We often begin statements with the phrase, “Words cannot express…” We have so many thoughts and emotions, but many of us struggle to adequately communicate them in human language. Did you know that the inspired writers of Scripture also found it difficult to describe God’s character with words?
Take for example Moses’ best attempt to portray God’s pain and grief as He beheld the antediluvian world, “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6, KJV). The words “it repented” comes from the Hebrew nāḥam, and in this passage it is also translated “regretted” (NIV, ESV) or “was sorry” (NKJV, NASB, RSV, NLT). No matter what translation of the Bible you use, it appears that Moses is saying that God changed His mind, almost as if He had made a mistake. This would contradict the notion that God is omniscient and infallible.
How do we reconcile Genesis 6:6 with the fact that, according to Moses himself, “God is not a man…that He should repent [nāḥam]” (compare also 1 Samuel 15:11, 29 where the same Hebrew word is used to describe God's "regret" that He had chosen Saul as king)? This apparent contradiction in Moses’ revelation of God shows the limitations of human language to express divine truths. As one theologian correctly explained,
"The words 'the Lord repented' are a feeble attempt to express the divine will in human language. Strictly speaking, God cannot change His purpose, for He knows 'the end from the beginning.'"—Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p. 666
Here is how Ellen White explains the inadequacy of human language to express the truth about God:
"The Bible points to God as its author; yet it was written by human hands.… The truths revealed are all ‘given by inspiration of God’ (2 Timothy 3:16); yet they are expressed in the words of men."—The Great Controversy, p. v
"He has given dreams and visions, symbols and figures; and those to whom the truth was thus revealed have themselves embodied the thought in human language."—The Great Controversy, p. v
"The testimony is conveyed through the imperfect expression of human language, yet it is the testimony of God; and the obedient, believing child of God beholds in it the glory of a divine power, full of grace and truth."—The Great Controversy, p. v
This reminds me of Paul’s words, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! (Rom. 11:33). To the Corinthians, he pointed out that this side of eternity “we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
There is no question that God felt deep, indescribable pain and sorrow as He beheld the world before the flood. The English word “repent” may or may not be the best vehicle to express God’s heart, but one thing is true—God’s repentance is fundamentally different from man’s repentance.
"Man’s repentance implies a change of mind. God’s repentance implies a change of circumstances and relations"—Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 630