When God Repents

The first words that John the Baptist speaks in the Gospel According to Matthew are an invitation to repentance:

1 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight. ’”
4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1-6 ESV)

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν. Jesus speaks these very words after he hears John has been arrested, returning to Galilee where he begins to preach and proclaim.

Μετανοεω — metanoeo. It means “to change one’s mind and purpose,” and always for the better. It implies a thoughtful and considered change of heart. It’s something Jesus commands six of the seven churches John’s revelation is addressed to. It’s something the disciples in Acts frequently admonish listeners to do, as Peter does to the crowds who gather at Solomon’s Portico in Acts 3 after Peter heals the lame beggar:

19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:19-21 ESV)

Repent is something we’re supposed to do. Thanks to the heritage of pietism, it’s something we’re supposed to do very publicly. A confession of sin, a denunciation of past life or past acts, followed by tears and then a heartfelt statement that we have changed and will never do whatever it was we did again.

That’s not biblical, this ideal we have — it appears nowhere in scripture. We have John and Jesus commanding repentance, and we have people coming to them, to be healed and baptized and to hear the the words of proclamation that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, but aside from the unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50, Zacchaeus in Luke promising pay back all he’d stolen and give half his wealth to the poor, we really have no idea what the actual moment of repentance looks like.

(Mostly, it looks like gratefulness, based on what we have.)

I mean, we have Paul — a life completely turned around — but he never grovels for us, and never denounces who and what he was before Jesus struck him blind and claimed his life for the Gospel.

However, we have God. Who does repent a few times.

The example that comes first to mind is the story of Noah in Genesis 6-8. God gazes upon the earth and sees it filled with little but corruption and wickedness:

5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:5-8 ESV)

“The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth.” God changes God’s mind about everything that God has made. It is clearly “not good” in God’s eyes, not anymore, and so this angry, sorrowful God will obliterate everything.

God makes good on God’s threat, which is what the drama of Noah and his family — and the ark and its menagerie — is all about.

But no sooner have the flood waters subsided, and Noah makes a burnt offering to God, than God regrets having destroyed everything:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22 ESV)

This attempt — God’s attempt — to rid the world of evil has failed. Utterly and completely. And God knows it. God promises never to do it again.

In fact, God makes another promise: the earth will abide. God renews the creation by blessing Noah and his sons — who are evil in their hearts from birth simply because they are human beings — and promises, with the rainbow, to allow the earth, and the host of things that crawl upon it, to live. Regardless of what comes.

Now, God tries to impose some order on all this human sinfulness by telling Noah and his sons in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” But it doesn’t work very well. As the story shows, very little sin is restrained and very little order is maintained.

But in this chapter, God repents of the creation — of this amazing and beautiful act pronounced “good” just a few chapters earlier. God obliterates nearly all life. And once that was done, God regrets it almost immediately. And promises never to do it again.

God regrets — נחם nkhl — and the implication here is of someone taking a long, deep breath, of someone sighing, of someone even taking vengeance. Clearly, God repents. Of the creation and then the subsequent destruction. There is no other word to describe what God does here.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen often in scripture. But that it happens at all is a huge deal, and says something about the God who created and called us to be his people. Moses is able to shame God from annihilating Israel after they take up worshiping a calf of gold in Exodus 32 (“If you destroy this people after rescuing them, consider what the Egyptians will think of you; no one will be able to take you seriously after that.”), and God frequently promises that once Israel has been beaten to a pulp, overrun and sent into exile, God will relent, and gather his people. But that’s not quite the same as God repenting. God doesn’t really regret sending Israel into exile — God is far too determined to do that task.

I think God’s refusal to continue fighting Israel’s war of extermination and displacement against the Canaanites because the Israelites themselves lost the stomach to do all God commanded them is a repentance of sorts:

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. ’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5 ESV)

But this is like Abraham talking God out of destroying Sodom, or Moses talking God out of destroying Israel — this is a consequence of Israel’s disobedience. Nothing of the interior life of God is revealed here. God does not regret this. So, I’m not sure this is real repentance.

In a very clearcut way, God repents at least one more time, in 1 Samuel 15, when King Saul keeps some of the choicest things plundered from the recent war against Amalek. “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears and the lowing of oxen that I hear?” Samuel angrily demands of Saul (in one of scripture’s best questions).

