It’s enough to make me wonder if I have a strange variant of bipolar disorder. As a parent, I’ve felt completely furious with my disobedient teenagers while at the same time felt overwhelming compassion for them. I’ve been angry for their stupidity in making bad choices and yet tender hearted for their suffering of those choices.
Today I see I’m in good company. If there’s ever a passage of Scripture with the same sort of bipolar extremes between wrath against rampant sinfulness and undeserved, forgiving love, it’s this one.
It’s been a dizzying passage of Scripture to read all at once because the swings are more like circles that come ’round and ’round, ’round and ’round. I’m reminded of the time I took my then eight-year-old son on the double Ferris wheel at our local fairground. When the lower level wheel transitioned to the tippy top, I kept reminding him he was OK, there was nothing to be afraid of. I must have done it one too many times, because he finally looked at me and said, “Mama. Stop. This is FUN.”
Maybe the dizziness in Hosea is only in my head. Maybe you won’t feel that way when you read it. But if you do, I’m right there with you. And while it’s not frightening like the double Ferris wheel (I confess, I was the scaredy cat that night) it is confusing. And I feel woozy.
Because as you might expect, there are ugly, unvarnished words about Israels’ sin, and there are hard, even shocking words about God’s chastening because of it. At one point, he says he will come at his people like a leopard that lurks by the path, like a mama bear robbed of her cubs, and he will “attack them and rip them open. Like a lion I will devour them,” 13:7-8.
But as you wouldn’t expect, there are also such tender words about God’s love and forgiveness apart from repentance on Israel’s part to make me wonder about God’s state of mind. The last chapter of Hosea is one of the tenderest Old Testament chapters I’ve ever read in the Bible, and yet, it doesn’t come after anyone repents. It comes before.
God’s heart of love is beyond me to understand. It’s nothing like mine. God says it well, “For I am God and not man–the Holy One among you,” Ho 11:9. I really don’t understand God very well. At all.
Despite relentless idolatry and refusal to repent, God never gives up his love for his people, even when they become so hardened they walk right into their own overthrow. In the 11th hour, God still promises to restore them if they will turn to him. He offers one more explanation of how to come back to him in the very last chapter of Hosea, after telling them already at least half a dozen other times. If they would only do it.
Who is this God? I’m not sure I know. But one thing’s certain: he’s the one I’d choose for my Father.
What’s Israel done that’s so wrong? They’ve forgotten God in their prosperity; they think they’re self sustaining. In fact, the more they prosper, the more involved they get with idolatry, “As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones,” Ho 10:1.
God says, “Their heart is deceitful, and now they must bear their guilt.” Assyria comes in and overtakes them, and they become a vassal nation, paying tribute with only a puppet for a king, (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/hosea-10/). They complain about not having a king because their king is powerless, but what good would a king do anyway? They’re so lawless, they have endless lawsuits, 10:2-4.
And there’s more: Samaria, the capital of Israel, was the center of calf-idol worship. They feared for their precious golden calf because it’s captured and taken to Assyria. What kind of god is it to have to worry for it? Their wooden idols are no better. That’s when God will grow thorns and thistles over their fancy idol altars, “the high places of wickedness will be destroyed,” 10:8.
God says they’ll feel shame for all these because none of them can save them from enemies. “Samaria and its king will float away like a twig on the surface of the waters.” Their gods can’t save themselves, much less their people and their king. In their idol-shame, Israel will wish the mountains and hills would cover them up, so no one would see their disgrace, Ho 10:5-8.
And then God reminds them of Gibeah, “Since the days of Gibeah, you have sinned, O Israel, and there you have remained,” Ho 10:9. What happened in the days of Gibeah? I had to look it up.
It’s one of the most gruesome stories in the whole Bible, and here’s the quick take: Gibeah was a town in the land of Benjamin. When a Levite traveled through Benjamin with his concubine, wicked men in the area gathered around the home where they stayed and demanded that the Levite come outside to have sex. The Levite sent his concubine out to them instead, and they raped her all night, Ju 19:1-26.
The next morning, she lay dead on the doorstep. The Levite took her home, cut her up into pieces, and sent her body parts to all the 12 tribes of Israel to display the horror of what happened. Rather than offer up these Benjamites to pay for their sin, the rest of the tribe of Benjamin defends them. The other 11 tribes attack in what became their first Civil War and there is a near slaughter of the tribe of Benjamin, Ju 19:27-21:25.
God says that the wickedness of all Israel has continued since that event–and not just Benjamin’s wickedness. For who can overlook the Levite’s callous treatment of his concubine? There was no righteous side, a side where goodness and honor prevailed. There was only lawlessness and war, everyone doing “as they saw fit,” Ju 21:25.
The book of Judges ends with that pithy editorial statement, as if to say, “No one does right in this nation; everyone does whatever he pleases.” God says this way of living has continued until Hosea’s day, 10:9.
