Age gets a bad rap these days. We tear down old buildings, we throw out old things, we’ve stopped reading old books, and we’re constantly looking for new ways of doing things. But sometimes old is exactly what we need most.
The prophet Jeremiah was given the daunting task of convincing Judah that, in their case, turning from the old ways meant sinning against God. And so he became God’s mouthpiece to call his people back to him: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jer 6:16 ESV). Notice the value of age here: the path is good, and full of rest.
The word here for “ancient” is pretty cool too: olam. In Hebrew it doesn’t just mean “old,” but also “lasting, enduring, forever.” So when God calls something olam, he’s not just talking about how old it is; he’s saying it’s timeless, even ageless.
Which is why, in our Bibles, the word olam is more commonly translated “everlasting.” Like at the end of Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (139:23-24). Reading Jeremiah alongside the psalm, we might even say that looking into Scripture and asking for the old paths points us on our way to eternity.
I think of this often when we sing the acapella version of Michael W. Smith’s song, “Ancient Words” (2002), especially in its chorus:
Ancient words, ever true
As the song reminds us, the words of the Bible are ancient, but always true, they give us guidance “for our walk in this world,” they “give us strength, help us cope.” “In this world where e’er we roam / ancient words will guide us home.”
So what follows is a bit of a journey home. For me it started four years ago, with a simple change in my daily devotional. But that helped me ask better questions about how God uses his word to shape our lives. We’ll start where I wish I had—with Jesus—and then we’ll take a look at the early church to unpack how they communed with God daily through his word. So let’s get started… with Ancient Words.
Originally posted March 13, 2015. Video from Aug 29, 2018.
When we began our study of Hosea over a year ago, we noted that the book was among the most difficult in the Bible to read because of its tragic, satirical tone and graphic imagery. And yet the meaning of Hosea’s name points to a purpose beyond mere punishment: “Salvation.” God did not enjoy giving this message to his prophet, nor would he rejoice in seeing its fulfillment. Instead, the Lord speaks in hope that his people might once again listen to his voice and respond to his call. As Theodoret observed, “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” (Commentary on Hosea, “Introduction”; see our first post for Works Cited). God judges in order to save, but accepting his salvation means rejecting the sins that bring judgment in the first place.
Hosea begins this last portion of his work calling Israel to give the fruit of her lips to the husband of her youth: “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (14:1 ESV). Though their sin had separated them from their God (Isa 59:1-2) and they had felt the wrath of his hands, there was only one step back to grace: “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (6:1). If she would remember her marriage vows, and put away her harlotries, God would have Israel back as his own: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (12:6; see 2:19-20; 3:3). God’s holiness had sent his bride away, but his love now called her back to his side.
Israel’s restoration, however, could only begin by confessing her own sinfulness, and the sinlessness of the God she had left: “Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, ‘Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, “Our God,” to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy’” (14:2-3; words in italics follow the LXX and Syriac; see ESV margin; Heb 13:15). Israel had first turned away from God in adultery at the altar, and then sought glory through their own political and military might. But Israel could not simply show back up in the temple and pretend nothing had happened. God did not want her songs, her prayers, or even her offerings; he wanted to see her broken heart and grateful mind transformed through sacrificial living (Psa 51:13-19; 69:30-31). He would not accept their worship or restore fellowship with her until she had confessed her sins before her God.
And when Israel returned in confession and repentance, the Lord would forgive his people and restore to them the fruit of his fellowship. If they would reject apostasy for a life with him, his anger would flee and they would feel his loving embrace; rain and dew would return to their parched land; flowers would again blossom, and fields and vines would bear their fruit (Hos 14:4-7; see 13:15). If Israel would return and dwell with her God once more, he would be her Provider and Rest—a Husband only he could be (2:16). With her life of sin behind her, she could smile through her tears as God restates his own vows, “It is I who answer and look after you. . . . from me comes your fruit” (Hos 13:8).
In that fellowship, she would once again experience the grace enjoyed by one who walks with God. As John Cassian writes, “Holy people have never testified that they attained by their effort the right path to travel on as they made their way to the increase and perfection of virtue. Rather they would plead to the Lord and say, ‘Direct me in your truth’ [Psa 25:5] and, ‘Direct my way in your sight’ [Psa 5:8]” (Conference 3.13.1). As Paul would later point out, the fruits of obedience were themselves gifts of God and evidence of his work in our lives: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Php 2:12-13, emphasis added). But if our faith is not visible through a life of loving obedience, we are dead in our sins because God is no longer working within us (Jam 2:17, 26).
Israel’s confession to God would have been both lengthy and difficult, but that would not excuse her failure to give God the fruit of her lips. She had left the husband of her youth and borne him illegitimate children (1:1-2:1), she had traded the blessings of marriage for a half-life of harlotry (2:2-13), and had been driven to debt slavery by the depth and breadth of her whoredom (2:14-3:5). And rather than bringing her back to God, Israel’s leaders failed in every way (4:1-19): they convinced the people they could hide from the One who is everywhere (5:1-6:10), that their hearts of pride, lust and greed would be not only tolerated but commended (6:11-7:16), and that their alliances with Egypt and Assyria would keep them safe from any coming conflict (8:1-9:9).
But God’s wrath could no longer wait; they would be crushed as grapes in the winepress (9:10-10:10), harnessed and put to work like a common farm animal (10:11-11:11), punished for their complete devotion to the deceitfulness of sin (11:12-12:14), and for rejecting the Only One who could provide for them in times of feast and famine (13:1-16). Unfortunately, Israel’s repentance came only after retribution. Soon after Hosea completed his work, his prophecies were fulfilled through “at least six incursions into Palestine and its neighbors by an unstoppable Assyrian army” (ESVSB). The day of the Lord had come, and God’s own people had found themselves on the wrong side of the cataclysm.
For the church of Jesus Christ, the message is clear: we must repent of our harlotries and live once again as the bride of Christ. We cannot pretend to make disciples apart from the watery womb of rebirth (Mat 28:18-20; John 3:3, 5; Tit 3:4-7), we cannot follow men and wear their names without giving up our place as disciples of Christ (Mat 15:7-8; Luke 14:26-27), and we cannot excuse or return to the very sins from which we’ve been freed by Christ’s own blood (2Pe 2:20-22; 1Pe 1:17-21). Instead, we need elders, preachers, and deacons who understand their role as servant-leaders (1Pe 5:1-4; 2Ti 2:24-26; Acts 6:1-7), who point the church outside of herself and to her Lord and Savior (Php 3:30-21; 2Pe 3:18), and who cultivate a living faith to combat the sensual thinking of this age (Eph 3:14-19; Rom 8:9-17).
And if we do not, our names will be scrubbed clean from the book of life (Rev 20:11-12; 22:17), we will experience the fury of the wrath of God’s winepress (Rev 14:18-20), we will feel the pain of eternal chains of fire and the corruption of an undying death (Rev 20:13-15; Mark 9:43-48), and we will suffer an eternity without the One who makes eternity worth living (2Th 1:6-9).
Hosea’s name and work shows the depth of God’s steadfast love for his people, but he is not the only child of God with this name, much less the most important. For Hosea (Hebrew) shares his name with the one and only Son of God: the Lord Jesus (Greek). “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mat 1:21, emphasis added). But such a salvation comes only from a conviction of sin that pierces the heart and cries out for the Lord’s deliverance (Acts 2:36-37; Rom 10:8-10), a visible repentance through baptism and sanctified living (Acts 2:38-41; Rom 6:3-4), and a life of grace among God’s people in worship and work, faithfulness and fellowship (Acts 2:42-47).
We cannot merely show back up to worship; we cannot hide or ignore our sin. If we want to be free of it, we must give it to God in confession. “Through [Christ] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb 13:15). Only then will we see the beauty of Christ’s love and radiate his own splendor as his bride. And then we shall sing in that great multitude: “‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev 19:6-8). Amen.
Originally posted March 16, 2015. Video from Aug 22, 2018, courtesy of one of our ministers in Warner Robins, Brother Tim Childs.
In the last three chapters or so of his work, Hosea summarizes much of the case he has brought against the nation of Israel. As we saw last week, this summary began by reminding them of who they are, whom they serve, and what the Lord had done for them (11:12-12:14). In chapter 13, he now continues his summary by recounting the charges on which Israel is being indicted. The chapter therefore contains many parallels to the first four chapters of the book, though stated with even greater force and brevity. In every case, though, Israel’s sin is depicted as an ungrateful abuse of the good things God had given them.
Israel’s primary offense is therefore stated again: they had traded their relationship with God for a hunk of metal. “When Ephraim spoke, there was trembling; he was exalted in Israel, but he incurred guilt through Baal and died. And now they sin more and more, and make for themselves metal images, idols skillfully made of their silver, all of them the work of craftsmen” (Hos 13:1-2 ESV)! During the height of Israel’s monarchy, they were truly a force to be reckoned with. Though never reaching the same proportions of the great empires of their day, Solomon “ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt. And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah” (2Ch 9:26-27; see too Isa 7:2). Yet from this very silver and these very trees, Israel sinned against the God who had given them both (4:12-13)!
The Lord would therefore punish his people for ungratefully turning their blessings into abominations, as he said before: “The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame” (4:7). When we use our fortunes for faithlessness, God has every right and all the power to remove them—and he will. Not only that, but he will remove from us even the most basic elements of living: grain and water. “Therefore they shall be like the morning mist or like the dew that goes early away, like the chaff that swirls from the threshing floor or like smoke from a window” (13:3). Like Israel’s faithfulness, her sinfulness would not last long (6:4); it would be carried away on the winds of judgment, fanning the flames of God’s wrath.
The once luscious land would therefore be turned into a wilderness, even worse than the Sinai. “But I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no savior. It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me” (Hos 13:4-6). Jehovah was their only God (12:9), he was their only Deliverer (11:1; 12:13), the one who dwelt among them (Exo 40:34-38), the one who provided them water, bread and meat (Exo 15-17; Num 11), and brought them into the Promised Land (Jos 21:43-45)—but the name of the Lord had been forgotten (Hos 2:13). So now his judgment would rise as “the east wind, the wind of the LORD . . . rising from the wilderness, and his fountain shall dry up; his spring shall be parched; it shall strip his treasury of every precious thing” (13:15; 12:1; Jer 18:15-17).
And so the “land flowing with milk and honey” would become a fruitless forest filled with wild beasts (Exo 3:8; Hos 2:3, 9, 12). But the King of the beasts would not go hungry. Since God could not be their protector, they would become his prey: “So I am to them like a lion; like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs; I will tear open their breast, and there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild beast would rip them open” (Hos 13:7-8; see 5:14). For her unfaithfulness, Israel would be ripped open and feasted upon by the winged lion of Babylon, the devouring Persian bear, and the four-headed leopard of Greece (Dan 7:2-6, 17; 2:37-39); all under the command of the Lord of heaven and earth.
And since Israel had denied the Lord as their King, he would remove even their earthly rulers. “He destroys you, O Israel, for you are against me, against your helper. Where now is your king, to save you in all your cities? Where are all your rulers—those of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’? I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath” (Hos 13:9-11). It was Israel who had requested a king in the first place, and though Yahweh allowed Samuel to accommodate their request, God pointed out what this meant for the people spiritually: “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them . . . forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1Sa 8:7-9).
Israel’s dynastic history attests to this same unfortunate trend. Time and time again (through ten dynasties!) Jehovah would raise up a leader to judge Israel’s king, take the throne, and restore the nation. But greed, lust, and politics would interfere and turn away the hearts of even the deliverers, so that the Lord could say in truth, “They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not” (Hos 8:4). So when the kings were gone, the people knew they were done for; they had traded the Hope of heaven for the pleasures of earth, and would now lose both: “We have no king, for we fear not the LORD, and a king—what could he do for us” (10:3)?
So, having chosen the paths of death, they would now suffer the consequences of a life without God, that is, until that too was taken away. “The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up; his sin is kept in store. The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son, for at the right time he does not present himself at the opening of the womb” (13:12-13). And not even their children would escape the carnage: “they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open” (13:16). Again, the prophet’s imagery is both tragic and graphic. Israel’s names are bound up as if in a scroll of sins, a record of wrongdoing; Hosea lists the stillborn and the slaughtered together, neither of whom could be delivered (Isa 8:16; Deu 32:34-35). Israel had born illegitimate children, and since they were Not His People, they would receive No Mercy (1:6-9).
But there would be no mother to mourn the loss of the child. The Lord thus asks rhetorically, “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death?” (Hos 13:14). He answers with a resounding, No, calling on the Grave to open wide and do his worst: “O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.” If Israel wanted hell, then hell is what they’d have; without the compassion of God, they would find only the corruption of the Grave. As Korah’s sons sang of the fate of fools, “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd . . . . Their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home . . . [they] will never again see light” (Psa 49:14, 19).
God’s blessings become curses when we forget the Giver and use his gifts against him. Moses had foreseen these unfortunate trend during his own lifetime, and warned the people not to allow history to repeat itself: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them” (Deu 30:19-20). But Moses’ plea fell on deaf ears; Israel failed to listen and honor God for their blessings, so they would now suffer the curses of his covenant.
Unfortunately, time has not strengthened the ears of the church. We have traded the living God for lifeless idols of silver and gold (1Th 1:9; Mat 6:24), we have given up our inheritance for the wilderness of sin (1Co 10:1-12; Heb 3:7-12), we have rejected our King for the sake of license (1Ti 6:3-16), and we have accepted a half-life of harlotry in place of the romance of righteousness (1Ch 16:29; Eph 5:24-27). And yet the promises of God stand firm: if we seek, we will find him (Hos 5:15; Mat 7:7-8); if we will bow, we shall rise (Hos 13:14; 1Co 15:55); if we submit, we will reign with David’s Son (Hos 3:5; Rev 3:7; 2:26-28); and if we love, we shall wed (Hos 2:16-20; Rev 19:7-8). Israel had turned her God-given blessings into curses, but the curses would be reversed when they once again blessed the One who gave it all.
Originally posted March 9, 2015. Video from Aug 15, 2018.
One of the several recurring themes throughout the Old Testament is the relationship of a name to the person or object it represents. To know a person’s name and what it means is to know the person herself, and allows us to understand her place in God’s providential plan. Hosea has used several techniques to reinforce the image of Israel as an impenitent sinner. So far he has depicted Israel’s unfaithfulness through the example of Gomer (chs. 1-3), as a crime of adultery against her husband, the Lord (4:1-9:9), and as a violation of the natural and moral order, both past and present (9:10-11:11). He turns now, then, to several wordplays on the names of Israel, the Lord, and various cities in order to demonstrate the close connection between the people’s sin and their own identity.
First, God’s people were defined by their devotion to deceit. Israel’s sin has long since been established in the mind of the reader, but God’s people had still not gotten the message. Hosea therefore adds to the list of her charges: “Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit” (Hos 11:12; unless otherwise indicated all Scripture quotations are from the ESV); “they multiply falsehood and violence” (12:1); she is, “A merchant, in whose hands are false balances” (12:7). What is more, is that the nation had acted this way from before its birth, just like their father Jacob: “In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor” (12:3-4). As the NBC points out, though, Jacob’s deception is more than an historical note--it’s his name: “The name Jacob is connected with words meaning ‘follow at the heel’, or ‘supplant’ and means figuratively ‘to deceive’ (Gn. 25:26; 27:36). . . . Hosea uses the picture to illustrate how Jacob/Israel has been deceitful right from the beginning of his existence” (see our first post for Works Cited).
The prophet also draws on Jacob’s struggle with the Angel of the LORD in Genesis 32:22-32. There, alone and wearied from his journey, Jacob had fled from his father-in-law Laban but feared the homecoming planned by his brother Esau. Like a cornered beast, Jacob fights the Man who then approaches him, wrestling until the first light of morning. And when the fight is over, he has the wound to prove it—his hip is out of joint. Jacob, however, refuses to let him go; that is, until he blesses him. And then the Angel surprises us (and perhaps Jacob) by obliging: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28). But Jacob knew strength when he felt it--the Angel let him win. “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered’” (Gen 32:30). He prevailed because he had been saved; he was victorious only when he admitted defeat. But while Jacob had learned his lesson, Israel’s children were still striving against the Lord.
Secondly, Israel’s sin separated her from her Savior. The nation’s crimes were no mere misdemeanors; they were personal assaults on the character of Yahweh himself: “Ephraim surrounds Me with lies And the house of Israel with deceit; Judah is also unruly against God, Even against the Holy One who is faithful” (Hos 11:12 NASB). The contrast could not be more apparent: he is true, they are liars; he is faithful, they are traitors; he is holy, they are profane. The prophet tries to wake up the people to this irony in 12:6, but this time the Lord does not allow a chance for them to speak. Instead, he mocks them with disdain: “Ephraim has said, ‘Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin’” (12:7-8). And then the Lord’s laughter stops, and he answers in his fury: You may rich, but “I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast” (12:9, emphasis added).
It is a declaration Israel has heard before: “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess” (Gen 15:7). “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them” (Exo 29:46). “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44). “You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 18:4). “You . . . shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18). “I AM WHO I AM. . . . The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob . . . . This is my name forever” (Exo 3:14-15). The “LORD, the God of hosts, the LORD is his memorial name” (Hos 12:5, all emphases added). Israel may have forgotten who they were, but their even greater sin was forgetting Jehovah, the Everlasting God; and God would not let them forget it.
And finally, God’s people would be punished because they played with his providence. An unholy people simply cannot dwell with a holy God, and since Israel had turned from the Holy One himself, they would have to leave the Holy Land. The justice of God demanded payment, and payment he would give: “The LORD has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds” (12:2). And so to drive home the point, Hosea piles on the word plays: “If there is [nothingness] in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps [galliym] on the furrows of the field” (12:11; see BKC, NET). Hosea first plays on synonyms that in Hebrew both mean nothingness/nothing, and then complements this connection by repeating the G and L sounds in Gilead, Gilgal and galliym. In other words, the very place Israel inaugurated her arrival in the Promised Land had become a seat of idolatry (Jos 5:8-12).
Hosea then draws an historical parallel based on the word for “guarded”: “Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep. By a prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded. Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds” (12:12-14, emphasis added). At first, the metaphors don’t seem to mix, but in essence, Hosea says, “Don’t forget your humble beginnings. What you have is not a result of your own efforts, but it is yours because God has been gracious to you” (LASB). But since God’s people had turned to other gods, they would now receive some unwanted attention from their Provider (Deu 4:25-31).
As Christians, there is no greater honor than the name we wear as disciples of Jesus Christ. As Isaiah records, the Messianic hope included the promise of a new designation for the people of God: “The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give” (Isa 62:2). And only one name is worthy of such a promise--the name of Jesus: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Php 2:9-11). And as his disciples, and his church, we take on the name of our Teacher, in both this life and the next (Acts 11:26; Rom 16:16; Rev 2:17).
But Christianity is more than a name; with this honor, comes an incredible responsibility: to live like Jesus. “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1Pe 1:13-16). The Christian life requires laying all we have—all our mind, all our soul, all our passions, all our habits—at the feet of the Holy One we serve. Hosea’s plea to Israel therefore becomes our own call to repentance: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (Hos 12:6).
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.
Originally posted March 3, 2014. Video from Aug 1, 2018.
The image of grapes is used throughout the Bible as a symbol of both blessing and wrath. On one hand, the fullness of the winepress indicates the abundant blessings God has given and a call to share freely with those who have less. So, for example, the Israelites are commanded to provide for freed servants out of what God has provided them: “You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (Deu 15:14; see too Num 18:27, 30; unless otherwise indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the ESV). But when these blessings are abused, the winepress also serves as a useful analogy for judgment. Isaiah records for us the terrible significance of the symbol. When the Lord ascends from Edom and Moab in robes of crimson red, the people ask why he’s covered in grape juice. Jehovah’s response is terrifying: “I have trodden the winepress alone . . . I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments . . . . I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (Isa 63:3-6). Hosea, though, sees an even more troubling future, one in which God’s own people are grapes prepared not for drinking, but for crushing.
First, we incur wrath when we refuse our love. The Lord’s unrequited love is one of the major themes of Hosea’s work. But Israel had always had an “open relationship” with God, as Yahweh himself points out: “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your fathers. But they came to Baal-peor and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame, and became detestable like the thing they loved” (Hos 9:10). Though the Lord had rejoiced in calling out a people for himself, his delight would soon turn to despair, finding out that his new bride had (literally!) prostituted herself to the god next door (see too 4:13-14; Num 25; Deu 7:14). But unrequited love can only last so long, even when your beloved is Love himself: “Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them. Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more” (Hos 9:15, emphasis added). The Lord’s house is not a house of sin.
Many today would like to separate the God of love, grace and mercy from the God of holiness, purity and justice. They’d like to have Jesus as their Savior, but reject him daily as their Lord. Often times this takes a more theological form, casting dichotomies like law versus gospel, grace/faith versus works, or love versus obedience. But as the Bible itself points out, each one is integrally connected to the other. So while the Father and Son are both identified as our Savior in the New Testament (24 times in the ESV), it is far more common for them to be referred to as Lord (657!). Likewise, the gospel is referred to as “the law of liberty” (Jam 1:25), grace is said to inspire works (Tit 2:11-14), and our love is measured by our obedience to him (John 14:15). Our relationship to God rightly depends, then, on a proper response to his loving kindness. We must listen to the voice of the Lord, letting his words sink into our ears and responding in heartfelt obedience (John 10:16, 27; Luke 9:44). Otherwise, we will fail to love, fail to listen, fail to follow, and therefore be cut off: “My God will reject them because they have not listened to him; they shall be wanderers among the nations” (Hos 9:17).
The second point follows the first: we invite wrath when we refuse our thanks. Israel had forgotten the source of her blessings: “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” (Hos 10:1-2). The image of Israel as a vine is a common one throughout the Old Testament (see too Psa 80:8-16; Jer 2:20-21; Eze 15:1-8; 17:1-10). Here, Hosea uses the image to demonstrate the misuse of Israel’s blessings (a theme that recurs often in his work; see 4:7, 12:8 and 13:6). And Israel could not look to their false god to save them from Jehovah; in fact, he would go with them! “The inhabitants of Samaria tremble for the calf of Beth-aven. Its people mourn for it, and so do its idolatrous priests—those who rejoiced over it and over its glory—for it has departed from them. The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria as tribute to the great king. Ephraim shall be put to shame, and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol” (Hos 10:5-6).
God is the source of all blessings, as James writes, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jam 1:17). But when we reject God as the Giver of these blessings, only idolatry and covetousness can come of it (see Eph 5:5). As Paul writes of first-century heathens, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). Paul warns Timothy of this problem as well, writing of the “many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction,” all because of their love of money and their unhealthy craving for more of it (1Ti 6:9-10; see Mat 19:23-24). Would, that we could pray with Solomon, “[Give] me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Pro 30:8-9).
And finally, we experience wrath when God refuses his blessings. Like a good parent, the Lord knows just how to handle possessiveness and ingratitude among his children. By taking away his blessings, he intends to show them just how much they live in his grace in order to call them to live out his grace, reflecting his own divine character. As the prophet then says, “Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird — no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! Ephraim’s sons, as I have seen, are destined for a prey; Ephraim must lead forth his sons to slaughter” (Hos 9:11-13 RSV; compare the LXX, NET, 9:16; see our first post for Works Cited). This may at first seem harsh; after all, what good father kills his grandchildren to make a point!? But as before, Israel has chosen her own punishment. She chose to commit whoredom with Baal, she chose to bear illegitimate children; Yahweh merely recognizes what Israel has assumed all along: they are not his people (see Hos 1-2). Even Hosea now realizes the hopelessness of the situation. Though he had previously called the people to repentance in 6:1-3, the prophet now joins Jehovah’s tirade: “Give them, O LORD—what wilt thou give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts” (6:14 RSV).
