The word “regret,” as used in the Bible, has caused some people to be confused and perplexed because of what it seems to imply. I’ve already written an article on the use of that word at Exodus 32:14.
On my first attempt to read the Bible from cover to cover, before I decided to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses (around 44 years ago), I encountered a passage that shocked me. I remember circling the passage in red ink and scribbling across the margin “What’s This!?”
The passage is Genesis 6:6, which says: “Jehovah regretted that he had made men on the earth, and his heart was saddened.” I was appalled at the idea that God would regret he did anything because in my mind he is perfect and incapable of making mistakes and therefore incapable of feeling regret. At the time, the only Bible version I had was the New World Translation (NWT) (the 1953-1960 edition). I was sure it was just the Jehovah’s Witness Bible that said that. Surely no “real” Bible would have that.
Well, I was wrong. All the Bibles have it. The NWT 2013 edition has a footnote on the word “regretted” found at Genesis 6:6 that clarifies that God was “grieved.” In commentary on the verse, Jehovah’s Witnesses say that the grieving was such that God would now have to take drastic action to remove rebellious mankind from off the earth. That is in complete agreement with the other translations (linked above) that give that sense to the scripture.
Can we in our human experience understand, even in a limited sense, the feeling that God had? Consider this (admittedly weak but still applicable in principle) comparative illustration: A family gets a dog that turns out to be a danger to their neighbors. It has already attacked one small child, and the postal carrier reported it to the police and animal control. Now, the family really loves the dog and it is wonderful around family members. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a danger to the community at-large. The family knows they must get rid of the animal, and that translates to the dog being “put down.” Even though they love their pet, they may “regret” that they ever got the dog and are understandably grieved. But they readily recognize that the dog is a definite danger. They really are not left with any choice; the dog sealed its own fate.
Although we humans are not mere dogs, the incorrigible attitude and conduct of the people was so bad that Genesis 6:5 says: “Consequently, Jehovah saw that man’s wickedness was great on the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the time.” There was, however, one man and his family whose moral standard of living was higher than those around them. Jehovah determined to keep that family safe through the punishing destruction so as to have a means of preserving human life.
So, God did not make a mistake that he regretted. Rather, he was grieve that the evil inclination of man was so bad that they were a threat to themselves and he was left with no alternative than to exterminate man with the exception of Noah and his family. Sadly, as we look around today, the earth is filled with so much violence, within the family, within communities, within the world political scene, that “just as in the days of Noah, so the presence of the Son of Man will be.” Just as I cited Peter’s words earlier, that God doesn't “want” to destroy, nevertheless, it is only fair that those that want to obey God can do so without constant interference from godless people. The good deserve to be rewarded, which means the removal of the wicked. It is sad that it has to come to that, but the incorrigible leave God no alternative.