Does God Repent of Things He Has Done?
by Bob Burridge ©2012, 2023
Some texts in the Bible can seem confusing when taken by themselves. To overcome the confusion we need to remember some important principles.
1. What did the words mean to the original readers?
2. How does the text fit into the flow of thought in the Bible?
– first there’s the local context: What’s the flow of thought in the rest of the book where the passage is found?
– then there’s the theological context: What God had revealed about this in the other inspired books?
– and there’s the historical context: what had God made known up to the time of that writing?
In about 30 places in the Bible
it says that God was “sorry” about
something, or that he “repented”.
Genesis 6:6-7 is a prime example. The English Standard Version translates it this way:
6. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
7. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
The King James Version translates verses 6-7 this way:
6. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
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 wish he could change what he had formerly done? 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 Westminster Shorter Catechism answer to 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. God’s knowledge includes everything that will ever happen. There can be no reason for him to wish he could change or modify what he does.
James makes a direct statement in his epistle in James 1:17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
With God the Father there is “no variation”. The original Greek word there is “parallagae” (παραλλαγη). This is an astronomical term. From it we get the word “parallax”, a term still used in astronomy. In ancient times they could see that constellations appeared in different places as the seasons changed. Some dots of light in night sky moved into different constellations. They called them “wandering stars” (planets). Some objects in the night sky change their brightness regularly. With God there’s no variableness like what we see in the night sky.
With God there is “no shadow due to change” (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 expression was used in reference to the eclipses of the sun and moon. Darkness took over parts of them. With God the Creator there is no such change. He is a steady and reliable light.
There is a direct statement in Psalm 102:26-27 about the earth and the heavens, “They will perish, but you will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end.” This reminds us that though the earth and heavens change with time. Their Creator doesn’t change.
There are many texts where God’s inability to change is made clear. For example, Numbers 23:19, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” And Malachi 3:6, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”
God has all things under his sovereign control as it says in Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases,
he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”
Ephesians 1:11-12, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.”
God even controls the plans of humans. Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD 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 biblilcal attributes of God (immutable, omnipotent, omniscient …). They say it’s wrong to view God as infinite and unchangeable. However, their view is based upon total misunderstandings of what the Bible actually says. They misuse the verses about God repenting or changing as if he regrets things he’s done.
So then, How Does an Unchangeable God Repent?
The Hebrew word here for “repent” or “change” is nakham (נחם). It’s translated many ways in the Bible depending upon the context. Most often it is translated either “to be sorry”, “to repent”, or “to comfort”, seemingly very different ideas.
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.”
Uses of this Hebrew word show that it describes the reaction of a person to some sorrowful event. The person grieves over the tragedy of some event or situation. The person longs to find comfort from those sorrowful feelings. The focus of the word is upon the impact some disturbing thing has had upon him. The word doesn’t 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. The sins of mankind offend him deeply. These sorrowful occurrences are used by God as means to accomplish all he’d purposed to happen. When God observes these tragic outworkings of evil, he is grieved over the sin, but he turns them into occasions to reveal his justice in his judgments, and his mercy in redemption. 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”, a human feeling.
We are probably more familiar with the term, “anthropomorphism”, a human-like physical thing. That’s 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, and such things.
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 nature. Yet to know how much God is offended by sin and rebellion, these human terms are used to communicate to us his response in a way we can understand. 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 our timeline.
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 sorrow shows us the affront of sin to his holiness.
The changes in human relationships 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
6. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.
7. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (ESV)
Regret has no place here at all. 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. God’s blessedness can’t be impaired or interrupted. This language is an accommodation to our “limited creaturely capacity” to understand.
Genesis 6:6 reflects a change in God’s treatment of mankind, not a change in his plan. It fulfills his unchanging resolution to punish justly, and it shows how he detests sin. If God 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’s foreseen all that will come to pass.
Our unchangeable God can never regret what he’s done. Passages that appear to say otherwise need to be more carefully examined to understand the point being made.
1. Consider what God has directly stated elsewhere. This rules out what the passages cannot mean. God is perfect. His plan is unchangeable. No Bible passage 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” or “sorry” is not equivalent to our word “regret”. It’s mainly about his discomfort connected with sorrowful things.
3. Consider the attitude of God described in these passages. We need to understand what the human emotion represents in the infinite and unchangeable being of God. God is offended by sin. It appalls him. It 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 can’t go back on his promises, nor can his plan fail in any way. His blessings and judgments are sure.
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.