Sweeter than Honey


If there is any food in the world that most people are positive about, honey would probably be it.  From ancient times it has been held in high regard for its taste, its nutrition, its use as a medicine, and its appropriateness as a gift.  No wonder, then, that scriptural references to honey present it as part of the blessings of Israel’s Promised Land (“flowing with milk and honey,” Ex. 3:9 and many times elsewhere in the O. T.); a descriptor of the taste of the miraculous manna (Ex. 16:32) and of the spiritual taste of the Word of God (Ps. 19:10); and even a part of the imagery of erotic romance in the Song of Solomon (e.g., SS 4:11 & 5:1).  Honey plays a key part in two similar narratives in the Old Testament, in each of which honey is found miraculously available in the countryside and is eaten gladly by the finder.  But also in each story, there is a failure to make full or appropriate use of the “honey” of God’s strength.

In the first of these (Judges 14), we find the strange story of Samson’s dealings with the Philistines in regard to his taking a wife from among them.  In the journey to negotiate the marriage with his chosen one, he encounters a lion, which he kills with his bare hands through the power of God.  In a subsequent journey to continue the negotiations for his wife, he comes upon the carcass of the lion he killed, in which now there is a beehive full of honey.  Samson scoops up some in his hand to eat and carries a portion to his parents as well, although he tells them nothing of its source.  His secrecy carries over to his making the lion-honey incident the source of a riddle he asks the 30 Philistine companions who were assigned to attend Samson’s nuptial feast: “Out of the eater came something to eat.  Out of the strong came something sweet” (14:14).  Samson bets his companions 30 changes of clothing that they can’t solve the riddle.

When it becomes apparent that the Philistines are not going to be able to solve Samson’s riddle, they threaten his wife and her family with being burned if she cannot  wheedle the answer out of Samson.  She finally succeeds, and when the companions give the correct answer (“What is sweeter than honey?  What is stronger than a lion?”), Samson responds by slaying 30 Philistines and taking their garments to pay off the bet.  So the lion-honey incident is not only symbolic of Samson’s later becoming the “hive” out of which God scoops the “honey” of His wrath (see my “Twilight Musing” for Dec. 4, 2015), but is also the catalyst for the opening of Samson’s Spirit-inspired battle against the oppression of Israel by the Philistines.  His eating of the miraculously supplied honey betokens his being nourished and enabled by God as Israel’s deliverer and judge.  His prideful and reckless self-reliance on the strength God has given him makes him spiritually blind to the hazard of playing with Delilah, leading to his being shorn of his strength-giving locks and rendered literally blind.

A similar story of being strengthened by eating divinely supplied honey in the wild is told in I Samuel 14, as a part of King Saul’s first campaign against the Philistines.  Saul had rashly “laid an oath on the people, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.’  So none of the people had tasted food” (14:24).  Saul in his pride had not consulted God about a strategy for defeating his enemies, but God had a plan for enabling His people to pursue the Philistines to their utter defeat.  “Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground.  And . . . the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath” (14:25).  Jonathan, however, had not heard the oath, so he ate some of the honey, “and his eyes became bright” (14:27).  When the people informed him of his father’s oath, Jonathan replied with forthright common sense (14:29-30):

Then Jonathan said, "My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey.  How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great."

When the day ended, the Philistines had been defeated, but the Israelites, in their hunger and faintness, slaughtered their plunder of cattle and ate the meat with the blood, which was forbidden by God in the Law.  Thus was proved the truth that Jonathan had uttered about the negative effect of Saul’s oath.  But far from admitting his error, Saul looked for a scapegoat to blame for God’s not answering his inquiry about whether to continue pursuing their enemies (14:36ff).  When Jonathan was identified by the casting of lots as the one who was “guilty” of having violated Saul’s oath, only the intervention of all the people prevented Saul from compounding his sin by unjustly killing his own son and heir.

As in the story of Samson and the lion-honey, the incident with the honey on the floor of the forest for Saul’s troops speaks to the issue of receiving God’s unexpected gifts of nourishment and strength with thankfulness and a recognition that these gifts are divine enablement to carry out divine purposes.  Both Samson’s and Saul’s pride curtailed the full fruition of the strength God made available to them.  Samson ignored the foreshadowing warning about his vulnerability to the wiles of foreign women, and thus he fell prey to Delilah and lost his strength.  Saul could have been empowered early in his kingship to defeat the Philistines completely, but he relied on his own strategems and was not able to see what God had supplied toward gaining a crushing victory.

The next time you eat good honey, remember and be thankful for the times when God has supplied you with good things in unexpected ways; and pray that you may always recognize and take advantage of His bounty.   As it says in Ps. 34:8-10, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good!  Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!  Oh fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear him have no lack!  The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”  Remember that ours is the God who nourished His children in the wilderness with “honey out of the rock” (Deut. 32:13).

Image: "Honey" by D. Giordano. CC License. 


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)