Counterfeit Repentance (I Samuel 15:24-35)
Topic: I Samuel Passage: 1 Samuel 15:24–15:35
Crying for a King
I. Apology and Insincerity
Around my house, when it comes to correcting and guiding our children, I often find it hard to find the right balance between two very important relational needs: apology and sincerity.
We want our children to apologize when they have done something wrong or wronged someone else, but we also want them to apologize with sincerity, right?
In our family, when a child is being counseled about their sin, there are several tell-tale signs of insincerity:
The first one I call the ignorant apology. It goes something like this: “Are you sorry for what you did?”…“I really am, daddy.”…”Well, what did you do?”…”Umm…I don’t know.”
The second insincere apology could be called the “yes, but” apology. It might sound like this: “Are you sorry for what you did?”…”Yes, I’m sorry…but please tell her to never come in my room again.” OR “Yes, I’m sorry…but isn’t he getting in trouble too?”
The third sign of insincerity might be called the mechanical apology. It usually goes like this: “Are you sorry for what you did?”…”Yes, I’m sorry. Can I go?” (quick pace) OR ”Yes, I’m sorry for what I did, father.” (in a slow, droning manner).
Obviously, with all of these types of responses, what is extremely doubtful is that our child has truly recognized the error of their ways, the pain they’ve caused, and is genuinely saddened by their failure to do what is right.
The hard thing as parents is knowing how to help them cultivate sincerity, without teaching them simply the verbage or body language of sincerity. Apology and sincerity.
I’d like you to turn with me to I Samuel 15. This morning, we will be tackling verses 24 through 35. As we saw last week, in the first 23 verses of this chapter, we learn how Saul failed to carry out God’s just and absolute wrath against the Amalekites. He and his soldiers had not only spared the Amalekite king, Agag, but they also plundered the best of the Amalekites’ livestock.
When we get to verse 24 of this chapter, not only have we learned about this failure, but we’ve also seen how God spoke to and through Samuel to announce His judgment against Saul’s kingship. The end of verse 23 expresses this clearly: “Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king.”
II. The Passage: “The Lord Has Torn the Kingdom…from You” (15:24-35)
Let me simply read our main passage, and then we can come back and think more carefully about what we see here. Let’s look at verses 24-33:
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 worship 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.” 27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” 30 Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.” 31 So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the Lord. 32 Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully.  Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33 And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
And so what we find in verses 24 through 33 is the account of Saul’s response to Samuel’s message; his response to God’s judgment against his sin. Now, you can see from these verses that Saul does not shake his fist in defiance against God’s judgment, nor does he simply slip away in a state of depression. His response here could be described, in all fairness, as repentance.
A simple dictionary definition of repentance might go something like this: to feel sorrow, regret or contrition for one’s sin.
And Saul does in fact admit that he was wrong; he does seek forgiveness. But sadly, I believe Saul’s repentance here is not genuine repentance. I believe it is a counterfeit repentance.
You see, just as there are tell-tale signs of an insincere apology, there are also several ways to spot counterfeit repentance. Let’s look back through these verses, and as we do, consider what God is teaching us and how God is challenging you personally in terms of repentance.
1. Blame Rather than Ownership (15:24)
Look back with me at the very first verses here, verse 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.
Now, at first, this confession seems right on the money. Saul admits he is a sinner and that he has not done what God wanted him to do. This seems like a complete reversal from verses 13 and 20 of this same chapter: And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”
(verse 20) And Saul said to Samuel, “I have obeyed the voice of the LORD. I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me.
But here Saul actually admits his guilt. But what we read at the end of this verse gives us our first clue something is wrong. What we see here is that counterfeit repentance is concerned with blame rather than ownership.
Notice what Saul tacks on to the end of his confession. [I have sinned] … because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. He finds a very subtle way to slip the Israelite soldiers back into the sin equation. He is essentially saying, “Yes, it was wrong of me to listen to people when they pressured me to spare the livestock. Yes it was wrong of me to follow the soldiers demands to spare Agag the king.”
Of course this is nothing new. Saul has already blamed the people in verses 15 and 21. But here’s the point. What the people did or did not do is not important here. What is important is that Saul failed to be the leader, THE KING, God called him to be. Pressure from the people can never be an excuse to sin, especially for a king.
No, a king must take ownership of his failure to lead, if in fact there really was pressure from the soldiers. Saul’s repentance is tainted by this mention of “the people” because it shows us that Saul has not fully embraced the fact that it is his failure in question here, not the people’s. Saul has not fully owned up to the fact that circumstances did not drive him to sin. His own heart was the problem.
2. “Normalcy” Rather than Change (15:25, 26)
But look at what else we discover here about the nature of Saul’s repentance. Verses 25, 26:
Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may worship 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.”
