We are looking on these summer Sunday mornings at the Old Testament book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea was a northerner preaching to his own people, after Israel had broken off from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. But he was preaching not long before the Northern Kingdom was overrun by the ruthless Assyrians in the late 8th century BC. And Samaria, the capital city, was captured with its inhabitants exiled to Assyria, after a three-year siege, described as "one of the longest and most dreadful sieges in history."
But before all that happened Hosea was charged by God with calling his people back to him, the true Lord, to avoid such a judgment as defeat and exile. For God's people were being seduced by the religion and obscene practices associated with the local Canaanite gods and religion. However, Hosea was sensitive and poetic in the way he spoke and wrote about God's love and faithfulness to Israel but also about Israel's shocking faithlessness towards God. So he pictured God's covenant with his people as something like a marriage, with God being the bridegroom and his people being the bride. Therefore, Hosea saw that while God loved his people in this covenant relationship, God's people were having, as it were, extramarital lovers. For they broke their side of the covenant by going after other gods. But the remarkable thing about Hosea is this. He didn't just prophesy (or preach) all this from cold. For he himself knew first hand how God must have felt. Why? Because his own wife had done exactly that to him – she had been unfaithful to him and gone off with other men. Well, that is enough background for our passage this morning.
Please open your Bibles at Hosea 2.2-3.5. I have five headings and then something by way of application. The headings are, first, The Problem; secondly, The Folly; thirdly, God's Judgement; fourthly, God's Mercy; and, fifthly, Hosea's Conclusion.
1. The Problem
Look at verses 2-3 where Hosea seems to be speaking for God. (The "mother", therefore, stands for the leaders in Israel, and the "children" are those led. And Hosea would have found this all very painful, because of his own experience.)
"Plead with your mother, plead—
for she is not my wife, [or acting like my wife]
and I am not her husband -
that she put away her whoring from her face,
and her adultery from between her breasts;
lest I strip her naked
and make her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
and make her like a parched land,
and kill her with thirst."
(For there will be divine judgment if such faithlessness continues. However, going on – with God, through Hosea, just bluntly stating the facts) - verses 4-5:
"Upon her children also I will have no mercy,
because they are children of whoredom.
For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, 'I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.'"
So these verses mean that continuing to go after these "lovers" (or other gods) will incur God's judgment which will be degrading and disastrous. But this marriage analogy would have hit home particularly, because Canaanite religion included immoral ritual prostitution with consequent sexual chaos and in which Hosea's wife may have been caught up. So what was the attraction in Canaanite religion, apart from sordid physical pleasure?
Well, the local Baals were fertility gods. And it was believed that you needed a range of rituals to ensure the rains came and the crops grew. And when you lack rain, as some farmers in Britain have been experiencing recently, you can be tempted to try anything. So those false beliefs together with the cultic practices themselves were the great attraction. Listen again to the last half of verse 5:
"For she said, 'I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.'"
It was believed Baal worship and sympathetic magic – activity or sexual rituals in which you engaged - ensured water for your crops and sheep to breed for your wool. And that was the problem.
2. The Folly
Secondly, we need to note the folly (as well as the sinfulness) of such beliefs and practices. But God is good - he is seeking to restrain the folly of Israel, this wayward mother. Look at verses 6-8:
"Therefore, I will hedge up her way with thorns,
and I will build a wall against her,
so that she cannot
find her paths.
She shall pursue her lovers
but not overtake them,
and she shall seek them
but shall not find them.
Then she shall say,
'I will go and return to my first husband,
for it was better for me then than now
And she did not know
that it was I who gave her
the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished on her silver and gold,
which they used for Baal.'"
That is the folly - to believe in Baal and these pagan religious practices for fertility, when as God says through Hosea, 'I, the Lord your God, - the creator of the universe – not some local Baal – am behind your harvests and your ability to get rich and I give you intelligence to get wealth.' Well, that leads, thirdly, to
3. God's Judgement
"Therefore … [because of such folly, God has to teach his people lessons.] … I will take back
my grain in its time,
and my wine in its season,
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
which were to cover her nakedness."
So the God of Israel, the one true God, Jehovah/Yahweh, is positively teaching Israel by withdrawing fertility and good harvests. He is teaching that he alone, not Baal, is the Lord of all, including nature. Look now at verses 10-13:
"Now I will uncover her lewdness
in the sight of her lovers,
and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.
And I will put an end to all her mirth,
her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths,
and all her appointed feasts.
And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
of which she said,
'These are my wages,
which my lovers have given me.'
I will make them a forest,
and the beasts of the field shall devour them.
And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals
when she burned offerings to them
and adorned herself with her ring and jewellery,
and went after her lovers
and forgot me, declares the Lord."
This is predicting God's judgment that we know came through the terrible Assyrian destruction of Israel's countryside, including places for cultic rituals as well as cultivated land. For 20 or 30 years later, the Assyrians just did invade and exile the inhabitants. Yes, God, Hosea is teaching, is not only a God of love but also of light and of holiness and justice who can teach hard lessons. And he does. Do you believe that? Quoting the Old Testament, the New Testament says (Hebrews 12.5-6):
"My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives"
And sometimes that is not easy to take. Who's being disciplined, at the moment - and you know it? Well, be encouraged. It is a sign of God's love. For when lessons are learnt, there can be a new future. That brings us, fourthly, to:
4. God's Mercy
For his mercy led God to planning a totally new era and future for Israel and the world. And five things somehow relate to this new era.
