Twelve young adults sit on couches, chairs and floor pillows around a living room with their Bibles open. Let’s listen in on their conversation.

“We’re continuing our study in the life of Samson. You’ll recall that the Philistines shaved Samson’s head and then blinded and imprisoned him after Delilah tricked Samson into revealing that his strength was in his long hair. A couple weeks ago we noticed a verse that indicated that Samson’s hair had started to grow again. Last week we learned that the Philistines brought the prisoner Samson into a celebration dedicated to their god Dagon so that he could ‘entertain’ them. Lindsay, would you mind reading our passage for this week, Judges 16:28-30?”

“Yes, I’d be glad to: ‘Then Samson called to the Lord and said, ‘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.’ And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested, and he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life.’”

“Thank you for reading, Lindsay. Alright, let’s discuss this passage together. How do you think this passage applies to your life?”

“Well, this passage really spoke to me while Lindsay was reading it. I mean, I’ve been struggling with my boss at work because of the patronizing way he speaks to me. I’ve been feeling weak and helpless about my situation. Listening to Lindsay read this passage reminded me that I need to ask God to give me strength even when I feel helpless, no matter how difficult my situation seems at the moment.”

“Thanks for sharing. Someone else?”

“For me, this passage was important because I’ve been thinking lately about how godless our governmental system has been getting. Picturing Samson standing in a room full of people sacrificing to a Philistine god reassured me that others have had to live under difficult governments too — even harder than we face right now. I don’t know what to do about it, though I’m starting to wonder if there might be some way that Christians could start to pull down the pillars of ungodliness in our government. I don’t know … but I still received encouragement knowing that we’re not the first to live under such godlessness.”

“You’re so right that our government doesn’t display much godliness; that’s for sure. We’ll pray for you that God will help you know how to deal with this burden you’re feeling. Is there someone else who would like to share?”

“Yes, I got something completely different from this passage. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we underestimate God’s power and his ability to do miracles. I wonder if we should start praying for God to do more miracles in our current age like Samson did.”

“That’s interesting. I’ve been wondering the same thing myself recently. Is there one more person who’s willing to share?”

“Yes. But I was thinking about something else altogether. I think that there’s some truth we can take away from this passage about death and dying. Samson didn’t give up even though he was at the end of his life. All the way until his final breath he was praying for God to use him.”

“Hmm. I hadn’t noticed that there might be something that we could apply to the challenges surrounding the end of life. Thank you for that comment and for all of you who were willing to share. There is so much for us to take away from this passage and bring into our daily lives … ”

Not the Way to Do It

Hopefully, you have already seen through some of the problems with this imaginary Bible study.

But how should a passage like this be applied? What difference does it make in our lives? Let’s back up for a moment; maybe we should ask some other questions first: Why did the author of Judges include the story of Samson anyway? Why is the story of Samson in our Bibles at all?

Samson is the last “judge” (think “deliverer”) to arise during a terrible period in Israel’s history when “there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 21:25 — the final and theme verse of Judges). The book of Judges is organized by sin “cycles” (Judg. 2:11-19) that run through four stages repeatedly in the book:

1. The people sin.

2. They get oppressed by some foreign power.

3. They cry out to God in their distress.

4. God shows mercy by sending a deliverer.

But Judges doesn’t only move in circles; it spirals downward. Things get worse the further you read in the book. Even the judges who are good toward the beginning of the book (and whom you expect to be positive exceptions to the status quo) get worse as the book progresses. Samson is the last and the worst of the deliverers. Samson is not included as a positive example; he is included by the author of Judges as a negative example.

We are not supposed to “be strong like Samson,” even if that is an easy theme to teach to a class of Kindergarteners. We are warned through the Samson story of what happens when people reject God and live any way they please. This is true whether you are God’s specially-appointed deliverer or not.

From the standpoint of the movement and flow of the Bible, the book of Judges prepares us for 1 Samuel when the people of Israel are going to plead for a king because of their unwillingness to submit to God as King. So, Judges offers a partial explanation of how Israel got into such a bad state in their relationship with God.

Four Questions

So how should we apply a passage like the story of Samson’s death? Here are four questions that will help you arrive at reliable applications of any section of the Bible:

1. What does this passage illustrate about the character of God? (Rom. 15:4-6)

2. How does this passage point out sin? (Rom. 3:20; 7:7)

3. How does this passage lead to Christ? (Gal. 3:24)

4. Are there any other biblical themes this passage illustrates? (Matt. 23:23)

Let’s ask these four questions of the Samson story:

What does this passage illustrate about the character of God? God is holy and is totally in the right when he judges false gods like Dagon and those who worship them. God himself is the real deliverer.

Lord, I want to treat you as holy and as righteous. I come to you for my own deliverance.

How does this passage point out sin? This passage in the context of the whole Samson story calls attention to the idolatry of the Philistines and the consequences of Samson’s own sins, including disobedience to God, dishonoring his parents, viciousness, sexual immorality and unfaithfulness to his vow.

Lord, I confess my own sins. They’re not all the same as Samson’s but his sins help me see my own need for grace.

How does this passage lead to Christ? This passage works together with the rest of Judges (and indeed, the entire Old Testament) to illustrate the vacuum created when people “do what is right in their own eyes.” It highlights a longing — a yearning, a craving — for deliverance, for release, for salvation. We know from the rest of Scripture that God will answer that deepest of all human needs by sending Jesus Christ who dies and rises again for the forgiveness of sins.

Lord, I want to keep looking to Jesus who died for me.

Are there any other biblical themes this passage illustrates? Yes, in the Bible there are many themes that get repeated in various passages, whether directly taught or somehow illustrated. Jesus scolded the Pharisees for not paying attention to such themes: “[You] have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). Jesus in this verse ties into the idea that there are themes such as justice and mercy and faithfulness that show up again and again in the Bible.

Lord, let me see the themes in your Word that I need to understand to grow in the knowledge of You.

So, what about the applications taken from the Samson story during our fictitious Bible study? Does God care when you feel mistreated by someone? Yes. Does the Bible have anything to say about Christian engagement with politics? Yes. Are there repeated instances of miracles in the Bible; is it a biblical theme? Yes. Does the Bible have anything to say about death and dying? Yes.

But none of these is the main idea of the story of Samson’s death, nor is any of them even an important sub-point in light of this author’s overall purposes. It isn’t wrong for you to talk about them if they show up as ideas elsewhere in Scripture. But you will make a colossal error if you claim that Judges 16:28-30 “teaches” us how to get along at work, how to engage with politics, how to relate to miracles or how to approach death and dying.

Applications should flow out of what a biblical author is trying to do with a text. Make sure to keep your applications of Scripture tethered to the text.

This post was adapted from chapter four of my book Bible Revival: Recommitting Ourselves to One Book. I’d love for you to pick up a copy of this book if you want to revitalize your engagement with the Bible.

This post and other resources are available at Kindle Afresh: The Blog and Website of Kenneth Berding.