Preaching from Hosea to a Nation in Crisis

Donald F. Ackland  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 18 - Fall 1975

Could any thought be more sobering at this time of bicentennial celebration than that two hundred years were all that were allowed to the kingdom of Israel to rise, prosper, decline, and pass into oblivion? Whatever system of Old Testament chronology we follow, two centuries only separate the rebellion against the Davidic line led by Jeroboam I and the rapid collapse of the Northern Kingdom that followed the death of Jeroboam II. In that brief space of time-brief, that is, in terms of history’s perspective—a new nation was born, rose to unparalleled prestige and power, and vanished in ignominious defeat.

The tragedy of Israel is all the more marked because the final disaster came so soon after a period of great national accomplishment for which credit goes to the statesmanship of Jeroboam II. Under his leadership the nation achieved a peak of prosperity and influence that had not been known since the times of David and Solomon. Enemies were defeated and territories annexed, making possible the extension of boundaries so that “by the mid-eighth century the dimensions of Israel and Judah together lacked but little of being as great as those of the empire of Solomon.”[1]John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), p. 240.

However, to use a Churchillian phrase, “the maggot was in the apple” long before the outward signs of dissolution were apparent. Two men at least saw through the veneer of confident prosperity and diagnosed the rottenness within. One was Amos, who came from neighboring Judah to deliver his scathing rebukes and stern warnings. The other was a native-born prophet, Hosea, who learned to weep over his people’s sins and their consequences through personal heartbreak brought on by the wanton behavior of an unfaithful wife.

That the heart of the Christian preacher should be strangely moved by the message of Hosea is no cause for surprise. As a result of his own agonizing experience, this prophet achieved a closer affinity to the Christ who wept over doomed Jerusalem (Matt. 23:27) than any other Old Testament spokesman. His own tears became lenses through which he saw more clearly not only the exceeding sinfulness of sin but also the suffering love of God as he vainly strove to turn a wayward people from pursuing a course of ultimate destruction.

 

The Suffering Heart of God

As we seek for ideas and inspiration to apply the message of Hosea to our own times and circumstances, we must not allow ourselves to become exclusively engrossed with Israel. The many parallels between that nation and our own are, as we will later recognize, strong invitations to focus on this human situation. But if Hosea has one emphasis that rises to an importance above all others, it is his portrayal of a God who can be hurt by the rebellion of his creatures and who undergoes a struggle within his own nature in which love eventually triumphs over justice.

What theologians refer to as “the impassibility of God” was an idea that held sway through many centuries. In essence, it regarded suffering as a trait of weakness and therefore impossible to attribute to the Divine Being. This objection may be recognized in the unwillingness of the Jews to see messianic significance in Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isa. 53). To them the perfections of the promised Deliverer excluded any possibility of suffering, a condition totally incompatible with authority and conquest. Hence they saw in the prophet’s mysterious sufferer a portrait of themselves.

It is more difficult to understand why, after the bestowment of the Christian revelation, the concept of divine suffering continued to be unacceptable to many theologians. Throughout the medieval period and even beyond the Reformation there was widespread unwillingness to associate pain, regarded as a sign of weakness, with the infinite. Some went so far as to claim that Christ suffered as man but not as God. “Somehow that distinction, however convenient to the theologian, does not seem to ring true to the story of the Gospels, or to the strong language of The Epistle to the Hebrews about the suffering of the Son of God.”[2]H. Wheeler Robinson, The Cross of Hosea (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1959), p. 25.

Neither does it ring true to the nature of God as revealed to and through the prophet Hosea. If there is one passage in his book that calls out to the preacher for pulpit emphasis it is this:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim!

How can I hand you over, 0 Israel!

How can I make you like Admah!

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 not man,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come to destroy.

(11:8-9, RSV)

 

The Divine Dilemma

Here we face the divine dilemma, the inward struggle in the heart of God that was to lead at length to Calvary. The gravity of human sin was such an affront to God’s holiness that his justice demanded an adequate penalty. But infinite love intervened and sought a way to restrain judgment without condoning transgression. The consequent tension is expressed in the acknowledgement, “My heart recoils within me,” literally, “is turned over” in agonizing turmoil.

