In Straits, In Debt, and Desperate

Have I blogged about this before? Yes, I have.

Well, I shall blog about this again. Because I love this little massage of scripture.

1 David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam, and when his brothers and all his father’s house hears, they joined him down there. 2 Everyone who was in straits and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was desperate joined him, and he became their leader; there were about four hundred men with him. (1 Samuel 22:1-2 JPS Tanakh)

I’m no David. I have not been anointed king of anything. I can barely feed and house my family. I’m not on the run from anyone, certainly not the king I’ve been selected to replace.

But this little passage has always spoken to me. The ESV translates those who found David and made him their leader as “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul.” The lost, the abandoned, the rejected, looking for someone to lead them.

What was it about David that those in need saw? What hope did he give them, embody for them, be for them, that they couldn’t find otherwise? These rejects — debtors, the angry, the unfortunate, those who like David are fleeing — become the core of David’s army, an army that fights for whoever it needs to in order to survive. There is great loyalty here in these 400 men.

Maybe this describes this ministry I do? I see a comparison. Even the lost need a captain, one who can lead and rally and command them. Even the despised need belonging. Even the “bitter in soul” need to know there is love in this world. I do something like that, though for and with teenage girls, and usually one at a time. (That … sounds really bad as I read it.) I suppose we could form an army — I have a novel I am slowly working on that considers what happens when runaway foster kids unite, organize, arm themselves, and decide to get revenge — but I’d be a lousy military leader.

I suspect David was one of them, and they knew that, and David’s honesty about himself and his circumstances drew those in similar straits to him. They knew he wouldn’t lie, or pretend, or paint a happy face on something, or demand a mere ritual. He too lived in the wilderness, running, frightened, one step ahead of the powerful, of those who meant him harm.

He was one of them. Distressed and bitter of soul. Whatever the differences between this anointed King of Israel whom God loves no end and those who came to him looking for belonging, they were in similar circumstances.

And maybe that describes this ministry too.

Falling at His Feet

Yesterday’s gospel reading — the woman who falls as Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with oil and her tears in Luke 7:36–8:3 (reminding us as well that women funded and paid the freight for Jesus and his disciples) — was paired with Nathan rebuking David for (what, exactly? adultery? raping?) Bathsheba and then, when her soldier husband Uriah refused to lay with his wife (so that her pregnancy would be easily explained), arranging to have Uriah killed in battle in 2 Samuel 12:1–13.

It makes sense. Here’s a matter of sin, being convicted of one’s sin, and repentance — grateful repentance in the case of the woman in Luke 7. We don’t know what the woman’s sin was, and in the lectionary reading we don’t have Nathan’s promise to David that the child he conceived in this sin with Bathsheba — whatever the nature of that sin was — and David’s long lament for his dying child.

His is not a grateful repentance. David is forgiven, but his tears are tears of fear, sorrow, and loss. Not gratitude.

But there was something I wanted to work into yesterday’s sermon that I didn’t. Because there wasn’t space or time.

The gospel reading begins

37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. (Luke 7:37–38 ESV)

She doesn’t fall at Jesus’ feet, but it brings to mind something that happens to David while he’s on the run from Saul in 1 Samuel 25. David and his men show up in the wilderness of Paran (in what is now an eastern portion of the Sinai Peninsula) and basically attempt to extort a meal or two (or three) from the very wealthy Nabal:

“Nice sheep you have here, and your shearers too. Pity if something happened to them, you know, if my men — who haven’t touched them, I have to tell you, have not hurt a single one of them — were to, you know, do something. Something we might both regret.”

Nabal doesn’t fall for this. “Who is this David that I should share anything with him?” Nabal may be a rude host, but David was something of a rude guest. I’m not sure I’d respond well to this kind of threat either.

A fight looms as David’s men prepare to take up arms. However, whatever sense David seems to lack in the communications department he more than makes up for in actual behavior. His men were good, and guarded Nabal’s men and property while they were out shearing in the wilderness.

So, Nabal’s cunning and comely wife Abigail takes it upon herself to right her husband’s wrong, and avert the coming disaster. For David 400 armed men ready to kill every last man standing in Nabal’s camp.