So far, I’m tracking. There’s been Israel’s great sin of idolatry and general hard heartedness since Gibeah. It’s felt to me like the ride up one side of sin’s Ferris wheel. And then there’s the point when the sin reaches the top and God’s scathing judgment brings them down the other side, a full circle experience.
His judgment is seen in Assyria’s domination, the loss of Judah’s golden calf, and their great shame for their silly idols. God’s also spanked them with the reminder of Gibeah. On top of all of that, God says he’ll gather nations against them “to put them in bonds for their double sin,” Ho 10:10.
Here’s where the next turn of the Ferris wheel oughta begin, where he talks about Israel’s sin again and we ride it back up to the top to judgment. But God doesn’t. And this is where I feel like I’m on a double Ferris wheel, the kind that cranks me way up over the tops of the other rides above the whole fair. I feel a little disoriented because God says something that doesn’t make sense. He brings in grace, and it just doesn’t fit because nobody deserves it. He says he will put a yoke on Ephraim’s neck, make Judah plow, and Jacob must break up the ground, Ho 10:11. What’s that about?
“Ephraim” is another name for “Israel” since it was the largest tribe of the northern kingdom; Judah is the name for the southern kingdom; and Jacob is a name for both the northern and southern kingdoms since Jacob was the father of the 12 tribes. God’s saying that it’s time for all his people to seek him, and he uses an analogy of plowing and planting to tell them how.
“Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers righteousness on you,” Ho 10:12. God says it’s time to seek him now. But just now in this passage is when he’s said he will gather nations against them to put them in bonds for their sin. And here he tells them it’s not too late to come back to him? [Does this surprise anyone else?]
God doesn’t seem to be rattled about offering grace in the face of continuing wickedness, and he tells them what seeking requires–breaking up hard, “unplowed ground,” and sowing “righteousness.” They’ve gotta plant seed so weeds won’t take over. And then there’s the waiting. They seek the Lord until he comes with the water. The crop that will be produced is “unfailing love” for God, 10:11-12.
This is what transforms the single Ferris wheel ride I’ve been on into something else altogether for me. It’s no longer a predictable circle-cycle of sin and punishment. It’s something else. Why does God bring up seeking him and breaking up their hard hearts so that righteousness can be planted–so that they can become unfailing God lovers–right in the middle of saying they’re about to straight up, get some of his righteous anger?
Because this is how God rolls. Even in judgment, he always keeps the door open and the light on to relationship with him, to turning back to him. “And here’s how,” he says. “Even when you’re on the bottom, here’s how to come to me.” He gives them the open invitation to his grace despite the fact that they’re still deliberately choosing wickedness.
Who does this?
It happens over and over again in this five chapter passage, in rapid succession. God’s people do wrong, and God punishes them. The ferris wheel goes around predictably. But then God gives them love and hope despite their sin, even while they’re still deep in the middle of it. All of a sudden, we’re up on the tippy top of the double Ferris wheel again, up above the misery, and we get a glimpse of what flying higher and more wonderfully than we deserve can be like. And I realize, well of course. Grace is never what anyone deserves. It’s what we’re offered in spite of what we deserve. That’s what makes it grace.
It happens right here again. There’s another return to the bottom of the wheel. In the very next verse (after the one about plowing their hard ground and seeking him), God says, “But you have planted wickedness, you have reaped evil, you have eaten the fruit of deception.” Further, they’ve depended on their own strength–on the number of soldiers they have. That’s their wrong doing.
And here’s God’s judgment for it, “but the roar of battle will rise” and their strongholds won’t hold. Mothers will be dashed to the ground with their children. All of this will happen because their “wickedness is great,” Ho 10:13-15. The Ferris wheel has gone down the judgement side. Wrong’s been done and God’s consequences have come.
And here comes the transforming double Ferris wheel again, that lifts them higher than their wickedness can take in: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…but the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.” What parent hasn’t experienced this, the toddler who runs away when you call him? But a parent’s love isn’t determined by the runaway child. It’s a commitment to be there for that child regardless. Ho 11:1-3.
So what does God do? He’s kind, he leads them “with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.” He’s already taken them out of slavery in Egypt, and he bent “down to feed them” in the desert. He’s an attentive parent, even when they keep wandering off, 11:4.
Now we’re back to the bottom for another turn of the Ferris wheel again. Israel doesn’t look to him; God says they go to Egypt when they’re in trouble. They go to Assyria for help, too. Ironically, these are the countries who attack them, the very ones they keep trying to find help from, “Swords will flash in their cities…and put an end to their plans.” God shakes his head. This happens, he says, “because they refuse to repent…My people are determined to turn from me,” 11:5-7.
Here it comes again. God’s just said what they’ve done and what he’s done, and here comes the double Ferris wheel lift above it all. This time God is downright effusive, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?…My heart is changed within; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my direct anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.” 11:8-9. God’s feeling is intense. Why does he suffer so much love for his people like this?
“For I am God, and not man–the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” God tells us this is why: because God is nothing like us. No one would put up with the kinds of things God puts up with to have his people be his own, 11:9.
