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Study of God's Sorrow in the Old Testament

Study of God's Sorrow in the Old Testament

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Published by Trevor Peterson
a preliminary study on the biblical notion of divine repentance
a preliminary study on the biblical notion of divine repentance

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Published by: Trevor Peterson on Feb 23, 2013
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Study of God’s Sorrow (
nicham 
) in the OldTestament
Trevor Petersonc. 1998
1 God is Sorry about Blessing
Although rarely, persistent disobedience is seen to make God change Hismind. As far back as Genesis, man’s great wickedness and continually evilthoughts made the
Lord
sorry that He had made man, so He decided towipe out all life on earth (6:5–7). Saul’s turning back from following Himmade the
Lord
sorry that He had crowned Saul king, so He decided togive the kingdom to David (1 Samuel 15). Through Jeremiah, the
Lord
revealed a governing principle that seems to have been worked out in thesetwo instances: A nation’s evil disobedience would make the
Lord
sorry thatHe had spoken of building it up, so He would remove its blessing (18:9–10). Itis significant that in none of these instances was the nation of Israel directlyin view. This is not to say that God was never sorry for blessing Israel, butHis oath to the Patriarchs makes it a unique situation. In fact, both specificsituations exhibit a common pattern, where God’s sorrow takes place just
prior to
the formation of a relevant covenant. In Genesis, God followed theflood with a covenant to never again destroy all life on earth (8:21–22). In 2Samuel 7, God established a covenant with the house of David (vv. 4–17),which He explicitly contrasted with the transience of His relationship withSaul (v. 15; cf. 1 Sam 13:13).
2 God is Sorry about Judgment
As far back as Exodus, Moses’s reminder of the
Lord
’s own reputationbefore the Egyptians and of His oath to the Patriarchs made the
Lord
sorry1
 
that He had planned to consume the Israelites, so He withheld judgment(32:9–14). He later foretold that the possibility of arrogant misperceptionby Israel’s enemies would make the
Lord
sorry for His people in the midstof judgment, so He would vindicate and restore them (Deut 32:26–42). Thisis seen during the succeeding period, as Israel’s groanings made the
Lord
sorry for His people in the midst of their oppression, so He raised up judgesto deliver them (Judg 2:14–18). Under David, His own satisfaction made the
Lord
sorry that He had sent a pestilence and a destroying angel upon thepeople of Israel, so He withheld the angel from striking Jerusalem (2 Sam24:15–16; 1 Chr 21:14–15). Joel prophesied that the wholehearted turning,fasting, weeping, and mourning of the Israelites would make the
Lord
sorrythat He had a mighty invasion prepared, so He would bless them instead(2:11–14). Amos’s pleas on behalf of little Jacob made the
Lord
sorry thatHe had prepared a locust plague and a consuming fire against Israel, so Hewithheld them in patience (7:1–6). The repentance of the people and kingof Nineveh made God sorry that He had prophesied the destruction of thecity, so He withdrew His anger and judgment (Jonah 3:4–10). Interestingly,Jonah recognized that this was consistent with God’s character, which washis expressed reason for fleeing in the first place (4:2). (Perhaps he had reador at least was familiar with the prophecy of Joel 2:13!)Again, the
Lord
revealed the governing principle through Jeremiah: Anation’s turning from evil would make the
Lord
sorry that He had spoken of tearing it down, so He would withhold its calamity (18:7–8). This is seen inthat the turning of the men of Judah from their evil way would have made the
Lord
sorry that He planned to bring calamity upon them, so He would havewithheld it (26:2–3). Similarly, the mending of their ways and obedienceto His voice would have made the
Lord
sorry that He had pronouncedmisfortune against them, so He would have withheld it (26:12–13). In lightof this, the people recalled that Hezekiah’s and Judah’s fear of and searchingafter Him had made the
Lord
sorry that He had pronounced misfortuneagainst them, so He had withheld it (26:16–19). Later, the remnant’s stayingin the land would have made the
Lord
sorry that He had inflicted calamityupon them, so He would have built them up and planted them (42:10).Finally, in the midst of exile, the Psalmist recalled that His covenant andlovingkindness had made the
Lord
sorry that He had allowed nations tooppress His people, so He had shown compassion on them in the presence of their captors (Ps 106:40–46). The reasons cover a wide range, from God’sown faithfulness to His sworn oath and covenant with the Patriarchs, to His2
 
reputation before other nations, to the intercession of a prophet, to variouslevels of repentance on the part of the people under judgment, to the merefact of their suffering and anguish. Of all the categories, this one shows God’sgrace and compassion most fully in His expressed sorrow for judgment uponHis people, and His willingness to bring an end or prevent it altogether.
3 God is not Sorry about Blessing
While God is seen to show remorse in the OT, He does it according to Hisown will, not by the persuasion or coercion of others. Balak’s persistencecould not make God sorry that He had blessed Israel, because He is not amere human (Num 23:19–21). Likewise, Saul’s persistence could not makethe
Lord
sorry that He had decided to give the kingdom to David, becauseHe is not a mere human (1 Sam 15:27–29). Finally, the
Lord
will not besorry that He has made Messiah a ruler and a priest, because He has swornan oath (Ps 110:4). The last of these can easily be explained as a special case,in light of the sworn oath, but the first two generally provide the strongestcase for God’s non-repentance. It is important to note the context in bothcases, however. Interestingly, both situations involve a king, who throughpersistence seeks to change God’s will. What is denied is that God will besorry in this situation; what is affirmed is that His divine nature prevents anyreasonable expectation that He might do so. While this affirmation may statea general principle that God is never truly sorry, the overwhelming usage of this same term with God, even in the same context (in the 1 Samuel passage),tends more toward the idea that His sorrow is different from that of humans.He cannot be persuaded by men of authority, nor is He sorry because of guiltin Himself. His sorrow almost always comes within the context of a specialrelationship to a chosen people, where He has made explicit promises. Whereit extends beyond such relationships, it is grounded in His nature, which isquick to be sorry for harm.
4 God is not Sorry about Judgment
Conversely, when God has chosen to judge His people, there comes a pointwhen He willfully chooses to deny any attempt at staying His hand. The
Lord
would not be sorry that He was planning to judge Israel, because they3

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