At which point, Abigail rides out to meet David:

23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. (1 Samuel 25:23–28 ESV)

What follows is Abigail’s long blessing of David, followed by a simple request that David let God have vengeance upon Nabal:

… And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant. (1 Samuel 25:31 ESV)

Because of Abigail’s intercession, David relents. He calls off his planned vengeance against Nabal, and sends Abigail on her way:

35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.” (1 Samuel 25:35 ESV)

Within a fortnight, Nabal dies (he was a bad man to begin with, and Abigail’s betrayal left no spirit in him), David’s men arrive to take Abigail away to be his wife (it was just as well Nabal died, as she would have been just one more wife David would have stolen), and Abigail responds:

41 And she rose and bowed with her face to the ground and said, “Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” (1 Samuel 25:41 ESV)

It’s in this foot washing, Abigail’s grateful, welcoming, properly hospitable foot washing, that I saw the parallels or allusions between this story and what happens to Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7. Abigail repents of sin — in this case, its her husband’s lack of hospitality — and petitions David for forgiveness. To stay the hand of judgement of condemnation. David sends her on her way, forgiven, spared, redeemed. It isn’t just Abigail who is saved here — David promised that “by morning there [would] not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.” (1 Samuel 25:34) She saved everyone who worked (or was owned) by her husband, and any sons she might have had.

She saved everyone but Nabal, a worthless man who died of a broken heart. (Vengeance against Nabal belongs to God!) And let’s be fair — he had it coming, being “harsh and badly behaved.” (Though, he has a solid pedigree as a descendant of Caleb, the only spy besides Joshua who survives the first reconnoitering of the promised land.)

Jesus gives Simon the Pharisee quite a lecture on hospitality — Simon didn’t provide water for Jesus to wash his feet, didn’t kiss him, didn’t anoint his head with oil, whereas the woman, with her grateful tears and her ointment, did all of these things.

Who was more hospitable? The Pharisee with the well appointed house who could host Jesus of Nazareth for dinner, or the wandering “woman of the city” who was a sinner? Who was more hospitable? The wealthy trader and shepherd who could eat for himself “a feast like a king” (1 Sam 25:36), or the wife who had nothing of her own and chose to grovel for mercy and forgiveness before the leader of a group of mercenary bandits?

Who knew enough to ask for forgiveness? And respond in gratitude?

LENT Love Without Fail

8 Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
9 from the wicked who do me violence,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
10 They close their hearts to pity;
with their mouths they speak arrogantly.
11 They have no surrounded our steps;
they set their eyes to cast us upon the ground.
12 He is like a lion eager to tear,
as a young lion lurking in ambush!
13 Arise, O Lord! Confront him, subdue him!
Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword,
14 from men by your hand, O Lord,
from men of the world whose portion is in this life.
You fill their wombs with treasure;
they are satisfied with children,
and they leave their abundance to their infants.
15 As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
(Psalm 15:8-15 ESV)

I love David. I truly do. I love him because he is such a sinner. I love David because God loves him, and chooses him, and does not let go of him, no matter what David himself does. And he does a lot. He rebels against King Saul, he steals several other men’s wives (including, possibly, King Saul’s), he fights for the Philistines — the enemies of Israel — with such gusto that the Philistine king is convinced David is of no more use or value to Israel — the people of God.

David hardly lives an upright life. He is not pure and he is not sinless. David makes a lot of “poor choices.” Yet … God loves him. With an unflinching and steadfast love the likes of which we had not seen in scripture until God met David and, well, fell in love with the ruddy-faced little shepherd boy from Bethlehem.

David spends much of the psalms asking God to keep him safe. Demanding that God act to keep him safe and defeat his enemies (which were legion even before he was king — Saul and his armies as well as various and sundry Philistines). And what enemies he has here, in this prayer for help; the wicked who do violence, arrogant men with pitiless hearts, eager young lions waiting to pounce and ravish and devour.

Mostly, they are men who do not seek the better things of God. They seek all the world has to offer — children and wealth. They have all that the world has to offer, and yet, they continue to do violence. Perhaps that is why they do violence, because they only seek the things of this world. And they are not satisfied.

David lives in a violent world, surrounded by people who mean him harm. Who take joy in the terror and brutality they inflict. In that world, he looks to the Lord for protection and even victory. He prays with confidence, knowing that God has not abandoned him in his suffering and will keep him from death.

In return, he will be satisfied. Not with the wealth and treasure of the world, but with the hope that he shall see the face of God, and that in the morning, when he rises, he shall gaze upon the likeness of the Lord.

This is not the self-satisfied prayer of a self-righteous man who suffers a few indignities thinking it shows everyone he has God’s favor. This is the confident prayer of a lost and desperate man who knows that God loves him unfailingly. And because of that, he knows he has already won, he is already victorious, come what may.

