Turn back to God
This article is based on a talk on Hosea chapter 14 verses 1-9 first given by David Couchman at Above Bar Church, Southampton on Sunday 12th March 2006. It may be reproduced in print or on other web sites, subject to the copyright notice below.
A friend of mine was a happily married family man, with a very attractive wife and two young children. Last year he discovered that his wife has been having a series of affairs with other men, and that at least one of the children he had thought was his, was not.
You can imagine the devastation that he felt. You can only imagine the storm in his heart whenever he looks at these children. Hosea must have had the same feelings when he came face to face with the unfaithfulness of his wife Gomer. (Hosea chapters 1-3).
This article looks at the end of the book of Hosea - chapter 14. It would be fairly easy just to go through chapter 14 verse by verse, but I would like to try to do more than that. It is too easy for us to have our minds informed, but without our lives being changed. But God is in the business of changing our lives.
So as we look at Hosea chapter 14, I would like to leave three pictures in your mind. I hope these pictures will stick in our memories, remind us what Hosea is about, and help us to apply his message to ourselves.
First picture: the wayward wife
In the first three chapters of Hosea, there is the story of Hosea's wife, Gomer, who has done all this: she has left her husband, had affairs with other men, and had children by them. And God says that this is a picture of his people. He tells Hosea:
Take to yourself an adulterous wife, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord. (chapter 1 verse 12)
God calls his people a prostitute. Sometimes God deliberately uses very crude language to get our attention. We can be far too polite and 'nice' about things. We water them down to make sure that we do not offend anyone, we do not shock anyone. But God means us to be shocked by this picture. If we sanitise it, we are actually undermining what God wants to say to us.
Where do we fit into the story of Hosea? Just as Gomer is a picture of Israel, Israel itself is a picture of us. We are the wayward wife! We are the people who have turned away from God, rejected God, and gone our own way.
Of course, the Bible's word for this is 'sin.' Today we do not take sin very seriously. But we need to keep reminding ourselves that sin, in the Bible, is not just living with someone you are not married to, or over-eating at Christmas. The heart of sin is rejecting the God you belong to. And all of us have done it.
(People sometimes think that Christians are smug and complacent people who believe they are good enough for God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christians are people who recognise that they have turned away from God, and are no better than a wayward wife.)
This is us. This is where we fit into the story.
Chapter 14 begins with an appeal to the wayward wife to turn back:
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!
Take words with you
and return to the Lord.
Say to him:
'Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously.' (verses 1-2)
'Take words with you.' Do our words matter? Back in chapter 6, there is the story of the people saying
Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
let us press on to acknowledge him. (chapter 6 verses 1-3)
They took words. But then, shockingly, God rejected their advances, and he said 'no, it's just empty words. I'm not interested. Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.' (chapter 6 verse 4)
Words on their own will never be enough. There has to be heartfelt reality too. Words on their own will never be enough, but there do have to be words. Turning back to God means confessing to him your sin and guilt, telling him you're sorry, and asking him to forgive you. And all of this needs words.
Take words with you
and return to the Lord.
Say to him;
'Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously.'
(chapter 14 verse 2)
This was what Hosea most wanted to hear from his wayward wife. It was what God most wanted to hear from his people - and it is what he most wants to hear from us. 'Take words with you and return to the Lord.'
What kind of waywardness had God's people turned to? Well, look at what they need to say, as they come back to him:
Assyria cannot save us;
we will not mount war-horses. (verse3)
When Hosea lived, Israel was a small nation, surrounded by much more powerful nations. They had a history of playing politics with their neighbours. They were making and breaking agreements, first with Egypt, then with Assyria.
So, for example:
Ephraim is like a dove,
easily deceived and senseless -
now calling to Egypt,
now turning to Assyria. (chapter 7 verse 11)
What is at stake is: who will they rely on? Will they rely on Assyria? On Egypt? Or on God? That is what's at stake for us too. When we are not in church on Sunday, when we are not talking religious talk, who do we rely on?
- when my health fails...
- when my most important relationships break down...
- when my career lies in ruins...
... Who do I rely on?
But as well as their political scheming, they had also turned to the fertility gods of the surrounding nations. This was how they tried to guarantee that they would be well off.
So in the second half of verse 3, as they turn back to God, they need to say
We will never again say 'Our gods'
to what our own hands have made...
