Commentary on Hosea 6:1-6; 11:1-9
However one seeks to wrestle a word of good news from these two excerpts from Hosea one cannot escape the end of the narrative for Israel expressed in 2 Kings 17:6 (“The king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria”).
We might too soon rush to Hosea 11:8-9 (“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.”). We are apt to slide past the “again” which acknowledges the reality of 2 Kings 17:6. As God pledges never again to flood the earth (Genesis 8:21), so in Hosea 11 God’s inner musing concludes that God will never again wipe out Ephraim/Israel.
God determines to create a future for a relationship God has ended. The cancelation of the covenant signaled in the naming of Hosea’s children (Not-Pitied and Not My People; Hosea 1:6-9) will be un-canceled. God’s cancelation of God’s own cancelation means the change occurs first in God’s own determination. God changes; hope for the future hinges on God’s changing. Human refusal to change has become deathly. Ephraim/Israel has died. God will need to perform a new act of creation. God has to create a people of God where none exists since the covenant has been nullified. There is not a threat of nullification; the nullification has occurred.
To repeat, 2 Kings 17:6 is a fact. In the midst of that fact, the heart of God refuses to let God’s own judgment be the last word. Here a Christian reader can sense deep resonance with the move from Golgotha to Easter morning, the death of the old creature and rising of the new creature in Christ, and the movement from death to resurrection. There is a radical disjuncture in the move from one to another. We are deeply tempted to forge continuity and avoid telling the full truth about our current world.
That said, we can circle around other themes, but they will return us to the same point. The two excerpts from Hosea express both God’s expiration with and compassion for Israel. Neither expression should be diminished. God’s expiration in Hosea 6 is not a prelude to an additional chance for Israel to reform itself; rather, it sets up an announcement of unconditional judgment. There is no room for the contemporary preacher merely to call for deeper, more sincere and through-going repentance.
Yes, that may still be an appropriate thing to do — when isn’t repentance germane? The neighbor and neighborhood will be better off if we cease our rebellious and oppressive behavior. The world is better off if we have accurate weights (Hosea 12:7) — think accurate triple A ratings of derivatives. The judgment announced in non-contingent terms in Hosea 5:14 will not be reversed by the repentance expressed in Hosea 6:1-3. We don’t have to doubt the sincerity of that repentance. God’s history of receiving back repentant Israel cannot be depended upon to thwart God’s announcement of judgment.
Even if we seek refuge in the “until” of 5:15, the repentance will occur in the judgment; it will not be a way to avoid the judgment. In other texts, when Israel is called upon to repent, there is a promise that the pending destruction will not occur — more than that, blessing will ensue (See Deuteronomy 28:1: “If you will only obey…” and Deuteronomy 28:15: “If you do not obey…”) But when judgment is announced, there is nothing that is pending. Human conduct can no longer alter the future. “In their distress,” says Hosea 5:15; it does not say least they suffer distress. Distress is not threatened; it will be experienced. At this point there is not room to reverse the path to 2 Kings 17:6.
Blunt judgment without escape is a hard word. It was hard for Israel to ingest, given the long history of celebrating God’s deliverance from one peril after another. Hosea is placed before Amos, but histories of Israel regularly place Amos before Hosea. Amos reversed the understanding of the Day of the Lord: it was a day of darkness, not of deliverance (Amos 5:18-20). Amos announced that the calls for repentance had failed; five times Amos states, “Yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6, 8, 9, 10, 11). The word “therefore” signals the shift: “Prepare to meet your God.” The meeting is not good. It is the “end” (Amos 8:2).
It is no less so in contemporary American churches. If anything, it is harder to take in. Our underlying cultural optimism (Manifest Destiny, American exceptionalism, confidence in technology, our personal abilities, and our “goodness”) conspires against any word which announces a closed future or speaks of a cultural malaise, or questions our patriotic intentions. “You reap what you sow” is an expression that is still alive and well in our culture. It is individualized and thus it often seeks to evade an announcement of judgment directed at the entire cultural. Or, in its worse form, it blames the victim. If the victim hadn’t x, y. or z, he or she wouldn’t be suffering what they are suffering. Thus, we seek to evade the blunt word of judgment that comes to the whole community.
The task before the preacher is to find the metaphors, images, and stories that will indict the listeners who seek to stand outside of the judgment at the end of Hosea 5. Once hearers stand before words like those in Hosea 5:14, the task is to show how even coming to church might be an evasion. It is not merely a lack of sincerity. It is not merely a matter of shifting from ritual (sincere or not) to social action.
Social action can as readily as any liturgical ritual become insincere, a mere tactic to placate God. Hurry, let us work at Habitat for Humanity or the Dorothy Day Center or (you fill in the blank) and God will hasten to return to us. Let us be a righteous nation (the embodiment of “righteousness” will vary among religious communities), and God will return us to our favored status. Such exhortations can be evasions of Hosea 5. It will not do to pit Hosea 6 :6 against the people speaking in Hosea 6:1-3, for it is possible to turn embodiments of “steadfast love” and “knowledge of God” into the equivalent of anything we imagine to be wrong with the “sacrifice” and “burnt offering.”
To stress the judgment of God is to take seriously the persistence of human resistance to God. Often we seek in the name of grace to soften the judgment of God; the result is to lessen the seriousness of human resistance. The task in contemporary appropriation of prophetic preaching is not to diminish the judgment of God in order to shift the focus toward the compassion of God. There is no God-problem to be explained, at least not initially. To read Hosea chiefly as a discourse on the character of God and then to make that discourse palatable is to avoid the key clash with our self-understanding.
The question raised by prophetic preaching is not puzzlement over conflicting construals of God. Rather it begins with a blunt assessment of human conduct. To start with pitting God’s wrath against God’s compassion is to place ourselves in the position of selecting which we will choose or of determining the right balance between them. We are not in a position to create equilibrium between competing characterizations of God. For Hosea, God is not the problem; Israel is the problem.
Once the truth is told about Israel both past (resistance) and present (2 Kings 17:6), then there is a turn toward God because God is the only hope. The one who created Israel must recreate Israel. God must become the unreasonable actor. “I am God and no mortal” (Hosea 11:9) is a statement of hope that promises a future beyond nullification. God moves beyond a reasonable “eye for an eye” justice and judgment. God promises nothing less than a resurrection from our deathly halls of doom. We await the reversal of 2 Kings 17:6.