I'm working on a sermon for this coming Sunday out of 1 Samuel 15. I did an overview last week of chapters 13-15, focusing on what I take to be the main point: Saul's descent, highlighted by repeated failures to obey the voice of the Lord. So the thrust of the sermon, then, was that you and I are to take Saul as a warning, that failure to obey God altogether, or even to "obey" on our own terms, is a dangerous course to take. The end of that way is death.
Instead we are to see that obedience is better than sacrifice. To listen to God's voice is better than the fat of rams. There is no act of service or outward penitence or sacrifice which replaces the simple, humble, heart posture of obedient service. Listen, obey. Hear, do.
But how can we be sure this will pay off in the long run? Why is it worth it to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? Can we actually trust God to reward those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11)?
The emotional importance of this question for the believer is, in my estimate, hard to overstate. And it's the question I'm grappling with again in 1 Samuel 15, wherein we are told twice that God regretted making Saul king (v11, v35) but in between those two statements, we hear from Samuel, God's authorized spokesperson in the story, telling us that [God] the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret." Well. Which is it? Is the narrator wrong about God, or is Samuel? Or are we supposed to read both statements as true, and attempt to figure out how they complement one another?
Unless we take the Bible to be the work of some very incompetent and uninspired writers, I think option 3 is what we must work with. I once heard Kevin Deyoung say something to the effect of, "here is an important hermeneutical principal: the Biblical authors were not stupid." The author understands his perspective on God to be correct, yet there is nothing in the narrative which would cause us to question Samuel, either. The writer wants this tension to sit with us and force us to contemplate who God is, what he is like, and how that impacts our relationship to him.
I think the direct statement which Samuel gives us in 1 Samuel 15:29 (quoted above) is the normative position of Scripture. God is God, he is transcendent, qualitatively different from us, and unchanging in his character and will. This truth, God's unchangeableness, is known doctrinally as God's impassibility and his immutability. These doctrines state, respectively, that God is not overcome by any passion, nor does he change. And we can see the cash value in this as sinful creatures, right? The fact that God is not overcome by any emotion is why he does not simply pull a Zeus and start breaking things when he gets angry. And by breaking things, for us that would mean casting us into hell. God's impassibility is in a sense a conditional necessity for the kind of patience he displays, seen in 1 Samuel 15 in the order to wipe out the Amalekites for crimes they began committing hundreds of years beforehand. Talk about ample time for repentance! More to the point for believers, Romans 3 tells us that God passed over all the "former sins" committed during the sacrificial era, in anticipation of a sacrifice (Christ) which was actually effective in assuaging his wrath.
But what, then, do we make of regret? Dale Ralph Davis notes in his commentary on 1 Samuel that, although nuances vary across the 29 times the Hebrew word for "regret" in reference to God in the OT, it never seems to lose some aspect of emotion. God's action in history seem to be making a turn. But has God changed? Hardly! We might note that in this chapter God gave Saul an instruction, which Saul failed to obey. The change, the fall, the shortcoming is on Saul's part, not God's. God's actions change toward Saul as a result of God's unchanging nature.
But you might then postulate that perhaps God's character remains the same, while his will changes. But in addition to that flying in the face of Scripture (eg, Eph 1:11...indeed, Michael Horton notes in his Pilgrim Theology that we have more evidence in Scripture affirming God's unchanging will than his unchanging character), it also is simply unnecessary. God's will has not changed, ever. But his relationship with human beings is always dynamic, and he does indeed respond to human action. Not as one who is passively receiving that action without the ability to change it (contra modern notions of free will), but as one who is allowing, as it suits his purposes, fallen creatures to make decisions and take action. God has the sovereign right, and providential power, to turn the heart of any man, including kings (Proverbs 21:1). Nonetheless, in his wisdom, he allows us as his creatures to make decisions for which there are real and often eternal consequences. We never act upon God, Saul's disobedience to God does not create some lack or deprivation in God because Saul failed to carry out an order. But we act in relation to him, and his instructions require obedience on our part.
And here, I think, is where the emotional piece comes in. God takes no pleasure in our disobedience, though he allows it. Further, though some would say he must allow it, we know this is not true (see Genesis 20:6). God can and often does prevent and restrain sin. Indeed, we know that for anyone to trust Christ and be saved God must sovereignly act upon them, sending his Holy Spirit to cause a New Birth giving new spiritual eyes and new hearts (John 3, Ezekiel 36, 2 Corinthians 4). So what we must have a category for is a God who allow things which cause him some emotional sense of regret. Saul has disobeyed God. This has not left God scratching his head, wondering what to do. He has known from before the foundation of the earth that Saul would do so, and even in Genesis we read that the King to come will be of Judah's line, not Benjamin's. But God cares about Saul, and God is not pleased when Saul blows this opportunity to obey. Ezekiel 33:11 reminds us that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. While Saul has, in this chapter, entered upon a trajectory leading to his death by the end of the book, God isn't doing happy dances that now it's time for David. He regrets.
It's not the same as our regret, for God it utterly unlike us. But it must have enough similarity that the Biblical author finds it the appropriate word. But is sad over sin. It's a sadness that ultimately leads to sending his Son to put things right.