Does God Repent of Things He Has Done?
by Bob Burridge ©2012
Some texts in the Bible, if isolated from the rest of Scripture, challenge us. To overcome problems in our understanding we need to know a few things:
1. What did the original words mean to those to whom they originally were written?
– basic grammatical meaning
– literary use of the expressions common to the original readers
– historical references meaningful at the time of the writing
2. What is the whole context of the portion in question?
– local context: the flow of thought in the rest of the book in which it is found
– theological context: what God has revealed in the other inspired books
– historical context: how much God had revealed about his redemptive plan at that time.
In about 30 places in the Bible God is said to “repent”.
Genesis 6:6-7 is a prime example, “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” (NKJV)
The old King James Version translates verse 7, “And the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.’ ”
Did God regret something he had done? Did he really repent as if he had made a mistake? Did God have to change his plan from what he had formerly wanted it to be? If so, then he is not the God we read about in the rest of the Bible. A careful study of these passages removes the apparent conflict.
First we need to take a look at the larger context. What do clear Bible passages teach about God’s nature?
God’s nature is “immutable” (he does not change).
The answer to Westminster Shorter Catechism question 4 is, “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
If this is true, God can never regret, make errors, or change his plans. He answers to nothing greater than himself, therefore he is perfect and needs no improvement. God’s knowledge is perfect. It includes all things that ever will happen, there can be no reason to ever change or modify his plans.
James makes a direct statement in his epistle in James 1:17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.”
With God the Father there is “no variableness” (parallagae, παραλλαγη). This is an astronomical term. From it we get the word “parallax,” a term still used in astronomy. Even in those ancient times they could see that constellations appeared in different places as the seasons changed. Some dots of light move from constellation to constellation, we now know these “wandering stars” as planets. Some objects in the night sky change their brightness regularly. However, there is no such change with God. There is no variableness like that which we see in the night sky.
With God there is “no shadow of turning” (tropaes aposkiasma, τροπης αποσκιασμα). This is another astronomical term, It has to do with changes in shadows cast by the sun and moon. As the sun and moon change their positions in the sky during the day or night, there is an observable change in the length and direction of the shadows they cast. This word was also used in reference to the eclipses of the sun and moon where darkness took over parts of them. With God the Father there is no such change. He is a steady and reliable light.
There is a direct statement in Psalm 102:26-27, “They will perish, but You will endure; Yes, they will all grow old like a garment; Like a cloak You will change them, And they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will have no end.” This reminds us that though the earth and heavens perish and wear with time. God does not change.
There are many texts where God’s inability to change is made clear. For example, 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? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” And Malachi 3:6, “For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.”
God has all things under his sovereign control as it says in Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.”
Ephesians 1:11-12 says, “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
God even controls the directions of the plans of humans. Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.” and Proverbs 19:21, “There are many plans in a man’s heart, Nevertheless the LORD’s counsel — that will stand.”
Open Theism teaches that God is open to change and adjusts his plans to new circumstances. Those promoting this view reject the classic attributes of God (immutable, omnipotent, omniscient …). They say there are philosophical contradictions in the belief systems that accept the infinite and unchangeable understanding of God. However, their claims of contradictions are based upon total misstatements and misunderstandings of the actual historical and biblical doctrines. They often quote the verses about God repenting as if he adjusts to things outside of himself.
So then, How Does an Unchangeable God Repent?
The word here for “repent” is nakham (נחם). It is translated many ways in the Bible depending upon the context. Most often it is translated either “to repent” or “to comfort”, two seemingly very different words. The Brown Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB) defines it this way: “to be sorry, to be consoled, to be moved to pity, to have compassion, to be comforted, to be relieved.”
A study of the primary uses of this Hebrew word show that it describes the reaction of a person to some sorrowful event, and the person either finds comfort from the sorrow, or grieves over the tragedy of the event. The focus of the word is upon the impact some disturbing thing has upon him. The word does not fit with our English words “repent” or “regret” as we commonly use those words today.