If we say that this expresses only a passionless ”sympathy,” and that God does not sorrow and does not suffer because of the sin of his people, how much force is left in such words? How can a God who is apathetic be also sympathetic? But if Hosea’s words are interpreted by hat experience of the prophet in which they seem to have arisen—Hosea’s own inability to detach himself from Gomer because of his sorrowing and suffering love for her—then the words become charged with a gospel, and point on directly to the truths of the New Testament. . . .

. . . the Christian conception seems to be that of a triumph through the cross, a victory through apparent defeat, a joy that is all the richer joy because it is won, like that of Jesus, through great suffering, voluntarily accepted and endured for the joy that was set before him.[3]Ibid., pp. 24-25.

The truth that the Old Testament, as a revelation of God and his ways with men, is inadequate and incomplete without the New Testament is evident in the book of Hosea. Yet through “the theology of experience” this ancient spokesman to Israel came nearer to understanding the self-sacrificing love of God than most of Israel’s psalmists and prophet. He saw In his own domestic tragedy a parable of God’s anguish over his rebellious people and of his willingness to explore every possibility of forgiveness and restoration. It was left, however, to those who recorded and explained the gospel to tell how great was the price that was eventually paid to make redemption possible. However we read Paul’s description of the church as purchased with his own blood” (“with the blood of his Own,” Acts 20:28, RSV marg.), we cannot miss the affirmation that the God who suffered because of transgressions also suffered in order that they might be put away. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor. 5:19). This must be our message.

Should we, then, be led to Hosea 11:8-9 for sermon material, we might develop the theme of “The Divine Dilemma” under four headings. Our starting point could be the fact of sin, illustrated in the conduct of the prophet’s wife, but evident in all of human nature. As far removed from our sin as light is from darkness is the holiness of God: We are not to think of this as a passive quality that merely distinguishes the perfections of God from our imperfections but as an active attribute that contends with every offending condition. Because God is holy he is against every form of iniquity and must move in judgment against it. Thus the doom of the sinner would be sealed were it not for God’s undeviating love. Hosea’s victory over his own sensitivities in buying back the polluted Gomer prepares us for his insights into the victory of divine love. But we have to cross over into the New Testament to learn the price of reconciliation. “Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, . . . But with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

 

God and a Nation

Our nation’s bicentennial will naturally and properly motivate many preachers to seek in Holy Scripture appropriate messages for this significant occasion. With this in mind, Hosea can prove a highly satisfying field of study. The relationship between the prophet and his wife provides, in miniature, a picture of the relationship between God and his people. Through his own bitter-sweet experience Hosea learned and expounded truths that had immediate application to Israel and a projected application to our own nation, particularly at this juncture in its history.

But before we embark on any contemporizing of Hosea’s message we need to nail one fact to our study desks. The United States is not Israel. As a nation, we are not, in the biblical sense, a chosen people. Favored and privileged we have been and are, but not chosen. Unless we are prepared to endorse the historic fallacies and national conceits of Anglo-Israelism (which heaven forbid), we must see ourselves as strangers to the Abrahamic covenant and only within the covenant of grace on the basis of individual repentance and faith. “Ye were . . . aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, . . . But now, in Christ Jesus, ye who sometime were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:12-13).

Patriotic commemorations lend themselves to rhetorical extravagances, not only from political platforms but also from pulpits. Before this year’s celebrations began Brooks Hays warned us against the dangers of degrading the Christian gospel into nationalistic hoopla. Nothing, of course, could more effectively save us from this than an informed approach to the prophecy of Hosea. Instead of indulging in an orgy of flag waving we are more likely to find ourselves asking with Paul, “If God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Rom. 11:21).

For the word that comes to us across the centuries from Israel’s native prophet is about privilege despised, blessings forgotten, gratitude neglected, vows broken, and judgment pronounced. Do such emphases as these seem poor fare for America’s bicentennial year? They need not and should not be our only themes, for Hosea had his moments of hope and visions of restoration as well as his more somber moods. Yet in his role as prophet this man knew, as do all true prophets of God, that the noblest service he could render to his country was to tell it the truth about its sins and their consequences.

Inscribed on the Jefferson memorial in Washington, D.C., are these insightful words, “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” The context of that statement, of course, was the evils of slavery. But who among us is so blind as not to see other evils in our midst, equally offensive to God, deserving of his wrath, and certain of his judgment? The iniquities that threatened destruction for Israel, spelled out by Hosea in his impassioned pleas, are with us still. Even in the midst of celebration the faithful preacher must recognize the presence of crisis and address himself to its seriousness.

 

Danger from National Religion

At the root of Israel’s perilous condition was the substitution of a national religion for the divinely appointed order. History helps us to see how this came about. When the Northern Kingdom declared its independence of the line of David, one of Jeroboam’s primary objectives was to wean his people away from the Temple in Jerusalem. To achieve this he set up shrines at Bethel and Dan and “made priests of the lowest of the people” (1 Kings 12:26-33). While it is possible that Jeroboam intended only to offer competition to established Hebrew worship and not to provide substitutes for it, his calves of gold and their pseudo-priests became an increasing snare. As the new nation grew in power and prosperity it lavished its wealth on bigger and better shrines and sacred monuments. The European scene provides examples in plenty of this kind of religious extravagance, much of which now retains only its architectural splendor without much semblance of spiritual purpose. In South America the magnificence of innumerable cathedrals, resplendent with gold and gem-studded ornamentation, is in shocking contrast to the prevailing poverty and superstition.

Of course, it is comfortable to be able to apply the biblical situation to places as remote as these. But some have been unkind enough to accuse Southern Baptists of having an “edifice complex,” and the charge itself should be enough to compel us to self-examination. We could do worse than pay heed to the stinging rebuke of Hosea as he declared:

Israel is a luxuriant vine

that yields its fruit.

The more his fruit increased

the more altars he built;

as his country improved

he improved his pillars.

Their heart is false;

now they must bear their guilt,

The Lord will break down their altars,

and destroy their pillars.

(10:1-2, RSV)

What potential message is there in these verses for an American congregation in 1976? Suppose we begin with the idea of a vine that God planted. For Israel, the vine was a familiar symbol for itself. The idea is vividly expressed in Isaiah 5: 1-7 where God is described as planting, cultivating, and protecting his vine in anticipation of a rich harvest. We need have no difficulty in applying this picture to the beginnings of the American nation. Our origins were largely credit­ able and full of promise toward both God and men.

But Hosea’s parable proceeds to describe fruit misused. The KJV of 10:1 both hinders and helps our understanding of the prophet’s meaning. For “an empty vine” the margin offers the alternative “a vine emptying the fruit which it giveth.” Here the picture is different from that of Isaiah, who accused Israel of producing “wild grapes.” From Hosea’s viewpoint the guilt of the nation was that it emptied the vine for its own satisfaction: “he bringeth forth fruit unto himself” is the KJV’s helpful phrase. Was Israel in its years of prosperity the only nation to act in selfish indulgence with disregard for others’ needs? Does Hosea’s reproof speak to America’s pro­ longed waste of natural resources?

The opening words of 10:2 raise the question, “What is false religion?” The RSV reads, “Their heart is false.” Normally we associate falsity with doctrine. But the prophet’s reference is to motivation and attitude. Outwardly Israel was a highly religious nation. The multiplication and adornment of centers of worship suggested this. In the good times that resulted from the conquests of Jeroboam II, religion had its most successful years—that is, so far as external evidence was concerned. But all this emphasis on the trappings of religion failed to impress Hosea or his God. They saw human pride in the architectural splendor, not an expression of devotion to him from whom all things proceed. For whom do we build: for God and others, or for community prestige and personal comfort?

The last part of verse 2 foretells worship centers in ruins. For Israel, and later for Judah, this was to become literally so. Foreign invasion brought destruction to their temples which were despoiled of their treasures. But when people either misuse or neglect the house of God, physical ruin need not be their greatest disaster. Said the glorified Christ to one church, “I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Rev. 2:5). Yet it need not be so, for to the same church he said, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (v. 10).

 

Celebration and Crisis

The related themes of celebration and crisis, recognizable in Hosea and certainly applicable to our current national anniversary, have already been mentioned. The long reign of Jeroboam II had provided many reasons for thanksgiving on the part of the leadership of the nation, though not necessarily for the poor. In spite of the moral decadence of the times, it was unthinkable within the Hebrew tradition that rejoicing should be expressed apart from religious forms. Hence the nation continued to go through the exercises of worship, adding to the magnificence of its rituals as growing wealth made this possible.

