Scripture introduces the story of Samson with a one verse introduction: "And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years."
This introductory verse is very important to the understanding of why Samson was needed and brought on the scene and why his failure was so tragic. It describes a retrogression by Israel to their sinful ways which brought upon them Divine judgment in the form of oppression by the Philistines.
Prior to the rule of kings in Israel, judges were raised up to deliver Israel from the troubles they got themselves into because of their sin. A tragic cycle kept occurring in Israel during the four centuries which followed the death of Joshua; the era known as the time of the judges in Israel’s history. Israel would sin; then God, in judgment, would cause them to come under the oppression of another nation or nations. Under the pain of oppression, Israel would then cry out to God for help; and He would send them a deliverer. But after being delivered, they would eventually retrogress to their evil ways and then again experience the judgment of God through an oppressing nation or nations.
That which set the stage for Samson to come on the scene was another period of retrogression, which our text describes rather succinctly. Therefore, to begin our study of Samson, we are going to spend this first chapter looking at this retrogression which plagued Israel when Samson came on the scene. We will note the character of the retrogression, the cognizance of the retrogression, and the chastisement for the retrogression.
A. THE CHARACTER OF THE RETROGRESSION
"Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord." This retrogression was iniquitous, idolatrous, and inexcusable.
1. It was Iniquitous
Israel’s retrogression was sinful. Our text makes that plain. God Himself declares that it was sinful. That is emphasized by the phrase "in the sight of the Lord." A dual meaning is found in this phrase. One meaning, and probably the most obvious meaning to the reader, is that God saw the evil conduct. Another meaning, and a very important one, is that God saw the conduct as evil. We will look later at the fact that God saw the evil conduct. Here we want to emphasize the fact that God saw the conduct as evil. That is, He judged their conduct to be evil, not righteous. He measured it according to His standards, and it came up as evil. He determined and declared that their conduct was evil. Israel, of course, did not call their conduct evil. They sanctioned it, encouraged it, honored it, and popularized it. But when it comes to deciding what is good or what is evil, it does not matter what man calls evil conduct, how acceptable he makes it, or how popular it is with him. The determining factor as to whether conduct is good or evil is what God says about the conduct. His standards are the true standards.
We desperately need to get our standards back to God’s standards today. We are ever labeling a host of things good which God calls evil. Men set up their artificial rules and then play the game of life according to these rules. They use their rules to decide who is a winner and who is not, who is successful and who is not. However, the true outcome of the game of life is not determined according to our rules. It is determined according to God’s rules. He decides what is right and wrong; we do not.
As in Israel of old, much evil is sanctioned, encouraged, and honored in our land today. But the final word still comes from God. Therefore, homosexuality is sin, abortion is sin, alcoholism is sin, gambling is sin, divorce is sin, adultery is sin, and pornography is sin. Our legislatures may legalize every single one of these wicked deeds, and the news media may approve and applaud. But that does not make these deeds legitimate in God’s sight. Men will eventually all be judged as to whether they are good or evil—not by the rules of man—but by the unchangeable holy laws of God!
2. It was Idolatrous
Whenever Israel departed from God during the period of the Judges (as well as at other times in their history), they always went into idolatry, especially Baalism (cp. Judges 2:11, 3:7, 8:33, 10:6, and Judges 10:10) and its related gods and goddesses. Baal was a heathenistic, pagan god who was supposed to control rain and fertility. The female counterpart of Baal was called Ashtoroth (Ishtar by the Assyrians, Astarte by the Greeks, and Venus by the Romans). When an altar to Baal was erected, it was common to find idol poles (sometimes translated "groves" in the kjv) erected in honor of the goddess Ashtoroth, who was considered the consort of Baal.
This religion was a morally rotten, vile, sensual religion that made immoral sex acts a religious exercise. Baal temples included rooms where male and female prostitutes practiced in the name of religion. Such a religion greatly corrupted a country. It dropped morals to incredible depths and destroyed character en masse. And, of course, it invited the anathema of God.
