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The past few weeks at Providence we’ve had a chance to look at the establishment of a king in Israel, specifically the reign of Saul. (You can listen to those sermons here and here.) As we study the failing leadership of King Saul, there are many lessons that can be learned- and some questions that are provoked too.
One of our women’s discipleship groups had a specific question as it relates to Saul, God, and God’s “regret” over making Saul king. Here are the specific texts that are in question:
 The word of the LORD came to Samuel:  “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 also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Samuel 15:29 ESV)
 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15:35 ESV)
So here are three verses in the same chapter that cause some major problems. First, they seem to be completely contradictory. In verse 11 and 35, God clearly has regret, but in verse 29 it says that God isn’t like man and carries no regret. So which is it? Second, even if you take the apparent contradiction, how can God regret anyway? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then regret seems to be contrary to the very nature of God. These are very good questions that have provoked a lot of thought and writing for theologians since they were first written down.
From what I can gather, there are basically four ways to look at this passage. One of them is unacceptable, the other 3 can give us a fuller picture of what’s really happening here. So here are the four:
- God took a risk on Saul. He was wrong and didn’t see it coming. He regrets making Saul king as we would for making a poor choice.
– This is not an option for us. Either God is sovereign, all-knowing, and all-powerful, or he’s not God. This argument is unbiblical and a non-starter.
- God is trying to help us understand what’s going on here by coming down to our level. God doesn’t experience emotion and decision making like we do. So this is his best attempt to convey his “feeling” at this time.
– This is certainly true but leaves much to be desired for me. Anytime we describe God in human language we will come up short. When we say God regrets or even that God is happy- we don’t really have a complee idea for what that truly means. That being said, language has value, and it’s how God has revealed himself to us. So there has to be some level of understanding in the words God used in His Word. So yes, we don’t fully understand what’s going on here, but in my opinion, this one is a bit a cop out.
- It’s not so much the “I wish I had done something differently” part of regret that we know. It’s really the “I’m full of sorrow” part of regret that we know.
-This carries a little more weight for me because it actually tries to explain it, not just dismiss it. I think this is a correct understanding of at least PART of what is meant here. God is genuinely heartbroken anytime his creation rejects him- whether that’s the whole world (see Noah and the flood), Samuel and his lack of godliness during his kingship, Israel seeking a king in the first place, or each of us in our own rebellion. So I would hold that this view is accurate, but still doesn’t quite scratch the itch for me.
- The term “regret” is really insufficient as to what is going on here. The better translation is repent.
-This is where things are very helpful and revealing to our own hearts. In today’s version of Christianity the idea of repentance has been so muddied and watered down I don’t think we know what it means. For most of us, I think we see repentance as feeling sorry about something and wishing we hadn’t done it. Hence the “regret” part of this and why it’s translated that way. But biblically, repentance has a lot more to do with our actions than just our emotions (though emotions are a part of that).
So when verse 29 says that God isn’t “like man in that he should have regret.” I think what’s in view is the idea God would say, “Man, I made a mistake. I really messed that up.” God doesn’t do that. His “regret” isn’t centered around the emotion of “what I wish I’d done differently.”
The better way to say this is that God is now changing course- the action part of repentance. Is there sorrow there? Yes, but not over his choices, but over Saul’s choices. Does he wish (God’s will is another discussion for another day) Saul had acted differently? Yes, and Saul’s actions now cause him to grieve. But the point here is that God was moving in one direction with Saul as King, but now he’s doing something different. Hence the very next chapter is David’s anointing as king. God was doing one thing, now he’s doing something else—aka repentance.
This is very instructive for us. We tend to determine our “repentance” by our level of emotion not our level of action. If we really feel bad, then we must be repentant. This isn’t biblical repentance. Obviously our repentance (aka change of course) will have an element of personal sorrow, because it’s our own sin that prompted it. God’s repentance (aka change of course) doesn’t maintain that element of personal remorse, because he doesn’t have his own sin to deal with (hence verse 29).
The convicting part for me is that I tend to sum up my own repentance something like this: “I feel bad about X and I wish I hadn’t done X.” That’s not what God does. He says, “I hate that he chose to do X. So now I was doing A, now I’m going to do B.” That should be my response too—sorrow over my sin, followed by action to move in another direction- not just the “I feel bad, I wish, I regret” stuff that usually defines our repentance.
So to summarize: When God regrets/repents, his regret is sorrow over our sin. His repentance is a change in course of action in response to said sin. His “repentance” (aka change of course) is in response to our sin, not his mistakes. This is how we can speak of a God that regrets and repents but doesn’t do so in the same way that we do. And this is how we can learn that our repentance is a lot more than shame, embarrassment, or sorrow- but a fundamental change in our actions.