Vol. 5, No. 7
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In Numbers 23:19, we read, "God is not a man, that he should lie, neither the son of man, that he should repent." God apparently put these words in the mouth of Balaam. The same idea is found in 1 Samuel 15:29, "And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent." Yet, it is said in Genesis 6:6, "And it repented Jehovah that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." It even says in Exodus 32:12, "And Jehovah repented of the evil which he said he would do unto his people." As hard as it is to conceive of God repenting at all, how can it be said that he repented of evil?
There are more than a dozen passages that refer to the fact that God repents, and two or three that say he will not repent. For those who are trying to find fault with the Bible, this is enough to reject the whole thing. For those who are sincerely trying to find out the truth, a little study will reveal it.
There are two or three basic principles we need to understand as we study about God. Since no human language can properly describe God, if God is going to reveal anything at all about his nature to us, he must use what is termed anthropomorphism, which basically means he must speak of himself in terms that apply to humans. For example, Zechariah 4:10 refers to "the eyes of Jehovah, which run to and fro through the whole earth." Even trying to make this apply literally to a human would be impossible, but there is no trouble in anyone understanding the meaning of the passage. Isaiah 59:1 is another case in point, "Behold, Jehovah's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear." God does not have hands, eyes and ears like ours, but how else can God let us know that he hears, sees and helps us?
Second, the construction of the sentence in Genesis 6:6 should give us a clue that the word "repent" as it applied to the Lord is not the same as when it applies to man. The terms "it repented him" and "it grieved him in his heart" are almost equivalent. The Hebrew word, nacham, means, "to sigh." One can understand the idea easily if he has ever had to punish his child. I can remember when I was about to whip my son; I had tears in my eyes, and said, "I am sorry I need to do this." If I had been speaking in biblical terms, I could have said, "It repents me that I do this, and grieves me in my heart." My son might have said, "If you are so sorry about it, you should not do it," but although a child may not understand the difference in regret for an action and the kind of regret or sorrow that leads to a change of conduct, every adult should be able to understand it. The difference is shown in the New Testament in at least two places. In Matthew 27:3, we find, "Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself." Then he went out and hanged himself, instead of trying to go to Jesus and rectify his sin. The Greek word here is a form of "metamelomai." It is not the word used in Acts 2:38 when Peter told them to "Repent and be baptized." This word is from "metanoeo." Perhaps the difference in the terms can best be seen by Paul's expressions in 2 Corinthians 7:8-9. When he says that he regretted making them sorry with a letter, he uses the word "metamelomai" which signifies regret, as it is translated in the ASV. When he continues saying that godly sorrow works repentance unto salvation, he uses the word "metanoeo."
To summarize, the word "metanoeo" or its equivalent is never used to refer to God's repenting. Only the words that have to do with God's sorrow are used. When God is said to change his mind about a situation, it is only a relative term. That is, God is unchanging in his basic nature. He always is glad for good and sorrowful for bad. If a person is good and God says, "I will bless you," and the person changes and does evil, then God is said to change toward them. Jeremiah 18:10 puts it this way, "If they do that which is evil in my sight, that they obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them." When God is said to repent of good, it cannot mean that God was ashamed of himself for doing good, and decided to do no more good. His change was related to their change, so his repentance was a relative thing. This also shows how God could repent of evil. He is not represented as having done wrong, and is sorry for the wrong he did and determined to do it no more. Jeremiah 18:8 shows it about as clearly as human language can. "If that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them." God has never done, nor intended to do wickedness. But God was going to do "bad" things to the people if they continued in sin. If they stopped, he would change his response to them. It would be hard to find a word to express that better than the word "repent," but we need to realize that an unchanging God can only be said to change relative to a changed condition in man.
In all the stories of the Bible, we can find no more repulsive characters than Ahab and Jezebel. In 1 Kings 21:25 we are told, "But there was none like unto Ahab, who did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord." Not only do we need to look at Jesus, Paul and others to see the kind of qualities we should have, we need to look at Ahab and those like him to see the kind of qualities we should not have. We know there are persons who think that kind of negative preaching and teaching is wrong, but the Bible teaches otherwise.
One of the most apparent faults he had was covetousness. This is one of the most dangerous and insidious sins known to man. Men have confessed to murder, lying, adultery and almost every sin known. I have never heard one confess to covetousness. One of the reasons is found in its definition. It is an inordinate desire for something. It is sometimes used to signify a strong desire without the implications of evil. Paul says, "Covet earnestly the best gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31). This word is "zeloo," not "epithumeo," the usual word for covet. But in both Greek and English the word "covet" (epithumeo) is used in a neutral or good sense as when Jesus said, "I have desired (epithumeo) to eat this Passover with you" (Luke 22:15). The context will usually show whether the desire is improper or not. Paul says in Colossians 3:5 that covetousness is idolatry. That word is "pleonexia" and means "the desire to have more." It is always used in a bad sense, and was that which characterized Ahab.