When we repent over our sins, our response is grief over the offense they cause to God. When God repents, he has nothing to regret in himself. He has nothing for which to be sorry. God answers to no one but himself and to his own perfect and eternal plan. However, the sins of mankind offend him deeply. He has decreed that they would occur for his own good reasons. They are used to display his justice in his judgments, and his mercy in redemption. These sorrowful occurrences are used by God as means to accomplish all the things he has purposed to happen. When God observes these tragic outworkings of evil, he is morally offended. The word nakham (נחם) beautifully conveys this response.
To communicate to us the offense toward God which is produced by the sins of his creatures, the Bible uses a human response we all understand. We often experience grief, sorrow, and a need for consolation. When a human emotion is used to explain how God responds to something, we call it an “anthropopathism.”
We are probably more familiar with the term, “anthropomorphism.” That is when some physical part of man is used to represent something about God. The Eternal God has no physical body. He is revealed as spirit. However, the Bible speaks of God’s hands, eyes, feet, wings, feathers, … etc. These communicate to us that he controls, sees, comforts, etc.
In an “anthropopathism” some emotion or feeling of man is used to explain something about God. God’s spirit nature is very different in comparison with our human soul. Yet to know how much God is offended by sin and rebellion, these human terms are used to approximate his response in the best way possible for us.
Changes in how God treats people are based upon changes in them, not upon changes in God. It shows how God reveals his unfolding decrees to us in time. For example, in Eden before the fall, God is seen blessing man in his innocence. Then he casts man out for his sin and deep offense. In the time of Noah he warned that the whole human race deserved destruction. By grace he chose Noah and preserved the human race beyond the flood.
All of these events of history were carried out according to God’s decree. The plan included allowing man to sin. God’s judgments show no change neither in God’s mind, nor in his plan. His repentance shows us the affront of sin to his holiness.
The changes in the relationships of persons with God reflect the Creator’s eternal and immutable decree as it unfolds. His plan takes into account human rebellions which accomplish his goal, even though that means enduring great offense from men’s sins.
Now we apply this to the text in Genesis 6:6-7
Genesis 6:6-7, “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.”
Regret has no place here at all. It could not be the meaning intended, since God cannot regret or make mistakes. Even the grief of God in verse 6 is not the same as human grief. God’s eternal blessedness is never interrupted even though in time God permitted sin. In Romans 1:25 God is said to be “blessed forever.” Dr. Charnock points out that grief as we know it is inconsistent with undefiled blessedness. His blessedness cannot be impaired or interrupted.
This language is an accommodation to our “limited creaturely capacity” to understand. God’s intentions are always perfect and infinite, ours are not.
Genesis 6:6 reflects a change in God’s treatment of mankind. It fulfills his unchanging promise and resolution to punish justly, and it shows how he detests sin. The need in God is not for external comfort, but to satisfy his own justice as his decree unfolds. If he regretted, or admitted that his plan did not turn out as he intended, it would be contrary to direct statements where God tells us that he is totally Sovereign, and that he has foreseen all that will come to pass.
Other similar passages are handled in the same way.
1. Consider what God has directly stated elsewhere. This rules out what the passages cannot mean. Since God is perfect and his plan is unchangeable, no passage of the Bible can teach that God regrets or repents as we do.
2. Discover what the original words mean, and how they were commonly used. The word translated as “repent” is not equivalent to our word “regret”. It includes mainly the discomfort that is connected with sorrowful things.
3. Consider the attitude of God described in these passages. In an anthropopathism we need to understand what the human emotion might represent in an infinite and unchangeable being of God. God is offended by sin. It appalls him, and causes what was created in a blessed state to be treated at a later time with judgment and contempt.
God’s immutability is both a sober warning,
and a comforting assurance.
God’s true nature is an uncomfortable fact for those who remain unredeemed by Christ. For those brought into the family of God by grace, it is a wonderful truth. God cannot go back on his promises, nor can his plan fail in any way. His blessings and judgments are sure.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)