Does God repent or change His mind?
Does God repent or change His mind? It would appear from 1 Samuel 15:11 and 35 that God does change His mind. Yet, 1 Samuel 15:29 says that God does not change His mind. These three verses appear to be contradictory. The reader will discover that the confusion disappears when we understand the nature and character of God.
Before we answer the question, “Does God repent or change His mind?” lets review what happened in 1 Samuel 15. In this chapter we are told that God commanded King Saul to punish the nation of the Amalekites for having hindered Israel’s entrance into the land of Canaan (also called the Promised Land) after they left the land of Egypt (1 Samuel 15:1-3). It was a test of Saul. 1 Samuel 15:4-9 records the defeat of the Amalekites, but the nation of Israel and King Saul himself did not utterly destroy their enemy as God had directed. Instead they took spoils of war for themselves.
Consequently verses 10-11 report that God regretted making Saul king, and verses 12-28 record the discussion between the prophet Samuel and king Saul. During the discussion the prophet informs Saul that God had removed him from being king over the nation of Israel.
Samuel said, “Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
And insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He has also rejected you from being king.”
1 Samuel 15:22-23 (NASB)
The Immutable Character of God
Then in verses 24-25 Saul repented and pleaded for forgiveness; but Samuel informed Saul that God had deserted Him and would not continue with him. God had already taken the kingdom from Saul. Then Samuel makes this incredible statement about God.
Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” 1 Samuel 15:29 (NASB)
This is a terrific statement about the character of God. God is immutable! God does not change. His character or attributes do not change. Earlier in Numbers 23:19 we were told that God is not like men. He does not lie or repent. In Malachi 3:6 and Hebrews 13:8 we are told,
For I, the Lord, do not change . . . Malachi 3:6 (NASB)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8 (NASB)
These passages reveal that our eternal God will always be eternal. Our loving and forgiving God will continue to be loving and forgiving. Our omniscient and omnipotent God will continue to be all knowing and all powerful. God’s character does not change.
Yet, God Appears To Change
However, God does change in how He interacts with His creation. From a human perspective, God may appear to change in how He deals with us, but God operates according to divine decrees and principles which do not change. The following passage is one of God’s decrees or plans.
At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. Jeremiah 18:7-10 (NASB)
Here we discover that God operates according to His divine decrees and principles. God says that He will not punish a nation if that nation turns away from evil. From man’s viewpoint it would appear that God changed His plan; but this passage reveals He did not change His plan. God operated according to His great plan. He punishes those who persist in evil and blesses those who do good.
In summary, God’s character and His divine decrees and principles do not change because He is immutable. Yet, God will change how He responds to His creation based upon His divine principles. So from a human perspective, it could appear that God changes His mind.
How Shall We Understand God’s Regret
Next we must notice that both 1 Samuel 15:11 and 35 state that God regretted making Saul king over Israel.
I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands . . . 1 Samuel 15:11 (NASB)
Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; for Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel. 1 Samuel 15:35 (NASB)
The Hebrew word that is translated as regretted comes from the root word nhm. It should be noted that nhm is also translated as change in 1 Samuel 15:29. This Hebrew word has the sense of “regret, change, comfort or sorry.” For example, nhm is translated as “sorry” in Genesis 6:6.
The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. Genesis 6:6 (NASB)
In Genesis 38:12 nhm is translated as “mourning.”
Now after a considerable time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and when the time of mourning was ended . . . Genesis 38:12 (NASB)
In Exodus 32:14; 2 Samuel 24:16 and Jeremiah 26:13 nhm is translated as “changed, relented and change.”
So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. Exodus 32:14 (NASB)
When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity . . . 2 Samuel 24:16 (NASB)
Now therefore amend your ways and your deeds and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will change His mind about the misfortune which He has pronounced against you. Jeremiah 26:13 (NASB)
This root word, nhm, has the sense of breathing or sighing deeply. The word has more of an emotional sense. This reveals that God responded emotionally to the fact that Saul disobeyed after God had made him king over Israel. This does not mean that God thought He had made a bad decision in making Saul king. This means that our omniscient, all-wise, immutable God made the correct decision, yet God was sorry that He had made Saul king due to Saul’s disobedience. The decision was correct; yet, the fallout from the decision caused grief.
The same thing occurs in every home between earthly adult parents and their sons and daughters. For example, a mother purchased an expensive educational game for her daughter. The game was designed to teach English to her 6 year-old. The daughter excitedly ripped the ribbon and wrapping off the toy and played with it for awhile and then never touched the game again. The mother was grieved that she had bought the game since the daughter ignored it in favor of another toy. Now the daughter’s response does not mean that the mother made a bad decision to purchase the game. The game would have been beneficial. The decision was correct. Yet, the mother regretted having purchased it due to the daughter’s lack of interest.
Now someone might say, but God knew that Saul would be disobedient before He was made king and that is true. But God is always executing actions with the knowledge that men will be obedient or disobedient. When God made the statement recorded in Jeremiah 18:7-11 above, it is obvious that God knows what each nation will do before He acts. That is, God acts as He should according to His nature and character. He acts righteously and, yet, is grieved when His children respond wrongly. He is feels the pain over their sin as He watches their wrong action.
In 1 Samuel 15:11 and 35, the Hebrew word nhm tells us that God was sorry that Saul was made king. Then the same word tells us that God was comfortable with regard to Himself in verse 29. God acted righteously when He made Saul king. He acted correctly according to His divine character. When Saul disobeyed, as God knew he would, God was emotionally grieved over the occurrence of the sinful act. We could say He regretted that He had made Saul king since it gave Saul the opportunity to sin, and Israel too!
Thus the same word repent [nhm] is used for two different concepts both in this passage and elsewhere in the Bible. One shows God’s responsiveness to individuals and the other shows His steadfastness to Himself and to His thoughts and designs.
Thus the text affirms that God changed his actions toward Saul in order to remain true to His own character or essence. Repentance in God is not, as it is in us, an evidence of indecisiveness. It is rather a change in His method of responding to another person based on some change in the other individual.
Dr. J. Vernon McGee states,
God made Saul king, and now He is taking the kingdom away from him because of his sin. It looks as if God has changed his mind when in reality He has not at all. It is not God who has changed, but Saul. Saul has sinned and so God must deal with him accordingly.
In Genesis 6:6 God was grieved when He watched the human race sin, even though He already knew they would. He was nhm or sorry He had made man. Yet, His righteous character required that He make man. In Exodus 32:14 God responded to His divine principle when Moses’ correctly responded in prayer. In Jeremiah 26:13 the prophet Jeremiah described how God would respond if Israel repented.
Jeremiah 18:7-11 is the underlying principle that helps us understand each of these passages.
1. Kaiser et al. Hard Sayings on the Bible. InterVaristy Press. 1996. p. 209.
2. J. Vernon McGee. Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee. Thomas Neslon Publishers. 1982. vol. 2, p. 153.