There are two additional ironies in Israel’s situation. The first is that Israel’s purpose in conquering the Promised Land was to remove the presence of idolatry, including their high places and altars to false gods (Deu 12:2-3). But they not only failed to do this, they joined their neighbors in false worship! And because of this, the LORD himself will come to purify the land (see Lev 26:30-31; BKC). The second is that while it was political rebellion that caused their first problems, it is political rebellion and conquest that God will use to accomplish his ends: “Samaria’s king shall perish like a twig on the face of the waters. The high places of Aven, the sin of Israel, shall be destroyed. Thorn and thistle shall grow up on their altars, and they shall say to the mountains, ‘Cover us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us’” (Hos 10:7-8). Israel’s false prophets, false priests, false kings, and false god would not be able to save her. Instead, their persistent sin defined them as a rebellious nation that could only be gathered, bound and punished (Hos 10:9-10). Despising God and his blessings is the surest path to having those blessings removed.
As the church of our Lord, we as Christians are branches on the grapevine of Christ. While we remain faithful and grateful to him, we have absolutely everything we need or could ever want—he is everything to us. But apart from him we have nothing, can do nothing, and are good for nothing (John 15:1-11). But Jesus’ expectations for us are profoundly simple: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (John 15:10, emphasis added). As members of the Lord’s covenant people, then, we are called to give ourselves completely to the Prophet promised long ago by Moses, saying, “The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people” (Acts 3:22-23, quoting Deu 18:15-19; emphasis added).
Our Christian moment therefore reaches back before the giving of the first covenant and forward to culmination of the second. Just as we have been grafted into the grapevine of the Lord, we too will be judged by our faithfulness to the Root of Jesse (Rom 11:17-24; 15:12). For one day the Lord will command his angel, “Put in your sickle and gather the clusters from the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe,” and the servant will heed his Captain’s charge: “So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia” (Rev 15:18-20). The choice is simple: will you be covered by the blood of Christ, or will he be covered in yours (Rev 7:14; 12:11)?
Originally posted Feb 17, 2014. I re-taught this class on Sunday, July 29, 2018, but the video seems to have gone AWOL (lol). Maybe next time!
In our detour a few weeks ago, we noted that because of their inflammatory tendencies, most people would like to keep religion and politics as far away from each other as possible. But we cannot maintain a high view of biblical justice, honor and righteousness by keeping our faith out of the voting booth. The relationship between religion and politics runs deeply throughout Scripture. Peter reminds us to, “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1Pe 2:17 NKJV; see our first post for Works Cited). Paul goes even deeper, calling “every soul [to] be subject to the governing authorities . . . for conscience’ sake,” since public figures are “God’s ministers” (Rom 13:1-7, emphasis added). Rebellion, then, is essentially a heart problem, rooted in the same sort of passion, pride, lies and idolatry that got Israel into trouble in the first place. It’s no wonder then that when Israel forsook God, she would turn to politics as the solution to her many problems.
Or perhaps we have it backward: in Israel’s case political rebellion led to spiritual rebellion. The Lord says in Hosea 8:4, “They made kings, but not through me. They set up princes, but I knew it not” (unless otherwise indicated, all remaining Scriptures are taken from the ESV). It is not that Yahweh didn’t know who their rulers were; the problem lay in the fact that they ignored his will in choosing them. Even from the beginning of the Divided Kingdom, Israel had gone her own way. Though in his providence God allowed Israel to split for spiritual reasons, it was politics that drove away the northern tribes (1Ki 12:1-24). So while Judah was always led by the house of David, Israel was ruled by ten dynasties, all of which ended in bloodshed. In fact, “Between 752 and 732 B.C. four of Israel’s rulers were assassinated (cf. 2 Kings 15),” providing the background to several of Hosea’s statements (see Hos 7:5-7, from which this quote from the BKC is taken).
Israel’s spiritual unfaithfulness is both a cause and effect of these upheavals. Remember that it was for pragmatic political reasons that Jeroboam built the calves at Dan and Bethel in the first place (1Ki 12:25-33). So while Jeroboam’s kingdom was entrusted to him so that he might restore the Law, he instead defied it further, repeating Aaron’s sin and explicitly violating the first two of the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:3-6; 32:1-4). But the Lord had had enough of being confused with cattle: “With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. I have spurned your calf, O Samaria. My anger burns against them. How long will they be incapable of innocence? For it is from Israel; a craftsman made it; it is not God. The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces” (Hos 8:4-6). It is with good reason, then, that Solomon warns, “My son, fear the LORD and the king; Do not associate with those given to change,” (Pro 24:21 NKJV) because when rebels rage, there’s no end to the destruction that can be done.
We also see that spiritual rebels seek political solutions. This is perhaps the greatest heresy of the modern age, and both conservatives and liberals are often guilty of it. When man ignores what the Bible says about right and wrong, justice falls as well; and where justice has fallen, nothing is sacred, twisting politics into naked greed and sheer power. Israel could identify the problems that faced her—famine, poverty, weakness—but she did not recognize them as the consequences of her sin. So instead she sought help elsewhere: “For they have gone up to Assyria, a wild donkey wandering alone; Ephraim has hired lovers. Though they hire allies among the nations, I will soon gather them up. And the king and princes shall soon writhe because of the tribute” (Hos 8:9-10). But as the prophet pointed out before, Assyria would be their conqueror, not their savior (see 5:13; 7:11).
But this is not to say Israel could save herself by becoming a fortress and preparing for a siege. “For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces, and Judah has multiplied fortified cities; so I will send a fire upon his cities, and it shall devour her strongholds” (8:14). As the ESVSB points out, “Ephraim trusted religious shrines for security; Judah her armaments. Both will prove to be futile.” So rather then experience the alleged fertility associated with Baal worship, they would instead find famine and the rations of exile: “Threshing floor and wine vat shall not feed them, and the new wine shall fail them. They shall not remain in the land of the LORD, but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and they shall eat unclean food in Assyria” (9:2-3; see 2:9-12). So Israel’s kings had done the exact opposite of what Moses had commanded, and exactly what Samuel had warned them against (Deu 17:14-17; 1Sa 8)!
And finally, spiritual rebellion invites political punishment. This is perhaps even harder to comprehend. Okay, sure, maybe there is a connection between one’s political views and one’s religious views, but does it really matter? If there is a God, does he really care about our political views? Why, yes. The God who providentially “works all things together for good” is the same God who providentially “rules the kingdom of men” (Rom 8:28; Dan 4:17, 25, 32; see Dan 2:20-22; 5:34-37). So while your politics can reflect your religious views, your political problems could also be consequences of your religion. Sometimes this means God’s people are employed as the means of judgment (Gen 15:16; Deu 20:16-18), but at other times they are just as guilty as anyone else (Jos 7:10-12, 20-21). Israel, however, had forgotten this, essentially voting against God for generations.
But the ultimate coup d’état was about to occur. The King of Israel would remind his people who was really in charge. Judgment is coming, and coming quickly. Listen to the Prophet: “Set the trumpet to your lips! One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD . . . the enemy shall pursue him” (Hos 8:1-3). “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. . . . Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel” (8:7-8). “Egypt shall gather them; Memphis shall bury them. Nettles shall possess their precious things of silver; thorns shall be in their tents” (9:6). The trumpet had sounded, the battle lines were formed, vultures smelled blood in the air, the winds of war blew. Israel’s so called friends would form against her, shatter her strength, round up her refugees, and turn the plenty of the land to a barren wilderness. When we reject God’s claims over his people, we invite his righteous judgment.
As we have stated before, Jesus Christ is the ultimate political reality: he who created all things, redeems our fallen world, and reigns at his Father’s right hand (Col 1:15-20). The heart of Hosea’s indictment is still focused on the lack of true, spiritual worship (see 8:11-13; 9:1, 4-5), but politics played an important part in how these problems came about, how they got as bad as they did, and how God would repay them for it. As the late Russell Kirk once wrote, “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems” (The Conservative Mind 8). So when we treat God’s messengers as crazy fools, when we outlaw his word as “hate speech,” when we back believers into a corner in public discourse, we know the result: “he will remember their iniquity; he will punish their sins” (9:7-9). The church, then, cannot place her trust in political half-measures, but must instead rely on the God who rules above, for “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes” (Psa 118:9). Nor can we allow our views to be dominated by economics, defense or foreign affairs, for “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Pro 14:34). May we, then, as his people, intercede for our neighbors, that our nation might turn to God and repent of our rebellion against our Almighty God (Jer. 29:7; Gen 18:20-33).
Originally posted Feb 10, 2014. Video from July 25, 2018, courtesy of one our shepherds at Warner Robins, Brother Dave Domingue. Fast forward to 20:00 minutes for the lesson on Hosea.
From year to year, heart disease and cancer rank as the leading causes of adult deaths, and the same is true spiritually. Sin affects the heart both first and most fully, and once one’s heart is turned, the infection continues to spread (2Th 2:9-12; 2Ti 2:16-18). As Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9 ESV; see our first post for Works Cited). Jesus himself later elaborates on these thoughts: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:21-23). This was Israel’s real problem: her adultery (spiritual and physical), her oppression of the poor, her rejection of the Law, her false worship, her fallen defenses—all could be traced back to her heart problems. In the next section of his prophecy, Hosea therefore diagnoses the root of Israel’s sins.
Hearts of Passion. In an age of hedonism like our own, it is not surprising that a life of pleasure is the first step toward habitual unfaithfulness. As Americans we practically cut our teeth on immodest dress, lewd behavior, premarital and extramarital sex, and are now confronted with a variety of sexual aberrations beyond even these. Unfortunately, Hosea finds these same sins among God’s people: “They are all adulterers; they are like a heated oven whose baker ceases to stir the fire, from the kneading of the dough until it is leavened. . . . For with hearts like an oven they approach their intrigue; all night their anger smolders; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven” (Hos 4:4-7). The ESVSB unpacks the prophet’s language well, noting the progression of their passion: at first it is quiet, then repressed, but it ultimately consumes those who play with its fire.
Passions, of course, vary from person to person. Some are natural and should be tempered by wisdom and self-control (1Co 7:36; 1Ti 5:11; 2Ti 2:22). Others are unnatural and can only be conquered through a lifetime of grace and submission (Rom 1:26-27; 1Co 6:9-11). But in either case, passions wage war against our souls, our minds and our brethren (1Pe 2:11; Eph 2:3; Jam 4:1). And because of this constant internal pressure, we are at times led astray from our Lord to both physical and spiritual death (1Th 4:5; 2Ti 3:6; Rom 7:5). For this reason, God calls us to turn away from our passions in defiance, to nail them to the cross of Christ, and to kill the sin within us (Rom 6:12; Gal 5:24; Col 3:5), reminding us of the redemption he has purchased at so great a cost: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Tit 2:11-12).
Hearts of Pride. Those who have witnessed the tragic departure of a brother or sister in Christ know that pride follows passion. Once a soul has succumbed to its own desires, it has substituted its own will for God’s; and when we reject God’s will for our lives we have rejected his plan to save us (1Pe 4:2; Heb 10:36; 1Jo 2:17). Unfortunately, the pride that leads us astray is the same pride that keeps us away, and so we seek consolation and strength elsewhere. The Israelites demonstrate this well: “Ephraim mixes himself with the peoples; Ephraim is a cake not turned” (Hos 7:8). While we continue in sin, our religion lacks its main ingredient—true devotion to God—leaving our faith half-baked and therefore good for nothing.
