2 Samuel 19: A Case Study in True and False Repentance

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need to discern between true and false repentance. Second Corinthians 7 teaches that not all tears of remorse flow from a truly repentant heart. Some cry because they were caught, and others cry because they offended God. Those two groups do not necessarily overlap.

In God’s providence there are a few examples given to us in Scripture that juxtapose these two types of repentance. The most obvious is Saul vs. David. Saul and David both sinned, were confronted by a prophet, and then acknowledged their sin. In fact, they both use almost the same words: “I have sinned against Yahweh” (1 Samuel 15:24; 2 Samuel 12:13).

But the narratives make clear that Saul’s “repentance” was superficial, while David’s was supernatural. The prophet did not extend forgiveness to Saul, while he did to David. Saul was concerned about what others thought, while David was concerned only with what Yahweh thought. And there are probably six or seven other contrasts as well.

A similar (but less known) juxtaposition is found in 2 Samuel 19. In that narrative, David had just been driven out of his kingdom by Absalom, who was latter dispatched by Joab. Now David was returning to Israel to retake his kingdom and to render justice. Certainly there were hundreds of people whom David dealt with in this process, but the narrator only focuses on two: Shimei and Mephibosheth.


They had both sinned against David. Shimei had cursed him and helped drive him out, and Mephibosheth did not leave with his king. They were both waiting for David when he returned, and 2 Samuel spends considerable space describing their respective confessions of sin (19:15-30).

Shimei got 1,000 men together and put on their most impressive clothes. They boasted in their tribe, Shimei made a big orchestrated production out of falling at David’s feet, and even boasted that he was the first to get to David. He then urged the king to “forget” the sin as he proceeded to downplay its significance.

In contrast, Mephibosheth was unkempt. He hadn’t taken care of his body, and he was wearing filthy clothes. He appealed to the king’s knowledge of his sin, felt that his family line made him more deserving of death, and clearly valued his king’s glory beyond his own life.

In this narrative the author is intentionally contrasting true and false repentance. He does so in thirteen different ways:

False repentance is often bold like Shimei. True repentance is often broken, like Mephibosheth.

Shimei came ready to work for forgiveness. Mephibosheth came empty-handed, with nothing to offer.

Worldly sorrow often takes a perverse sense of pride in how over-the-top it is. Godly sorrow doesn’t come from proud hearts, but broken hearts.

Moreover, Shimei took pride in who he was. After all, he was from the tribe of Joseph! Certainly David would be impressed by that. Meanwhile, Mephibosheth’s family tree brought him shame. He knew who he was simply gave him additional accountability for his sin.

Worldly sorrow often manipulates the situation, orchestrating details of the confession to put the person in the best possible light. What a contrast with godly sorrow, which is seen not in the person who wants to manipulate, but in the person who is broken by his sin.

False repentance can come from a heart that honestly believes it deserves grace. “God better forgive me, I deserve it!” is the attitude. Meanwhile, true repentance comes from someone who knows they deserve death.

Shimei wanted others to see him put-together, and even in “repentance” he needed others to think highly of him. In contrast, Mephibosheth was unkempt. He obviously didn’t care what others thought.

The proud person expects to receive grace upon his confession, no matter how superficial it is. Meanwhile, the truly forgiven sinner sees the savior, and remembers that he has received grace in the past. His grace is rooted in past experience with the giver, not in present expectations based on worth.

Shimei was hopeful the king didn’t know the extent of his sin. What a world away from Mephibosheth, whose sole appeal was that certainly the king knows all things. True repentance counts on the extent of the sin being known, while false repentance counts on ignorance.

Which is fitting, because worldly sorrow always wants to minimize the effects of sin. Godly sorrow understands that we will never fully know sins’ gravity.

This is why the false convert might be happy for himself, even in his repentance. Oh, how Shimei was so proud of his ambush of David and the ability to go in peace. He even had a studio audience for it! The true convert isn’t so much happy for himself, as he is sad that his sin offended God.

Finally, this narrative is capped off with the proud person going away glorying in himself while the broken person can only glory in the return of King David.

God has these two men in the Bible for several reasons: to show us the nature of David’s kingdom, the outcome of Saul’s line, the ethic of a king after his own heart, and nature of David’s kingdom after his exile. But one of the many things God is doing in this passage is giving us a memorable contrast between true and false repentance.

So go on…read this story (2 Samuel 19:15-30). And ask yourself, when you repent of your sin, are you more like Shimei or Mephibosheth?

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