This post is the last 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. Previous posts:
The traditional view about the future is that God has foreknowledge of the future and everything is predetermined by him. In this view, God knows every little detail that will happen in the future. However, if God is in a dynamic relationship with people and God waits to see how people will respond, then God does not know every detail about the future. God works with the world and with flawed people, and God, by his own choice, is confined to the existing structures. As God interacts and works with people, God’s plan and action change as people respond to him.
When Israel decided to have a human king instead of God as their king, God warned Israel and Saul of the punishment and judgment that would come if they disobeyed and sinned (1 Samuel 12:14-15). After Saul disobeyed God’s words, God was grieved and regretted making Saul the king of Israel (1 Samuel 15:11, 35).
God’s statement of regret about making Saul the king of Israel shows that God did not know in advance that Saul would disobey and reject his commands. God could only see the possibilities concerning Saul.
If 1 Samuel 12:14-15 is a genuine statement, then God did not know how Saul would respond to him, thus the future is open. As Fretheim said, “If the negative possibility is known in advance, then to hold out the positive possibility is a deception of Saul and the people. For each of these options to have integrity, they must both be understood to be possibilities, and only possibilities.” 
Even though God feels rejected by Israel for wanting a human king, God is willing to go along with the people and try a new direction. God takes the people’s point of view into consideration in determining and shaping the future. God is not legalistic, uncompromising, or insisting on his way; rather God is attentive to the thought and action of the people in moving into the future.
Because God has not pre-determined and pre-planned every detail in the future, the future is open and not blocked out in advance. Maier states, “God does not know everything that will take place, or everything that will be done or said by people. By implication, God does not even know everything that he will do or say in the future.”
God does not have an unchangeable will regarding the future, and the future is affected by God’s relationship with people. “Nacham [to repent] gives the reader the correct impression that God is not static, plastic, both indifferent to and unaffected by, the thoughts, words, and actions of his creatures.” Rather, God “is a dynamic, living Being, who has a personality, and who … is concerned with, affected by, and reacting to, how people live their lives.”
People are free to accept God’s plan of salvation, receive God’s blessing in life, and have a genuine, dynamic relationship with God. At the same time, people are also free to reject and disobey God’s salvation and plan for their lives and live for themselves. In a relationship of integrity, the future is truly open and people are free to make their own decisions.
Fretheim explains, “It is evident from this that God’s future activity with respect to the people is not predetermined; by their response the people have the God-given capacity to shape God’s own response, but only in a limited way.” The future is not predetermined because God is love, compassion, and grace, who wants to have a genuine, dynamic relationship with the people he created.
Balance of God’s Immutability and Repentance
The concept of constancy and repentance of God appears throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, there is tension between the two seemingly conflicting concepts. On the one hand, God is seen as an all powerful, determined God who is in control of the future.
The unchangeability of God is on display throughout the history of Israel as God deals with his chosen people. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s covenant with Abraham and David are reaffirmed over and over again. Even though Israel fails God many times, God is determined to love and be faithful to Israel because of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. The unchangeability of God assures everyone that God is determined, responsible, and faithful, unlike human beings who are often untrustworthy.
On the other hand, God is seen as compassionate, tender, and suffering as he deals with the people he loves. God is not a tyrannical monarch who is detached from the world. God is hurt when people disobey him and he rejoices when people turn back to him. God does not want to punish people because of their sin; instead, God wants to see people flourish and thrive as they obey and worship God.
The immutability of God must be balanced with the repentance of God since immutability offers the assurance that God is in control and repentance accentuates the fact that God relates to people on a personal level. Kuyper states, “If we may accept the immutability of God as primarily manifested in His freedom and love, then we may have some direction by which to understand and to discuss the repentance and non-repentance of God.” The repentance of God is an expression that God loves his chosen people and the world he created and he is faithful to his promises.
God’s nature of immutability and repentance is not mutually exclusive. God is both immutable and changing at the same time. The creedal statement found in Exodus 34:6-7 and repeated throughout the Old Testament declares that God is love, compassionate, gracious, faithful, and forgiving. These attributes of God are immutable and changeless. God is love and always will love. Bloesch emphasizes that “we must continue to affirm the immutability of God not in a sense that God is static and unbending but in a sense that God remains true to himself and his purpose.”
At the same time, the creedal statement found in Joel 2:13 and Jonah 4:2 also affirms the repentance of God, specifically God repents from sending calamity. In God’s relationship with people, God is deeply affected and moved by people’s thoughts and actions. Although God has the power and control over the world, God decides to limit himself in order to have a dynamic relationship with people.
As people respond to God, God’s plans, intentions, and actions change. God is not an authoritative dictator who does not care about the thoughts and feelings of people; instead, God is a loving father and husband who always hopes to have a genuine, personal relationship with the people he loves.
God is always waiting for people to respond to his love and waiting for people to turn back to him to experience his salvation and blessing. God repents because God loves the people he created; God’s repentance is rooted in God’s love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Sonnet agrees, “Repentance, in that sense, lies at the core of God’s sovereign self and is the dramatic pivot of God’s attributes of justice and mercy.” As the creedal statement suggests, the repentance of God is available to everyone in the world because God desires life, not death and God desires relationship, not judgment.
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, “Divine Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 600.
2. Walter A. Maier III., “Does God ‘Repent’ or Change His Mind,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 68 (2004): 130.
3. Ibid., 135.
5. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Repentance of God: A Study of Jeremiah 18:7-10,” Hebrew Annual Review 11 (1987): 86.
6. Lester J. Kuyper, “The Suffering and the Repentance of God,” Scottish Journal of Theology 22 (1969): 268.
7. Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downer Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 94.
8. Jean-Pierre Sonnet, “God’s Repentance and ‘False Starts’ in Biblical History,” in Congress Volume Ljubljana 2007, ed. Andre Lemaire (Boston: Brill, 2010), 485.