God Does Not Repent Like a Man

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

After Saul disobeys Samuel, God says, "I regret [= repent] that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands" (1 Samuel 15:11). Some have argued that since God "repents" of things he has done, therefore he could not have foreseen what was coming. Else why would he repent or regret, if he knew in advance the consequence of his decision?

However, this is not a compelling argument against God's foreknowledge. First of all, the argument assumes that God could not, or would not, lament over a state of affairs he himself chose to bring about. That's not true to human experience; and more importantly, God's heart is capable of complex combinations of emotions infinitely more remarkable that ours. He may well be capable of lamenting over something he chose to bring about.

Not only that, God may also be capable of looking back on the very act of bringing something about and lamenting that act in one regard, while affirming it as best in another regard. For example, if I spank my son for blatant disobedience and he runs away from home because I spanked him, I may feel some remorse over the spanking - not in the sense that I disapprove of what I did, but in the sense that I feel some sorrow that spanking was a necessary part of a wise way of dealing with this situation, and that it led to his running away. If I had it to do over again, I would still spank him. It was the right thing to do. Even knowing that one consequence would be alienation for a season, I approve the spanking, and at the same time regret the spanking. If such a combination of emotions can accompany my own decisions, it is not hard to imagine that God's infinite mind may be capable of something similar.

Now the question is: Does the Bible teach that God laments some of his decisions in the sense that I have described above (which does not imply that He is ignorant of their future consequences), or does the Bible teach that God laments some of his decisions because he did not see what was coming?

The answer is given later in 1 Samuel 15. After God says in verse 11, "I repent that I have made Saul king," Samuel says in verse 29, as if to clarify, "The Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent" (KJV). The point of this verse seems to be that, even though there is a sense in which God does repent (verse 11), there is another sense in which he does not repent (verse 29). The difference would naturally be that God's repentance happens in spite of perfect foreknowledge, while most human repentance happens because we lack foreknowledge. God's way of "repenting" is unique to God: "God is not a man that he should repent" (the way a man repents in his ignorance of the future).

For God to say, "I feel sorrow that I made Saul king," is not the same as saying, "I would not make him king if I had it to do over." God is able to feel sorrow for an act in view of foreknown evil and pain, and yet go ahead and will to do it for wise reasons. And so later, when he looks back on the act, he can feel the sorrow for the act that was leading to the sad conditions, such as Saul's disobedience.

Hence we have our precious fighter verse in Numbers 23:19 - "God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?" I say it is precious, because here God's commitment to his promises hangs on his not repenting like a man. In other words, God's promises are not in jeopardy, because God can foresee all circumstances, he knows that nothing will occur that will cause him to take them back.

Resting in the confidence of God's all-knowing promises,

Pastor John