So much of what is wrong with Saul’s repentance can be seen by what he adds to the end of his words, as we saw in verse 24. Here, we see the same thing. Saul doesn’t simply say, “Please pardon my sin.” No, he adds, “and return with me that I may worship the Lord,”
I think that simple addition reveals what is really on Saul’s heart. What I think we see here is that counterfeit repentance is concerned with “normalcy”, rather than change. Saul wants things to go back to normal. There is no weeping here. There is no sackcloth and ashes here. There is no humble desire for guidance.
Saul simply wants to get back to the way things were. His repentance seems to be merely a means to that end. But Samuel will not pretend everything is okay. He cannot go back to “normal” because normal was not good. God’s judgment has confirmed that.
Saul is a rejected king. Samuel, God’s prophet, cannot pretend Saul is something he’s not.
Repentance should always lead us to change, not simply back to what is “normal”.
3. Pressure Rather than Submissiveness (15:27, 28)
Listen to what else we discover from verses 27 and 28:
As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. 28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.
Now it's not exactly clear why Saul seized the skirt of Samuel's robe. He may have fallen to his knees and reached out for Samuel's robe as part of his pleading with the prophet. Or maybe he reached out in frustration. It isn't clear.
Either way, what we see here is Saul trying to force a resolution. He is exerting pressure on Samuel in order to receive a pardon; so things can get back to normal.
This is what counterfeit repentance does. It is concerned with pressure rather than submissiveness. This kind of repentance puts pressure on circumstances and people in order to gets things resolved. I've done this before. There have been times when I've wronged my wife and then sought her forgiveness. And in some of those instances, she has just not been ready to talk about what happened. But in my eagerness to smooth things out, I end up wronging her again by hounding her for her forgiveness.
Genuine repentance is not concerned about pressure. Genuine repentance confesses and seek forgiveness, but then it is submissive to God's timing for restoration to another person or to a position or to some kind of privilege. Genuine repentance is submissive because it's born out of humility; it comes from a recognition of our own poverty, our inability.
4. My Restoration Rather than My Restoration to God (15:30, 31)
Notice what else we learn from the next two verses, 30 and 31: Then he said, “I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may bow before the Lord your God.” 31 So Samuel turned back after Saul, and Saul bowed before the Lord.
Like we talked about before, counterfeit repentance seeks to go back to what is "normal", rather than a place of change. We see that same idea here again in these verses. But consider what these verses tell us about Saul's idea of "normal".
What Saul desired here was that Samuel would return with him, and by returning with him, help him protect his credibility, his legitimacy with the leaders of the people. "Come back and honor me now before the elders of my people (the Benjamites) and before Israel."
At this point in time when Saul has been condemned by the very word of the Lord, when it is absolutely clear that he has sinned against God, and even admitted as much, at this point in time when he should be seeking restoration with God, he is more concerned about restoration to his previous position of power and privilege. Counterfeit repentance is always concerned with my restoration rather than my restoration to God.
Counterfeit repentance is concerned with getting back to what is "normal". But what is "normal" is usually a devoted and passionate pursuit of me getting my own way.
Sometimes my kids demonstrate this same attitude. When they give me one of those mechanical apologies, what they are most concerned about is not dealing with their sin, but getting back to their game or their toys or to their friends. We can be the same way.
Genuine repentance is concerned with restoration, but with restoration to God. Through Jesus Christ, we have peace with God, by grace, through faith. But God loves us too much to allow us to experience and enjoy that peace when we sin. Genuine repentance submits to God's loving, fatherly discipline. Genuine repentance recognizes the nature of the sin; it recognizes what matters most in regard to what has been lost.
5. My Relief Rather than God’s Will (15:32, 33)
Finally, look once again at verses 32 and 33:
Then Samuel said, “Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.” And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.” 33 And Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” And Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
Now, let me emphasize what we do and do not see in this brutal conclusion to the story. What we do not see is Saul correcting his previous mistakes. Instead, what we do see is Samuel correcting Saul's previous mistakes. Remember, in order to carry out God's judgment against this wicked people, Saul was supposed to wipe out all of the Amalekites, including, and maybe most especially Agag their king. But he did not. So Samuel does what Saul would not do.
From the very outset in verse 24, I think one of the things that seems clear, to me at least, is that Saul's repentance has not been very God-centered. He has not cried out to God. He has not plead for God's pardon. He has not sought restoration with God. He seems more concerned about making things right with Samuel than making things right with God.
And as we see here, his counterfeit repentance is more concerned with my relief rather than God's will. Saul simply wants relief from the guilt and tension and awkwardness and confusion of his disobedience.
