Last week we addressed repentance and explained that it is not a work (Read: Is Repentance a Work?) We looked at the word translated “repent” in the Old Testament and understood that the Hebrew word implies a strong emotional response (i.e. to breathe strongly, be sorry, pity, etc.) In the New Testament, the Greek word translated repent is metanoia. It means to have a changed of mind. (Read: NT Verses that Use the Word Repent)
So what about the Old Testament verses that say God repented, or that He will repent? (Found in these translations: ASV, Bishops, Darby, DRB, Geneva, JPS, KJV, LITV, MKJV, RV, Webster, YLT) What about verses such as Gen 6:6, Gen 6:7, Ex 32:12-14, Deut 32:36, Judg 2:18, 1 Sam 15:11, 1 Sam 15:35, 2 Sam 24:16; 1 Chron 21:15; Psa 90:13, Psa 106:45, Psa 135:14, Jer 18:8, Jer 26:3, 13, 19, Jer 42:10, Joel 2:13-14; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2? And what about Psa 110:4, Jer 4:28, and Eze 24:14 that say God will not repent? Is that a contradiction?
In order to understand this, let’s start by remembering there are no contradictions in the Bible. So there must be answers and reasoning for what seems to be a contradiction and for verses that are difficult to understand. Consider these three things before we dig deeper into answering the question about God repenting.
- First, recognize that there are no verses in the New Testament that tell of God repenting.
- Second, understand that we cannot apply the meaning of the New Testament Greek word (metanoia) to the Old Testament Hebrew word (nacham) just because the English word is the same.
- Finally, accept that the English word repent cannot in any way contradict what we know to be true of the nature of God. God is immutable. He is without change. (Mal 3:6, James 1:17)
Understanding the Hebrew Word
Setting aside the meaning of the Greek word we translate repent, let’s look at the Old Testament verses that use the word “nacham” and in Engish are translated repent. Let’s remember, the Hebrew word “nacham” is defined to mean “to breathe strongly, be sorry, pity, etc.” These are clearly emotions and they can be applied to God because we know God has emotions (that explains why, created in God’s image, man also has emotions). Now, let’s apply the Hebrew word’s meaning in a few verses:
Gen 6:6 And it repented [sorrowed] the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
Gen 6:7 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 [sorrowed] me that I have made them.
1 Sam 15:11 It repenteth [sorrowed] me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried unto the LORD all night.
There are many other verses (for a complete list, read OT Verses that Use the Word Repent for Nacham), including verses that say God will not repent (Psa 110:4, Jer 4:28, and Eze 24:14). All of the verses must be understood in terms of the meaning of the Hebrew word nacham, meaning to breathe strongly, be sorry, pity, etc.
Two Challenging Verses
There remain two verses that are even more challenging in their interpretation. These verses imply that God would be like a man if he repented and seem to suggest that God does not repent.
Num 23:19 God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?
1 Sam 15:29 And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent.
In understanding these two verses, remember two things: 1) we’ve concluded that God does repent (sorrow, by the definition of the Hebrew word) and 2) we can’t infer the New Testament meaning of “change of mind” on these verses.
Read in context, these verses are about a comparison of how man differs from God. Yes, man was created in God’s image as a rational, volitional, emotional, physical, and relational being, with a free will. But God is not in the image of man. Significantly, man’s free will is human, not divine, and can be influenced by his own fleshly desires and by outside forces. God’s will is providential and uninfluenced by anything outside Himself and His perfectly holy nature. Therefore, the point being made in these verses is that, while man is like God, God is not like man. God’s ways are higher (Isa 55:9).
We have no problem understanding the first part, “God is not a man, that he should lie,” for we know that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2, Heb 6:18). The second part, “neither the son of man, that he should repent,” speaks of the offspring of Adam (fallen man begets fallen sons of man). Fallen man is different than God, so the point is that even God’s repentance (sorrow) is different than that of man.
Interpretation Challenges are Opportunities to Trust
That’s the best we’ve got on this subject. These are difficult verses, and understanding them is challenging. Perhaps you have another reasoning on these verses. If so, please share it by emailing hope@reasonsforhopeJesus.com.
One Final Thought
Whenever we encounter difficult and challenging verses or passages we should always try to understand what they mean by starting with that which is clear in God’s Word and all that we know about God, His character, nature, attributes, will, etc. Sometimes, however, we still don’t find satisfactory explanations. We must remember, just as man’s ways are lower than God’s ways, our knowledge is also limited and it is sometimes insufficient in understanding what God has said.
Once again, the cardinal rule is, to begin with, what we know for certain:
- Our God is infinite, immutable, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
- Our God has given us His Word and promised to preserve it.
- Our God has given us the Holy Spirit to teach us.
- Our God is worthy of our complete trust.
When we don’t have all the answers, let’s accept that it is an opportunity to simply trust in the Lord. We should always study and scripturally reason, to the best of our ability, but when our knowledge falls short and our reasoning is uncertain we should join with the prophets Jeremiah (15:15) and Ezekiel (37:3) who said. . .
Oh Lord, thou knowest.
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