Monday, May 21, 2012

The Anatomy of Repentance, Part IV

David, the King of Israel, has committed adultery, treachery, and murder.  He's taken advantage of his position as King to seduce the wife of one of his most loyal and brave commanders, and then contrived to have the man "accidentally" killed in battle - - - so that he could have the man's wife, Bathsheba, for his own.  And now, months later, what's David doing?  He's waiting for God to repent!

This is the fourth installment in our series on repentance.  In our first post, we discussed the "mechanics" of repentance, as described in James 4:7-10; in the second, we saw that genuine repentance involves, not just the things we do, but what we are.  The third post discussed the difference between true and false repentance, and the dangers of self-deception. But now we come to a question that has been a subject of bafflement and controversy to Jewish and Christian theologians for many centuries: namely, does God Himself ever repent?  Don't worry: I'm no theologian, and you're probably not either, so we're going to treat the matter as practically as possible, avoiding speculation and flights of fancy, and simply look at what the Bible itself says.  

We won't be able to answer all the questions, because God has chosen to conceal certain things from us; but we'll see what the Bible says about the main question.  And, to spare you any suspense, I'll say in advance that the answer is clear: Yes, God does sometimes "repent" - - - provided we understand what repentance means in the first place.

First, however, we need to explain that opening paragraph, and put David's hopes for God's repentance in context.  After all, David is described in both the Old and New Testaments as "a man after God's own heart" (I Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), and despite his sins of adultery and murder, he pleased God all his life.  So, why was he waiting for God to "repent?"  Repent of what?  Not of any sin, that's for sure.  It was something else.

After David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and contrived to have her husband, Uriah, killed, he thought that he had gotten away with it.  Nobody (probably including Bathsheba) knew what he had done to Uriah; the nation of Israel regarded Uriah as another casualty of war.  David took Bathsheba as his wife, and she conceived (probably from their initial encounter).  But David's sins, though hidden from men, were known to God, and God sent his prophet, Nathan, to confront him.  (The story of David's sin is found in 2 Samuel 11:1-17; his meeting with Nathan, and its aftermath, is found in 2 Samuel 12.)  Nathan told him of God's displeasure with his sin, and the terrible consequences that would follow.  And, to his credit, David himself repented, sincerely and humbly, giving us a picture of repentance that has seldom, if ever, been equalled: Psalm 51, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.  David's heart was truly broken by his own wicked acts, and he was genuinely contrite.

But Nathan had told him in advance one of the consequences of his sin:  And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die (2 Samuel 12:13-14).

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As related in 2 Samuel 12, when the baby became ill, David prayed and fasted and begged God to spare him.  He did this even though God has told him, through the prophet Nathan, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die. God had declared His intentions with terrible clarity: the baby would surely die, period, no appeals.  David believed God; as a lad, he had believed him enough to challenge Goliath, and slay him.  But now, he was hoping that God would repent of the judgment He had pronounced: that God would change His mind.  As we saw in our first post in this series, that's the first part of repentance.

Does that seem far-fetched?  David spelled it out.  When he received word of the baby's death, he quit weeping, washed his face, and resumed his life.  His servants were astonished:  Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread. And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me (2 Samuel 12:21-23).  He was hoping that God would change his mind.  (The final verse in that passage, by the way, is one of the Biblical proofs that infants who die go to be with the Lord, regardless of what any church teaches: David knew that he'd see his child in Heaven.)  And David, who knew the character and nature of God, was justified in his hopes, even if they didn't come true. 
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David knew that God could and would repent, in almost every sense of the word, because he knew God, and what God had done in the past.  And we see God changing His mind, and His actions, throughout the Old Testament. That's the essence of repentance, as we saw in our first post. 

As human beings, we rebel against this concept, because it seems to violate our concept of God.  In the first place, we know that God is omniscient, and knows everything; so why would circumstances or events cause Him to change His mind, as though He were caught by surprise?  Also, we know God to be a Being of pure goodness; so how could He "repent," as a sinner repents of some sin?

The latter objection is the easier to explain.  God repents; and you and I repent.  (We were originally made in His Image, after all; there are plenty of similarities.)  The difference is simple: when you and I repent, it's because we've done something wrong.  God never does anything wrong; "he hath done all things well" (Mark 7:37).  When God repents, or changes His mind, it's either a reflection of His nature (as we'll see), or it's because of actions done by others, who have free will (as we'll see).

