Studying biblical characters who failed can protect us from repeating their folly.
David’s affair. Peter’s denial. Noah’s drunkenness. Jacob’s conniving. God’s Word spares no details as it candidly reveals the shortcomings of His children. I’m sure glad He didn’t include my story in His permanent record!
But God had a good reason for recording the failures of His faithful ones. Romans 15:4 explains: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Paul expanded upon that idea in 1 Cor. 10:6, 11: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did . . . These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.”
God wants us to learn from others to avoid making the same mistakes ourselves. How can we profit from these accounts of failure? One good way is to study them.
A Mile in Their Shoes
To begin, choose a biblical character to study. Perhaps you already have someone in mind, somebody who has always intrigued you or made you ask, “Why did God choose him?” Does it bother you that Abraham lied? That Jonah was a coward? If no one comes to mind, look through a book that catalogs Bible characters, such as Everyone in the Bible by William P. Barker.
Next, use a concordance to locate every reference to that person. Make sure to include New Testament references to Old Testament characters, since these can provide valuable insight. For example, the account of Lot in Genesis mentions little that commends him. But 2 Pet. 2:7–8 describes his inner turmoil: “[God] rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard).”
Now, prayerfully read your character’s story several times. To put yourself in that person’s shoes, consider the following questions.
- What did the character do right? Wrong?
- What motivated him?
- What were the character’s moral strengths and weaknesses?
- Was there a clear point at which decline began, or was it gradual?
- What opportunities did he have to repent? How did he respond to these?
- What could the character have done differently to avoid failing God?
- In what way(s) am I like this person?
- What do I need to do to avoid making the same mistakes?
In a spirit of humility, record your observations. Then write a summary that includes a personal application plan. Finish your study with a prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God for using “jars of clay” to reveal His all-surpassing power (2 Cor. 4:7).
Sample Study: Samson Judges 13–16
What did Samson do right? Wrong?
Samson had godly parents who feared, trusted, and obeyed the Lord. They believed the angel of God who told them their unborn son would deliver Israel from the Philistines. They obeyed all of God’s commands concerning how to raise Samson as a Nazarite. The Lord blessed Samson and began to stir in him while he was still living at home with his parents.
But Samson made his first wrong move when he visited the Philistine town of Timnah. In that city, he met and soon married a Philistine woman, even though God had prohibited marriage between His children and the Canaanites (Ex. 34:16, Dt. 7:3). Later Samson visited a Philistine prostitute. Ultimately he allowed Delilah, his Philistine mistress, to rob him of the source of his strength.
Despite these failures, however, the author of Hebrews still included Samson in his list of the Old Testament heroes of the faith (Heb. 11:32).
What motivated Samson?
Although Samson should have been motivated by God’s extraordinary call on his life, he seemed to be compelled by cravings for sensual pleasure and revenge. Even in the final victory in which he slew more than 3,000 Philistines, he did not destroy the temple because of the idol worship that was taking place. Instead, he asked God to give him the strength to topple the massive structure to “get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes” (Jdg. 16:28).
What were Samson’s strengths and weaknesses?
Samson had unprecedented physical strength, and he acknowledged God as the source of that strength. But Samson was self-willed, impulsive, and impertinent. He told his parents, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife” (Jdg. 14:2). He failed to honor them and the Lord regarding his marriage to a Philistine. Samson had other character flaws as well. He had a blazing temper and could sometimes be cruel. Once he tied 300 foxes’ tails together with lit torches between them. And strong as he was physically, he couldn’t say no to a weeping woman.
Was there a clear point at which Samson’s decline began, or was it gradual?
Samson’s defeat first became apparent outwardly when he visited Philistia and came back demanding a Philistine wife. But I suspect it must have begun earlier than the text records, whenever he first began putting pleasure before God. Why wasn’t Samson’s first priority seeking God for wisdom about how to defeat the Philistines, since that was God’s revealed purpose for his life? Why didn’t Samson respect the desires of his godly parents? Did he think he was above moral failure and compromise?
What opportunities did Samson have to repent, and how did he respond to these?
God graciously used Samson’s sinful alliance with the Philistine woman to accomplish His purposes. “This was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines” (Jdg. 14:4). But Samson never realized that God had used the unholy union to establish him as Israel’s mighty leader.
This pattern of blindness to God’s work in Samson’s life can be seen over and over again: when his wife died, when God’s Spirit strengthened Samson for mighty acts, when God miraculously supplied a spring of water, when God helped him escape entrapment in Gaza, and when He allowed Samson three opportunities to recognize Delilah’s treachery before his ultimate downfall. All of these were occasions of God’s mercy and opportunities for Samson to repent. But he did not. Nor does Judges indicate that Samson ever sought forgiveness for his sins against the Lord.
How could Samson have acted differently to avoid failing God?
Samson could have obeyed his parents, honoring their admonition to marry an Israelite. He could have obeyed God concerning intermarriage, not considering himself above God’s law. He could have made God’s call on his life his first priority. He could have examined his heart and his ways, asking God for wisdom, purity, and an undivided heart to lead Israel. Samson could have asked the Lord to avenge him rather than taking matters into his own hands. He could have avoided sexual immorality of any kind. Finally, Samson could have fled from Delilah when he saw that she could not be trusted.
In what way(s) am I like Samson?
Samson’s most basic flaw seems to be his failure to put God’s will above his own. God was forced to work in spite of Samson rather than with his willing cooperation. I wonder what God would have done through this strong man if Samson had been motivated to honor Him instead of being consumed by his own interests and pleasures.
Too often, I, too, am driven by my own desires. I use my God-given gifts and abilities to further my own agenda rather than God’s. Do I limit what God will do through me because I want to serve Him on my terms rather than His? Does He have to work in spite of me? These are questions I need to continue thinking about.
What action must I take to avoid repeating Samson’s mistakes?
I want to make the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane a regular part of my prayer life: “Not my will, but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42). I will seek to use my spiritual gifts for God’s purposes and not my own and ask the Lord to search my heart and repent of any sins He reveals. I will also pray for my son, that he will wholeheartedly fulfill God’s plan for his life, avoiding the snares of immorality, unholy partnerships, and revenge. Finally, I will praise God that He can use even my folly and sin to accomplish His purposes.