Question: What is meant by “And the Lord regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel”?
Answer: In 1 Samuel 15:11 God says, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me…” and again in verse 35 “And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel”. This seems to be an unusual statement for God to make if we believe that he is all-powerful and all knowing (which we do). Did God make a mistake? More troubling is the fact that there are other similar situations in the Bible where God seems to change his mind or express regret. In Gen. 6:6 just before the Great Flood, it says “And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart.” In other places he “changes his mind”, like when he chose not to destroy Israel (Ex. 32:19), when he chose not to destroy Nineveh (Jon. 3:10), or when he extended Hezekiah’s life (Isa. 38:1-6). Is God’s mind unchanging or does he respond to people’s words and actions?
The immutability of God is a big word that means God is unchanging. He states this very plainly to us in Mal. 3:6 where he says, “I the Lord do not change…” In speaking of his thoughts and plans he says through Balaam, “God is not a man that he should lie, or a son of man that he should change his mind. Has he said and will he not do it? Or has he spoken and will he not fulfill it?” (Num. 23:19). So it is very clear from scripture that God has a perfect character and a perfect plan for all of humanity, neither of which will ever change. How then do we reconcile these verses with those that say he did change his mind?
As you might expect, describing the inner workings of an infinite God’s mind can be tricky. But God chooses to describe himself in scripture in ways that we can understand. So when the Bible says that God “regretted” doing something, it is communicating that a former decision God made (making Saul king) has caused him current sorrow. This is language we understand because all of us have made decisions that have caused us hurt later on and we are filled with regret. In that sense, God feels genuine regret. The difference is that God knew the outcome of his decision before he made it. He was not surprised that Saul sinned and disqualified himself as king. And if God could “go back and do it all over” he wouldn’t change his mind. He would make the same decision he did the first time. So in this sense, God does not have regret in the same way we do (many of us would go back and change our earlier decisions if we could). As a manner of fact, in that same chapter, this is what God says to Saul through Samuel, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 Sam. 15:28-29).
In summary, God feels pain from decisions he has made. The Bible uses the word “regret” to communicate this, but that does not mean that God would ever change his decisions (“he is not a man that he should have regret”). Each decision he has ever made has been the right one and the best one. Oftentimes the best decisions require him to endure pain, such as Jesus suffering on the cross for the sake of saving humanity (2 Cor. 5:21). God is not a distant, cold God but is deeply involved in his creation and as such is capable of experiencing grief.