The classic King James Version of the Bible says, “It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6). Elsewhere, God says, “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king for he is turned back from following me, and hath not performed my commandments” (1 Samuel 15:11). If God is perfect, how could he repent?
First, the Bible unequivocally teaches that God is perfectly good and thus incapable of doing evil (Psalm 5:4–5; James 1:13; 3 John 1:11). As such, God’s repentance must not be understood as entailing moral guilt. Indeed, the moral perfection of the Creator sets him apart from his sin–tainted creation (Leviticus 11:44–45; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Peter 1:15–16).
Furthermore, although God does not change, the meaning of the word “repent” has changed over time. Thus in place of the word “repent” most modern English translations substitute the word “regret” or “grieve.” Indeed, as a human father grieves over rebellion on the part of his children, so our heavenly Father grieves over rebellion on the part of his creation.
Finally, God’s repentance must be understood as an anthropomorphism communicating the full measure of God’s grief over the horror of sin rather than a change of heart or a change of mind. With respect to the faithlessness of Saul, God says, “It repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king” (1 Samuel 15:11). Yet, the very same context says that “the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for he is not a man, that he should repent” (v. 29, emphasis added). Apart from an anthropomorphic understanding, such passages would be self–refuting.
For further study, see Millard J. Erickson, What Does God Know and When Does He Know It? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003).
1 SAMUEL 15:29
“He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind.”