All this religious activity, however, was neither approved nor accepted by God. This is nowhere more evident than in Hosea’s reproof of Ephraim, the name of this tribe being frequently used by Hosea to denote the entire Northern Kingdom. To Israel as a whole, therefore, he declared:

Because Ephraim has multiplied altars for sinning,

they have become to him altars for sinning.

Were I to write for him my laws by ten thousands,

they would be regarded as a strange thing.

They love sacrifice;

they sacrifice flesh and eat it;

but the Lord has no delight in them.

Now he will remember their iniquity,

and punish their sins;

they shall return to Egypt.

For Israel has forgotten his Maker, . . .

(8:11-14, RSV)

Worship can be sinful! There, perhaps, is a sermon title, startling in its contradiction of normal thought. Yet how true it is that

The best when perverted invariably becomes the worst. Altars are the symbols of man in quest of life’s supremest good—his quest of God; yet when used with wrong motives and for wrong ends, they become occasions for man’s sin. And since the altars at best are viewed as a means by which through worship man can overcome his sin, when perverted they involve him most deeply in iniquity . . . .

. . . Israel multiplied altars, but having more altars is no guarantee of possessing more religion. The Christian test is not how many altars but what sort-not quantitative but qualitative.[4]Harold Cooke Philips, “The Book of Hosea: Exposition,” The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1956), 6:652.

Hosea’s warning against forms and attitudes of worship that displease rather than please the Lord may have special application to the people of America at this time. Patriotic fervor over the bicentennial will certainly seek religious expression. Nor should we object if, through a new emphasis on spiritual duties and values, our people are persuaded to engage in activities that contain the promise of spiritual revival and renewal. Indeed, most evangelicals will surely agree that if the churches have one outstanding responsibility at this time it is to seek divine help in using the prevailing mood to draw attention to and gain acceptance for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yet, if we and those to whom we preach are to profit from the ministry of Israel’s prophet, we must not ignore his repeated exposure of the danger of styles of worship that are as shallow as they are self-centered. Disagreement exists among expositors as to the true interpretation of Hosea 6:1-3, yet it seems to this writer that the following verse provides an indisputable key:

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?

What shall I do with you, O Judah?

Your love is like a morning cloud,

like the dew that goes early away.

(6:4, RSV)

To the casual reader, the words with which this chapter opens are beautiful in their expression of repentance for sin and hopefulness toward God. Surely the conscience-stricken worshipers are turning their backs on their discreditable past and reaching out for divine forgiveness and restoration. Yet, apparently, this was not so. Their well-chosen words had been put in their mouths by professional liturgists. Today they would be printed in the Order of Service and read by preacher and congregation “in unison.” The sentiment would be excellent but sincerity lacking.

God saw through this masterpiece of ecclesiastical rhetoric. No matter how fine it sounded, it was hollow to his ears. In exasperation he exclaimed, “What shall I do with you?” a question that caused G. Campbell Morgan to comment:

God in difficulty in the presence of goodness!

. . . A morning cloud, and dew. They are both things of excellence, and things of exquisite beauty. The morning cloud, as the sun is rising, is smitten with beauty; and dew in the beauty of the morning, when every blade of grass is glistening in rainbow loveliness, is equally glorious. . . .

. . . both excellent, but evanescent; too feeble to produce a harvest, dissipated by the heat of the sun, ere any permanent result can be gained. Goodness evanescent, that is what creates God’s difficulty.[5]G. Campbell Morgan, Hosea: the Heart and Holiness of God (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1948), pp. 48-49.

 

Beware of Shallow Emotionalism!

The impermanence of emotional religion (is that another title?) is evident in so many areas. Suppose that, for the sake of orthodoxy in our homiletics, we think of three. There is, to begin with, what has been appropriately called fox-hole religion. This is caused by the emotion of fear. The soldier in the trenches, held down by a murderous barrage of enemy fire and surrounded by the dead and dying, promises God anything if only he gets out alive. Nations in crisis are similarly disposed to turn Days of Prayer into occasions for rededication that never becomes real because it is not accompanied by reformation. Like the “morning cloud” it “goes early away.”

