Dear Brother Beebe: - I see that sister Ball, in the 1st number of the present volume of the Signs, has requested my views of Gen. 6:6,
"And it repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart."
I presume an explanation of this text can be given satisfactory to sister Ball, and other honest enquirers after truth; but to give an exposition that would stop the mouths of gainsayers is perhaps difficult. That God possesses such perfection, that there can be no repentance, or grief at heart, in His essential mind is evident from the general revelation?which He has made of Himself, as well as from positive declarations in His word to the point. James says, speaking of the Father of Lights, "With whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," chap. 1:17. Job says, "He is of one mind, and who can turn Him," chap. 23:13. God says, "I am God, and there is none like me; declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient time, the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand and I will do all my pleasure" Isa.46:9, 10. Even Balaam is compelled to say, "God is not a man that He should lie, neither the son of man that He should repent;" Num. 23:19. Samuel says, "The strength of Israel will not lie nor repent, for He is not a man that He should repent" I Sam. 15:29. These texts as clearly show that God's perfection of mind is such that He cannot be subject to any such change as repentance, implies in man, as do the Scriptures, that God is a Spirit, and therefore that when bodily organs and limbs are ascribed to Him, the expressions are not to be taken in a literal, but in a figurative sense. Even those who are so ready to think that God can be made to see such imperfections in His past course as to repent of it literally, will admit that when God speaks of His arm, His feet, &c., that the expressions are not to be taken in a literal sense, that they are figurative expressions, used to convey more forcibly to the comprehension of weak man, a sense of God's power and presence, &c. Those who are so disposed to contend that repentance, when ascribed to God, is to be taken literally, as implying a change in the divine mind, thereby making the Scriptures contradict themselves, and contradict the immutability of God, may think to relieve their minds of any restraint from the Scriptures; but they are not aware that if they could succeed in destroying the absolute immutability of God, in His purpose, they would destroy the whole ground on which man's safety and preservation on earth rests. If God could be induced to change His purpose one way, it could, with equal ease, be changed the other way. Hence, if we can believe that God has been induced by anything in us to change His purpose of cursing us to that of blessing us, we ought to believe that He would, by our acts of ingratitude and sin, again be provoked to change His purpose back, and at once to cut us off. Hence, to relieve His people from such a gloomy idea as this, God says, "For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed" Mal.3:6. Thus showing that their preservation and safety, instead of being subject to their changeableness, rests upon His own unchangeableness. Viewing the terms repent, repentance, &c., when spoken of God, as figurative, we shall find them strikingly illustrative of God's dealings with men, under the law dispensation, and upon legal principles, whilst no ways effecting the immutability of God's mind or purpose.
According to the legal dispensation, God's dealings with men were made to depend on their conduct, they were blessed or cursed, prospered or afflicted, that is, in a worldly or outward sense, according as they did good or evil. There were those in Jeremiah's time that said, "Where is the word of the Lord?" Intimating that God said, and did not; that His mind changed. Wherefore, after giving to Jeremiah the figure of the potter, to show His sovereign right to deal with nations as seemed Him good, He declared to him the principle upon which He dealt with nations, saying, "At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them." So also, in the event of their changing from good to doing evil, God would repent of the good He thought to do unto them. See Jer. 17, 15, 18:1-10. God thus shows that His doing good or evil to a nation depended on their obeying or not obeying His voice, according to the nature of the legal dispensation. This also shows that God's repenting does not imply any change of mind with Him; that it is only a change of His course towards them consequent upon their change of conduct, according to His sovereign right to deal with nations, as they did good or evil. Again, in the days of Ezekiel, there were those who complained that God's ways were not equal.
But, God shows that the unequalness was with them, that His ways were uniform and just, that "when the righteous turneth from his righteousness and committeth iniquity, he shall even die thereby. But if the wicked turn from his wickedness, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall live thereby" Ez. 33:12-20. Then the Lord shows that His dealings with individuals, in their national or worldly relations under the legal dispensation, were the same as with nations.
Thus when the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, God repented, that is, turned from the evil He had threatened them with, in accordance with the principle by which He governs nations Jonah 3:10. So God's repenting concerning the pestilence, and staying the angel's hand from Jerusalem, evidently was not that He was sorry for having sent the pestilence; but it was that having visited His designed chastisement upon Israel, that sufficiently humbled David's mind, He stayed the sword which threatened destruction to Jerusalem II Sam. 24:15-17. Having thus allowed that God is not like man, subject to change of mind, but is immutable in His purpose, and that His repenting or changing from threatened evils or promised good, according as men repented of their evils or turned from their righteousness, was but the result of His equitable dealings with nations and men according to the nature of the legal dispensation under which they were, we are prepared, methinks, for understanding the expressions used in Gen. 6:6. It is true the expressions used in this passage are much stronger than those we have been noticing, but not more so than was the destruction thereby intimated greater than others with which He has visited the earth. For as a man having formed something for which he truly "repented and grieved at heart," would seek to efface it and the remembrance of it from existence, so God, by the use of these expressions, showed that it was His purpose, although He had created man and by His benign providence caused him to greatly multiply upon the earth, now to turn and destroy that whole race of men, and wash the remembrance of them and their evil doings from the earth by a flood, and re-people it directly from another, through an intermediate head, Noah, who had found grace in His sight. Thus, in accordance with the general testimony of the Scriptures concerning God and concerning His government, I understand the expressions used in this verse as figurative and as designed more strongly to impress upon Noah and others the fixedness of His purpose to destroy that race of men from the earth, and at the same time to show that this signal judgment was an expression of His abhorrence of, and the opposition of His nature to, the wickedness of man, though He had permitted it upon earth. The construction I have here given of this passage is confirmed by a similar use of the term "repent" in I Sam. 15:11, "The word of the Lord came unto Samuel, saying, it repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be king." And yet in that same chapter, verse 29, as quoted before, Samuel says: "The strength of Israel will not lie or repent, for He is not a man that He should repent," thus showing that he did not understand the expression, "it repenteth me," as implying anything like sorrow or change of mind with God, such as is implied in men's repenting. We must, therefore, understand these words as merely expressive of a change of God's providence toward Saul, consequent upon Saul's sin in disobeying the command of God, and showing God's displeasure at such disobedience.
I have gone into a lengthier examination of the Scriptures upon this subject than perhaps others will think was necessary; but I wished to show, and I think I have shown, that the uniform testimony of the Scriptures concerning God and the general use of the word "repent" by Him proves that when God speaks of "repenting" in reference to Himself, He speaks in a figurative sense, the same as when He speaks of "His hand, His arms," &c. I have thus complied with sister Ball's request. Whether what I have written is sufficiently instructive or interesting to justify its publication, I know not. I leave it with you, brother Beebe, to dispose of it as you think best, and subscribe myself yours,
From: SIGNS of the TIMES: Vol.25 (1857)
Select Works of Elder Samuel Trott