Study of God’s Sorrow (nicham) in the Old Testament

Trevor Peterson c. 1998

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God is Sorry about Blessing

Although rarely, persistent disobedience is seen to make God change His mind. As far back as Genesis, man’s great wickedness and continually evil thoughts made the Lord sorry that He had made man, so He decided to wipe out all life on earth (6:5–7). Saul’s turning back from following Him made the Lord sorry that He had crowned Saul king, so He decided to give the kingdom to David (1 Samuel 15). Through Jeremiah, the Lord revealed a governing principle that seems to have been worked out in these two instances: A nation’s evil disobedience would make the Lord sorry that He had spoken of building it up, so He would remove its blessing (18:9–10). It is significant that in none of these instances was the nation of Israel directly in view. This is not to say that God was never sorry for blessing Israel, but His oath to the Patriarchs makes it a unique situation. In fact, both specific situations exhibit a common pattern, where God’s sorrow takes place just prior to the formation of a relevant covenant. In Genesis, God followed the flood with a covenant to never again destroy all life on earth (8:21–22). In 2 Samuel 7, God established a covenant with the house of David (vv. 4–17), which He explicitly contrasted with the transience of His relationship with Saul (v. 15; cf. 1 Sam 13:13).

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God is Sorry about Judgment

As far back as Exodus, Moses’s reminder of the Lord’s own reputation before the Egyptians and of His oath to the Patriarchs made the Lord sorry 1

that He had planned to consume the Israelites, so He withheld judgment (32:9–14). He later foretold that the possibility of arrogant misperception by Israel’s enemies would make the Lord sorry for His people in the midst of judgment, so He would vindicate and restore them (Deut 32:26–42). This is 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 judges to 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 the people of Israel, so He withheld the angel from striking Jerusalem (2 Sam 24:15–16; 1 Chr 21:14–15). Joel prophesied that the wholehearted turning, fasting, weeping, and mourning of the Israelites would make the Lord sorry that 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 that He had prepared a locust plague and a consuming fire against Israel, so He withheld them in patience (7:1–6). The repentance of the people and king of Nineveh made God sorry that He had prophesied the destruction of the city, so He withdrew His anger and judgment (Jonah 3:4–10). Interestingly, Jonah recognized that this was consistent with God’s character, which was his expressed reason for fleeing in the first place (4:2). (Perhaps he had read or at least was familiar with the prophecy of Joel 2:13!) Again, the Lord revealed the governing principle through Jeremiah: A nation’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 in that 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 have withheld it (26:2–3). Similarly, the mending of their ways and obedience to His voice would have made the Lord sorry that He had pronounced misfortune against them, so He would have withheld it (26:12–13). In light of this, the people recalled that Hezekiah’s and Judah’s fear of and searching after Him had made the Lord sorry that He had pronounced misfortune against them, so He had withheld it (26:16–19). Later, the remnant’s staying in the land would have made the Lord sorry that He had inflicted calamity upon 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 and lovingkindness had made the Lord sorry that He had allowed nations to oppress 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’s own faithfulness to His sworn oath and covenant with the Patriarchs, to His 2

reputation before other nations, to the intercession of a prophet, to various levels of repentance on the part of the people under judgment, to the mere fact of their suffering and anguish. Of all the categories, this one shows God’s grace and compassion most fully in His expressed sorrow for judgment upon His people, and His willingness to bring an end or prevent it altogether.

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God is not Sorry about Blessing

While God is seen to show remorse in the OT, He does it according to His own will, not by the persuasion or coercion of others. Balak’s persistence could not make God sorry that He had blessed Israel, because He is not a mere human (Num 23:19–21). Likewise, Saul’s persistence could not make the Lord sorry that He had decided to give the kingdom to David, because He is not a mere human (1 Sam 15:27–29). Finally, the Lord will not be sorry that He has made Messiah a ruler and a priest, because He has sworn an 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 strongest case for God’s non-repentance. It is important to note the context in both cases, however. Interestingly, both situations involve a king, who through persistence seeks to change God’s will. What is denied is that God will be sorry in this situation; what is affirmed is that His divine nature prevents any reasonable expectation that He might do so. While this affirmation may state a 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 guilt in Himself. His sorrow almost always comes within the context of a special relationship to a chosen people, where He has made explicit promises. Where it extends beyond such relationships, it is grounded in His nature, which is quick to be sorry for harm.

