For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 1 – Hosea 5:15 – 6:6 (Related)
What would you rather have: a God who was angry with you, or a God who was dead and powerless? That is the question posed by this very difficult passage from Hosea. We need a bit of background to understand both the question and how we might answer it. Hosea was a contemporary of another OT prophet, Amos. Both of them were based in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and both wrote around 740 BC, not long before Assyria captured the kingdom and virtually wiped it from the pages of history. But although writing in very similar circumstances, their messages were quite different. Amos focussed on social injustice: the rich were cruel and oppressive towards the poor, justice could be bought with bribes, and the people were thoroughly corrupt in their dealings with one another. Amos’ most famous call was for ‘justice [to] roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.’ (5:24). But Hosea saw things differently. The root problem was not the people’s lack of love for one another, but their lack of love for God. He lived out his message by obediently marrying a prostitute, whom he knew would be unfaithful to him, and by yearning for and welcoming her return.
One clear message to emerge from the book was that it was the same God who punished the nation and healed them. In the verses just before our passage there are three powerful pictures of God’s action on the adulterous people: he would flood them with his anger, he would eat away at them like moths or rot, and he would tear them apart like a lion. This seems problematic to us: we are used to someone else harming us but God restoring us. The idea that the God who has torn us to pieces is the only one who can bind up our wounds (6:1) seems difficult to say the least! So how can we understand this in context, and make sense of it for ourselves?
Hosea appeared to know that before too long the growing and greedy Assyrian empire would destroy Israel. Because of Israel’s fierce monotheism, they simply could not believe in another power at work alongside God’s will, or an equal and opposite ‘devil’ figure. Whatever happened, good or evil, could only possibly come from God. That, by the way, is the explanation for the difficult idea found in 1 Samuel that ‘an evil spirit from the Lord’ attacked King Saul. There was simply nowhere else from which an evil spirit might come: it had to be God. So if you were beaten in battle, there could only be two possible explanations. Either your god was cross with you and was teaching you a lesson, or he was weaker that your enemy’s god and had been defeated. Of the two options in OT thought, clearly the first was less serious than the second. If your god was dead, there was no hope, but if he was annoyed with you, there was still the possibility that he might forgive you.
So having torn the nation apart, God retreated in 15:15 to his lair to wait and see what the people would do next. In 16:1 we have a change of voice, and the people do indeed come back to God, confident (perhaps over-confident) that he will turn and restore them, and that he will do so quickly. But it isn’t as simple as that, and in 16:4 God again speaks, lamenting the short-lived fickleness of his people, and longing for their so-called repentance to manifest itself in love for him and therefore mercy in the land. Cheap repentance, and shallow worship, would not cut it, so he had had to cut them.
So what does this say to those of us living in Christ on the other side of God’s son being torn on the cross? In one sense, nothing has changed. We would all, if we’re honest, acknowledge that we can be fickle and insincere, repeating liturgical words of penitence but then living in exactly the same ways as before. Indeed these very words form part of one Common Worship prayer of confession. We would all own up to loving God nowhere near as intensely as we should. But it remains true that the only one who can bring forgiveness is the same one who castigates us for that lack of love, and who, like Hosea himself, yearns for a restored relationship with those who go off after others. If God is upset with us, there is hope: because Jesus died but was raised we do not have a dead, powerless God, but rather one longing to forgive, heal and restore.