The Nature of Genuine Repentance from Samuel

The call of God to man from the beginning of Scripture to the end has always been in one word “Repent.”

Repent was the central message of the prophets of old.  For a typical example of the message of the prophets: Ezekiel 18:30-32, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, each according to his conduct,” declares the Lord GOD.  “Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you.  Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!  For why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord GOD.  “Therefore, repent and live.”

As the Old Testament (OT) era was coming to an end and the age of the Messiah (the Christian age) was beginning, John the baptizer came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.  The title of all his sermons was the same.  It was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Then as Jesus began His public ministry, in Matthew 4:17 it says, “He began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

After giving His disciples some training, Jesus sent them out to preach in the many villages and towns of Galilee, and Mark 6:12 says, “They went out and preached that men should repent.”

Jesus illustrated with parables that there is great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (Luke 15).

After His death and resurrection and appearing to His disciples, Luke 24 says He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.  In other words, He led them in a great Bible study, showed them what everybody had missed in the Scriptures about the Christ, that is, about the anointed one, the great king God promised to raise up that He would die for our sins and raise from the dead.  And Luke 24:46 says this was the conclusion to Jesus’ Bible class, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

So a couple of months later Peter was preaching in Jerusalem that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Scriptures and we’re all witnesses of Him alive from the dead and He’s Lord of all with salvation to give.  “Therefore,” Acts 3:19, “repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away…”

Years later, Paul was preaching in Athens and listen to how he concludes his sermon.  “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

II Peter 3:9 says that the reason God has not yet destroyed the world and set up His new creation, is that He is being patient with people, “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”  He is holding Himself back because He knows there are still some people on earth who will come to repentance if He just gives them a little more time.  And you see, what it is to be a person who is right with God, who will not perish, who will have eternal life, who will be a part of God’s new creation, is to be a person who repents.

What is repentance?

I’ve noticed from Bible studies I’ve had with people that repentance to many today is just a fancy church word.  Some suspect it means to feel sorry or some remorse over your sin, maybe including asking for forgiveness or doing a ritual of some sort.

But there are primarily two words in the original languages of the Bible that are translated repent.  In the OT, it is the Hebrew word shuwbShuwb was a word that literally just meant, turn or turn back.  It means stop going that direction and go this other direction.  And of course the turning God calls for is a turning from sin to righteousness, a turning away from a life that is contrary to God’s will and a turning to the way of life that is in harmony with His will, or to use the words of the prophet Samuel (I Sam 12:20-21) it’s turning from going after futile things, which cannot profit or deliver, and turning to follow and serve the Lord.

In the NT, the Greek word for repent is metanoeo.  That word meant, change your mind, to recognize that an option you chose before is wrong and to reject that option and choose another.  And of course the change of mind God calls for is a change of mind that has you choose to no longer go your own way in life but to go God’s way.

Change is the key idea in repentance.  It is to change your thinking, your attitudes, your priorities, and your behavior according to the will of God.

But sometimes simply defining the terms is not enough.  Sometimes people may know the basic idea of repentance and claim that they have done so, when in reality what they’ve done is less than the repentance that God is calling for.  Sometimes we need elaboration and examples and emphasis to clarify and impress upon us the nature of the repentance that God is looking for.

In the books of I and II Samuel, where we’ve been studying from about the life of David, that’s exactly what we find.  We find descriptions, explanations, examples, and illustrations that clarify what genuine, acceptable repentance is in the eyes of God and what it’s not.  In fact it appears to be one of the main emphases of the books of Samuel.  And that’s what I’d like to share with you.  So this study isn’t going to be much about David, though we’ll mention him.

Let’s start with I Samuel 7 where we find…

The prophet Samuel’s description of genuine repentance (I Samuel 7:2-14)

The last few decades in Israel had been years of hardship.  They’d lost multiple battles and resources and land to the Philistines.  The Philistines had the upper hand.  And things were only getting worse in Israel.  But they finally came to the point where they realized, as I hope America will realize before it’s too late, that the problem was not a lack of military strength.  The problem was not political or economic or social or environmental.  It was not their tax system or health care or foreign policy or their intelligence or anything like that.  They came to finally realize that the problem was that God who rules the world was not pleased with them and was not blessing them.  And so it says at the end 7:2 that “all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.”  They knew they had grieved God with their unfaithfulness to Him, that they were not right with God, and that until they were right with God they would have no hope of things getting better.  So they expressed sorrow for their sin and separation from God.

