Don: How do we make sense of a prayer for revenge? Can God honor such a prayer? More than we might wish, Samson is like us. Each of us is a gift from God. As children, we are drawn naturally to God, which is how we know that children have faith. Indeed, Jesus said that to have faith, we must become like children.
As we mature, we are prone to rebellion, to lust, to pride, and to self-serving. We discover that the commitments made by our parents before our birth must be internalized by us, or else they are not very valuable. Our tendency toward selfish ambition is fraught with heartache and, ultimately, spiritual blindness. The story of Samson is a metaphor for the story of all of us. But as it was with Samson, so it is with us that loss of sight often rekindles insight.
Samson’s hair is a key element in the story. It is, I think, a metaphor for grace. Grace is dispensed by God on as as-needed basis. We can cut it off, but we cannot increase it—only God can do that. If we shear our heads, God already has a plan in place to re-grow the hair, to replenish the grace we have cut off. He is inexorable in this—we cannot stop Him.
Grace is the source of our spiritual power. It strengthens our spiritual resolve and puts us back on track t fulfill our spiritual destiny.
Samson was a judge. He was called to deliver God’s people. That was his destiny, and in the end, by God’s grace, he fulfilled it. But to do that, the old Samson—full of pride, selfishness, and the deliberate truncating of God’s grace—had to die. Samson might be considered a holy warrior, a jihadist. To Muslims, the real meaning and the greatest manifestation of jihad is the jihad with one’s self, and this Samson had to fight his own pride and self-assurance. It is a kind of personality suicide. We too need to fight our tendency to pray for an easy life, freedom from fear, relief from want, to be at the front of the line, and other self-centered desires.
The Psalms are full of revenge prayers. For example, this one, where David wrote from captivity about God wreaking vengeance on the enemies of Israel:
Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom
The day of Jerusalem,
Who said, “Raze it, raze it
To its very foundation.”
O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
With the recompense with which you have repaid us.
How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones
Against the rock. (Psalm 137:7-9)
O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.
For they speak against You wickedly,
And Your enemies take Your name in vain.
Do I not hate those who hate You, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?
I hate them with the utmost hatred; T
hey have become my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way. (Psalm 139:19-24)
As for the head of those who surround me,
May the mischief of their lips cover them.
May burning coals fall upon them;
May they be cast into the fire,
Into deep pits from which they cannot rise.
May a slanderer not be established in the earth;
May evil hunt the violent man speedily. (Psalm 140:9-11)
We are used to praying for protection and gain. Hannah prayed for a son, knowing how hard life would be in that society at that time for a widow without a son. Jonah and Job and many others prayed for themselves. This is a result of our fallen nature, of stripping off the spiritual grace that is so important for spiritual development.
Samson himself was the first element in his prayer. The prayer itself was second. God was third. Does God answer selfish, self-serving prayers? Prayers for revenge? Does He answer if the prayer aligns with His will?
I don’t doubt the veracity of Samson’s bringing down the house. But was it in answer to his prayer? He had been used an ox for years in captivity, turning a heavy stone wheel to grind grain. So his already giant and powerful body must have become enormously strong—strong enough, perhaps, to pull down two support columns in a building that could not have conformed to modern construction safety codes. The writer of Judges certainly saw it as an answer to prayer.
At a minimum, we can derive from this story how God was seen by the Israelites at this time. As Paul indicated, all stories in Scripture are inspired and underwritten by God:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
But the stories were told by God to men (“the fathers in the prophets”) in bits and pieces (“in many portions and in many ways”). That was then; now (“in these last days”) it is different. The communication medium now is Jesus, and that is bound to alter the communication. This does not negate the value of the Old Testament. It does not undermine its inspiration. Jesus relied on it and often taught from it. But He also used it to contrast His own message. In the Sermon on the Mount he repeatedly emphasized that people should be thinking differently from what they had been taught before.
The greatest contrast between the revenge prayers of the Old Testament and the message of Jesus is the prayer of Jesus on the cross for his oppressors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
My confidence that the Old Testament needs to be viewed from the perspective of the writers, of the people of the time and place, arises out of the story of Samson, when his wife Delilah betrayed him:
She said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And he awoke from his sleep and said, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him. (Judges 16:20)
The concept of God departing from Samson was clearly believed by the writer but is antithetical to everything else in the Bible that shows God will never leave:
Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,” (Hebrews 13:5)
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
When God appears to give up on us, it is actually us giving up on God, turning our backs on Him, walking away from Him:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. (Romans 1:18-27)
Despite the biases of the writer of Samson, God’s grace still shines through, symbolized by the regrowth of Samson’s hair:
However, the hair of his head began to grow again after it was shaved off. (Judges 16:22)
God’s grace can no more be stopped from emerging than hair can be stopped from growing.
In some ways, Samson’s prayer is of confession:
Then Samson called to the Lord and said, “O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me just this time, (Judges 16:28)
The thief on the cross with Jesus also asked to be remembered. When we realize our sinful, fallen state, we ask to be remembered with God’s grace. This is why Samson, even after such a profligate life and destructive suicide, was included in the “faith hall of fame”:
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, (Hebrews 11:32)
It signifies that there is hope for you and for me.
