Christianity teaches that God is immutable. In other words, he doesn’t change. Oftentimes when I preach on this biblical truth, I get questions. They usually come from older folks who’ve studied their Bibles a bit more and they’ve encountered passages which seem to challenge the teaching of God’s immutability.
People sometimes ask about God’s repentance. There are Bible passages that appear to speak about God repenting or changing his mind. That could lead us to one of two conclusions: the Bible contradicts itself or our theology is wrong. However, there is a third possibility. Maybe we haven’t understood those passages properly. In what follows, I want to look at one of those passages: 1 Samuel 15.
Earlier in the book of 1 Samuel, the people of Israel were without a king. They looked around them at the other nations and they all had kings. The people decided they needed one too and they agitated for one. Finally, in 1 Samuel 9 and 10, God gave them a king in the person of Saul the son of Kish. At first, Saul appeared to be a success. However, in time his true heart began to show. He was more interested in following his own will than God’s will. That comes to a head in 1 Samuel 15.
King Saul was commanded by God to annihilate the Amalekites. These were mortal enemies of God and his people. The Amalekites had blood on their hands. They weren’t innocent victims. They also represented an ongoing danger to the security of the Israelites. Saul was to go and attack them and erase their existence from the face of the earth.
Sure enough, he defeated them, but he didn’t obey God’s commands. He spared Agag the Amalekite king and he also saved the best livestock from the Amalekites. God noticed Saul’s failure to obey. He came to Samuel and said in verse 11, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” God regretted making Saul king. The same thing is basically said at the end of the chapter, in verse 35, “And the LORD regretted that he made Saul king over Israel.”
The problem for many people comes with Samuel as he confronts Saul. Samuel tells the king he’s been rejected by God. Like the torn robe, the kingdom has been torn away from Saul and given to someone else. That’s where we find the verse many people stumble over, verse 29: “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Do you see the problem? Verses 11 and 35 say that God regretted making Saul king. But verse 29 says that God will not have regret because he is not a human being. So which is it? Does God have regret? Does he change his mind or not?
Before I explain this, remember one important thing: the Bible isn’t a human book. It was given to us by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is perfect God. He knows what he’s doing. We have these words together in the same narrative because the Holy Spirit put them here together. It’s not an accident. It’s not because of sloppy human beings who weren’t paying attention. The Holy Spirit is behind this and he’s teaching us something here.
The same word can be used in the Bible in two different senses. It happens more often. As a classic example, you could think of the way Romans speaks of justification and the way James speaks of justification. Romans speaks of justification as God’s declaration that we are right with him, whereas James speaks of justification as the vindication of our faith before our fellow human beings. There’s no contradiction between these two when you understand that. Something similar is happening here in 1 Samuel 15.
Let’s take the meaning of verses 11 and 35 first. What does it mean that God regretted making Saul king? It doesn’t mean that he thought he’d made a mistake earlier. It doesn’t mean that he’s gone back on his decision and revised it in the light of the circumstances. This language is meant to have us understand how God relates to human beings and how he reacts to them. The Holy Spirit wants us to understand that God changes his position with respect to the people who rebel against him and reject him. Because of Saul’s grievous sin, God was no longer pleased with Saul. The relationship has changed. God’s eternal decree is not in view here at all. What’s in view here is how God interacts with human beings in time and space. There is a real relationship — there is real interaction. In this relationship, God is grieved.
You have to consider why God would reveal this. It’s because there is a need for a king who will not grieve God or give him regret. David would be that king, at least at times. But even David fell and sometimes horribly. There was a need for a greater king. When King Jesus came, God said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” There’d be no regret with that King, and he’s our King. Not only is he our king, but we share his anointing. If we are in Christ by faith, we are kings. If we place our trust in this Saviour, God will never say about us, “I regret that I have made you a king.”
Now what about verse 29? Here the context is different than verses 11 and 35. The words in verse 11 were spoken by God to Samuel. The words in verse 35 were written by Samuel to the reader. But in verse 29, Samuel is speaking to Saul. He delivers God’s judgment to Saul. His kingdom is finished. And when Samuel says in verse 29 that God does not lie or have regret, he’s saying to Saul that this judgment is fixed. It won’t be reversed. This is the way it is. God has said that and it’s not a warning. This has been decreed and there’s no getting around it.
So, if we’re thinking about election, verse 29 is more applicable than verses 11 and 35. Election is an unchangeable part of God’s decree, just like Saul’s loss of the kingdom was an unchangeable part of God’s decree. You see, verses 11 and 35 are not about God’s eternal decree, but about God’s relations and interactions with human beings in history. Like in any real relationship, God can and does react to what the other party does in that relationship. It’s not that it takes him by surprise, but he comes down to our level and uses this human language and the notions of human relationships to help us understand our relationship to him. I think you’ll find that any place in the Scriptures that describes God’s repentance or regret fits with what we find in 1 Samuel 15. It’s used to describe a change in God’s position toward someone within the context of a relationship.
Therefore, in his essence, God certainly does not change. He is immutable. Human beings are the ones who change. We’re fickle and mutable. When we change for the worse, what follows is a change in our relationship to God. It’s a real relationship and when that relationship sours, we’re the ones who need to repent.