This post is a section of a paper titled “The Repentance of God.” This paper was written by Ming Zhang, one of my students in the course “OT 458 Old Testament Theology: The God of the Old Testament.” This course was taught at Northern Baptist Seminary in the Spring quarter 2014.
Repentance as Metaphor
Part of the confusion related to the repentance of God is how one understands the meaning of the word “repentance.” Repentance has a broader meaning of “change” with respect to a past action or statement. However, the word repentance has taken on a narrower meaning that describes the action of a person who has done something hurtful to another person and who seeks to reverse the effects of the hurtful behavior through some form of change. Repentance assumes a real change on the part of the person who repents. Because God has never done and will never do anything wrong, this definition of repentance does not apply to God. In terms of God’s repentance, repentance is a change with respect to an action or statement by God.
In the Bible, the word “repentance” is a translation of two Hebrew terms: nicham and shuv. Nicham is normally used for divine repentance and shuv is used for human repentance of sin. Nicham means a change of one’s mind by turning from a previous decision through a deeply moving, emotional experience. On a few occasions, nicham is used for human repentance. However, “the word which is used for man’s repentance, shubh, is never used for God’s repentance.” Most Bibles translate nicham as repent, regret, sorry, grieve, retract, change of mind, and relent.
A way to understand and describe God is through anthropomorphism. Kuyper describes the use of anthropomorphism: “Hermeneutics finds its greatest challenge in working with anthropomorphism, the description of God in human forms and feelings (anthropopathisms). The anthropomorphism attempts to explain the unknown in terms of the known, which in this case describes God in terms of our daily experience.”
Anthropomorphism describes God as having human feelings and emotions. “These include feelings or qualities of love, compassion, jealousy, hatred, wrath, patience, and repentance.”  The word “repentance” is a metaphor used to describe one aspect of God’s character. Sanders comments about the use of metaphors: “Metaphors do not provide us with an exact correspondence to reality, but they do provide a way of understanding reality… a number of metaphors are used to build up a portrait of God.” The metaphors, including talk about the repentance of God, are tools of languages that the reader can use to understand God. On the other hand, anthropomorphism poses limitations in the understanding of God.
The justice of God is not the same as the justice of humans, but human justice should always reflect God’s justice. God’s justice is not initiated through laws and decrees and enforced through courts with lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants. Human life is restricted to time and space, but God is not restricted to the limitations of human daily life. The balance of using anthropomorphism is important in understanding God. Overuse of anthropomorphism reduces God to human frailty and the under-use of anthropomorphism denies the humanness of God.
Fretheim describes some metaphors are as a controlling metaphor, “The high capacity metaphors have a certain controlling function, i.e., they delimit metaphorical possibilities… they serve to qualify other metaphors (God is not simply father: God is loving father; and they are especially helpful in bringing coherence to a wide range of biblical language about God.”
In the Old Testament, repentance is used to describe God’s interaction with Israel and the world. In these instances where repentance is used, God is the subject and repentance is the verb. The repentance of God appears more than forty times throughout the Old Testament. The repentance of God can be grouped into three categories: 1) rejection of finished actions (Genesis 6:6-7), 2) God states that he does not repent (1 Samuel 15:29; Numbers 23:19), 3) reversal of what God would do or what God is already doing (Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Exodus 32:12-14). The broad representation and frequency of the repentance of God helps Christians understand God and God’s activity.
Divine repentance is in fact found within a variety of traditions, northern and southern, early and late: Jahwist/Elohist; David-Zion; Deuteronomic History; eighth and seventh-century prophets; exilic and post-exilic prophecy, psalmody. It is thus not the property or perspective of a small number of circles within Israel.
The repentance of God is an important metaphor to understand God and God’s action in the Bible. Fretheim describes divine repentance as a controlling metaphor, “It becomes one of those deep, underlying assumptions about God which now suffuses all of Israel’s efforts to speak of God. Divine repentance thus becomes one of the controlling metaphors for understanding the God of Israel, providing a hermeneutical key for interpreting OT texts which speak of God.”
God Does Not Repent
In the Old Testament, there are three instances where God states that he is not a man that he should change his mind (1 Samuel 15:29; Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6). In these situations, God’s decision has already been made and his decision is final and will not be changed. God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship was final and unconditional and God had chosen David to be the king of Israel: “And Samuel said to [Saul], ‘The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Samuel 15:29).
These types of statements are God’s decrees, oaths, promises, or covenants. God’s covenant with Abraham and David are examples of divine oath or promise. God made covenant with Abraham that he will bless Abraham’s descendants, and God chose David and his descendants to be the ruler of Israel. God’s decision to give the kingdom to David is an irrevocable decision. “While the kingship of Saul was explicitly conditioned by the obedience of both king and people (1 Samuel 12:14-15, 25), the kingship of David was not.” By making a covenant with David, God has limited himself to the human weaknesses, frailty, and unreliability as a means to bring redemption to the world. Willis comments, “The unchangeability of God assures that God is not caprice or irresponsible like people, it reflects God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel.” The Old Testament story shows that God remains unchanged to his promises and covenants.
Numbers 23:19 is an unconditional divine oracle that declares blessings for Israel which cannot be altered. Through Balaam God states that he is not a man that he should change his mind about Israel and his blessing for Israel. In this passage, God is determined to bless Israel because of his unconditional promise and covenant he made with Abraham. God will bless Israel because he has already promised to Abraham that God will give the land of Canaan to Israel. God is faithful and unchangeable to the promise that he has made.
Chisholm explains, “This blessing, a prediction of Israel’s success, is an extension of the Lord’s unconditional promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan (cf. Gen. 15:16; 18:8; 22:17), and thus it shares the binding quality of that promise.” 1 Samuel 15:29 is another instance where God’s decision is final and cannot be altered. God has decided to reject Saul as king of Israel and give his kingship to David. Even though Samuel prayed for Saul all night, God’s decision cannot be changed. God’s statement in 1 Samuel 15:29 is a divine decree that cannot be altered. God’s promises, covenants, decrees, and oaths are final and unalterable in nature.
Divine announcements are God’s statements that are not final and can be changed depending on how people respond to God. God has not decreed a course of action or outcome. “God chooses to wait patiently, hoping His warning might bring people to their senses and make judgment unnecessary.”
In Jeremiah 18:7-10, God states that if a nation repents of its evil, then God will relent of the punishment and judgment on the nation. If a nation does evil in the sight of God, then God will reconsider the blessings for the nation:
“At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.”
Chisholm states, “The principle underlying Jeremiah’s message and the elders’ advice is that God will change His mind concerning a stated course of action depending on the response He receives.” If God has not decreed a course of action, God may very well retract and change his mind. Human response determines God’s plan and action.
Studies on the Repentance of God
M. Div. Student
Northern Baptist Seminary
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 10 (1988): 50.
2. John T. Willis, “The ‘Repentance’ of God in the Books of Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 16 (1994): 158.
3. Robert L. Cate, Old Testament Roots for New Testament Faith (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1982), 194.
4. Lester J. Kuyper, “The Suffering and the Repentance of God,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 257.
5. Lester J. Kuyper, “The Repentance of God,” Reformed Review 18 (1965): 3.
6. John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 72.
7. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God,” 52.
8. Ibid., 53.
9. Ibid., 54.
10. Ibid., 59.
11. Terence E. Fretheim, “Divine Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 599.
12. Willis, “The ‘Repentance’ of God in the Books of Samuel, Jeremiah, and Jonah,” 162.
13. Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “Does God Change His Mind,” Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (1995): 392.
14. Ibid., 399.
15. Ibid., 397.