CAN GOD REPENT?
T. PIERCE BROWN
In Numbers 23:19, we read, “God is not a man, that he should lie, neither the son of man, that he should repent.” God apparently put these words in the mouth of Balaam. The same idea is found in 1 Samuel15:29, “And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent.” Yet it is said in Genesis 6:6, “And it repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” It even says in Exodus 32:12, “And Jehovah repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people.” As hard as it is conceive of God repenting at all, how can it be said that he repented of evil?
There are more than a dozen passages that refer to the fact that God repents, and two or three that say he will not repent. For those who are trying to find fault with the Bible, this is enough to reject the whole thing. For those who are sincerely trying to find out the truth, a little study will reveal it.
There are two or three basic principles we need to understand as we study about God. Since no human language can properly describe God, if God is going to reveal anything at all about His nature to us, He must use what is termed anthropomorphism, which basically means he must speak of himself in terms that apply to humans. For example, Zechariah4:10refers to “the eyes of Jehovah, which run to and fro through the whole earth.” Even trying to make this apply literally to a human would be impossible, but there is no trouble in anyone understanding the meaning of the passage. Isaiah 59:1 is another case in point, “Behold, Jehovah’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear.” God does not have hands, eyes and ears like ours, but how else can God let us know that he hears, sees, and helps us?
Second, the construction of the sentence in Genesis 6:6 should give us a clue that the word “repent” as it applied to the Lord is not the same as when it applies to man. The terms “it repented him” and “it grieved him in his heart” are almost equivalent. The Hebrew word, nacham, basically means “to sigh.” One can understand the idea easily if he has ever had to punish his child. I can remember when I was about to whip my son, I had tears in my eyes, and said, “I am sorry I need to do this.” If I had been speaking in Biblical terms, I could have said, “It repents me that I do this, and grieves me in my heart.” My son might have said, “If you are so sorry about it, you should not do it,” but although a child may not understand the difference in regret for an action and the kind of regret or sorrow that leads to a change of conduct, every adult should be able to understand it. The difference is shown in the New Testament in at least two places. In Matthew 27:3, we find, “Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself.” Then he went out and hanged himself, instead of trying to go to Jesus and rectify his sin. The Greek word here is a form of “metamelomai.” It is not the word used in Acts2:38when Peter told them to “Repent and be baptized.” This word is from “metanoeo.” Perhaps the difference in the terms can best be seen by Paul’s expressions in 2 Corinthians 7:8-9. When he says that he regretted making them sorry with a letter, he uses the word “metamelomai” which signifies regret, as it is translated in the ASV. When he continues saying that godly sorrow works repentance unto salvation, he uses the word “metanoeo.”
To summarize, the word “metanoeo” or its equivalent is never used to refer to God’s repenting. Only the words that have to do with God’s sorrow are used. When God is said to change His mind about a situation, it is only a relative term. That is, God is unchanging in His basic nature. He always is glad for good and sorrowful for bad. If a person is good and God says, “I will bless you,” and the person changes and does evil, then God is said to change toward them. Jeremiah 18:10 puts it this way, “If they do that which is evil in my sight, that they obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.” When God is said to repent of good, it cannot mean that God was ashamed of Himself for doing good, and decided to do no more good. His change was related to their change, so his repentance was a relative thing. This also shows how God could repent of evil. He is not represented as having done wrong, and is sorry for the wrong He did and determined to do it no more. Jeremiah 18:8 shows it about as clearly as human language can. “If that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.” God has never done, nor intended to do wickedness. But God was going to do “bad” things to the people if they continued in sin. If they stopped, He would change his response to the. It would be hard to find a word to express that than the word “repent,” but we need to realize that an unchanging God can only be said to change relative to a changed condition in man.