“And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. 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.”
The Immutable repents!
When He saw that the wickedness of man was great, and the imagination of the thought of his heart was only evil continually, it repented Him that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. And He determined to destroy him and every living thing from off the face of the earth. Such is the plain teaching of this portion of the Word of God.
But does not this present a plain contradiction?
When we say that God is immutable, do we not confess that He is forever unchangeable? And when we say that He repents, does this not precisely deny His immutability? How shall we understand this apparent contradiction?
That the Lord is immutable is the testimony of all Scripture. Listen to the Lord speaking through the prophet Malachi (Mal. 3:6): “For I am the Lord, I change not, therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” Or, listen to the psalmist when he declares (Ps. 102:25-27): “They (the heavens and the earth) shall be changed: but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.” This same truth is repeated by the writer to the Hebrews (Heb. 1:11, 12). Or, listen to James when he writes in his Epistle (James 1:17): “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.” With clarity, indeed, the Scriptures teach this unchangeableness of God.
And this truth is implied in the text itself. This is to be observed in the Name which God ascribes to Himself. The term “Lord” is literally “Jehovah.” And Jehovah, as He Himself explains in Exodus 3, means: THE I AM THAT I AM. This not only sets Him off as the eternal One Who never became, but also as the Immutable God, Who is not subject to change.
God’s immutability is that virtue of God whereby He is both in His Being and Works, the eternally perfect One; and Who, therefore, remains continually the same, and above all change. Nothing can ever be added to Him, nor can anything be subtracted from Him. Perfection is the state of being beyond change. What He is, He was, and ever shall be—eternally the unchangeable God. That He creates, adds nothing to Him. That He destroys, subtracts nothing from Him. And as Ii erfect and unchangeable as God is in Himself, so is He also in all His works; which are unchangeably decreed in His counsel, and in time they are realized exactly as He eternally decreed them.
Yet the text tells us that He repents and grieves!
What can this mean? And how can we understand these expressions in the light of other Scriptures which declare: “The Strength of Israel will not lie or repent: for He is not a man, that He should repent?” (I Samuel 15:29). And again, “God is not a man that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent?” (Numbers 23:19).
The terms “repentance” and “grief” are called anthropomorphic expressions, that is, human characteristics are ascribed to God. And the relation between the terms is what may be called a Hebrew parallelism; that is, the term grief is a further explanation of the term repentance. Together these terms, speaking of God in human terms, reveal His holy reaction over against the wicked and show us how that holy passion in God to maintain Himself and His purpose began to take on action. This does not mean that there was actual change in God. In the light of the texts mentioned immediately above this could never be. But repentance and grief have to do with the carrying out of His counsel in time, and that, too, in agreement with the nature and condition of the creature. In His counsel He wills the nature and condition of the creature, in this case the development of the sin and corruption of the fallen race. In that same counsel He wills His own disposition in respect to that condition as it manifests itself in time. This means that in His counsel God from everlasting determined to destroy the world with a flood only after that world had filled the measure of its iniquity. And when God repents and is grieved in His heart, it means that that world has reached its measure of iniquity in time, and now His counsel to destroy that world must be carried out. While in us repentance and grief signify a change, in God it signifies no actual change, but points to the manner in which He is going to react over against the world’s wickedness. This idea of repentance in God you can apply in the same way to all the other instances mentioned in Scripture which speak of His repentance. The Lord repented that He had made Saul to be king over Israel (I Samuel 15:11). God did repent of the evil He said He would send upon Nineveh (Jonah 3:10). The Lord did not carry out the threatened death of Hezekiah when he prayed to be spared. In Jeremiah 18:7, 8we read: “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.” In all these and more passages of Holy Writ where God is said to repent, we are not to conclude an actual change in God, but repentance is His holy reaction over against the creature as that creature in time fulfills the good pleasure of His eternal counsel. Most important, it is therefore, to keep in mind that what God says of His counsel is true, namely, “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.”(Isaiah 46:10).
God’s repentance was evoked when He saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and it measured up to the amount that He had already determined in His unchangeable counsel.
And how great the wickedness!
The earth was filled with violence! All flesh had corrupted itself. The world became a boiling pot of iniquity. In those days there were giants in sin. Along with the capacity to perform great worldly feats, in industry, in science, and invention, there were also great minds to do evil. And when the church began to mix with the world, the wickedness developed all the faster. The sons of Seth married the daughters of Cain. The result was not a betterment of the world, but a still greater capacity to do evil.
There was not, as some would maintain, a certain restraint and checking of sin. Nor was it so, as some would interpret verse 3 of this chapter, that the Spirit of the Lord was striving with man with a view to restraining the sin of his heart and thus to improve him. Those who hold to this view must admit in the light of our text that then man was stronger than God, and the Lord failed miserably. O, indeed, the Lord’s Spirit strove with man in that He judged him and testified against him through the preaching of the antediluvian patriarchs, Enoch, Noah, etc. But also here as always the Word was a savor of life as well as a savor of death. It saved God’s people, while it hardened the wicked. And this it did until God’s eternal purpose is realized in time, when Noah would find grace in the eyes of the Lord and with his family would be saved by a flood; and when the wicked would only increase in their wickedness until the measure of their iniquity, determined also in God’s counsel, would be full, and He would repent and destroy them. Such was the awful state of things in time, determined in the divine counsel from eternity, that moved God in holy wrath to bring upon the wicked His destroying flood.
Nor should we interpret this holy reaction in the Immutable as indicating that He felt sorry that He had made man. As though God was frustrated in His creational purpose. For how could this ever be true of God? Did He perhaps make man without knowing what was in man? Did He perhaps make man and set him on the earth to see whether or not he would continue to serve God? And after man fell, did He perhaps wait to see if man would improve under the sweet influences of the preaching of His Word? In answer to all these questions, we reply: God forbid! Should your answer be in the affirmative, you make yourself guilty of denying His omniscience, and you drag God down from His eternal immutability to the level of the creature who is subject always to change. Though God speaks of Himself to us in human terms, the only language we can understand, He is, and forever remains, God! Who is unchangeable in His love toward His people in Christ; and Who is unchangeable in His holy wrath over against the wicked who go on in their wickedness until their cup of iniquity is full, and He must destroy them. Indeed when the Immutable repents, the wicked are consumed!
A preview of the judgment to come!
These things were written for our admonition upon whom the ends of the world are come. Does not the Lord Jesus remind us of this when He delivered His prophetic testimony concerning the last days? Listen to Him declare!
“But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be . . .”
As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be in the day when the Son of man shall be revealed.
Once more the Immutable shall repent!
When wickedness shall abound, and the ungodly shall have filled their measure of iniquity according to the counsel of the Most High, then shall the Immutable, as He is revealed in the Lord of glory, appear, and in His wrath shall He destroy them.
But also then, as it was in the day of Noah, when this saint found grace in the eyes of the Lord; so shall it be with the righteous who are looking for His appearance.
They shall experience by His grace their final and perfect deliverance, and in the judgment shall be acquitted and through the judgment shall be ushered into a new creation wherein righteousness shall dwell.
Then shall the Immutable be seen in the glory of all His perfections and receive the praises of all His redeemed!