The Repentance of God

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Twice the Bible says that God repented for something he had done in the past (Genesis 6:6-7 and 1 Samuel 15:11), and at least eleven times it says he repented or would repent of something he was about to do in the future (Exodus 32:12-14; 2 Samuel 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Psalm 106:45; Jeremiah 4:28; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2).

Nevertheless, the Bible also says that God will not repent. For example, Psalm 110:4 says,

The Lord has sworn; he will not repent: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

And Ezekiel 24:14 says,

I, the Lord, have spoken; it shall come to pass, I will do it, I will not go back, I will not spare, I will not repent; according to your ways and your doings I will judge you, says the Lord God.” (See Jeremiah 4:27-28.)

But even more important than these are the texts that say God would be like a man if he repented. In other words, God’s freedom from a need to repent is based on his deity. Being God means that he cannot repent.

Numbers 23:19 — God is not a man that he should lie, or a son of man that he should repent.

1 Samuel 15:29 — The Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent.

This last text comes in the very same story where it says God repented that he had made Saul king (1 Samuel 15:11, 35). So we must not think that these two views come from different authors of the Old Testament who disagree with each other.

Rather, we should probably say that there is a sense in which God does repent, and there is a sense in which he does not. First Samuel 15:29 and Numbers 23:19 are intended to keep us from seeing the repentance of God in a way that would put him in the limited category of a man.

God’s repentance is not like man’s. I take that to mean that God is not taken off guard by unexpected turns of events like we are. He knows all the future. (“Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them,” Isaiah 42:9). Nor does God ever sin. So his repentance is not owing to lack of foresight nor to folly.

Rather, the repentance of God is his expression of a different attitude and action about something past or future—not because events have taken him off guard, but because events make the expression of a different attitude more fitting now than it would have been earlier. God’s mind “changes,” not because it responds to unforeseen circumstances, but because he has ordained that his mind accord with the way he himself orders the changing events of the world.

Resting in the reliability of God,

Pastor John