THE VALLEY OF SOREK AND OF DEATH
THE strong bold man who has blindly fought his battles and sold himself to the traitress and to the enemy, "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves," the sport and scorn of those who once feared him, is a mournful object. As we look upon him there in his humiliation, his temper and power wasted, his life withered in its prime, we almost forget the folly and the sin, so much are we moved to pity and regret. For Samson is a picture, vigorous in outline and colour, of what in a less striking way many are and many more would be if it were not for restraints of divine grace. A fallen hero is this. But the career of multitudes without the dash and energy ends in the like misery of defeat; nothing done, not much attempted, their existence fades into the sere and yellow leaf. There has been no ardour to make death glorious.
Every man has his defects, his besetting sins, his dangers. It is in the consciousness of our own that we approach with sorrow the last scenes of the eventful history of Samson. Who dares cast a stone at him? Who can fling a taunt as he is seen groping about in his blindness?
"A little onward lend thy guiding hand
To these dark steps, a little further on.
For yonder bank hath choice of sun or shade;
There I am wont to sit when any chance
Relieves me from my task of servile toil.
O dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark total eclipse
Without all hope of day":
So we hear him bewail his lot. And we, perchance, feeling weakness creep over us while bonds of circumstance still hold us from what we see to be our divine calling, -we compassionate ourselves in pitying him; or, if we are as yet strong and buoyant, our history before us, plans for useful service of our time clearly in view, have we not already felt the symptoms of moral infirmity which make it doubtful whether we shall reach our goal? There are many hindrances, and even the brave unselfish man who never loiters in Gaza or in the treacherous valley may find his way barred by obstacles he cannot remove. But in the case of most the hindrances within are the most numerous and powerful. This man who should effect much for his age is held by love which blinds him, that other by hatred which masters him. Now covetousness, now pride is the deterrent. Many begin to know themselves and the difficulty of doing great tasks for God and man when noontide is past and the day has begun to decline. Great numbers have only dreamed of attempting something and have never bestirred themselves to act. So it is that Samson’s defeat appears a symbol of the pathetic human failure. To many his character is full of sad interest, for in it they see what they have fears of becoming or what they have already become.
What has Samson lost when he has revealed his secret to Delilah? Observe him when he goes forth from the woman’s house and stands in the sunlight. Apart from the want of his waving locks he seems the same and is physically the same; muscle and sinew, bone and nerve, stout-beating heart and strong arm, Samson is there. And his human will is as eager as ever; he is a bold daring man this morning as he was last evening, with the same dream of "breaking through all" and bearing himself as king. But he is more lonely than ever before; something has gone from his soul. A heavy sense of faithlessness to one prized distinction and known duty oppresses him. Shake thyself as at other times, poor rash Samson, but know in thy heart that at last thou art powerless: the audacity of faith is no longer thine. Thou art the natural man still, but that is not enough, the spiritual sanction gone. The Philistines, half afraid, gather about thee ten to one; they can bind now and lead captive, for thou hast lost the girdle which knit thy powers together and made thee invincible. The consciousness of being God’s man is gone-the consciousness of being true to that which united thee in a rude but very real bond to the Almighty. Thou hast scorned the vow which kept thee from the abyss and with the knowledge of utter moral baseness comes physical prostration, despair, feebleness, ruin. Samson at last knows himself to be no king at all, no hero nor judge.
It is common to think the spiritual of little account, faith in God of little account. Suppose men give that up; suppose they no longer hold themselves bound by duty to the Almighty; they expect nevertheless to continue the same. They will still have their reason, their strength of body and of mind; they believe that all they once did they shall still be able to do and now more freely in their own way, therefore even more successfully. Is that so? Hope is a spiritual thing. It is apart from bodily strength, distinct from energy and manual skill. Take hope away from a man, the strongest, the bravest, the most intelligent, and will he be the same? Nay. His eye loses its lustre; the vigour of his will decays; he lies powerless and defeated. Or take love away-love which is again a spiritual thing. Let the ardour, the reason for exertion which love inspired pass away. Let the man who loved and would have dared all for love be deprived of that source of vital power, and he will dare no longer. Sad and weary and dispirited he will cast himself down, careless of life.
