When the Bible Says God Repented, Does It Mean God Can Change His Mind?

When we think of “repentance,” we instantly connect it with asking for forgiveness of a sin. But God’s “repentance” is not an acknowledgement of any failure. God’s His plan does not change even though the course may be altered in order to accomplish the final result.
Chad Napier
When the Bible Says God Repented, Does It Mean God Can Change His Mind?

Definition of Repent

When we think of “repentance,” we instantly connect it with asking for forgiveness of a sin.

“Repentance” as used in modern times is “the activity of reviewing one’s actions and feeling contrition or regret for past wrongs, which is accompanied by a commitment to change for the better,” as defined in Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics.

However, in “Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology,” we find that “repenting” is often used in the sense of “being sorry, or grieved.” In the writings of Aristotle, “repentance” reflected an “inner inconsistency”.  Similarly, in the Greek language, the term equates to one changing his or her mind or feelings.

Thus, when one considers the meaning of “repentance” when it is used in Scripture, one must be cognizant of both the translation and the context in light of the circumstances.

Does God Repent?

In today’s thinking, it would seem obvious that our all-righteous, all-powerful, and all-knowing God would never have the need to repent as we commonly know and use the term. He said so much in Psalms 110:4, “The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”

God Repented for Making Man

How then can this verse be reconciled with God’s repentance in Genesis 6:6 for making man on the earth as it “repented the Lord” and “grieved him at his heart”? In verse seven, He even goes so far as stating, “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.” 

In his “Exposition of the Bible” John Gill explained that God never changes his mind or alters his purposes, “though he sometimes changes the course and dispensations of his providence.” God knew of the resistance and the downfall of man before He created man. His original purpose as stated in Genesis 2:15 was for Adam and Eve was to live in the garden, cultivate it, and be prosperous.

However, as is the case in all the dispensational periods, God knew man would rebel against Him. God’s repentance was not that he was surprised or should not have made man, but that the providence of man had to change because of the introduction of sin.

God Repented for Making Saul the King

The second instance in which God “repented” or voiced regret is in 1 Samuel 15:10-11 when he told Samuel: “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king: for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed by commandments.”

Gill explained that God “changes the outward dispensations of his providence, yet he never changes and alters in the matters and methods of his grace.” Because of the manner of men, Gill noted God can sometimes take away “outward gifts,” but spiritual callings are of special grace and “are without repentance.”

God in his righteousness knew man would be desirous of a king because of the rejection of His dominion. However, He allowed Israel to be granted her wishes for a king in order to further illuminate the His rejection.   

God’s Plans Are Still Accomplished

In both occasions when God thought differently about a happening, the circumstance brought about action for a faithful servant of the Lord.

Example 1: Noah Was Faithful

In Genesis 6, we learn that Noah’s obedience was rewarded as he was put into action. Because “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD,” (Genesis 6:8), Noah walked with God and was instructed to build the ark as God was determined to make an end of all flesh, “for the earth [was] filled with violence through them,” (Genesis 6:13). Accordingly, God established a covenant with Noah, Noah’s wife, their sons, and their daughters-in-law.

Example 2: Samuel Was Faithful

In 1 Samuel 8, the elders of Israel confronted the prophet Samuel and demanded a king like all the other nations. Samuel prayed and the Lord answered him by saying, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).

Despite God’s warnings to Israel about having a king (1 Samuel 8:10-18), the people demanded “there shall be a king over us, that we also be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).

Later in 1 Samuel 15, Samuel acknowledged God’s disappointment in King Saul by going to Saul and confronting him over his sinful behavior. God later used Samuel to anoint a new king, David, whose lineage would produce the Messiah, Jesus.

What Is God’s Repentance?

God’s “repentance” is not an acknowledgement of any failure, as we view the term today. God’s righteousness and judgment is complete and perfect. His plan does not change even though the course may be altered in order to accomplish the final result. In both instances when God “repented,” God’s purpose for man was fully revealed and judgment ensued.

Chad Napier is a believer in Christ, attorney at law, wannabe golfer, runner, dog lover, and writer. He enjoys serving his church as a deacon and Sunday School teacher. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at his golf devotion par3sixteen.com. He and his wife Brandi reside in Tennessee with their canine son Alistair.

Photo Credit: Gettyimages/digitalskillet

Originally published August 28, 2019.