life what no amount of single-handed effort can ever achieve. These lessons must be learned. Must!


Sorek, the valley where Samson was born. A few miles away Beth-Shemesh commemorates Samson.
Thine heart. Bible idiom for ‘mind’; see also v. 17.
Eyes....fetters of brass. Compare king Zedekiah (2 Kgs. 25:7), another sample and type of the folly of Israel. Now they could safely have secured Samson with small twine.
Destroyer. The verb means ‘to dry up, to reduce to a wilderness’ (so also LXX) — a hint of some of Samson’s activities in recent years.
Our god hath delivered. This seems to suggest that this method of taking Samson, through a woman, had been counselled by an astute priest of Dagon.
Made sport. Heb. sachaq definitely means ‘dance’; but shachaq means ‘beat small’! LXX evidently read the Hebrew with one letter different: s.w. Matt. 26:67 (cp. Psa. 69:12; Isa. 50:6).
Pillars. Probably of cedar on stone sockets: 1 Kgs. 7:2.

RVmg: One of my two eyes is not certain.
The house fell. Tacitus records that in the reign of Tiberius 50,000 people died in the collapse of a big wooden amphitheatre. But when it came to numbers, perhaps Tacitus was as big a liar as Josephus.
Brought him up. Perhaps this should read: ‘exalted him’.

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