But hope and love are not so necessary to the full tide of human vigour, are not so potent in stirring the powers of manhood as the friendship of God, the consciousness that made by God for ends of His we have Him as our stay. Indeed without this consciousness manhood never finds its strength. This gives a hope far higher and more sustaining than any of a personal or temporal kind. It makes us strong by virtue of the finest and deepest affection which can possibly move us; and more than that it gives to life full meaning, proper aim and justification. A man without the sense of a divine origin and election has no standing ground; he is so to speak without the right of existence, he has no claim to be heard in speaking and to have a place among those who act. But he who feels himself to be in the world on God’s business, to be God’s servant, has his assured place and claim as a man, and can see reason and purpose for every sharp trial to which he is put. Here then is the secret of strength, the only source of power and steadfastness for any man or woman. And he who has had it and lost it, breaking with God for the sake of gain or pleasure or some earthly affection, must like Samson feel his vigour sapped, his confidence forfeited. Now his power to command, to advise, to contend for any worthy result has passed away. He is a tree whose root ceases to feed in the soil though still the leaves are green.
The spiritual loss, the loss of living faith, is the great one: but is it for that we generally pity ourselves or any person known to us? Life and freedom are dear, the ability to put forth energy at our wilt, the sense of capacity; and it is the loss of these in outward and visible ranges that most moves us to grief. We commiserate the strong man whose exploits in the world seem to be over, as we pity the orator whose power of speech is gone, the artist who can no more handle the brush, the eager merchant whose bargaining is done. We give our sympathy to Samson, because in the midst of his days he has fallen overcome by treachery, because the cruelty of enemies has afflicted him. Yet, looking at the truth of things, the real cause of pity is deeper than any of these and different. A man who is still in living touch with God can suffer the saddest deprivations and retain a cheerful heart, unbroken courage and hope. Suppose that Samson, surprised by his enemies while he was about some worthy task, had been seized, deprived of his sight, bound with fetters of iron and consigned to prison. Should we then have had to pity him as we must when he is taken, a traitor to himself, the dupe of a deceiver, with the badge of his vow and the sense of his fidelity gone? We feel with Jeremiah in his affliction; we feel with John the Baptist confined in the prison into which Herod has cast him, with St. Paul in the Philippian dungeon, and with St. Peter lying bound with chains in the castle of Jerusalem. But we do not commiserate, we admire and exult. Here are men who endure for the right. They are martyrs, fellow sufferers with Christ: they are marching with the cohorts of God to the deliverances of eternity. Ah! It is the men who are "martyrs by the pang without the palm," the men who have lost not only liberty but nobleness, who dragged after false lures have sold their prudence and their strength-these it is for whom we need to weep. He who doing his duty has been mastered by enemies, he who fighting a brave battle has been overcome-let us not dare to pity him. But the man who has given up the battle of faith, who has lost his glory, him the heavens look upon with the profound sorrow that is called for by a wasted life.
And how pathetic the touch: "He wist not that the Lord had departed from him." For a little time he failed to realise the spiritual disaster he had brought on himself. For a little time only; soon the dark conviction seized him. But worse still would have been his ease if he had remained unconscious of loss. This sense of weakness is the last boon to the sinner. God still does this for him, poor headstrong child of nature as he would fain be, living by and for himself: he is not permitted. Whether he will own it or not he shall be weak and useless until he returns to God and to himself. Often indeed we find the enslaved Samson refusing to allow that anything is wrong with him. Out of sight of the world, in some very secret place he has broken the obligations of faith, temperance, chastity, and yet thinks no special result has followed. He can meet the demands of society and that is enough, supposing the matter should come to light. Of the subtle poisoning of his own soul he has no thought. Is the thing hidden then? The law which determines that as a man is so his strength shall be follows every one into the most secret place. It keeps watch over our veracity, our sobriety, our purity, our faithfulness. Whenever in one point our covenant with God is broken a part of strength is taken away. Do we not perceive the loss? Do we flatter ourselves that all is as before? That is only our spiritual blindness; the fact remains.