This improper desire for money, power or anything else is the root of all kinds of evil. There are some ways to tell for sure whether or not you are covetous. If the prosperity of another pains you, the chances are that you are not only envious, but also covetous. If you desire for yourself what another has even if it means that your getting it deprives him of it, you are covetous. If we are never satisfied, no matter how much or what we have, it is probable that we are covetous.
However, as important as the lesson on covetous may be, there is a broader lesson here. This shows what can happen when a person is a slave to his circumstances. That is, when a person allows things and circumstances to control his thinking and happiness, many bad consequences come. This is one reason Paul's attitude in Philippians 4:11 is so valuable, "I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." When a person has not learned that, he is almost invariably discontented in whatever state he is. He may assume that money, power, possessions, fame, good looks, success will give him contentment, but they will not. Alexander the Great had the whole Babylonian Empire. He had conquered the world, but because he could not get ivy to grow in his garden, could not rest. This is why the statement of Solomon in Proverbs 16:2 is so valuable. "He who rules his own heart is better than he who taketh a city." If one gets the idea that his present car is not big or glamorous enough, he will discover all sorts of things that are wrong with it that he never thought of before. It will ride rough on the smoothest places, rattle all over and be a general headache.
We should learn to live in such a way that our happiness is not controlled by external circumstances. How does one do that? First, be aware of the truth about it. Know of God's warnings and examples in the Bible and your own experience that show the importance of finding happiness in spite of adverse circumstances. Second, let your mind and soul be so controlled, motivated and directed by spiritual values that the things that really matter are so important that the external circumstances are insignificant. For example, if you are going to get married, and you must have a big house to be happy, you will discover that when you get the big house you will not be happy. You can make up your mind that happiness in marriage does not depend on the size of the house you will have. These things are a result of a choice of will. You can set your mind on certain things (Colossians 3:1-2). Paul gives a list of things to think on in Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." The result of thinking on these will bring happiness and serenity, for if you think on these things, you cannot think on the things that cause frustration and anxiety.
One result of living for self is that one gets tired of himself. When a man gets full of himself, he may become allergic to himself. He is self-centered, wrapped up in himself, but he has no place to go to get away. That is, he would have no place if God had not provided the solution. This is why Paul says in Galatians 5:24, "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts." In Romans 6:6 he says, "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him that the body of sin might be destroyed."
The dangers of these undisciplined desires are universal. They are not confined to the rich. They apply to any kind of desire, whether or not we call it coveting. The natural desires are God given and right. Undisciplined and undirected by the Lord they always lead to sin. Eve's desire for food was God given. Her desire to have things that delight the eye was not wrong. Her wish to be wise was not a sin. When they became undisciplined and undirected by the Word of God, they led to sin.
We can see from this story that happiness is not in having material things, but in being certain kinds of persons. When God promises, "The God of peace shall be with you" (Philippians 4:9), and "The peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ" he made those promised contingent upon being a Christian.
There is value in our knowing how to deal with temptations, whether it is toward covetousness or any other. First, do not be like Balaam. He kept playing around with the idea, though he already knew what God's will was. Temptations seem to have a hypnotic power if we keep looking. Second, "Flee these things" (1 Timothy 6:11). Whether the temptation is fornication (1 Corinthians 6:18), idolatry in any form (1 Corinthians 10:14) or the desire for possessions (1 Timothy 6:10) that advice is important.
Each of us has our own weaknesses. We should find out what they are, and be especially on guard to muzzle, curb or kill them. "If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out" (Matthew 5:29). Hebrews 12:1 adds one more dimension to it. After saying, "Lay aside every sin" he adds, "Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." Keeping Him foremost in your mind will help in every situation.
The tenderness and longsuffering of God in Ahab's case and in ours is amazing. He sent Elijah to warn him, and gave him chance after chance to repent. In Noah's case, in Israel's case, in our case we are impressed with how gentle God is. Sometimes we stress that it hard to get to heaven. Considered from another standpoint, we might say that God has tried to make it hard to go to hell. We have to fight against our conscience. We have to try to eradicate precious memories of mothers and fathers, and the others who have tried to lead us aright. We have to deliberately close our eyes to the ruin sin makes of other's lives and deliberately refuse to accept the warnings we know are right. We have to deliberately shut out the picture we see of Christ loving us enough to die for us. We have to break through these and many other barriers God has put in the way of us being lost.
Perhaps the most impressive lesson we get from this story is that there will be payday some day. Ahab and Jezebel may have relaxed in the thought that they had covered their tracks, but they had not. Some wages of sin may be paid in this life. Venereal diseases, broken homes, deaths from drunken driving and all sorts of other things that produce bad results may and do come now. Some wages may not be paid until eternity. All will be paid. If we accept the payment Jesus made on the cross, we will not have to make that payment. His whole life and death were the opposite of covetousness. He loved and gave. As we look at Ahab and Jesus, we can deliberately choose the one that appeals to us the most. It is hard to imagine that one has read this far and would choose the way of Ahab, but my experience and observation leads me to the sad conclusion that some will. I hope you are not one of them.