Before going any further, we need to deal with a specific verse of scripture, which some would say disproves everything we're discussing.  Folks who haven't studied the Bible as a whole, but merely know a few scattered verses, will quote Numbers 23:19: God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? If that's the only verse you know on the subject, then obviously it appears that God doesn't repent.  Sounds pretty definite, doesn't it?  But this is an example of the Bible interpreting itself, without the aid of Greek and Hebrew "scholars" who, like a Philadelphia lawyer, can explain things any way you want them explained. The first two clauses define each other: that he should lie and that he should repent express a similar concept.  By using the very clear word "lie," the Bible is telling us what "repent" means in this case.  (Theologians refer to this Hebrew literary device as a "hendiades," or "one meaning through two." You see it a lot in the Psalms and other Wisdom books. Try to stay awake; that's as technical as we're gonna get.) This is, to my knowledge, the only time that the Bible equates repenting with lying, and it is an unusual use of the word; but that's what the verse is saying.  It's not saying that God doesn't repent; it's saying that He doesn't lie.  It's important to look at this verse, because it's often trotted out by skeptics as an example of the "contradictions" in the Bible.  But if one understands how the Bible is written, there's no contradiction at all. 
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The first time the Bible tells us of God's repentance (and we're not planning to go through all the examples; just a few), is in Genesis 6.  God, seeing that mankind has become unimaginably, indescribably corrupt, "repents:" And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them (Genesis 6:5-7).  What follows is Noah's flood. So, in this passage, is God "repenting" of sin, like you and I are called upon to do?  Of course not. Is He "changing His mind" about something, because events have caught Him off-guard?  No, but He is certainly responding to events that He knew would happen.  (He allowed them to happen, because He gave us free will, and will not violate it.)  Once again, however, we have an example of the Bible interpreting itself: in Gen. 6:6, repentance is equated with grief, and perhaps regret.  It grieved God that He had created mankind.  This matter of allowing the Bible to interpret itself is of prime importance, and if you read carefully, you'll see it all the time.  In Numbers 23, repentance is equated with lying; in Genesis 6, it's equated with grieving.  Of course God knew that mankind would become so terribly wicked; but it still hurt Him, and grieved Him, when it came to pass. 
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Usually, however, when God "repents" in the Bible, it is very advantageous to His creatures; His repentance is in the direction of mercy, not justice, as in Genesis 6.  (Even there, He didn't utterly destroy the race; He saved Noah and his family.)  He pronounces a curse or judgment on a people, and then repents, changes His mind, and doesn't bring the judgment to pass.  (This is what David was hoping for, as his baby son lay dying.) We can see both sides of God's repentance in Jeremiah 18:6-10: O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter's hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. In either case, is God repenting of sin?  No, He's simply exercising His divine prerogative of changing His mind - - - a prerogative that He has shared with us.  Does anyone think that a mortal man or woman can change their mind, but that God can't?  Is the creature more powerful than the Creator?  
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The classic example of God's "merciful repentance" is that of the city of Nineveh.  In the book of Jonah, God sends the prophet to make an explicit, ironclad pronouncement to the evil inhabitants of that city: Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown (Jonah 3:4).  No "escape clause," no "unless," no doubt: in forty days, God intended to destroy the city.  But having heard this message, the heathen Ninevites, who wouldn't know the Mosaic Law from a copy of TV Guide, took the message to heart; and, although God had not commanded them to repent, they repented anyway: So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not (Jonah 3:5-10).  (Notice the Ninevites' immediate reaction: they "believed God."  That's always the first step in human repentance.) God changed His mind, repented, and spared Nineveh: a perfect example of the principle stated in Jeremiah 18. The wicked pagans of Nineveh understood God's character and nature better than most 21st century "theologians," be they Catholic, Baptist, or Protestant. 

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This principle is reiterated in Jeremiah 26:13, when the prophet is speaking God's words to the lying "prophets" of Judah: Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you. Someone says, "Why does it keep referring to God repenting of 'evil?' Were His original plans really bad, or wicked?"  That's a legitimate question, but it's easily answered; in the context, such verses mean "evil" as something disastrous or deadly, not morally bad.  When afflicted, our affliction usually appears "evil."  God's goodness is not in question.  And, to repeat an earlier point: in the vast majority of cases, God's repentance usually involves mercy, and forgiveness: He's usually repenting of a judgment He'd already pronounced.  Someone might quibble, saying "Then why did He pronounce it in the first place?"  There are perfectly good reasons, but as for myself, I'm just thankful that His tendency has been towards mercy.  I'll take as much of that as I can get, no questions asked! 
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The bottom line is that yes, God does repent, probably much more often than we suspect.  There are other examples in the Bible, and undoubtedly through history - - - and your own life, and mine.  But it's a different kind of repentance than ours.  God changes His mind, and changes His course of action: in that, His repentance is like ours.  But we repent when we've sinned; God never sins.  
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And David? God took the life of his child ... but then gave him and Bathsheba another child, named Solomon.  God heard Psalm 51, and forgave David.  He is remembered as Israel's greatest King, and when Jesus returns to earth, He will sit on David's throne, in Jerusalem.  But God didn't take a "tolerant" view of David's sins.  Even in describing David's greatness, God put a qualifier: David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite (1 Kings 15:5).
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How does this all this relate to you and me?  Very personally.  We're sinners, both by nature and by choice.  And God has pronounced His judgment on sin in no uncertain terms: The soul that sinneth, it shall die (Ezekiel 18:20). For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:17-18).  If you haven't received Jesus Christ personally, by an act of the will, according to John 1:12, then you're under just as much condemnation as the ancient Ninevites.  But, in your case, God's repentance takes a different form: because He's already provided you with a choice: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved (Acts 16:31).
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Theology is complicated.  It's frustrating.  And, for most normal people, it's impossibly boring.  But getting saved, receiving Christ, and escaping God's judgment, is so simple that a child can do it.  If you haven't done this, then lay the theology aside, and take advantage of the wonderful grace that God made available by sacrificing His own Son in your place.  Nothing you can do today is more important. 
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2 comments:

  1. It's not unusual for a word to have multiple meanings or connotations, and that's really all we see happening with repentance in the Bible. You've explained it clearly, thanks!

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  2. The 'repentance' of God has been something that has puzzled me in the past, as I wasn't sure what was being said...but I KNEW that God did not sin, so it couldn't be about God repenting of His sin!

    Thank you for taking the time to explain it, as well as you did. This post is a keeper!

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