In this article you will be introduced to what it means for God to regret something and some differences between God’s regret and man’s regret.
God can never be fully understood. While we have been given the ability to understand some of God, we cannot understand all of God. Psalm 145 says, “The Lord is great and is highly praised, his greatness is unsearchable” (vs. 3, CSB). God’s greatness and character is so wonderful that you can never study or experience Him enough to fully know Him. Psalm 147 says, “Our Lord is great, vast in power; his understanding is infinite” (vs. 5, CSB). God’s understanding is beyond measure. We will never be able to know the full understanding of God. Referring to God’s knowledge, Psalm 139 says, “This wondrous knowledge is beyond me. It is lofty; I am unable to reach it” (vs. 6, CSB). We often think God is like us and we try to understand Him through ourselves (Psalm 50:21). When we do this we don’t see God clearly. This is why it is important to study God’s Word to see what He has revealed about Himself. What God has revealed about Himself is what we need to know and better understand.[i]
One aspect of God that is often confusing and challenging to believers is the regret of God. This regret is found in passage like the following.
- After God had made everything, sin entered into the human race, and horrific sins were occurring between the sons of God and the daughters of men we are told in Genesis 6, “…the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and he was deeply grieved. 7 Then the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I created, off the face of the earth, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky—for I regret that I made them” (vs. 6-7, CSB).
- In 1 Samuel 15 God says, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from following me and has not carried out my instructions” (vs. 10, CSB).
Understanding the regret of God is extremely important. If you misunderstand this you will think God makes mistakes, He can’t see into the future, and is truly not as sovereign as He appears to be. You will begin to question God’s knowledge, God’s power, God’s wisdom, and God’s omnipresence. You will begin to doubt God and struggle to trust Him; and that’s exactly what Satan and his kingdom wants you to do.
The English Translations
When it comes to Genesis 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15 various translations use one of three words – regret, sorry, or repent.[ii]
- Regret: The word regret is defined as a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done, especially a loss or missed opportunity. If this is applied to God then God’s regret refers to God feeling sadness and disappointment over what has happened in Genesis 6 and what Saul has done in 1 Samuel 15. Sadness and disappointment can occur even if you know what is going to happen. As a result, the word regret does not challenge God’s knowledge of the future, His wisdom to make perfect decisions, or His sovereignty over a situation.
- Sorry: The word sorry is defined as feeling grief, especially through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune. This is not feeling sorry for what one has done, but what others have done to cause hardship upon themselves. In this case, God could feel sorry for the people for choosing disobedience rather than obedience resulting in severe hardship and punishment as a result of their sin. In this case, the word sorry would be an appropriate word to describe God’s reaction and statement regarding the sins of the people in Genesis 6 and Saul disobedience in 1 Samuel 15.
- Repent: The word repent is defined as a feeling of sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin. This is a problem. By definition the word repent indicates a wrongdoing or even a sin of some kind. God cannot do wrong, nor does He commit sin of any kind. The English word repent is a poor choice of wording to describe what God is communicating about Himself. This is probably why only two translations use this word.
The Hebrew Word: Nachum
In the Old Testament there are two Hebrew words which express the idea of repenting, regretting, or sorrow. One is nacham and its core meaning is “to lament or to grieve.” Depending on context, it can be used to express compassion and sympathy toward others or to change one’s mind about one’s own actions based on the changed actions of others. Nacham is not a word of anger or hostility, but one of compassion, grief, sorrow, and heartache. You experience nacham when you see your son make a poor decision that hurts him and others. You experience nacham when you see a Christian blatantly disobey God. You experience nacham when you see a parent abuse a child. Nacham is feeling sorry and regretful over the sinful and hurtful situation before you.
In both Genesis 6 and 1 Samuel 15 the Hebrew word nacham is used to describe God’s reaction toward the circumstances. God is feeling hurt, sorrow, and disappointment over the decisions people are making, rather than trusting and obeying Him. As a result He is moved with regret and sorrow over His creation. This does not mean God would change His mind if He did it over again. He simply is stating the pain He feels over what is happening, that He knew would happen. The decision of disobedience by the people did not surprise Him, but He is still grieving over their poor decisions.
God’s Regret Defined
The regret of God can be defined as God’s compassionate and sympathetic feeling toward those who chose to disobey Him and having to reap the consequences of His holy discipline.
Based on the above, if I were to define the regret of God I would define it as God’s compassionate and sympathetic feeling toward those who chose to disobey Him and having to reap the consequences of His holy discipline. This definition expresses several important truths about God’s regret.
- God’s regret is compassionate and sympathetic in nature. He is hurt and heartbroken toward those who have disobeyed Him.
- God’s regret is a result of what others have done, not what He has done. His regret is not about making mankind or making Saul king, but over what they have done with their position and opportunities in life.
- God’s regret is over having to discipline those He loves. God grieves over the fact that He must punish and deal with their actions based on His justice and holiness. He cannot overlook the sin.
