Written by Pastor Ed
Due to technical difficulties, the audio recording is not available. The text version is below:
Hosea – God’s Love is Boundless
May 17, 2015
Books of the Bible series
Hosea 4: 1-9
Hosea 11: 1-9
David M. Carr, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City suggests in his book, Holy Resilience, that the prophet Hosea was instrumental in shaping the theology of the Old Testament as well as Judaism as a whole. He argues that Hosea was the first of the prophets to argue that not only was there only one God, Yahweh who led the children of Israel out of Egypt, but this one God demanded exclusive worship. “You shall have no other gods before me.”
It’s an interesting read and many of his ideas make sense. Hosea is one of the earliest of the written prophets, with only Amos being earlier. While most of the writings we have looked at thus far have been focused around the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, Hosea is located earlier, around 747 B.C. beginning in the reign of Uzziah, so earlier than Isaiah, and continuing on for a number of years and through a number of kings. A distinctive of Hosea is that he is the only prophet located in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the other prophets who came from the southern kingdom of Judah.
The book itself is divided into three fairly distinct sections. Chapters 1 to 3 are somewhat biographical, telling of God’s instructions to Hosea about whom he should marry and why, which serve as an allegory of sorts for God and Israel. The second section, chapters 4 to 13 contain oracles or pronouncements of Hosea against Israel and Judah and note particularly the corruption of the kings and priests. And then the last chapter offers some hope for a restored nation, if they will repent.
Hosea was a prophet during a particularly turbulent time in Israel. After the death of Jeroboam, Israel had five kings in the course of 10 years. This meant there was little stability, indeed some have called it a period of anarchy. But Hosea suggests that this upheaval began long before, even citing the struggle of Jacob & Esau in the womb and Jacob’s struggle with God at Penual.
Hosea has particularly strong words for the priests of his day who seemed to have lost their knowledge of the God of their ancestors and were willing to sacrifice to whatever gods the people wanted. One of the things that had happened with the division into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, was that Israel has lost its connection to Jerusalem and the temple, the primary place of worship. And so other centres, primarily at Bethel and Gilgal, both significant places in the history of Israel, have become the centres of worship for the tribes of the Northern Kingdom.
But these centres were not exclusively devoted to Yahweh. Various other gods, baals, represented by a variety of idols and symbols were also worshipped there. Thus it was that Hosea was called to proclaim a God that demanded exclusive worship of Yahweh alone. A God who was willing to love the people, despite their sin. And the method of delivering that message has raised a great deal of discussion among biblical scholars.
Would God really tell Hosea to go and marry a prostitute and later buy another wife out of prostitution? The story, according to the first three chapters of Hosea, is that the first thing God told Hosea to do was to go and marry a prostitute and have children with her. So Hosea did as he was told. He married Gomer and had three children with her. And God gave each of the children a name, names with meaning as was common then and still common today, although perhaps no meanings like these. The first son was called Jezreel, recalling a place of some notoriety. the second child, aa daughter was given the name “Lo-ruhamah”, which in Hebrew means “No pity” which God said is what he would have toward the nation of Israel. And finally the third child, another son was named “Lo-ammi”, or “Not my people.”
All of this, God explains was symbolic of Israel who had left their first love and gone off to worship other gods, baals, breaking the covenant established from the time of Abraham and Moses. Like a prostitute, Israel had gone after others lovers; not recognizing that it was God alone who provided for her.
And then Hosea is told to go and find an adulteress and buy her back. Which Hosea does. What is unclear is whether this second woman is also Gomer who had left Hosea and returned to a life of prostitution, or whether Hosea takes a second wife. There is also discussion as to which came first, the unhappy marriages which led to Hosea’s understanding of God’s message to Israel, or whether indeed the message led to Hosea’s actions. As Edward Blair states in his Abingdon Bible Handbook,
“We may conclude this much, at least; that Hosea had an unfortunate marriage, whatever its exact nature; that he saw a parallel between it and God’s relation with Israel; and that by his actions in the marital relationship he sought to declare both God’s judgment and his mercy on the nation” (Edward P. Blair Abingdon bible Handbook, p.169)
Whatever we may think of the imagery used, Hosea’s message is clear. As one person put it, “The book of Hosea is about God’s relentless pursuit of an unfaithful people.” Like Jeremiah later on, Hosea pleads with the nation to return to their first love and worship the one true God alone. Why? Because even though they have wandered, or even deliberately, gone astray, God is ready and willing to take them back.
While the focus of Hosea is primarily on the sin of God’s people, in many ways the message of Hosea is about a God whose love is boundless. Using the image of a spouse, Hosea portrays God as the loving spouse who pleads with their wayward and sinful lover to return to them and be forgiven. Even though they have pursued other lovers, even though they have forgotten the vows they made when they were first chosen, still God wants them to return.
We sing about that God in some of our hymns. “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” “Who is a pardoning God like thee?” “Earth has no sorrows, but heaven can remove.” And yet, I’m not sure we believe that. Or perhaps we are ok with God being like that, but we’re not sure we should be.
Mark Driscoll, well known Christian author, said, “If you are more conservative then God, then you need to scoot over.” One of the historic tenets of the Anabaptists was the idea of a pure church. Since being a disciple of Jesus meant following the way of Jesus, the church leaders decided that they could tell who was a Christian or not by how they acted. This was in reaction to the state churches of the time who simply baptized everyone and said they’d let God sort it out in the end.
Of course, saying that we want a pure church runs into problems almost immediately, and we only need to read our own Mennonite church history to discover that. My ancestors broke away from the Anabaptists in Switzerland to follow Jacob Ammon because they thought the other group wasn’t strict enough. In the Netherlands, groups excommunicated each other over and over, until some groups consisted of only a few people.
The reality is that there is no such thing as a pure church, because we are all sinners. Yes, we hold up standards to follow and we seek to live by the way of the cross and the teachings of Jesus. And if any of us has done that perfectly, well then maybe you can go off and start your own pure church. But for the rest of us, we will need to continue to rely on God’s ongoing call and grace to return to him and continue to be forgiven and saved.
And for me, that has other implications as well. I’ve lived, and even pastored, long enough to have seen the church work through numerous issues around who or what was acceptable as part of the church. In my growing up years my church argued over issues of dress and the wearing of jewelry. Divorce and remarriage divided the church for years, as did the issue of the role of women in the church. The churches relationship with government, the use of alcohol, the list could go on.
For some years now the debate has been around sexual orientation and we find the whole gamut of opinions and practices across the church. In the US it is threatening to tear the Mennonite Church apart at their assembly this summer. And it’s certainly a live issue here in Mennonite Church Canada as well. The wedding of two men in Saskatchewan in December by a Mennonite pastor brought the issue to a head for some. It has been the topic of discussion at several of our Alberta Pastors’ Council meetings, and at least one congregation in Mennonite Church Alberta is currently discussing whether to become an openly affirming congregation, catch words for welcoming of gltbq persons.
We haven’t entered that discussion here to any great degree, and I’m not sure where people stand on the issue, although I am quite sure that we probably span the full spectrum of thought. But as I read someone like Hosea, I wonder if perhaps we are reading the wrong Bible passages as we debate this or any other issue, because there will be other issues as well.
For even if, even if, you see whatever category of person you want to name as a sinner, Hosea preaches a God whose love knows no boundaries, who is willing to welcome even Israel who went off and worshipped other gods, just as a loving spouse might welcome a wayward mate. And if we recognize that, in so many ways, we are all that wayward spouse, then how can we exclude anyone from God’s love and forgiveness.
Hosea brings God’s indictment of Israel in stark terms.
“There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed.” (4: 1b-2)
Yet the plea is for Israel to return, for God is ready to welcome them, forgive them , and restore them. Instead of “Lo-ammi”, “not my people”, they would once again become “ammi” “my people. We can argue all we want about what the Bible does or does not say about sin, but I must confess that I am ready to error on the side of grace and God’s love rather than on the side of judgement and exclusion.
Might I be wrong? I might be. Thankfully as I have often said, my salvation does not depend on my being right on everything. Rather it depends first and foremost on a gracious God who, while demanding exclusive worship of God alone, is ready to welcome all of us home to be part of God’s kingdom.