Much of what we find in the Old Testament about repentance shows the LORD repenting of decisions He had made. This helps us a great deal in separating the idea of repentance from sin. It is a change of mind or a change of heart. One of the images is “to sigh” or “to breathe strongly”. It is an expression of regret, but in the case of the LORD it also communicates being moved to grief or pity on those who are experiencing trouble, because their trouble is directly caused by or at least allowed by the LORD himself. Modern translations have tended toward words like "relent" and "grieve" instead of repent, but following the thread in the King James Bible or the American Standard Version helps to show the strong usage of the concept in the Old Testament. Comparing them with these newer renderings we see nuances in the idea of repentance we might otherwise miss.
In those same early times, the concept has more to do with practical regret than with an intention of the mind. It is during the establishment of the Temple when the word becomes an expression of a human heart condition, when Solomon refers to people who have been carried away as captive because of their sin, and in their place of captivity repent and pray toward the Temple invoking God to hear and forgive. Also in the Wisdom Literature, which is associated with Solomon’s writings, Job speaks of personal repentance for sin. Later a few references to human repentance arise in the prophets. This human repentance, though, is in the definite minority of the Old Testament idea of repentance.
For the most part, when the LORD is spoken of as repenting, it has to do with decisions He made regarding human action. Most of the time people sinned and God judged them, then later He repented of His own harshness and followed up with mercy. Sometimes God expresses a definite reluctance or even a refusal to repent of His harshness.
In the New Testament the idea of human repentance takes full form. Here it is almost always a human change of mind. It sometimes carries the implication of a wish that something had never happened or never would be.
John the Baptist and Jesus draw a great deal of attention to the human concept of repentance speaking of it bearing fruit and of repentance causing a change in action. For example, Judas “repented” of what he had done and brought the silver back to the priests who gave it to him. As it moves into the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles, the idea of repentance is closely associated with baptism and with salvation. It is occasionally spoken of as something that is given to people, described almost as a grace from God.
As the idea is raised in Revelation we come again to God’s repentance, his regret that He had given grace to some who did not take advantage of it. At the same time a great many people are judged in Revelation because of their refusal to repent.
As humans then we should see repentance not only as a thought of distancing ourselves from sin, but of action. We should see it as something that spurs certain feelings in us:
We can think of repentance not just as a human action regarding sin, but as something we can learn from God Himself, using Him as our model for repentance. Even He, when He acted strongly in response to Holy righteous indignation, sometimes repented of His harshness and was moved to kindness.
Pastor, Norma Mennonite Church.