A. F. Kirkpatrick on God’s repentance

June 2, 2020

I was reading 1 Samuel ch. 15 this morning; it is the chapter in which Saul, called upon by God to annihilate the Amalekites, does not fully carry out God’s order, whereupon, in consequence, Samuel is sent to Saul to tell him that the Almighty has rejected him from being king. The chapter raises, most prominently, two theological questions: the question of the morality of the order Saul is given to exterminate a whole people, and the question of God’s repentance, that is, his apparent change of mind. The latter question, in particular, leaps out of the text itself, since the chapter both speaks, twice, of God repenting of having made Saul king (vv. 11, 35), and, once, states that God does not repent (v. 29). A. F. Kirkpatrick has some excellent notes, especially upon this second question.

“God’s repentance is the change of His dispensation.” In the language of the O.T. God is said to repent when a change in the character and conduct of those with whom He is dealing leads to a corresponding change in His plans and purposes towards them. Thus (a) upon man’s penitence God repents and withdraws a threatened punishment (Ex. xxxii. 14; 2 Sam. xxiv. 16): (b) upon man’s faithlessness and disobedience He cancels a promise or revokes a blessing which He had given. The opposite is also true, “God is not a man that he should repent” (v. 29). His repentance is not to be understood as though He who foreknows all things regretted His action, nor is it a sign of mutability. A change in the attitude of man to God necessarily involves a corresponding change in the attitude of God to man.

A. F. Kirkpatrick, The First Book of Samuel (Cambridge, 1880), pp. 142-143.

On the former of these two questions, the question of genocide, Kirkpatrick has an extended note on pp. 240-241, which can be read here.

One Response to “A. F. Kirkpatrick on God’s repentance”

  1. John F. Church Says:

    Nice! Thank you for sharing. I know that in the Douay Rheims, in reference to His plan to wipe out humanity in the flood, also says that God “repented” of having created man (Genesis 6:6.) Truly mystical language.

    When I went to seminary, we had a very good Scripture teacher who taught us that the mistake many people (inferring: especially the secular-minded) make when reading the Bible is not taking the apparent contradictions and crude descriptions as intentional on the part of the author, not there purposefully. He remedied this with appropriating a maxim which Flannery O’Connor described of her own writing. “If it appears that I am shouting, it is because I believe my audience to be deaf.” The texts are meant to be looked into and wrestled with, as Jacob wrestled the angel.

    It would seem to me, the Church’s tradition of theology and dogma is really the fruit of having her saints having wrestled, having seen the face of God and lived.


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