White as Snow: A Comparison of Two Prayers of Repentance

As recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, the word that inaugurates Christ’s earthly ministry is “repent.”[i] This detail seems deliberate on Matthew’s part; time and time again in the New Testament, we find Christ calling believers and nonbelievers to repentance. It is the mission statement of his ministry, that he has “not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”[ii] It is the mechanism he offers to escape judgement, that “unless you repent, you too will all perish.”[iii] And even after he ascends to heaven, Jesus’s message to the seven churches in Revelation is replete with repeated calls to “repent” from error and persevere in doing good.[iv]

It is fitting that this concept of repentance has been so integral to the Christian faith. The leaders of the early church emphasized repentance as the appropriate response to the message of Christ. At the first Pentecost, after the crowds are “cut to the heart” by the gospel and seek instruction from the apostles, Peter’s first command is “Repent and be baptized.”[v] And famously, the first of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses claims that repentance should not merely be a onetime occurrence, but a lifelong endeavor for Christians: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17),” Luther reasons, “he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[vi]

Given the importance of repentance in Christian belief, how should one repent? By examining two famous prayers of repentance, that of the fictional King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and that of the historical King David in Psalm 51, I hope to shed light on what repentance is and what it is not.[vii] While Claudius’s prayer is rooted in fear and marked by feeble attempts at self-sufficiency, leaving him in resignation, David responds to his sin in total surrender, trusting in God not only to forgive his wrongdoing, but also to create in him a new humanity empowered to overcome evil. His repentance is rooted in God’s righteousness and faithfulness rather than his own. Because of this, David can rise from his knees in confidence and hope.

A comparison of David’s and Claudius’s prayers is especially intriguing, as their circumstances are strikingly similar. Both men are kings, and both men find themselves especially entangled in sin by virtue of their worldly power. Indeed, because David lives in the royal palace, the highest building in Jerusalem—emblematic of his high position and power—he glimpses the married Bathsheba bathing and immediately lusts after her. Dispatching royal messengers to bring Bathsheba to bed, David further abuses his power to privately murder Bathsheba’s husband, the loyal soldier Uriah, by writing his commander Joab to “put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest . . . so he will be struck down and die.”[viii] In slight contrast, Claudius commits adultery and murder in pursuit of Denmark’s throne; to Prince Hamlet’s horror and indignation, the ghost of his father reveals that Claudius, the “incestuous . . . adulterate beast” and “serpent” seduced Queen Gertrude to bed and murdered the former Danish king with poison. ix Once on the throne, Claudius, like David, tries to indirectly murder “By letters congruing to that effect / The present death of Hamlet,” writing to the King of England to execute the prince upon his arrival.[x] Both men do not only commit the grave sins of adultery and murder; adding to their culpability, they do so deceptively, using indirection and secrecy to maintain the appearance of righteousness.

It is fitting, then, that both men are confronted with their sin by the same indirection. Claudius is convicted by Hamlet’s Mousetrap, the play designed to re-enact Claudius’s crimes and strike his conscience. David’s transgression is brought to light by the prophet Nathan’s parable of injustice, which elicits David’s indignation—only to reveal that David himself is the allegorical antagonist with many sheep who steals and slays the single ewe lamb of his poor counterpart.[xi] Faced with their crimes, both characters become deeply distressed: Claudius halts the play crying, “Give me some light. Away!” and dramatically retreats to his private quarters to pray, while David lies day and night in sackcloth, refusing to rise or eat.[xii]

