The first thing we need to do in finding an answer to this dilemma is to place ourselves in humble dependence on God to reveal Himself through the Holy Spirit in the pages of Scripture. As we do this we need to address the whole counsel of God’s Word. First let’s see the passages we are addressing in 1 Samuel 15.
Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, "I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following Me and has not carried out My commands.” 1 Samuel 15:10-11 (NASB)
As Samuel turned to go, Saul seized the edge of his robe, and it tore. So Samuel said to him, "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you. "Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind." 1 Samuel 15:27-29 (NASB)
Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death; for Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD regretted that He had made Saul king over Israel. 1 Samuel 15:35 (NASB)
The next thing to do is to seek to understand these with the wider lens of their context. Had God said anything earlier that would have made this a possibility? The first place to look for this is in Saul’s appointment as king. This did not come without a problem. The prophet Samuel did not want to see a king appointed for Israel. He rightly discerned that God was displeased with this request. Chapter 12 of 1st Samuel is his address to this displeasure of God. After telling them that this was an ungodly request - God manifest Himself by sending thunder and rain during the wheat harvest. This was completely out of the norm and the people feared the Lord greatly as a result. But Samuel sought to comfort Israel with a call to remain faithful to God by continuing to serve the Lord with all their heart. Then he said these words.
"Only fear the LORD and serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, both you and your king will be swept away." 1 Samuel 12:24-25 (NASB)
Therefore we learn from the start of Saul’s kingdom that his appointment was based on him following God with all his heart and not doing wickedly. If he did this, Saul would be swept away by God’s judgment. The fact is that Saul did disobey a direct command of God twice already. This was the second time he disobeyed God in a direct command. The first involved him making an offering without a priest - something God absolutely warned against doing. It was on that occasion that Samuel made it clear that God was then seeking a man after His own heart to be king. We read that in 1 Samuel 13.
Samuel said to Saul, "You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the LORD your God, which He commanded you, for now the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not endure. The LORD has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the LORD has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." 1 Samuel 13:13-14 (NASB)
So what we learn from a better understanding of the context of 1 Samuel is that God had already warned Israel and Saul once - and rebuked Saul for direct disobedience and said that God was going to seek out for Himself a man after His own heart to be king. It was in this context that the incident in chapter 15 with the Amalekites took place. So based on this alone we know that God had not “changed His mind” or “repented” as a man would who had made a mistake. He had already made it clear that Saul was going to be replaced because he had shown himself unfit to be Israel’s king by his multiplied disobedience.
One thing we need to state here as well is that often God moved upon His prophets to speak judgment for disobedience and rebellion. But often these were conditional warnings. There was a caveat that if those who received the warnings would repent and turn from their sin - the disaster and judgment could be avoided. If they refused to repent and continued in their sin - the judgment would surely fall upon them just as God had promised. Saul knew this from Israel’s history - and yet he continued in his pride, disobedience and unwillingness to follow God’s decrees.
It is at this point that we need to take a look at the words that were used in 1 Samuel and elsewhere to understand a little better what is going on in this passage. Once we have come to understand the context, it is wise to do word studies as well.
The KJV regrettably uses the word repent in 1 Samuel 15 to translate the Hebrew word, “nacham” in 1 Samuel 15:11. According to The Complete Word Study Dictionary, Old Testament, the word “nacham” means: to be sorry or to regret. What is going on in this passage where God uses the word “nacham” every time He speaks is this - He is expressing sorrow and regret for having Saul made king. He did so to teach Israel a lesson. That lesson was to trust Him as king - and not be like the rest of the nations around them. And yet even as He gave them what they wanted, knowing it would lead to disaster for them, He did so that they would learn from their mistakes. But as these mistakes began to multiply and the people suffered because of it - God speaks of how it affects Him to see it - he was filled with sorrow and regret for having Saul as king and the suffering it caused. God is not just in heaven marking off the things that will happen like some unfeeling bureaucrat checking off a list. He hated to see the suffering it caused - and yet - He was also disciplining His people so that they would reject sin and adhere to His ways and leading.
The word most often used for a man’s repentance is the Hebrew word “shub” which means to turn back. In verses 10 and 11 God uses this word “shub” to describe Saul’s turning from God. But when God speaks of His regret for making Saul king the word “nacham” is used. The two are distinguished from one another - as they are elsewhere in Scripture. A man disobeys God - and after learning of his rebellion is called to change his mind about his wickedness and repent (shub). But God knows no such shock in departing from the right way. What He experiences here - and elsewhere in Scripture is grief and sorrow over sin.
Some might assert that God, being sovereign, knew Saul would sin. Then why would God make him king? Why wouldn’t God just make David king - or just refuse to have any king at all? Why would God allow the suffering and the sin that would follow Saul’s terrible reign as king - when He could have avoided it altogether? To answer this will require a second article - seeing as this one has already run very long. I’ll address this question in the next installment.