So then Samuel the prophet seized the opportunity of people having open hearts to tell them how to gain God’s favor and blessing.  And guess what he told him?  He told them to repent, which right there tells us something about repentance, that repentance is more than feeling and expressing sorrow over your sin and separation from God.  Israel was feeling sorry and saying they were sorry and acting sorry.  But they needed to go further than that.  They needed to repent, they needed to decide to turn, and change.

And Samuel did not just tell them to repent; he explained to them what it means to repent in the way that will gain them God’s favor and blessing.  He called it returning to the Lord with all your heart.  Halfhearted repentance will not do.  It must be wholehearted.  And Samuel spelled out for them what wholehearted repentance entails.  Let’s read it.  3 Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return [shuwb] to the Lord with all your heart, [then do three things.  #1] remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and [#2] direct your hearts to the Lord and [#3] serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”

When we turn to the Lord with all our heart, we likewise do three things.

  • #1, we put away our sin. What we know God does not want us doing, we stop and  we don’t go back to it.  For the ancient Israelites that meant, as Samuel told them, that they “remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth” from among themselves.  For us it may mean we put aside our dishonest business practices, we put an end to an immoral relationship, we put aside our worship and devotion to money or pleasure or peoples’ opinion of oneself.  A lot of people think of repentance as just turning away from sinful things we’ve been doing.  But that’s only half of it.  We turn away from what we are doing that we know is wrong.
  • #2, Samuel says we direct your hearts to the Lord. Or your version might say “commit yourselves to the Lord.”  We resolve in our hearts, “Lord, from this day forward I’m doing things Your way.  You’re in charge now.  I am your servant.”  It means that now you are going to start doing the things He wants you doing.  It’s not just stopping some old habit, it’s changing some new habits.  For example, John the baptizer was preaching out in the wilderness before Jesus came into the scene, and he told people to repent and that there needed to be fruits of repentance in their life; outward, visible demonstrations in your life that you’ve truly repented and “Every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown to the fire.  You’ve got to bear the fruits of repentance.”  People were asking him, “Okay, John, we believe you.  We have to bear these fruits of repentance in our lives, but what is that?  What does that look like in a person’s life?”  And the first thing John said was this (Luke 3:11), “If you have two tunics and there is somebody who doesn’t have adequate clothing, then you give him one of your tunics.  And if you have food but somebody else doesn’t, then you give them some food.  You start showing compassion.  You quit just thinking about yourself all the time and start looking out for the needs of others and giving and serving and helping.”  See, genuine repentance involves both a repudiation of the bad and a commitment to do the good.  Repentance means, now you’re going to start meeting with other Christians to worship and build one another up spiritually, because the Lord commands us to.  Repentance means you’re going to be baptized, because the Lord commands it.  Repentance means you’re going to start learning the word of God, because He commands us to listen to Him and to grow in our knowledge of Him.  Repentance means you’re going to start praying now on a regular basis, because the Lord tells us to be committed to prayer.
  • And then #3, Samuel says wholehearted genuine repentance means that we serve the Lord alone. You’re not going to have divided loyalties.  It’s sort of like marriage, the commitment that you made at your wedding; do you remember your vows?  They probably contained something like, “I take thee so and so to be my lawfully wedding wife or husband, and I promise before God and these witnesses to love and honor you in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, in prosperity and in adversity, and I promise to forsake all others and keep myself to you and to you only, so long as we both shall live.”  Marital vows are a pledge to a lifetime of an exclusive relationship, where only that person is going to be your mate, your partner, your other half; you’re not going to give that place to anyone else.  Well, God demands an exclusive relationship in which He is our God and we have no others besides Him.  And that doesn’t mean that we don’t just worship any other supernatural beings in the spirit realm.  Your god is simply whoever or whatever has your loyalty and devotion.  That’s why Paul in Colossians 3:5 and Ephesians 5:5 calls greed or covetousness, idolatry.  It’s serving another god.  Because covetousness is when you so desire to have something that it’s what you’re most loyal and devoted to.  You’ve put that thing, whatever it is, money or being in the favor of your friends and coworkers, or some pleasure or position in society, you’ve put that in God’s rightful place.  God will not tolerate a rival in our hearts.  He will not tolerate competition in our hearts.  He will not tolerate divided loyalties where we will serve Him on Sunday but then on Monday we serve the almighty dollar and Him second.  Repentance means, truly from your heart, deciding, “Lord from this day forward you will be in charge of my life, every area of my life, my work life, home life, ‘with my friends’ life.  I will follow your voice over the voice of money, over the voice of the culture, over the voice my coworkers, even over the voice my family.  To You alone will my spirit yield.  You alone are my heart’s desire.  I love you more than any other, so much more than anything.”