10 The word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night. (1 Samuel 15:10-11 ESV)

And we continue…

24 Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. 25 Now therefore, please pardon my sin and return with me that I may bow before the Lord.” 26 And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:24-26 ESV)

Saul repents. He repents vociferously. But it doesn’t matter. God regrets. God repents of having made Saul King over all Israel. Scripture is emphatic on this matter:

35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted [נחם] that he had made Saul king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15:35 ESV)

While Samuel is immediately dispatched to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Saul does not quickly or gently fall from his throne. There is a lengthy struggle between David and Saul — a struggle in which God preserves David in the face of everything.

God does not regret easily or often. Which suggests to me that God has, in fact, learned.

God tried to destroy a sinful world, and remake it without sin. Or with less sin. Or something. It’s not clear what God actually is trying to accomplish with Noah except to save him. But in doing that, God saved a bit of the sinful world he was consigning to oblivion in order to make the new world. (Intriguing. God did not simply speak a new world into being. Make of that what you will.) After doing so, God realized the pointlessness of it all. Nothing had really changed. So, God would live with sinful humanity, would abide sin. From now on, God’s saving acts would work in and with with the very sinful creation that so plagued God’s sense of righteousness.

God’s abandoning of Saul is also something I suspect God did in great haste, without giving the matter much thought. A fit of pique, or a temper tantrum (which God has lots of in Exodus and Numbers). As sins go, it’s minor league. True, David does nothing like what Saul did — deny the Lord his portion of the spoils of war. But David does an awful lot worse (at least in our eyes) — wife stealing, murder, terrorism, and bringing calamity upon Israel by trying to hold a census (the one thing which finally makes God angry with David). There aren’t many commandments David doesn’t break. God may have chosen Saul, but God didn’t really love him, and wasn’t terribly committed or all that faithful to Saul once Saul gives God a reason to be done with him.

But David, God sticks with David. Makes promises to the whole world because of his love for David. God repents of Saul, dumps him hard, falls in love with David at first sight (or, as one junior high schooler I was teaching noted, “God loves him some David”), and sticks with David. This is repentance in action, because it is a “life” (if we can speak of God that way) changed. God learned, and changed. For the better.

4 thoughts on “When God Repents

  1. Some theologians (of olden times and since) have claimed that the regrets of an unchanging omniscient God are a dramatic anthropomorphism which may make a point but do not represent the true nature of God. My current opinion – that’s selling scripture off pretty cheaply. I haven’t gotten much enlightenment from the philosophical arguments of open vs closed or limited vs absolute power. Philosophy and philosophical theology are not up to the task. God is what he is, and what he is is revealed dramatically through his interaction with the people of his choice. I believe that in some sense God controls the motion of every molecule in the cosmos. I also believe that we can do whatever we want (but can’t want what we want, as Schopenhauer noted) and so we are free and responsible for what we do. If we weren’t responsible, we couldn’t act. We could be ‘passive’ or ‘passionate’ but we couldn’t be ‘active’.

    Clearly God is also passionate. God suffered ‘the passion of the Christ’. Some have held it a heresy to hold that the Father has suffered, just as it would be heresy to deny that the Son has suffered, at least in his human avatar. Maybe this distinction is just another way of holding to both sides of a mystery which can’t be comprehended otherwise.

    All you say here is true. Nothing in my comment should be construed to imply otherwise.


  2. Hi Charles,

    Interesting thoughts. This I think links with the query of, why does God allow genocide in the OT but Jesus preached peace.

    I think the way forward this one is through the lense of patristics. A lot of the Fathers maintain that we can know God through His “energies” but we can’t know Him in His essence, at least in this life. So the way He communicates is “on a human level”. From timelessness, I suggest He would have known all about these situations. I guess the seeming repentance may be to indicate the feelings within God to demonstrate He is effected by His creation in opposition to being an “unmoved mover”. I imagine this is to show He loves His creation & is “jealous” for our response in reciprocal love.

    Don’t forget God is both transcendent as Trinity & “approachable”, in Christ. This way of seeing God is a way to lessen the feelings we have of disappointment with God. If we see Him as totally relational, He will have a lot to answer for…


    1. This is why I speak of God as “learning.” Plus, I tend to stick to the story of scripture, and it shows a clearly affected by his encounter with creation. Whatever the essence of God may be — I leave that to speculation — the story is of a God who changes.


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