When God truly works in a person’s life it is measured by what happens in the heart. That is a principle we must remember. When David was chosen as king, Samuel was reminded as several of David’s brothers walked by that, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” Jesus made it clear in the Gospel of Matthew that, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” (Matthew 15:11) And Jesus told us that out of the abundance of the HEART the mouth speaks. When Jesus spoke of murder in the Sermon on the Mount, He defined murder and adultery based on what was happening in the heart - not just what happened outwardly in the actions.
Back to Saul . . . Yes, he has tearful confessions to David - but we really don’t see him turning to God. When David sinned later in life with the adultery with Bathsheba and proxy murder of her husband, he confessed his sin to God - even writing Psalm 51 and other Psalms as testimony and instruction for Israel. In spite of all Saul’s tears - there is no real repentance and turn to God. That is where we must turn to the New Testament to be reminded of the nature of true repentance.
2 Corinthians 7:9-11 speaks of true repentance. The passage reminds us that there are two kinds of sorrow. There is a godly sorrow that leads to repentance - and - a worldly sorrow that leads to death. Here is that entire passage.
For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it—for I see that that letter caused you sorrow, though only for a while— I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter. 2 Corinthians 7:8-11
Note in the underlined section that there is a sorrow according to God’s will that leads to repentance without regret and to salvation. This is contrasted with the sorrow of the world that produces death. There is repentance to life - and another repentance to death. Saul had the second of these two kinds of repentance. It had plenty of tears - plenty of words - even plenty of emotion. The problem is that is had no true turn to God. So how to we know whether we have the first or second kind of repentance? In the end - it is evidenced by our actions. And we will see in a moment that these actions are not toward the offender or the offended primarily. They are actions toward God.
The last verse describes the actions of true repentance. Earnestness - vindication (apologea - a defense - here a defense of God’s ways and a defense seen not only in words but in a change of our actions). There is also fear of God - longing to change - zeal for God and his law to be fulfilled in our actions and attitudes - and a future where we are innocent in regard to sinful actions. All this points to a change in life. It matters very little how many tears are shed - it matters much how much we turn to God and allow Him to change our hearts so a different way of living ensues.
Then there is verse 12 - which is very enlightening.
So although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the offender nor for the sake of the one offended, but that your earnestness on our behalf might be made known to you in the sight of God. 2 Corinthians 7:12
Paul states here that he wrote with rebuke - not for the sake of the offender who had sinned - nor did he write for the sake of the offended that had been sinned against in this situation. Ultimately he wrote so that they would see a revived earnestness in their response to the Word given to them by Paul - in God’s eyes. Ultimately Paul knew that repentance is something done “in the sight of God.” It is not done for the consumption of man. When we are truly repentant toward God - we will change. We change primarily because we restore our relationship with Him - and He works within us as we turn from disobedience to obedience.
Back to Saul . . . He makes a very good and even somewhat convincing confession to David. The problem is that we see no true confession to God. Remember Saul’s confession to Samuel. He said he had sinned - but the next thing he did was to ask Samuel to come with him so he could be honored in the eyes of the people. David’s repentance didn’t care about honor before the people - he desired restoration to God. That is why we see David turn to God - even in the midst of very difficult circumstances and consequences of his sin. We see him turn to God again and again - humbling himself and seeking God in the middle of the mess his sin had caused. But what we see in Saul is a continuing descent into sin - disobedience in the Amalekite matter - disobedience in his attitudes and actions toward David - disobedience in continuing in his efforts to kill David even after having his life spared twice - and then a turning to a demonic medium when God wouldn’t answer his prayers before his death in a battle against the Philistines. Saul got worse - not better after his tearful confessions.
So what do we come away with from these chapters of 1 Samuel? We come away with a warning about merely looking at the outside of things. Even when people cry actual tears along with their confession - that is not enough to merit calling what they do “true repentance.” We come away with a reminder that ultimately the One most offended by sin is God. Therefore the primary issue in true biblical repentance unto life is what is happening in the heart. Are we turning to God wholly or are we just making a good religious show of things? True repentance is all about our response to God. He calls us to repentance - helps to grant us true repentance - and is the One we are returning to in repentance. Without those things happening - and a subsequent work of God that affects the way we live - all our tears, confessions, and promises we will truly change are just chaff to be blow away. The real work - is heart work resulting in life change - to the glory of God.