Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the LORD was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel. (NIV 1 Samuel 15:35; note that other translations use the word regretted). Well, I suppose this verse might have troubled some of you. Can God grieve? Why not? If we can grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), surely we can also grieve God with our words and actions, like how children may grieve their parents. This verse however seems to suggest that it was not Saul’s disobedience that grieved God but his own decision to make Saul king that caused him to grieve and this is where the trouble lies. For it suggests that God had made a wrong choice and so regretted it. It then implies that God is not really perfect and can make mistakes. But aren’t we supposed to believe in a God who is perfect and can make no wrong? So did God make a mistake in choosing Saul that he had to grieve and regret it? What if he also regrets calling me into his kingdom and so chooses someone else to take over my place instead? So how should we deal with this verse or any other verses that challenge our understanding of God?
First, we need to know what Scripture has to say and in this instance about God’s wisdom in making the right decisions. And Numbers 23:19 usually comes to mind and it says that God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should repent; Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it good?” These words speak of him as one who does not need to repent like men. Men may also fail God but they cannot derail his ways, for he is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he (Deuteronomy 32:4). Great is our Lord, and of great power: His understanding is infinite (Psalms 147:5). So we believe that God is perfect and makes no mistakes because Scripture says so. If we should struggle with God and his ways, it is because our finite minds cannot grasp his infinite wisdom.
Second, we need to ask if we have understood Scripture correctly, for we may all agree that Scripture teaches it but our understanding can still be flawed. Take the game of chess as an example. Imagine coming across a banner with these simple words: The world greatest chess master is in town; the only perfect player in this game. So what makes him a perfect player? You may think that he always wins without losing a single piece of his own. I may think that he can control the game exactly the way he wants it to be, when to eat his opponent’s pieces and when to give away his pieces as he so pleases. So our understanding differs though we read the same banner. Now if our understanding of God’s perfection is similar to the first example here, then we will struggle with the verse. For when God regretted choosing Saul to be king, he is like the chess master who makes a wrong move and loses a piece as a result and we are stumbled because it implies that God had made a mistake and is therefore less than perfect. But if our understanding is similar to the second example, then we would not struggle. For we acknowledge that God is in full control and his choosing of Saul as well as Christ’s rejection by the Jews and his death on the cross and many other instances are not mistakes made along the way but part of his great redemptive plan. This is how we ought to understand God’s perfection. For we see in the OT how God chose Israel though he knew all along that they would disobey him and ultimately be judged for it. Yet their disobedience could not hinder his plan for his Son to come in the line of David. Their examples only show us that God does not need perfect men to accomplish his great and mighty acts.
Finally, we need to discern what the verse is really saying about God. So if God did not make any mistakes in choosing Saul as king, why describes him as having grieved and regretted it? The term that scholars use is anthropomorphism. It refers to the description of God using human terms and language so that we can know him better. Imagine a father bringing his little boy for a needed vaccination. He may enjoy watching his son struggles and cries because he is a cold-hearted father or he can feel so hurt that he regrets bringing his son for the jab, not because the jab is a mistake but because he is a loving father. In the same manner God did not derive pleasure out of choosing Saul so that he might make a mockery of Israel through him. On the contrary, he had chosen Saul as king according to his sovereign plan and yet grieved over his decision because he is a loving God who knew what would become of the king. But why God didn’t call David in the first place and spare Saul of the whole thing? I suppose it is God’s wisdom and we may never be able to comprehend. Nevertheless this verse should comfort us instead, for it teaches us that whenever God should deal with us for whatever reasons, his actions are never mistakes on his part but are driven by his love for us. They hurt him as much as they hurt us.
So here are three simple steps that we can use whenever we come across verses that challenge our faith and understanding of God. But do not neglect the spiritual discipline of praying and seeking God so that our study of Scripture is always guided by his Spirit. So make no mistake about it, God makes no mistakes!
June 12, 2011