“And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Have you ever regretted anything? Of course you have. You may even have a lengthy list of things you’ve said or done which afterwards you wished you had not. That’s part of sin being loose in the world. If you had known you were going to regret them, you might not have said or done them (okay, you probably still would have done some of them anyway because, sin, but many of them you would have avoided). But, you don’t know everything. God does, though, so what are we supposed to do with Him expressing regret?
Well, for starters, we can’t say that God somehow didn’t know Saul was going to turn out to be such a dud of a king. He knows everything and that includes this. God knew Saul’s story was going to turn out just how it did before time began. And He made him king anyway. How come?
The challenge to answering that question is that Scripture doesn’t say so we can only guess and speculate. When it comes to God’s expression of regret, though, we can say a little bit more.
The operative Hebrew word here is “nakham.” Nakham (you don’t pronounce the k-h combo phonetically, but rather pronounce them together a little like you’re clearing your throat; and both a’s sound like the a in the word calm) can mean a couple of different things. It can mean to give comfort, which it does about 75% of the time. It can also mean to regret or to change one’s mind, which it does the rest of the time.
Here, the word, as translated, has the second range of meaning. Because of God’s divine character of omniscience, though, this can’t be the same kind of regret you or I might have when we’ve done something that has blown up in our face. God’s regret, rather, is in generally seeing Saul fail. God is expressing His sorrow over the choices Saul has made, most specifically, choosing a path of pride and disobedience instead of trust and submission and keeping the Law.
You see, God’s doesn’t simply know everything we are going to do before we do it. He knows everything we could have chosen instead as well as all the consequences which would have followed those choices. His omniscience, in other words, is even bigger than we imagine at first. He knows all of these counterfactuals, as philosophers call them, giving us the ability to choose meaningfully, and Him to guide this world along the path of His plans sovereignly.
Because His knowledge is so expansive, we are able to make meaningful and consequential choices and He knows which thing we’re going to choose without taking away our ability to choose meaningfully. He graciously allows us to choose other than what would have been His choice because His broader knowledge of all counterfactuals allows Him to guide the aftermath along the path of His sovereign will in spite of us choosing poorly. That does not mean, however, that He is still sorrowful for us and the consequences it means we will face—including judgment from Him—when we choose poorly.
Before God made Saul king, He knew just how His reign was going to go. He knew that He was going to fail. But He also knew that Saul’s failure would pave the way for David, the namesake of His Son. He knew that Saul’s falling apart would result in years of character building and shaping for David which would mold him into a man after His own heart. And so, though He was sorrowful over Saul’s choices and his kingship turning out the way it did, He still chose him because this was how His bigger plans were going to come to pass. Now, if Saul had chosen differently and turned out to be a good and righteous king, God still would have accomplished His plans, but this was how they did turn out and so He did it this way.
There is a word of comfort here for us in our own lives. God knows our every thought. He knows what we are going to choose before we choose it. He knows everything we could have chosen instead and where that would have led. More than that, He has a plan for us that will be for our great joy if we are willing to embrace it. And even if we fail a time or hundred along the way, He can still accomplish it. Our best bet is to walk closely with Him, but He can still do great things with, in, and through us even if we don’t at first. His great love for us drives Him to it. This is a God worthy of our worship.