And if you read the rest of I Samuel 7 you read that the people did as Samuel told them.  They put away their false gods and turned to serve the Lord alone.  And God didn’t overlook it, He responded.  In an awesome powerful way, He delivered them from the Philistines and started blessing them.

Now, we get some more clarification about this repentance thing if we go to I Samuel 15.

Saul’s impenitence (I Samuel 15)

Saul is king of Israel here.  In the first part of the chapter, the prophet Samuel says to Saul, “Thus says the Lord, you are to go and attack the city of Amalek and destroy absolutely everything, every person, even the animals, all the valuables.”  So, king Saul went and attacked this evil terrorist-like city (Deut 25:17-18) and destroyed almost everything.  He spares the king, because that’s what you did in the ancient world when you conquered another kingdom.  You kept the king as a slave and as, sort of like, a trophy that you kept on display.  And he also spares the best of the sheep and oxen and the choicest of the spoils.  It didn’t make sense to him to destroy all these valuable animals and stuff.  He didn’t understand why God would commanded that.  So since God’s way didn’t seem best to him, he did it his way.  Like at Burger King, you see the burger on the menu you want, and they have their recommended way of making it, with ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, onion, and tomato.  But at Burger King, you can have it your way, you can change the toppings.  Saul thought he could treat God’s command like that.  Okay God I’ll do that, but I’m going to modify it a bit and have it my way.  15:13, “Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the LORD!  I have carried out the command of the LORD.”  He thinks he can take God’s commands and modify them a bit as he saw fit and do that and that’s obedience.  So “I’ve obeyed,” he says.  14 But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”  Samuel doesn’t think you can treat God’s commands like your sandwich at Burger King.  Samuel understands, you do it God’s way or it’s disobedience.  The command of God was to exterminate everything, wasn’t it?  So how could there be things alive if Saul obeyed?

Now when confronted with his disobedience, there are three things Saul tries here as substitutes for genuine wholehearted repentance, three things that are (commonly today as well) tried in place of true repentance.

First, Saul tries deflection.

He tries to divert the blame on to others.  He says, verse 15, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen , to sacrifice to the Lord your God; the rest we have utterly destroyed.”  “Samuel, it was the people, they thought this was best and they did this.  It’s not really my fault.”

Deflection, you know, is as old sin itself.  Remember when God came to Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Adam, did you eat of that tree of which I commanded you not to eat of?”  “It was that WOMAN that YOU gave me.  She gave me from the tree and I ate.”  Oh poor Adam, he was just the victim, right?  If God wouldn’t have given him that woman, and that woman wouldn’t have brought him that fruit…  And remember what the woman said when the Lord turned to speak to her?  “It was that serpent who talked to me and deceived me.  The devil made me do it.”  Oh they both just couldn’t help what they did.  It wasn’t their fault.

And people haven’t changed.  Deflection is still what many try in place of repentance.  “I wouldn’t drink so much and treat my wife like I do if my father had been a better example.  If my mother had taken more interest in me, then I wouldn’t be involved in this stuff I do.  If I’d gone to a different school, if I’d grown up in a different environment, if I wasn’t scared for life by traumatic experiences in little league, then I wouldn’t be the way I am.”  Or “It’s just my personality.  It’s the way God made me.  I was born this way.  I can’t help it.”  Or “If I hadn’t had such a hard day, I wouldn’t have lost my temper and done that.”

Well, God didn’t accept deflection in the beginning.  And He didn’t accept it here with Saul.  And there’s no indication that He’ll accept it from us either.