That is what is at stake for us too. Who do I worship? What do I worship? This is too obviously a 'religious' question, so let me put it in a different way: what is most important in all the world to me? What is it that really matters?
- Some special relationship?
- My friends?
- What people think of me?
- My career?
- The things I have?
- My money?
It is easy to separate our 'religious' beliefs from how we actually live. We say we worship God - but we put all kinds of other things front and centre in our lives. This was exactly what the Israelites were doing. But if our faith does not affect our attitude to our relationships, our reputations, our careers, our possessions... what is it really worth?
Turning back to God means not relying on other things or people, and not making other people or things the most important in our lives.
The end of verse 3 expresses this beautiful confidence, for those who do turn back to God:
In you the fatherless find a father's love. (New English Bible)
It is a reference back to the name of Hosea's wife's daughter in chapter 1: 'Not loved.' But now, 'In you the fatherless find a father's love.'
So this is the first picture that I hope wewill take away from Hosea: the wayward wife who needs to turn back, and the invitation to turn back.
This is not just a historical curiosity. It is a picture of how each one of us has turned away from God and needs to turn back to him.
And it is not just what we were years ago: it is what we still are now, by nature - all of us. If we really grasp this picture, we shall be shocked, perhaps even offended by it. If we grasp what our attitude to God is really like, it hurts. We are the wayward wife.
Second picture: The loving husband
The second picture I hope we will take away from Hosea is of a husband who does not give up loving.
Hosea really did love Gomer. He did not just marry her because God told him to. He loved her - and he was heartbroken when she was unfaithful.
Hosea's love for his wayward wife is a picture of God's love for his people. So often today, when someone talks about God, it sounds as if they are talking about a harsh tyrant, who only wants to spoil their fun. But the reality is that God loves us far more than we can imagine. He is not a tyrant who's out to make our lives miserable; he is a husband who loves us, and longs for us to return to him, even though we keep turning away from him.
In Hosea, just as the picture of Gomer's waywardness is shocking, the picture of God's love for us is shocking too. If we are not moved to tears by it, we have not fully grasped it.
But today, to talk about God's love, God's care, God's longing for us to turn to him, lays itself open to a dangerous misunderstanding. So often we think of love as wishy washy and weak.
But there are times when 'love must be tough.' Do not confuse God's love and God's care for you with weakness. Today, he holds out his arms to you, and invites you to turn back to him. But for those who continue to reject him, there will come a day when he will say, 'OK. You've made that choice. Now you have to live with the results.' Hosea is a book about the lavishness, the richness, of God's love - but it is also a crystal-clear message about God's judgment.
We have to be careful to keep both these things together - the severity of God's judgment on those who keep on turning away from him, and his kindness and love for those who turn back to him. (See Romans chapter 11 verse 22)
The place where we most see the richness of God's love is in sending his Son to live with us, and to die for us:
God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans chapter 5 verse 8)
Not for people who deserved it. Not even for people who had already turned back to him, but for the people who were still rejecting him and spitting in his face - in Jesus' case, literally spitting in his face. That is why in Galatians, Paul can talk about
The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians chapter 2 verse 20)
God created us to live in a relationship with him. We have turned away from him, and rejected him, and spat in his face. Yet He cares about us more than we can imagine. He longs for us to turn back to him. God's own Son, Jesus, gave his life so that you and I can be forgiven and restored into a right relationship with God.
In Hosea chapter 14 verses 4-8, there is a picture of the good things God longs to do for his people:
I will heal their waywardness... (verse 4)
Literally, it is 'I will heal their turning.' They had turned away from God, and now the promise is that he will turn them back to himself. They are so far gone that they cannot even turn back without his help.
I will heal their turning,
and love them freely,
for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
he will send down his roots;
his young shoots will grow.
His splendor will be like an olive tree,
his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.
Men will dwell again in his shade.
He will flourish like the grain.
He will blossom like a vine,
and his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon.
O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?
I will answer him and care for him.
I am like a green pine tree;
your fruitfulness comes from me. (verses 4-8)
Do you see how God piles on the pictures - great trees, flowers, grain, and wine - they are pictures of fruitfulness and freshness and security, when his people turn back to God.