Their ensuing prayers recognize the pervasiveness of evil, that despite the most elaborate plots to conceal their darkness, their sin will not go away. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me,” David concedes to God at the beginning of his prayer.[xiii] No matter where he turns, David knows he cannot escape his sin—neither the guilty reminders of the sins he has already committed nor the powerful inclinations to repeat them in the future. Given a moment of clarity after Nathan’s revelation, David recognizes the depths of his intrinsic evil, admitting, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”[xiv] Yet, amidst his consistent wickedness, David also recognizes God’s constant teaching and guidance even while he was unformed, still “in the womb.”[xv] His sin distresses him so much not only because he has wronged Uriah and Bathsheba, but most significantly because he recognizes it is a rejection of God himself who so desires David’s faithfulness and has enabled David to choose him.[xvi] Claudius, too, is entrenched in his deep sinfulness as he begins his prayer: “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven,” he laments, the first words to leave his mouth.[xvii] Though his sin is hidden from sight, Claudius perceives his hidden moral decay offending the heavens with its stench. The beginning of his prayer expresses his terror and fear of punishment from God: a “primal eldest curse” similar to Cain’s curse after “a brother’s murder” that Claudius fears will follow him all the days of his life.[xviii] Though the people around him cannot perceive his thoughts and actions, Claudius senses that he cannot fool an omniscient God whom he believes can even smell his concealed sin—and he is filled with terror.

Claudius’s subsequent prayer does not help to relieve this terror. Instead, it exacerbates his fear, as Claudius recognizes his unwillingness to abandon his sin. Claudius describes himself as “a man to double business bound,” pulled in opposite directions by his good intentions and evil desires. He speaks of his desire to be cleansed of his guilt by the “rain . . . in the sweet heavens / to wash me white as snow,” yet simultaneously he admits he cannot let go “Of those effects for which I did the murder– / My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.”[xix] Claudius knows that to repent of his sin would be to surrender its benefits; if he admits he wrongfully attained Denmark’s throne, he would need to cede his position and the power accompanying it. Claudius knows what he has done is wrong before God and other men, yet he cannot reconcile his knowledge of good to his heart’s desires; he knows what is good, but he does not want it more than he wants the fruits of his transgression. Perceiving this internal discord, the distance separating his mind and heart, Claudius describes his condition as being “possess’d,” as if a ghost or spirit has seized control over him—as if, in the words of the apostle Paul, “it is no longer I who [sin], but it is sin living in me that does it.”[xx] Increasingly alarmed by his evil, Claudius begins to speak in more and more exclamatory phrases, directly addressing his “limed soul, that, struggling to be free, / Art more engaged!”[xxi] He feels stuck, and the more he tries to free himself, the more he finds himself enslaved.

Ultimately, Claudius decides he cannot come before God, and instead responds to his overwhelming sin with feeble efforts at self-improvement. Hamlet, who hides in Claudius’s room, believes Claudius is praying because he sees Claudius kneeling with clasped hands. But his “prayer” cannot even be called as such, for Claudius never once implores God, instead wrestling with his own hypocrisy and inability to repent.[xxii] “Pray can I not,” he admits at the beginning of his monologue.[xxiii] After debating the merits of repentance and what it would achieve for him, he realizes it does not even matter because he “can not repent.”[xxiv ]In his feeble soliloquy, Claudius does not ask God for forgiveness and deliverance, but instead resorts to commanding his own body parts to action in apostrophe: “Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel, / Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe,” he commands.[xxv] Yet, the same man who was powerless to stop himself from adultery and murder is powerless to reverse his “curse,” for his “stronger guilt defeats [his] strong intent.”[xxvi] As he rises from his “prayer,” Claudius hopelessly remarks, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” for he knows his petitions are empty and powerless, unable to remedy his condition.[xvii]

While Claudius’s petition concludes incompletely and in despair, David’s prayer to God in Psalm 51 ends in resounding closure, brimming with the hope of real transformation and restoration. “May it please you to prosper Zion,” David tells God at the conclusion of his prayer, envisioning a restored relationship between God and his people in which he “will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole,” a future in which external conduct will naturally flow out of the pure, grateful hearts of the people.[xviii] David is able to hope in such a future not because he trusts in his own ability to lead as a king or even be good himself, but because he trusts completely in God’s goodness. He does not make premature vows to act better and avoid sin in the future, for he knows his own fallibility and corruption. Instead, from the opening lines of his prayer, David petitions God “according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion,” relying not on his own goodness, but on God’s constant character.[xxix] When confronted with his own sinfulness, David chooses to trust and surrender himself completely to God. While the beginning of his prayer is replete with reminders of his sin in the repetition of words like “transgression,” “iniquity,” “sin,” and “evil,” these words are entirely absent by the end of the prayer, conveying that David has left the mistakes of the past behind and is looking forward in hope towards God’s promised redemption.