First, God's people need to recover their first love. Verses 14-15:
"Therefore behold, I will allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
And there I will give her vineyards
and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt."
The picture language here, or the analogy, is of a husband trying to rekindle the love he and his unfaithful wife enjoyed when first married. This is by taking her on holiday to the place where they went on their honeymoon. So God, metaphorically, is wanting his people (the Israelites) to trust and obey him as they did in their earliest days as a nation. That was just after their escape from Egypt but before their long sojourn in the wilderness and before they set foot in Canaan.
Secondly, there is to be a new covenant. Verses 16-20:
"And in that day [the start of this new era] declares the Lord, you will call me 'My Husband', and no longer will you call me 'My Baal.' For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord."
So this new day (dawning, as we now know, with Jesus' first coming; but with its high noon at his second coming) means God's renewal of his covenant. And when that day is fully come, animals will be at peace with one another and there will be no more war. And the covenant will last for ever. It is like a marriage totally renewed, only better.
Thirdly, the new covenants' fundamentals are so important. Look at verses 19-20 again:
"And I will betroth you to me for ever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord."
Notice, three times the word "betroth" is used, for emphasis. In ancient marriages, and still in some parts of the world, there was, and is, a bride price. Well, here the price is those five fundamentals of God's covenant. These, the bride (God's people) can rely on: God's righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy and faithfulness. These are wonderful virtues that our God has in abundance.
Then, fourthly, Israel and all God's people will really "know the Lord."
But what is it to "know the Lord"? As in a marriage it is total openness; so in this case total openness to God. And it involves knowing the truth about God; trusting, obeying and worshipping him; letting the Holy Spirit help you acquire those Godly virtues yourself, and, now, supremely, focusing on Jesus Christ with sins forgiven, so this openness is possible.
And, fifthly, this new order sees a restoration of nature and God's people fully accepted.
For God enables the heavens to water the earth, and the earth to bring forth crops. And the negative names of Hosea's children, Jezreel, No Mercy and Not My People (from chapter 1) are made positive to reflect the new order. Verses 21-23:
"And in that day I will answer, declares the Lord,
I will answer the heavens,
and they shall answer the earth,
and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and they shall answer Jezreel,
and I will sow her for myself in the land.
And I will have mercy on No Mercy,
and I will say to Not My People, 'You are my people';
and he shall say, 'You are my God [the words, of course, of a true believer].'"
Who, this morning, perhaps has drifted and you need to recover your first love and say again, "You are my God"? What could be a better than a Communion service? That brings us, to our fifth heading:
5. Hosea's Conclusion
Here Hosea is rounding off his own personal story. Look at Hosea 3.1:
"And the Lord said to me, 'Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins [raisins being involved in Baal worship].'"
Note, Hosea is commanded to "love … even as the Lord loves". You say, 'you can't be ordered to love.' Well, as Derek Kidner, in his excellent commentary, points out: "In scripture, more often than not, love is practical first, emotional only second, and it is always known by its fruits." Hosea, therefore, willingly bought his wife out of some sort of slavery, so low had she sunk. Look at verses 2-3:
"So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, "You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you."
But whatever the details there of Hosea's domestic situation, what he says by way of application is clear. Verse 4:
"For the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or household gods."
But that might have shocked Hosea's hearers. For apart from the prophet's warning, they saw probably no threats to their way of life from Assyria as yet. However, this is a threat to the very heart of their national and religious leadership (good or bad) and life as they knew it. And that all happened within two or three decades. How we need to take seriously what Hosea says! But then Hosea concludes with this amazing prophecy – verse 5:
"Afterwards the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days."
That, we see, pointing to Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection and what followed the first Pentecost. For then many Israelites did repent and seek the Lord their God, and David's great successor, Jesus Christ. And Gentiles becoming Christians were, and are, like new children of Israel. That, too, actually happened. So that brings us, finally, to the question:
What is the Application for Today?
Let me highlight three things – time forbids more.
First, Hosea teaches that there is only one true God, who is known for righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy and faithfulness. So he warns against mixing faith in the living Lord (who has later through Christ been revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit), with other gods or philosophies (and their beliefs and morals). But, sadly, that is happening today in our education and media, where one religion or world-view is presented as true as another – something self-evidently false. For the divine Lord, Jesus Christ, the revealer of God, has no equals or successors. He alone has defeated death and sin through his Cross and Resurrection, with an empty tomb to prove it. So he tells us to witness to him world-wide. For he says, as we heard in our Gospel reading (John 14.6):
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Secondly, Hosea teaches that the whole universe is under the control of our God. So he, not Baal or any other power or person, controls the natural world. And, like his contemporary Amos, he teaches that God controls the nations and that they have a corporate personality and so responsibility. So a nation can be likened to a faithful or unfaithful wife. Therefore, not only individuals but nations can be challenged to return to their first love, if they have drifted away from acknowledging the living Lord. So we may not all be like a faithless "mother" (those in leadership). But we are, here this morning, like "children" who are (as we are able) to "plead" with our leaders to trust and obey the one true God. For God's love doesn't want a modern equivalent of ruthless ancient Assyria teaching us nationally the hard way – a possibility.
But, thirdly, for our encouragement, Hosea's teaching on God's steadfast love points to this. In Christ, partially now, but fully one day, when he returns, there is a wonderful future in store for those to whom God can say,
"You are my people"
and they can say,
"You are my God."