But if he was genuinely repentant, wouldn't his primary concern be God and God's will? If Samuel had to do what Saul would not do, even though Saul was supposedly sorry he did not do it in the first place; if Saul confessed his failure to do God's will, but would not fulfill God's will when given a second chance, how genuinely sorry was he?
True repentance should always be able to say to God, with David: For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight... (Psalm 51:3, 4a)
III. Perspective: The Pain of Consequences (15:34, 35)
This morning, we need to stop and ask two related questions: “Why is this story here?” and “How should this impact my life?” And when we tackle that first question, I believe the word “consequences” has to be front and center. These verses are here to tell us something about consequences. In the final two verses, we see the full effect of the earthly consequences of Saul's sin. Listen:
Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul.
Saul was rejected by God. The first readers of Samuel needed to know the finality of God's judgment against Saul. God did not and does not promise to take away the earthly, temporal consequences of our sin. Saul was rejected by God. And that rejection led to a rupture in Samuel and Saul's relationship.
Saul could feel the weight of his consequences. And it is precisely this weight that waters the seeds of counterfeit repentance. Very often, we feel sorrow or regret or contrition for our sin because we don't like the consequences we have to live with...NOT because we've offended a holy God; not because we've rejected the same God who was rejected for us on the cross.
Here's the perspective change we need: genuine repentance is not concerned with the pain of earthly consequences, but with the pain of spiritual betrayal AND the pain we inflict on God. What do I mean by that last phrase? Look at the end of verse 35:
And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. (15:35b)
That word translated “regretted” is a word used 29 times in the Old Testament in connection to God. Listen to how the word is used back in Genesis 6:
And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)
Now, the idea of God having regrets, or of God feeling sorry about something he did, sounds very strange, if not simply for the fact that we seem to read the exact opposite only six verses earlier in I Samuel 15:29. Look at what that verse tells us: “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (15:29)
So which is it? Does God regret or doesn’t He? Well, I think both things are true. Both of these verses are saying something unique in their different contexts. Verse 29 is meant to communicate something of the finality of God’s decision. When God settles a matter, it’s settled. Saul has lost the kingdom. Verse 35, on the other hand, is meant to communicate something of the feelings of God’s decision, of God’s assessment of Saul.
Listen to how one commentator describes this tension as he comments on verse 35:
“[This verse] does not intend to suggest Yahweh’s fickleness of purpose but his sorrow over sin; it does not depict Yahweh flustered over lack of foresight but Yahweh grieved over lack of obedience. Samuel was not the only one who mourned…The paradox tends to split our minds, but a little thought tells us that this God who both repents and does not repent is the only God we can serve. Only in the consistent God of verse 29 and in the sorrowful God of verse 35 do we find the God worthy of praise. Here is a God who is neither fickle in his ways nor indifferent in his responses. Here is a God who has both firmness and feeling. If we cannot comprehend we can perhaps apprehend, at least enough to adore.” (Dale Ralph Davis)
Brothers and sisters, please listen. We serve a God who is grieved by our sin. Shouldn’t we be as well?
We so often fall into the trap of counterfeit repentance because we simply don’t like the consequences we’ve reaped. We want to change our circumstances, rather than change our hearts.
But genuine repentance grieves, not over the consequences, but over the decision that gave birth to such circumstances; it grieves over the sin that we chose over God, our Creator and Savior.
IV. Practice: Testing Our Own Repentance
This morning, I pray that through this passage, God has given you and me the tools to test our own repentance. Let’s take our eyes off of everyone else and direct them to our own hearts. When we choose to disobey God, when we sin against someone else, when we fail to do what God has called us to do, what does real repentance look like?
Are we blaming others in some way for our own failures? Are we mainly interested in things just getting back to “normal”? Are we pressuring or pushing others or ourselves or circumstances in order to get back to “normal”? Are we ultimately concerned with restoration to my personal throne, to accomplishing our own agendas? Are we ultimately repenting in order to find relief from the consequences of our sin?
Brothers and sisters, that’s not repentance. Genuine, biblical repentance takes full responsibility. Real repentance desires change…maybe even cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye. Repentance leads to humble, quiet obedience; it leads us to wait on God. Genuine repentance is inherently God-centered. Repentance by its very definition is our first affirmation that God’s will is good and right and best…for us.
To use a good book title I heard once, “Repentance is The First Word of the Gospel”. When it comes to the Christian life, repentance is not optional, it’s fundamental…it’s foundational. Listen to what the Apostle Paul said about the marks of genuine repentance:
As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved [over sin in the church], but because you were grieved into repenting…For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly [or we might say “counterfeit”] grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you... (II Corinthians 7:9-11)
Brothers and sisters, may we grieve over our sin. And may that grief produce an earnest desire in us to cling to Jesus’ cross in humility and pursue God’s will in grace. Amen.