This is going to be one of those posts that I put some time and thought into. =) The reason is because I really want to share how God is opening His word up to me in Bible study right now.
This past week, He's shown me a lot about His loving character through a book that doesn't get much attention in Christian circles these days. Anybody cracked open one of the minor prophets lately? I confess that when David and I have been deciding what book of the Bible we'll be reading together at night, the conversation often goes something like this:
David: OT or NT?
Ellen: NT... well, we have been reading NT books over and over again for the past three years. Maybe we should go OT?
David: So... Joel? Micah? How about Deuteronomy?
Ellen: Mmmm... Psalms. Yeah. Nothing that requires a concordance or study notes before bed. I'm tired.
This is a confession, not a recommendation. I have not given books that sometimes provoke a "Huh? What?" reaction enough of a chance in the past. I thank CBS for requiring me to hunker down and delve into them in ways I haven't before.
So... have you ever read the whole book of Hosea? Or did you open it up, start reading, and then stop in the first chapter, right about here:
"1The word of the LORD which came to Hosea the son of Beeri, during the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel. 2When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the LORD."
3 So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
4And the LORD said to him, "Name him Jezreel; for yet a little while, and I will punish the house of Jehu for the bloodshed of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. 5"On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel."
6Then she conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. And the LORD said to him, "Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have compassion on the house of Israel, that I would ever forgive them. (Lo-ruhamah means "not loved" or "no mercy.") 7"But I will have compassion on the house of Judah and deliver them by the LORD their God, and will not deliver them by bow, sword, battle, horses or horsemen."
8When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and gave birth to a son. 9And the LORD said, "Name him Lo-ammi (means "not my people"), for you are not My people and I am not your God."
This is the point at which I tend to be startled, scratch my head, and think, "I don't like this. This seems too harsh. I don't understand why God would do that to Hosea. I think maybe I'd rather read something that I can understand a little better/something that doesn't make me wonder about the kindness of God/something easier. I'll get back to Hosea later."
I've done that, and man, I've missed out. I haven't understood what this strange story was about, and what it was about was the heart of a God totally in love with a people who continually reject him.
But some background is needed here, first of all. I've been getting it through the rest of my study, so I'll share. For the past 200 years, Israel and Judah have been going their separate ways. Judah has had some good kings, and they've done a much better job of following the Lord. Not perfect, but they've had some success.
Israel has been a whole other story. Starting with Jeroboam (not the Jeroboam mentioned here, which is Jeroboam II), they started their own calf worshipping cult. Jeroboam didn't want his people to be going back and forth to Jerusalem to worship, so he told them they could just worship idols up in Israel, all by themselves. So he effectively made up his own religion, and the Lord detested it. Frequently, when the deeds of the evil kings are recorded, following in the ways of Jeroboam is way up there on the bad list for the king being mentioned.
Partially as a result of this idol worshipping cult, Israel just gets worse and worse. If you look at a list of their kings on a good/bad list, most of them are bad. And many of them don't rule very long before being assasinated by interlopers who take over. Hosea is prophesying at the time of Jeroboam II. He rules longer than some of them, and his reign is prosperous. Israel is doing quite well economically speaking. But she is engaged in the worst kind of idol worship, and she's been doing it for going on 200 years now. It's breaking God's heart. Seeing her worship idols, and in some cases, sacrifice her own children to Molech, is enough to tear Him apart. He can't hold back his judgement. She must be punished so that she will repent.
So he enlists his prophet Hosea to make His plea for him. The way He does it is so fascinating. He tells Hosea to marry an unfaithful wife. We don't know whether or not she's been unfaithful in the past or if God knows that she will be unfaithful in the future. Scholars seem to believe that she had not been unfaithful when Hosea married her. We don't know whether or not she repented from her unfaithfulness later on. We just know that God knew that she would be unfaithful... and he asked Hosea to marry her anyway.
This one is hard for me to take. I imagine what it would be like for me if God asked me to marry someone that He knew would be unfaithful to me. How would I make it? I would cry out, wondering, "Why God? Why are you doing this to me? I just want to serve you, and you want me to marry someone who will break my heart over and over again?" That's when I have to sit down and cling to God's sovereignty. God has a plan for each of our lives, and in His sovereign purpose, He alone knows what's best. Each of our lives has sorrow in it that He ordained, even though we don't know exactly what that sorrow will be. This was Hosea's sorrow, and unlike us, He knew what it would be ahead of time.
God had a specific purpose for that. God would be glorified in Hosea's marriage to Gomer because God would use this prophet to show Israel and the world His heart, maybe partially through Hosea's pain. I believe that Hosea understood God's love for unfaithful Israel because of his own love for unfaithful Gomer. God made His suffering real to Hosea through Hosea's marriage, and the result is some of the most powerful, loving writing in the Old Testament. These are God's words, but He chose to prepare the vessel for delivering them in a special way.
In the book of Hosea, God goes back and forth, vacillating between crying out in agony and anger over Israel's sins and begging Israel to repent, telling her of His great love for her. Even the names of Hosea's children that seemed so odious in the beginning are redeemed. He says that if Israel will only return to Him, she will be renamed. The "lo" will be taken off. She will be called his people and loved.
Hosea's own story is woven into the book. In chapter 3, Hosea must redeem Gomer. She has evidently become a slave in some way, probably through running away from Hosea, and he has to buy her back. He does, and he entreats her to stay with him. He wants her with him, even though he had to redeem her from shameful captivity. This is the heart of God for Israel. It is the heart of God for us.
Oh, how He loves us, despite our idolatry and despite our arrogance and despite our wickedness! This passage is one of the most beautiful in the Bible, and it's found in Hosea, chapter 11.
"1When Israel was a youth I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son.
2The more they called them,
The more they went from them;
They kept sacrificing to the Baals
And burning incense to idols.
3Yet it is I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them in My arms;
But they did not know that I healed them.
4I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love,
And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws;
And I bent down and fed them."
This imagery is especially sweet to me at this time of my life. I imagine the Lord holding my tiny hands as I toddle along. I imagine Him cheering as I learn to take steps on my own, taking delight in my tiniest achievements. I imagine Him bending down to put bread in the mouth of a little baby, just as I do with Seth. How sweet and gentle He is!
But His child has broken His heart. He is so angry, and He is yet still so loving, hanging on, hoping against hope that Israel will turn to Him. Hosea 11: 8-11:
"8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart is turned over within Me,
All My compassions are kindled.
9I will not execute My fierce anger;
I will not destroy Ephraim again
For I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst,
And I will not come in wrath.
10They will walk after the LORD,
He will roar like a lion;
Indeed He will roar
And His sons will come trembling from the west.
11They will come trembling like birds from Egypt
And like doves from the land of Assyria;
And I will settle them in their houses, declares the LORD."
If there is anything that studying Israel and the Minor Prophets has done for me this year, it has hammered into my head again and again that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New. He is just as loving, He is just as just, He is just as merciful. His judgements are tough, but if anyone, and I do mean anyone, turns to Him in repentance, He is so quick to forgive, to postpone judgement, and to give favor. He doesn't enjoy punishing anyone. It breaks His heart. And He is so happy when I come to Him, bringing my sad little self and all its sins and problems, laying them down at His feet.
So if you're like me, and you've been avoiding reading some of those prophets with the funny names, please give them another chance. You might be surprised by what you find when you look at the less familiar parts of God's word.