When God Regrets His Own Deeds

In the previous passage, we saw one of the most difficult theological ideas people must wrestle with in our time. God is sovereign and good, and His wrath is always just. When we elevate God’s love as His single attribute and assume that He is only interested in the acceptance of people, we have ignored much of the Bible in both the Old and New testaments. In today’s passage, we see another difficult theological idea. Scripture records, on a few occasions, that God regretted, relented from, or repented of His own actions. This can be difficult to think about with respect to God’s sovereignty and providence. If God has ordained the events of history and predestined the election of His people from before the foundation of the world, how can He possibly regret, relent from, or repent of anything that He does? If He is good and always does what is best according to His will, how can He also regret His own actions? If Saul has been reprobate from at least Genesis 49, how is it possible for God to regret making Saul king only for Saul to become prideful and fall? According to the story up to this point, God has been working all this together. It doesn’t surprise Him. Yet, God regrets what He has done.

How can we begin to think about what seems to be a great tension in God’s Bible? 

1 Samuel 15:10-20

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.” And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.

Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul; and it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself, then turned and proceeded on down to Gilgal.”

Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have carried out the command of the Lord.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”

Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.”

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait, and let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” And he said to him, “Speak!”

Samuel said, “Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you king over Israel, and the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord, but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites

God’s regret (v. 10-11)

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.” 

Here, God speaks to Samuel and tells Samuel He regrets having made Saul king—even though it was His perfect plan to do so. Notice that God did not indicate He would do things differently if given another chance. God did not indicate He misstepped. He did not say He sinned or did not foresee Saul’s treachery. As we have walked through 1 Samuel, we have seen God’s providence at work every step of the way. We saw God predict Saul would be a ravenous wolf when we looked at 1 Samuel 8:10-22 particularly. This means, in the context of this story, God cannot mean He was wrong or did something less than perfect when He reveals His regret to Samuel. What does it mean that God might ever regret His own action?

1 Samuel 15 is a wonderful place to examine God’s regret because Samuel clarifies God’s revelation by explaining what God does not mean. In verse 29 we read, “Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” The word translated “change His mind” is the same root as “regret” in verse 11 (נחם). In one sense, God נחםs that He has made Saul king. It is clarified that God has such character, foreknowledge, and wisdom that He does not נחם. This Hebrew word is multifaceted. It can refer to a changing of one’s mind or an emotion. Since God does not change His mind—what has been decided is decided, what He has ordained remains ordained, and those God elects will never be unelected—the sense in which God נהםs in verse 11 is emotive. He feels a great sadness, or regret, emotionally. Though His ordination and election are final from the foundation of the world, He relates dynamically with His creation emotionally.

So, God experiences deep sadness because Saul has turned back from following Him and has not carried out God’s commands. God has not changed His mind about Saul. Saul delivered Israel from the Philistines (9:16). Saul is still a ravenous wolf (Genesis 49). David will still become king as God has already determined (13:14). When people, even the reprobate, sin against God, He is grieved. Even though He is grieved, He does not change His mind concerning us. Once He saves, we are saved. We cannot lose what God gives because God does not change. We cannot gain what God chooses to withhold because God does not change. It is about God’s character and nature, not human ability—even if we grieve Him.

The same word, נחם, is used in passages like Genesis 6:6, 7; Exodus 32:14; 1 Samuel 15:35; 2 Samuel 24:16; and Job 3:10. In each of these cases, נחם, refers to God’s emotive interaction with His creation because God cannot change or change His mind. Samuel has clarified this for us explicitly.

Like God, we experience a depth of emotion. We experience grief, anxiety, happiness, excitement, sadness, depression, worry, surprise, anger, frustration, and so much more. Have you ever wondered why God gave us the ability to experience such a great depth of emotion? We were created to be the image of God. Every time we experience any emotion in imperfection, we should realize something about God’s perfect existence. He reveals His emotion in His perfect word. He is not only an intelligent creator but, also, an emotional one. He is not merely a deistic sort of god who set the world in motion, is only transcendent, declares the end from the beginning, and has already chosen His people from before the foundation of the world. He is immanent—closely interacting with His creation and people. God’s word is not primarily anthropopathic, as some would suggest. God isn’t, here, described using human traits in order to help us better understand Him or grasp the story. No, we are made in His image, not He in ours. The problem with reading Scripture as if it were anthropopathic (describing God’s thought processes like that of people) or anthropomorphic (describing God using human qualities or characteristics) is that we see God as just a better version of us. This tendency is called narcegesis (reading one’s self into the text). While our emotions often master us. God does not and cannot follow His emotions. He does not change His plan, purpose, or will through any part of His story. He is saddened to His core because of Saul’s treachery. He bears with Saul so long even though He knows of Saul’s treachery from before the foundation of the world and has been working it together for His own purpose from, at least, Genesis 49. God’s foreordination of events and election of His people from before the foundation of the world do not make Him heartless. God experiences a depth of emotion that He desires us to understand. 

In 1 Samuel 15, we also see how God’s eternality, timelessness, and immutability relate to His emotion. God experiences all of His emotion completely and eternally, just as every decision God will make is made wholly from eternity. It would be incoherent to say that God, who created time and space and is entirely sufficient in and of Himself and beyond whom there was nothing before He created, experiences different particular emotions at different times or makes new decisions at different times. The same is true of morality. God cannot do things because they are morally right; nor are things morally right because God has defined morality. Morality is wrapped up in God’s essence. What is right is right because God is God eternally. Yet, we see God’s foreordination and election being worked out in the context of unfolding time. There is a time in the life of the elect person when he or she comes to Christ. That person is sanctified as time unfolds. God has chosen His elect people from before the foundation of the world (cf. Ephesians 1:4, 2:8), but that unconditional gift is worked out over the course of a person’s life. God is entirely satisfied in and of Himself, yet His depth of emotion is revealed through the course of human history as God interacts dynamically and intimately with His creation.

