Return to God

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This morning we are concluding our series of studies in the Old Testament book of Hosea. The prophet Hosea was from the Northern Kingdom of Israel and preaching (or prophesying) to his own people in the North. In the 8th century BC and the time of Hosea, Israel, as it was, had been divided into two. There was a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom. The North kept the name 'Israel' (but was sometimes referred to as Ephraim, after one of its tribes). The south was called 'Judah' after its royal tribe of that name. So Hosea was preaching in the North, before the downfall of the Northern Kingdom with its defeat by Assyria, the new regional superpower. For the Assyrians overran the North, capturing its capital city, Samaria, in 722/1 BC.

But before that happened, Hosea (like other 8th century prophets) was instructed by God to tell people to return to him as the true way of being secure. For people in the North particularly had left the one true God who had rescued them a few centuries back from slavery in Egypt. They were now involving themselves in the worship and decadent practices (including ritual prostitution and child sacrifice) of the local Canaanite gods.

So Hosea preached negatively that all this was utterly wrong and foolish, but positively that God's love still offered them hope in their uncertain world. They should, therefore, turn back to him. But God's love was not just one way. It was part of the covenant relationship he had with his people. And that relationship was a bit like a marriage. So it was as though God's people had gone after other lovers and broken their marriage vows of love and loyalty. But Hosea was well suited to preach about this from personal experience. For 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 by way of introduction to remind you of, or explain, the basic background to our passage. I have four headings, first, The Facts; secondly, The Returning; thirdly, The Promise; and, fourthly, The Challenge.

1. The Facts.

Look at Hosea 14.1:

"Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity."

Five facts have to be noted to understand that command.

First, is the fact that Hosea is addressing Israel corporately. The Bible is clear. A nation, like other wider societies, has to be seen as a corporate personality morally and spiritually and not just as an association of individuals. That is why there is an oscillation between singular and plural when Israel is being addressed. Look at verse 4 where Israel is seen as plural, and God says, "… I will heal their apostasy [plural]". But verse 5 immediately goes on: "… I will be like the dew to Israel; he [singular] shall blossom like the lily."

You see, in normal human societies, the faithful and the unfaithful (then and today) are bound up, in some measure, together. So here the nation itself is called to return, as well as individuals in the nation. And if there is to be judgment on the nation, as sadly happened to 8th century Israel, all will suffer in some measure together. But that means, at this point, the faithful in the Northern Kingdom are to be engaged in, and publicly as they are able working for, this corporate turning back to God. They can't just think it is none of their business. And that is true for us today.

The second fact to be faced (implies Hosea) is the reality of the one true God. The problem of the people he was addressing was that they were trying all sorts of local religions and gods or Baals, with disastrous results. Therefore, Israel is to return to the God of the Bible, the LORD [in capitals – in Hebrew, Yahweh/Jehovah]. And so Hosea says: "Return, O Israel, to [that] LORD your God."

For he is, "the God [to use Francis Schaffer's phrase] who is there" and we now know as one God, in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is the fact. That is the truth, as Jesus Christ has proved. This God is the almighty creator of this amazing universe. And ignoring that fact, Israel has gone after these various fertility gods, or Baals, to ensure harvests and rain and good breeding of animals. And what was the result?

Answer, and the fourth fact - disaster. For the people were in a total mess. Verse 1 simply says: "You have stumbled." We have to picture someone tripping up and falling flat on their face. As we have seen over these weeks they were in a mess in terms of their economy, in terms of family life (with men and women involved and making use of temple prostitutes) and in terms of their politics. So they were vulnerable to attack from Assyria at any time. Yes, they had to face the fact that their society was collapsing.

And, fourthly, they, of course, had to face the truth of why all this was happening. It was happening, in the last words of verse 1, "… because of your iniquity." It was happening because of sin – the breaking of God's spiritual and moral law, made so clear in his Ten Commandments. For, then and now, going against God, long-term, leads to suffering, if not in this life, in the next.

Yes, as the New Testament makes clear, there are "pleasures of sin". So these men and women would have gone off to the temple prostitutes not just so that their animals would breed through sympathetic magic by their sexual intercourse, but for decadent sinful sexual pleasure. However, the Bible qualifies its statement on these "pleasures" by saying they are "fleeting pleasures of sin" – they don't last a long time. Hebrews 11.15 says: "[Moses was] choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin."

The pleasures of sin are short lived. And some of the women in Hosea's time would have experienced that quite horrifically. For we have to presume some of the women (clients or prostitutes) got pregnant. But what then? Well, last week we read this in the last verse of chapter 13 (a prediction of what would happen, if there was no return to God):

"Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open."

The Assyrians were utterly brutal. It was terrible but that happened when there was no return to the Lord. "For the wages of sin [or iniquity] is death …" says Paul in Romans 6.23. Hosea, had he been alive, would have totally agreed with Paul. But he also would have agreed with how Paul goes on in Romans 6.23: "but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

For the fifth fact is that you can freely turn to God or back to God, and he wants you to do so. But you need to be definite and specific and mean it. For verse 2a, reads: "Take with you words and return to the Lord." So Hosea is saying to his contemporaries:

'You individually and/or corporately have flouted God's laws, and you need to face that fact. It is, therefore, not just some vague state of "mindfulness" that you need to get into. No! You need to repeat some definite words. And you need to mean what you say as you pray to "the Lord your God" confessing your sins.'

And that brings us, to my second heading and the actual returning.