With Gladness

I started reading the Gospel in the wrong place this morning, a little early, and began with a passage that was actually from the previous week, and I saw something I’d never noticed before:

35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mark 12:35-37 ESV)

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110:

The Lord [YHWH] said to my Lord [Adoni] (נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה לַֽאדֹנִ֗י)

At this point in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has been called “Son of David” (υἱὸς Δαυίδ) exactly once — by Bartimaeus the blind, the last person Jesus heals in Mark. I think here, he’s responding to a general belief, that the Christ, the anointed one, will be a descendant of David, a legitimate king.

The question is actually posed in Matthew 22, where in Matthew’s recounting of this story, he has it begin this way:

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” (Matthew 22:41-42 ESV)

And all this is interesting. But it isn’t what excited me this morning.

What got to me was that last phrase:

And the great throng heard him gladly.

Gladly — ἡδέως. It’s a word that shows up again in the New Testament only in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, in chapters 11 and 12, where Paul attempts to shame the Corinthians into putting up with him as they gladly put up with fools, in which he gladly boasts of his weaknesses (because the power of Christ is made perfect in weakness), and when he says he gladly spend himself and be spent for the souls of the church at Corinth. This is a gladness that does hide itself. It pokes and it prods and it even boasts. This is a gladness that cannot be kept to itself.

And this is the kind gladness this crowd has when they hear this strange news. Why would the crowd be glad of that? After all, a restored Davidic kingdom with a proper king from the line of David is allegedly what everyone has been waiting for. But that, apparently, is not what has been promised after all.

The crowd listening to this in Matthew is apparently too afraid to ask Jesus any more questions after this. But here, in Mark, they are glad — glad to hear this news that the Christ, the anointed one, is not the Son of David, but is rather David’s Lord.

It also means that all these attempts in the Gospels to link Jesus to David — the genealogies in Matthew and Luke — are akin to window dressing. True, but also completely beside the point. The Lord who is coming, who will sit at the right hand of God, who will have his enemies put underneath his feet, is not a Son of David. He’s something else entirely.

And the crowd heard this news gladly.

I’m struck by that gladness. It truly is unexpected.

Without Samson or David

In a recent column about the now-finished synod on the family, Damon Linker over at The Week makes this general description of the Catholic Church — and it’s a description I think applies to the entire Church in the West, and quite possibly the whole world:

The reformers view the church as a community of believers founded by Jesus Christ on a message of universal inclusion, hope, love, and mercy. … This helps explain why the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it’s a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.

Those who oppose reform take a very different view. The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. A marriage can only be dissolved through annulment. Civil remarriage without an annulment is adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin. Communion is withheld from those living in a state of persistent grave sin. Therefore and with no possible exceptions, a Catholic who is civilly remarried cannot receive communion.

It really is that simple. Remove any of those steps and the whole edifice falls into incoherence. You can see Douthat making that point against Fr. Martin in a blog post written in response to the latter’s Time column: The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they’re traditional but because they’re systematic.

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative more or less agrees, though he says Linker’s description of religious conservatives (at least in the Catholic camp) is not entirely fair because “[d]octrine is not about right order alone, but primarily about Truth. It is far from loving and merciful to tell someone that a lie is actually the truth, only so that they can feel good about themselves, and affirmed. This, at best, is what the conservatives stand for — not mindless rule-following.”

I am much closer to the progressive camp Linker describes (accurately) here. I admire Dreher immensely, but honestly, I’ve seen little love come out of rule, order, and truth concerned conservatives. Mostly I’ve seen judgement and condemnation without any prospect of redemption, and the strange expectation of the conservative that, in a well and properly ordered world, some people will be marginalized and subjugated and because it is good and orderly, they should willingly and gladly acquiesce (and the violence it entails) because it is “the natural order of things.”

I take issue with the very systematic nature of the conservative understanding. And with the very idea that faith in God is to believe in some kind of inherent and discernible moral order to the world. That’s not biblical, not so far as I can tell, because the biblical story — which is what counts here — is hardly systematic itself, and doesn’t concern itself much with the good order of the world, but rather with a people called Israel, and their encounter with God. Revelation, not reason, is what matters.

