Why does God Sometimes Repent?
Why did God “repent” regarding his decision to create man, and to destroy the city of Nineveh?
On occasion, within Scripture we find the comment made that God “repented” of certain actions (or intended actions) on His part. For example, in Genesis 6 and Jonah 3, we find the following statements:
And it repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And Jehovah said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the ground; both man, and beast, and creeping things, and birds of the heavens; for it repenteth me that I have made them (Genesis 6:6-7, emp. added).
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them; and he did it not (Jonah 3:10, emp. added).
Such texts represent God supposedly changing His mind and reversing His course of action (i.e., He “repented” of something). The adverb “supposedly” in the previous sentence, however, was chosen deliberately, since in each of the situations discussing God’s repentance, the change of heart or action actually occurred in man, not in God. Jehovah is just (Psalm 7:11, NKJV), and His laws are invariant. Therefore, when man, acting with free will, behaves in a manner worthy of the teaching he has received, God considers him righteous. The converse applies for transgressions of that law.
For instance, during the Patriarchal Age in which they were living, Noah and his contemporaries had received instructions on how to live righteously (see 1 Peter 3:18-20), and as long as they continued in this manner, God’s presence and blessings would abide with them. But when they became sinful and unrepentant, He no longer could condone their actions. As a consequence of their sinful rebelliousness, God withdrew His spirit (Genesis 6:3), and pledged to send a flood to destroy all mankind except Noah and his immediate family (6:7). God was grieved (6:6), not because He did not know that this series of events would happen, or because He somehow “regretted” having created man in the first place, but because, having given man the choice to serve Him or reject Him, man had chosen the latter with such unanimity. When we hear God described in terms such as “sad,” “joyful,” etc. that frequently are used to describe human emotions, we must remember that such descriptions are not intended to imply that God is emotionally vulnerable in the same way that humans are (cf. Acts 17:25). Rather, such descriptions are intended to show that God is compassionate and loving.
The examples described above (from Genesis 6 and Jonah 3) represent situations in which God’s actions were necessary because of the fact that man, although created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), had morphed into a sinful creature. Thus, God’s decision to judge man via a universal flood, or to destroy the inhabitants of an entire city, was dependent upon man’s (negative) response to the conditions of righteousness that God had imposed at an earlier time via His divine commands. Such conditions might have been stated in explicit terms, or they could have been simply implied. In the case at Nineveh, for example, when Jonah preached that God would destroy the city, the conditions obviously were implied. A promise or threat does not have to be couched in a specific form to have meaning. God did not have to say in explicit terms, “If the people of Nineveh repent, then I will spare them; otherwise, I will destroy them.” The fact that the people did repent after Jonah’s preaching, shows that they understood God’s intended message. To use a more modern example; if a young child is about to touch something that he should not, and a parent firmly says to him, “No, don’t touch that,” the child fully understands that touching violates the wishes of the parent, and that punishment may ensue—even though the implied punishment is not specifically mentioned. Consider the following passage.
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 (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
This passage is an explicit statement of the very principle under consideration here—i.e., God’s plan or rule of conduct in dealing with man. God’s promises and/or threats may be either directly stated, or implied. Whenever God, in reacting to a change of character or intent in certain persons, does not execute the threats, nor fulfill the promises He made to them, the reason is clear. If a wicked man turns from his wickedness, God no longer holds the threat against him. If a righteous man turns from righteousness to wickedness, God withdraws the previously promised blessings. It is precisely because God is immutable that His relationship to men, and/or His treatment of them, varies with the changes in their conduct. When the Scriptures thus speak of “God having repented,” the wording is accommodative (viz., written from a human vantage point). As Samuel Davidson has well said: “When repentance is attributed to God, it implies a change in His mode of dealing with men, such as would indicate on their part a change of purpose” (1843, p. 527). From a human vantage point, we view God’s act(s) as “repentance.” But, in reality, God’s immutable law has not changed one iota; only the response of man to that law has changed. Seen in this light, God cannot be accused of any self-contradictory attributes.
Men sometimes charge Jehovah with being an arbitrary Tyrant. They suggest that He has given capricious and meaningless commands, thereby taunting humanity and frustrating true loyalty. Such a charge cannot be substantiated, however, in light of the following principles.
First, the notion that God does anything whimsically or arbitrarily is not consistent with what we know of His wise and orderly nature. All that we are able to learn about the Lord, both from nature (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20, etc.), and through His verbal revelation (John Psalm 119:160; John 17:17), declares that His activity is characterized by deliberate intelligence. The ancient Greeks even called the Universe “Cosmos” —a term suggesting the arrangement of order that is displayed so marvelously in the material realm. Even the Bible, with its ingenious development and unfolding plan of redemption, pays tribute to the wisdom God.
Second, a multitude of evidences surrounding us, both in the book of nature and in the book of inspiration, argues for the love and benevolence of our Creator. Nowhere is this demonstrated more forcefully than in the gift of Jesus Christ, the Savior of all who come unto Him in humble obedience (Matthew 11:28-30; Romans 1:5; 8:32; 16:26). It therefore is not consistent with the known character of God to suggest that He ever would make demands upon the creature of His own image (Genesis 1:26), simply to taunt or to frustrate him.
Third, we must recognize that God is God, and man is man, and, due to the nature of the difference between them, we cannot always understand why God has acted as He has. As the apostle Paul put it: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!” (Romans 11:33). On the basis of what we do understand, though, we must learn to trust Him Who always does that which is right (Genesis 18:25).
Fourth, for the studious and discerning person, the wisdom in Heaven’s commands usually is apparent. For example, moral obligations, such as “do not murder,” or “do not commit adultery,” obviously are designed to enhance a peaceable social order, which, of course, facilitates the type of environment in which Jehovah’s redemptive plan can flourish. Morality is reasonable, as even the atheist admits. The late evolutionist of Harvard University, George Gaylord Simpson, stated that although “man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind,” nonetheless “good and evil, right and wrong, concepts irrelevant in nature except from the human viewpoint, become real and pressing features of the whole cosmos as viewed morally because morals arise only in man” (1967, p. 346, emp. added). In his book, Ethics Without God, humanist Kai Nielsen admitted that to ask, “Is murder evil?,” is to ask a self-answering question (1973, p. 16). So far as creatures of the Earth are concerned, morality is a uniquely human trait—a fact that even unbelievers concede.
Sometimes, our greatest problem is in failing to see the reason for certain divinely instructed obligations. Let me introduce just one prominent example. Why did God command Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice? Does not this incident “smack” of capriciousness—a sort of cruel hoax upon the patriarch? Not in the least. First, it was intended as a test of Abraham’s obedience. Isaac was the only son of Abraham and Sarah, and the heir to God’s promise of a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3), so how better for God to test Abraham’s loyalty to Him than by asking Abraham to give up what was perhaps his greatest possession—his only son (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19). [God, of course, by preventing Abraham from completing the sacrifice, obviously never intended for Isaac to be killed, but merely wanted to demonstrate Abraham’s obedience—possibly for the sake of Isaac as much as for Abraham; cf. A.P. Staff, 2003.] Abraham’s obedient faith has been a blessing to countless thousands across the centuries.
Second, we must remember that the Canaanites of that region practiced human sacrifice as a way of life. This circumstance afforded an excellent opportunity of showing that an animal sacrifice was an acceptable atonement in exchange for human life. Third, this case provided a remarkable way to prefigure the death and resurrection of Christ, and thus prepare for that coming climax in the divine scheme (cf. Hebrews 11:17-19; John 8:56). It thus was not an arbitrary demand.
The more one carefully studies the nature of the God of the Bible, the more the “mystery” surrounding His actions dissipates. Let us, therefore, trust, and submit to Him Who has demonstrated His concern for us in a myriad of ways.
Davidson, Samuel (1843), Sacred Hermeneutis Developed and Applied; Including a History of Biblical Interpretation from the Earliest of the Fathers to the Reformation (Edinburgh: Thomas Clark).
Nielsen, Kai (1973), Ethics Without God (London: Pemberton).
Simpson, George Gaylord (1967), The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), revised edition.
A.P. Staff (2003), “Did God Tempt Abraham?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/589.