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.
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.