The five-step process of repentance begins with an awareness of our need for forgiveness. Our ability to justify our own actions often prevents us from seeing the wrong we do to others. In particular, when we do something that offends God, we are likely to excuse our behavior because, after all, we are sinners by nature. The point we usually have to reach in order to really want to change is complete devastation, as some people say, we have to hit rock bottom.
For God’s people, the bottom fell out when they saw the city of Jerusalem lying in ruins. The question they had to ask themselves was, “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!” (Lamentations 1:1). It made no sense that God would arbitrarily destroy his own city and holy temple, so there had to be a reason for what happened beyond his people being the innocent victims of Babylonian tyranny. In actuality, the experience of losing everything was designed to bring God’s people to their knees, for them to ask the question, why is this happening to us?
At first, the people were merely overwhelmed with sadness. All they could think of was the tragedy of their loss. In a cry prompted by self-pity, they exclaimed, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger” (Lamentations 1:12). The focus of the people’s lament was what God had done to them. They felt as if they were the target of his wrath, but didn’t yet see their need for repentance.
The initial reaction of God’s people to his divine retribution was sorrow. The Hebrew word translated sorrow, mak’obah (mak – o – baw´) means anguish (4341). It is derived from the word ka’ab (kaw – ab´) which means to feel pain or to grieve (3510). Naturally, the people grieved over the loss of their loved ones, but it is a different king of sorrow that leads one to repentance. In 2 Corinthians 7:9-10, the apostle Paul talked about a type of sorrow that leads to repentance. He said:
Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing. For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.
Godly sorrow is the type of sorrow that results from a feeling of conviction about our sin. For the most part, we never feel godly sorrow until after we come to know Christ. That’s why the process of repentance was ineffective in Old Testament times. Really, only those who had the Holy Spirit could feel such conviction, and he, the Holy Spirit, did not work in the lives of believers as he does now. In order for anyone to repent, he must first know that he is separated from God, and then, want his relationship with God to be restored.
An indication that the people of Judah and Jerusalem that went into exile were capable of repentance can be found in Lamentations 1:20 where it says, “Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled.” The phrase “mine heart is turned within me” means that the person speaking had a change of heart or had changed his mind about having rebelled against God. The Hebrew word translated turned, haphak can refer to transformation or being converted. One of the uses of this word is in 1 Samuel 10:6 where it says the spirit of the LORD would turn Saul into another man and in 1 Samuel 10:9 it says, “God gave him another heart.”