“Sorrow and love flow mingled down” from the lines of this poem.1
The poet draws on imagery from across the spectrum, as if grasping desperately for a metaphor, however inadequate, to capture the turmoil brewing in God’s heart. Israel is a recalcitrant son (v. 2), idolatrous (v. 2), an ungrateful patient of the divine healer (v. 3), livestock (v. 4), recipients of divine tenderness (v. 4), and ultimately hell bent on turning from God (vv. 5, 7). All of this imagery is used to communicate one thing: Despite God’s history of tender care and concern for Israel, God’s people consistently reject that tender care in favor of following their own inclinations. Israel has what one might call a “bound will.”
The poem begins with a painful recollection of times God showed love and tenderness to Israel, only to be rejected time and time again (vv. 1-5). Israel’s “childhood” is recalled when God called his son out of Egypt (v. 1). The sweetness of this experience, however, is quickly soured by Israel’s disobedience. The text summarizes Israel’s story in this way: The more Israel was called by God, the more they rebelled against God (v. 2). So blind had God’s people become that they couldn’t even recognize who was healing them (v. 3). Now that’s a description of sin — the inability to see one’s redeemer as anything but an enemy!
Breaking point reached: God decides to drop the hammer and unleash the nations against Israel (vv. 5-7): foreign domination will ensue (v. 5), the raging and devouring sword will afflict them (v. 6), and God will ignore their prayers (v. 7). The interplay between God’s destructive work (vv. 5-6) and God’s hiddenness (v. 7) is notable. Judgment, in this case, involves both aspects: God afflicts Israel through the agency of the nations and God hides God’s face from them. When God hides, terrors are unleashed, and the redeemer available to Israel in the Exodus is suddenly out of reach.
Thankfully, the God of Hosea 11 is the same God found in Romans 5:10 — a God who chooses, quite apart from human initiative, to be reconciled with God’s own enemies. Without warning, God’s heart is strangely warmed (v. 8). A series of anguished questions reveals that God’s ferocity was but a moment (Psalm 30:5): “How can I give you up?” God exclaims. Just the thought of ignoring God’s people, refusing their prayers, brings God out from behind the locked door of wrath and into the open, where God is available again as a God of compassion and mercy. Let’s be clear: This shift from wrath to compassion was not prompted by any human deed, it comes from God’s resolve alone to be at this moment a God of compassion rather than wrath. Between vv. 7-8 there is no change in Israel, only a change in God. Rejecting wrath and hiddenness, God brings forth new promises: “I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim” (v. 9).
As Walter Brueggemann has shown, God not only resolves to set aside God’s anger, God in fact takes divine judgment into God’s own self.2 The key insight is found in v. 8, where God resolves not to give Israel up like Admah and Zeboiim, cities destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah (Deuteronomy 29:23; cf. Genesis 10:19). The term used to describe the overturning of God’s heart (root, h-p-kh) in v. 8 is the same term used to describe the overthrowing of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:21. In other words, Israel’s sin is here compared to the sin of the cities destroyed in Genesis 18-19, but where Hosea 11 differs from Genesis is in its insistence that God would absorb the judgment Israel deserved. In Brueggemann’s words, “YHWH resolves to contain the ‘quake’ in YHWH’s own life.”3 Israel deserved judgement, but what it got was mercy, obtain through a God willing to suffer for their sins — the Gospel of our Lord, thanks be to God.
When Christians think about God’s willingness to suffer on behalf of sinful humans, they often think about Christ hanging from the cross. And they should. But Hosea 11:1-9 helps us realize that the cross is not a new development in the life of God, it represents who God is fundamentally. The cross is a climactic moment, but one that is situated along an already existent trajectory.4 In Christ God does not become a suffering God, rather, God exercises God’s deep longing to be among God’s people, a longing that motivated the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:8-9). God’s willingness to suffer on behalf of creation, however, is supremely seen in Christ, who takes into himself not only sinful human rage but also divine wrath. Christ truly becomes a curse.
If you choose to preach on Hosea 11:1-9 this week, I urge you to consider using the opportunity to challenge common misconceptions about the “God of the Old Testament.” Help your congregation see that grace, compassion, divine suffering, and forgiveness are not New Testament categories, they are biblical categories. The God of the Bible is just such a God.
1 This line is from Isaac Watts’ famous hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
2 See Walter Brueggemann, “The Recovering God of Hosea,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 30 (2008): 16-18.
3 Ibid., 17.
4 See also Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984), 4.
PRAYER OF THE DAYFaithful God, you have continued to love your people despite our faithlessness to you. Receive our thanks for never giving up on us. Amen.
HYMNS Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love ELW 708, H82 602, NCH 498, UMH 432 Jesus loves me ELW 595, NCH 327, UMH 191
CHORAL Jesus loves me, Monte Mason