What a pitiful thing it is to see men in this plight trying in vain to go about as if nothing had happened and they were as fit as ever for their places in society and in the church! We do not speak solely of sins like those into which Samson and David fell. There are others, scarcely reckoned sins, which as surely result in moral weakness perceived or unperceived, in the loss of God’s countenance and support. Our covenant is to be pure and also merciful; let one fail in mercifulness, let there be a harsh pitiless temper cherished in secret, and this as well as impurity will make him morally weak. Our covenant is to be generous as well as honest; let a man keep from the poor and from the church what he ought to give, and he will lose his strength of soul as surely as if he cheated another in trade, or took what was not his own. But we distinguish between sin and default and think of the latter as a mere infirmity which has no ill effect. There is no acknowledgment of loss even when it has become almost complete. The man who is not generous nor merciful, nor a defender of faith goes on thinking all is well with him, imagining that his futile religious exercises or gifts to this and that keep him on good terms with God and that he is helping the world, while in truth he has not the moral strength of a child. He acts the part of a Christian teacher or servant of the church, he leads in prayer, he joins in deliberations that have to do with the success of Christian work. To himself all seems satisfactory and he expects that good shall result from his efforts. But it cannot be. There is the strain of exertion, but no power.
Do we wonder that more is not effected by our organisations, religious and other, which seem so powerful, quite capable of Christianising and reforming the world? The reason is that many of the professed religious and benevolent, who appear zealous and strenuous, are dying at heart. The Lord may not have departed from them utterly; they are not dead; there is still a rootlet of spiritual being. But they cannot fight; they cannot help others; they cannot run in the way of God’s commandments. Are we not bound to ask ourselves how we stand, whether any failure in our covenant keeping has made us spiritually weak. If we are paltering with eternal facts, if between us and the one Source of Life there is a widening distance surely the need is urgent for a return to Christian honour and fidelity which will make us strong and useful.
And there is something here in the story of Samson that bids us think hopefully of a new way and a new life. In the misery to which he was reduced there came to him with renewed acceptance of his vow a fresh endowment of vigour. It is the divine healing, the grace of the long-suffering Father which are thus represented. No human soul needs to be utterly disconsolate, for grace waits ever on discomfiture. Return to me, says the Lord, and I will return to you; I will heal your backslidings and love you freely. Out of the deepest depths there is a way to the heights of spiritual privilege and power. To confess our faults and sins, to resume the fidelity, the uprightness, the generosity and mercifulness we renounced, to take again the straight upward path of self-denial and duty-this is always reserved for the soul that has not utterly perished. The man, young or old, who has become weaker than a child for any good work may hear the call that speaks of hope. He who in self-indulgence or hard worldliness has abandoned God may turn again to the Father’s entreaty, "Remember from what thou hast fallen and repent."
We pass now to consider a point suggested by the terms in which the Philistines triumphed over their captured foe. When the people saw him they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hand our enemy, and the destroyer of our country which hath slain many of us. Here the ignorant religiousness and gratitude of Philistines to a god which was no God might provoke a smile were it not for the consideration that under the clear light of Christianity equal ignorance is often shown by those who profess to be piously grateful. You say it was the bribe which the Philistine lords offered to Delilah and her treachery and Samson’s sin that put him in the enemy’s hand. You say, Surely the most ignorant man in Gaza must have seen that Dagon had nothing whatever to do with the result. And yet it is very common to ascribe to God what is nowise His doing. There are indeed times when we almost shudder to hear God thanked for that which could only be attributed to a Dagon or a Moloch.
