Does God regret His actions?

By Joshua Claxton

In 1 Samuel 15, King Saul is riding high, exulting in his recent military victories. God encourages him to continue, to include striking down the Amalekites in retribution for how they abused the Israelite refugees in Exodus 17. Saul did so — almost. He spared the king and best of the livestock. Samuel withdrew his support of the king and executed the Amalekite king himself. The chapter ends with a somewhat puzzling statement:
And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. 1 Samuel 15:35
When Scripture tells of God regretting (or many translations use the word repent), there are several things it does not mean. It does not mean that God is sorry because He did the wrong thing or because He is upset at His own actions. Neither does it mean that God realizes that He has done the wrong thing and is changing His mind. It does not mean that He questions or second-guesses His own actions or decisions in any way.

There are two important things to remember when attempting to understand this passage. First, when any passage uses a word to describe God's person or action that does not seem to fit what is known of Him from the rest of the Bible, it is important to remember that a proper understanding of God is not built from one verse; it is constructed from the entirety of Scripture. Secondly, it is important to remember that many words (especially in Hebrew) have varied semantic applications. That is, they can be used in a variety of contexts, and they will have a slightly different meaning depending on their context.

The word used in 1 Samuel 15:35 is the Hebrew word that is transliterated nacham (naw-kahm'), and, according to Gesenius' Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the Old Testament, it means to lament or grieve, to be comforted, or to take vengeance. The primary connotations of the word do not necessitate a regret of one's own actions or a turning from them. When translated "repent" (or "regret" in the ESV and NIV), the word most frequently refers to God, not man. The word used of man's repentance involves a turning. In regards to the usage of nacham in reference to God, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says that, "On the surface, such language seems inconsistent, if not contradictory, with certain passages which affirm God's immutability...however, the expression is anthropomorphic and there is not ultimate tension."

In 1 Samuel 15:35, the author is communicating a couple of things. First, he is saying that God is changing the way He administers rule over Israel. There is a change in dispensation of leadership. Matthew Henry in his commentary on the book of 1 Samuel said, "Repentance [regret] in God is not, as it is in us, a change of his mind, but a change of his method or dispensation. He does not alter his will, but wills an alteration." Secondly, the author is communicating the emotion of God. God is not pleased or happy or thrilled that Saul must be deposed.

Finally, the verse that demonstrates that God's regret or repentance is not like man's is six verses prior to the one in question. First Samuel 15:29 says, "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent." The word translated "repent" here is the same word used in verse thirty-five. Its usage here shows that God's regret/repentance differs from man in that it is not a fundamental change in God's person, mind, or heart, but a change in His action. Regret in man is a response to his own wrongful actions, and repentance in God is the same; it is a response to man's wrongful actions. God's regret is always in response to man's actions. John Piper likened God regretting to a parent disciplining. The parent does not regret his or her own actions, but those of the child. Even so God does not regret His own actions, but those of sinful man.

Image Credit: Kevin Schraer; "Repent Sin Not!"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | God-Father

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Published 12-29-14