16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait, and let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”  And he said to him, “Speak!” 17 Samuel said, “Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel?  And the Lord anointed you king over Israel, 18 and the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated’ 19 Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord, but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”   You did this.  You are responsible.  Yes, other people, our background, our environment, our culture, and other factors can influence us and nudge us in a certain direction, but ultimately the choice is ours to give in and go that direction or to go against the grain and do what is right.  God holds us responsible for what we do.  Deflection cannot replace repentance.

When deflection doesn’t work, Saul’s second strategy is argumentation.

20 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites.  21 But the people took some of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the choicest of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”  So he sort of reinterprets and redefines God’s command.  God’s command was exterminate everyone and everything; seems pretty clear.  Saul says that didn’t have to include the king, because that’s how it usually goes when you conquer another kingdom, you take the king captive.  And that didn’t have to include the valuable spoil and sheep and oxen, when the people want them for later offerings to the Lord.  And that was everybody’s general consensus on the matter.  “So what I did was fine.”

And we might try argumentation in place of repentance.  “Those prohibitions against homosexuality and premarital sex and such don’t really make sense today.  Some people have sort of this inborn personality that makes them prefer the same gender.  Those were commands because of the culture in ancient times.  Things are very different today.  We are far more advanced.  We know as long as it’s consenting adults, it’s fine.  Those archaic commands don’t apply to us.”  That’s society’s general consensus today.  “God commands about honesty, but that doesn’t apply to your taxes or to business.  Leading the customer to believe something that’s not totally true is just part of the game in business.  Everybody knows that.  It’s this and that command that are the really important ones.  But these other commands over here are more like recommendations.  That one doesn’t apply because it doesn’t make sense to me.  So don’t tell me I’m not obeying the Lord in my life.”

But, you know, here with Saul God didn’t accept argumentation in place of repentance any more than He accepted deflection.  God expected Saul to recognize that God’s way is right and best even if it may not make sense to us at the moment.  And when God gives a command, He doesn’t say one thing but mean something else.  He says what He means and He means what He says.  And it’s not subject to us adjusting it as though we know better.  “22 Samuel said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the Lord?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.  23 For rebellion is as the sin of divination, And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.  Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has also rejected you from being king.” 

So Saul tries one more strategy to appease God and Samuel.  He tries an outward show of repentance.

24Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice.  25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me, that I may worship the Lord.”  Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?  But you find in the next chapter, 16:7, that God looks at people’s hearts.  God could see that in Saul’s heart there hadn’t really been a change.  Saul’s heart had not turned to the point where he was committed to serve the Lord and do things the Lord’s way even when it didn’t make sense to him and even when it may have made him less popular with the people.

“26 But Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”  27 As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore.  28 So Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you.  29 Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.”  30 Then he said, “I have sinned; [Then what he says next here I think reveals what was really the most important thing to Saul.  He says,] but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and go back with me, that I may worship the Lord your God.”  What’s Saul’s big concern?  His public image, how people thought of him.  He wants Samuel to come with him and worship with him so it doesn’t look like he disobeyed God and people wouldn’t think less of him.  And it appears God could see that that was still the main concern of Saul’s heart, being liked by people.  We all want the people in our work places and at church and our neighbors and our family and relatives to like us, but when pleasing people, we’re showing that these peoples’ opinions are more important to us than pleasing God, and God has a rival in our hearts.  We’ve not wholeheartedly turned to the Lord to follow His voice over all the other voices.

In the books of I and II Samuel, David is presented as the stark contrast to Saul.  We’re not going to take the time to look at it.  But we’ve been seeing it in our study of David, especially when Nathan the prophet confronted David about his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed out at war to cover it up.  It’s the reason that David had God’s favor and grace and eternal life, even though he committed some really big sins at various points in his life.  When David was confronted with his sin, David did not reinterpret God’s commands to justify himself; David did not pass the blame on to others.  He accepted responsibility for his choices.  And every time, he wholeheartedly put away his sin, committed Himself to serve the Lord, and to follow His voice over all other voices.

And we see in David’s life, we’re never done with repentance.  There were many occasions in David’s life that called for it.  Like when he was going to take revenge on Nabal, when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, when he proudly numbered the people of Israel to see how many people he was worth, etc.  Repentance was a continual aspect of David’s life.  And it’s a continual aspect of my life and I hope of yours.  When we find ourselves out of harmony with the will of God, if we turn away from our sin, turn to serve God, and give Him our loyalty and devotion, then the blood of Jesus keeps on cleansing us of our sins.

-James Williams

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