The same danger lurks in ecstatic religion. Moments of happiness may turn our hearts toward God and stimulate pledges of grateful loyalty that never materialize into reality. Old Testament history abounds in examples of this, for that history is largely written in recurring cycles of blessings enjoyed, lapses into sin, stirrings of repentance producing gestures of divine mercy, and resultant thanksgiving that too soon gave place to new transgressions. What happens to nations is repeated in individual experience. The new father fondling his first-born vows to be a better man. The successful businessman pledges to the Lord his tithe, and more. The weepy-eyed beauty queen talks of answered prayer and a life yielded to God. And all, presumably, at the moment of joy are sincere in their gratitude without being steadfast in their purpose. The dew of their devotion soon dries up so that, at best, they become satisfied with being mediocre Christians.

We need to turn to our Lord’s parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23) for our third thought, unharvested religion. Even the Master knew the disappointment of listeners who appeared to respond to his message but produced no fruit. The seed of the gospel, sown in their hearts, produced some signs of life, but for one reason or another, the green shoot of response withered and died. Like the morning cloud and the dew, it took only a little heat to make it vanish away. Yes, Jesus had his disappointments; but he found encouragement also, as, through his grace, may we, in the seed that “fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:8-9).

The distance between the New Testament gospel and our Old Testament prophet is never great. Also, just as the words of Christ and his apostles have a relevance not changed by passing years, so the messages of Hosea to his audience in the eighth century B.C. have remarkable application to Americans of this twentieth century. At times the contemporary impact of this old-time seer is nothing less than shocking; as, for example, when he reveals a deep disillusionment with human leadership. This disillusionment, indeed rejection, is heard most clearly in the divine pronouncements for which Hosea was the vehicle. But it is also detectable in the attitude of the people who had learned the hard way the fallibility of priests and kings.

It should be recognized that this spirit of disillusionment was a direct outgrowth of moral and spiritual decadence. The cohesive fiber of society had been gradually destroyed by religious apostasy and political corruption. Having first drifted away from God, the nation was in the process of social disintegration. Symptomatic of this was their frank acknowledgement, “We have no king, for we fear not the Lord, and a king, what could he do for us?” (10:3, RSV).

 

Condemnation of Vice and Violence

This cynicism toward both royalty and religion was no college campus outburst to be forgotten by the beginning of a new term. It revealed the deep-seated malady of a people that had for long pursued a path of Godward infidelity and social irresponsibility. The moral foundations had been eroded to such an extent that even God despaired of them. Is there any indictment in Scripture more serious than this:

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel;

for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants

of the land.

There is no faithfulness or kindness,

and no knowledge of God in the land;

there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and

committing adultery;

they break all bounds and murder follows murder.

(4:1-2, RSV)

For the American reader (or congregation) the terrifying impact of these words is caused by the realization that today they describe not the unusual but the normal. Any daily newspaper will provide examples that coincide with Hosea’s catalog of vice and violence. The description of complete demoralization implicit in “no faithfulness or kindness” may not yet be true of our own nation, in which signs of moral decay are strangely offset by displays of compassionate concern and idealism. But are we not teetering on a slippery slope that could ultimately lead to that condition of unrelieved evil which brought Israel to destruction?

The verdict of the divine observer of his people’s sin, who was at the same time their judge, was this, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6), with its earlier amplification, “There is no . . . knowledge of God in the land” (v. 1). That this should have been said of a people immersed in religious rite and ritual indicates that God’s complaint was against false concepts of his character and demands. There was an “inner spirit of alienation from Yahweh” to know whom

is to be just and loving; not to know him is to be the opposite, and this injustice and disloyalty spring from within. They seek God zealously, but do not find him, because they have this false idea of what he is and what he wants; he has withdrawn himself from such a false approach to him, and their very deeds them­ selves will forever prevent a true approach (ch. 5:6).[6]Robinson, pp. 39-39.

That the Lord regarded the priests as primarily responsible for this heart ignorance is made clear in a significant variation from the KJV, “with you is my contention, O priest” (4:4, RSV). The verses that follow lay at the door of the religious leadership a solemn charge of dereliction of duty with its corresponding penalty: “because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (v. 6, RSV). The very persons who should have prevented spiritual apostasy and, when it happened, have called the nation back to God had been guilty of leading Israel astray.