David: The problem I have is that the Old Testament limits our view of God. Painting Him as a vengeful God—the antithesis of the forgiving God of Jesus—seems to me to do, and historically to have done, far more harm than good. There are Old Testament stories of people with good Christian attributes, and why not? There have always been such people throughout human history, in all parts of the world. I am sure there are Buddhist and Hindu stories about people who loved and forgave. The fact that such stories can be found does not of itself validate the old Scriptures as God-inspired and representative of the true God, but the stories of un-Christian people such as Samson do, of themselves, invalidate the Old Testament as God-inspired and representative of God. Giving any credence to such stories encourages bloody crusades and jihads and bombings and burning of mosques and churches, and is utterly antithetical to Christianity at least, and probably to other religions as well.
I think it is reasonable to believe: (1) That Jesus quoted from the Old Testament simply because that’s all He had to work with! It’s all His contemporaries knew. He Himself was born into that religion of the Old Testament. (2) That Jesus and his followers had to be diplomatic in their treatment of an established religion they were actually seeking to overthrow, so maybe there is some lukewarm tipping of the hat to the Old Testament here and there but it hardly figures front and center in the life and ministry and messages of Jesus, or so it seems to me.
Donald: It seems to me the two Testaments provide different perspectives that help us figure out our place in God’s plan for humanity. Time provides a similar perspective: Old graveyards house the remains of people once large in life but now long forgotten.
We are admonished to say “Thy will be done” but what we want to say is “My will be done.” How can we have a good and right perspective from a time and place where we are at the center of time and place? Do we have to wait for our time and place to pass before we can truly take an objective perspective?
Kiran: The Samson story is about selfishness. If we had his powers, would we too not be arrogant and self-centered? His prayer of vengeance against the Philistines and his act of destruction may have been a cry for vengeance on himself. He was spoiled in life, always getting what he wanted. In his last moments, he abandoned his selfishness and embraced altruism.
Mikiko: The Israelites had been bad so often. God chose Samson to save them, and gave him his power.
David: I see no altruism in Samson or his prayer. His request to be remembered sounds very different from that of the thief on the cross. I read it as an arrogant: “Hey, you there, God! Remember me???!!! There’s something I need you to do for me. I want to get revenge on these rotten Philistines. Help me to kill them.”
Robin: The Philistines wanted to wipe out the Israelites. If God had thought that Adolph Hitler and the Nazis would have turned to Him, they would not have been defeated. God is the judge for all time, not just Old Testament time. People then hardened their hearts and tried to be their own gods. God’s own people started looking at the means rather than the ends by embellishing their laws, until in the New Testament God revealed that He is more than just judgment and would rather be known for mercy and grace. That message can be found in the Old Testament too but it was not the focus, nor was it the focus of the people of Old Testament times and places.
Aishwarya: Lord Shiva blessed the demons who prayed to Him sincerely for power and wealth, by granting their wish. The demons then used their enormous power to loot and destroy the people around them. The good people then prayed to the other gods to gang up on Lord Shiva and put a stop to it.
The content of prayer is immaterial—what matters is the sincerity of prayer. We are God’s children, so He will grant any prayer so long as we are sincere about it, even a prayer for revenge. But granting such prayers serves to let people see that power and wealth can be misused, and to remind them that there should be more to prayer than sincerity.
David: The problem is that God doesn’t listen to the sincere prayers of innocent people “collaterally damaged” by revenge prayer, if we buy the Samson story.
Chris: At one point in his life, Samson began to lose sight of his need for God and His grace as he grew more independent. At the very end of his life, he once more accepted his total dependence on God. We need God’s grace, or we are not going to love God and our neighbor. We will grow self-centered, like Samson.
Kiran: From Abraham on, the Old Testament is about tribal competition and warfare. But God committed not so much to destroy the enemies of Abraham’s tribes than simply to bless Abraham’s tribes. The formation of Israel led to changes for the better in the treatment of slaves and of women. The point is that there is progress in the way people treat one another, even in the Old Testament; progress toward the kingdom of heaven as Jesus described it. It’s the progress that matters.
Mikiko: The Israelites were God’s chosen people. They did many bad things (Judges 31) and were given over by God to the wicked Philistines for 40 years. But in His mercy and lovingkindness, Jehovah God used Samson to help Israel defeat the Philistines.
Don: We will be discussing the concept of a “God of judgment.”
Is there a risk in believing that one is a part of “God’s own people”? That God is more interested in and will support me and my tribe at the expense of others? It seemed to corrupt the Israelites.
Donald: If I think I am chosen, then my perspective is bound to be different. How much we spend on our own education and comfort reflects our perspective on where we think we stand in the Universe, and most of our students stand pretty close together. So the challenge is to teach them a pathway that will take them to places showing them different global, civic, and other perspectives. The rest is all self-improvement, but if we allow that perspective to dominate, we end up with a false sense of our place in the Universe. How can we be humble, believing that we are terribly important to God?
Don: To believe that we are special to God is intoxicating. It is subject to misuse and tends to disable our relationship with others.
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