When God Repents (Relents)

PS: Is this change helpful?

In the KJV, the Hebrew word nâcham,1 translated as “repent” (39x) and “comfort” (65x), literally means “to sigh.” It can express a range of feelings in the spectrum of regret, pity, sorrow, or consoling oneself. The word clearly has its challenges for the Bible student.

The common Greek word rendered “repent” in the New Testament is metanoe. Strong’s defines it as “think differently,” or, as is often given, “to change the mind.” But the Greek equivalent to nâcham is metamellomai (used only 6x). Strong’s says it means “to care afterwards.” This equivalence is noticed by its use in Hebrews 7:21 where it is the Greek rendering of Psalm 110:4.

Some scriptures state that God cannot repent, for example Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man that He should lie; neither the son of a man that He should repent” (see also 1 Sam. 15:29). But others appear to say just the opposite.

Of course, in some contexts one of those alternative meaning might fit. “And it repented the Lord [the Lord was sorry, nkjv] that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart” (Gen. 6:6). If the nkjv rendering is appropriate, there is no repentance here in the sense of mind change, only the grief in God’s heart at the pathetic plight of the fallen human race. A similar passage speaks of the times of the Judges (Jud. 2:18), another case of God’s sorrow.

This could also be the case in the tragedy of King Saul, although the nkjv in this passage introduces something more that sorrow: “…the Lord repented [regretted, nkjv] that He had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:35, see also v. 11). My concern is that “regret” may connote more than sorrow in the reader’s mind; it may infer remorse over one’s actions. While it is true the Lord “made Saul king,” it was Saul’s fateful actions that led to his failure, causing God’s grief.

Immutability expresses the idea that God, in His essence, character, and will, is constant and perfect. God is not capricious, changing His mind for whatever reason. With the Lord there is “no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning” (Jas. 1:17, asv).

So what do we do with the verses2 where God is said to repent, where clearly there is a change? Some suggest that, when referring to God, it is a figure of speech known as anthropopathism (literally, man feelings) where human emotions are ascribed to God. They say it is similar to anthropomorphisms (man form) when God is described as having physical parts (e.g., right arm, feet, eyes, hands, etc.) even though He is not a physical being.

But is that true? Long before the Incarnation of the One who is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15), we read of a God who knew Israel’s sorrows (Ex. 3:7). Are these merely figures of speech? Were the tears of Jeremiah not in fact the tears of Jehovah? And is the Good Shepherd not still moved with compassion towards the multitudes?

One example where God is said to repent is the showdown at Sinai when “The Lord repented of the evil [relented from the harm, nkjv] which He thought to do to His people” (Ex. 32:14). Does changing “repent” to “relent” help us in our understanding here? I’m not sure it does.

When Moses had mercy on the people and pled their case with the Lord, whose will was done that day? Why, it was God’s will! He loved the people far more than Moses did. He was looking for an intercessor that day, who felt the way He did about His people.

Clearly God did not change His mind that day at Sinai. However He does alter His actions in response to man’s behavior, in this case the pleadings of Moses. God does answer prayer—Jesus said so (Jn. 16:23)! He does respond to human need.

So now the question is: What makes God repent? We find a key in Psalm 106, which recounts a long list of the failures of the Israelites and the corresponding kindnesses of their God. Then the psalmist gives us our answer: “And He remembered for them His covenant, and repented according to the multitude of His mercies” (v. 45).

1 The Hebrew word shûb is also rendered “repent” on three occasions: 1 Ki. 8:47, Ezek. 14:6, 18:30. It means to turn back or away, and among other words  is translated “return” (396x) “again” (245x), and “turn” (220x).

2 Other key passages are 1 Chron. 21:15; Jer. 15:6; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10