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Hosea: Heart-Broken Prophet of a Heart-Broken God


Hosea 2:1-20; 11:8-9     Luke 15:11-24

If we are deprived of food it won’t be long before the physical ravages of our malnutrition are evident to everyone. If we are deprived of mental stimulation or restorative sleep we’ll be manifestly deranged in no time. And if people forsake the living God, the Holy One of Israel beside whom there is none other, how long will it be before the consequent spiritual degeneration is evident to the spiritually discerning? And how long after that before there’s a deterioration and decay that even those who make little or no religious profession will nonetheless recognize, even if they describe it as a social problem (rather than as spiritual declension)?

The prophet Hosea watched it all happen among his people. Hosea, like all the Hebrew prophets (like Jesus too) used a vocabulary to speak of disobedient, God-defiant people that makes my speech appear genteel. Hosea knew that when the nerve of living faith is severed, spiritual paralysis occurs and putrefaction is underway. In other words, spiritual declension among God’s people, the spiritually discerning know, is unmistakable and undeniable if only because it is as grotesque as it is repugnant.

All the Hebrew prophets were of one mind on this matter. Hosea lived only a few decades after Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, only a few decades after Elisha, Elijah’s successor. Twenty years before Hosea cried out in heartbreak another Hebrew prophet, Amos, had cried out in rage.

Amos never minced words. He fulminated against the criminally rich who lolled about in self-congratulatory luxury while the victims they defrauded went barefoot. Religious observances, as familiar as an old slipper and no less sentimental, gave rise to warm ‘fuzzies’ within worshippers and simultaneously blunted their sensitivity to the presence and purpose and power of the God they pretended to worship. The clergy were professionals in the worst sense of ‘professional’: they were paid to keep the religious operation operating. Judges, on the other hand, weren’t paid so much as they were ‘paid off,’ bribed. Theft was cheered. Adultery was flaunted. Civic leaders exploited the people they were charged to protect.

Amos found it all unendurable. He raged in a voice that could crack rocks. “God won’t tolerate what’s underway in Israel,” he exploded; “God’s judgement is merited, just and inescapable. Israel will fall to the sword of the Assyrian. And when it happens,” Amos continued, “don’t whine or whimper that you’ve been victimized or visited with bad luck. If you wail, ‘What did we do to deserve this?’ you merely display your sin-blinded stupidity.” So said Amos.

Hosea agreed with every word. Amos’s raging denunciation is truly the word of God. And yet, said, Hosea, the word of denunciation and destruction isn’t God’s last word. God’s final word is a word of compassion; specifically it’s a promise of restoration born of God’s heartbreak.

In this regard Hosea maintained that Israel had forsaken God, and God would hide himself from Israel – but not forever. God would inflict horrific wounds upon Israel, painful beyond imagining, but these wounds would prove to be the incisions of the surgeon. The blazing judgement of God couldn’t be postponed or deflected, but the conflagration was the fire of God’s love, and because this fire was God’s love burning hot, love’s white-hot heat would cleanse and cauterize. So said Hosea.

Where Amos raged, Hosea raged too – and then wept. Where Amos denounced, Hosea denounced too – and then pleaded.

Who were these men? Amos was a shepherd-cowboy who lived in Tekoa, a wilderness area in the south of Israel much like the area that gave us John the Baptist 750 years later. Hosea, on the other hand, lived in a fertile, affluent area in the north of Israel. Both men were haunted by God’s address as God summoned them and commissioned them to announce God’s truth and God’s righteousness to God’s delinquent people.

While both men suffered as only a prophet can suffer when God in his immensity leans on the prophet, Hosea also suffered atrociously on account of his domestic situation. Hosea suffered the heartbreak and humiliation and seeming hopelessness of a husband whose wife has violated their marriage covenant and disgraced herself through her shameless promiscuity.

Hosea had a wife, Gomer. Gomer derailed. She traipsed off to the marketplace, Square One, and prostituted herself there day after day. Business was good. She became notorious. And the more notorious she became, the more her business expanded. Customers were many and precautions were few. She became pregnant, an occupational hazard of prostitutes. Hosea knew her child wasn’t his.

And then in the midst of his heartbreak it was given to Hosea to see his wife’s unfaithfulness as the mirror-reflection of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. And in his wife’s illegitimate offspring he saw as never before Israelites whose religiosity was born of the many spirits who aren’t holy.

When Gomer brought forth the first child of her unfaithfulness Hosea named the child ‘Lo-ruchamah’, Hebrew for ‘Not pitied’ or ‘Not visited with mercy.’ Gomer’s second illegitimate child Hosea named ‘Lo-ammi’, ‘Not my people’.

Hosea believed his people had to suffer through a period when God was silent; when God seemed remote; or if not remote then at least inaccessible. God’s people had to suffer through a period when they appeared orphaned because their parent wouldn’t own them, so reprehensible had they become. The people had to suffer through a period when they were devoid of God’s comfort and consolation, like lost, disgraced children whose parent now says of them, “They can’t be mine; I don’t recognize them; there’s no family resemblance at all.”