Scripture also doesn’t deal in abstractions. It doesn’t talk about “war” in any generic sense, but human beings engaged in very specific conflicts with very specific causes and very specific outcomes. It doesn’t talk about “marriage,” or “divorce,” but rather gives us human beings who are married, and shows as a great many ways (mostly bad) that those marriages work (with no examples of divorce). It doesn’t talk about some abstract idea of “salvation,” but rather, the redemption of Israel, with hints that means the world will be redeemed too.

I will go so far as to say the very construction of the systematic edifice of theology is somehow an act of faithlessness on our part. Inevitable and inescapable, probably, but an act that leaves the actual story in God’s people Israel in the dust as it plays with concepts and ideas and thinks about God in wholly irrelevant ways — ways that have nothing to do with the encounter of Israel/Church with a redeeming God.

This said, I have tremendous problems with religious progressivism. It isn’t really biblical. The message of the liberal and progressive church is basically the promise of modernity — freedom, equality, and liberation. The liberal church is basically the church of the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s how it understands exclusion. The marginalized have done nothing to deserve their marginalization except to be born the wrong kind of people in terms of social position and power. They have not sinned. And so the Jesus of the liberal church invites the unjustly excluded to the table, bringing them into full communion with the powerful and the privileged. And he does so not because they have been forgiven anything, but because he breaks down barriers and crosses boundaries — all of which have been arbitrarily created and imposed. There is nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t redemption. The redemption of the liberal church is largely a redemption for those who have not sinned.

And because of this, the liberal church cannot even begin talk about sin in any meaningful way. Not being able to talk about sin, the liberal church cannot think straight about repentance, redemption, and forgiveness. The only thing the liberal church knows to do with real sinners is … exclude and marginalize them.

Not very Christ-like, that. Because Jesus supped with sinners, who knew their own sinfulness, who understood the redeeming forgiveness of God. Whether they changed their lives is another matter entirely. But those sinners met God, were judged, forgiven, and invited to follow.

As I have come to understand it, the controlling narrative of scripture — the key to understanding the entire story that unfolds from Genesis through Revelation — lies in Nehemiah 9 and 10. Nehemiah 9 is Israel’s telling its story and confessing its sin in the wake of resettling of the land after the end of exile. It is a confession of Israel’s constant sinfulness and God’s unremitting redeeming grace. “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” Israel confesses. (Nehemiah 9:17) Again and again, as Israel sins, God gives Israel over to enemies as the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, and then redeems Israel when Israel cries out. Again and again.

The main actor here is God, who called a people, made promises, redeems and delivers that people, over and over again. “Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God.” (Nehemiah 9:31)

This is the meaning of the entire Old Testament story. In fact, it is the meaning of the entire biblical story.

But Nehemiah 9 doesn’t sit by itself. After Israel confesses its sins, Israel vows to act in Nehemiah 10 — to keep the law, to rest on the sabbath, to keep their daughters to themselves, and to support the temple. This is no small thing. Israel promises to clean up its act in response to its confession of sin and its understanding of its utter and complete reliance upon God. And for a time, I suspect Israel does.

We know, however, the story doesn’t end there. Because Israel cannot maintain this. Because daughters are given in marriage and business done on Saturday. Because the slavery Israel laments at the end of Nehemiah 9 is never really lifted. This is the tension that we must live in — we cannot get it right, which is why we confess a God who does not abandon us. We sin, and we bear the consequences of our sinfulness. As do our children. And theirs. And theirs.

I get the sense both the conservative and the progressive are deeply modern — they dislike the tension and want it abolished. The conservative, for all his alleged understanding of the tragic nature of human existence, seems to believe the law can actually be adhered to (we are not, after all, Israel) and thus the consequences of sin (and the tragic) avoided altogether. For its part, the whole progressive program believes in the abolition of consequences, and so sin itself ceases to exist except as some systemic abstraction which all must repent of but no one can really point to or change.

Lost to both are the likes of Samson and David — clear and obvious sinners chosen by God, who pay the price for their sinfulness but are still loved by God and, in their very sinfulness, called by God to do God’s work in the world.

The Bitter, the Angry, and the Discontented

I’m procrastinating. I do have an essay in mind to write about the events of last Friday, but I’ve been deliberately avoiding it. I’ll get around to it.

This morning, something else came to mind, one of my favorite passages from 1 Samuel. About David, who is probably my favorite character in the whole Bible.

1 David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. 2 And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander [לְשָׂ֑ר, literally “captain”] over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.