But pride brings us no strength at all; in fact, it is a sign of weakness. As Solomon reminds us, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Pro 16:18). Hosea therefore points out the irony of boastful rebellion to God: “Strangers devour his strength, and he knows it not; gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not. The pride of Israel testifies to his face; yet they do not return to the LORD their God, nor seek him, for all this” (Hos 7:9-10). Israel was not the young man he used to be; his strength was failing and his hair was getting grayer, but he failed to see this for what it was. God would break their pride; if they would not humble themselves, he would humiliate them. As James reminds us, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” therefore, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (Jam 4:6-10).
Hearts of Lies. There is simply no subsitute for the holy word of God. So when we reject it, we reject any hope of knowing him as Creator and Redeemer. After several disciples left Jesus because of the boldness of his testimony, “Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). Israel, however, gave the opposite response, and instead tried to fly the coop: “Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria. As they go, I will spread over them my net; I will bring them down like birds of the heavens; I will discipline them according to the report made to their congregation” (Hos 7:11-12).
They were leaving the God who redeemed them for the very places he had redeemed them from and would sell them to! So while Yahweh stood ready to save, Israel’s impenitence forced him to judge: “Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me! I would redeem them, but they speak lies against me” (7:13). As Mays notes, “The God of the Exodus is unchanged in His will, but because of Israel’s lies there will be no ‘exodus’ from the Assyrian danger” (in the BKC). When you live a lie, you can’t possibly be saved by the God of truth.
Hearts of Idolatry. Hosea completes his cycle of metaphors by confronting the most blatant transgression of all: Israel’s worship of Baal. Deep down they realized they had gotten something wrong. They longed for the good ol’ days, but they hadn’t the faintest idea how to get them back (see Jer 6:16). Their own passions and pride prevented them from seeing that blessings flow from truth, and truth from God. “They do not cry to me from the heart, but they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves; they rebel against me. . . . They return, but not to the Most High” (Hos 7:14-16; see ESV margin). Like the false prophets on Mount Carmel, though, Israel’s gods would be asleep or on their porcelain thrones; in either case unable to help them (see 1Ki 18:26-29).
Of course, most people these days know that “an idol has no real existence” (1Co 8:4), but they are just as likely to be blind to the idols they have erected in their own lives. You don’t have to pray to silver and gold to allow something to come between you and your God (but see Mat 6:24, 33). As Paul asks, then, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2Co 6:16). We must therefore turn “to God from idols to serve the living and true God,” accepting the apostolic testimony “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1Th 1:9; 2:13).
When our hearts aren’t right with God, any attempt at religion will backfire. Hearts of passion, pride, lies and idolatry cannot cultivate a faith of love, humility, truth and praise. Like a bad bow, Israel could not be trusted to shoot without missing the mark and harming the shooter (Hos 7:16). And because of this, they were nowhere near true faithfulness. As Christ himself quotes Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mat 15:8-9). It is time to start living by our confession, to start worshipping according to his word, and to start teaching what he has revealed. Because when we respond to God in true repentance and faith, we open ourselves to the radical redemption he offers, a heart surgery only he can perform: “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Eze 11:19; see 18:31; 36:26).
Originally posted Jan 27, 2014. Video from July 18, 2018.
Many people treat religion like some sort of game. There are rules to abide by, plays to be made, points to be scored and champions to be crowned. Of course, in some ways the analogy can be a positive one: we do run a race, there is a prize, we do have rules we must follow, and we will either be crowned as champions or fail to finish (1Co 9:24-27). But on another level, playing at religion is the deadliest game that can be played. As Christ himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat 7:21 ESV; see our first post for Works Cited). Many religious people can say the right words or do the right things, but do so out of either habit or insincerity, in either case failing to truly know the Lord and his will (Mat 7:22-23). In the same way, Israel was playing hide and seek with God. Hosea brings this pattern to the forefront in the next two chapters of his work to point out three reasons not to play at religion.
First: You can run, but you can’t hide. This should seem obvious to any believer. We “serve the living and true God” (1Th 1:9), the Great I AM (Exo 3:13-15), who is everywhere, knows everything and can do anything (Psa 139). And yet we deny these truths almost daily: the white lie, the raunchy profile pic, the hateful thought—all of which point to the real problem: the filthy heart (Mark 7:21-23). But the part of ourselves that we view as hidden away, or that we refuse to look at, is the very thing God looks at most closely (1Sa 16:7; Mat 5:21-48). Yahweh thus reminds Israel of this truth: “I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hidden from me; for now, O Ephraim, you have played the whore; Israel is defiled. Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they know not the LORD” (Hos 5:3-4, emphasis added).
So while Israel had forgotten her Creator, God could not ignore the sin of his people. As we’ve seen already, their sin was not a onetime lapse in judgment; it had become a way of life: “And the revolters have gone deep into slaughter;” “Gilead is a city of evildoers, tracked with blood. As robbers lie in wait for a man, so the priests band together; they murder on the way to Shechem; they commit villainy” (5:2; 6:8-9). Out of pride and self-seeking, precept became tradition, tradition became opinion, and opinions don’t bind anyone, so “like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (6:7; see 5:5). And such flagrant violations of the Lord’s will could not be hidden from God. As Moses said centuries before, “if you . . . have sinned against the LORD . . . be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23; see too Ecc 12:14; Rom 2:14-16). So since they had replaced God’s law with man’s opinions, God’s people would stagger as he struck them; they would reel under the weight of his hand (5:5).
Second: You can seek, but you won’t find. The prophet’s tone becomes even more ironic in the next two verses: “With their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the LORD, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them. They have dealt faithlessly with the LORD; for they have borne alien children. Now the new moon shall devour them with their fields” (Hos 5:6-7, emphasis added). Amazingly, while Israel knowingly worshipped the Baals through illegitimate priests, they still claimed to worship Jehovah! Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising. After all, don’t we betray God in the same ways? Don’t we mistreat others and then try to seek the Lord in worship (5:10; Deu 19:14)? Don’t we welcome the doctrines and disciples of man with open arms (Hos 5:11)? Don’t we say our prayers, sing our songs, and crack open our check books with the fervor of a dead man?
But Yahweh doesn’t just want our worship, he wants us to listen (1Sa 15:22-23); he doesn’t want what he’s commanded for its own sake, he wants our humble gratitude (Psa 50:6-8; 51:16-17); he doesn’t just want us to pray with others, he wants us to be the answer to those prayers (Isa 1:12-17). Jehovah roots true worship in the heart of devotion: “Your love [Hebrew hesed] is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. . . . For I desire steadfast love [hesed] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos 6:4-6; see Mic 6:6-8 and the NET notes). So when we seek God in worship without preparing ourselves spiritually and morally, we do not find the Lord because he is not there. And as the NBC points out, “If God’s presence is terrifying, his absence is worse.”
And finally: You can’t find healing till you confess to the Healer. Reading the last point, you were probably thinking about Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (emphasis added). God, of course, saves those who call on him humbly through baptism (Acts 2:21; 22:16; 1Pe 3:21), and he desires that all men accept this call (1Ti 2:4; 2Pe 3:9). But with each of these promises there is also a precept: ask, seek and knock; arise, be baptized and be washed; trust in the resurrection and appeal to God; know the truth and repent. In other words, you can’t put forgiveness before repentance. To think of God saving an impenitent sinner is to deny the holiness and love of God and to trample the Son of God underfoot (1Pe 1:14-21; Heb 10:29). As one of Hosea’s contemporaries wrote, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa 59:1-2, emphasis added).
It was for this reason God had turned away from his bride; not because she wouldn’t want saving, and much less that he didn’t want to save her! But because they sought their healing elsewhere: “When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound” (Hos 5:13, emphasis added). All the armies of Assyria could not save Israel from the punishment that would befall her; in fact, they would lead the charge (see the ESVSB and NET notes)! So instead of seeking true deliverance through their Savior, Israel would suffer his wrath (5:14; 6:5). As painful as this would be for both them and him, the Lord’s purpose was still to redeem his bride through repentance. As Ralph McKay pointed out recently, though God has prepared plans for his people, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11), this would only come to be after seventy years in exile (29:10), and only then because the people would seek the Lord in repentance (29:12-14). As Hosea himself then implores:
Come, let us return to the LORD;
It’s time to stop playing hide and seek with God. We have to stop hiding our sins, because he sees them (1Jo 1:6-9). We have to stop our casual will worship and get back to the heart of praise (Col 2). We have to stop playing at religion and turn to God in true repentance. Because until then, God is hiding from us: “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me” (Hos 5:15, emphasis added). If you’ve left the body of Christ, now is the time to return. If you’re showing up to worship in body but not in spirit, now is the time to get real. And if you’re tired of trusting in yourself, now is the time to submit. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jam 4:7-8).
Originally posted Jan 20, 2014. Video from July 11, 2018.
Leaders are often under-appreciated by their followers and over-appreciated by themselves, and this plays out in numerous ways in our society. We often expect the world out of our presidents, our coaches and our bosses, and then when they fail to meet our unrealistic expectations we make light of their work, call for their dismissal, or make things difficult for them. There is, of course, a degree of truth to this. As John Maxwell often points out, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” This doesn’t mean that good leaders alone make for a safe and prosperous nation, a winning team or a good quarter. But of all the many contributing factors and people, leaders have the greatest influence on the final outcome.
This is true spiritually as well. God doesn’t only outline the responsibilities of our leaders, he points out their qualifications, he equips and empowers them to lead well, and he teaches us how to hold them accountable (see Eph 4:7-16 and almost all of 1Ti). It is also true at home, where the faithfulness of the father is the greatest indicator to future faithfulness in his children (Eph 6:4). It is for this reason that when there is a problem at home, at church, at work or in our communities we look to leaders first. Such was also the case for ancient Israel, so Hosea (like the other prophets and even Christ himself) saves his harshest words for Israel’s kings, priests and prophets. We’ll turn our attention now, then, to three reasons Israel’s leaders would soon be judged.
Reason #1: They fed on the flock. Spiritual nourishment is the first task of spiritual leadership. Each gospel writer closes his account reinforcing this truth: leaders spread the gospel, lead people to faith and repentance, baptize others for the forgiveness of their sins, and then build them up to keep Christ’s commandments (Mat 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49). John’s account is even more vivid, recounting Jesus’ charge to Peter: “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19 ESV; see our first post for Works Cited). Elders are therefore called to emulate the same depth of leadership shown by God, David, Jesus and Peter (Psa 23; 1Sa 17:31-37; John 10:1-21; 1Pe 5:1-4).
Israel’s religious elite, though, failed to uphold this divine pattern. As Hosea says, “Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother” (Hos 4:4-5, emphasis added; compare the BHS, NET and NBC notes). Israel’s leaders loved their titles, but were derelict in their duties. They were so busy trying to keep their jobs that they were no longer doing their jobs. They, of course, kept up appearances, but they encouraged religion for the wrong reason: so they could eat (4:8)! They turned the means of ministry into its end, serving the god of their belly rather than the God above (Php 3:9; Rom 16:17-18). So, “The more they increased, the more they sinned,” but God promised to “change their glory into shame” (Hos 4:7). They would be reminded that their responsibility was to serve, not be served; to feed the flock, not to feed on it (Mark 10:42-45).
