Hosea is a book of difficult metaphors and righteous (or unrighteous?) anger. But Hosea 11:1-11 gives us a glimpse of God that reminds us that mercy is God’s defining characteristic, not wrath. And that when it comes to God, love conquers all.
The beginning of the book of Hosea opens with one of the more disturbing metaphors in Scripture: the image of Israel as an unfaithful wife, and God as (what we would call now) an abusive husband. It shows up in other prophets, but it is at its clearest here. God tells the prophet Hosea to take a wife of whoredom, and give their children strange names, like “Not-pitied” for God will no longer have pity on the house of Israel, and “not my people” for you are not my people and I am not your God. Those kids did not have an easy time at school, I bet.
Hosea’s wife and children represent the nation of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, following the split after the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. And they have fallen under the sway of the Baals, and they have forgotten what it is to be God’s people. In vivid prophecy, God declares what God will do with the nation of Israel: God will strip her naked, uncover her shame in front of her lovers, and hedge her way with thorns. In my Bible what I have written from when I first encountered this in seminary, “Whoa. Intense.” But intense doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is the kind of thing we hear about happening in countries far away, women being treated brutally for not maintaining their honor, and we thank God that we live in a place where such violence is not common (though it does happen, even here).
Much of Hosea, and much of the prophets, really, would fall in the category of what we often call “God’s wrath” Passages like this speak of God’s anger at his people’s failures to follow his law, failure to care for the vulnerable in their community, or straight up following other Gods. God’s wrath shows up fairly frequently in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. Sometimes people say that the Old Testament is characterized by God’s wrath, and the New by forgiveness, but that just means they haven’t read the Old Testament very well. Deliverance is the over-arching theme of the Old Testament narrative, and God’s forgiveness is constantly being demonstrated, whether it is given to a king, a patriarch, or a people.
Now in contrast with the angry, violent imagery of Hosea’s opening metaphor, chapter 11 gives us one of the most beautiful and meaningful metaphors in Christian thought: the image of God as a loving parent. In this image, God is to Israel as a loving parent to a wayward child. God taught them to walk, led them with cords of kindness, with bands of love. God is tender, and warm. God lifts the infant up, bending down to feed the child. But the child strays. The more God calls, the further the child wanders, they continue to offer sacrifice and incense to idols, and they will not come back to God.
The image of the people in the two metaphors is essentially the same. But we see two very different sides of God. At the beginning of the book of Hosea, we are shown a frightening, violent God, filled with rage. But in Chapter 11, God is tender and loving, and calls God’s children to return. This is one of the great tensions in the Bible and in our lives today, between God’s wrath and God’s love.
Today the question of how to handle the tension between punishment and grace is still in debate. Following every major national tragedy, we will hear of some preacher on TV telling us that this is God’s punishment for something he disagrees with, usually the latest political issues and scandals. Or we hear our neighbors say that “God has withdrawn his hand of protection” from our land because of our iniquity, as if God periodically abstains from being the author of all creation every once in a while, and allows some unnamed evil force to rule our lives. Christianity Today has an article in the latest issue addressing this very question, how do we reconcile that God is love with the image of the wrathful God found in the Bible?
This tension determines how we think we should respond to the people around us when they make mistakes, when they stray from the path, when they hurt themselves and others. We are called to defend righteousness and the truth, but we are also called to love one another as Christ loved us. The choice seems easy at first, but after watching the innocent suffer for the sins of others, we wonder if trying to be loving and forgiving all the time is enabling others to sin. In the real world, navigating between punishment and grace is never easy. Ask any parent. And I think it may be one of the biggest challenges of Christian life, is knowing when to be hard and when to be soft.
What the passage from Hosea tells us is that this tension is not limited to Scripture or ourselves, but exists within the very person of God. God is righteous, and cannot abide the way we turn away from God in sin. But God is also love, and God cares about us as a parent loves their child.
And in Hosea we see it clearly:
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Adamah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
My compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
What we know of God, indeed, what makes God God, and not a mortal, is that love wins.
God’s holiness is preserved, not in God’s righteous anger, but in God’s steadfast love. As scholar Fred Glaiser puts it, “wrath is what God does when warnings and punishments are necessary to preserve life and when protection is required for the oppressed; but grace is who God is, now and always.” This is what causes God bring redemption over and over again in the Old Testament. And when the cycle of warning and salvation went on too long, God took on flesh and came down to earth to redeem us once for all time. God’s love breaks the cycle of punishment and reciprocity that governs human relationships, where love is only returned when it was first given. And God’s love opens us to new possibilities, new futures, through which we lead lives of righteousness and love through the love we’ve been given.
It doesn’t always feel like love wins, or that love is even there. There are times when we feel alone and hurt, and God’s love seems a long way away. What is happening to us feels a lot more like wrath, a lot more like punishment than the blessings and prosperity that we want and sometimes even expect.
Fred Craddock, a famous pastor, tells a story of a minister he met in Chautauqua, NY who didn’t have any arms. Born without them, his mother would feed him, and dress him, and he’d gotten to be a pretty big boy. One day, his mother laid out his clothes on the floor, and said, “Dress yourself.”
He said, “But I can’t dress myself. I don’t have…”
“You’ll have to dress yourself,” she said. And then she left the room.
He kicked, and he screamed, and he yelled. He shouted, “You don’t love me anymore!” Finally, he realized that if he were going to get clothes on, he’d have to do it himself. And after hours of struggle, he managed to get some clothes on.
It wasn’t until much later that he discovered she was in the next room the whole time, crying.
The tension between punishment and grace is a tension we must live with. We know the wages of sin, and yet we sin anyway. But the good news is when we have fallen for the world’s tricks, when we have let our selfishness take over, when we have shouted in anger and frustration at God and pushed God away, when we feel such a great distance between ourselves and God that it seems nothing can bridge it, that God is often much closer than we realize, maybe even the next room. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.