A Repentance that was Not Heard
Lessons from the Life of King Saul
“Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”—Luke 17:3, 4
“Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”—Hebrews 12:16, 17
At first reading the two texts quoted above seem to be directly contradictory the one to the other. Throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament, the power of repentance to reinstate one into a relationship with God is emphasized.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), for instance, the father shows his acceptance of his erring son as soon as he sees him returning, not waiting for him to vocalize his repentance.
Yet the repentance which Esau sought, sincere as it appears to have been, was without avail. (Gen. 27:36)
The Example of King Saul
Perhaps the concept of unavailing repentance is no place better illustrated than in the life of King Saul, Israel’s first monarch. Few men have shown greater humility than Saul in accepting the kingship of Israel.
“And Saul answered and said, Am not I a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? and my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin? wherefore then speakest thou so to me?”—1Samuel 9:21
Yet, once exalted to the throne of Israel, there occurred gradually such a change in his character that the kingship was eventually rent from him and given to David of the neighboring tribe of Judah.
In the third year of his reign, the Philistines gathered together a formidable force of 30,000 chariots and 6,000 horsemen to battle against Israel. So great was the force that the Israelites hid themselves in the hillside caves and sent a delegation to Saul for help. Saul had agreed to wait seven days for Samuel to arrive and seek the intercessory help of God.
“And he tarried seven days, according to the set time that Samuel had appointed: but Samuel came not to Gilgal; and the people were scattered from him. And Saul said, Bring hither a burnt offering to me, and peace offerings. And he offered the burnt offering. And it came to pass, that as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, behold, Samuel came; and Saul went out to meet him, that he might salute him. And Samuel said, What hast thou done? And Saul said, Because I saw that the people were scattered from me, and that thou camest not within the days appointed, and that the Philistines gathered themselves together at Michmash; Therefore said I, The Philistines will come down now upon me to Gilgal, and I have not made supplication unto the LORD: I forced myself therefore, and offered a burnt offering. And Samuel said to Saul, Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.”—1Samuel 13:8-14
The rashness of Saul seems understandable in view of the fact that Samuel appeared to be late in keeping his appointment with Saul and the urgency of preparing in time to battle the Philistines. The king was pious enough not to assay into battle without first seeking the Lord’s blessing.
Although not expressed in this passage, the repentance of Saul is implied by the fact that the threat of rending the kingship from his house was not implemented until his next act of disobedience.
Following an order from God through Samuel the prophet to utterly slay the Amalekites—every man, woman and child, including their cattle—Saul leads a victorious Jewish army against this foe. Upon returning to Samuel, the prophet hears the bleating of sheep and queries Saul as to why. The king responds that these were brought back for sacrifice to God in thanksgiving for their victory. Samuel responds with a classical statement of one of the principles of God:
“And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.”—1 Samuel 15:22
Samuel’s anger against this act of disobedience brings about a reiteration of the threat to remove the sovereignty from the house of Saul. Saul’s response is found in 1 Samuel 15:24, 25:
“And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD.”
The voiced repentance appears sincere and genuine, as well as absolute and complete, yet it is rejected by Samuel:
“And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.”—1 Samuel 15:26
To emphasize the reality of the threat Samuel rends Saul’s garment from off him, illustrating how the kingdom will be torn away from the house of Saul. Once again Saul vocalizes his repentance: “Then he said, I have sinned: yet honor me now, I pray thee, before the elders of my people, and before Israel, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD thy God.”—1 Samuel 15:30
This time the repentance appears to be effective, for we read of Samuel’s reaction in the next verse:
“So Samuel turned again after Saul; and Saul worshipped the LORD.”—1 Samuel 15:31
This was apparently the last contact between Samuel and Saul until the day of Saul’s death when an apparition of Samuel was conjured up before Saul by the wicked witch of Endor. Samuel’s attitude toward Saul after leaving Saul is not one of anger, but one of sorrow, as we read in 1 Samuel 15:35:
“And Samuel came no more to see Saul until the day of his death: nevertheless Samuel mourned for Saul: and the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel.”