We are told of the tribal gods of those old Syrians-Baal, Melcarth, Sutekh, Milcom and the rest-each adored as master and protector by some people or race. Piously the devotees of each god acknowledged his hand in every victory and every fortunate circumstance, at the same time tracing to his anger and their own neglect of duty to him all calamities and defeats. May it not be said that the belief of many still is in a tribal god, falsely called by the name of Jehovah, a god whose chief function is to look after their interests whoever may suffer, and take their side in all quarrels whoever may be in the right? Men make for themselves the rude outline of a divinity who is supposed to be indifferent or hostile to every circle but their own, suspicious of every church but their own, careless of the sufferings of all but themselves. In two countries that are at war prayers for success will ascend in almost the same terms to one who is thought of as a national protector, not to the Father of all; each side is utterly regardless of the other, makes no allowance in prayer for the possibility that the other may be in the right. The thanksgivings of the victors too will be mixed with glorying almost fiendish over the defeated, whose blood, it may be, dyed in pathetic martyrdom their own hillsides and valleys. In less flagrant cases, where it is only a question of gain or loss in trade, of getting some object of desire, the same spirit is shown. God is thanked for bestowing that of which another, perhaps more worthy, is deprived. It is not to the kindness of Heaven, but rather to the proving severity of God, we may say, that the result is due. Looking on with clear eyes we see something very different from divine approval in the prosperous efforts of unscrupulous push and wire pulling. Those who have much success in the world have need to justify their comforts and the praise they enjoy. They need to show cause to the ranks of the obscure and ill paid for their superior fortune. Success like theirs cannot be admitted as a special mark of the favour of that God Whose ways are equal, Whose name is the Holy and Just.
Next look at the ignoble task to which Samson is put by the Philistines, a type of the ignominious uses to which the hero may be doomed by the crowd. The multitude cannot be trusted with a great man.
In the prison at Gaza the fallen chief was set to grind corn, to do the work of slaves. To him, indeed, work was a blessing. From the bitter thoughts that would have eaten out his heart he was somewhat delivered by the irksome labour. In reality, as we now perceive, no work degrades; but a man of Samson’s type and period thought differently. The Philistine purpose was to degrade him; and the Hebrew captive would feel in the depths of his hot brooding nature the humiliating doom. Look then at the parallels. Think of a great statesman placed at the head of a nation to guide its policy in the line of righteousness, to bring its laws into harmony with the principles of human freedom and divine justice-think of such a one, while labouring at his sacred task with all the ardour of a noble heart, called to account by those whose only desire is for better trade, the means of beating their rivals in some market or bolstering up their failing speculations. Or see him at another time pursued by the cry of a class that feels its prescriptive rights invaded or its position threatened. Take again a poet, an artist, a writer, a preacher intent on great themes, eagerly following after the ideal to which he has devoted himself, but exposed every moment to the criticism of men who have no soul-held up to ridicule and reprobation because he does not accept vulgar models and repeat the catchwords of this or that party. Philistinism is always in this way asserting its claim, and ever and anon it succeeds in dragging some ardent soul into the dungeon to grind thenceforth at the mill.
With the very highest too it is not afraid to intermeddle. Christ Himself is not safe. The Philistines of today are doing their utmost to make His name inglorious. For what else is the modern cry that Christianity should be chiefly about the business of making life comfortable in this world and providing not only bread but amusement for the crowd? The ideas of the church are not practical enough for this generation. To get rid of sin-that is a dream; to make men fearers of God, soldiers of truth, doers of righteousness at all hazards-that is in the air. Let it be given up; let us seek what we can reach; bind the name of Christ and the Spirit of Christ in chains to the work of a practical secularism, and let us turn churches into pleasant lounging places and picture galleries. Why should the soul have the benefit of so great a name as that of the Son of God? Is not the body more? Is not the main business to have houses and railways, news and enjoyment? The policy of undeifying Christ is having too much success. If it make way there will soon be need for a fresh departure into the wilderness.
The last scene of Samson’s history awaits us-the gigantic effort, the awful revenge in which the Hebrew champion ended his days. In one sense it aptly crowns the man’s career. The sacred historian is not composing a romance, yet the end could not have been more fit. Strangely enough it has given occasion for preaching the doctrine of self-sacrifice as the only means of highest achievement, and we are asked to see here an example of the finest heroism, the most sublime devotion. Samson dying for his country is likened to Christ dying for His people.