Reason #2: They exploited ignorance. While the leaders were gorging on the people’s sacrifices, the people were starving spiritually. In perhaps the most quoted verse in Hosea, the prophet writes, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos 4:6). The chief fault of Israel’s spiritual leadership was that they had rejected true knowledge as revealed in the Mosaic covenant and substituted for it their own manmade religion. Verse 2 therefore compares Israel’s sins with the ideal of faithfulness as revealed in the Ten Commandments (Exo 20:1-17), and finds her lacking on every point: “swearing, lying, murder, stealing and committing adultery . . . bloodshed follows bloodshed.” The only surprise here is that Israel’s leaders didn’t see it coming:
At first the residents of the northern kingdom continued to worship God, even though they were doing it in the wrong way; but very soon they also began to worship Canaanite gods. Before long they had substituted Baal for God and no longer worshiped God at all. It is not surprising that Jeroboam’s false priests were unable to preserve the true worship of God. (LASB; see too Deu 12:8-14; 1Ki 12:26-30)
Because Israel had rejected a deep, personal knowledge of God and his will, God says he will remove her status as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo 19:6). As Theodore of Mopsuestia paraphrases verse 6, “My people are like a priest who is compromised. He has fallen from his previous dignity and does not appear worthy for any reason” (Commentary on Hosea 4). God will therefore punish accordingly: “like people, like priest” (Hos 4:9). They too worshipped their bellies, so they too would starve: “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding” (4:9-12; compare the NET and NASB notes). Rather than building up the kingdom of God, these self-appointed priests were building their own kingdoms, exploiting the ignorance of the people rather than correcting it.
Reason #3: Their bad influence spread down and out. Bad leadership leads to ignorance of God among one’s followers and beyond. When elders, preachers and teachers turn from sound (literally healthy) doctrine, there’s no end to the diseases that will break out. You can hear the ironic tone in Hosea’s rant: “My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles” (4:12, emphasis added). Because of this they left the authorized worship of the temple for the strange fire offered “on the tops of the mountains . . . on the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth” (4:13; see Lev 10:1-2). Nor should we expect God to save us from the second and third order effects of our sins, or to support our cause: “Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with [whores] and sacrifice with cult prostitutes” (Hos 4:13-14). When you stand apart from God, you face the problems of this world without your only true shield.
Israel was not alone in her sins, though, at least not for long. Just as error in one congregation spreads to others, Judah soon followed her sister into sin. For this reason, the prophet warns the southern kingdom as well: “Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, ‘As the LORD lives’” (4:15). Since the calves of Dan and Bethel had changed the house of a God (Hebrew Beth-El, Gen 28:19) into a house of Evil (Hebrew Beth-aven), Judah is warned not to renew her covenant with Israel at Gilgal, “where Israel circumcised the new generation, observed the Passover, and where they camped when they marched around Jericho seven days (Josh. 4:19; 5:10; 6:1-14)” (ESVSB). Like people, like priest; and sister like sister.
Failed leadership brings false teaching, false discipleship and false worship. Though both Israel and Judah had been warned, neither listened, becoming instead like the very things they worshipped: “Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn” (Hos 4:16). So while they chose and rejected their leaders at will, they would be leaderless and without protection, “Like a lamb in a broad pasture.” Though much has changed since the days of Hosea, human nature has not, nor has God’s expectations for his chosen leaders. The church of our Lord needs leaders who teach his word boldly, patiently and in truth (Tit 1:9-2:1; 2Ti 2:24-26). Leaders who point us beyond ourselves and to the God who speaks to us (2Ti 3:16-17). And leaders who rebuke us when we turn from what he has said (Mat 15:7-9; Col 2:16-23). May God be praised that we have many leaders who do so today! And may we continually be a blessing to them—praying for them, submitting to them, and following their example (Heb 13:7, 17).
Originally posted Jan 13, 2014. Video from June 27, 2018.
Identifying broken families, broken communities and broken hearts is much easier than healing them. Humanity has, of course, tried—through manmade religions, philosophies and even technology! But while these remedies often help us address some of the symptoms and consequences of our brokenness, they don’t (and can’t) address the actual problem: sin. Sin can’t merely be worshipped away, willed away or medicated out of the human heart. We need radical redemption, a dramatic deliverance, an open heart surgery. I’m not a fan of the word radical; it reeks of upheaval, pride and cynicism. But when used to describe God’s saving work the Lord is perhaps the most thoroughgoing radical of all! Hosea reminds us of this through his own example of redemption and reconciliation, and points to its significance for the Lord’s bride.
Redemption starts with radical love. Several aspects of biblical teaching are truly mysterious, like eternity, the Trinity and God’s providence. But nothing is so hard to comprehend as God’s love for sinners—for you and for me. Imagine for a moment forgiving your spouse for the ultimate betrayal. Imagine the pain and despair of your world falling apart. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine because you’ve already been there. Know, though, that God was the first to experience this ultimate loss. Even more amazing is what he did about it: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness, and speak to her heart” (Hos 2:14, emphasis added). God courts and woos his wayward bride; this, in fact, is the role of biblical revelation. As Julian of Eclanum remarked, “Speaking directly to the heart indicates the promulgation of the law, which shaped the hearts of the listener” (Commentary on Hosea 1.2; see too Jer 31:31-34 and our first post for Works Cited).
God’s love, though, doesn’t just forgive; it starts over. God doesn’t remarry, he betroths. “I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me In righteousness and justice, In lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, And you shall know the LORD” (2:19-20 NKJV). Jerome’s comment on this passage is worth quoting at length:
How great is God’s mercy! A prostitute fornicates with many lovers, and because of her offense is handed over to the beasts. After she returns to her husband, she is said not at all to be reconciled to him but rather to be betrothed. Now notice the difference between God’s union and that of men. When a man marries, he turns a virgin into a . . . nonvirgin. But when God joins with prostitutes, he changes them into virgins. (Commentary on Hosea 1.2)
The terms of the betrothal also remind us that it is God’s character that determines the covenant: righteousness, justice, lovingkindness (or steadfast love), mercy, faithfulness. The Lord calls his bride to renew their vows using almost the exact same words as before (see Exo 34:6-7). And as we well know, it is the faithful partner who must step out in sacrificial love to initiate the healing. Hosea is therefore commanded, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery, just like the love of the LORD for the children of Israel, who look to other gods and love the raisin cakes of the pagans” (Hos 3:1-2).
Redemption brings radical renewal. Sin denies the good life, leaving only a distortion of its original beauty. For this reason, divine deliverance not only frees from sin, but begins to shift the believer’s entire life back into alignment. In Israel’s case, God promises to restore the very things he would soon take away: “I will give her her vineyards from there, And the Valley of Achor as a door of hope; She shall sing there, As in the days of her youth, As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt” (2:15). Yahweh therefore draws on Israel’s past to point toward the full glory of her restoration. He redeems a time of trouble (the meaning of Achor; see Jos 7:26) by holding out the hope of renewal. The bride, then, will once more be able to sing and rejoice just as she did with the Songs of Moses and Miriam (see Exo 15:1-21).
The blessings of reconciliation go well beyond the quality of Israel’s spiritual life. God restores his blessings to the land: grain, new wine and oil (Hos 2:21; see vv. 5-6, 9, 12). He restores peace and stability to their nation: “Bow and sword of battle I will shatter from the earth, To make them lie down safely” (2:18; see 1:5, 12-13). And even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the creeping things of the ground would enjoy this new creation (2:18). Paul looks to a similar restoration in Romans 8:20-21: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (see too Mat 19:28; 2Pe 3:10-13). All is well in the world only when the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve properly reverence their Creator.
Redemption calls for radical commitment. Though these blessings are indeed profound, the heart of the covenant remains one of belonging: “They shall answer Jezreel. Then I will sow her for Myself in the earth, And I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; Then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!’” (Hos 2:21-23). Here, again, Hosea employs the names of Gomer’s children, but this time as a blessing rather than a curse (see 1:11-2:1). All of this would flow from God’s acceptance of Israel once more:
“And it shall be, in that day,”
Just like the names of the children, this is no mere shift in terminology. In restored Israel, the name of Baal would be merely a bad, unspoken memory, silenced by their devotion to Yahweh. So, while My Master (Baali) rings of submission to authority, My Husband or My Man (Ishi) is a term of endearment. As the NET states, “The relationship will no longer be conditioned on the outward legal commitment but on a new inward bond of mutual affection and love.”
Such affection, though, is exclusive in the purest and best of senses. Restoration of a relationship with God—and receiving once more the blessings that flow from him—is only possible when we leave behind our false loves and false idols and give ourselves wholly to the One True God. Hosea therefore reminds Gomer of her marital commitment: “You shall stay with me many days; you shall not play the harlot, nor shall you have a man—so, too, will I be toward you” (3:3). God isn’t going anywhere, and he calls us to do the same. So while he will indeed remove the causes of our temptation (3:4), he does so to prepare his children to “return and seek the LORD their God and David their king,” that they might “fear the LORD and His goodness in the latter days” (3:5)—a reign reestablished through the leadership of Zerubbabel, the influence of the church, and Christ’s second coming (see our previous comment on 1:10-2:1, as well as Isa 2:2; Dan 2:28; 10:14).
Redemption is no mere theological proposition. Unfortunately, the word itself has fallen into general disuse. The only things we redeem these days are tickets and coupons. For Gomer, though, redemption meant the final payment, full restitution, freedom from slavery. As Hosea says, “So I bought her for myself for fifteen shekels of silver, and one and one-half homers of barley” (Hos 3:3). Gomer’s sin had led to abject slavery and destitution, but Hosea’s love compelled him to radically redeem his bride. Under the Old Law he could have simply divorced her (Deu 24:1-4), but God himself reminds the prophet that it is his love that is the ideal, not the temporary exception given through Moses (see too Mat 19:1-9). Today God offers us an even greater redemption: through his grace he forgives us of our sins, adopts us into his family, and pays the price we could never pay, achieving it in the most radical way possible—sacrificing his own Son and gifting us with his own Spirit (Rom 3:21-26; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 24:21). And as baptized believers, it is this same love that calls us back to God through repentance and confession (Mat 28:18-20; Acts 8:22; 1Jo 1:6-9). May we ever love and honor our great Redeemer, living for him just as he has died for us (Heb 5:8-9)!
Originally posted Jan 6, 2014. Video from June 20, 2018.
Most of us are all too familiar with the kinds of broken families we discussed in our last post. And as painful as this is in any situation, it seems even more shocking when we see such sin and pain among God’s people. I was still a teenager when I first experienced it: my father left our family of five, ultimately cheating on my mom and divorcing her. So how on earth does Satan convince saints to sin? Simple: he lies. As Christ told those who refused to believe in him: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44 NKJV; see our first post for Works Cited). Or as the brother of our Lord wrote, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (Jam 1:14). Satan, then, takes a God-given desire, distorts it through lies, and draws away souls from their Maker. Hosea points to four of these lies in the life of Gomer and Israel.
Lie #1: I’m only hurting myself. This is the first mistake many make when giving into temptation. Society teaches us sin is simply a matter of preference that doesn’t concern other people. Hosea, however, teaches us otherwise: “Bring charges against your mother, bring charges; For she is not My wife, nor am I her Husband! Let her put away her harlotries from her sight, And her adulteries from between her breasts” (Hos 2:2). God thus invites Gomer’s children to become plaintiffs in their mother’s trial. He goes on to list their interest in the case in verses 4-5: “I will not have mercy on her children, For they are the children of harlotry. For their mother has played the harlot; She who conceived them has behaved shamefully.” Her sin affects them, and so they too have more than a little cause for concern.
Life is not all about you. When you think it is, you’ve already begun to fall. So while sin is certainly a choice, it is a choice that controls you—no, that defines you and your relationship with others. Once you give in to sin, you have given up your ability to decide for yourself (Rom 6:16). You have also given up your ability to decide how your brethren will respond. So don’t be upset when they “bring charges” against you in love, because they know that your sin affects them, even if you’ve forgotten that (Jam 5:19-20; Gal 6:1-2).
