Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Biblical Repentance Involves the Emotions

Last Tuesday, I introduced a series on Biblical repentance in which I mentioned that I'd be studying the doctrine of repentance from Scripture, first by studying the words Scripture uses to speak about repentance. It's important, when trying to discover a Scriptural theology of a particular doctrine, to get that theology "from the ground up," so to speak. Contemporary Christians have a way about speaking in Scriptural terms, but using those words without their paired Scriptural meaning. And so we often wind up using the same terminology while meaning totally different things by it. Because of that, we need to go directly to Scripture and start at the most basic level: the inspired, infallible, inerrant words that God gave. This way, we can understand repentance, not the way we've always heard it or thought about it, but in the way that the writers of Scripture intend it to be understood.

One word that the Old Testament uses for repentance is the word נחם. One way to transliterate it into English is nacham. It sort of sounds like nah-CHAM, with the ch pronounced as a guttural like the ch in chanukkah. Lexical sources posit that nacham was originally an onomatopoetic word, carrying the sense of breathing deeply. This is certainly supported by Hebrew phonology, as nacham almost sounds like one is sighing. This is also consistent with the semantic range of nacham in the Old Testament, whose meanings include to have compassion, to comfort, to be sorry or sorrowful, and to repent. One can imagine someone sighing in compassion and in order to comfort someone, or because he is sorrowful about something.

Put most simply, nacham shows us the place of the emotions in repentance. It teaches that those who repent will be genuinely sorry and remorseful over their deeds. For example, it describes the mourning one does at the funeral of a family member: Now after a considerable time Shua's daughter, the wife of
Judah, died; and when the time of mourning [nacham] was ended…” (Gen 38:12). This is not hard to understand when we consider that our Lord has told us that mourning is an appropriate response to recognizing our own sin (Mt 5:4). Nacham is also used to describe the sorrow the people of Israel experience when the tribe of their brother Benjamin suffered the judgment of Yahweh because of the wickedness done to the Levite’s concubine (Jdg 19). “And the sons of Israel were sorry [nacham] for their brother Benjamin and said, ‘One tribe is cut off from Israel today’” (Jdg 21:6, cf. 21:15).

Further, after being severely rebuked by Yahweh for his complaining and arrogant words, Job expresses his deep sorrow by declaring his repentance as he sits on the ash heap in a landfill: “Therefore I retract, and I repent [nacham] in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). This godly sorrow is also said to be accompanied by shame and humiliation. In Jeremiah 31:19, this is evidenced by Ephraim (a name representing the people
Israel) smiting his thigh: “For after I turned back, I repented [nacham]; And after I was instructed, I smote on my thigh; I was ashamed and also humiliated because I bore the reproach of my youth.’” Thus, these deep emotions of remorse signaled by nacham will lead to action, such as repudiating wickedness, which God required of Jerusalem (Jer 8:6); renouncing sinful thoughts and words, as Job did when he was confronted by Yahweh (Job 42:3-6); and even changing one’s physical course of direction, which God prevented Israel from doing while fleeing the Egyptians in the exodus (Ex 13:17).

Nacham, then, underscores the emotional component of repentance. It includes remorse and sorrow, and in some cases shame and humiliation. And at times it experiences these emotions to such a degree that it moves one to demonstrate his sorrow in action.

ver, as insightful as nacham is into the nature of Biblical repentance, it's not the whole story. In order to discover that true repentance from sin goes beyond the emotional response of sorrow and regret and into the realm of affections and actions as well, we must look to another Hebrew word, which we'll get to next time.

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