Genesis 6:6 has perplexed theologians and commentators for centuries. It says, “And the LORD regretted that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him to His heart” (Genesis 6:6). The strange thing about it is that is seems to indicate that at a certain point in time (namely, after man became more and more evil) God regretting something that He did. Even though God created man and said that he is “very good” (Gen. 1:31), Gen. 6:6 seems to be saying that God reneged on His declaration. Did He really change His mind in regards to man? Could He at first be pleased with creating Him then, later, be upset at what He did? Most (if not all) conservative theologians would answer that God is not regretting in a human sense. Rather, God is expressing an inclination toward human sin which has its closest analogy in human regret. Strictly speaking, God cannot regret. But, dynamically speaking, God regrets making man because He hates evil. In the sense that evil grows, God regrets, not in the sense that He wishes He had done something different. The feeling we have when we regret something is an imperfect analogy for the disposition God had toward man at the moment described in Gen. 6:6. One difference is that we regret due to our own error, yet God does not. His regret is centered on human error (not His own).
Actually, the interesting thing is not the first half of this passage. To me, it is far more interesting to contemplate the second half which, more often than not, gets swallowed up in the fanfare of the former. I’ve studied Gen. 6:6 on multiple occasions and I don’t think I ever noticed the bombshell teetering off the back half of the verse. I only realized it because I was translating it today, which forced me to pay attention to (literally) every letter of the verse. The first question regarding this thought: “and it grieved Him to His heart,” is what, exactly, is the referent the the “it” is referring to? That is, what is “it” that grieves God? “It” can either be man’s sin (v. 5) or it can be the fact that He regretted making them (v. 6). God being grieved over His own disposition to man doesn’t make theological sense. God can’t be sad about how He is. He is perfect so there is nothing to be sad about. Further, if He were sad about perfection, He would be imperfectly perceiving Himself, which again, is impossible. Therefore, the “it” is man’s sin.
How, exactly, is it even possible that the sins of puny little men, who are a wisp of air, imperceptible without detailed attention, incapable of contributing to God’s perfection, incredibly dull, weak and listless, how can it be that their behavior causes God to be “grieved … to His heart”? I am completely indifferent to the behaviors of the birds outside my window. If a sparrow falls out of the nest and dies, call me harsh and non-green but, I don’t really care (let alone the fact that I’ll probably never know). I care even less about the ants who are invisibly being tortured under the weight of my shoe as I walk to my car.
When compared to God, we are not like ants. We are much smaller. He is so immense and we are so finite that we literally get dwarfed into oblivion in comparison. If one were able to perceive God fully as He is (which no one can do but God), you would literally not be able to see me standing next to Him. I’d be like an atom on a diet standing next to a billion galaxies strung together. The difference between us and ants is negligible compared to the difference between us and God. We don’t care about ants, but He is grieved to His very heart over our sin.
This is profound, difficult to understand and utterly intimidating.
The Reformed often highlight God’s infinite qualities and His perfection (similar, yet in a much clearer and profound way, to my comments above) in such a way that we subconsciously view Him as an abstract object, so Perfect that my life, and therefore my actions, don’t really matter that much. In a certain sense that’s true. God doesn’t rely on our moralizing to make Him feel better. Our failures don’t give Him heartburn. But, the Bible says that, in some sense, our sins cause Him to experience grief, though perfectly.
The sin in me prefers to contemplate God’s perfection so that my sins aren’t that big of a deal to Him. If I sip a little too much bourbon tonight, God isn’t really affected. Sure, gluttony and drunkenness are sins, but it’s lightweight sin and God’s busy enjoying His own perfection. The biggest penalty for my sin is the potential hangover the next day. God doesn’t care. Even if He does care about sin, it’s probably just the pedophiles and murderers He is focused on. Right?
Genesis 6:6b: “Wrong.”
To be sure, having two bourbons instead of one isn’t the same as having two wives instead of one (or having a wife and a girlfriend). God is a Being and our Father, so we can expect that His response to our sin is proportional (cf. Mt. 11:22; Lk. 12:47-48). However, the fact that He hates murder more than misinformation doesn’t mean that he doesn’t hate it when we lie.
Christ swallowed up death in His body on the cross because of “little” sins like my tendency to “over-indulge” (which is a human euphemism for gluttony and/or drunkenness). We must grasp both aspects of God – He is infinitely perfect, yet He cares infinitely about our sins. To worship Him properly, we must understand how great and perfect He is (albeit not comprehensively). To follow Him, we must understand how much He hates even the smallest sin in our lives.
Failure to do this causes Him to be “grieved … to His heart” (Gen. 6:6b).