If I could compare the story of Samson with a (relatively) contemporary film, I would compare it to Legends of the Fall. Both of these stories are undergirded by the tumultuousness of the human heart and the powers of desire. Every human on this planet has an element to their makeup that drives them to act. Whatever we may call this element, whether it’s “will,” “desire,” “motivation,” etc., it’s quite mysterious. Few things are so mysterious and critical. We can study physics, anatomy, language and philosophy, but when asked to predict a human’s actions, the collective wisdom of psychologists, clerics and social scientists would remain fruitless. Humanity is unpredictable due to this sporadic drivenness, which is why Samson and Tristan (from Legends of the Fall) strike a deep chord with us.
In the Christian community, Samson is one of those slippery figures. What do we do with him? He is not like Moses or Abraham. Nor is he antagonistic like Cain, Ahab or Judas. He is a gray character, called to live out a God-given mandate only to get diluted with an abundance of sins. For instance, he ardently desired to marry a Philistine woman (Judges 14:1-3), which most likely went against the Lord’s original intent for Israelites (14:3a; see also Deut. 7:3). He slaughtered thirty Philistines because he had to repay a gambling debt (Judges 14:12-19). He was also a womanizer (14:1-3; 16:1, 4) and appeared to be a pyro (15:4-5).
He could be compared to David, except David showed great remorse for his sins (Psalm 51). Samson never showed obvious remorse (it may be implied in Judges 16:28), or at least the Biblical text never tells us he did. In fact, the last wish of Samson was for the Lord to grant him strength (since he lost his God-given strength with Delilah; Judges 16:18-21) for the sole purpose of revenge:
“O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” (Judges 17:28)
Despite his tumultuous life, Samson appears in Hebrews 11, the great “Hall of Faith.” Why? What signs of faith did Samson show?
Perhaps it had to do with his Nazirite vow. He was called to live as a Nazirite, devoted to God (Judges 13:7; see also Numbers 6:1-21), but is this really what the author of Hebrews is referring to? Samson ignored certain aspects of the vow when he went near a dead animal (which was considered “unclean”; Judges 14:8-9) and let his hair get cut (16:17). Was Samson’s faith determined by his adherence to his vow?
I’m inclined to think not.
Perhaps the faith of Samson was far simpler than his obedience to an external code of behavior.
Life in Canaan during this period was rough and far from the vision God desired for them. Numerous Canaanite nations still existed (Judges 1:27-36) when they were supposed to be driven out by Israel (Deut. 7:1-2). He was a product of his culture, especially when the culture was heavily influenced by Philistine proximity and rulership (Judges 15:11-12).
Samson was a tumultuous man in a tumultuous culture. If one reads through the book of Judges, it’s clear how deviant the people of Israel became. They slowly drifted apart from the Lord’s original mandate for conquest and holiness.
Samson’s faith stands out because it is contrasted with his unbridled drivenness. He was led to and fro by his heart of desire, yet with such a life of desire, he still recognized God as the giver of his remarkable abilities (Judges 15:18; 16:28). He remembered who he was, who God was, and the difference between the two.
In this respect, he had more faith than the army of Israel did in 1 Sam. 4:1-11, for example, when they presumed on God’s military aid and treated the Ark of the Covenant like an evocation tool. The difference between Samson and the army of Israel in 1 Samuel was the difference between faith and presumptuousness. It’s the difference between obedience and evocation. Samson must have had a better idea of who God was than the army did. Samson trusted God to answer his prayers; he didn’t trust in his own ability to evoke God like some sorcerer.
Samson had faith in God. This is why the author of Hebrews wrote his name down in his list of faithful, emulative people (Heb. 11:32). Despite the tumultuous heart of a wild man, Samson could soberly remember God when it mattered. This is what made him emulative.
The desires of our hearts, which often drive us to shame, can be distracting if we don’t remember God (see Romans 7:7-24). Sometimes, like Samson, we must be humbled in order to remember God (Judges 16:18-21). Still, what matters most is that we remember him and what he has done for us. We must trust him to handle our wildness and our unpredictable desires. With God, our tumultuous desires are transformed into instruments of righteousness. Like everything else, desires have been redeemed for God’s purposes.
We can be wild and trust God at the same time.