This concept is crucial but difficult to define. Most of us have a definition which comes from our denominational affiliation. However, usually a "set" theological definition is imposed on several Hebrew (and Greek) words which do not specifically imply this "set" definition. It must be remembered that NT authors (except Luke) were Hebrew thinkers using Koine Greek terms, so the place to start is the Hebrew terms themselves, of which there are primarily two.

1. nacham ( BDB 636, KB 688)

2. shub ( BDB 996, KB 1427) 

The first, nacham, which originally seems to have meant "to draw a deep breath," is used in several senses.

a. "rest" or "comfort" (e.g., Gen. 5:29; 24:67; 27:42; 37:35; 38:12; 50:21; often used in names, cf. 2 Kgs. 15:14; 1 Chr. 4:19; Neh. 1:1; 7:7; Nahum 1:1)

b. "grieved" (e.g., Gen. 6:6,7)

c. "changed mind" (e.g., Exod. 13:17; 32:12,14; Num. 23:19; Job 42:5-6)

d. "compassion" (e.g., Deut. 32:36)


Notice that all of these involve deep emotion!  Here is the key: deep feelings that lead to action.  This change of action is often directed at other persons, but also toward God.  It is this change of attitude and action toward God that infuses this term with such theological significance.  But here care must be exercised.  God is said to "repent" (cf. Gen. 6:6,7; Exod. 32:14; Jdgs. 2:18; 1 Sam. 15:11,35; Ps. 106:45), but this does not result from sorrow over sin or error, but a literary way of showing God's compassion and care (cf. Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Ps. 110:4; Jer. 4:27-28; Ezek.24:14).  Due punishment for sin and rebellion is forgiven if the sinner truly turns away from his/her/their sin and turns to God.  It is a reorientation of life.

The second term, shub, means "to turn" (turn from, turn back, turn to).  The verb shub (BDB 996, KB 1427) basically means "to turn back" or "return." It can be used of

1. turning from God, Num. 14:43; Jos. 22:16,18,23,29; Jdgs. 2:19; 8:33; 1 Sam. 15:11; 1 Kgs. 9:6; Jer. 3:19; 8:4

2. turning to God, 1 Kgs. 8:33,48; 2 Chr. 7:14; 15:4; 30:9; Ps. 51:13; 116:7; Isa. 6:10; 10:21,22; 31:6; Jer. 3:7,12,14,22; 4:1; 5:3; Hos. 3:5; 5:4; 6:1; 7:10,16; 11:5; 14:1,2; Amos 4:6,8-11 (notice esp. Jeremiah 7 and Amos 4)

3. YHWH initially telling Isaiah that Judah would not/could not repent (cf. Isa. 6:10), but not for the first time in the book, He calls on them to return to Him.


Repentance is not so much an emotion as it is an attitude toward God. It is a reorientation of life from self to Him. It denotes a willingness to change and be changed. It is not the complete cessation of sin, but a daily cessation of known rebellion! It is a reversal of the self-centered results of the Fall of Genesis 3. It denotes that the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27), though damaged, has been restored! Fellowship with God by fallen humans is possible again.

Repentance in the OT primarily means "change of action," while "repentance" in the NT primarily means "change of mind" (see Special Topic: Repentance [NT]). Both of these are necessary for true biblical repentance. It is also necessary to realize that repentance is both an initial act and an ongoing process. The initial act can be seen in Mark 1:15; Acts 3:16 and 19; 20:21, while the ongoing process can be seen in1 John 1:9; Revelation 2 and 3. Repentance is not an option (cf. Luke 13:3,5)!

If it is true that the two covenant requirements are "repentance" and "faith" (e.g., Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:4,15; 2:17; Luke 3:3,8; 5:32; 13:3,5; 15:7; 17:3), then nacham refers to the intense feelings of recognizing one's sin and turning from it, while shub would refer to the turning from sin and then turning to God (one example of these two spiritual actions is Amos 4:6-11, "you have not returned to Me" [five times] and Amos 5:4,6,14, "seek Me. . .seek the Lord. . .seek good and not evil").

The first great example of the power of repentance is David's sin with Bathsheba (cf. 2 Samuel 12; Psalm 32,51).  There were continuing consequences for David, his family, and Israel, but David was restored to fellowship with God!  Even wicked Manasseh can repent and be forgiven (cf. 2 Chr. 33:12-13).

Both of these terms are used in parallel in Ps. 90:13. There must be a recognition of sin and a purposeful, personal turning from it, as well as a desire to seek God and His righteousness (cf. Isa. 1:16-20).  Repentance has a cognitive aspect, a personal aspect, and a moral aspect.  All three are required, both to start a new relationship with God and to maintain the new relationship.  The deep emotion of regret turns into an abiding devotion to God and for God!

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