The apostle John writes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”[xxx] Instead of responding to his sin in fear like Claudius, David chooses to trust in God’s love which drives away his fear. After the prophet Nathan reveals David’s sin, he tells David that God will bring calamity on his household and that his son conceived in adultery will die. With so much to lose as Israel’s king during its Golden Age, David could have cowered in fear, living in crippling apprehension of God’s next punishment on him and his nation. Yet, after his son dies, he is strangely at peace, confounding his servants who question his calm.[xxxi] David’s response to them reveals a deep confidence in God’s sovereignty, that God has taken away in justice. He prays, “you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge,” conceding God’s righteous judgment and expressing his confidence that God does not condemn unduly, but disciplines like a father, in love.[xxxii] His prayer, in contrast to Claudius’s prayer, conveys his calm with few exclamatory phrases and a mood which becomes more peaceful and optimistic as the prayer progresses. David’s only exclamatory “O’s” occur when he petitions God; unlike Claudius’s dramatic “O’s” to his body parts: “O wretched state! O bosom black as death! / O limed soul,” which convey his frustration at his inability to change, David’s cries of “O God” evoke a child calling out to his father, for David’s God is a loving, personal father, a kind shepherd who cares for his sheep.[xxxiii] Thus, even in his sin and guilt, David may boldly ask God for restoration in the imperative, testifying to the relational trust he has with God.

Though, like Claudius, David perceives his own powerlessness against sin, he holds utter confidence in his God who is even stronger than the “stronger guilt [which] defeats [his] strong intent.”[xxxiv] Both men recognize their inability to come before God given their shameful deeds. Yet, while Claudius avoids God, trying to muster up his own strength to pray by commanding, “Bow, stubborn knees,” David simply goes to God and implores him to “open [his] lips” to pray.[xxxv] Both men perceive that they need more than behavioral reform, but deep, internal transformation. Claudius rather unconvincingly attempts this by commanding his own “heart with strings of steel” to “be soft as sinews of the newborn babe,” but David fills this need by asking God to “create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”[xxxvi] It is clear David wholly believes in God’s ability to forgive him and change him; in contrast to Claudius, who thinks “All may be well,” David knows all will be well.[xxxvii] He says with certainty, “I will be clean” and “I will be whiter than snow,” for he has absolute confidence in God’s character and power: God will forgive him, and God’s forgiveness will be sufficient to wash him clean.[xxxviii] Claudius knows this same principle of mercy intellectually, asking, “Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens / To wash it white as snow?”[xxxix] Yet, unlike David, he does not fully believe in it nor trust in it, framing it as a question to convey his doubt.

David can confidently trust in God to transform his heart because he has surrendered his whole heart to God, while Claudius cannot let go of his heart which loves his sin more than God. Unlike Claudius, who conceals his sin, holds onto its benefits, and retreats to closed quarters to address it, David promises to illuminate his darkness, praying, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways so that sinners will turn back to you.”[xl] Thus he declares that he will disclose his shameful deeds and lay down his pride for the restoration of other sinners. This vow does not precede but rather follows his initial appeal for forgiveness; David promises to act not to earn forgiveness but because he knows he is forgiven and desires to share that forgiveness with others. He senses that the essence of repentance is not to try to do more good works to somehow bury his sin under the weight of time and deeds, but simply to surrender his heart to God and be transformed. He prays:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, you, God, will not despise.[xli]

David understands that true repentance lies not in a specific action or sacrifice, but in an attitude of surrender. Unwilling to present empty sacrifices and prayers to God in which his words fly up but his thoughts remain below, David instead presents his broken and contrite heart before God and asks him to create and sustain in him a clean heart. This image of a new heart is a motif that appears throughout the Old Testament. Recognizing Israel’s systemic problem of hardening towards God, described as a “heart of stone,” the prophet Ezekiel foretells a day when God “will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you . . . will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”[xlii] His contemporary, the prophet Jeremiah, speaks a similar message using a covenant framework. Though Israel had failed to uphold their part under the Old Covenant given at Sinai, Jeremiah foretells of a New Covenant in which God “will put [his] law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”[xliii] When David prayed his prayer in Psalm 51, he was still looking ahead to the fulfillment of these prophecies, but according to the author of Hebrews, this “New Covenant” has now been made concrete in the person and work of Christ.[xliv] Those who profess belief in Christ are now able to pray David’s prayer of repentance trusting in God’s unfailing love and compassion as manifested in Christ, to receive a new heart through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit, be purified of past sins, and find strength to overcome future sins.[xlv] Perhaps this is why in Scripture, God calls David “a man after my own heart.”[xlvi] Not because David is perfect, but because he has surrendered his sinful heart for a new heart, a clean heart—a heart from God himself.

Christ says “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” [xlvii]

 

i. Matthew 4:17 (NIV).

ii. Luke 5:32 (NIV).
iii. Luke 13:3, 5 (NIV).

iv. Revelation 2:5,16; 3:3,19 (NIV).

v. Acts 2:38 (NIV).

vi. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Accessed December 28, 2017. http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.

vii. For full prayer, see William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Robert Miola (New York: WW Norton & Co, 2011), 3.3.37-73.

viii. 2 Samuel 11:14 (NIV).

iv. Shakespeare, 1.5.42, 39.

x. Shakespeare, 4.3.64-5.

xi/ Shakespeare, 3.2.223; 2 Samuel 12:7 (NIV).

xii. Shakespeare, 3.2. 252.

xiii. Psalm 51:3 (NIV).

xiv. Psalm 51:5 (NIV).

xv. Psalm 51:6 (NIV).

xvi. See Psalm 51:6

xvii. Shakespeare, 3.3.36.

xviii. Shakespeare, 3.3.37.

xix. Shakespeare, 3.3.41, 3.3.45-6; 3.3.54-5.

xx. Shakespeare, 3.3.54; Romans 7:20 (NIV).

xxi. Shakespeare, 3.3.68-9.

xxii. Shakespeare, 3.3.73.

xxiii. Shakespeare, 3.3.38.

xxiv. Shakespeare, 3.3.66.

xxv. Shakespeare, 3.3.70-1.

xxvi. Shakespeare, 3.3.37, 39.

xxvii. Shakespeare, 3.3.96-7.

xxviii. Psalm 51:18, 19 (NIV).

xxix. Psalm 51:1 (NIV).

xxx. 1 John 4:17 (NIV).

xxxi. 2 Samuel 12:21 (NIV).

xxxii. Psalm 51:4 (NIV).

xxxiii. Shakespeare, 3.3.67-8; see Psalm 23.

xxxiv. Shakespeare, 3.3.40.

xxxv. Shakespeare, 3.3.70; Psalm 51:15 (NIV).

xxxvi. Shakespeare, 3.3.70, 71; Psalm 51:10 (NIV).

xxxvii. Shakespeare, 3.3.72.

xxxviii. Psalm 51:7 (NIV).

xxxix. Shakespeare, 3.3.46, 45-6.

xl. Psalm 51:13 (NIV).

xli. Psalm 51:16-17 (NIV).

xlii. Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26 (NIV).

xliii. Jeremiah 31:33 (NIV).

xliv. See Hebrews 10:1-18

xlv. On this empowerment over sin, see Galatians 5:16-25

xlvi. Acts 13:22 (NIV).

xlvii. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), 196-197.

 

Paul Jeon ’21 is from Fairfield, Connecticut.

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