How can a sovereign God repent?
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth,
and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart
was only evil continually.
The next section in Genesis begins more than a thousand years after the first section. It opens with a view of mankind from God’s perspective. The following verses describe His attitude. As you read them, notice how the text applied ‘repented’ to God.
And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. Genesis 6:6-7 (KJV)
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated above as ‘repented’ occurred 108 times. The KJV translators translated it as ‘repent’ forty-one times, and a majority of those referred to God’s repentance. It may be a surprise to see ‘repent’ applied to God in the passage above, but we understand it is not saying that God turned from sin, for He does not sin. But it is referring to God’s change of heart towards mankind. Originally, God had created man with the intent that he would multiply and fill the earth. But here, God speaks of destroying man (and the animals) from off the earth. So God’s repentance refers to the fact that His attitude towards mankind changed from blessing to judgment.
Why did God’s attitude change? Thankfully, this is a simple question to answer since the passage plainly tells us the reason.
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Genesis 6:5
Mankind’s continual wickedness and evil turned God against them. So there is no guesswork regarding the reason for the change. But there is still the difficulty of understanding how an unchanging, sovereign God could change.
How can an unchanging God change?
Passages such as Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29, which clearly state that God does not repent, challenge our understanding. They seem like a contradiction, but I think it may help to consider a scenario that has happened many times throughout history.
Suppose there was a man who was living a life of wickedness. What would God’s attitude towards him be? We know it would be one of judgment – the man would be under condemnation. But suppose the man repented and turned from his wickedness – would God’s attitude toward the man change? Ezekiel 33:14-16, John 3:18, and many other passages teach us that God’s attitude would change from judgment to grace. Many of us understand this because we have personally experienced God’s change of attitude toward us. Since it is valid to define repentance as a change of attitude, we can say that God would repent in His attitude towards the formerly wicked, but now contrite, man.
Expanding this example, we can also see that God is unchanging. Notice how we did not need to debate whether a wicked man is under condemnation. We know God is consistent in how He treats mankind – He always judges the wicked. Always. And, we know He always shows grace to the righteous. In addition, we can read in Ezekiel 33 how God explained to the Israelites that He will show mercy to all those who heed His word and repent. We know that this is the way God is and the way He always has been.
So at the level of His administration over mankind, God is unchanging. He always has had judgment for the wicked; He always has had blessing for the righteous; and He always has had mercy for the repentant. A person is under judgment, blessing, or mercy based on whether they are wicked, righteous, or repentant. But at the level of God’s attitude (wrathful, favorable, or merciful) towards a person, His attitude will change depending on where the person is at. His administration does not change; but His attitude can and does change.
How can a sovereign God change?
This is a key question in the topic of God’s sovereignty. It is crucial that our understanding of God’s sovereignty takes into account the repentance of God for the simple reason that it is there in scripture. So let’s take a closer look at the Genesis 6 context and use it to develop our understanding of the sovereignty of God. As our first step, let’s identify the key point(s) made by the passage.
The opening portion of the passage presents two factors that led to God’s sorrow over mankind. The first has to do with how the sons of God chose wives.
…the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves of all whom they chose. And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive [or, abide] with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” Genesis 6:2-3
These two verses give us two details to help us see the first factor of God’s sorrow. The first detail is that the sons of God took wives based on their choice. The second detail is God’s comment that man is flesh. Together, these details indicate that the boys of that day were choosing wives based on what appealed to their flesh. The problem with this method of choosing a spouse is that it is essentially the same approach used by animals when they choose their mates. But God did not create man as an animal – He gave man the capability to appreciate non-physical characteristics, such as morality, intelligence, personality, etc. Men had descended to acting like the animals, choosing mates based on fleshly lusts. So the passage is telling us that this flesh-based choosing is one factor that contributed to God’s change of heart towards man.
The two verses following give us the second factor.
There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Genesis 6:4-5
Verse 4 tells us that some ancient men became mighty and famous. But the second verse tells us they achieved their greatness through wickedness. They elevated themselves, not through fairness and justice, but by trampling down and destroying others. This wickedness is the other factor that led to God repenting.
The next verse is Genesis 6:6, which is the verse that speaks of God repenting. So the passage presents these two factors, man’s flesh-driven choices and his wickedness towards others, as what led to God’s decision to destroy mankind from the earth. What is it about these factors that made God regret making mankind? In comparing them, we can see that both behaviors are contrary to what God intended for mankind. God created man with a body of flesh, as He did with animals. But He also gave man the ability to appreciate abstract realities, such as justice, beauty, morality, love, and other such things. God did not intend that man’s physical desires would dictate his actions, but that man would use his understanding of the abstract realities to rule over his physical desires. Nor did God create mankind to destroy one another. Both these behaviors went against what God intended. Mankind’s embracing of that lifestyle made God regret creating them.
To make sense of God’s repentance, our understanding of God’s sovereignty must recognize that mankind did what God did not want them to do. This must mean that God established a creation which functioned without His direct control. The created beings He made had the capability of choosing to do the opposite of what He wanted. Of course, if they could choose that, then they could also choose to do what God wanted. That thought brings us to Noah.
But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. This is the genealogy of Noah. Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God. Genesis 6:8-9
Noah chose not to live like an animal, and not to practice wickedness. Noah chose to walk with God.