Can God Really Regret?

1 Samuel 15:10–11 (ESV)
"The word of the LORD came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the LORD all night."

This is indeed a valid question and one that poses certain theological concerns. On the surface, God regretting would seem to be in contradiction to other Scripture which affirms His immutability (c.f. Numbers 23:19; Psalm 110:4; Malachi 3:6, for instance). However, the verse above clearly uses the word “regret”.

The use of the word regret is also found elsewhere. In Genesis 6:6, God “regrets” a decision He made concerning man. Elsewhere we see what would appear to be God changing His mind concerning decision made prior (1 Chronicles 21:15; Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3, 19; Amos 7:3, 6; Jonah 3:10).

So is this a contradiction?

Short answer is no. We have to look closer at the word used for regret. The Hebrew verb used here, nacham, which is used in 1 Samuel 15:11, 15:35, where God regrets making Saul king. This word can also be used to mean relent (Deuteronomy 32:36), or repent (Numbers 23:19). Remember, Saul disobeyed God’s directive when He promised to make him king (1 Samuel 12:14–15). The language of regret, then, in these verses, reflects Yahweh’s decision because of Saul’s disobedience—a disobedience born of free will on the part of Saul.

If we look at Deuteronomy 28:1-14, God clearly tells the nation of Israel the blessings for obedience, and in Deuteronomy 28:15-68, the Lord also clarifies what will happen if they disobey Him. Saul repeatedly disobeyed God and consequently, the kingship was removed from him and his heirs. To not do so would be to go against what He previously commanded. God’s regret is not in the decision He made, but in the choices Saul made. God’s regret, therefore, is His sorrow.

This is also consistent with the times in Scripture where God relented on His decision of judgment, as in the story of Nineveh in Jonah. God did not change His mind; rather, His message to Nineveh was a warning meant to provoke repentance, else why would He even send Jonah? The fact that God changes His treatment of us in response to our choices has nothing to do with His character, but reflects the ebb and flow of our own free will and the choices we make. God does not change. We do. If we repent, God consistently forgives; if we refuse to repent, God consistently judges. He is unchanging in His nature, His plan, and His being.

Scholars use a term called "anthropomorphism", which means taking a human attribute and applying it to God. As Scripture is recorded by men, they must ascribe an action of God in terms man can comprehend, similar to how we see references to God’s “hands” or “eyes”. In the use of regret, we see an attempt to clarify a feeling of God to terms we can comprehend. But this doesn’t mean God was ignorant about Saul’s sin or caught off guard by his rebellion. He simply grieved at the choices Saul made. This is quite different from expressing something like, “If I had to do it all over again, I would do it differently”.

This topic is worthy of further study and I encourage you to explore on your own other perceived "contradictions" such as this.

Discovering the truth will strengthen your faith and strengthen your witness.