An elder in my congregation often quips, “They say as you get older, short-term memory is the second thing to go; I can’t remember what the first thing is.” Christians will agree that a finite memory that weakens with age and can even be distorted by sin is common to humanity. But when in Isaiah 43:25 God says, “I will not remember your sins,” how are we to understand God’s memory? There are a few reasons why we should not interpret this verse to mean that God literally forgets, though it does teach an important and wonderful truth.
Throughout the Bible, our infinite God reveals Himself by means of analogical language. These are figurative rather than literal descriptions of God to accommodate our limited language and finite understanding as humans. In this way, the Bible attributes human actions to God, such as smelling (Gen. 8:21), hearing (Ex. 2:24), sitting (Ps. 9:7), and coming down (Mic. 1:3). Human emotions such as regretful sorrow (Gen. 6:6) and jealousy (Ex. 20:5) also serve to teach us by analogy something of what God is like. Though God does not have a body, the Bible speaks of His hand (Ps. 118:15) and eyes (Prov. 15:3). With the language of human occupations or relationships, He is described as a husband (Isa. 54:5), father (Deut. 32:6), king (Isa. 44:6), and shepherd (Ps. 23:1). God’s remembering (Gen. 9:15) and forgetting should be interpreted as such analogical language.
Rising from the conviction that God’s infallible Word is not contradictory at any point, the “analogy of faith” is an important principle in biblical interpretation that directs us to let clearer and nonfigurative passages of Scripture interpret less clear and figurative ones. God’s “forgetting” cannot be literal memory loss, equivalent to my forgetting math formulas from high school, because this contradicts what the Bible teaches about God’s omniscience, His total and perfect knowledge. We are told that “his understanding is beyond measure” (Ps. 147:5) and that He declares “the end from the beginning” (Isa. 46:10). It is against God’s nature literally to forget anything.
If God does not literally forget our sins, what does Isaiah 43:25 mean? We should understand this description of God to be covenantal language by which He assures His people of the complete forgiveness of their sins.
If God does not literally forget our sins, what does Isaiah 43:25 mean? We should understand this description of God to be covenantal language by which He assures His people of the complete forgiveness of their sins. Immediately before verse 25, God had reminded His people of their unfaithfulness and false worship, concluding, “You have wearied me with your iniquities” (vv. 22–24). Yet chapter 43 is part of a larger section in Isaiah, beginning in chapter 40, in which God is largely communicating comfort and assurance to His people. He tells them in 43:1–4, 15:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. . . . For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. . . . You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.
These assurances communicate the covenant relationship into which God has brought Israel, despite their sin. Then, in verse 25, God says, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” In emphasizing that He does this “for my sake,” God again points to His gracious covenant. It is not because of their worthiness but because of His pure grace and love for them that He takes away their sins.
In two figurative descriptions, this verse assures Israel how fully and finally their sins are forgiven. First, blotting out is the language of wiping away something written. Israel’s sins, each an offense against God deserving judgment, are pictured as having been written in a book, but He has erased all of them. They can no longer be read and used to accuse God’s people. Second, God assures Israel that their sins are as good as forgotten. God will never again bring them up and hold them against His people. God in the Bible uses several such images to emphasize how complete and final His forgiveness and its benefits are. He speaks of covering over our sins (Ps. 32:1), removing them as far as east is from west (103:12), and casting them into the depths of the sea (Mic. 7:19).
The rest of the Scriptures reveal how it is that God can have such a covenant relationship with sinful people, how He can “forget” their sins. It is not because of a memory lapse, nor is it a trite idiom. It is because God sent His Son to bear all the sins of His people and to die in their place on the cross, erasing the guilt of His people’s sins and making them as if they were forgotten forever in our relationship with Him.
Rev. H.P. McCracken is pastor of Reformed Presbyterian Church of Orlando in Orlando, Fla.