Orphans in the Wilderness

Clyde Fant  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 18 - Fall 1975

“The Thinker,” Rodin’s brooding figure that sits in his sculpture gallery in Paris, is not his best work but by far his best known. What is he thinking? Many have wondered, and laughed, until “The Thinker” has become a comic figure. But there is nothing funny about him. And we do know what he is thinking about. 

He is Dante. He is brooding over the landscape of Hell. Once designed to be part of a colossal group of writhing figures, he now sits alone and ponders the geography of Hell that has taken shape in his mind. 

So Hosea contemplates the terrain of Israel, and no Dante was ever tortured by his imagination as Hosea by his vision. What did he see? 

It is morning, first. That is what he saw. Israel is a child, innocent, learning. God is holding his orphan child by the hands, and he is taking his first steps. No matter that they dwell in the wilderness. They dwell together. It is enough. The land is hard, but God is kind; he bends down and feeds him; he leads him only with cords of compassion; he takes his child up in his arms and heals his hurts (11:3-4). 

The child prospers. He leaves the desert for rich lands, the wilderness for walled cities. He plays the prodigal. The father is forgotten. The child’s love vanishes like the morning mist, like dew that goes away early (6:4). He does not know the source of his wealth. Israel is like an adulterous lover who does not know who has provided the grain, the new wine, and the oil and has multiplied the silver and gold (2:5-13). 

Israel is lost in foolish, silly pride; intoxicated with her youth, giddy with “calf rapture,” frolicking and reveling. Like a faithless lover she says the same words but her heart is false (10:2). She makes empty promises all the while her eyes run after her pagan lovers. Like Milton’s Lucifer, Israel cries:  

… furthest from him is best, 
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.[1]Paradise Lost, bk. 1, lines 247, 254-55, 263.

Israel became detestable like the thing she loved (9:10). Gray hairs filled her head, but in her vanity she never noticed the ugliness she became. Israel was too busy multiplying altars, even though they became altars for sinning (8:11). 

So God made the child a stranger to his laws (8:12). “Not my people”! (1:9). Thorns grew up among the heaps of stones that once were places of reverence. Israel stumbled and fell; in fear and pain she called out to the mountains, “Cover us,” and to the hills, “Fall upon us” (10:8). 

But there was not yet repentance in that cry, only a fearful sickness with her lost innocence and her sin. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, she cried out, 

O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah, fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.[2]Hamlet, act 1, sc. 2, lines 129-37.

Israel had compromised herself, a curious mixture of rank immorality and secular superstition that passed as religion—half-baked, a cake not turned, a sorry mixture (7:8). 

In C. S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress, John, who is the counterpart of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, returns in depression to the wall which he leaped to join the brown maidens of Desire: 

But when he perceived that no place was more, or less, haunted than another, then he came sidling back to the window in the wall. He had little hopes of it. He visited it more as a man visits a grave. It was full winter now, and the grove was naked and dark, the trees dripped in it, and the stream—he saw now that it was little more than a gutter—was full of dead leaves and mud. The wall, too, was broken where he had jumped over it. Yet John stood there a long time, many a winter evening, looking in. And he seemed to himself to have reached the bottom of misery.[3]Hamlet, act 1, sc. 2, lines 129-37.

John was not the first, nor the last, to discover the emptiness of sin. Hosea grieved as he saw Israel compromised and broken. But it was not enough that he should merely see and condemn—Hosea had to incarnate this suffering in his own experience. Like the One who knew no sin, who was made to know sin for us, Hosea had to bear in his own life its pain. 

Let the textual technicians debate whether Gomer was flesh and blood or not. The fact remains: the one who would bring words with him to speak deliverance from sin must know in his own life the experience of ruin, rejection, and repentance. Bearing about in our bodies the wounds sin makes, the marks in hands and head and sides of healed crucifixion, our lives miraculously resurrected by grace —these very signs of death are the hope of life. Like Livingston, who could always be known by the arm maimed by the lion, so these scars mark us as men saved from the jaws of death. 

Therefore we may declare deliverance. Therefore, like Hosea’s, our vision does not cease with the dim view through the morning cloud, love evaporating early like the morning dew. Hosea also saw forgiveness for God’s orphan children. The Lord promised to heal them from their hurt of sin, to love them freely, because he is God and not man. 

yes, I will bring them home again,
the Eternal promises.
(11:11, Moffatt) 

In him, “the orphan finds mercy” (14:3, RSV). 

So God promises even now to all his orphan wildernesschildren, adopted children who once knew only one Father. The same Father who once held their hands and taught them to walk also promises to receive back every poor prodigal who will turn his face toward home. 

