With personal repentance having taken place on a national scale, it was now possible to have corporate repentance. So Samuel arranged for the nation to gather at one of his regular meeting places, Mizpah. When they met they did three things: they used a symbolic action, they denied themselves a legitimate function, and they articulated a common confession.
The symbolic action was drawing water and pouring it before the Lord, which signified their desire for cleansing. The point of such an action was to help them remember what it was they were doing. This is the easiest and least important aspect of the communal repentance because it could be done without much pain or trouble, and it is only of value if the other features are also included.
The legitimate desire they did without was eating food. They realised that satisfying physical needs had to take second place to satisfying spiritual needs. The practice of fasting is one that the Bible mentions often, indeed Jesus took it for granted that his people would fast, yet no specific guidance is given regarding how long a fast should be.
The common confession was straightforward and simple: ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ The particular name of God that they used signifies his unique relationship with Israel. It is the divine name that indicated his unchanging commitment to his people. They had rebelled against the One that had done them so much good.
There are three kinds of repentance. There is natural repentance, which occurs when a person realises he has done something wrong, an inappropriate action. Legal repentance is what occurs in a person who is convinced by the law of God that he has done wrong but who still loves the sin; he is afraid of God’s punishment but does not desire a change of heart. Evangelical repentance is the response to God’s offer of pardon and is marked by a hatred of sin, a self-humbling because of it, and a longing to be free of it.
It is also important to note that repentance is not the cause but only the condition of Yahweh’s deliverance. Repentance is not a religious twisting of the divine arm; rather it is the state of soul that God wants to see before he will bless us.
Repentance of sin is particular. The one specific sin that was mentioned in the text was compromise, but its tentacles would have affected many areas of life. In one sense it was an outward activity, but in another sense it showed the sad state of their hearts. It was not enough that they get rid of their idols; they had to get their hearts sorted out.
John Bradford, an English Reformer who was burned at the stake, used to write in a notebook the sins of which he was guilty each day so that he would repent of them (in his notebook he also wrote down the commendable traits he saw in others and that he thought were lacking in himself). As I read about his practice I realised that one hour of my life would fill several notebooks. But having said that, Bradford took an action that helped him deal with his personal sins.