Does God repent? According to some Scriptures (such as num.23:19; 1Sam.15:29), the answer is, "no, God does not repent." Other Scriptures (such as Gen.6:6; 1Sam.15:11,35) tell us, "Yes, God does repent."
How shall we reconcile these seemingly opposite answers? Also, how can an unchanging, immutable God repent?
First of all, we know that God, who cannot lie or deny Himself, never contradicts Himself. Whenever we think we see a contradiction in His Word, it is because we lack understanding. If we diligently study such a "contradiction," we always find harmony in the Word and enlarge our understanding. If we ignore the "contradiction," we miss learning the truth and may weaken our faith in the Word.
The English word repent means, "To feel sorry for having done wrong and seek forgiveness"; also, "To feel sorry; regret something done in the past" (World Book Dictionary). Obviously, a perfect, all-righteous God never needs to feel sorry for having done wrong. So there must be another meaning behind the Bible usage of repent when it applies to God.
Most verses about God repenting or not repenting are in the Old Testament. exceptions are Hebrews 7:21, which quotes the Old Testament, and Romans 11:29. All the Old Testament verses use the same Hebrew word, nacham, which Strongs defines: "a primitive root; properly, to sigh, i.e. breathe strongly; by implication, to be sorry, i.e. (in a favorable sense) to pity, console or (reflexively) rue; or (unfavorably) to avenge (oneself)" (Strongs). In context, it often means a change of mind or purpose, and some Bible dictionaries include this definition of repent. Does God change His mind or purpose? Let us see what He says about His repentance.
Scriptures stating that God does not repent
"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?" (num 23:19). unlike man, God does not break His Word, or change His mind because He was wrong. God put these words into Balaam's mouth, perhaps because Balak hoped Balaam could make God change His mind. But God does not change His mind just because ungodly men pressure Him.
God had purposed to bless Israel because of His covenant with Abraham, an eternal purpose that He would never repent of. Further, He purposed to bless them for their faithfulness (v21), a purpose He would not repent of as long as they were faithful (more on this later).
"And Samuel said unto him, The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou. And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent" (1Sam 15:28,29). After pronouncing judgment on Saul for his disobedience, God said He would not change His mind about the sentence. Saul had made excuses and begged for leniency without really repenting, so God said his sentence was fixed; he was past the point of no return. In effect, God was saying, "Because you will not repent of your sin, I will not repent of my judgment against you."
"The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek" (Psa 110:4). Declaring His eternal purpose concerning Jesus Christ, God not only stated it, but also swore, plus said He will not repent. God will never change His mind and remove Jesus from His eternal position as High Priest.
"For thus hath the LORD said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end. For this shall the earth mourn, and the heavens above be black: because I have spoken it, I have purposed it, and will not repent, neither will I turn back from it" (Jer 4:27,28). Judah and Jerusalem had refused God's call to repent, so He pronounced judgment on them and would not change His mind. Because they would not repent, He would not repent.
"I the LORD have spoken it: it shall come to pass, and I will do it; I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent; according to thy ways, and according to thy doings, shall they judge thee, saith the Lord GOD" (ezek 24:14). Again, because Jerusalem would not repent, neither would God.
"For thus saith the LORD of hosts; As I thought to punish you, when your fathers provoked me to wrath, saith the LORD of hosts, and I repented not: So again have I thought in these days to do well unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah: fear ye not" (Zech 8:14,15). Here the word thought, as it often does in Scripture, means "purpose." As God had purposed to punish their fathers and did not repent, so now He purposed to bless them and would not repent. But we notice (vv16,17) they had to meet conditions.
"As concerning the gospel, they [Israel] are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers' sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Rom 11:28,29). In context these verses refer to God's everlasting covenant with Israel. God's promised gifts and calling, or invitation, to Israel will never be revoked. "Without repentance" means God will never change His mind; His eternal purposes for Israel will stand.
More broadly, God's promises stand to all who heed His invitation and meet the conditions. He will never say, "Sorry, you meet the conditions but I changed my mind; forget about those promises." He always keeps His Word.
We see in the above Scriptures that in several cases God refused to change His mind because man refused to change his mind, for judgment or for blessing. In other cases, God refuses to change His mind because His purpose is eternal – nothing can change it. Both of these express God's immutability, as we shall see.
