The subject of the repentance of God has always been considered one of the more or less difficult subjects found upon the pages of the divinely inspired Scriptures. Consequently, much has been written in an attempt to arrive at a clear understanding of what Scripture means when it speaks of repentance on the part of God.
In the treatment of the subject at hand, it is first of all necessary for us to determine who and what God is concerning whom the Scriptures tell us that He repents. Turning to God’s own revelation, the Bible, we find that there God describes Himself to us as the infinite and eternal One, the I AM, the God w6ho always is, and never becomes. He says of Himself that He is the same yesterday, today and forever; with whom there can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning (James 1:17).
Further, He reveals Himself as the God who is a willing and decreeing being. This act of God’s willing and decreeing is known as His counsel.
In respect to this counsel of God we may say first of all that it is all-comprehensive. It is no mere “blueprint” which God has drawn, and according to which all things now take place in heaven and in the earth. If this were true, His counsel would be no more than a plan of an architect who determines in detail how the structure that is to be built shall be made, but who does not at the moment know what will become of the building after it has been completed. This, however, is the truth concerning God’s counsel, namely, that God has not only eternally determined how things shall be created in the beginning, but also controls the development of His entire creation in time. To that we must add also this that God not only has planned, and does even now control all things, but in His counsel too, He has determined the eternal end and purpose of all things. All things must serve that purpose without exception.
In the second place, we may express that God’s counsel is always reaching His desired effect. Nothing can withstand the decreeing God in all His sovereign counsel and will. By the greatest to the smallest thing in His creation He is served, be it willingly or unwillingly. His counsel shall stand and He shall do all His good pleasure, the Bible teaches us. Thus, it must follow that nothing can ever, nor does ever really oppose Him to hinder Him in His work.
Thirdly, we must bear in mind that God’s counsel is unchangeable. It is the counsel of an unchangeable God, whose works are in perfect and absolute harmony with His perfect being. Neither can there be anything that would persuade God to leave His perfect way, for He is the highest good, and, cannot be tempted with evil. Unchangeably therefore, His will is done eternally, and in time from the beginning of Genesis 1:1 to the full realization of the tabernacle of God as it shall be with men when Christ shall have come again.
What has been said is certainly based upon the Word of God. Do we not read in Numbers 23:19: “God is not a man, that He should lie, neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and will He not do it, or hath He spoken, and will He not make it good”? And again, does not Isaiah 46:10b inform us that “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure”?
Now it is in apparent contradiction to the above named passages of the Word of God, that the same Word of God also instructs us that God repents. Some of such passages are: Gen. 6:6 “And it repenteth Jehovah that He had made a man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart.”
Then, too, a passage such as I Samuel 15:11 expresses: “It repenteth Me that I have set up Saul to be king, for he is turned back from following Me.” Among others setting forth the same thought are: Ex. 32:14; Jer. 18:8; Jonah 3:10.
With the foregoing in mind, we must bear in mind, in the second place, that in respect to the term “repentance” Scripture means the following: First of all in the Old Testament the word originates from a verb meaning to pant, to groan, consequently the meaning: to lament, grieve, repent. In the New Testament we find two words one of which means to think with, to care afterwards, to repent one’s self, while the other means to consider with, to change one’s mind, to repent.
Taking all these words together, we must come to the conclusion that repentance with us, is to change one’s mind, reverse one’s purpose. In that sense I am about to, or have done something, something else intervenes, and upon consideration I do not carry out my original intention, but take another step instead. This is however never true with the Lord our God! With Him there can be no change of purpose. His work is perfect; let us never overlook that truth. With God, we might possibly define repentance as that act of the Triune God, whereby He, for the sake of attaining His unchangeable purpose, employs means which would seemingly altar His original intention.
With that idea in mind, we may, no doubt, proceed to enter somewhat more in detail upon the subject which is being treated.
It must become clear to us, that when we speak of God as repenting, we are using finite terms for an infinite tact of God. We use a term taken from the realm of the creature to express an act of the sovereign Creator. We then speak anthopomophistically about God. In other words, we speak about God in terms of a man. In human language therefore, do we speak about Him. We might here also remind ourselves that the fact that God must speak to us in human language is not a result of sin. Even in the state of righteousness in the original Paradise God had to speak to Adam language which he, as a creature, even though he was created in God’s own image, could understand. True enough, Adam had more capacity to receive and grasp the Word of God’s revelation before the fall than after it, but this does not alter the fact that whenever the Lord God had revealed Himself God had to speak upon the level of Adam’s own finite nature. Even is this true presently when the church shall have entered the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness shall dwell, for even there in heaven we will receive God’s revelation in a human, though glorified nature.
Upon investigation, we find that it is solely in the Old Testament that Scripture speaks to us concerning repentance on the part of God. Certainly the reason for this must be sought in the fact that the Old Testament is filled with figures, types and shadows In that dispensation the Lord revealed Himself to His creature in a much more simple form than He did in the times in which the New Testament was written. Israel was yet a child before the coming of the Christ, and was under tutors and governors. Thus it necessarily follows that the mode of revelation had to be different than after the coming of the Savior.
We must also bear in mind, and that especially, that prior to the advent of Christ, the Spirit, although active, was not as yet poured out into the church. Consequently, we have a much broader revelation of the deeds of the Lord our God in the inspired writings of the evangelists and apostles than we do of the writers of the Old Testament canon. We would almost expect that we would read in one or more of the Gospel narratives that it repented Jesus that He had chosen Judas, who betrayed Him; and Peter, who denied Him. However, if we clearly understand that the revelation of the New Dispensation is different from that of the old, we have no difficulty whatever.
With the above things in mind, it would be well for us now to express ourselves specifically in regard to the seemingly difficult passages of Holy Writ which we quoted at the beginning of our discussion.
We must understand, that Scripture, in speaking concerning the repentance of God, speaks in the same anthopomorphistic terms as it does when it attributes hands and feet, eyes and ears, etc. to the Lord God. AH of us surely are well aware of the fact God is a Spirit, and therefore does not have bodily members and organs such as we have. Neither is it true that our hands and feet, and eyes and ears are represented in God. Rather does God, as the all-seeing One represent that power of sight in our eye, and His perfect sense of hearing in our ear. So too, when we see some of God’s acts, since we cannot know His original intention at the moment, speak of God, no, rather God speaks of Himself, to us as a, God who repents.
Just as we, then, conceive of the Almighty having an absolute eye and ear so also do we conceive of an absolute act of repentance on the part of God. We must carefully avoid making God’s act of repentance an act of a succession of moments or hours, as is characteristic of our deeds, but must maintain that, even as all of God’s works are eternal, so also is His repentance. Thus, we may submit, that God eternally repents having made man on the earth. Eternally He repents having made Saul king over Israel, and eternally He repents over Nineveh.
Does this mean that there is a change in God? On the contrary. We do change when we repent, for our repentance is an act of a few moments. The Lord Jehovah, however, doesn’t change, for His act is an eternal act of repentance. If it were true that there is a change in God when He repents having made man on the earth, or having made Saul king, then it must follow too that there is a change in God also when He forgives our sins. Legally we were children of the devil, and legally God’s wrath was upon us, in time, before the first advent of Christ. But we were in Christ eternally. Thus, God does not change when He forgives us, but is ever the same, having chosen His church before the world’s foundations. It is for that very reason to that He can love us even while we were enemies. The same is true of God in respect to His eternal hatred of the wicked. He hates the wicked eternally and shows to them no favorable attitude whatever. Not even in time. God cannot deny Himself!
In the light of all which has been written, we maintain that in respect to Nineveh, God had proclaimed: in forty days Nineveh shall be destroyed. The inhabitants of Nineveh show an attitude of humility and sorrow for sin. Consequently, Nineveh is not destroyed. Did God change His plan because of their repentance? Not at all. God never even intended to destroy the city. But, when He comes with the statement: “Nineveh shall be destroyed,” it is as John Calvin puts it, “Because He did not wish them destroyed, but reformed, and thereby saved from destruction.” Eternally God decreed not to destroy the city of the Ninevites.
With regard to God having repented making man on the earth, we find that it was never even God’s intention to destroy all mankind from off the face of the earth at that time. In order, however, to bring out what He might have done, and what He does actually do, we read immediately in Gen. 6:8, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”
In respect to Saul, God’ never intended to have the house of Saul sit upon the throne of Israel at Jerusalem. Saul was not the type of Christ, it was David. Indeed, if God had intended to choose the house of Saul to function in the same capacity as David was to function, then, of course, we would ascribe a change in purpose to God. But, it was always God’s intention that the house of David would sit on the throne at Jerusalem. But, in order to prove to the wicked element among Israel that the king of their choosing would not succeed, God places Saul in the kingly office for a time, instead of His chosen, David.
When, then, we come upon passages of Scripture which speak of God repenting having done something, we do well to always bear in mind, that that which in our terms is called repentance, is on the part of God but a means to an end, the end which is the realization of His original eternal purpose.