3 And David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab. And he said to the king of Moab, “Please let my father and my mother stay with you, till I know what God will do for me.” 4 And he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold. 5 Then the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not remain in the stronghold; depart, and go into the land of Judah.” So David departed and went into the forest of Hereth. (1 Samuel 22:1-5 ESV)

It is hard to overstate just how difficult David’s situation is here. He has been anointed king, Saul having lost the “mandate of heaven” with his refusal to give to God what God demanded of the plunder from Amalek. David has fought for Saul, killed Goliath, becomes BFF with Saul’s son Jonathan, “took the lyre and played it with his hand” whenever Saul was troubled and tormented (as Saul often was) with an evil spirit, and has fled Saul after the king tries to kill him.

He is now in the wilderness, southwest of Jerusalem in what is now Israel “proper” (the 1949 armistice lines). He is on the run. At this point, it looks for all the world that David has no future. All he has is the anointing of God, and nothing else. Saul is still king, still commands an army.

But David has an army too. In his reduced circumstances — a long way from the court of Saul, where he plucked the lyre, carried Saul’s armor, and fought Israel’s enemies so successfully that Saul “stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them.” (1 Sam 18:15) It may not seem like much of an army — the distressed, the indebted, the embittered (or discontented) — but it’s an army David will use to great effect, to fight off the Philistines, to fight for the Philistines, to battle and defeat Amalek and eventually, as the core of the army that will defeat the House of Saul and re-unite the kingdom.

They come to David. He doesn’t come to them. They join him. He doesn’t join them. They hear of him, know he’s someone who can lead them, and they gather around him. This army of discontents come to Adullam to follow David.

I like David. The more I read of scripture, the more I like him. I want to say he’s not reflective, but in all those psalms he wrote, David clearly praises and thanks and pleads and laments. He thinks. He considers. He contemplates. But he also acts.

And all he has, right now, in this cave with this bands of misfits and rejects, is the blessing of God.

13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:13 ESV)

So we know where the Spirit led David. Into a kind-of exile, as a fugitive and sometimes mercenary leader fighting for the very Philistines he had battled (1 Samuel 27:8-12) and would later battle again. It’s hard, David’s exile life. But one he lives fully.

Because David knows God has not abandoned him. He trusts in God’s time. In God’s anointing. And in the Spirit which “rushed upon” him, and never left.

When God Repents

The first words that John the Baptist speaks in the Gospel According to Matthew are an invitation to repentance:

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight. ’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1-6 ESV)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. Jesus speaks these very words after he hears John has been arrested, returning to Galilee where he begins to preach and proclaim.

Μετανοεω — metanoeo. It means “to change one’s mind and purpose,” and always for the better. It implies a thoughtful and considered change of heart. It’s something Jesus commands six of the seven churches John’s revelation is addressed to. It’s something the disciples in Acts frequently admonish listeners to do, as Peter does to the crowds who gather at Solomon’s Portico in Acts 3 after Peter heals the lame beggar:

19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:19-21 ESV)

Repent is something we’re supposed to do. Thanks to the heritage of pietism, it’s something we’re supposed to do very publicly. A confession of sin, a denunciation of past life or past acts, followed by tears and then a heartfelt statement that we have changed and will never do whatever it was we did again.

That’s not biblical, this ideal we have — it appears nowhere in scripture. We have John and Jesus commanding repentance, and we have people coming to them, to be healed and baptized and to hear the the words of proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, but aside from the unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50, Zacchaeus in Luke promising pay back all he’d stolen and give half his wealth to the poor, we really have no idea what the actual moment of repentance looks like.

(Mostly, it looks like gratefulness, based on what we have.)

I mean, we have Paul — a life completely turned around — but he never grovels for us, and never denounces who and what he was before Jesus struck him blind and claimed his life for the Gospel.

However, we have God. Who does repent a few times.

The example that comes first to mind is the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8. God gazes upon the earth and sees it filled with little but corruption and wickedness:

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8 ESV)

“The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth.” God changes God’s mind about everything that God has made. It is clearly “not good” in God’s eyes, not anymore, and so this angry, sorrowful God will obliterate everything.

God makes good on God’s threat, which is what the drama of Noah and his family — and the ark and its menagerie — is all about.

But no sooner have the flood waters subsided, and Noah makes a burnt offering to God, than God regrets having destroyed everything:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22 ESV)

This attempt — God’s attempt — to rid the world of evil has failed. Utterly and completely. And God knows it. God promises never to do it again.

