Text: Hosea 11:1-11
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
“Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?
A sword will flash in their cities;
it will devour their false prophets
and put an end to their plans.
My people are determined to turn from me.
Even though they call me God Most High,
I will by no means exalt them.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come against their cities.
They will follow the Lord;
he will roar like a lion.
When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come from Egypt,
trembling like sparrows,
from Assyria, fluttering like doves.
I will settle them in their homes,”
declares the Lord.
Several generations have passed since the rule of King Ahab and the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Even more generations have passed in the kingdom of Israel (the northern kingdom comprising of 10 tribes) since it broke off from the southern kingdom of Judah, under the leadership of their first king, Jeroboam. In Hosea’s time, another Jeroboam has risen to power as king – Jeroboam II.
According to archeological findings, the rule of Jeroboam II had brought the northern kingdom of Israel to the greatest prosperity it had known. Of course, that meant prosperity for the wealthy and powerful. It meant prosperity for the king. It also meant a yoke of oppression and exploitation of the poor in the kingdom. Jeroboam II was a king who was skilled in negotiating trade (especially with Egypt and Assyria, who were much larger, more powerful, and potential threats to Israel), but he was also a king given to excessive shows of wealth and amusements. He also continued the practices of worship at the altars Jeroboam I had set up in Dan and Bethel. In other words, the practices of idol worship had been continuing for these many generations under the kings of Israel.
Hosea and his contemporaries (Joel and Amos), were prophets during this time. They criticized two main things: the continued idol worship and the exploitation and oppression of the poor. Much of the book of Hosea are pronouncements of judgment and doom upon God’s unfaithful people, but especially upon the powerful who lead those in their kingdom astray. Hosea, himself, in fact, marries an unfaithful woman named Gomer, whom he still loves despite her unfaithfulness. Hosea sees his own marriage as symbolic of God’s relationship with Israel.
In this particular passage today, however, we see not the doom and the gloom we find in most of Hosea. Instead, we find God wrestling with his love for his people even as they are unfaithful to him. Notice the tender and affectionate language of the opening verses. Notice the language of nurture and of care for Israel as a vulnerable but beloved little child. In these words, I can recognize my affection and tenderness towards my own son, my little toddler, who still relies so fully on me. I think of the many times I lift him to my cheek in an embrace. Maybe you can recognize your own love in these words for your children when they were tiny, or your grandchildren.
Then the text takes a bit of a turn, as God looks at them like a parent of a rebellious teenager heading down a destructive path. We see God express frustration and downright anger that the beloved child is making these choices. We get the sense that God is getting so fed up with his child that he’s about to wash his hands of Israel. It’s time for tough love. It’s time to leave Israel to his own doom. My child is still a toddler, but I know the teenage and young adult years are coming, and a wonder (and fear) what they might bring. Maybe you, as a parent or grandparent know the anguish that God is expressing here.
But then, the text takes yet another turn, and it is almost as if we are overhearing a conversation that God is having with himself. He wants to be done with dealing with Israel. He wants to just cut his child off. But then, it as if God stops, and comes back to himself, and we hear the voice of the tender parent again: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.” In this text, we are reminded of the character of God. God’s very nature is one of compassion. Of forgiveness. Of second chances. God has always been thus. From the very beginning through the full realization and expression of that compassion in Christ Jesus, this is WHO GOD IS.
Remember, ancient Israel’s story was one of chronic unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The leaders were constantly causing or at least enabling people to turn away and worship false gods. The powerful were constantly oppressing the vulnerable they were charged to shepherd and care for. This had been going on for a long, long time. God had every right to be angry, to be frustrated, to be ready to cut them off. That is, after all, how any human parent would probably feel under the same circumstances. Maybe you, yourself, have been there. But here, we are reminded that God is not, in fact human. God is holy. God is compassion. Alexander Pope’s words come to mind: “To err is human; to forgive is Divine.” Thanks be to God!
o What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o In what ways do you relate to God in this passage? In what ways do you relate to Israel?
o Where have you experienced forgiveness and compassion in your life, whether from God or from others?
Sometimes the hardest thing is recognizing the sin or pain that exists within ourselves. Take time this week to engage in the spiritual practice of journaling. Don’t think too hard about what to write, or grammar, or sentence structure. Just simply write, asking God to open up parts of your heart that need to be opened up.
Think about a time when you experienced compassion and forgiveness and what that did for you. Write a letter of gratitude to the person who offered it, or to God. If you are able to send the letter to the person, do so. It might be just what they need to hear.
God, your love for me is beyond all comprehension. You bend over to lift me up to your cheek again and again. You hold me like a mother holding her newborn child, with tenderness and deep love. You always make room for me to sit down at your table, even when I run off and forget you, or worse, snub you and disown you. Thank you for never disowning me, even when you might have every reason. God, whose name is Love, soften my heart. May I hear your “roar” that always calls me home. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.