Matters had to get worse for people to come to their senses; only then could matters get better. In short, God’s judgement was step one on the road to the people’s repentance and reconciliation. It was given to Hosea to discern that judgement wasn’t the last word; God’s mercy was the final word, together with the mercy-quickened repentance and reconciliation of God’s people.

Amos’s severity Hosea endorsed, only to find severity morphing and swelling into an even greater tenderness, a tenderness that has endeared Hosea to readers for 2800 years just because Hosea’s heartbroken tenderness mirrors the heart of God.

Years later Hosea trudged with heavy step and heavier heart yet with undeflectable resolve; Hosea trudged down to Square One where crude men taunted him about the woman who had become the talk of the town and at whom men leered. The woman, of course, was Gomer, his wife. Gomer had disgraced herself, degraded herself, and, not least, made a fool of herself. And she knew it. Having reached rock-bottom, she wanted to come home.

Could she come home? Whatever made her think she could? How presumptuous of her to think there was a home to come home to. With what some people would incorrectly call sheer good luck she found in her husband a mercy that was as constant as it was incomprehensible. Then she could come home, right away – except for one matter yet to be settled. She had sold herself to a pimp. She was the pimp’s meal ticket. He wasn’t going to give her away. Hosea asked, “How much? What’s my wife worth to you?” “Fifteen shekels,” the pimp replied. Fifteen? Only fifteen? Thirty shekels was the price of a slave. Gomer had lowered herself lower than the lowest? Yes. Gomer was dirt-cheap. Dirt is always dirt-cheap, isn’t it? The day Hosea parted with fifteen shekels he was publicly identified with his worthless wife. The cachet surrounding her became the cachet surrounding him. Her reputation was his; her disgrace his. But only one thing mattered: she was home again, home with him.

And so it is with Israel, says the prophet; so it is with the church; so it is with God’s people of any era. We, the church, are the bride of Christ. Bride? Our unfaithfulness has made the church a laughing stock to those who make no profession of faith. Yet God has purchased us not for half the price of a slave but at a price he alone comprehends. “He spared not his own Son,” cries the apostle Paul in amazement. To say he didn’t spare his own Son is to say he didn’t spare himself, didn’t spare himself anything – and all of this so that he might cry to you and me as he cried to Israel, “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? I am God and not man, the holy One of Israel, and I will not come to destroy.”

In the time that remains this morning we should summarize Hosea’s message.

I: — First, Hosea is preoccupied with having his people know God. The heart of his message is found in chapter 6, verse 6: says God, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

God didn’t want sacrifices and burnt offerings? Of course he did. They were part of the temple liturgy; they were instituted by God and the people were appointed to observe them. Since sacrifices and burnt offering were instituted and appointed by God the people could never be faulted for worshipping in accord with the temple liturgy. But Hosea’s point was this: liturgy is an outward vehicle given us to express our innermost self-abandonment to God. Liturgy is an outward vehicle for expressing our innermost offering of ourselves, our sacrifice, to God. Liturgy, however, is never an outward substitute for anything inward. Israelites were never to offer lamb or ram in the temple as a substitute for offering themselves. If liturgy – anyone’s liturgy in any era – is viewed as a substitute for the worshipper’s faith and faithfulness then liturgy is useless; worse than useless in fact, for then it affronts God and deceives us. Hosea insisted that the people’s worship in the temple be the occasion of their ever-deepening knowledge of God.

Now in Hebrew idiom ‘knowledge’ doesn’t mean ‘acquisition of information.’ In Hebrew idiom knowledge pertains to personal encounter; more profoundly, to know is to be so very intimately acquainted with an actuality as to find oneself profoundly transformed by such acquaintance. To know pain isn’t to acquire information about neurophysiology; to know pain is to be so very intimately acquainted with pain that one is different forever. To know hunger – really know hunger – isn’t to acquire information about gastrointestinal functioning; to know hunger is to be so very intimately acquainted with hunger that one’s encounter with it has rendered one forever different.

To know one’s spouse, in Hebrew idiom, isn’t to accumulate information about the person to whom we are married. To know one’s spouse isn’t merely to have intercourse with her. Rather it’s to meet her, encounter her so very intimately that one’s own life is forever different. In Hebrew idiom I know my wife only to the extent that encountering her non-defensively (that is, encountering her without trying to master her or manipulate her) has rendered me a different person (which encounter, in Hebrew, intercourse abets and intensifies.) In short, my knowledge of my wife is precisely the difference meeting her has effected in me. (If I’ve lived with her for 42 years and remain the same person then I don’t know her at all, regardless of how much information I’ve accumulated about her.)

Our knowledge of God, Hosea insisted, Hebrew that he was; our knowledge of God is the difference our engagement with God has effected within us.

