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In our consideration of Daniel 4, we noted briefly how sad it is that Belshazzar never appears to have learned from the errors of his predecessor. Nebuchadnezzar had been guilty of arrogance, blasphemy, and idolatry, and God had spectacularly humiliated him. Belshazzar repeated the sins of his grandfather and God stepped in in an equally spectacular way to warn the king that the writing was, quite literally, on the wall. Sadly, Belshazzar didn’t respond in the same way that Nebuchadnezzar had. Where Nebuchadnezzar genuinely humbled himself, Belshazzar did nothing more than reward Daniel for his interpretation of the writing. Where Nebuchadnezzar was restored to the glory of his kingdom, with added greatness, Belshazzar was killed the very night in which the warning had come to him. What made the difference? Repentance. Belshazzar’s response and fate in Daniel 5 illustrates the difference that repentance makes.

There is a difference between acknowledgement of sin and repentance. This difference is emphasised repeatedly in Scripture. Consider, for example, the story of Job. While he initially faced his trial commendably, he eventually fell into sin. In the end, God appeared to him and launched into a series of self-revelatory questions to help Job see the folly of questioning him. In the end, “Job answered the LORD and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further’” (40:3–5). Job acknowledged his sin. He recognised that he had been wrong to question God. But his response stopped short of repentance, and so God launched into a second series of self-revelatory questions. At the end of the second series of questions, “Job answered the LORD and said, … ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes’” (42:1–6). The Lord then restored Job’s fortunes. What was the difference between Job’s first and second confessions? Repentance.

Martin Luther’s first thesis read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” If the entire Christian life is meant to be one of repentance, which is distinct from, though related to, acknowledgement of sin, it is imperative that we think rightly about repentance and correctly understand its nature. As we consider the difference between Nebuchadnezzar’s and Belshazzar’s responses to Yahweh’s confrontation, we learn at least six things about the nature of true repentance.

First, true repentance defines the sin. Belshazzar’s only response was to reward Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, on the other hand, acknowledged his wrong. He had been punished for his arrogant belief that he was greatest of all but, in his confession, he acknowledged, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing” (4:35) and that God had humbled him of his “pride” (v. 37). He was specific about the sin that called for repentance. Vague generalities will not do when it comes to repentance. We must be specific in recognising and repenting of sin.

Second, true repentance appeals to divine mercy for deliverance. Nebuchadnezzar confessed trust in “the Most High” (v. 34). This title recognises both God’s sovereign authority and his willing power to deliver. God was first called by this title by Melchizedek, who said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, possessor of heaven and ear; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” (Genesis 14:19–20). The title “Most High” therefore appeals to two things: sovereignty and deliverance. Nebuchadnezzar’s confession was both a recognition of sovereignty and an appeal for mercy. Such recognition and appeal was entirely absent in Belshazzar’s response. Repentance always appeals to God for mercy.

Third, true repentance avoids defensiveness and views God aright. Once again, there is no recognition of wrongdoing on Belshazzar’s part, but Nebuchadnezzar openly confessed, “None can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (v. 35) and recognised, “All his works are right and his ways just” (v. 37). Repentance confesses that God is right and we are wrong.

Fourth, true repentance accepts God’s chastening. There is no such acceptance on Belshazzar’s part, but Nebuchadnezzar confessed that God was “right” and “just” in the way he had dealt with him (v. 37). True repentance receives, and even invites, God’s chastening as just and right.

Fifth, true repentance proclaims truth. Belshazzar made no confession at all but chose instead to reward God’s faithful messenger—perhaps in an attempt to purchase divine favour. Nebuchadnezzar made perhaps the greatest confession of divine sovereignty in all Scripture (4:34–35). Repentance is never shy to openly declare the splendour of God.

Sixth, true repentance resolves to obey. Belshazzar showed no inclination to change his ways. By contrast, hear Nebuchadnezzar’s change of heart: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honour the King of heaven” (v. 37). His confession transformed his life, as true confession always does. True confession dethrones self in humble submission to the God of heaven.

True confession, of course, rests its confidence in Jesus Christ alone. But it is more than mere acknowledgement of sin and of the cleansing found in Christ. True repentance defines sin, appeals for mercy, avoids defensiveness, accepts chastening, proclaims truth, and resolves obedience. Repentance marked by these things can confidently embrace Christ’s sacrifice for forgiveness and cleansing.