And Samuel was distressed and cried out to the Lord all night.

Samuel was distressed. This is a different emotion (יחר) than God feels at this time. God is deeply saddened. Samuel is angry. His fuse is lit by Saul’s treachery against God. Samuel is God’s prophet, yet we have seen him disagree with God’s plan (8:6). God’s emotion doesn’t translate perfectly to Samuel in this instance. Samuel is not perfectly sanctified in this moment. He still has some growing up to do. If we love God, we care about the things He cares about. Sometimes, like Samuel, we exhibit a wrong emotion in response to something we see or hear about. When I mention terms like abortion, social justice, socialism, immigration, refugee crisis, slave trade, homeless, poor, needy, war, Islam, Mormonism, impeachment, and Russian collusion, uneasiness grips you. I haven’t defined these terms. I haven’t said anything about my thoughts on any issue that might be tied to these terms. Yet, there is an emotional response. Why? God interacts emotionally with His creation and has created us in His image—that He might be known and receive all glory within His creation. All of creation knows God through humanity. The people of God care about the things God cares about— the salvation of God’s people, the proclamation of God’s explicit word, the exposure of false teaching and false Christs, the sanctification of God’s people. If we care more about other things—comfort, acceptance, popularity, wealth, social gatherings, or something else—we might need to think about whether or not we truly and really love God.

Self justification (v. 12-15)

Samuel rose early in the morning to meet Saul; and it was told Samuel, saying, “Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself, then turned and proceeded on down to Gilgal.”

The story continues and we see the same pattern we have seen in Saul’s life. He does religious looking stuff but fails to honor God. People are unable to honor God by doing stuff. Saul has assumed that God will bless him if he worships his own way. Worship is not and has never been a “do whatever you want” offering to God. We cannot rightly worship our Lord if we are doing whatever feels right to us or merely sticking to human traditions. God has given instructions for worship in His word. Too many people don’t give worship much thought at all. We do the things we do because we see them as correct, advantageous, fun, or whatever. Anyone can have a spiritual experience. Many would rather have a spiritual experience than be obedient to God. This says much about our relationship with God—we have centered it on ourselves rather than honoring God.

Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, “Blessed are you of the Lord! I have carried out the command of the Lord.”
But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”
Saul said, “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the Lord your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed.”

Like we see with Saul, many people can be entirely convinced that they are worshipping God rightly because they perceive themselves as being religious or good people. There are many people in many local churches this morning who are convinced that they are honoring God. There are many people who have chosen to stay home who are convinced that they can worship God rightly from home even though God has instructed His people not to forsake the gathering of believers (Hebrews 10:25). We examine our own lives. Is our worship pleasing to God? Do we honor Him instead of our own spiritual experiences? Are we a healthy, God-honoring local church? If you are not a committed member of The Church at Sunsites, do you gather and participate with a healthy God honoring local church? Last year at this time, we devoted one month to see what makes a healthy local church a healthy local church. Check it out by clicking here.Download my book, Churchish, by clicking here.When we examine our lives and ministries, we do so according to Scripture—not preference, comfort, or anything else. God’s word is entirely sufficient.

Evil according to God (v. 16-20)

Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait, and let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” And he said to him, “Speak!”
Samuel said, “Is it not true, though you were little in your own eyes, you were made the head of the tribes of Israel? And the Lord anointed you king over Israel, and the Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go and utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated.’ Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord, but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord?”

Did you catch that? Saul did what he thought was right. It was evil because he disobeyed God in order to do it. This is happening within the context of worship. Saul is trying to worship God. We continue to see this pull in the text. We will continue to see it through chapter 15. Obedience is better than having a spiritual experience. Obedience is better than singing. Obedience is better than sacrifice. Obedience is what God desires before anything else—even if it doesn’t come with some spiritual high or a good feeling. To worship at the expense of obedience to God’s word, especially concerning worship, is evil in the sight of the Lord.

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I did obey the voice of the Lord, and went on the mission on which the Lord sent me, and have brought back Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites

Even though Samuel’s explanation is perspicuous, Saul cannot grasp it. He is entirely convinced of his own goodness. He is convinced that he is honoring God. He is convinced that he has obeyed God even though he did not follow God’s instruction. In the same way, I am convinced that there is much evil in the pew today. We have set our parameters for worship. We are convinced that our worship is true and genuine. We are sincere in our conviction that what we do is God-honoring. In reality, we have only honored ourselves and convinced ourselves that we are being obedient to God. This passage ought to cause every self-proclaiming Christian to stop and think. Are we actually being obedient to king Jesus, or have we sacrificed obedience at the altar of spirituality? Anyone can be spiritual and experience “spiritual things,” whatever is meant by that term. We can go to any church with the right temperature, mood lighting, and music and have a spiritual experience. I can go out in the woods, to the lake, or for a drive and have a spiritual experience. Only the true children of God come to care about obedience over spirituality. Have we loved Christ, or have we only loved our own spirituality? There is a difference. Do we care about the things God cares about?

If you have defined your faith by your own spiritual experience, my heart goes out to you. You do not know the God of Scripture or Christ. You do not have eternal life. You are trapped like Saul. There is good news. There is hope. Because of Christ, you can have life that means more than spiritual experience. You can have life grounded in the truth of God’s word. You can have Christ’s righteousness placed upon you. You do not have to seek the next spiritual high or suffer withdraws when you don’t get it. God offers to remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He offers to redeem your emotions. He offers to ground your new life in reality, not some dopamine trip. Will you believe in Christ, repent of your self-centered spirituality (whether religious or irreligious), and begin living meaningfully in light of eternity and God’s glory?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply