We are drawing to the end of a time the Jewish calendar refers to as the “Days of Awe,” that ten-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Festival of Trumpets, and ends with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. From the blast of the ram’s horn last Wednesday evening until it sounds again before sundown this Saturday, the people of Israel have been called to focus on repentance from sin. But most Jews—indeed, most people—are unclear about what is meant by sin. Nor are we very comfortable speaking of sin and repentance—and so the days between the two holidays are often neglected or ignored.
Yet the Jewish Scriptures, particularly the book of Psalms, can be a tremendous guide to true repentance. Perhaps that is why the Psalms, most notably Psalm 51, are part of the Jewish liturgy during this season. If we only paid attention, we would discover that repentance is not an occasional requirement, or even an annual appointment for ten days on the calendar. For the follower of God, repentance is to be a lifestyle, 365 days a year.
King David wrote Psalm 51 after the prophet Nathan had confronted him with his sin: adultery with Bathsheba and the covered-up murder of her husband Uriah. In repenting for these terrible sins, David exhibits an amazing comprehension of the nature of God, the nature of sin and the nature of true repentance. If we can learn these important truths from David’s plaintive plea, we will find that repentance can indeed become a year-round lifestyle that will lead us to spiritual health and blessing.
The foundation of genuine repentance begins with a deep understanding of the nature of God. People fail to repent and fail to live a life of repentance because they have a false understanding of who God is. They either see Him as a judgmental tyrant out to exact vengeance or a benevolent and kindly old man who appears indifferent to the moral condition of His own children.
As we look at Psalm 51 a beautiful, full-orbed picture of God begins to emerge. David asks God to act “according to lovingkindness and tender mercies.” He asks God to act according to His true character, knowing that God is first of all consistent. Malachi 3:6 tells us: “For I am the LORD, I do not change; therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” God does not need to be convinced, placated or cajoled into forgiving us. We don’t have to wonder what kind of mood God is in before we approach Him. We can rely upon Him to act in accordance with His nature each and every time—He is like clockwork—or rather, clockwork is like Him!
It is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, and if we make repentance a daily discipline we will experience His goodness in this way each day.
The foundation of genuine repentance continues with a deep understanding of the nature of sin. A second reason people fail to repent and fail to live a life of repentance is a false or incomplete understanding of sin. One prevalent misconception of sin limits it to only the grossest forms of deviancy—the evil we can all acknowledge in the worst of criminals but don’t see in ourselves. Others regard sin as more pervasive but shrug it off as mere mistakes that we all make. They fail to understand how deadly sin is.
Psalm 51 shows how David’s view of God has deeply informed his understanding of sin. David is graphic in explaining the nature of his sin, but notice that nowhere does he mention the details of his own sinful behavior. How does he describe sin? Transgressions: the crossing of a boundary; iniquity: missing the mark. It all relates to standards far beyond himself, standards that point back to God and His perfections.
Sin is first and foremost a rebellion against the very nature of God, a shaking of our fist at the heavens. Augustine explained sin as believing the lie that we are self-created, self-dependent and self-sustained. We might speak words of acknowledgment about God, but when we fail to acknowledge who God is with our trust and obedience, we miss the mark. That is sin.
Two men were trying to escape from an erupting volcano. As they ran from the molten rock they found their only path blocked by another river of boiling hot lava. One man was old and infirm while the other was young and healthy. With a running start the older man tried to leap across the river of fire to safety. He only managed to get a few feet before falling into the bubbling mass. The younger man, with far greater strength and skill catapulted himself much farther. He nearly made it, but still missed the mark and shared the fate of the first man. It didn’t matter how much farther he went than his companion. Missing the mark by any degree meant perishing in the burning lava. Understanding the nature of sin, of missing the mark, is one of the keys to repentance.
The third reason I believe people fail to repent and fail to live a life of repentance is a false or incomplete understanding of what repentance truly is. Once again, David’s view of God and of sin very deeply informed his understanding of repentance. It is not a matter of fearing the consequences of getting caught; it is not embarrassment, shame or self-loathing; it is not even genuine regret over hurting someone. While David probably experienced all those things, his repentance went much deeper because he understood something of the nature of God, and that he had done something odious in the sight of the One who created and sustained him. Because he understood something of the true nature of sin, he could only cry out for mercy.
The cry for mercy comes from someone who has no more tricks up his sleeve. David recognized that he had no basis of appeal, no merit to claim, no leg up to hope for more favorable treatment. In his cry we hear a combined a sense of desperation and resignation. I have nothing else to hope in other than the mercy of God. David is aware of the record of his sin, a catalog of debt, and he pleads as he cries out to the Lord, “Blot out my transgressions.” But once again, because he understands the nature of God, there is also a note of hope.
When was the last time a preacher challenged you to repent? While it is not a politically correct message, it is one that we see over and over in Scripture. Noah’s message from the steps leading up to the ark was not, “Something good is going to happen to you.” Jeremiah was not thrown into the pit for preaching, “I’m okay; you’re okay.” Daniel did not go into the lion’s den for telling people, “Think positive.” John the Baptist was not beheaded because he preached, “Smile, God loves you.” The two prophets of the tribulation will not be killed for preaching, “God is in His heaven and all is right with the world.” The prophetic message of all these godly people, whether in word or deed was simple: Repent.
And David is confident, as one who has heard and responded to the call to repent, that as he proclaims the message to others, people will respond; “And sinners shall be converted to You.” We must have that same confidence as God’s people.
The rabbis have taught that David’s sin was so heinous that had he been confronted immediately by Nathan, his life would have been forfeited, because only death could atone for David’s sin. But you remember the story. Bathsheba gave birth to a son, and that son became ill and died. So the rabbis have taught that David’s son died in his place. About this they are correct—but they have the wrong son. Yeshua (Jesus) is referred to as the son of David over and over, for that is one of His Messianic titles. His sacrifice once for all for sin is how David ultimately found his forgiveness and it is how all of us can find ours, 365 days a year.
Colossians 2:14 tells us that Jesus, “… wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Hallelujah!