When the history of modern Russia can be reviewed dispassionately, without that bias of judgment that atheistic Communism invariably injects, the world will have fresh evidence of the destructive potential of misdirected religious leadership. When those who pose as representatives of God align themselves with the forces of reaction and oppression, when they have little to offer besides ecclesiastical pomp and display, when their practices and teachings are tainted with superstitions that obscure the truth, then the seeds of popular skepticism and ultimate irreligion are sown. In more nations and centuries than one, self-seeking, truth-suppressing ecclesiastics can be charged with responsibility for bringing thrones and nations to disaster. Everywhere and in all times those who profess to speak and act for God need to be disciplined as well as dedicated, walking humbly with their Maker and before men.

In Hosea’s time, God’s displeasure with the priests was coupled with rebuke for the royal house:

Hear this, O priests!

Give heed, O house of Israel!

Hearken, O house of the king!

For the judgment pertains to you; . . .

(5:1, RSV)

There is some hope for a nation when its church leaders are pre­pared to challenge its rulers, as John Knox railed at Mary Queen of Scots in her own capital. When, however, church and state go hand in hand in committing all kinds of perverseness, there is little hope of survival. If we rightly interpret Hosea 7:3-7, popular fury eventually took ruthless revenge against corrupt leaders. History itself confirms that in the twenty-two years after Jeroboam’s death six kings reigned, four of whom were assassinated.

The age of disillusionment is a description often given to our own times. Largely that disillusionment centers in leadership—in the “establishment,” of whatever sort it may be. For many, the target of disapproval is the church and its ministers. The consequences of this are only too visible in Europe, where in many countries large elements of the population have severed all relationship with organized religion. Many elegant sanctuaries in which thousands regularly worshiped are now empty shells, pathetic monuments to a glorious past. Let us not say that it cannot happen here. In some parts of the United States the same rejection of the organized church is taking similar toll, and the tide is moving slowly toward the south. Only as Christian congregations and their leaders present before the world a message and a life-style that are consistent and challenging can we hope to be the exception in a world that is increasingly turning its back on God.

 

A Gleam in the Darkness

Happily, the message of Hosea is not one of ultimate despair. As with other Old Testament prophets, this man succeeded in sustaining a note of hope and optimism in spite of the darkness of his times. With a tenderness that is unsurpassed in biblical literature, he pleaded for a return to God and promised that the Lord would more than meet his repentant people halfway. He recalled past mercies in order to stimulate gratitude and told of mercies to come if only men would forsake their sin and truly seek the Lord.

Few passages in this prophecy are more appealing than these verses in which the Lord rehearsed his loving patience toward Israel in the earliest stages of its nationhood:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,

and out of Egypt I called my son.

The more I called them,

the more they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals,

and burning incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

I took them up in my arms;

but they did not know that I healed them.

I led them with cords of compassion,

with the bands of love, . . .

(11:1-4, RSV)

If at this time we as a people will go back, not only to 1776 and Philadelphia, but also to 1607 and Jamestown, or to 1620 and Plymouth Rock, we will not lack proof of the divine providence at work in the beginning of our nation. As Israel was slow to respond to the gracious dealings of the Lord, so our loyalty to him and sensitivity toward his guidance ebbed and flowed. But he taught us to walk and, so long as we continued to walk in his ways and companionship, he blessed our going.

Against such a background of demonstrated solicitude Hosea pleaded with wayward Israel to make their peace with God. He who had dealt with them so gently in their infancy could be depended on to be the helper in crisis, even though that crisis had been brought on themselves.

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,

for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.

Take with you words

and return to the Lord;

say to him,

“Take away all iniquity;

accept that which is good

and we will render

the fruit of our lips . . . .”

(14:1-2, RSV)

There is a sense in which it is never too late with God for men to turn from their wickedness and seek his face. That, surely, is the glory of our gospel, which offers life everlasting even to a crucified thief. Though judgment on sin has been pronounced and the penalty has begun to take effect, there is a way into blessing for the sincerely repentant. Hence we hear the same voice that had spoken through Hosea such dire threats of approaching calamity responding in forgiveness and love to his people’s tears. Could any contrast be greater than the declaration of judgment in 5:8-12 and the assurance of restoration in 14:4-7? Perhaps Hosea himself wondered at the possibility of pardon for people so debauched in sin. For Hosea, though he knew more than most about the secrets of the Father’s heart, did not know that one day a fountain for sin and uncleanness would be opened in Jerusalem and a sacrifice offered that would atone for the transgressions of all mankind. This we know and this we must declare to the people of our beloved land whose greatest need in 1976 is to return to God.

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