From the future-focussed apocalyptic of Daniel we are on safer – if equally strange – ground as we go back to the 8th century and the ministry of Hosea in the Northern Kingdom of Israel shortly before its destruction by Assyria. Like his approximate contemporary Amos his message is one of judgement for an apostate nation, but the cause of, and the response to this apostasy is very different. Hosea had the extremely uncomfortable calling to do his prophecy through the details of his own life, and his disastrous marriage gave him deep insight into the feelings in God’s heart as he prepared to see his chosen people overrun and destroyed.
Hosea is called by God to marry a prostitute, which can’t have been an easy task in itself, finding one who wanted to get married. The term ‘Diblaim’ in 1:3 may be her father’s actual name, but also means a couple of fig cakes. An accurate translation could be the equivalent of ‘You could have her for the price of a bag of chips’, so she may not have been a high-class escort! But Hosea used both her unfaithfulness to him and his forgiving love for her to illustrate God’s faithfulness to an apostate nation. Although there is some anger on God’s part, the feel that comes over from the book is of a rejected and broken-hearted God weeping over his people. In chapters 10 and 11 God recalls the past, and his kindness to the nation, kindness which has been thrown back in his face.
Again, in contrast with Amos, the main sin of the people is not about their actions, but rather their heart. We shall see Amos condemning the injustice and oppression of his society, but Hosea goes deeper: it is the nation’s failure to love God and remain faithful to him which is the issue. Just like his own wife and her sexual partners they have gone off after other gods. But just as he keeps the door open for Gomer to return to him, so the message of the book is one of mercy and grace. The final chapter holds out a promise of a glorious future for a repentant people, but it was sadly never to be fulfilled.
We are in an interesting position in the church today. We’re no longer that concerned about sin at all: the highest value in our society nowadays is ‘tolerance’, and we have created a tolerant god in our own image. No doubt that is a reaction against what was perceived as a hellfire approach in the past, where an angry God was constantly looking out for whom he might smite for the smallest peccadillo. But there is a third way of thinking about sin and unfaithfulness, and Hosea epitomises it. It isn’t just that sin makes God angry, although it does. It certainly isn’t that he ‘tolerates’ it: he doesn’t, and won’t. But we seldom think of sin as breaking God’s heart, but that is how Hosea presents it to us. I am reminded of Jesus’ tears over the apostate city of Jerusalem in Luke 19 and 13:
If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
I guess it would put a whole new perspective on discipleship and holiness if we really could grasp the pain in our Father’s heart for his wayward children. Meditating on the life of Hosea might do us all good.
Image: “10.3010 Torino-nightlife.v2” by Kay Chernush for the U.S. State Department. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons