Welcome to Wednesday, word nerds! Today’s word won’t be new to most (if not all) of you, but I’ve had occasion to give it some thought this last week. First of all, Psalm 51 came up in our Bible reading several days ago—King David’s psalm of repentance after the prophet Nathan confronted him over his sin with Bathsheba. I can never read this psalm without hearing the beautiful and deservedly well-known musical setting by Gregorio Allegri, known as Miserere Mei in Latin. If you’ve never heard it before, I highly recommend listening to at least the first two minutes of this performance by the Choir of Claire College, Cambridge. It’s simply sublime and somehow conveys both the weight of David’s regret and the beauty of his heart crying out to God. ❤
But I digress…
A day or two after reading Psalm 51 as part of our daily reading, I had cause to confront my children over something. I had a fairly good idea who would turn out to be responsible, and so I asked said child if they knew what had happened. The immediate response was to burst into heart-wrenching sobs. I have to confess I was a little surprised, because the first reaction from this particular child at being confronted is normally anger and defiance. It wasn’t even a particularly serious offence in and of itself—but it was something he’s been asked several times in the past not to do, and so he knew he’d been disobedient.
I can’t tell you how it stirred my heart to see such genuine remorse. It was both beautiful and painful at the same time. After a moment, I climbed up onto the bed and comforted him while he sobbed it out. He still had to face some consequences, of course, but he freely acknowledged he deserved those consequences. Eventually, we prayed together, had another hug, and he went to sleep—hopefully feeling cleansed from the inside out and knowing how much he was loved.
And all of that got me thinking about the word repentance. The word itself comes from the Latin word paenitere which means to cause regret. We also get words such as penance and penitent from the same root. The re- at the beginning of repentance simply intensifies it, a little bit like saying ‘really’ in English.
But here’s the interesting thing about the word repentance. While the word itself may have come to us from the Latin, the concept it represents was originally expressed in either Hebrew or Greek, in the Old and New Testaments respectively.
The Hebrew word most often translated as repent is the word nacham, which, according to my Strong’s Concordance, means to make a strong turning to a new course of action. The most interesting thing about this word, though, is that it is most often used to describe God’s actions toward mankind! For example, when Moses interceded on behalf of the Israelites after they made the golden calf, the King James Version says (Ex 32:14) And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
In the New Testament, it is the Greek word metanoia—a word that describes a change of mind or purpose—that is translated as repentance. The New Testament writers took this one step further, exhorting people to a change of heart—to turn away from sin (recognise it for what it is and forsake it) and to turn towards God.
And at this point, we come full circle, because what does it look like to turn away from sin and turn towards God? David gives us the answer right in Psalm 51: My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (v 17)
Witnessing my son’s broken and contrite heart over his sin the other night gave me a taste of the compassion God feels towards us when we come to him in our brokenness. And yet how often do we resist that brokenness until it’s forced upon us? How long would my son have carried that burden if I hadn’t questioned him? And the most strangely beautiful part of it all is the bond that forges ever deeper between myself and my child in those moments. There is something so powerful about being loved when we are at our most vulnerable, our most undeserving.
May you feel the power of that love today. ❤