Moral chaos filled the earth during the historical period leading up to the flood. Wickedness in people’s hearts had become so pervasive that God decided to press the restart button (see Genesis 6:5–8, 11–13). Humanity would receive a fresh beginning with another chance at obeying the Lord. Against this backdrop, God said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years” (Genesis 6:3, NKJV).
Some scholars believe the 120 years in Genesis 6:3 refers to a shorter, post-flood lifespan that God would begin to impose on humans. Before the flood, people lived hundreds of years longer than they did after the flood (see Genesis 5; cf. Genesis 11:10–26), but many people after the flood still lived well past the age of 120. Likewise, Psalm 90:10 says, “Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty” (NLT). Consequently, 120 does not seem to signal a new average lifespan after the flood.
Another interpretation of the 120 years suggests that it was the time remaining before the flood. In the richness of His grace, God was giving people more than enough time to repent. This concept aligns with the immediately preceding statement that God’s Spirit would not strive with man forever.
The Hebrew word translated as “strive” (KJV, NKJV), “contend” (NIV), “abide” (ESV), and “remain” (CSB) appears only this once in the Old Testament. Its origin and meaning are uncertain. It could mean “stay” in the sense of remaining with or abiding with someone, or “argue” as in struggling with or having an argument with someone. Either way, by Noah’s day, we know God could no longer tolerate the corruption and rebellion that had overtaken human hearts. Living with it was so troubling to Him that “it broke his heart” (Genesis 6:6, NLT). Thus, God will not strive with man forever appears to mean that the Lord will not put up with our sinful disobedience indefinitely.
We know from Scripture that God is exceptionally patient with humanity (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 78:38; Isaiah 48:9; Acts 13:18; Romans 2:4). One hundred and twenty years is a long time to delay judgment. The apostle Peter makes this connection while writing about the flood: “They deliberately forget that God made the heavens long ago by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water. Then he used the water to destroy the ancient world with a mighty flood. And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed” (2 Peter 3:5–7, NLT). Immediately, Peter highlights God’s great patience in delaying judgment: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, ESV).
The Lord’s “patience gives people time to be saved” (2 Peter 3:15, NLT). The apostle Paul elaborates: “Even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy” (Romans 9:22–23, NLT). As tolerant and gracious as He is, God will not strive with man forever. He won’t wait open-endedly for us to repent (Luke 13:3; Revelation 2:5). Before it’s too late and our years come to an end, we must choose good and not evil (Joshua 24:15)—to serve and obey God and not our own selves (Hebrews 11:24–26; Matthew 7:21). For Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (see Luke 13:1–5).