Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Heart's Obedient Turn from Sin to God

After introducing this series on the nature of Biblical repentance, I looked last Tuesday at one of the Hebrew words the Old Testament uses to describe repentance: nacham. I noted that the major lesson nacham teaches us about repentance is that there is an emotional component involved. Biblical repentance includes remorse and sorrow, and at times experiences such remorse and sorrow to the degree that it moves one to demonstrate his sorrow in action.

Yet nacham doesn't give us the whole story on what the Old Testament has to say about repentance. Certainly it involves the emotions, but another Old Testament word gives us a greater insight into the nature of Biblical repentance.

The most common word for repentance in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word שׁוּב. One way to transliterate שׁוּב is simply shuv (pronounced “shoov”). Though not every occurrence of shuv, which appears over 1,050 times in the Old Testament, carries the sense of evangelical repentance, even its non-technical use sheds light on the nature of true repentance.

At its most basic sense, shuv means to turn or to return. The word’s wide semantic range includes the general concepts of turning (Deut 23:13)
, returning (Gen 3:19), reverting, and withdrawing (2 Sam 11:15). Some cognate forms even add faithless (Jer 3:11), rebellious, and turning back (Gen 14:17). It can be used to describe God’s own turning from a decision to inflict calamity (Ex. 32:12; Deut 13:17; Josh 7:26), as well as Israel’s turning away from God in disobedience (Josh 22:16; Jdg 2:19). However, in the more than fifty occurrences in which it does signify man’s repentance, "better than any other verb it combines in itself the two requisites of repentance: to turn from evil and to turn to the good" (TWOT, 2:909). We learn much of Biblical repentance through its study.

As the most basic sense of shuv is to turn, we first learn that Biblical repentance is a turning from sin (1Ki 8:35)
, transgression (Is 59:20), and iniquity (Dan 9:13). Eliphaz describes repentance to Job as "removing unrighteousness far from your tent" (Job 22:23), and Jeremiah repeatedly calls Israel to turn from their "evil way" (Jer 19:11-12; 25:5; 26:3; 36:3; 35:15). Ezekiel is careful to note that repentance involves repudiating all known sin in our lives and not just particular sins (Ezek 18:21). In Israel, where idol worship was rampant, the call to repentance often included the call to turn from the practice of idolatry (1Sam 7:3; Jer 4:1-14; Ezek 14:6). Indeed, true repentance is impossible for one who continues in sin, as Hosea 5:4 says, "Their deeds will not allow them to return to their God." In other words, in the mind of the prophet Hosea, persisting in one's sin and returning to God are mutually exclusive. The mere persistence in your deeds will itself prevent you from enjoying fellowship with God.

Therein is the next characteristic of shuv. It involves not only turning from sin, but also turning to God. The break from sin serves the end of being restored to fellowship -- a right relationship -- with God. Repentant individuals are said to seek Yahweh (Is 9:13)
and His favor (Dan 9:13). Israel is called to tremble at His goodness and to let that goodness entice them to seek Him (Hos 3:5). They are to put away their idols and be unwavering in their worship to Him alone (Jer 4:1-4; 1Sam 7:3). Isaiah contrasts the repentant with those who forsake Him (Is 1:27-28), which shows that there is a relational component to repentance. Yahweh Himself says as much when He commands Israel to turn their faces from idols (Ezek 14:6). Instead, He desires that they turn their faces in adoration and worship to Him.

Further, turning to God to serve and worship Him alone requires that the sinner "reform [his] ways and [his] deeds" (Jer 18:11)
. Shuv involves a change of lifestyle that results in obedience, which in some cases entails "fasting, weeping, and mourning" (Joel 2:12). When Solomon prays that Yahweh would grant Israel's repentance after times of sin, he prayed that along with that repentance Yahweh would "teach them the good way in which they should walk" (1Ki 8:36). And it is not as though this obedience is undefined; rather, the call to shuv often includes a call to keep Yahweh's commandments as revealed in the Law of Moses (Deut 4:30; 2Ki 17:13; 23:25). The one who will surely live is the one who turns from his sins, "and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness" (Ezek 18:21). And as Daniel confesses the sins of his people, he defines their lack of repentance as a failure to "[give] attention to Your truth" (Dan 9:13).

However, while obedience is a necessary fruit of repentance, it is a mistake to conflate repentance with merely external activities. The turn from sin and idolatry to a restored relationship with Yahweh is preeminently focused on the heart (Jer 4:4). First, the many calls to shuv require that the repentant one acknowledge his need. Hosea calls
Israel to return (Hos 14:1) and say to Yahweh, "Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously" (Hos 14:2); there is a confession of sin and an acknowledgment of a need for grace. Further, the calls for turning with "all your heart and all your soul" are extremely prevalent (Deut 4:29; 30:2, 10; 1Ki 8:48; Jer 3:10). And though Yahweh calls for fasting, mourning, and weeping, the call to shuv is to "return to Me with all your heart" (Joel 2:12). Indeed, in Yahweh's mind, it is an attitude of the heart that produces the very acts of obedience. Further, as if that was not sufficient emphasis, He immediately follows with a command which condemns merely external ritualism, calling His people to "rend your hearts and not your garments" (Joel 2:13).

Finally, shuv results in blessing. The one who turns from sin and to God with all his heart, while acknowledging a need for grace and bearing obedient fruit in keeping with repentance, is promised redemption (Is 1:27-28; 59:20), deliverance (1Sam 7:3), compassion (2Chr 30:9), restored fellowship with God (Job 22:23), the privilege of declaring His praise (Hos 14:2), and spiritual life (Ezek 18:21-32). Indeed, "the repudiation of all sin and affirmation of God's total will for one's life" (TWOT, 2:909) gives "a completely new direction to the whole man in a return from sin to God."

Between shuv and nacham, then, we have a pretty good idea about what the Old Testament taught about repentance. Next time, we'll look to what the New Testament has for us.

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