Bad doctrine always produces bad deportment. Purity in morals will come when there is purity in doctrine. When Israel went into idolatry, the morals dropped into the gutter. When they came back to God, morals were raised. This is always the case in any age, in any civilization, in any society. It, therefore, should be no surprise that our land is so morally degraded when you consider the corrupt doctrines that are embraced by so many of the churches and denominations in our land. Doctrine is so bad in some churches that homosexuals are not only accepted but are being ordained to the ministry. Baalism does not have anything on many of the churches and denominations of our day.
3. It was Inexcusable
Israel did evil "again." The book of Judges records eight times that Israel "did evil." Our text records the eighth time (other texts in Judges with this report are Judges 2:11, 3:7, 3:12 [twice], Judges 4:1, and Judges 10:6). Four of these times the report is "did evil again" as it is in our text (the other three places in Judges where this is recorded are in 3:12, 4:1, and Judges 10:6). All of this repetition in doing evil tells us that Israel never seemed to learn the lesson of the past. You would think that after they had time and time again seen the terrible consequences of evil that they would get wise and stop doing evil. But they did not. They ignored the warnings of the past and pursued the same sins which cursed their ancestors. Their failure was, therefore, totally inexcusable.
This problem is not unique to Israel. It occurs in every generation. One generation legalizes some evil and then pays a terrible price. The next generation comes along and does it again. Nations repeat other nations’ evil and suffer the same consequences. As others have said, "One thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history." This certainly is true of our day. In spite of our so-called "higher education" and boasted intellectual prowess, we never seem to learn about the perils of sin. We, too, sin "again" and "again" though we have had ample warnings about the perils of our sins. Today, we are seeing many evils promoted, legalized, and honored which have a frightening record for chaotic consequences. As an example, though our nation has been duly warned as to the plague which gambling brings on society, yet it still pursues gambling with an alarming passion. It is totally inexcusable. We have been warned by the past and have been warned by many voices in the present, but still our country pursues gambling. The same thing can be said about many other prominent sins in the land. The perils of homosexuality and other immoral acts are well known; yet these evils are encouraged, sanctioned, and legalized. Warnings against the illicit use of drugs is found everywhere. Yet, folk ignore the warnings and become addicted to drugs and destroy their lives. The same is true of alcohol, tobacco, and other vices. Folk try to justify their vices, but they have no excuse whatever for practicing them, for they have been abundantly warned about the perils of their evil ways.
B. THE COGNIZANCE OF THE RETROGRESSION
Israel did their evil "in the sight of the Lord." As we noted earlier, one of the meanings of this phrase "in the sight of the Lord" is that God saw the evil conduct. So Israel’s sin was not hidden from His view. They sinned and God saw it and eventually brought the judgment of the oppression of the Philistines upon them for their sin. They could not escape from the judgment of sin by God, for they could not escape from the observations of their sin by God.
One lesson the Bible teaches again and again is that all our sin is done in plain view of God’s eyes. "For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes" (Jeremiah 16:17). That is why "your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23). God sees it, and He will expose it when He gets good and ready. You may deceive yourself into thinking that no one has seen—and maybe no human has seen—but God always sees, and that dooms your ideas of forever concealing your iniquitous deeds.
When we consider this truth that God sees our iniquity, we need to remember that this includes our thoughts. "Thou understandest my thought afar off" (Psalms 139:2) ought to sober up any soul who thinks he can delight himself in unholy meditation without penalty. A mark of godliness is great concern over the purity and properness of one’s thoughts. Godly people will not be concerned just about the sanctity of their deeds, but they will also be pleading with God to give them a clean mind. This was the plea of the Psalmist when he not only prayed that the words of his mouth would be acceptable with God but also that "the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord" (Psalm 19:14).
What an inspiration it would be to godly conduct if we kept in mind this great fact that God sees us all the time. We are prone to make our conduct as impressive as possible when certain people are watching us. But it does not seem to occur to many that God Almighty is always watching us. While this knowledge that He is watching us should warn the sinner, it should also encourage the godly; for God not only sees the evil of man, but He also sees the good of man. Sometimes the godly wonders if his faithfulness in obscure places really matters. But it does matter, for God sees it. Performance on the stage is no better seen than performance off the stage when it comes to God. Keep this in mind, and you will perform well anywhere.