This same double Ferris wheel ride of sin-and-judgment and then God’s mercy that lifts them high above it all continues for two more chapters. At the end of chapter 13, God says Samaria will bear the guilt of their rebellion and fall by the sword, “their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open,” 13:16. This is what Assyria will do–a very bad last cycle down.
I’m exhausted with it all. Are you? How does God bear it? He’s already said it: he’s not man, he’s God.
Despite the dizzying highs and horrific lows of these five chapters (I don’t think there’s anything more heartbreaking than this last image of little ones and pregnant women), Hosea ends his book with one final description of God’s love, and the view from the car at the top of the double wheel does not disappoint.
First, he says one more time that it’s not too late to return to him. Though their sins have been their downfall, they can still come back, 14:1.
Then he tells them exactly what to do: he says to bring these words to him and say,
“Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.
Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount war-horses.
We will never again say ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made,
for in you the fatherless find compassion,” 14:2-3.
Maybe all the trips around and around and up and down on the Ferris wheel today have left me a little motion sick, because what comes next knocks the breath right out.
God says he “will heal their waywardness and love them freely,” Ho 14:4. And in case there’s any doubt, God says what freely loving means…
–refreshing (like the dew),
–restoring beauty (makes blooms),
–growing strong (like a cedar’s roots and shoots),
–making useful (like an olive tree),
–making a blessing to others (like a fragrant cedar that gives shade),
–making prosperous (like grain, like a vine),
–giving fame (like the wine from Lebanon), Hosea 14:5-7.
And there’s more.
“I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a green pine tree;
your fruitfulness comes from me.
Who is wise? He will realize the things.
Who is discerning? He will understand them.
The ways of the Lord are right;
the righteous walk in them,
but the rebellious stumble in them,” Ho 14:8-9.
There’s so much here, it’s hard to take in. God gives all his people–including us–all this for relatively little on our part. He gives fresh life, beauty, strength, usefulness, blessings, prosperity, and fame. He fills us so full, we’re thriving, overflowing with abundance, fully alive. Not only that, he answers when we call. He takes care of us.
God is the green pine tree that produces his fruit in us, which I’m guessing is beyond our wildest dreams, since his first fruit is the love we so greatly need, not to mention joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, Ga 5. He makes us wise and discerning. He gives us his “ways” to walk that are right, ways that make the rebellious stumble. No one does what God does. He gives us fame, makes us beautifully alive and thriving.
Why don’t we experience all that he has for us? He says the wise will realize these things and the discerning will understand them, Ho 14:9.
Thank you for all of your gifts today, God. Thank you for the heights you go to, to bring us out of our depths, to make us wholly yours. Thank you for seeking us until we learn to turn and seek you back. Make me wise.
You are surely God and not man.
Is looking for God’s love an obsession? I wonder about that.
But then I read something random like the Book of Jude, this one-chapter-of-a-book. And while Jude gets into a number of heavy things, like angels who don’t keep their authority but abandon their homes (what’s that all about?) and dreamers who reject authority and will be severely judged, he mentions God’s love twice at the beginning and once at the end.
He writes this book to “those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ: Mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance,” Jude 1:1-2.
“Kept by Jesus?” I look around for clues elsewhere in this chapter-book about what “kept” means. At the end in verse 20, Jude says to “Keep yourselves in God’s love” as you wait for Jesus. Based on that use of the same word, I’m guessing that “kept by Jesus” means “kept in God’s love by Jesus.” It also fits the context.
So here’s a paraphrase of the first two verses,”I’m writing to you, God’s child, because of God’s love for you, and because Jesus keeps you in his love. After all, he’s given you the free pass into God himself and his fatherly love. And there are three things I want you to have an over supply of: mercy, peace and love.”
At the end of his book, he says for his “dear friends” to build themselves up in their “most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” And then he says, “Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life,” Jude 20.
“Keep yourselves in God’s love.” This is intriguing. While I wait for Jesus to bring me to heaven, which happens at my death, I’m to keep myself in God’s love. The only way I know how to do that is to search for it wherever I can find it–in God and in his words–the only abundant sources I know.
I haven’t written any books, so I don’t know, but I’m guessing that what you start out saying and end up saying in a book is pretty much what you think is most important, even if that book is only 25 verses.
I think Jude’s an obsessive love collector, too.
Solomon tells us three vain uses of our time:
Building a house unless God builds it.
Guarding a city unless God guards it.
Doing without sleep to work. Sleep is God’s gift.
The message seems to be to rest in God’s building, protecting, and providing. These are things God enters into with us and does for us.
The rest of the psalm directs us to our children. These are those who become our heritage, our reward, and our defense. They are not vain uses of our time.
My take away today is God’s off-the-charts, transforming, double ferris wheel riding love that lifts me above the distractions and troubles of my day, above myself and my lesser loves, and lets me see him and the love he gives—always open to me and available, always glad to see me, tender with empathy for my fallenness while calling me to be holy. There’s nobody like our God.
Jesus keep us–especially our grandbuddies–in your love. Don’t let us exchange anyone for what is vain.