Aspects of God’s Regret
One of the principles of interpreting the Bible is to let the Bible explain itself. Based on what the Bible says God’s regret is not like man’s regret. It’s clear that God is regretting that Saul is king for God clearly states, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned away from following me and has not carried out my instructions” (1 Samuel 15:10, CSB). Yet, just a few verses later Samuel tells Saul, “The Glory of Israel [God] will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Samuel 15:29, ESV). God does not change His mind about His initial decision; He simply changes His actions regarding the new circumstances caused by disobedience of the people.
Nacham (regret) causes you to take action toward what is happening, but it can appear that you made a mistake. For example, let’s say you give the keys to the car to your son. He promises to obey your rules regarding your possession. Later that night, he is arrested for DUI and reckless driving. As a result, you take back the keys. Your regret is not trusting your son with the keys, but having to take the keys back due to your son’s disobedient and disrespectful decisions. It’s the same with God when it comes to the people in Genesis 6 and Saul in 1 Samuel 15. God trusted both to obey Him, but both did not. God’s regret (nacham ) is filled with compassion, hurt and grief because of the punishment He must bring due to His holiness on those He loves.
Since God’s regret is clearly not like man’s regret, what are some aspects of God’s regret that make them different?
Man’s regret focuses on the past, God’s regret focuses on the future
Man regrets what He has done, God regrets what He must do. Man says, “I am sorry for what I have done and if I could go back and change things I would.” God says, “I am sorry for what you have done and if I could avoid what I’m about to do I would.” Man’s regret is about wishing what he should have done. God’s regret is wishing He didn’t have to do what He is about do because of the actions of someone else. Man says, “I regret what I did.” God says, “I regret what I am about to do.” God’s regret is not like man’s regret.
Let’s go back to Genesis 6:6, “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth” sounds like God wishes He had never created people because they are so horrible and high maintenance and are a burden to Him. When you study this word regret you discover His regret is not so much about His disappointment in the people, but about what He is going to have to do to these people He created and loves and wanted to save. It’s like the parent who loves their child, but is going to have to discipline them for what they did and the parent regrets having to discipline them… but for God this is a much more horrific and terrible circumstance.
Man’s regret focuses on his sin, God’s regret focuses on His holiness
Man says, “I am a sinner and I have sinned, I wish I could go back and make it right.” God says, “I am holy and perfect, and I must make it right.” Man says, “I did what I did because of my selfishness.” God says, “I will do what I’m about do because of my holiness.” God is holy, just, loving, forgiving, gracious, patient and merciful. Those aspects of God never conflict with one another. They are in perfect harmony expressed perfectly in every situation including the Flood. But because of the extreme deviance and extreme disobedience God’s justice and wrath must come to the forefront of His actions. What God is about to do to His creation is going to grieve Him greatly. He will not enjoy wiping mankind from the face of the earth. Even in His divine wisdom, He knew what mankind would do and He knew that He would have to do this and it grieves Him. His regret is not like our regret.
The reason God says in Genesis 6:7, “I will wipe mankind, whom I created, off the face of the earth, together with the animals, creatures that crawl, and birds of the sky” is because of mankind’s extreme unholiness and God’s perfect holiness. God’s grace will provide Noah, a preacher of righteousness. God’s grace will provide an Ark. God’s grace will allow the people to hear Noah preach for 120 years while he builds the Ark. God’s grace will provide the patience during that time, but no one but Noah’s family will respond. God’s justice, holiness, and wrath will shut the door of the Ark. God’s justice, holiness, and wrath will start the Flood and wipe mankind, whom He created, off the face of the earth. In the Flood we see both God’s grace and justice in action.
This is the same tension we see on the cross. We see both God’s grace and holiness and man’s sin and wickedness represented by Jesus on the cross. Grace is seen in Jesus being our substitute on the cross and God’s holiness and wrath is seen in Jesus at the same time with Jesus on the cross. They both occurred at the same time.
Man’s regret is surprised by sad outcomes, God’s regret expects them
Man says, “I didn’t think my sin would cost me this much.” God says, “I knew it would cost you this much and I knew this would happen.” Man does not expect consequences for his sin, God expects it and warns us ahead of time. Man grieves over the consequences after they happen, while God grieves over the consequences before they happen. It grieved God that He would have to wipe out mankind before He ever did it. God’s grief or regret over the making of humanity, is not remorse in the sense of sorrow over a mistaken creation; but rather in the perversion of mankind and what it has done to itself. The making of “man” wasn’t an error; the error is what man has made of himself. God is grieving because sinful mankind has ruined what He blessed them with. God’s regret is not like man’s regret.
Hopefully this helps you get a little closer on understanding God and His regret.
[i] When it comes to the subject of God there are many aspects of who He is that are worth studying in the Bible. Some of these aspects include the existence of God, the knowability of God, the wisdom of God, the love of God, the wrath of God, the justice of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness of God, the power of God, the omniscience of God, and the presence of God – to name a few.
[ii] Regret (CSB, ESV, NIV, NKJV); Sorry (NLT, MSG, NASB, RSV, NCV); Repent (KJV, YLT)