Does God forget?
Some Scriptures appear to indicate that God can forget at times.
We read passages like Exodus 2:24-25: “So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.” At first thought, it looks like God had, for a time, forgotten the children of Israel and finally realised that they needed help, but is this so?
First of all, what was the covenant that God remembered? A covenant with Abraham or Abram was first mentioned in Genesis 15:18, where we read: “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.”
A second covenant between God and Abraham (Abram) is mentioned in Genesis 17, beginning in verse 1. “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God talked with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be called Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.’ And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child after you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.’”
(Also, this second covenant included a separate covenant of circumcision; compare Acts 7:8). So, God promised everlasting blessings to Abraham. They would include many descendants, nations and kings, and a land in which to live. Abraham assumed that these covenant blessings would pass down through Ishmael, but God said no, they would be with a son, to be named Isaac, born to Sarah in her old age. Ishmael would be greatly blessed, but the everlasting covenant blessings would pass down through Isaac. This is mentioned in Genesis 17:18-20, which says that God would establish His covenant with Isaac.
In Genesis 26:3-5, God told Isaac not to go to Egypt but to “Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and to your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charges, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”
God here is repeating the covenant promise He made with Abraham to Isaac, and He explained that it was because of Abraham’s obedience that God had made that covenant with him. When we come to the next generation, the covenant promise was to pass down through Jacob, rather than the firstborn Esau.
As we explain in our free booklet, “And Lawlessness Will Abound,” on pages 25-29, technically, God made separate covenants with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they all included the blessing of inheritance of the Promised Land. We state this:
“In Genesis 17:21 God promised Abraham that He would make a covenant with Abraham’s son, Isaac: ‘But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.’ And so He did, and subsequently, God made another covenant with Jacob whose name was later changed to Israel. It is important to recognize that God made these covenants with Isaac and with Israel on an individual basis, just as He had entered into different covenants or agreements with Abraham. This again shows what a covenant is—simply a contract or an agreement, based on law, but not identical with the law.
“Notice the following Scripture that tells us about the covenants that God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: ‘I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham I will remember; I will remember the land’ (Leviticus 26:42). Although the subject matter of these three covenants was identical, God still made individual covenants with Abraham, his son, and his grandson, as the parties were different.”
When God says, in Exodus 2:24, that He will remember His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob, He is using the word “covenant” as a summary term, as all these covenants include the same blessing of inheriting the Promised Land.
In Genesis 27, Jacob pretended to be Esau in order to deceive Isaac, and Isaac gave him physical blessings. However, Genesis 28 is quite enlightening. At this time Jacob was about to leave Canaan, both to find a wife in Padan Aram, and also because Esau had threatened to kill him. This time Isaac knew that he was blessing Jacob; there was no deceit involved. Reading Genesis 28:3-4, “May God Almighty bless you, And make you fruitful and multiply you, That you may be an assembly of peoples; And give you the blessing of Abraham, To you and your descendants with you, That you may inherit the land In which you are a stranger, Which God gave to Abraham.”
Thus, the covenant blessing of Abraham was being passed down from Isaac to Jacob. Again, this included a multitude of nations and the land of Canaan. This blessing was repeated in Genesis 35:9-12. “Then God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Padan Aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name.’ So he called his name Israel. Also God said to him, ‘I am God Almighty, Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land.’”
From here the blessings were no longer mentioned until we read that God remembered them when the children of Israel were in slavery in Egypt. So, had God forgotten them? Forgotten something that He had said was everlasting? Actually, no. It was all within God’s plan, part of which He had revealed to Abram and which is recorded in Genesis 15:12-14. “Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, horror and great darkness fell upon him. Then He said to Abram: ‘Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in the land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they will serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.’”
So, this was all a part of God’s plan to greatly increase the number of the children of Israel and to provide them with a great abundance. Returning to Exodus 2:24, the expression “God remembered His covenant” to English speakers would appear to mean that for a time God had forgotten His covenant. However, the Hebrew can also mean “To be mindful of” or “think upon”. The Soncino commentary explains it as “Not that He had forgotten it, but that now the opportunity had come for the fulfilment of His merciful purpose.”
Some of the qualities of God are described in Psalm 147:5. “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; His understanding is infinite.” He knows exactly when is the best time to perform His promises. Also, in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” God does not have the frailties of man and has the power to do all that He says He will do.
So, when we read in Jeremiah 31:34 (quoted in Hebrews 8:12), “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more,” Barnes’ Notes on the Bible informs us that “It cannot mean literally that God forgets that people are sinners, but it means that he treats them as if this were forgotten. Their sins are not charged upon them, and they are no more punished than if they had passed entirely out of the recollection. God treats them with just as much kindness, and regards them with as sincere affection, as if their sins ceased wholly to be remembered, or which is the same thing, as if they had never sinned.”
We should emphasize that God’s forgiveness and His willingness to “forget” are based on repentance. But even this does not mean that God will erase certain (repented) sins from His memory. We discuss this entire subject in our Q&A, “What Will We Remember as God Beings?”
We point out that God did not forget the sin of David in the matter of Uriah, even though David deeply repented of it.
“Please realize that God saw to it that certain sins of David were recorded, for everyone to read. In addition to David’s sin in the matter of Uriah, some of his other sins were recorded as well, such as his fighting in war and numbering his army. Furthermore, sins of other righteous men and women were recorded: Moses’s sin of murder and his later outburst before Israel, which prevented him from entering the Promised Land; Aaron and Miriam’s murmuring against Moses; Abraham and Isaac’s lies; Abraham and Sarah’s adultery because of lack of faith; Jacob’s deceit towards his father Isaac; Rachel’s theft of her father’s idol; Peter’s sin of lying and denying Christ three times, and his hypocrisy towards Gentile Christians; and Paul’s persecution of Christians when he was still known as Saul. The list could go on and on. We also believe that Solomon came to repentance at the end of his life, but his prior terrible sins were included in the Bible…
“But in every case, God casts all repented sins behind His back and into the depths of the sea, so that when they are sought for, they shall not be found IN THE SENSE that God will never charge us with them. He does not retain them in His mind in the sense that He will not revisit what has passed…
“German Bibles translate Jeremiah 31:34 as, ‘I will not think of [or: about] their sins anymore.’ The New Jerusalem Bible and the Revised English Bible say that God will never more ‘call’ their sin ‘to mind.’… Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds this comment in regard to Isaiah 43:25: ‘God will not remember the sins of his people against them; having forgiven them, he will never punish them for them, which is meant by remembering them…’
“… Under the New Covenant, God will ‘take away’ our sins (Romans 11:27)—He will not hold them against us, if we repent of them. Jeremiah 50:20 tells us that ‘… The iniquity of Israel shall be sought, but there shall be none; And the sins of Judah, but they shall not be found; For I will pardon those whom I preserve.’”
So, referring to the original question, “Does God forget?,” we understand that God is not a man with the accompanying frailties of man. God does not forget in the sense of being forgetful as we tend to be, but God is able to deliberately put out of His mind things that He will never bring up against us. When He makes an everlasting covenant, He will perform it at the appropriate time. Likewise, when He says He will remember our sins no more, He will deliberately do so in the sense as explained herein, and of that we can be very grateful.
Lead Writer: Paul Niehoff (Australia)