It is no cheap grace that he offers. All who suffer from a temporary God-fright and say in their trouble: “Come, let us go back! The Lord has torn us up—but he’ll get over it! He has brought us down, but he’ll pick us up again! In two or three days it’ll all be over” (6:1-2), need to know that the mercy of the Lord cannot be gotten so cheaply. 

Those among us who pray for another Depression to pack the churches again, or who are satisfied if temporary troubles so depress people that they sit in church with more or less frequency—a kind of post-hospital revival of religion—need to hear and preach plainly what the Lord requires: “Sow for yourselves righteousness” (10:12a, RSV) 

and reap a harvest of God’s love;
break up your fallow [unplowed] ground,
by seeking knowledge of the Eternal;
you must seek the Eternal,
till he comes to rain salvation on you.
(10:12b, Moffatt) 

In this two hundredth year of our nation, we must remind America of these truths. Temporary troubles and temporary regrets will never heal our sickness. We must do three things, as Hosea plainly tells us, though the three are so united as to be one: we must seek knowledge of the Lord; we must break up our old ways; we must sow righteousness upon the earth. 

We must seek knowledge of the Lord. Israel mixed raw superstition with weak religion and got pure idolatry. If we will again dwell beneath his shadow and blossom like a vine (14:7), then we must throw down all other altars and cease to say, “My Baal,” and say, “My God.” Only the pure Word brings life. All compromises with secular salvation, all mixtures of traditional Christianity and popular superstitions—and there are many—must give way to a fresh hearing of the Word. 

The Christian faith and magic won’t mix. If we really believe in faith as we say, then it is time to be sure it is faith in God and not in our own faith. He will not do as we promise, but as he promises. And we had best know the difference—or, “it shall be like people, like priest” (4:9, RSV). We must break up our old ways. Like plowing fallow ground, our empty lives must be opened to receive the Word we have heard. To whom should it not be obvious by now that our avid additions without fruitful discipleship, our multiple rededications without steadfast love, our pressing crowds grudgingly offering only the sacrifice of one Sunday hour, merely represent the dew that leaves early, chaff blown from a threshing floor, smoke out of a chimney (13:3)? 

True repentance is less sure of itself and more sure of God. It is willing to deny culture to confess Christ. It never believes itself so orthodox that it is above reproof. It never uses its old faith to confirm its new sins. Rather, it expects the Bible to purge the wheat of faith from the chaff of tradition. And by this good year of our Lord, Baptists have been around long enough to need that as much as anyone. 

We must also sow righteousness upon the earth. True piety is something you are, then something you do. Righteousness is always the product of the first two elements in restoration already mentioned—seeking knowledge of the Lord and repenting. It is never identified—at least not by the Bible—with temple ritual and the language of Zion. 

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. (6:6, RSV) 

Still less is it identified with pious manners or mannerisms, nor with false-hearty “amenism,” from people or priests. Its essence is the upright walk before God. Treating people right. Telling the truth. Loving the stranger in our midst. The Bible says that to anyone who has ears to hear. 

G. A. Studdert Kennedy wrote:

Merely-formal religion is the very devil. It is useless, if not blasphemous, to stand and sing enthusiastically: 

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun 

—unless we realise … that He is now the rightful King of every corner of the world, and every department of human life. That He is ... as much concerned with the counting-house as He is with the Cathedral. That He is now King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and the only ruler of princes and all those strange new powers… — financiers, merchants, big business men, politicians—that they must all bow down before Him as their King, or else we must continue to suffer the tortures of the damned, and live in a world of darkness and lies.4[4]G. A. Studdert Kennedy, The Wicket Gate (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran 8c Co., 1929), pp. 99-100

But there is another alternative. The orphan child who is afar off, God promises to bring home. He is the Father who is God, and not man, and he will never turn away his love.  

In my first pastorate there was a family that had only one child. Every day at noon the boy loved to ride around the fields of the plantation where his father worked and call him home to lunch. One day his bike struck the back of a truck that suddenly stopped in front of him, and he suffered massive brain damage. 

For weeks the people in our church alternated around the clock with the parents and nurses at his bedside, where he was packed in ice to reduce his raging fever. The boy lived. But he could not speak, nor feed himself, nor walk, nor did he know anyone ever again. 

More than fifteen years have passed now, and the boy can only sit and smile at times, gaunt and weak, still fed through a tube in his stomach. And every night one or the other of his parents must sit up with him and stay awake through the long hours of darkness to be sure he doesn’t injure himself. 

One other thing. The boy is adopted. To this troubled foster child, two people are willingly giving their love—and their lives.  

So God, he who watches over Israel, neither slumbereth nor sleepeth, but his love goes on for the orphan child from the wilderness; and it will never cease until he is home again. It is true for all of us, once aliens and strangers who have been given the gift of adoption, for America in this day of her wanderings, and for every orphan child of man that the loving Father would bring home. 

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