Lie #2: The grass is always greener (I think you can fill in the rest). Okay, so it’s a cliche; but proverbs become cliches only because our lives so often attest to their sad truths. Gomer suffered from this delusion as well, saying, “I will go after my lovers, Who give me my bread and my water, My wool and my linen, My oil and my drink” (Hos 2:5). Israel thought that the good in her life was the result of her unfaithfulness, and so she redoubled her prostitution. God’s response was to give her what she wanted: he would “strip her naked And expose her, as in the day she was born, And make her like a wilderness, And set her like a dry land, And slay her with thirst” (2:3; see vv. 7-10). In essence, God says, “You want to get naked with your lovers? I’ll do the stripping! I’ll lay open your shame to those you’ve opened yourself to. But don’t think they’ll want you back after that! After all, no one trusts a cheater” (see ESVSB; NET).
Israel would have recognized in these words the public shame and punishment for adultery in the Ancient Near East (see Jer 13:22; Eze 16:35-43). The allure of sin makes us forget that, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (Jam 1:17). But the so-called “benefits” of sin—pleasure, friendship, freedom—are mere illusions, glimpses of God’s goodness that call us back to him in repentance (Acts 14:15-17; 17:30-31; Rom 2:4).
Lie #3: God just wants me to be happy. Any attempt at happiness in this life (much less the next!) is incomplete without God. God did not tell Israel that if harlotry brought them happiness to go for it. Instead, he says, “I will hedge up your way with thorns, And wall her in, So that she cannot find her paths. She will chase her lovers, But not overtake them; Yes, she will seek them, but not find them” (Hos 2:6-7). He wants Israel to be happy in him. Note that the wife’s lovers did not seek her out. Instead, it is she who took the initiative to pursue them (see Jer 2:23-24). But we don’t find happiness by seeking our own way; we find it by walking with God.
Israel understood this on some level, but failed to see its full significance: “I will go and return to my first husband, For then it was better for me than now” (Hos 2:7). Though Gomer eventually determines to go back to Hosea, even then she fails to see that her unhappiness was a result of her unfaithfulness, and that her husband was the only person who ever really cared for her (see Jer 2:2). There’s no remorse in her return; she’s just tired of being poor. Her idea of happiness is about having good things, rather than being good. She was sorry and she regretted her actions, but her sorrow was for the world, not for the One who made it (see 2Co 7:9-11).
Lie #4: But I’m not that bad! There are, of course, several versions of this lie. Sometimes it means comparing ourselves to others: I’m not as bad as so-and-so (2Co 10:12)—and sometimes it means comparing sin to sin: Well at least I didn’t do that (Jam 2:10-11)—but in each case we “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). In Hosea’s day, Israel believed that as long as they worshipped Yahweh, they could also worship Baal and live however they wanted morally. God, however, reminded them that you can’t compartmentalize covenant commitment: “I will also cause all her mirth to cease, Her feast days, Her New Moons, Her Sabbaths—All her appointed feasts. . . . I will punish her For the days of the Baals to which she burned incense” (Hos 2:11-12).
God has never wanted merely part of our lives. As Moses exhorted Israel, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deu 6:4-5, emphasis added). Knowing the Great I AM requires our complete rational, spiritual and physical devotion. Everything else falls short of what he deserves. As the churches of Christ, then, we can’t merely stake our claim to faithfulness on singing without instruments or weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper (though both are biblical: Col 3:16; Eph 5:18-20; Acts 2:42; 20:7), but must also root our worship in lives right with God. As Amos said in a similar context, “But let justice run down like water, And righteousness like a mighty stream” (5:24). Because on the Last Day we won’t be able to say, “Lord, at least we did better than they did.”
Buried within each of these lies is a lie not only about us, but about God. We cannot sin without grieving the Spirit (Eph 4:32), we cannot sin without without refusing our gratitude (1Th 5:16-18), we cannot sin without admitting our ignorance of the Holy One (1Pe 1:15), and because we sin, we cannot possibly save ourselves (Isa 59:1-2). Israel had been given every blessing a bride could hope for, but “‘She decked herself with her earrings and jewelry, And went after her lovers; But Me she forgot,’ says the LORD” (Hos 2:13). As the ESVSB points out, “Israel’s failure to ‘know’ the Lord and his provision, and the Lord’s plan to remedy this, is a key idea in the book (8, 20; 4:1, 6; 5:3, 4; 6:3; 7:9; 8:2; 11:3; 13:4, 5).” Both then and now, knowing God is the goal of his people, but it is not a cold, intellectual or even religious commitment. Instead it springs from the heart and is seen in devotion: the love of a bride for her groom.
Originally posted Dec 23, 2013. Video from June 13, 2018.
The modern family is in trouble. In our homes and neighborhoods we see the pain and suffering involved with child neglect, domestic abuse, absentee fathers, poverty, pornography, adultery, divorce, and “alternative lifestyles.” Family life is hard enough without the effects of these sins. It can be difficult to devote yourself to another person in marriage (Eph 5:22-27); it can be difficult to sacrifice daily to raise godly children (Eph 6:4); and it can be difficult keeping the family’s focus on the Lord (Jos 24:15; 1Co 7:32-35). The Book of Hosea is an inside look at just such a broken family, a family painfully distorted by sin. The children of Israel neglected to keep the law in love, to seek God in true worship, or to take care of the poor, and they ultimately turned from the faithfulness of the Holy One to the whoredom of Baal.
First, we see that sin still affects the saved. Yahweh’s first command to the prophet is shocking: “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (1:2 ESV; see our first post for Works Cited). Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone called me or someone I care about a whore, they would certainly get my attention. God’s purpose, however, is not to insult or inflame but to instruct. Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years (Isa 20:2-4), Ezekiel baked bread over burning dung (Eze 4:9-13), and Hosea married a known prostitute whom God then compared to his own bride. In each case, God sought to wake Israel up to the reality of their sin.
Jehovah had warned Israel of this possibility from the very beginning of their relationship. Before they entered Canaan God instructed Israel to, “tear down [Canaan’s] altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and . . . whore after their gods” (Exo 34:12-16). But Israel’s faithfulness failed. Hosea therefore casts Israel as a brazen harlot, pointing out that their problems were a result of their own unfaithfulness.
Secondly, sin begets sin. Because Gomer returned to prostitution, her children would reap the consequences. For an ancient Israelite, Jezreel was synonymous with bloodshed. This was the place Ahab and Jezebel murdered Naboth and later paid the price for their sin (1Ki 21; 2Ki 9-10). In the days of Hosea, though, the king of Israel (Jehu) “did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam” (2Ki 10:31) and therefore Hosea promises him the same punishment. Because of his sin, the destruction of his family would extend to “the whole kingdom of the house of Israel,” a fate that “the bow of Israel” could not withstand (Hos 1:4-5; see too ESVSB).
Note too that Gomer’s second and third children are conceived and born without any mention of Hosea (vv. 6, 8). They don’t know who their fathers are. This is made even more evident in the names God gives to them: No Mercy and Not My People. It is impossible to disconnect mercy and membership, forgiveness and family. So as verse 6 reads, “I will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all.” Jehovah therefore threatens a terrible fate: “I am not your God” (Hos 1:9; see Lev 26:12).
And finally, sin brings loving discipline. Though Hosea emphasizes coming judgment, the Lord is still the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and remembers his promise to make their “children . . . like the sand of the sea and children of the living God” (Hos 1:10; see Gen 22:16-18; 13:16; 32:12). The prophet thus reminds Israel of her covenant through her ancestors: “In the place is not a geographical reference but a reference to the event when God and his people bonded at Sinai. The Lord will meet Israel at the same place he met with Israel before, i.e., under the same conditions. It is the place of repentance (cf. also Hos. 2:7, 16)” (ESVSB; see too Isa 62:4).
Both because of this restoration to God and to bring it about, Judah and Israel will once more “be gathered together” under “one head” (Hos 1:11). As with many prophecies, this one is fulfilled in three stages:
Let’s face it, though the church is the bride of Christ, we’re not the most devoted wife on the block. Christ, of course, “loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). But at times, we have refused to turn from our unfaithfulness, accepting instead the ways of this world and therefore its consequences (see Rev 2:21). The truth of this is evident in Paul’s message to Corinth: “For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2Co 11:2-3, emphasis added).
This depth of devotion often alludes us. We have tried to accept Christ but deny his people (Acts 2:36-41, 47; Eph 4:4-6). We have bore him illegitimate children by redefining what it means to be “born again” (John 3:3, 5; Tit 3:4-7; 1Pe 1:23). And we have trampled on his grace by turning back to the sin of our former lives (Heb 2:1-4; 10:29-31). Yet, in his love God stands calling, knocking and waiting for us to return in repentance, to heal our broken family and to be once more the bride of Christ (Mat 11:28-30; Rev 3:19-20).
Originally posted Dec 16, 2013
The Minor Prophets are some of the most difficult books of the Bible to read. But it is not because their message is hard to understand, it is just so hard to accept. As some of the disciples once told Christ: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it” (John 6:60 ESV)? Then, as now, those who come to the Lord must seek him through his word and prepare themselves to hear, since it is he alone who has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). As one of Hosea’s contemporaries wrote, “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (Isa 55:3).
Reading Hosea (or any other part of the Bible) therefore requires preparation on the part of the listener, especially when the message is one that will hurt before it heals. Such begins by understanding a bit about the world of the inspired writer and his first audience. Hosea’s ministry spanned thirty-three years, from about 755 B.C. to the fall of the northern kingdom in 722. The stability and wealth of the early eighth century led to rampant unfaithfulness in both worship and the home. So as a final warning to Israel, God instructed Hosea to marry a “wife of whoredom” (Hos 1:2), who would serve as a tragic illustration of Israel’s own unfaithfulness toward God.
Hosea, then, is written as a sharp and bitter satire, whose focus is “the exposure of human vice or folly” (ESVSB). The prophet therefore employs intentionally shocking language, vivid imagery and legal terms to emphasize God’s desire for justice and righteousness. Such an emphasis was especially relevant because of the primary form of Israel’s unfaithfulness: Baal worship. Several aspects of this are apparent in the book, “such as drunkenness, bestiality, human sacrifice, mutilations, and incest . . . but Hosea understands the strength of Baalism’s appeal to the sex drive by way of ritual prostitution” (ESVSB).
Hosea’s prophecies are soon fulfilled through “at least six incursions into Palestine and its neighbors by an unstoppable Assyrian army” (ESVSB). Even in the face of such judgment, however, Hosea (who shares a name with Joshua and Jesus—all of which mean “Salvation” or “Yahweh Saves”) shows the depth of God’s steadfast love for his people, a jealous love that tolerates no rivals. As Theodoret observed, “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” (Commentary on Hosea, “Introduction”). Hosea, then, is the emotional and tragic plea of the Lord to his bride to return to him in true love and purity, and stands as an important figure by which to examine the church of our Lord today.
For a fantastic introduction to Hosea, check out the Read Scripture video on the book of Hosea produced by the Bible Project:
A quick note on sources: When I first prepared this material for our Sunday morning adult study in 2013, I began with The ESV Study Bible, The NET Bible, the Bible Knowledge Commentary, plus some rudimentary Hebrew studies (we’re talking basic) and then branched out as needed to fill in their gaps. Although Hosea is fairly heavy on textual and interpretation issues, I have summarized heavily in order to adapt this material for the blog. For those interested in going deeper, I have included the complete list of Works Cited below, which I will link back to each week for ease of use.
Fast forward five years and two congregations later, and the Lord has blessed me with another opportunity to plumb the depths of Hosea's words. So in this re-run of the series, you will see not only updated and reposted expositions of Hosea, but videos of each class as taught in the summer of 2018 with the Warner Robins Church of Christ.
All works from Bible Study with Accordance.
While preparing the Big Picture I did my best to keep things as accessible and brief as possible. Which means that if you’re a teacher or other leader, you probably have a few more questions. So here are the works I drew on while preparing our material. If you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up at www.inearthenvessels.com/contact.
