Commentary on Hosea 5:15-6:6
Following the devastation of the previous verses, 5:15 is a word from God that introduces the response from Israel in 6:1-3.
God backs away from the devastating situation, returns home, and waits “until.” God is a waiting God: until they acknowledge that they need forgiveness. Israel has gone through a horrendous judgment. Repentance is possible only through judgment, not short of judgment.
The section may begin with the last line of 5:15 (as NRSV), where God voices a hope or expectation. It is followed by a quotation of urgency from the people: “Come, let us return to the Lord.” Contrary to many commentators, this is a sincere cry of repentance. The language is exquisite, the religious practice thoughtful, and the theology apt. The repentance is explicit, the recognition of appropriate divine judgment against them evident, the quest for knowledge of the Lord in tune with Hosea’s most basic concerns, creation is related to God and not Baal, there are no signs of apostate worship, and their hope in God is voiced clearly. Indeed, the people do what 3:5 anticipates they will do. If these words were found elsewhere in the Old Testament, they would not be thought insincere. God’s reply (6:4-6) suggests that the words are insincere and, it is tempting to believe, God cannot reject sincerity! Yet, the people’s repentance is probably genuine, but God has determined that it is too late for repentance to change things.
The people are quite sure that the appeal to God will produce instant results, in both God and in their own situation/future. God’s gracious deliverance is as certain as the dawn and the rains. “God will pardon me; it is his business.” The people acknowledge that they have experienced God’s judgment, drawing on the language of 5:13-14. They express confidence that God will bind up their wounds and transform their lives (6:1). Revival will come in two days and on the third day God will raise them up and they will live before him. Actual 24-hour periods are not in view–the word is “soon”! No resurrection is in view.
The people urge one another to “know the Lord” (6:3). They recognize the issue that Hosea has raised –they have no knowledge of the Lord (see 4:1; 5:4). Again, they express confidence that God will surely appear on their behalf. They use remarkable and beautiful images for this God (cf. 14:4-7). Drawn from creational perspectives, God will come to them in the clear light of dawn, like showers in the spring, and God will send rain on the parched earth of their hearts (cf. Deut 32:2).
To this prayer of repentance and confidence, God responds (Hosea 6:4-6). This key Hosea text makes it clear that Israel’s return to the Lord will not move them into the future; the people must experience severe judgment, at the end of which God’s action will accomplish the restoration (see 11:8-9). As in 11:8, God agonizes over what to do with these people: What shall I do with you? A negative response follows. God’s ultimate future with this people is not in doubt. But nothing that people do can enable that future to happen. Yahweh’s actions cannot be programmed by human repentance.
We hear the lament of God regarding Israel’s response over the years. God is imaged as a parent (see 11:1-3), faced with a dilemma and exasperated over the behaviors of the children (see 11:8-9; Isa 5:4; Mic 6:3-4). What more can God do about these people? God expresses deep feelings about the broken relationship with Israel and God’s ever-renewed efforts to turn them around. Such divine questions reveal that God participates in the suffering of these people and agonizes over their increasingly deadly plight. Their love is not steadfast; it is like a morning cloud that soon disappears without dropping rain; their love is like the morning dew that dries up early in the day (Hosea 6:4).
God sent prophets to turn them to repentance; their “hewing”/”killing” is the indictment for their sins (6:5). God’s judgment has been enacted through their words. The prophets declared these words for a long time; ample opportunity was given for the people to turn back to God. But a pattern has been in place for too long. The opportunity has not been taken, and now it is too late! The devastators of Israel have already begun their ravaging work; there will be no stopping them now.
Verse 6 raises the heart of the issue. What counts with God, finally, are not sacrifices/offerings. Not that they are unimportant as part of a larger fabric of faithful expression. Sacrifices are a God-given, gracious means of grace in and through which Israel’s sins can be forgiven. But repentance is understood to be necessary for the sacrifices to be effective (see Lev 5:5). The sacrifices are not magical acts that bring forgiveness; without repentance, they are ineffective, worth nothing. This understanding shapes Hosea’s condemnation of sacrifice here and elsewhere (Hosea 5:4; 8:11-13). It is not that God prefers the knowledge of God more than sacrifices, but rather than. This is not a matter of the total rejection of sacrifices, but in this situation that is the case; nothing that they do with respect to their sacrificial worship is efficacious. Steadfast love and knowledge of God are not requirements in the usual sense. Jesus quotes this verse twice (Matt 9:13; 12:7) with reference to the rigidity of pharisaical life.
The key words are steadfast love and the knowledge of God. The latter, used heretofore (see Hosea 4:1; 5:4), has to do with the full engagement of the self in the relationship with God, approximating Deut 6:5. Steadfast love (see Hosea 4:10) bespeaks especially faithfulness, not only in the relationship with God, but also with human beings. In sum: unless the relationship with God is in good order, and manifests itself in the character of one’s daily life, worship activities of any sort have no saving value (see Amos 5:21-24). This language is not an expression of conditional forgiveness, such as: if your repentance is genuine, then God will extend forgiveness. The issue is the presence or absence of a genuine relationship with God.