When Abraham knew Sarah, Isaac was brought forth; when Isaac knew Rebecca, Jacob was brought forth. When you and I know God, what is brought forth? Hosea insists it’s ‘chesed,’ steadfast love. Hosea’s chesed, steadfast love, was so very steadfast that not even his wife’s fornicating could dissolve it. God’s steadfast love for us is so very steadfast that not even our repeated infidelities to him can shrivel it. Steadfast love, said Hosea, is what is conceived and brought forth when God’s people know him.

It’s plain that knowing God is what the church is first and finally about. “For I desire steadfast love and not (mere) sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than (mere) burnt offerings,” says the Lord. Liturgy is important, since God has appointed it. But God-appointed liturgy is a vehicle of that encounter with God through which we come to know him ever more profoundly; a vehicle of that encounter, never a substitute for it. And such knowledge of God – personal transformation through intimate acquaintance with God – will give rise to ‘chesed,’ steadfast love that aspires to honour Christ’s twofold summary of the Torah, love of God and love of neighbour.

II: — The second feature of Hosea’s message is blunt: corruption and betrayal are found everywhere. When Hosea looks out over his society he doesn’t indict this person or that, targetting the highly visible. Hosea indicts everyone. The people at large don’t know God; the society as a whole doesn’t bring forth ‘chesed.’ Everyone is guilty.

While everyone is guilty, Hosea continues, there are two groups who have especial responsibility for the deplorable state of affairs. One group consists of civic leaders and authorities. Entrusted with the public good, they have betrayed the public. “The princes of Judah have become like those who remove the landmarks,” laments the prophet.

When highly placed civic leaders or business leaders or financial wizards or drug-abusing sports stars are finally ‘found out,’ they appear startled that they are going to be prosecuted and punished. They maintain that they were doing nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that scores of others in their echelon haven’t been doing and are doing yet. Therefore, they insist, they are being singled out unfairly and targeted unjustly. In this connection the name, I imagine, that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now is the name “Conrad Black” or “Jian Gomeshi” or “Rob Ford”.

Cynicism appears to be the response that arises most readily whenever political leaders or business leaders or charity icons or sports stars are mentioned. The cynicism isn’t groundless. It’s not that the cynical person has a sour outlook rooted in a sour disposition. It’s rather that people have been let down over and over, with the result that betrayal and corruption are what they expect they are going to hear eventually concerning the people they have trusted.

Still, Hosea’s criticism of civic leaders is slight compared to his excoriation of the second group, the clergy. The guilt that the people and their public representatives bear is slight compared to the guilt that the clergy bear. “Like people, like priest,” says Hosea. He means that self-indulgent clergy can be expected to occasion self-indulgent people. Water doesn’t rise above its source; ungodly clergy will never yield godly people. He anticipates what James is going to say 800 years later: those who teach God’s people are going to be judged with greater severity.

It sounds bleak, doesn’t it; hopeless.

III: — But it isn’t bleak; it isn’t hopeless. The third and final element in Hosea’s message is glorious: God will speak through the prophet yet again and restore his people once more. Over and over, just when Israel’s future seemed bleak to the point of hopelessness, Hosea heard God promising to breathe life into his people again. As surely as Hosea said of his wife Gomer, “She may have disgraced herself and humiliated me, but she’s still my wife; we have a life together and she has a future with me more glorious than anything she has ever imagined” – as surely as this word was announced to Israel the selfsame word is announced today to the church, the bride of Christ.

What word exactly did God address to Hosea concerning Israel? – “I will betroth you to me forever…in steadfast love and mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Lord.” God’s mercy and God’s faithfulness in turn will move the people to say to each other, in the words of Hosea, with hope surging through their hearts, “Come, let us return to the Lord….Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord….He will come to us as showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”

And then Hosea heard God say in the anguish born of the heartbreak of unalloyed love, “How can I give you up, O my people? How can I hand you over?” Whereupon God pronounced Israel – and church – to be ‘Ruchamah,’ ‘visited with God’s mercy,’ and ‘ammi,’ ‘my people.’

Seven hundred and fifty years after Hosea spoke, Jesus Christ appeared. In the Nazarene the pardon of God and the patience of God and the faithfulness of God weren’t merely spoken afresh; in the Nazarene they were embodied. Our Lord, however, embodied more than God’s love and faithfulness. In his humanity Jesus embodied the human steadfast love and faithfulness that answers to God’s, the human steadfast love and faithfulness that you and I and all humankind are called to exemplify but don’t.

Then the one thing we must do this morning is seize our Lord in faith once more, and cling to him as we cling to none other. For in clinging to him we shall find his obedient humanness transmuting ours; we shall begin to exemplify the steadfast love and faithfulness that Hosea maintained to characterize God’s people. And we shall acknowledge afresh that Jesus Christ is husband to his bride, the church; he is the hope of humankind everywhere, the corrective for society’s leaders and, not least, the restoration of the church’s clergy.

For then our Lord will prove to be the one by whom God is glorified and his people are edified. And then too there will be vindicated a three-thousand year old prophet whose wayward wife came to her senses and came home; as did a prodigal son centuries later; as must every one of us today.

Victor Shepherd          September 2016