This was a paper I did last week for my Theology I class. To be perfectly honest, it is quite unorganized, disheveled, etc. and still has some things that need to be worked out (if you for some reason read it, please point out those errors so that I can improve the paper as well as grow in my ability to articulate the truth of the Bible). But I thought I would post it, in case some of the information would be useful to someone. And maybe it will even provoke some good discussion.
The question of whether or not God “repents” has come to the forefront of theological debate in recent years, mainly because of a theological system known as Open Theism. The repentance of God is clearly spoken of in Scripture, but the meaning this word conveys is highly debated. While at first such a question might seem unimportant, it soon becomes apparent that what a person believes to be the answer to this question affects their very conception of who God is. This paper will attempt to interact with the beliefs of the Open Theists in regards to God’s “repentance” and then go to the Bible to test their case and find if their conclusions are as biblically sound as they claim.
An Overview of the Open Theist’s View of God’s Repentance
The passages in Scripture which refer to God’s repentance or changing of mind are a hobby horse of many Open Theists. They use these passages to show that their theological system is more in line with the Bible than those opposed to them, for rather than dance around these difficult passages they claim to fully embrace them and understand their true meaning. It is clear to the Open Theist that when Moses intercedes on behalf of the people of Israel in Exodus 32 that God changed His mind and rather than destroying Israel and starting over with Moses, that He allowed the people to live. This takes the text at face value, while God remains faithful to His major goals, He has different options available to Him on how He brings those goals about. While some might argue that the option of wiping the people of Israel off the map and starting over with Moses was not an option because of the Abrahamic covenant, the Open Theist would respond that there is nothing in their minds that would cause God to be a covenant breaker by starting over with Moses. In the past, men like Calvin have described God’s repentance as being figurative, that those passages which refer to God’s repenting cannot be taken literally because that would imply “either that he is ignorant of what is going to happen, or cannot escape it, or hastily and rashly rushes into a decision of which he immediately has to repent.”1 Others claim that the references to God’s repenting are mere anthropomorphisms, or “baby-talk” as God accommodates Himself to us so that we can understand Him. But Open Theists respond that it is impossible to know if God is coming down to our level in communication and therefore should not be taken literally because we don’t have any communication from God apart from that which speaks at our own level as humans. All we have is the revealed word of God, therefore no one can confidently claim that one Biblical text does not portray God as He really is while another is an precise description of who God is. In addition, Open Theists detect strong philosophical reasons in the claim that it is not proper for God to repent, for if the Bible says God repents, there is no reason to question it based on our own philosophical systems that tell us God must never repent. Rather it is most fitting, in their minds, that God repents, as God truly loves and interacts with His free creatures.
Open Theists view classical theists as being in a tough spot exegetically because they see places in Scripture where God is said to not repent because He is not human as well as to repent because He is not human (1 Sam. 15:29; Hos. 11:8-9). Therefore the standard classical theists interpretation of these texts is faulty in the minds of Open Theists because classical theists seem to pick and choose which passages are literal and which are anthropomorphic based on platonic reasoning that if there is a change in God it would have to be for the worse. Open Theists seek to let the Bible speak for itself and let God’s own revelation about Himself dictate what is “good” for Him. To an Open Theist, “classical theists are left with the problem of misleading biblical texts, or, at best, meaningless metaphors regarding the nature of God.”2 God is thus reduced to lying for He speaks as though He doesn’t know the future, or that someone will repent. But Open Theists believe this apparent “lying” only comes about in a system of thought that has ignored the Bible and the contexts of the problem passages, for the instances where God is said that He will not repent occur in special situations and are not necessarily speaking of some sort of divine characteristic of non-repentance. This “situational” repentance is seen by Open Theists probably most clearly in 1 Samuel 15 where God “repents” from making Saul king of Israel. For when God announces to Samuel that He repents from making Saul king, Samuel responded by praying all night that God would reconsider. But when it is clear that God will not change His mind, Samuel reiterates to Saul that God will not repent of his repentance in this situation. So to the Open Theists, it is clear that, “God reserves the right to alter his plans in response to human initiative, and it is also the divine right not to alter and alteration.”3 Taking their proof from Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh, where no conditional element is given in the prophecy, God is seen to be fully able and completely willing to repent from His prophecy of judgment upon the city. Not even a “thus says the Lord”, in the minds of Open Theists, means that God will certainly do what He has said He will do, for He always leaves options open that He might respond to His free creatures. But this fact is obvious to Open Theists, basing their thought on the presupposition that God cannot know the future, and has limited Himself to live within the bounds of time as His creation is.4
Usage of Repentance in the Old Testament
The main passages that refer to God “repenting” are found in the Old Testament, therefore a brief study of the Hebrew words behind the controversy will be of value. There are primarily two Hebrew terms that are used by the writers of the Old Testament to convey the idea of repentance. Both are at times used to refer to an action on God’s part. The first term is שוּב which means “to turn back, return”5 and many times expresses a person’s change of attitude toward God and sin (Dt 4:30; Neh 1:9; Psa 7:12; 85:4; Jer 3:14),6 denoting “a conscious, moral separation and a personal decision for forsake sin and enter into fellowship with God”.7 This term is more often used when referring to man’s repentance towards God than of an action of God Himself. The second Hebrew term used to denote repentance is נחם which means “to be sorry, rue, repent,”8 and can refer to a change in God’s interactions with humans (1 Sam. 15:29; Psa 110:4; Jer 4:28).9 It is this word that we will focus on, being that it is the term most often employed when the text refers to God “repenting.”