It is impossible to allow this for a moment. Not Milton’s apology for Samson, not the authority of all the illustrious men who have drawn the parallel can keep us from deciding that this was a case of vengeance and self-murder, not of noble devotion. We have no sense of vindicated principle when we see that temple fall in terrible ruin, but a thrill of disappointment and keen sorrow that a servant of Jehovah should have done this in His name. The lords of the Philistines, all the serens or chiefs of the hundred cities are gathered in the ample porch of the building. True, they are assembled at an idolatrous feast; but this idolatry is their religion which they cannot choose but exercise, for they know of no better, nor has Samson ever done one deed or spoken one word that could convince them of error. True, they are met to rejoice over their enemy and they call for him in cruel vainglory to make them sport. Yet this is the man who for his sport and in his revenge once burned the standing corn of a whole valley and more than once went on slaying Philistines till he was weary. True, Samson as a patriotic Israelite views these people as enemies. Yet it was among them he first sought a wife and afterwards pleasure. And now, if he decides to die that he may kill a thousand enemies at once, is the self-chosen death less an act of suicide?
If this was truly a fine act of self-sacrifice what good came of it? The sacrifice that is to be praised does distinct and clearly purposed service to some worthy cause or high moral end. We do not find that this dreadful deed reconciled the Philistines to Israel or moved them to belief in Jehovah. We observe, on the contrary, that it went to increase the hatred between race and race, so that when Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites no longer vex Israel these Philistines show more deadly antagonism-antagonism of which Israel knew the heat when on the red field of Gilboa the kingly Saul and the well beloved Jonathan were together stricken down in death. If there was in Samson’s mind any thought of vindicating a principle it was that of Israel’s dignity as the people of Jehovah. But here his testimony was worthless.
As we have already said, much is written about self-sacrifice which is sheer mockery of truth, most falsely sentimental. Men and women are urged to the notion that if they can only find some pretext for renouncing freedom, for curbing and endangering life, for stepping aside from the way of common service that they may give up something in an uncommon way for the sake of any person or cause, good will come of it. The doctrine is a lie. The sacrifice of Christ was not of that kind. It was under the influence of no blind desire to give up His life, but first under the pressure of a supreme providential necessity, then in renunciation of the earthly life for a dearly seen and personally embraced divine end, the reconciliation of man to God, the setting forth of a propitiation for the sin of the world-for this it was He died. He willed to be our Saviour; having so chosen He bowed to the burden that was laid upon Him. "It pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief." To the end He foresaw and desired there was but one way-and the way was that of death because of man’s wickedness and ruin.
Suffering for itself is no end and never can be to God or to Christ or to a good man. It is a necessity on the way to the ends of righteousness and love. If personality is not a delusion and salvation a dream there must be in every case of Christian renunciation some distinct moral aim in view for every one concerned, and there must be at each step, as in the action of our Lord, the most distinct and unwavering sincerity, the most direct truthfulness. Anything else is a sin against God and humanity. We entreat would be moralists of the day to comprehend before they write of "self-sacrifice." The sacrifice of the moral judgment is always a crime, and to preach needless suffering for the sake of covering up sin or as a means of atoning for past defects is to utter most unchristian falsehood.
Samson threw away a life of which he was weary and ashamed. He threw it away in avenging a cruelty; but it was a cruelty he had no reason to call a wrong. "O God, that I might be avenged!"-that was no prayer of a faithful heart. It was the prayer of envenomed hatred, of a soul still unregenerate after trial. His death was indeed self-sacrifice-the sacrifice of the higher self, the true self, to the lower. Samson should have endured patiently, magnifying God. Or we can imagine something not perfect yet heroic. Had he said to those Philistines, My people and you have been too long at enmity. Let there be an end of it. Avenge yourselves, on me, then cease from harassing Israel, -that would have been like a brave man. But it is not this we find. And we close the story of Samson more sad than ever that Israel’s history has not: taught a great man to be a good man, that the hero has not achieved the morally heroic, that adversity has not begotten in him a wise patience and magnanimity. Yet he had a place under Divine Providence. The dim troubled faith that was in his soul was not altogether fruitless. No Jehovah worshipper would ever think of bowing before that god whose temple fell in ruins on the captive Israelite and his thousand victims.