What exactly is it that Hosea is describing in these verses? You could say that he is describing what God was offering to the Israelites in his own day. But it goes beyond that. It also describes what God will eventually do for the people who do turn back to him.
The book of Hosea is a message about God's judgment on his people for turning away from him. But all through the book, there are these hints or glimmers of restoration beyond judgment.
The first of these comes at the end of chapter 1:
The Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' they will be called 'sons of the living God.' The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel. 'Say of your brothers, 'My people,' and of your sisters, 'My loved one.' (Chapter 1 verse 10 to chapter 2 verse 1)
Then in chapter 2 verse 15, he talks about the valley of trouble being made a door of hope. If you read on in chapter 2, several times, he talks about how he will restore Israel 'on that day.' What day is he talking about?
Well, in chapter 3 verses 4-5, he says:
The Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol...
- they will spend a long time under God's judgment.
Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king...
- they will turn back.
They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.
The 'blessings' here are what Hosea is describing in chapter 14, and the time is 'The last days.'
If you look in other places in the Bible, for example in the New Testament, you will find that this expresssion 'the last days' becomes almost a technical expression for the time when Christ is beginning to establish his kingdom. It is the end of this present age. And this is what Hosea is talking about here in chapter 14 verses 4-8.
In Hosea, the emphasis is on the people of Israel. But if you look in other places in the Bible, it is very clear that the fulfillment of these verses will includeall the nations of the world. So we can quite rightly take these promises and apply them to ourselves.
So if the first picture to take away from Hosea is of the wayward wife who needs to turn back - that is us - the second picture is of the husband who does not stop loving - that is God.
Third picture: The two paths - the choice we have
Picture this: you have been out for a long walk in the forest. It is getting late. Dusk is falling, and you are frankly, well... lost.
You come to a fork in the path. One way leads back to the car, to a hot drink and home. The other way leads off into one of those incredibly boggy patches that the forest specialises in. The question is: which way should you go?
This is the last picture that I hope Hosea will leave with us. Two paths:
Who is wise? He will realize these things... (verse 9)
- what things? Well, the whole message of Hosea -
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.
The invitation in verses 1-3, and the promises of good things in verses 4-8 are not the whole story. They present a choice: 'This is what you need to do,' and 'this is what God will do.'
Hosea's wife, Gomer, had a choice whether to turn back to him or to continue in her waywardness. What did she choose? We do not know. Like so many stories in the Bible, it is left open-ended.
Through Hosea, God offered the people of Israel a choice: they could turn back to him, or they could continue to worship other gods and rely on other countries. This choice is expressed in verse 9 in terms of being righteous or being rebellious. Hosea says that the path of wisdom is to recognise the truth of the matter, and the rightness of turning back to God:
Let those who are wise understand these things.
Let those who are discerning listen carefully.
The paths of the Lord are true and right,
and righteous people live by walking in them.
But sinners stumble and fall along the way.
(verse 9, New Living Bible)
Hosea's story is a tragedy - not just because of his messed up family life, but because the Israelites ignored God's generous invitation. They carried on in their own ways, and in 722 BC, God's judgment fell, as the Assyrians swept in and destroyed them.
But - as we saw a moment ago - all through Hosea, there are glimmers of hope of restoration. God promises that one day, beyond judgment, there will be a people who will turn back to him, and who will love him faithfully, and who will receive all the good things he has foretold:
Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days. (Hosea chapter 3 verse 5)
The choice, and the challenge of Hosea still come to us today: which path are we on?
Maybe you have never thought much about it. Why not think it through today? God loves you, and longs for you to turn back to him.
Maybe you made that choice a long time ago. Perhaps that is part of the problem. You turned back to God years ago, but now, it does not have much of a cutting edge in your life. Other things have become more important. Other things are front and centre in your life.
The kind of turning back that Hosea calls for is not a decision that you make once and then forget. It is a complete way of life. It is a marriage. The challenge of Hosea is: who am I worshipping today? What am I relying on today? Which way am I facing today? .
So these are three pictures, that I hope we will take away from Hosea - that we will remember them, and live in the light of them:
- the wayward wife who needs to turn back - that is us: a picture of all of us, in our attitude towards God
- the loving husband who does not give up - that is God: a picture of how much he loves us and longs to see us turn back to him
- the two paths - that is the choice we face
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