God’s Repentance and King Saul
While word studies at times can be extremely helpful, in this case, a word study reveals nothing out of the ordinary, for the word נחם is pretty straight forward in its meaning. Really where the debate lies is in the context of Scripture, and that is where we will spend most of our time, in order that we might gain insight into the use of the word and what it means.
Because of the preeminence of 1 Samuel 15 in the minds of Open Theists, it is logical to start there. Four times in the passage the word “נחם” is used, first in verse 11 where it is first revealed that the Lord “regretted”, or “repented” from making Saul king. The second and third uses of the word come in verse 29 where it is stated that God does not “נחם.” This is where the difficulties begin. The final usage of the word is found in verse where again, in summery fashion God is stated to have “regretted” making Saul king.
Foreknowledge of Saul’s Downfall
Because the concept of God “repenting” is so tied in with His foreknowledge, it is important to go outside of the book of Samuel and look in Deuteronomy, because the whole situation that plays out in the book of first Samuel was predicted many years before by God. The most interesting part of that prophecy is this: “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses” (Deut. 17:14-15 emphasis mine). This was in fact the exact reasoning behind the people of Israel’s desire for a king, that they would then be the other nations around them (1 Sam. 8:5, 20). This puts a major twist in the story, a twist that Open Theists have chosen to leave out of their own “discussions” about God’s repentance. The main premise of the Open Theist’s argument is that God cannot truly “repent” if in fact He knows the future. The logic is based on our own experience, for if we knew the future, we would feel all the emotions of the future all at once, now in the present when the knowledge of them came to us. But as it is, we “feel” as we experience in time. Therefore when God “feels” He too must experience these feelings in time, without prior knowledge of the events to which he is responding in emotion. This understanding is backed by the understanding, in an Open Theist’s mind, that because we as humans have free-will, our decisions cannot be known until we actually act in time. The Open Theist’s greatest proof texts in my opinion are those of God’s “emotional” response as revealed in Scripture – His repentance being one of those same “emotional” responses. So again, since the Open Theist’s understanding of God’s repentance is so linked with His foreknowledge, we must continue to look and gain a greater context for this passage in first Samuel that we might gain a right understanding of what is being communicated.
There is one more prophecy that must be looked at if we are going to gain any greater insight into God’s repentance and that is the prophecy of the coming King, the Messiah. It is clear, the Messiah was to be a king, and a king from the tribe of Judah, “Judah is a lion’s whelp…The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:9a-10a). This was uttered by Jacob years before Israel even had a king, before they were even enslaved by the Egyptians. It is a very specific prophecy, one that does not leave very many “options” (as the Open Theists like to call them) open for God. This prophesy if confirmed to be Messianic throughout Scripture, first by Balaam (Num. 24:17), again before Israel had a king – and though his prophesy is somewhat more vague than Jacob’s, it keeps in the same vein. In Psalm 60 verse 7 as well as in chapter 108 verse 8 Judah again is confirmed as the “scepter” of God. Isaiah speaks for the Lord of the Messiah as a shoot that would “spring from the stem of Jesse”–again confirming the Messiah’s root in Judah (Is. 11:1). Micah confirms the Messiahs origins, and is then in turn quoted by Matthew as proof that Jesus is that very King who was to come and rule eternally (Mic. 5:2; Matt. 2:6). But most significantly, in the book of Revelation: “and one of the elders said to me, ‘Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals’” (Revelation 5:5). So it is plainly seen, that God, from before Israel even had a king, that they would have one, first because they desired to be like the nations around them, and that the king that would be on the throne in Israel would be from Judah, and that that kingdom would never end.
1 Samuel 15 in Light of Prophesy
So with these predictions in mind, we move back to first Samuel, starting in chapter 8 where we find that the very appointing of Saul occurred because Israel had rejected God as their king (1 Sam. 8:7), and even after being sternly warned of the difficulties that would come upon them because of their desire to be like the other nations, Israel still desired to have a king (following the explicit prophecy in Deuteronomy). So God instructed Samuel to appoint a king over Israel. The narrative then switches over to Saul, who is pointed out as of the tribe of Benjamin. This is an important fact to remember as we continue to understand this passage. Through some pretty amazing circumstances, Saul is brought to Samuel, and God tells Samuel that Saul is the one who he should anoint as king over Israel. When Samuel brings Saul out and publicly proclaims him as king, the people rejoice – Saul then quickly, by the Spirit of God, wins a decisive battle against the Ammonites, brining the nation together in unity under their new king. All seems to be going well, but it is not to last, for soon Saul begins to walk his own path, apart from God. Set up in battle array against the Philistines, Saul and the whole army of Israel waited for Samuel to come and offer up sacrifices to the Lord. But when Samuel did not appear at the appointed time, Saul grew restless, afraid that his army would disperse and no one would be left to fight, and therefore offered the sacrifices himself. Just as he finished offering the burnt offering Samuel walks up and confronts him: “What have you done?…You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God…for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not endure” (1 Samuel 13:11-14a). Saul does not seem extremely bothered by what Samuel said, and continues down the path of disobedience, resulting in God telling Samuel that he “regretted” making Saul king, after Saul failed to carry out the Lord’s instructions regarding the destruction of Amalek. This revelation causes Samuel great distress and he spends the whole night crying out to the Lord, what for we are not told, but we can assume based on the context that Samuel desired that the Lord would not utterly reject Saul, but would forgive and restore him (1 Sam. 15:11, 33; 16:1). But then as clear as day, when Saul pleads with Samuel that God would restore him, Samuel responds by quoting from a prophecy uttered by Balaam many years before: “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num. 23:19). Samuel’s choice in reciting this passage is even more interesting given the Messianic prophecy uttered by Balaam in chapter twenty-four.
The Nature of God’s “Repentance”
So now we enter into the difficulty of this passage, for it is clearly stated that God regretted making Saul king, but then, using the same word, Samuel tells Saul that God never regrets, that He never “repents” for God is not a man. As shown previously, Open Theists have a hay day with this passage, confident that it clearly shows that God repents, not knowing the future, and that the reference to God not repenting refers only to this specific situation with Saul, that God would not change His mind again and restore the kingdom to Saul. But is that really what is going on? That God repents is clearly seen in the passage – but the nature of His repentance is not so easily seen, and the Open Theists have too quickly found a solution to this problem, ignoring much of what the Bible says about God and His attributes.
The Divine “If” in Relation to God’s Repentance
Now that the context of this passage has been established, we can move on to a discussion of the exact nature of God’s “repentance.” First, to disprove the Open Theist’s view of God’s repentance, we must look into the foreknowledge of God, for, one of their number states: “The Lord could only be sorry for making Saul king if he had hoped for a different outcome than what transpired…God took a risk in making Saul king. The risk depended on choices Saul made, and in this case God suffered a loss.”10 “God had originally planned to establish Saul’s household as a perpetual kingship in Israel (1 Sam 13:13-14) but then changed his mind.”11 But there is a problem with this line of thought, because as was shown previously, God already had said that the king who would be established forever would be from Judah and not from Benjamin. Open Theists have ignored the prophetic texts when it comes their their interpretation of God’s repentance and therefore have exposed themselves to a fatal flaw – for God never intended Saul’s family to reign perpetually in Israel, He had reserved that place for a king in the line of Judah. That kingly line was through David, not through Saul. In the minds of Open Theists, if God knows the future and then “repents” he would be a liar, because He knew exactly what would happen so it would be impossible for Him to be sorry for doing something, because He knew the effect or what would be the effect before He did it.12 But it is clearly seen that God did know that Saul’s line would not be on the throne of Israel perpetually. So when Samuel says to Saul that if Saul had obeyed God He would have established his kingdom over Israel forever (1 Sam. 13:13), the possibility was never real, in the sense that Open Theists make it, but rather, when God raised Saul up as king, He knew that Saul would disobey, and that He would then replace Saul with David, a man after His own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). God never intended Saul’s kingdom to endure, rather He raised it up, that He might bring Saul down, and destroy him for His own purposes. So the Open Theist line of thought does not stand the test of Scripture, for Scripture says God was sorry, and yet God also had complete knowledge of what would occur before it occurred. Just as God knew what the people of Israel would ask before they asked, so He knew Saul, and that Saul would fail.
Repentance and Multiple Wills in God
So where does this leave us in our study of the repentance of God? It leads us to a well known story in the Bible – Pharaoh and the Israelites. But rather than summarize the whole story, there is one statement made about Pharaoh in the New Testament that concerns our discussion. “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:17-18). From God’s perspective, Pharaoh was never going to repent, never going to be saved, but rather, God raised Pharaoh up in order to destroy him, and show His saving power in delivering the people of Israel from his grasp. This does not remove responsibility from Pharaoh in any way. But it does show that God can and does know the future and ultimately controls it. God commanded Pharaoh to let His people go (Ex. 5:1), and yet hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh would not obey God. In the mind of an Open Theist, this is unacceptable– “divine rape” and negates the free will of man. But they have constructed an extra-biblical ethic, for it is clear that God has, and does raise men up for the very purpose of brining them down. God expressed to Pharaoh His desire that His people be let go, and yet, there was a higher will in God that wanted to prevent Israel from being let go until God had totally and utterly destroyed Egypt, saving Israel in the most glorious way possible.
It is the belief of this writer that Saul was raised up in order that he would fail. The Lord never intended Saul’s line to continue on the throne, but rather used Saul to shape the true king, David, from whom the Messiah would come. So the Open Theist’s understanding of repentance cannot be the correct understanding. God repents, but never from His ultimate purposes. He does not repent in the same way as we do. For we repent because of a lack of knowledge, or because we made a mistake. God knows all things, and never makes a mistake. His emotional life is much more complex than ours, for we interact with very little, but God interacts with all things – He can be enraged at the wicked, and rejoice over someone coming to salvation all at the same time. God was sorry He made Saul king, because of the pain it caused His people. But though He was sorry, He still was brining about His ultimate plans, for His own glory and His own purposes. It is not as though if God could do it all over again He would never have made Saul king – no! Making Saul king was exactly His plan! One of the best examples is that of a father who disciplines his son, and as a result of the discipline, his son runs away. The father would be extremely sorry for having to discipline his son, because of the result, but at the same time, if he had to redo it all over again he would do exactly the same thing, because he knows it is best for his son. This example falls short of explaining all the mystery that is contained in the concept of God’s repentance, but it does at least help in showing that it is not at odds with God’s sovereignty over all things, not at odds with His “godness.”
In the end, it is impossible to fully understand how it is that God, who knows all things and is working out everything according to His own purposes could “repent.” But God does repent, He truly feels sorrow when men disobey Him, because it is not His desire that they do so. And yet, God is working, through an imperfect world, His perfect plan, making Himself glorious, and doing all that He might receive the most glory possible for Him to receive from His creative acts. The mystery remains, but one thing is clear: God is not a man that He should repent – He is not like us, He does not repent in the same way we do – God is not a man.
1Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 226.
2John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 69.
3John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 70.
4Terence E Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 44.
5Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 996-999.
6Irvin A. Busenitz. “Divine Forgiveness: Conditions and Limitations”, (D.Th. diss., Grace Theological Seminary, 1980), 64.
7Byron H. DeMent. “Repentance,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), IV:135.
8Brown, Driver, and Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 636-637.
9Irvin A. Busenitz. “Divine Forgiveness: Conditions and Limitations”, (D.Th. diss., Grace Theological Seminary, 1980), 63-64.
10Gregory A Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 103.
11John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 70.
12John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 72.
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