1 Samuel chapter 15, verse 11: “I regret that I have made Saul king…”
The implication seems to be that God thinks He made a mistake…
Obviously, not possible…What am I missing?
This is one of those places where translation is difficult because there’s no one English word or phrase that perfectly captures the exact meaning of the original-language word. In this case, the Hebrew word is nāḥam, which has quite a range of meaning. Depending on context, it can mean:
- to be sorry, be moved to pity, have compassion
- to be sorry, rue, suffer grief, repent
- to comfort oneself, be comforted
- to comfort oneself, ease oneself
In the end, translators have to make a decision, and most translations seem to indicate that “regret” is the closest we can get in present-day English to conveying the meaning of what God said here.
Thankfully, we can trust Scripture as a whole to teach us how to correctly interpret more difficult passages like this one.
To understand this particular verse, the first place we can look is just a few verses later in 1 Samuel 15:29: “The Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” That phrase “change His mind” is a translation of the same Hebrew word, nāḥam. This means we can deduce, from the very same chapter, that what God does here is at least in some way unlike what a man does when he changes his mind or “regrets” his actions.
For one, like you said, we know God does not make mistakes. Scripture is abundantly clear about that. God’s plan is perfect, and He Himself never changes. Thus His regret here cannot mean that He wishes He had done something differently.
We also know that God knows all things, including what will happen. This means Saul’s failure was not a surprise to God. The Lord did not have to improvise in response to Saul’s messing up the plan.
So what is going on here?
This is one of several places in Scripture where the Lord expresses His grief over a particular course of events resulting from the failure of man. Perhaps the most striking example of this is in Genesis 6:6, where it says, “The LORD was sorry [nāḥam] that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.”
I think there’s a false assumption these passages teach us we need to do away with. That false assumption is this: because God brought something about, that must mean He can’t feel any sorrow or grief for it.
According to Scripture, God is more complex than that. The Apostle Peter tells us that it was according to the “predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” that Jesus was “nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men” (Acts 2:23). Are we to deduce from this that God experienced no grief when His beloved Son was crucified? Of course not!
One earthly illustration might help. Think of a father who severely and justly disciplines his son. A good father feels his son’s pain, and may therefore, in a sense, be sorry (i.e., compassionately sorrowful) for his discipline of his son. This is not to say that the father wishes he hadn’t disciplined his son, but simply that even the pain justly inflicted by his own hand stirs in his heart pity toward his beloved son. “Whom the LORD loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12).
This happens often with God and His people. His anger toward them is always righteous, and yet that does not mean that He ceases to be compassionate toward them, even in the midst of, and as a result of, His discipline. Isaiah 40:1–2 comes to mind:
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God.
“Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And call out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the LORD’s hand
Double for all her sins.”
Here we see God’s desire to speak comfort to His people, even as they have been suffering the God-ordained consequences of their sin. “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:13–14).
To go back to 1 Samuel, God felt the pain of His people as they suffered under Saul’s sinful leadership, and thus He grieved the fact that Saul was their king. God is not saying that He wishes He hadn’t made Saul king. Rather, He is expressing His grief at the suffering of His people under the consequences of their own hardness of heart. Remember, it was the people who demanded a king, and Saul was given to them as a consequence of their rejection of the LORD from being their King (see 1 Samuel 8:7).
Setting aside the issue of translation, I think this is a place where the incomprehensible love of Christ (Eph. 3:18–19) stretches the limits of human language altogether. How could God be so just as to give the people who rejected Him a wicked king in Saul, and yet be so kind as to promise them a better one? Furthermore, how could God feel real sorrow that He made man on the earth, who became so wicked and corrupt, and yet love that same creature so much that He sent His own Son to die for him? “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33–36)
Let us seek to exhibit God’s perfect fatherhood as we raise our own children. Even in the administration of just discipline, let us be filled with compassion toward our sons and daughters, understanding their weakness and responding to their cries for help and mercy. This will help ensure that we are disciplining them for their good and for God’s glory.