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God is not Sorry about Judgment

Conversely, when God has chosen to judge His people, there comes a point when 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 they 3

engaged in blatant and persistent idolatry (Isa 57:6). The Lord would not be sorry that He was planning to destroy the whole land (but not completely), because that was His spoken purpose (Jer 4:27–28). The Lord would not be sorry that He was planning to judge Judah publicly, because He had spoken His will, and justice had to be spent upon her deeds (Ezek 24:13–14). Finally, the Lord was not sorry that He had purposed to harm Judah, because the fathers had provoked Him to wrath (Zech 8:14). From these passages, the stated motivation is evenly divided between external (provocation by idolatry) and internal (His own spoken will and justice). What ties them together is that His justice must be satisfied, and there comes a point when disobedience is so great that He must carry out the threatened punishment. It may also be possible to read into these instances that God knew the people would not repent, no matter how patient He remained with them. Again, the object of judgment is significant here, in that it is the nation of Israel, which God had foretold in Deuteronomy 30 that He would one day punish for its rebellion and then later restore.

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Appendix: Other Relevant Passages

Num 11:4–34 relates the incident where God sent quail in response to the people’s complaint for meat. The apparent problem is that God initially decided to send so much meat that they would stuff themselves for a month until they despised it, but as soon as they began eating, sent a plague instead to kill them immediately. The key seems to come in v. 4, which identifies a greedy rabble among the sons of Israel, who apparently stirred up the whole nation to weep for meat. Vv. 18–20 relate what Moses was instructed to say to the people, not necessarily what God would actually do. The Lord struck the people with a plague in v. 33, but obviously not everyone was slain by it. V. 34 specifies that “they buried the people who had been greedy,” so it seems that the plague was only upon the rabble that stirred up the nation. There are therefore at least two ways to take this passage without it showing a change in God’s plan. 1) Either He instructed Moses to tell the people one thing, while He knew all along that He would instead smite them with a plague, 2) or He actually did give the nation as a whole enough quail to stuff themselves for a month, but sent the plague specifically upon the greedy rabble within the whole group. Since the first carries with it a whole other set of problems, and since the second is most directly evident from the text, 4

the latter seems preferable. But either way, there is no need to derive a real change in God’s overall plan from this passage. In 2 Kings 20 and Isaiah 38, King Hezekiah was struck with a mortal illness and explicitly told that he would die. As Isaiah was leaving, Hezekiah prayed to God, reminding Him of his true and wholehearted walk, and weeping before Him. Immediately, God told Isaiah to return and tell Hezekiah that his prayer had been heard and that he would be healed (2 Kgs 20:5) and his life extended by fifteen years (v. 6). God did this for His own sake and for that of David, recalling the covenant He had made to always keep His lovingkindness with David’s descendants (2 Sam 7:14–15). As so often elsewhere, God’s change of action comes in the context of His covenantal relationship. Ps 102:27 contrasts God with creation, saying that He is the same and that His years will not come to an end. In context, the contrast requires that God’s lack of change refer to the same sort of change that is being attributed to the heavens and the earth. This is a change of form or composition, not primarily of function or planning. Mal 3:6 attributes the salvation of the Israelites to God’s changelessness, but it cannot be speaking of immutability with regard to all of His dealings. If that were the case, either it would contradict the times when He chooses to destroy a nation, or it would apply only to situations where He does not. Since the latter is preferable, this statement should be taken in light of His particular covenant faithfulness to Israel.

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