Repentance Better Than Ethics: A Look at David & Saul ~ BitterSweetLife

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Repentance Better Than Ethics: A Look at David & Saul

Fascinating truths can emerge when you contrast parallel lives, a fact that historians often exploit. But anyone can do it.

For instance, you could look at David and Saul. You’d see two kings of Israel whose lives overlapped, and who both racked up impressive lists of crimes and misdemeanors. You find two outlaws, one of whom turns out to be “a man after God’s own heart.” The difference? When confronted with the evidence of personal evil, one man repented and the other aimed to save face.

David was a murderer and sexual offender, and his dissolute parenting tore his family apart. Nevertheless, his deep contrition put him on the ins with God. We are left to conclude, somewhat shockingly, that curtailing your crime quota is not necessarily the sure path to intimacy with God.

This realization corresponds to a discovery that the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made, and was somewhat alarmed by. A close reader of the Bible, Kierkegaard detected a spiritual logic at work, a divine rationale, which he identified as the religious. Well and good. But this “religious” dimension was a law unto itself—and a mysterious law at that.

In Kierkegaard’s language, the “religious” standard transcends the merely “ethical”—because it leads one to God. Thus, when God commanded Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, Abraham was right in his willingness to obey (see Genesis 22). Ethical law gave way to religious obedience—and Abraham’s acquiescence paved the way for God to dramatically reveal his care and mercy (and to, in a sense, acquit himself of murder).

In a scandalous turn of events, Abraham’s willingness to obey God, at the apparent cost of homicide, became a revelatory master stroke. And if Abraham had "taken the ethical stance?" Not only would he have been guilty of divine defiance, he would have missed the miraculous appearance of God himself.

A similar law is at work in the life of David, where we see the ethical upended, transcended, trumped, by the religious. Apparently, a little contrition covers a lot of crime. Or so it appears to us. I've often thought something like this: Just look at what David was able to “get away with!”—only to have his accounts settled by timely repentance.

Probably, something similar would be the obvious plan—sin wantonly, repent strategically—except that it doesn’t work. And despite appearances, this isn’t what David did.

Repeated, deliberate sin dries up any impulse I have toward contrition. This is why the repent-on-demand lifestyle is absolutely impossible; impossible for David and for all the rest of us. The addiction that momentarily sates me kills the grace that would save me: Only a person who authentically loves God can repent, and habitual sin destroys my love for Christ.

A cursory look at David and Saul reveals two men who were highly aware of the ethical demands that kingship entailed, yet repeatedly trampled on their most sacred obligations. In return, God confronted them, and in those moments of divine encounter, a paradox was at work: Lawbreaking brought David and Saul up to the very threshold of intimacy with God, because God himself took them to task.

At the moment of encounter, David’s love for God brought him into a new sphere of friendship and liberation. His repentance ushered in the mysterious logic of “the religious,” and God embraced David as his child. Saul was a different story. Confronted with lethal offenses, he offered pragmatic rebuttals, indifferent excuses, anything to keep his image intact. Drawn to the very doorway of grace, Saul stumbled back into the merely “ethical” life—and could not even succeed in this. None of us really can.

But by the same token, we all receive the same opportunity as David. He saw what we all must eventually see, that ethics are intended to point us to grace. Our stumbling is inevitable, but God turns it to his purposes. Arrogance and addiction throw us on God’s doorstep, where the mystery of the “religious” awaits. We are offered forgiveness, grace. But a self-justifying person will not recognize divine beauty when it is unveiled.

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Dustin said...


This is a fantastic post, and one that is very timely for me. All too often we, as God's people, thrive on the idea of "fast food" grace--we get it when we want it. Yet, this can be a death blow to our faith in and love for Christ. You definitely have hit the nail on the head with this post.

And I hope you don't mind, I'm going to include this post on my next weekend summary of fantastic posts from the blogosphere (which will probably not be this weekend, but next).

Andrew Simone said...

*Hearty Nod*

Ariel said...

Thanks, guys. I think that in a culture of life-on-demand, we end up believing we can dial up grace like pizza. But saving grace, while free, is always accompanied by repentance...

You're more than welcome to include this post in your summary, Dustin. Thanks!


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife