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Does God Repent?

By David Kowalski

There are passages in the Old Testament regarding God "repenting" that seem contradictory to some observers, but with some diligent digging one finds the passages are actually complementary.  With sufficient investigation, we find these passages wonderfully harmonize into truth consistent with the rest of Scripture. The first passage to consider is Genesis 6:6-7 KJV:

"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 the beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.'"

The Hebrew verb nacham is translated by the KJV translators as "repent" twice in this passage, and the word is generally translated this way in the KJV. Other translations of nacham in Genesis 6:6-7 include "grieved," "regretted," and "was sorry." Nacham is an onomatopoetic term that implies a difficulty in breathing which requires extraordinary or noticeably loud efforts to breath, and it came to represent such concepts as sighing and groaning. It eventually referred to any physical display of one's feelings such as sorrow, compassion, or comfort.

Although some scholars doubt the above is an accurate understanding of the etymology of nacham, it does seem to incorporate well the varied meanings nacham has in different contexts. Although nacham is most often translated "repented," "grieved," or "was sorry;" it is also translated seven times in the KJV as "comfort" or "comforted" (Gen 24:67, 38:12; 2 Sam 13:39; Ezek 14:22, 31:16, 32:31; Ps 77:2; Jer 31:15) and once as "ease" (Isa 1:24).

When nacham means "to repent" it is generally used with God as the subject and it does not have the moral connotation the Hebrew word sub does when it refers to man's repentance from sin. Nacham as "repent" means to have an inward change of disposition that results in some tangible change of posture or action. Significantly, the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) translatesnacham as metamelomai and metanoeo, indicating that nacham was understood to refer to a change of heart or mind.

The only other reference in the Pentateuch to God as the subject of nacham is Exodus 32:12, 14. In this passage, God has announced his intention to destroy the people of Israel for their idolatry until Moses asks God to "repent" of this notion. In answer to Moses' intercession, God "repents" of his plan to destroy Israel. A large number of similar passages in the Old Testament (such as Jer 26:13, Joel 2:13, and Jon 4:2) describe God as "repenting" in some way.

On the surface, such passages seem to contradict the biblical teaching of God's immutability (unchangeable nature). They also seem to contradict the statements in Scripture that God does not repent (1 Sam 15:29) and will not repent (Ps 110:4). Such difficulties are quite easily and convincingly resolved, however.

1 Sam 15:29 teaches that God cannot change who he is. His character and eternal purposes will never be altered. God does, however, change his posture and his actions toward men (as in Genesis 6:6-7), depending on how they position themselves with regard to his immutable character and eternal purposes. He sometimes repents of his actions toward men because he cannot repent of who he is. If a man changes his posture toward God, there must of necessity be a corresponding shift in God's posture toward that man whether that means a favorable or unfavorable shift.

The implication for us is that we cannot change or manipulate God. He is who he is. We must submit to him and obey Him, and we are held responsible for being on the favorable side of his purposes. God will be glorified through us either as an object of his wrath or as a trophy of his grace. The choice is ours. God will also work in the lives of his children during this age to mature them. Whether this is done the hard way or the really hard way is also our choice.

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski.  All rights reserved.  Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.

Written by David Kowalski

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This post was last updated: Jan. 19, 2013