Week 15 – The story
What Will I do With You?
“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote down those words about the United States of America, and as the prophet Hosea surveyed the kingdom of Israel, he would have agreed. From his bitter experiences with his wife, Hosea knew that sin not only breaks the heart of God, but also offends the holiness of God, for “righteousness and justice are the foundation of [His] throne” (Psalm 89:14).
God wanted to forgive the sins of His people and restore their fellowship with Him, but they weren’t ready. They not only would not repent, they wouldn’t even admit that they had sinned! So God conducted a trial and brought them to the bar of justice. It’s a basic spiritual principle that until people experience the guilt of conviction they can’t enjoy the glory of conversion.
Just as Hosea had experienced a quarrel with his wife, Gomer, so God had a quarrel with His estranged wife, the people of Israel. But it wasn’t a personal quarrel, it was an official controversy. “The Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land” (4:1). The picture of God bringing men and nations to trial in his courtroom is a familiar one in Scripture (see Isa. 1:13; Jer. 2:9, 29; Mic. 6:2; Rom. 3:19). “Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve” (Psa. 94:2).
God is angry, says Hosea, because his people have been disobedient and disloyal; they have gone after other gods. The Hebrew people were living alongside the Canaanites, who had a vibrant, erotic nature religion that was very easy to assimilate. The Canaanite deities, called Ba’alim, were being worshiped in conjunction with the one and only YHWH as though there were no conflict between them. The Hebrew people knew so little about their God that they got him all mixed up with a whole host of other gods who supposedly were able to provide them with personal blessings, security, status, money, prosperity in business and an exciting sex life. Very much like ourselves today, the Hebrew people saw no harm in partaking of the religious smorgasbord that they saw all around them, and they lost all sense of the unique majesty, holiness, and purity of YHWH, the “jealous” God of their forefathers, who forbade his children to have other gods beside himself. The Hebrew people no longer knew their God, so they no longer saw any difference between YHWH and the Ba’alim, and could not believe that the difference would matter, even if there were any. Being religious was the main thing; the nature of God was a secondary issue, being a matter on which there could be a variety of opinions.
Hosea knew better because, like all the great Hebrew prophets, he had been commandeered by the direct intervention of the living God of Israel, who had a message to be delivered. With passionate indignation and withering sarcasm, Hosea described the Israelite worship of B’al.
“They ask advice from a block of wood, and take their orders from
a fetish. . . What sort of god is this bull? It is no god; a craftsman
. . . You have forsaken your God, you have loved an idol . . .
For their evil deeds, says the Lord, I will drive them from my
house, I will love them no more” (4:12, 8:6; 9:1, 15).
Hosea’s children, with their foreboding names, signified the judgment of God on his faithless people. Hosea could see the approaching clouds of doom coming from the direction of Assyria, the menacing foreign power. He knew that God was preparing to punish the Israelite nations for forsaking true worship. He tried to warn the people, using his children’s names (the first Jezreel, the name of a valley where a massacre had taken place; the other two whose translated names were “Not pitied” or “Not-loved and “Not-my-people”) as well as his own prophetic voice, but it was too late: the worship of Ba’al was too appealing; the urge to make idols with foreign states was too powerful, the general air of religious amalgamation was too heady. They would not listen; perhaps they could not. Hosea laments:
“Their misdeeds have barred their way back to their God: a wanton
spirit is in them, and they care nothing for the Lord . . . They go with
sacrifices of sheep and cattle to seek the Lord, but they do not find
him. He has withdrawn himself from them, for they have been
unfaithful to him” (5:4, 6).
The sins of Israel in Hosea’s time were essentially two, and in both cases we can see a similarity to Christianity in America today. First, Israel saw nothing wrong in supplementing the religion of YHWH with other religious ideas from the surrounding culture. Just as we mix in a little astrology, a little science fiction, a little transcendental meditation, a little patriotic fervor with our Christianity, the Hebrews thought a little Ba’al worship, a little temple prostitution, and a nature festival now and then would only enhance the worship of Israel’s God. But Israel’s God holds otherwise. Through Hosea he declares:
“Israel has run wild: the wind shall sweep them away. . . They will
find their sacrifices a delusion. . . They have broken my covenant,
they have played me false” (4:19).
The second sin of Israel was that she put her trust as a nation in foreign alliances and treaties, in military strategy, and in political solutions, instead of calling upon God. Therefore this is what the Lord says through Hosea:
“They made kings, but not by my will: They set up officers, but
without knowledge of me . . . There is nothing but talk, imposing of
oaths and making of treaties, all to no purpose . . . Because you
have trusted in your chariots, in the number of your warriors, the
tumult of war shall arise against your people . . . the king of Israel
shall be swept away” (8:4; 10:4, 13-15).
So today, America, a nation that prints “In God We Trust” on its coins, is a nation that has become arms manufacturer to the world and does not seem to be able to stop the escalating billions of dollars for weaponry.
“Israel sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind . . . Israel is swallowed
up, lost among the nations, worthless nothing” (8:7-8).
In both of these ways – in worshiping false gods and in abandoning God’s will for the nation he brought into being – Israel shows that she has lost her most priceless possession: her knowledge of God. This is the theme of Hosea’s book. Israel is faithless because she no longer knows the Lord:
“Hear the word of the Lord, O Israel, for the Lord has a charge to
bring against the people of the land. There is no good faith or mutual
trust, no knowledge of God in the land . . . my people are ruined
for lack of knowledge . . . a people without understanding comes to
grief . . . I long to deliver them, but they tell lies about me . . . I desire
steadfast love, not sacrifice: not burnt offerings but the knowledge of
God” (4:1, 6, 1; 7:13; 6:6).
No biblical writer, no messenger of God, has spoken more eloquently, with more feeling, of the tender love of Yahweh for his people than Hosea. He is famous for it. He is truly a prophet of God’s amazing grace. But note this: the reason that Hosea’s depiction of God’s grace is so amazing is that it is set in direct connection with God’s judgment, so that both the judgment and the love are seen to be part of God’s redemption. Israel suffers from her adultery: she is taken into exile by the Assyrians. But the experience is redemptive: God cleanses Israel in the wilderness, as in the old days, and once more Israel comes to the knowledge and love of God. God’s wrath and God’s mercy go hand in hand to restore the fallen sinner.
Seven hundred years later, there was a group of religious leaders called Pharisees whose learning and rectitude were so manifest that they thought that they were somehow exempt from the wrath of God. They went to church every Sunday, and they were very good at identifying other people as sinners. Since they had spent their lives in religious studies, they could talk about God all day; they were confident that they “knew” God quite well. It was the wrong kind of knowledge, however, because they failed to recognize the presence of God when he stood right in front of them. They were shocked and angered when they saw God’s love at work redeeming notorious sinners. “Look at that,” they said. “That man who acts as if he’s the Messiah is sitting at the table with the worst people in town.”
And Jesus of Nazareth, looking steadily at these highly religious men, said:
“Go and learn what this means [in the book of the prophet Hosea]’I
require mercy, and not sacrifice.’ I did not come to invite virtuous
people, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).