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Answering The Atheist
June 22, 2003 / Volume 3, Issue 25

THE ATHEIST'S COMPLAINT:
Does God repent? Several passages tell us that God does not repent (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Ezekiel 24:14; Malachi 3:6; James 1:7), and yet, so many more say that He does (Genesis 6:6; Exodus 32:14; Deuteronomy 32:36; 1 Samuel 15:11, 35; 24:16; 1 Chronicles 21:15; Jeremiah 15:6; 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; 42:10; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10). Is there a contradiction?

RESPONSE:
Let us begin by establishing what “repentance” is. We so often link it with sin, and rightly so, as we are to repent of our sin, but the word simply means to be sorry and make a change. Can the Lord repent? Certainly, a list of verses has been supplied by the questioner. Thus, we’ll not address those, but rather the ones which are considered to be contradictory.

In Numbers 23:19, Balaam speaking to Balak discusses the surety of God. He had received command by the Lord to bless the people of Israel, and far be it from him that he should not do as the Lord had said. The Lord would not repent of His command to Balaam, and allow the curse which Balak sought to be brought against the people. This does not say that God cannot repent, but rather acknowledges that in this particular situation, He would not. Likewise, in 1 Samuel 15:29, God had taken the kingdom of Israel from Saul’s hands, and it would not be returned to him. It is not that God could not choose to do so, but rather, He would not. In both cases, the steadfastness of God is compared to the variations of man. The writers did not say, nor should we understand it to mean that God cannot repent of a decision, but rather shows that He does not do so with the ease that man is changed.

Of the text in Ezekiel, notice, it does not say that the Lord cannot repent, but simply that He will not. There is a huge difference between not being able to do something, and simply not doing it.

Finally, of the texts in Malachi and James, in context, both these demonstrate to us the wonderful longsuffering which God has for man. Neither restrict the Lord from ever repenting of something He has decided to do. But how can one who does not change have a change of mind? Is it not His nature which is unchanging? A parents love for a child does not change, though they may make various decisions, and perhaps change their mind in some cases. It is no different with the Lord. He can be “unchanging” and still repent of that which He has thought to do.

There is no contradiction.

This article is a response to Skeptic's Annotated Bible