What does it mean that God regrets?
In an upcoming Sunday School lesson we will be in 1 Samuel 15. This is a sad passage that tells the story of Saul, his meteoric rise and rapid decline. In Saul, we see a man, plucked out of nowhere, made to be Israel’s first human king, who, as we learn, is a complete train-wreck morally, emotionally, spiritually. He is impetuous, disobedient, and lives for the approval of man. He is such a disaster as king that the Biblical writer makes this astounding statement:
Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from following Me and has not carried out My instructions.” So Samuel became angry and cried out to the Lord all night. – 1 Samuel 15:10, 11 HCSB
It’s bad enough that Scripture would speak of God regretting He made Saul king, but it says it again!
Even to the day of his death, Samuel never again visited Saul. Samuel mourned for Saul, and the Lord regretted He had made Saul king over Israel.
– 1 Samuel 15:35 HCSB
There exists in this text a question that needs to be asked and considered. What does it mean that God regrets or repents? We are told twice in this chapter that God regrets or repents. Then we are told that God does not change His mind.
Furthermore, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie or change His mind, for He is not man who changes his mind.” [Emphasis mine]
– 1 Samuel 15:29 HCSB
So, how can these truths be reconciled? How can God be sorry, or regret, something He did, but not be a God who changes His mind, or makes mistakes. How are we to understand this? Did the writer make an error?
The issue, as always, is dependent on context.The Hebrew word naw-kham‘ has quite a few meanings and its meaning is based on context. The word can mean “to suffer grief”, “to be moved to pity”, “to be sorry”, or “to change one’s mind”. So, first we have a word that has not just one meaning or sense, but that is flavored by the context. We have this in English, as well. We have all bumped into someone and said, “I’m sorry.” And we’ve all had that wise-cracking friend to remark, “I know you’re sorry, but what am I?” Depending on the context, the word can mean two entirely different things. But, still that does not resolve this apparent conflict. Does God regret, or doesn’t He? How can He regret and not regret at the same time?
To some, the issue of God’s regretting is a problem. This problem is made even worse by the fact that some translations use the word “repent.” Some use the word “grieve.” Depending on how this is interpreted, this can be seen as a challenge to God’s omniscience, His ability to know the future, as well as His Immutability, also understood as God’s unchangeableness. So, I want to take a few minutes and attempt to deal with this matter faithfully, pastorally, and in a way that brings glory to God.
Here are two options:
Option 1. When God chose Saul to be king he did not foresee Saul’s willful disobedience, and thus after realizing He made a mistake in choosing Saul, He regretted His decision and decided to try again because He had not achieved His purposes.
Option 2. When God chose Saul to be king he did foresee Saul’s willful disobedience, and though it grieved God, He had not made a mistake in choosing Saul. Rather, it served His long-term purpose.
I will argue for Option 2 and against Option 1, at the same time.
First, let’s look at what Scripture confirms about God’s knowledge of the future.
God’s knowledge of the future is one of the things God Himself says separates Him from other would-be gods.
“Remember this and be brave;
take it to heart, you transgressors!
Remember what happened long ago,
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and no one is like Me.
I declare the end from the beginning,
and from long ago what is not yet done,
saying: My plan will take place,
and I will do all My will.
– Isaiah 46:8-10 HCSB
Jesus uses God’s foreknowledge to comfort us in prayer; Matthew 6:8 “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Therefore, if God knows the future, in what way does He “regret” or “repent” concerning Saul’s rebellion (vv. 11,35). I believe the difference is found in the context. It is based on relationship. The short answer is this; God grieves over our sin, and He grieves over the consequences. God has true emotions and thoughts, and when we sin, He experiences real sorrow and grief, even wrath in response to our sin. Yet, He has also pity on sinners.
The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.
– Psalm 145:8-9 HCSB
Another attribute of God that is important to consider is the Immutability of God, also referred to as God’s unchangeableness. Berkhof spoke of God’s immutability in 4 categories. God is immutable in His Being, in His Perfections (moral character), in His Purposes (plans), and in His Promises (blessings, curses, things to come). So, God remains the same, always right, merciful and loving, working out His eternal plans, and responding to people and situations. Scripture affirms that He is the “Divine Being” not the “divine becoming”.
God loves us, and in a very real way He grieves over our sin, He grieves when we reject Him. God is loving and feels emotional pain when His creatures rebel against Him.
So, what does it mean that God does not “regret” or “repent”? (v. 29)
Here, the context is judgment. Unlike man, which is subject to change, is unfaithful, as seen clearly in Saul, God is faithful and consistent, not arbitrary.
While He has compassion and grieves over having to punish sinners, He will not relent from punishing sin and rejecting sinners, though that in itself is grievous to Him, and brings Him sorrow. Yet, He will not change His mind in regards to condemning sin. He hates it. He always has and He always will. In a very real sense this is a picture of God loving the sinner but hating the sin, because of the broken relationship and the necessity of judgment. God defends His glory, even at great personal cost. That, I think, is what is meant by God’s regretting: His sorrow at the judgment that will befall the house of Saul.
So, what about other examples of God seemingly changing His mind?
We see what appears to be a change of heart and mind in God in passages like Moses’ prayer for Israel in Ex. 32:9-14; in Hezekiah’s prayer for more years in Is. 38:1-6; in God’s relenting from calamity in Jonah 3:4-10. Rather than seeing some mental flip-flop in God, I believe the Word of God is teaching us the importance of prayer. We see, in these examples, prayer as the response to the warnings of God. When there is an appropriate, prayerful, repentant response to God, He will withhold His judgment. God is merciful to warn us, and His purpose is to bring about repentance. God responds to prayer – prayer is a new situation, and God will relent in response to repentant prayer.
This is a truth fixed in heaven: God can, and does, reverse previous declarations of blessing that are based on, or conditioned upon, human response.
When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. – Deuteronomy 30:1-3, HCSB
The “blessings and curses” are conditional. God has said, I set before you life and death, blessings and curses. You make the choice which way you’ll go.
Back to Saul
As for God and Saul, I believe that God knew how Saul would end up, just as God knew Israel would reject God’s king-ship, and desire a human king like the nations around them. (See Deut. 17:14-15) He knew of Saul’s many flaws, yet it did not soften the blow to God’s loving heart. He was grieved at Saul’s sin, and He was grieved to have to remove the king-ship from the house of Saul because of the causative sin, and because of the devastation that it would bring about. Yet, even in Saul’s kingship, God was preparing Israel for a greater King in David, who was a type of the King who was to come, Jesus Christ, the King of all kings.
Personal Application So, consider this today. God in heaven is personally concerned with your relationship to Him. Even if you are not a believer, God is gracious and merciful to you. He has been slow to anger, and He has abounded in steadfast love to you. God has been good to you and has shown you mercy. He desires to bless you. Yet, in your unrepentant sin, in your unwillingness to come to Him, worship Him, serve Him, love Him as the only soul-satisfying object in the entire universe, you grieve Him.
Repentance, the turning from your rejection of Him, and turning to His Son as the only means of forgiveness and acceptance to God is the path to God’s relenting from the calamity He has promised all who reject His Son.
Why will you die in your sins? Confess them. Turn from them. Call on the Lord today, submit your past and future, your heart, mind, and strength to Him today. He is is good, He is unchangeable, and He will save you today.
As always I’d love to hear your feedback, insight and comments. Please keep it civil and let’s show the world that people can agree or disagree with grace and class.