In fact, God makes another promise: the earth will abide. God renews the creation by blessing Noah and his sons — who are evil in their hearts from birth simply because they are human beings — and promises, with the rainbow, to allow the earth, and the host of things that crawl upon it, to live. Regardless of what comes.

Now, God tries to impose some order on all this human sinfulness by telling Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” But it doesn’t work very well. As the story shows, very little sin is restrained and very little order is maintained.

But in this chapter, God repents of the creation — of this amazing and beautiful act pronounced “good” just a few chapters earlier. God obliterates nearly all life. And once that was done, God regrets it almost immediately. And promises never to do it again.

God regrets — נחם nkhl — and the implication here is of someone taking a long, deep breath, of someone sighing, of someone even taking vengeance. Clearly, God repents. Of the creation and then the subsequent destruction. There is no other word to describe what God does here.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen often in scripture. But that it happens at all is a huge deal, and says something about the God who created and called us to be his people. Moses is able to shame God from annihilating Israel after they take up worshiping a calf of gold in Exodus 32 (“If you destroy this people after rescuing them, consider what the Egyptians will think of you; no one will be able to take you seriously after that.”), and God frequently promises that once Israel has been beaten to a pulp, overrun and sent into exile, God will relent, and gather his people. But that’s not quite the same as God repenting. God doesn’t really regret sending Israel into exile — God is far too determined to do that task.

I think God’s refusal to continue fighting Israel’s war of extermination and displacement against the Canaanites because the Israelites themselves lost the stomach to do all God commanded them is a repentance of sorts:

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. ’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5 ESV)

But this is like Abraham talking God out of destroying Sodom, or Moses talking God out of destroying Israel — this is a consequence of Israel’s disobedience. Nothing of the interior life of God is revealed here. God does not regret this. So, I’m not sure this is real repentance.

In a very clearcut way, God repents at least one more time, in 1 Samuel 15, when King Saul keeps some of the choicest things plundered from the recent war against Amalek. “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears and the lowing of oxen that I hear?” Samuel angrily demands of Saul (in one of scripture’s best questions).

10 The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. (1 Samuel 15:10-11 ESV)

And we continue…

24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 26 And 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.” (1 Samuel 15:24-26 ESV)

Saul repents. He repents vociferously. But it doesn’t matter. God regrets. God repents of having made Saul King over all Israel. Scripture is emphatic on this matter:

35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted [נחם] that he had made Saul king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15:35 ESV)

While Samuel is immediately dispatched to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Saul does not quickly or gently fall from his throne. There is a lengthy struggle between David and Saul — a struggle in which God preserves David in the face of everything.

God does not regret easily or often. Which suggests to me that God has, in fact, learned.

God tried to destroy a sinful world, and remake it without sin. Or with less sin. Or something. It’s not clear what God actually is trying to accomplish with Noah except to save him. But in doing that, God saved a bit of the sinful world he was consigning to oblivion in order to make the new world. (Intriguing. God did not simply speak a new world into being. Make of that what you will.) After doing so, God realized the pointlessness of it all. Nothing had really changed. So, God would live with sinful humanity, would abide sin. From now on, God’s saving acts would work in and with with the very sinful creation that so plagued God’s sense of righteousness.

God’s abandoning of Saul is also something I suspect God did in great haste, without giving the matter much thought. A fit of pique, or a temper tantrum (which God has lots of in Exodus and Numbers). As sins go, it’s minor league. True, David does nothing like what Saul did — deny the Lord his portion of the spoils of war. But David does an awful lot worse (at least in our eyes) — wife stealing, murder, terrorism, and bringing calamity upon Israel by trying to hold a census (the one thing which finally makes God angry with David). There aren’t many commandments David doesn’t break. God may have chosen Saul, but God didn’t really love him, and wasn’t terribly committed or all that faithful to Saul once Saul gives God a reason to be done with him.

But David, God sticks with David. Makes promises to the whole world because of his love for David. God repents of Saul, dumps him hard, falls in love with David at first sight (or, as one junior high schooler I was teaching noted, “God loves him some David”), and sticks with David. This is repentance in action, because it is a “life” (if we can speak of God that way) changed. God learned, and changed. For the better.

Grace Incarnate

Yes, I know, in most of the civilized church world, today was Ascension Sunday, in which the church marks the moment when the resurrected Jesus returned to His Father in Heaven (Mark 16:19-20, Luke 24:50-53, and Acts 1:6-11) after spending a little quality time with the disciples, eating breakfast with them and walking through walls. Continue reading