10 Now the word of the Lord came to Samuel, saying, 11 “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night. (1 Sam 15:10-11)
What is meant here when God says that He regretted making Saul king? Some infer that in light of this verse and others like it that God doesn’t know the future. According to them God wanted the best for Saul and He did all He could to set him up for success without knowing what choices Saul would or wouldn’t make in the future. To the open theist, Saul’s disobedience caused God regret because if He only knew the choices that Saul was going to make He wouldn’t have made Saul king. The result being – God, then, regretted His own lack of foresight.
I don’t think that is the right way to interpret this verse. There are reasons, both in the immediate context of 1 Samuel and the greater context of the Bible, to believe that God is communicating genuine emotion but not lack of foresight.
Briefly, from a macro view of the Bible, we see that God is the One who makes known the end from the beginning (Is 46:10) and whose understanding is inscrutable (Is 40:28). David, for example, wrote that God knew all of his days, and had them written in His book before they ever happened (Ps 139:16). Psalm 145:7b says that the understanding of the LORD is infinite and, in light of both previous and forthcoming verse citations, that does not only point to a complete understanding of the present but a perfect foreknowledge of the future.
Some can erroneously jump to the conclusion that a verse like 1 Samuel 15:11 implies that God doesn’t foreknow the decisions that man will make; He simply responds to the choices man makes to bring about His plan. But besides the aforementioned verses, we see concrete examples in Scripture when God both told the future and foretold human decisions. We need look no further than the Gospel accounts to see that Jesus could predict the choices of Judas and Peter. He knew that Peter would deny Him (Mt 26:34) and He knew that Judas would betray Him (Jn 13:18-30). Furthermore, He knew His disciples would long for Him and the manifestation of His kingdom after His ascension (Lk 17:22); He knew that the religious authorities would choose to condemn Him to death (Mt 20:18); He knew that Peter would die a martyr’s death and He knew the way Peter would die (Jn 21:18-19); and the list could go on and on. The Bible as a whole asserts the perfect foreknowledge of God.
Back to 1 Samuel…
Now, within a 1 Samuel context I think there is further evidence to say (a) God knows the future choices of men and (b) God’s regretting is not a matter of wishing He had better information with which He could have made a better decision. In 1 Samuel 8 the text tells us that, “Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king” (1 Sam 8:10). Notice that the words that follow are the LORD’s words and they begin like this:
“This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you…” (8:11a)
God knew the behavior of the king that would reign over Israel and He specifically articulated numerous instances of what the king would do (vs.11b-17) and how the people would react (vs.18a). In fact, God knew that the people would make the choice to want a king as He predicted in Deuteronomy 17:14.
And even with that backdrop, the LORD provides us with extremely relevant information for interpreting 1 Samuel 15:11 in the latter portion of the chapter where Samuel said:
And also the Strength of Israel will not lie nor relent. For He is not a man, that He should relent.” (1 Sam 15:29 NKJV)
The word that is translated as “relent” here is the same word that is translated “regret” in verse 11. So you could say like the ESV does:
“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Sam 15:29 ESV)
Thus, we are left to say that there is a sense in which God regrets and there is another sense in which God does not regret. The best way to describe the way that God does not regret is, I think, based upon verse 29: God does not regret like man regrets. God does not regret something because He wishes He had knowledge of future events that would have changed His choices.
God’s regret, then, is, I think, God’s display of great sorrow [in time] as He looks back at an event that would lead to great sorrow. That doesn’t mean that God wanted to go back and change it to ‘get it right’. God does not regret like man regrets. Yet, at the same time, He is not indifferent to the unfolding of events. His heart is on display in the text. So is this anthropomorphism? Perhaps. But I think it transcends anthropomorphism and describes how God did indeed feel, in time, as He saw Saul’s current disobedience, while understanding the sorrow it would lead to, against the backdrop of Saul’s being made king.