A Day of Return and Repentance

On the Hebrew calendar, today is Shabbat Shuvah–the Sabbath of return. That’s the name for the weekly Sabbath that falls during the 10 Days of Awe between Yom Teruah (Day of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Traditionally, it’s a time for reflection and prayer, particularly on the concept of repentance.

On the Gregorian calendar, today is September 11 and this year marks 20 years since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was 12 years old, and one thing I remember from the aftermath of that attack is how many people turned to God for comfort and answers. Churches filled, Christians talked about revival, but it all petered out pretty quickly. Life went back to something like normal; it was easy to forget the United States was fighting a war unless someone you knew was involved, or to overlook the extra security measures unless you had to fly on a plane. It must have seemed similarly easy to forget how much people felt they needed God and continue a trend (particularly among young people) of leaving churches and abandoning belief in a single faith.

Ancient Israel followed a similar pattern in the stories recorded for us in the Bible. They started out as a godly nation, then strayed from God, came back when things got bad, and then forsook God again. I don’t want to spend too much time drawing parallels with any modern nation, though. The New Testament characterizes the Christian community (not a nation like the United States) as “spiritual Israel;” people who are citizens of God’s heavenly country and who live as foreigners among the nations of the world (Phil. 3:20; Heb. 11:13-16). We’re the ones that Paul is talking to when he writes about Ancient Israel and says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:1-12, NET). We don’t know when this “age” will end, exactly, but we do know that we’re now closer to the time of Jesus’s return than Paul was when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians. If they needed to learn from stories of Israel as “the end of the ages” drew near, so do we.

(Re)Turning to God

In modern Hebrew, teshuvah is the word for repentance. It’s root is shuva or shub–a verb used “over 1050 times” in the Old Testament. Of those, the word is used “in a covenantal context” 164 times (TWOT entry 2340). Though this word for “return” is used in a variety of ways, the most theologically significant meaning is as a repentance idiom. In other words, when we repent we return to God (and our covenant with Him) and turn away from sin.

To be sure, there is no systematic spelling out of the doctrine of repentance in the OT. It is illustrated (Ps 51) more than anything else. Yet the fact that people are called “to turn” either “to” or “away from” implies that sin is not an ineradicable stain, but by turning, a God-given power, a sinner can redirect his destiny. There are two sides to understanding conversion, the free sovereign act of God’s mercy and man’s going beyond contrition and sorrow to a conscious decision of turning to God. The latter includes repudiation for all sin and affirmation of God’s total will for one’s life.

Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 2340

Themes of return and repentance, as spoken of here in this dictionary entry, figure prominently in the prophets’ writings. Hosea, for example, says, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for your sin has been your downfall! Return to the Lord and repent!” (Hos. 14:1-2, NET). You’ll find similar calls in other prophets’ writings as they share God’s call for His people to come back to Him after they’ve forgotten Him and been unfaithful. Hosea even gives guidelines for how to do this: “But you must return to your God, by maintaining love and justice and by waiting for your God to return to you” (Hos. 12:6, NET). A key way we can return to God is by prioritizing love and justice (which puts me in mind of Mic. 6:8 and Luke 11:42). Then, all we have to do is wait on the Lord. God is faithful, and when we turn to Him He will turn to us as well.

A Warning Shout

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

As we approach Yom Kippur, many believers will read Isaiah 58, which is a passage about genuine fasting. This passaged begins the same way that the fall holy day season did with Yom Teruah on the first day of this Hebrew month–with shouts and trumpet blasting.

“Shout loudly! Don’t be quiet!
Yell as loudly as a trumpet!
Confront my people with their rebellious deeds;
confront Jacob’s family with their sin.
They seek me day after day;
they want to know my requirements,
like a nation that does what is right
and does not reject the law of their God.

Isaiah 58:1-2, NET

God instructs Isaiah to use his voice as a teruah–a loud shout or trumpet blast–to deliver a warning. These people said they wanted to know God, but they didn’t actually listen to Him. He’s calling them to turn away from wickedness and toward Him with genuine fasting and respect for God’s holy times (Is. 58:3-14). That sort of thing isn’t just in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of dealing with similar people who “have shut their eyes, so that they would not see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:14-15, NET).

We don’t want to be like that. We need to “turn around and become like little children” (Matt. 18:1-3, NET), who “turn back” to faith after we make mistakes (Luke 22:31-34, NET), and who “turn to the Lord” to have the “veil” removed so we can understand God’s word and His glory (2 Cor. 3:15-18, NET). When we repent, we confess “the name of the Lord” and “turn away from evil” (2 Tim. 2:19, NET). The process of repentance is more clearly articulated in the New Testament, but it’s essentially the same that it has always been. Repenting involves turning a way from one thing (sin) and turning to another (God).

Let’s use the Days of Awe this year to take a close look at ourselves. I think we can all find ways that we haven’t walked perfectly with God over this past year. Thankfully, God holds open the possibility for return. While we can repent and return to God any time of the year, this season we’re in now is particularly focused on reminding us to do that. Let’s remember God, return to Him, and commit to remaining faithful.

Featured image by reenablack from Pixabay

Song Recommendation: “Who I Am” by Casting Crowns

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