In the next verse, God berates Samuel for this attitude and shows the finality of the judgment removing the throne from Saul and the house of Benjamin to David and the house of Judah:
“And the LORD said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons.”—1 Samuel 16:1
Saul and David
Conflict soon developed between the king and the king-apparent. A rageaholic, Saul’s jealous anger over David’s talents and popularity erupted in numerous attempts to slay his rival. On at least two occasions the tables were turned and David outwitted Saul to such a degree as to be in a position to slay the reigning king. On both occasions David refused to take advantage of the situation saying, in effect, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed.” On both occasions Saul responds with repentance, a request for forgiveness and a promise to do better in the future.
“And he said to David, Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. And thou hast shewed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the LORD had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the LORD reward thee good for that thou hast done unto me this day. And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand. Swear now therefore unto me by the LORD, that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou wilt not destroy my name out of my father’s house. And David sware unto Saul. And Saul went home; but David and his men gat them up unto the hold.”—1 Samuel 24:17-22
“Then said Saul, I have sinned: return, my son David: for I will no more do thee harm, because my soul was precious in thine eyes this day: behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.”—1 Samuel 26:21
Repentance and Forgiveness
Thus on at least four occasions we see the erring Saul humbling himself before his judges and pleading repentance and forgiveness, but like Esau in our theme text, “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.”
The four occasions of recurring sin are certainly less than the “seven times in one day” spoken of by the Lord in our other theme text, yet they are unfruitful in that they did not produce forgiveness. Why?
The Temptation of Exaltation
The answer appears to be in his heart condition. As noted, Saul expressed great humility in ascending the throne. When reproved by Samuel over his failure to kill all the Amalekites, attention is called to this fact:
“And Samuel said, When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the LORD anointed thee king over Israel?—1 Samuel 15:17
Unfortunately this humility did not continue. The power of the kingly office with its perks was a strong temptation. As a wise saying puts it, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It was this very temptation which Moses foresaw for the kings of Israel.
“That his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left: to the end that he may prolong his days in his kingdom, he, and his children, in the midst of Israel.”—Deuteronomy 17:20
An apt example of this principle is found in the life of King Uzziah of Israel:
“But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the LORD his God, and went into the temple of the LORD to burn incense upon the altar of incense.”—2Chronicles 26:16
In the case of Saul it was apparently this pride which led to a pattern of disobedience which even his repentance could not resolve.
Repent and Be Converted
Repentance describes a sorrow for a wrongful act, but there are two kinds of such sorrow. One is a sorrow for having done a wrong thing, the other is sorrow for having to pay the consequences for such acts. The repentance of King Saul and of Esau appears to be of the latter kind.
Godly repentance is marked by more than sorrow, but by a changed course of conduct as well. It is for this reason that repentance is often associated with conversion. (Acts 3:19) This changed conduct is known as the “fruits meet for repentance. (Matt. 3:8) A detailed description of the proper procedure for the repentant one is found in 2 Cor 7:10, 11:
“For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. For behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.”
What Repentance did not Produce
Still another aspect is to notice what the repentance of King Saul and of Esau did not produce. In neither case was it a matter of the judgment of their eternal destiny, but a decision as to their fitness for a particular office. In the case of Esau, it was the privileges of the firstborn, the birthright, which he could not regain. In the instance of King Saul it was the maintenance of the throne of Israel in his family line. It was not even a matter of whether King Saul should be continued on that throne personally. David, the king-elect, had various occasions when he could have taken the throne, but he considered Saul as God’s anointed until that king’s death, and not an anointing that was forfeit because of his sins.
Repentance does not negate punishment. While both of these men lived subsequent lives that were in many aspects noble and praiseworthy, the punishment and loss of position had to be carried out.
David and Bathsheba
Another example of this was in the case of David and Bathsheba. The 51st Psalm is an eloquent expression of his repentance, as well as the abject admission of guilt to Nathan in 2 Sam. 12:13, 14:
“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.”
When his firstborn son by Bathsheba was born and became sick unto death, David wept and prayed hard for the child’s life, showing his repentance. But when the child died:
“Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. 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 12:20-23
The Lesson Today
The lesson for us is simple! When we come short in obeying the Lord, when we sin against him, repentance is called for—not merely a sorrow that we have been caught, but a sorrow for having done the deed itself. This must be followed by a changed course of action, knowing well that God knows the pulls of our flesh and that “a just man falleth seven times and riseth again.” (Prov. 24:16) Such godly repentance, unlike that of Esau or King Saul, will not be unproductive.
Better yet, let us be alert so as not to commit the sin in the first place which can put us in jeopardy of offering unproductive repentance.