+ WORKS THAT SHAPED THIS STUDY
+ THREE BIG QUESTIONS
+ A STORY WORTH SHARING
+ IN THE BEGINNING & THE IMAGE OF GOD
+ COVENANTS OF PROMISE & FOLLOW ME
+ WATCH “The Gospel of the Kingdom” from the Bible Project
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Acts 1-2 (ESV)
As we wrap up the Big Picture of the Bible, I don’t want you to think the story is over. You see, if you’re hearing this for the first time, your journey is just getting started. But before you head down that path, it’s important to know the answers to two big questions: (1) WHERE are you going? and (2) WHY are you going? The first question is pretty obvious. Just try to hit “GO” in Apple Maps without a destination and see what happens.
But what about that second one; why is WHY important? Well, unless you’re the freest of spirits (or exceedingly bored), you probably don’t just jump in your car and head off into the unknown. There’s probably a reason you’ve selected your destination. You need the WHY for other reasons too, like, When do I need to be there? When do I need to leave? If it’s for an event (family, work, fun, etc.) the WHEN might already be set. But you probably don’t treat all those as equally important. The WHY might dictate you will be there, no matter what.
So what is your WHERE and your WHY? For a Christian, the answer is simple: it all comes down to a WHOM: Jesus. To be a Christian means to be a disciple of Christ, walking in his footsteps, and obeying his every word in love. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Jesus says it best: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). You see, we can’t come to him on our own terms. We can’t decide WHAT’s really important or WHEN’s the right time, because we know the WHY and he is a WHOM. And because of that, we follow—no matter how we feel, no matter what we have to give up, no matter how many times we fall—we take his hand and follow him.
Seven weeks to the day after Jesus rose from the dead, people from all over the world were gathered together in Jerusalem. Many of them had been there the day Jesus died, crying out, “Crucify him!” But when they heard what God had done for them through his own Son—by becoming human, dying for their sins, rising from the dead, and sitting at God’s right hand in heaven—there was really only one question that remained: “What shall we do!?” Peter doesn’t tell them to say a prayer, or to join the church of their choice. Listen to that first sermon:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” … So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:38-42)
When you first come to Christ, it can be hard. You have so many questions. There seems to be so much to learn. Things just aren’t the same anymore. But don’t let that stop you. He is the one who created you. He is the one who died for you. He is the one calling you. He is the one that all history longs for. And he’s coming again. Be transformed. Be baptized. Give yourselves wholly to his church. Let us help you. And obey the voice of the one who calls, “Follow me.”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ WATCH “The Covenants” from the Bible Project
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Ephesians 2-3 (ESV)
If there’s one thing that always strikes me about the Big Picture of the Bible, it’s just how BIG of a story we’re talking about. Just think about it: this is the story of the cosmos, of humanity, of an eternal God who has always been and always will be. Or think about the Bible itself: 66 individual books written over 1,500 years by 40 or so different authors. On one hand that might seem a bit overwhelming; that’s lots of years and lots of faces and lots of events to think about. But on the other hand, when you take a step back from each of those books, you begin to see a single story taking shape—a story of truly cosmic proportions, one that involves every thing and every one. And it all comes down to this: God became flesh.
To see what I mean, try this out: open a Bible and turn to its table of contents. You’ll notice that most of the books are listed under the heading, “The Old Testament,” and several others are listed under another heading, “The New Testament.” What you won’t see on that page, though, is what connects those two sections. The hinge upon which these testaments turn is the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Remember what Paul said to the Colossians: “in him all things hold together.” Now listen to what he wrote to a sister-church around that same time, about how they saw the Old Testament:
… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:12-16)
When you’re trying to remember the Big Picture of the Bible, that word “covenants” is extremely important. Because it describes those times in human history when God steps out in his gracious love and calls a person into a relationship with him. And just like any good story, the best parts echo throughout its later chapters. So we see God covenanting with Adam and Noah, and Abraham and Jacob (the father of the nation of Israel), and then a guy named David. That’s what these are: “covenants of promise”—each one building on the others to brings everything together in the Promise. Catch that? Many covenants, one promise.
And that promise is fulfilled in one man: Jesus. His very name means deliverance, the putting-back-together of what we unraveled. He is the one who says, “Your mess is mine,” and then dies to prove it. And that’s where the mystery becomes really good news. God knows even better than we do just how wrong we really are. He could have looked down at the mess we made of things and ended it all right there. But that’s simply not who God is. And we know who he is because we’ve known his Son. And in Christ, we hear the gospel call, “Follow me.”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ WATCH “The Image of God” from the Bible Project
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Genesis 2:4-3:24 (ESV)
Every story has a cast of characters, and the bigger the story, the bigger the cast. But in the Big Picture of the Bible, it is always God who speaks and acts first. And since he is the Author of this story that means you only make it in if he writes you into it. So God creates this world and fills it with his creatures, but something is missing. Things are “good,” but not yet “very good.” And so God does something surprising. He pours out even more of his goodness into a creature that will reflect and represent who he is.
If I were to ask you to close your eyes and try to picture God, one of two images would probably pop into your mind. On one hand there might be a bright, ethereal light from heaven, which speaks in a booming voice. On the other, you might see a gentle or even grandfatherly figure clothed in white robes, with eyes that know your every thought. And if I were to ask you to imagine who God would create in his own image, you would probably think of spiritual beings that match one of those two images—like angels. After all, even the Bible calls angels “sons of God.” But that’s not who God crowns as the kings and queens of his creation. Listen:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
Say what!? Yep. If you want to know who God created to reflect and represent who he is, you can’t look up, you have to look down to the Bible, and then look within your own heart. The person whose face you see in the mirror every day is created in God’s own image. The person you love to be with more than any other person is God’s image-bearer. And even that person whom you can’t stand at work or at school was created to image that same God. That means everything about your life—your looks, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your gender, your relationships—all of these are gifts from the One who made you. He’s handed you a first draft of your own story, and invites you to finish it; to become his own co-author.
Of course, you may not feel that way about it at all. When you look into your heart—or into the face of your enemy—you don’t see how that can be true. But that’s part of the human story too. Adam and Eve were the first to discover it, but we all know it by experience (even if we don’t know what to call it). We’re not that good at imaging God. In fact, as the Bible says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). What we need is to be rescued; a new way to be human. Not just from the evil without, but from the evil within. Adam failed God, but God wasn’t done yet. Instead, he sent forth a Son of Adam, “the offspring of Eve.”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ WATCH “How Did God Create the Ingredients for Life?” from the BioLogos Foundation
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Genesis 1:1-2:4 (ESV). If you’re in a group of four or more divide the reading amongst four people (A, B, C & D), like Slide 3 (see below for attachment).
Every story has a beginning, but the Big Picture of the Bible is a little bit different. To see what I mean, listen to the very first words, on the very first page, in the very first chapter of the Bible:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)
“In the beginning.” The Bible isn’t just an ordinary story, it’s the true story of the whole world, and so the Bible doesn’t start just anywhere. Its beginning is THE beginning; where all things find their origin, when time itself springs into being, and every effect finds its ultimate cause.
“In the beginning, God.” But that ultimate cause isn’t just another physical phenomenon in a long chain of physical phenomena. That cause is personal and spiritual, and he has a name: Elohim, The-Great-and-Mighty—God. Before anything or anyone else, there is simply… HIM.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In this opening prologue to the whole biblical narrative only God speaks, only God acts; and creation--everything else—simply flows from his Word, and is shaped by his hand. Before he speaks and shapes there was nothing, but because of him, everything simply is. Our cosmic home is radically dependent on a radically independent Creator—the Great I AM.
“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” When God creates, he begins with his own blank canvas: no particular shape, just an empty, fluid darkness. Over the course of three days he fashions the physical world (light & dark; sea & sky; land & vegetation) and then he returns to these places to fill them with their inhabitants, one day at a time (lights of day & night; fish & birds; land animals & humans). And everything was just so; not just “good,” but “very good.”
“And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Just as God is our beginning, he is also our end; the first one to be and do, and the last one to take up his proper residence (on day 7). He is the end-all and be-all, the goal, the one “in whom all things hold together.” These heavens and earth are not ours, but his. This is HIS story; we belong to him.
Here is beauty. Here is order. Here is the melody and harmony of creation. As David knew, the stars sing, and their words call out for discovery. So we look and listen. We ponder the intricate dance of electromagnetism and gravity, weak and strong nuclear forces, and gravitational binding and rest-mass energy. We live in a universe in which only one less quark per billion antiquarks would have tipped the balance against everything but radiation—even us. But why is that so? Why that extra quark? Why those perfect ratios? Why the interconnectedness of all matter, or the intelligibility of the universe? Why? Because, “In the beginning, God created…”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ WATCH “Experience the Book” from the Museum of the Bible
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ 1 Peter 1:10-12, 22-25; 2 Peter 1:16-21; 3:14-18 (ESV)
As we talk about the Big Picture of the Bible, you’ll hopefully see just what this book means to God’s people. After all, this is where we find out who we are, where we came from, and why we’re here. The Bible is the book that tells us the story of Jesus. Now that might not seem very Earth-shattering. But if you remember what we said before about Jesus, and how “in him all things hold together,” then that story’s not just any story. It’s about HIM and since it’s about HIM, it’s the untold story, the secret history of the whole world. And now we know it.
You see, when I talk about the Bible, I’m sharing a story that didn’t start with me; someone else told it to me. And that someone at some time learned it from yet another person, and so on. And because it wasn’t theirs, no one got to make it up or add their own spin to it. They took what they heard and passed it on. In fact, for thousands of years, billions of people around the world have come to know it. That history is no longer a secret, and once you know it everything else begins to make sense. Here’s how one persecutor-turned-preacher described it:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
That story was a secret because only God saw it all happening in real-time, but this story is now good news because God has opened it up for all to see. Paul uses a variety of words, but this is what makes this story so special: God has spoken; it’s HIS story. This isn’t just any book; it’s the Biblia, the Book of Books. The God who exists from eternity has spoken his Word so you can know his power, wisdom, and glory—so that you can trust and obey him.
Sadly, for many the Bible simply remains a mystery. Sure, it might seem like everyone on this side of the Atlantic has one, and most people know at least something about it. Even those who deny what it teaches can’t help but be moved by its beauty and depth of meaning. But few people really understand what they hold in their hands. The Bible is the most-read, most-translated, and most-influential book in human history. There are more handwritten copies of the Bible than any other body of ancient literature, and because of that we can trust that what we hold today speaks the same truths God’s Spirit gave to his spokesmen through the ages.
And the more evidence we find—caves filled with hidden manuscripts, cities buried under centuries of dirt, or even the mapping of the human genome—the more we exult in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The evidence confirms what Christians already know by faith: that God exists and that he has spoken. For many, that’s still a mystery, but because of Jesus that’s a story worth sharing. So, where do we start? How about here: “In the beginning…”
+ ASK Three Big Questions
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
+ PRAY for open hearts and minds, especially yours.
+ READ Psalm 19 (ESV)
One of the best ways to get into a story is to sing about it. And when it comes to the Big Picture of the Bible, the song that comes to my mind is Psalm 19. It was written about 3,000 years ago by a guy named David. Throughout his life, David did a little bit of everything. He was a shepherd, a songwriter, a giant-slayer, a soldier, and the one God handpicked to become Israel’s second king. And so his songs reflect the full range of human emotions; everything from worship and wonder, to doubt and despair. The scribes called this particular song a mizmor or “song of praise,” and in it David does three simple things…
Look up. Look down. Look within.
It’s not hard to imagine David as a stargazer. Shepherding was a 24-hour job. And though I’m sure he got plenty of rest along the way, it also seems he watched more than sheep. So he begins his song: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). When David looked up to the vast expanse above him he saw more than light; he saw the splendor of Someone greater than himself. And that Someone has a voice, a voice the stars themselves echo; inaudible, and yet flowing forth to the ends of the earth, renewing its intensity with every sunrise and softening its tones as the day wanes.
