Does God Repent, or Doesn’t He? Part 2: Toward an Answer


What do we make of the fact that the Bible says both that God repents and that he doesn’t?

I think the key to what’s going on here comes from the passage about God’s rejection of King Saul. I don’t know whether you noticed this in the previous post, but this event appears in both the list of statements that God doesn’t repent and the list of examples of his repenting.

In other words, the passage says both that God doesn’t repent and that he does.

Now, this should catch our attention. The writer of Samuel directly contradicts himself in the same brief account; 1Sa 15.11 says that God has repented (and verses 23 and 26 repeat the idea with a different verb), while verse 29 says that he doesn’t repent.

Either the writer of Samuel is a moron—or has a moronic editor—or he did this intentionally, meaning he’s up to something, literarily. Which is it?

Well, we can tell from the rest of the book that he’s not a moron. He writes well. (Yes, I’m omitting for the moment the obvious factor of inspiration.)

We have a similar phenomenon over in Proverbs 26.4-5, where Solomon the Wise says that we should not answer a fool according to his folly, and then immediately says that we should.

Is Solomon a moron too? The wisest man who ever lived? Or did someone later entrusted with compiling the wise man’s proverbs not measure up to the job?

Or is something else going on?

I think the situation in Proverbs is clear. Solomon is toying with the idea, rolling the nuances around in his mind, after the manner of wisdom literature. Sometimes you answer a fool; sometimes you don’t. Now, says the wise man, let’s think about which is when.

With that example in mind, I think what’s happening in Samuel is reasonably clear. Saul is so evil that God regrets ever making him king. Out he goes. Reconsider? No. Why? God doesn’t change his mind.

This is a literary device, I would suggest, in a couple of ways. First, it’s irony—God’s changing his mind about Saul’s office, and he won’t reconsider, because he doesn’t change his mind (!). But there’s something much bigger going on here. As in the Proverbs example, in all these passages God is forcing us to keep a couple of competing ideas in our heads at the same time.

Competing Idea #1: God is transcendent, omniscient, and perfect. There is no Plan B, because unlike us he doesn’t need one. He knows the present (Gen 20.6); he knows the future (Is 44.28); he even knows contingencies, or “what would happen if …” (1S 23.10-14).

This makes him sound distant. But that’s not all there is to him.

Competing Idea #2: God is personal; he has a mind, and a will, and emotions. He is moved by our pleas; he is near and loving and caring (Ps 103.13). He is moved to action by our cries for help.

Both of these things are true of the same person. Is this a contradiction?

No, it’s not. It’s a round character.

God is infinite, and our minds are finite. He’s not going to fit into a box the size of our skulls.

Is this a theological problem? Does the atheist have a point?

I don’t think so. Here’s why.

If the atheist is right—if “God” is just a character we have invented—then we would have invented one we could understand and explain. We certainly wouldn’t have invented one who occasionally embarrasses us in front of our friends.

But if there is a God, then by definition he’s infinite. And since we’re not, we would expect that on occasion he would roam beyond the horizon of our understanding. What’s happening here is precisely what we would expect if God is real.

Next time: So what’s the point?—what we learn from all those times he repented.

Dan Olinger Bio

Dr. Dan Olinger has taught at Bob Jones University since 2000, following 19 years as a writer, editor, and supervisor at BJU Press. He teaches courses in theology, New Testament, and Old Testament, with special interests in ecclesiology and the Pauline Epistles.