2. The Returning.

Look at Hosea 14.2b-3:

"Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, 'Our God', to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy."

Hosea is supplying a national prayer for forgiveness to be used corporately or individually. It is a prayer that could be prayed today if updated. So note four things.

First, note the basic prayer, which is … "Take away all iniquity." That is both a prayer for forgiveness and for a clean slate so people can try to live a new lifestyle (and for which they need new power). And we know that is a right prayer. Jesus taught us in his model prayer, the Lord's Prayer – "forgive us our sins" (Luke 11.4). And he then a few verses later taught us to pray for the Holy Spirit who can help us in godly living. In Luke 11.13 he says: "the heavenly Father [will give] the Holy Spirit to those who ask him."

But, secondly, note that people, then and now, have to be genuine in confession. You have to mean what you say. The text in the last part of verse 2 is difficult (as can be seen from the marginal note). But "accept what is good" is surely not putting forward a reason for God to forgive these northerners. For they are self-evidently not good. Rather this prayer surely is good in the sense of it being meant. And then, "we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips" seems to refer to the response to this prayer when answered. Hebrews 13.15, echoing (or paraphrasing) the verse speaks of: "a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name." The gist then is that a genuine 'returner' really wants God to take their sin away and will praise him when he does.

Thirdly, note turning to God means they will turn from all God substitutes as the means of salvation. They will, therefore, not think the solution to their problems is all political. So they will not seek to make alliances with Assyria or Egypt, the other ancient near-Eastern power that supplied Israel with horses, verse 3a: "Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses." And they certainly will turn from useless idols – these Baals, verse 3b: "and we will say no more, 'Our God', to the work of our hands."

And, fourthly, note they are to conclude by expressing the grounds for their prayer. And that is they believe in a God who, yes, demands holiness of life as being best and sensible for his people. But he also was, and is, a God who is good and merciful when they (and we) stumble and fall and fail and for whatever reasons. So the prayer is to conclude with these words, verse 3c: "In you the orphan finds mercy."

Who needs to pray such a prayer as that this morning? Even this past week you know you have stumbled. Who has never yet been specific with God? Perhaps for some reason, like that crowd on the Day of Pentecost we heard about in our second reading, you also are, in the words of that reading, "cut to the heart" (Acts 2.37). Perhaps these simple facts that Hosea is talking about have made you think. Well, Peter's words to those "cut to the heart" in the 1st century at Pentecost were so similar to these words of Hosea. Peter said,

"Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2.38).

He was saying, rethink and turn to the one true God, revealed finally and fully as just but loving, in Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins but risen and now reigning.

And be definite about it – be baptized to express your seriousness, and, says Peter, you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit to live more as God intends. And it is amazing how once you commit yourself, God will increase your assurance. Jesus famously said in John 7.17:

"If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will [i.e. subsequently] know whether the teaching is from God"

It is a fact that assurance and understanding do grow and increase as you continue in the Christian life, trusting and obeying Christ in the ups and downs of life. So in our chapter, Hosea, after telling his people how to turn or return to God, tells them what happens once they have done that.

3. The Promise.

And that is our third heading and The Promise of God for those who do turn to him. Look at Hosea 14.4-8:

"I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the corn; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit."

Again note again four things regarding God's promise and assurance.

First, look at verse 4. Turning away from God or being without God is utterly crippling in so many ways. And it calls for God's healing – politically, socially, maritally and spiritually. So the first promise and assurance, following a return to God, is God saying, verse 4: "I will heal their apostasy." So your sins, when you are right with God, don't have to be the last word.

Then, secondly, God says (we're still in verse 4): "I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them." So, when right with God, you can be free from the fear of God's judgment and hell, and assured regarding God's love for you. You can have real hope for the future – in this life but even more so in the next.

Thirdly, and the main part of God's assurance is in verses 5-7. It is the promise of real human flourishing. And that flourishing is in so many areas of human life. Let me read again God's promise and assurance:

"I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the corn; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon."

And that is poetic but still so relevant. Do you want true human flourishing both in this life and the next? Then turn or return to God. Do read the Coloured Supplement in this month's Newsletter for September, if you have not done so. That is on exactly how this true humanism, and lasting human flourishing, follows from trusting and obeying God. Sadly, I haven't time to go into that now.

And, fourthly, note God's post-script to these promises in verse 8. Here, he simply issues a reminder that he alone leads to such flourishing, as no other gods do:

"O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit."

4.The Challenge.

And that brings us to our final and fourth heading, The Challenge, which is in verse 9:

"Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them."

This certainly speaks, across the centuries, to us today. And it is far more compelling now in the 21st century. For we are the other side of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross where he paid for those iniquities and that stumbling, on our behalf and in our place. And we are the other side of his real resurrection leaving an empty tomb. That proved that he was God come in human form, and fundamental to the human flourishing to which Hosea was pointing in the 8th century BC. And, of course, we know from history that tragically Hosea's contemporaries did not return to the one Lord, our God. And they were ignominiously overrun, as Hosea warned. Yes, there is so much evidence that the Lord our God is real and certainly means what he says. So we must walk in the ways of the Lord because they are right.

The wise know that blind chance (sadly becoming the irrational default Western worldview in the 21st century) is not the cause of this wonderful universe. For the Lord our God is its, and our, creator. And as he made us, that is why his ways are right for us. And so the discerning know that the 21st-century idols of health, wealth and pleasure are false gods. For it is the Lord our God that gives us, providentially, health, wealth and pleasure but together with real hope for the future. So to repeat:

"Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them."

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