Scripture examples of God repenting
"And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart" (Gen 6:6).Because of man's wickedness, God was grieved that He had made man. It was not God's mistake, but man's. In response to man's choices, God was changing His conduct toward man. God knew at Creation that man would fail, and He would have to destroy him. God also knew at Creation that He would redeem man. "God repented that He had made man; but we never find Him repenting that He redeemed man (though that was a work of much greater expense)" (Matthew Henry).
"Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.… And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people" (exo 32:12,14). After Israel worshipped the golden calf, God said He would destroy Israel, but then changed His mind because of Moses' intercession.
"For the LORD shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left" (Deut 32:36). "And when the LORD raised them up judges, then the LORD was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the LORD because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them" (Judg 2:18).
When God punished His people, He was grieved to see them suffering, as a father who chastises his son is grieved to see him suffer, even though he deserves it. Then when God saw their repentance, He stopped punishing them, and changed His purpose from punishment to deliverance. His repentance was a response to theirs. Through it all He acted exactly as He had said He would.
"It repenteth 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 the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel" (1Sam 15:11,35). God repented because of Saul's disobedience. His rejection of Saul was consistent with what He had said earlier (1Sam 12:14,15). So when the people and Saul disobeyed, God kept His Word by repenting.
"And God sent an angel unto Jerusalem to destroy it: and as he was destroying, the LORD beheld, and he repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough, stay now thine hand" (1Chron 21:15; parallel passage: 2Sam 24:16). God brought consequences for David's sin, but repented and reduced the reaping because David repented (vv8,17).
"Many times did he deliver them; but they provoked him with their counsel, and were brought low for their iniquity. Nevertheless he regarded their affliction, when he heard their cry: And he remembered for them his covenant, and repented according to the multitude of his mercies" (Psa 106:43-45). In justice God brought His people low when they sinned, but in mercy He delivered them when they repented.
"Thy name, O LORD, endureth for ever; and thy memorial, O LORD, throughout all generations. For the LORD will judge his people, and he will repent himself concerning his servants" (Psa 135:13,14). notice that God's judging and repenting are tied to His eternal character. He is ever a God of justice and mercy.
"Thou hast forsaken me, saith the LORD, thou art gone backward: therefore will I stretch out my hand against thee, and destroy thee; I am weary with repenting.… I will destroy my people, since they return not from their ways" (Jer 15:6,7). Here God is tired of repenting, and He will stop repenting because His people stopped repenting. His purpose is to destroy His people if they do not repent, and His repenting or not repenting in response to their's is consistent with this purpose.
"If so be they will hearken, and turn every man from his evil way, that I may repent me of the evil, which I purpose to do unto them because of the evil of their doings.… Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God; and the LORD will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you" (Jer 26:3,13; see also v19). Obviously God's repentance is not for wrongdoing; He wants His people to repent of their evil so He can repent of the evil He purposed to do to them.
"If ye will still abide in this land, then will I build you, and not pull you down, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up: for I repent me of the evil that I have done unto you" (Jer 42:10). The if here is followed by attendant blessings (vv11,12), then another if (vv13-15) with attendant judgments (vv16-22). As always, God's dealings with them hinged on their response to Him.
"And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him…?" (Joel 2:13,14). Again, God calls them to repentance so He can repent. And again, this is consistent with His gracious and merciful character.
In Amos 7:1-6, God showed Amos visions of grasshoppers and fire devouring Israel, then repented because of Amos' intercession, as He had with Moses. For God to hear the intercession of His faithful children is also consistent with His character.
"Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil" (Jonah 3:9- 4:2). God repented because the people did, consistent with His merciful character, and in contrast to Jonah's. Of this kind of repentance we could say, "God is not a man, that He should refuse to repent!" From the above Scriptures we observe that God's repentance is always a response to man's choices.
Resolving the "contradiction"
We have saved one passage about God repenting, and here God defines His own repentance. "At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would
benefit them" (Jer 18:7-10).
God is setting forth the rules: ‘If you sin, I purpose to destroy you; if you repent, I will change my mind about destroying you. If you do well, I purpose to bless you; if you change, I will change my mind about blessing you.'
So is God really changing? No, because He is doing what He said He would; He never breaks His own rules. So, no, God does not repent. And this is consistent with His unchanging character and His justice and mercy.
But yes, He is changing His dealing with man in response to man's choices, so He is changing, particularly from man's point of view. So, yes, God does repent. And this too is consistent with His unchanging character.
Human illustrations are limited because man does not have the mind of God. But suppose a father assigns to each son a row of beans to pick, with the promise of ice cream cones for finishing on time. They start picking diligently; Father purposes to give them cones. But they goof off and don't get done, so he changes his mind. Or suppose they start slowly, and he purposes to give no ice cream, but after they apologize, get to work, and finish on time, he changes his mind. Did Father change? yes and no; he kept his word and followed the rules he set, and his unchanging purpose was that his sons obey him and get the beans picked.
God's repentance is different from man's. Because He is perfect, He never has to repent of wrongdoing. Because He is all-knowing and all-powerful, He never even has to repent of an accidental mistake. His eternal purpose will always stand, no matter what; He will never have to change His plans because of a lack of power to carry them out. So in this respect He is not a man, that He should repent.
However, the word "repent" in the Bible also includes aspects that do apply to God. He can feel grief when His actions cause grief, as when He punishes His children. He can "change" His course of action in response to others' actions. So in these senses of the word, He does repent.
God's repenting or not repenting is consistent with His unchanging character. God is immutable because He is perfect; He cannot change for better or worse. "I am the LORD, I change not" (Mal 3:6). "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever" (Heb 13:8). "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17).
Regarding His eternal purposes, He says He will not repent, consistent with His character. Within His eternal purposes, He has set the rules for how He will dispense justice and mercy, provided redemption through Jesus' blood, and established Christ's eternal priesthood. Therefore, He can look at man's response and say, "I will not repent," or, "I will repent," consistent with His character.
"Indeed, it is exactly because God does not repent, that He must seem to repent when man ‘changes his mind.' God's attitude toward man is conditioned by man's attitude toward Him" (Henry Morris).
The Scriptural doctrine of God's repentance refutes the Calvinistic doctrines of unconditional election and eternal security. God's sovereignty is great enough that within His sovereignty He has room to decree that man can choose, and to set the rules for how He will respond to man's choices. Within His eternal purposes, He has room to change each person's status according to whether he meets the covenant conditions, while still being true to His eternal character and promises.
Our minds can't comprehend omnipotence, omniscience, foreknowledge, or eternity, so we can't fully comprehend God's repentance. But we take Him at His Word, and we can learn some truths from it.
What God's not repenting means to us
We cannot expect Him to overlook sin. We can't follow our way and expect to twist God's arm to accommodate us, as Balak tried. We can't hope to continue in sin and expect Him to disregard it or make an exception for us, to let us somehow bypass judgment. His purpose is to deal with all sin, either through the blood of Jesus upon man's repentance, or through eternal judgment upon man's refusal to repent. He will not repent of this purpose.
We can trust Him to always keep His promises. He will not change the rules partway through. He will not say to the faithful at the end of life, "I decided Jesus' blood is not good enough; you can't enter Heaven after all." When He purposes to bless us, only our unfaithfulness can change it; He will always keep His Word.
We can rest assured that His eternal purposes will stand. God will conquer sin and Satan, and Christ will be glorified eternally.
What God's repenting means to us
God is still giving us opportunity to repent. We are still alive, His Spirit is still calling, and we can repent and believe, thus changing our destiny. We cannot presume upon this, because as we noticed, a person can pass the point of no return, when God will not repent anymore.
We could still choose to depart from God. While in the flesh, we face this temptation. Our choice to leave God will forfeit His blessing and ultimately our salvation.
God is not an impersonal God who doesn't see or care about us. What we do affects how He relates to us. We can rejoice that He knows us fully, cares deeply, and acts accordingly.
Intercession makes a difference. We saw examples of this in Moses and Amos. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16). Our faithful intercession may move God's hand to spare someone else.
We are responsible to call others to repentance. like Jeremiah, we can call them to repent so God can repent of the evil He purposed to do to them. As in the days of Jonah, God is gracious and merciful and wants men to repent. like Jesus and the Apostles, we must preach the message of repentance as long as the opportunity remains. It is a message of hope, because man's repentance meets God's repentance. And God will never repent of His eternal plan of redemption through Christ Jesus.
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