Originally posted March 10, 2014. Video from Aug 8, 2018.
As you now know all too well, Hosea’s message is designed to hurt before it heals. But that healing sometimes alludes us because of the work’s focus on judgment. The prophet’s emphasis, though, is intentional: “The reason that the God of all threatens punishment . . . is not to inflict it on those he threatens but to strike them with fear and lead them to repentance, and by ridding them of their wicked behavior extend to them salvation” (Theodoret, Commentary on Hosea, “Introduction”; see our first post for Works Cited). Throughout the book, though, there are glimmers of God’s love that shine through Hosea’s doom and gloom, offering hope to the people of God. Three weeks ago, I was reminded of this silver lining, when my granny (whom I called, Mama Ruby) passed away, joining Papa Troy in Paradise where he waited joyfully for fourteen years. So when Hosea continues his case against the Lord’s people by turning to the family farm, I find myself comforted by the hope of Yahweh’s plea: the hope of the farmer, the hope of the father, and the hope of coming home.
The Hope of the Farmer. Growing up, both of my parents worked indoors with relative stability and job security. Of course, teachers and accountants could be laid off (and we went through our fair share of those), but generally the work was steady and paid modestly. My dad’s parents, though, owned and worked a family farm. Papa Troy and Mama Ruby managed about 60 head of cattle on 120 acres in Rio Vista, Texas. I spent most of my free time on their farm until I realized it was no longer “cool.” As enjoyable as my time there was, though, I was also well aware of the risk involved in their way of life. My grandparents subsisted on two things: their own food and the Farm Bureau, and when one slackened the other would have to step up to make ends meet. Being a great farmer didn’t necessarily mean a great year. And yet, thankfully, Granny kept raising cattle with the help of her sons and grandsons until the work simply became too much (but not until after her 90th birthday, mind you). Her love for the life and the animals drove her through even the toughest times, including droughts, blights and the loss of her husband.
Jehovah understands the hopes and frustrations of the farmer, because he shares that same sense of hope for his people. The prophet therefore compares Israel again to the thing they worshipped: “Ephraim was a trained calf that loved to thresh, and I spared her fair neck; but I will put Ephraim to the yoke; Judah must plow; Jacob must harrow for himself” (Hos 10:11 ESV). As Kidner points out, “threshing was a comparatively light task, made pleasant by the fact that the creature was unmuzzled and free to eat . . . as it pulled the threshing sledge over the gathered corn” (Love for the Loveless, 97-98 in BKC). Israel, though, had rejected the light burden of devotion to Yahweh and would instead experience the toil of hard labor (see vv. 13-14). But God obviously wants better for his people: “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hos 10:12). Hosea here essentially sums up the message of every prophet sent to the Israelites over the years, and yet any penitent fruit it bore would last only a generation before sin would spring up again. So God would harness his people, and put them to work, while still holding out the hope of rest in his righteous love.
The Hope of the Father. One can understand a farmer’s frustrations and disappointments without being able to put himself quite into those same shoes. But as a parent, empathy with hurting parents is something none of us avoids. We try to do the best we can to train them up in the way they should go, but some still depart (Pro 22:6). God understands this pain as well. The Most High practically chokes back tears as he relates his time spent with young Israel. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols” (Hos 11:1-2). But it would be another 800 years before a son of Abraham would rise up and truly reflect his Father’s love (see Mat 2:15). God had loved them, God had called them, God had saved them, and yet within the year they had fallen in love with someone else. But just as at the beginning, Egypt would not be able to save them, nor would their new ties to Assyria (Hos 11:5-6).
Hosea then mixes metaphors by returning to the image of the young calf: “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hos 11:3-4). The connection may seem strange, but even in English farmers and fathers share a deep connection, being called by the same word (husband) for most of our history. For me, though, the image here remains that of Granny. A young female calf had been born weak and the bull had made known his intentions to kill the calf early on. So Granny mended a fair sized dog run behind her house and kept the calf there, feeding it from a bottle, teaching it to walk, and leading the calf around on a dog leash. Rose (as my baby sister soon named her) might not have known it at the time, but Granny had saved her life (well, at least until adulthood). But while Rose seemed to enjoy the attention, Israel acted less than grateful: “My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all” (11:7).
The Hope of Coming Home. God, however, had not given up on his son. Yes, pain would come as a result of his sin, but he hoped that by holding back his mighty wrath and complete destruction some would still come back home. “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hos 11:8-9). God only asks these questions because he knows his answer: he had not loved so much, only to let them die. But Israel would return to a home that was not the same as the one they left. Old men would cry as they saw the temple in shambles, even after its renovations (Ezra 3:11-13). And all would struggle with many of the same problems as before (Ezra 9-10; Neh 13). When I visit Granny’s farm, I find myself with that same sense of longing: the ones who made it home are no longer there. As Darryl Worley sings, “Now all the rockin’ chairs are empty, I hate to think how tall the weeds have grown. I’d give back everything the good Lord gave me, If I could just go back where I belong.”
But God is the only one who makes us feel truly at home, in this life and the next; he never really left. “They shall go after the LORD; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes, declares the LORD” (Hos 11:10-11). God would send his people away, so they would listen for his voice, to await his call, “Come home.” The Lion of the tribe of Judah would again be their deliverer; and they would respond as doves, no longer stupidly denying God’s protection, but returning swiftly to his side (see 5:14; 7:11). Many times I either disobeyed Granny or simply wanted to be alone, and would roam the fields aimlessly (or at times, mischievously), but there was always one thing that brought me back: the sound of her voice. And whether I heard in it anger or fear, I knew that both were rooted in love.
God doesn’t want to be the bad guy; he doesn’t want to be the one whipping his people back into shape. But God judges because he is holy, and in his love he has given us not only the sole path to forgiveness, but the opportunity to share in his very being (1Pe 1:13-21). God’s discipline is therefore his testimony that you belong to him: “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . For [our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:7-10, emphasis added). Not only that, but he will come again one day to call us home: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (Jam 5:7-8). Granny’s journey is over, but mine’s not, so whether I go to be with her, or she comes to take me away as well, after that day “we will always be with the Lord” (1Th 4:17), and that is one homecoming I do not want to miss.