C. THE CHASTISEMENT FOR THE RETROGRESSION
God saw and so God will act. Because Israel "did evil again in the sight of the Lord; the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years." We will note the instrument of the chastisement and the duration of the chastisement.
1. The Instrument of the Chastisement
The Philistines were the nation God used in Samson’s time to punish the Israelites for their evil. The Philistines, who are so much a part of the story of Samson, are not prominent in Scripture until the book of Judges and the story of Samson. They are, however, mentioned as early as the book of Genesis. Abraham was involved with them for a time (Genesis 20; 21:22–34), and so was Isaac, Abraham’s son (Genesis 26:6–33). They are also briefly mentioned in Exodus (Judges 13:17, 23:31) and Joshua (Judges 13:2,3) and in some earlier chapters of Judges (Jduges 3:3,31; 10:6,7,11). But it is not until the story of Samson that the Philistines become prominent.
The Philistine nation comprised a very small segment of Canaan. Their land was but a small strip located in the southwestern corner of Palestine with the Mediterranean Sea as their western border, Israel as their northern (Joppa) and eastern border, and the desert just south of Gaza as their southern border. They were so small a nation that they had only five cities of any significance (Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath). But when Samson came on the scene, the Philistine nation had become great in power; so much so, that they held Israel under check. This power continued on into the time of David. Under his leadership, the Philistine strength was greatly diminished. From then on, Philistia is seldom mentioned in Scripture; for it was no longer a nation of any strength or significance.
That Philistia, though it was so small, could greatly oppress Israel, a much larger nation, demonstrates what sin can do to the strength of God’s people. Israel should have been able to dictate to Philistia, but often it was the other way around. One time during King Saul’s day, Philistia so controlled and dominated Israel, that Israel was not permitted by the Philistines to have a blacksmith in their land (1 Samuel 13:19,20).
When we depart from God, we become as weak as water. Walking in God’s way, we are strong. But when we forsake His way, even the smallest of temptations will be able to overcome and dominate us. Not only is Israel an illustration of this truth, but so also is Samson. He was a man who had special strength and power from God. He could, with this power, completely dominate any situation. He could and did at times use the power to subjugate the Philistines. But Samson made the tragic mistake of forsaking God’s way; and when he did, he became helpless before the Philistines.
Legions of God’s people have followed in the footsteps of Israel and Samson. Many Christians have at times displayed great victory in their lives and accomplished great things for God. But then one day we behold them falling helplessly into great sin. Why? Because they made the fatal mistake of departing from God’s way. Doing so, they virtually unplugged themselves from the heavenly power supply. Then when the enemy came along, they quickly fell. No wonder Paul said, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
2. The Duration of the Chastisement
The time of the chastisement was "forty years." This was twice as long as the longest oppression of the past. The previous longest chastisement period occurred during the time of Barak and Deborah. King Jabin and the Canaanites were the oppressors then, and for "twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel" (Judges 4:3).
The length of the duration is an indictment upon Israel. It emphasizes their stubborn insistence to do evil. Their hearts were so terribly hard, that though they were oppressed greatly, they refused to repent and forsake their sin. In fact, in this oppression there is no record where they cried out to God for help. Always in the previous times of judgment, Israel eventually cried out to God for relief. The chastisement got through to them, and they repented and sought God’s help. But here in the story of Samson, Israel was so hard-hearted that they never cried out to God for help. This, of course, was a major reason why the chastisement was so prolonged. We gain nothing by postponing repentance but only prolong our misery.
In spite of Israel’s hard heart, God still eventually raised up a deliverer, however. What grace! Always in previous oppressions, God raised up a deliverer after Israel cried for help—and that still is grace. But here He raises up one in Samson even though they did not cry for help—it was grace upon grace in this instance. Few things illustrate the grace of God so well as when God seeks our salvation even when we are not crying for help. And while we may not normally associate Samson with grace, the fact is, his coming on the scene was an exceptional display of the grace of God.