But the stars can only get us so far. Space is cold. But since the one who stretched it out has broken into that space with his Word, we find a place we can call home. So David talks more about that Word; the very voice speaking through him at that moment: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). When we look down into the Bible we discover not man’s witness but the Lord’s, not man’s ways but the Way of Christ, and not man’s words but the words of the Spirit. And for that reason—and only that reason—we find in the world joy despite sorrow, light despite the darkness, and justice despite all the wrongs around us.
And yet those wrongs remain. Not only around us, but inside us. And by trying to separate those wrongs within from the wrongs without, we humans get confused on who’s really to blame for the breakdown of our world. You see, in some fundamental way, each of us shares in that brokenness. And so David sings, “Who can discern his errors?” (Psalm 19:12). The answer? No one. When we look within we find not only brokenness, but blindness to just how broken we really are—our wounds run deep. And this means we need help that no mere human can give. We need to be clean, forgiven, freed, pardoned. No word we speak or thought we think can do it. We depend on Someone Else’s strength. Someone Else must pay the price.
As we work through the Big Picture of the Bible, try not to get too distracted by the details. Take a step back from the story to see how it all fits together, and why it all matters. In each lesson, try to think about these Three Big Questions: How is God revealing himself? How does this make sense of us? Where do I stand in this story? And remember David: Look up. Look down. Look within. So let’s start with this: why this story, why this book?
+ DIG DEEPER with slides for group discussion.
I’ve always loved a good story. And I don’t think I’m alone. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love being swept up into a good storyline. Whether it’s your favorite book or memory, your favorite TV show or movie, you probably have a favorite story. In fact, hearing, creating, and passing on stories is part of what makes us human. We are story-telling creatures.
Our three kids remind me of this all the time. Of course, they don’t recognize it, but there’s a reason why our son grabs a lightsaber every time we watch Star Wars. Our latest discovery is the movie Moana, the story of a young girl who has to save her village and her island from an ancient evil. And in doing so, she realizes that she also has to remind her people who they are. In key parts of the movie, her ancestors sing, “We are explorers reading every sign / We tell the stories of our elders / In a never-ending chain … / We know the way” (go ahead and have a listen).
Here’s why that matters: when they forgot their story, they forgot who they were.
A few years ago I came across a quote that means a lot more to me now than it did then. When I read it I paused, pondered it, marked it in the text, typed it up in my notes… and then forgot about it. But when I came across it again a few weeks ago I realized just how closely my life had been shaped by the truth of that statement. Here it is: “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch. 4).
So what if I were to ask to you about your story. What would you tell me? Where would you start? What are your highlights? What would you leave out for now until we get to know each other a little better? What inspires you? Who is at the center of your story? How about this…
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)
Did you catch that? Everything—creation, the cross, the church--comes together in Jesus—by him, through him, for him, in him. He is God’s image, the firstborn, the creator, the head, the beginning, the peacemaker. As a Christian, I believe the most important part of our stories is to know where we stand in HIS story—to grow into it, to be shaped by it, to rejoice in it. To be a disciple of Christ we don’t need a new story, we need an old one. We need to step back and take a look at the Big Picture of the Bible. But before we dive into that story, let’s think about three big questions…
A few weeks ago we took a look at Rod Dreher’s first book, Crunchy Cons, to better understand Dreher’s journey from a countercultural politics to a countercultural church, what he calls “The Benedict Option.” A much shorter version of this review appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Christian Chronicle. For more on The BenOp and what it means to be the church, check out our thread on The Body of Christ.
Post-modernity. Post-Christianity. Post-truth. How should the church respond?
That’s the question Rod Dreher explores in his latest book, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. Dreher is currently a senior editor and blogger for The American Conservative, and has been writing off and on about “The BenOp” for over a decade.
His inspiration comes from the closing paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, After Virtue. There, MacIntyre writes:
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognizing fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict. (ch. 18; unless otherwise noted, all emphases added)
In his first book, Crunchy Cons, Dreher discussed what he saw as the chief failure of modern conservatism: a consumerism that threatens our health, our homes, and our habitats. But as Dreher muses in his final chapter, maybe MacIntyre’s right. Maybe politics just isn’t what we’ve made it. Maybe we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Maybe it’s not enough to change Washington.
So while Crunchy Cons moves steadily from politics to culture to religion, The Benedict Option moves in the opposite direction, from religion to culture to politics. Instead of explaining why society needs Christianity (apologia) or proclaiming the truth of Christianity (kerygma), Dreher shows what classic Christianity looks like when lived confidently (ekklesia). He continues:
I have written The Benedict Option to wake up the church and to encourage it to act to strengthen itself, while there is still time. If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in practice. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs. (Introduction, emphasis in original)
The good news is that we’ve been here before. Joseph saw it, as did Daniel, Esther, and Peter. And as Dreher points out, so did Benedict. After Rome fell in the fifth century, Benedict of Nursia renounced the pride of politics for the beauty of holiness. He recognized he couldn’t save the city from within its ruined walls, so he headed for the hills. And remarkably—and in hindsight—that’s when things started to look up:
Benedict’s example gives us hope today, because it reveals what a small cohort of believers who respond creatively to the challenges of their own time and place can accomplish by channeling the grace that flows through them from their radical openness to God, and embodying that grace in a distinct way of life. … This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. (ch. 1)
So what does the BenOp actually look like? Although The Benedict Option provides several good examples, its core principles are best stated in the afterword to the paperback edition of Crunchy Cons. There Dreher outlines what he calls “a Benedictine-inspired rule adapted for modern countercultural living.” Here it is in full:
We are a school for the service of God. Everything we do, alone or together, can only be done through him and for him. Our purpose is to help each other live out the virtues in a community bound by faith in God, love of neighbor, and commitment to the principles in this Rule.
The hardest part of this modern BenOp is that these changes have to start with us. Some might not seem that radical, but others strike closer to our modern roots, presenting challenges even for the faithful. In short, if we are to point others to the Truth, we can’t merely talk about it, we have to show them the Way, show them the Life—and that means walking it ourselves (John 14:1-6). Dreher again:
Put more plainly, unbelievers today who cannot make sense of the Gospel’s propositions may yet have a life-changing wordless encounter with the Gospel through Christian art or works of Christian love that pull them outside themselves and confront them with the reality of Christ.
The same is true for the church today. There are parts of the BenOp that I still can’t endorse and many others that I’m still working on, but Dreher’s chief point remains: We are going to have to be the body of Christ, embodying His grace in a distinct way of life, confronting others with His own divine reality. Or in Dreher's own words, “If you ask me, it’s time that we became our own Benedicts” (Crunchy Cons, ch. 8).
Benedict is a good model, but in Christ we have an even better one; because this is what Jesus did (John 1:14, 17), and this is what He calls us to do. As John wrote, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17 ESV). The world comes to see the resurrected and ascended Christ only in Christ’s own confident and loving people, the church.
But to be for the world, we cannot be of the world. We have to be the church; we have to be more like Christ.
Last week, on Facebook, I promised an extended review of Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, based on a much shorter version that appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Christian Chronicle. But before we get to that, it may help to understand how Dreher worked his way there, and for that we have to start with his first book, Crunchy Cons. For more on The BenOp and what it means to be the church, check out our thread on The Body of Christ.
As a Christian, I’ve never really felt at home politically. Sure, I’ve had my periods of partisanship, but in many ways I have just as many differences with conservatives as I have with their liberal counterparts. So I had to chuckle when I was walking through an airport one day and saw the hardback edition of Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (2006). On the cover (above left) there was this rusty VW minibus with a GOP pachyderm painted on the front and a kayak strapped to the top, driven by a suited man flashing a peace sign. And check out that subtitle! But I gave it a pass. I’m not even sure I opened it. Now, it makes it into my top 5.
Thankfully, something about the book popped back into my mind while I was looking for some light reading in the summer of 2012. I wanted something thoughtful, generally conservative, but also more than just politics as usual. So I downloaded a sample of the extended paperback edition (2010) in iBooks, which also carried a new subtitle: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots. The sample was short, but effective—I was hooked. For example, in the new Preface I came across the following:
Though unabashedly rooted in the rich and fertile conservative tradition, Crunchy Cons seeks to go beyond the shopworn ideological categories of left and right. … It’s time we stopped asking what’s conservative and what’s liberal. Maybe instead we should create a new politics by asking: What’s good? What’s true? What’s beautiful? What’s authentically human?”
Having already read a bit of Aristotle, John Adams, and Russell Kirk, I could already see I was in for a treat. But the real selling point came next, in what Dreher called “A Crunchy-Con Manifesto.” See for yourself:
Culture. Character. Wisdom. That’s where a Crunchy Con finds her WHY. But it’s not that Dreher says anything new. Instead, his genius lies primarily in the narrative approach he takes to his work, describing the HOW of a countercultural conservatism. Dreher simply tells the stories of people “putting truth and beauty first in their lives,” trying to “cobble together a practical, commonsense, and fruitful way to live amid the empty consumerist prosperity of what Henry Miller called ‘the air-conditioned nightmare’” (ch. 1). A good yarn reflects this beauty better than a good argument.
Dreher and I already shared certain loves: good books, Craftsman bungalows, Distributism, and classic Christianity. But in other ways, I hadn’t realized how deeply I too had been shaped by my consumerism. So I’m still working on these: putting down roots, caring for creation, and avoiding “refined flour, white sugar … processed foods … and … vegetable oil” (Crunchy Cons, ch. 3).
But what does all that have to do with politics? Well, quite a bit, actually. At its heart, politics isn’t about things; it’s about people, the polis (city): your family, friends, and neighbors. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t have any views on issues of public or national concern. It simply means that your expectations for political involvement have changed; you’re playing by a different set of rules. So in his final chapter, Dreher tells us WHAT a “crunchy-con political agenda might look like”:
Reading that list is probably as shocking to you as it was to me five years ago. But the longer I’ve looked at it, picked it apart, studied it, and put it back together again, I’d probably only change a word or two. Where has this depth of conservatism gone? And how could we get it back again? For me, Dreher painted a picture of this politics more clear, succinct, and humorous than I had ever seen—before or since.
By putting it all on paper, Dreher had hoped to inform conservative politics for the 2008 election. He sought to tell a different story than the dominant narrative provided by either party, or in the media. As he said in his opening chapter, “the conservative folks you’ll meet in the pages ahead will open your eyes, and in them you’ll see a sensibility marked by what G. K. Chesterton praised as ‘sanity, humor and charity,’ but also a recognition that American life is in crisis.” But the crisis only deepened. 2008 was a game changer for everyone, with a new recession and a new president, and by 2010 a new political subculture had emerged in response, the Tea Party.
That year Dreher wrote a new afterword for the paperback edition, reflecting on what had been achieved in the four years since Crunchy Cons had been published. But he was also more certain than ever that partisan politics was no longer the solution; something much deeper and more radical would be required:
The original subtitle of this book … promised ideas that might save the Republican Party. But now I doubt it’s worth saving in its present form. … This suggests that the crunchy cons should embrace the practice of what Vaclav Havel called “anti-political politics”—choosing to combat the cynicism and emptiness of formal politics by living virtuously and generously in one’s own community.
Politics simply wasn’t going to cut it. Crunchy Cons needed to forge another way of “living into the truth” (to borrow again from Havel), an alternative way of living out our “sanity, humor and charity.” And for that, Dreher looked to Benedict.
T.S. Eliot & the Wonder of Christmas Trees
Casey N. Cep, Paris Review
Jesus is the Reason for Every Season
Wes McAdams, Radically Christian
Keep Happy in the Holidays
Scott McCown, The Morning Drive
The Scandal of the Incarnation
Andreas Kostenberger & Alexander Stewart, Crossway
Christmas in a World Upside-Down
George Weigel, First Things
How December 25 Became Christmas
Andrew McGowan, Biblical Archaeology Society
Jesus Was Not Born in a Stable
Ian Paul, Psephizo
Xmas Does Mean Christmas
Matthew Schmitz, First Things