Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 28, 2019
Hosea 1:2-10 Commentary
How on earth can you preach this strange and sordid text? Well, ask yourself this question.
How do you get someone to stop doing something dangerous when they simply won’t listen to you?
The other day my youngest grandson, a daring dynamo of perpetual motion, had entered a goofy phase and was riding one of those razor scooters wearing his father’s huge sandals. My son could just see one of those sandals catching on a wheel, sending his son head over heels into the pavement. So, he shouted, “Emmit, stop! Don’t do that! Stop! You’re going to hurt yourself! Stop!” But Emmit was having fun and didn’t see the danger, so he just kept doing it, no matter how often his dad yelled, “Stop!”
That’s exactly the way it was with God and his child, Israel. For centuries God had been telling Israel to stop its sin, the twin sins of idolatry and injustice. The “major prophets,” Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel, had spoken literally thousands of words yelling, “Stop! You’re going to get hurt!” Now it was the “minor prophets” turn to sound the alarm. In the last two weeks we’ve heard Amos rail against those twin engines of destruction. But Israel paid no attention and kept racing toward the precipice of destruction.
Here, in the early chapters of Hosea, God does something new to get his child’s attention and stop its sinful behavior. Rather than simply speaking a thousand more words, God uses a picture, a shocking, lurid picture. Israel could not, would not acknowledge that it was guilty of idolatry. After all, they still believed in Yahweh. They didn’t see the harm in also putting a little faith in the gods of their pagan neighbors just to cover the bases. And they didn’t think it was a big deal that they worshipped Yahweh on the high places where their neighbors worshiped their pagan gods. What’s so bad about borrowing a bit from the culture; syncretism isn’t a bad word, is it? We still believe in Yahweh.
Because Israel didn’t grasp the seriousness of their idolatry, God showed them a different picture, not of idolatry, but of adultery. Well, not so much a picture as a play, an enacted sermon, like one of the morality plays used to instruct medieval peasants. To shock his children out of their sin and save them from certain destruction, God directed the prophet Hosea to marry an adulteress and have children with her. God uses that strange behavior to illustrate what Israel was really doing in its idolatry; they were committing spirituality adultery, “the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.”
Can you imagine God telling you to do something like that? Neither can I. That’s why many scholars think that this is an allegory rather than actual fact. Taking such an interpretive tack on the text saves us from the endless debates about Hosea’s wife. Was she an adulterous woman before Hosea married her or did her sexual escapades begin after marriage? Was she an actual prostitute or simply a sexually promiscuous woman? Were her second and third children born of adultery after Hosea sired the first? If we take this as a story composed to make a point, we are spared the scandal and the questions that arise if we take it as actual fact.
On the other hand, if we just take it at face value, then the enactment of this scandal would be a powerful message to an adulterous Israel. That makes it more shocking, and Israel needed some shock therapy, even as we do. So, I encourage you to preach this as fact, because that sends the message in a way mere words can’t: idolatry is adultery and it will end your marriage to Yahweh and every blessing that comes with marriage.
God conveys that message of impending divorce with the names he gives to these children of an adulteress. Each name points to the inevitable result of spiritual adultery. It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me. The first son is named Jezreel, which was a fertile plane in the north of Israel, the breadbasket of the nation, and thus a desirable place to live. Jehu had settled there, and that’s where he slaughtered the royal family of Israel. So that place of abundance had become the place where a dynasty ended. Giving Gomer’s son that name signified that God was bringing an end to Israel.
The same message is tied up in the name of the daughter, Lo-Ruhamah. The second part of that name means something like compassion or pity, and “lo” means “no” or “not.” Her birth name means that God will no longer show compassion and pity to his child, Israel, because she is caught up in adultery. After all the times I have forgiven my children, I will not forgive this sin.
Indeed, the day will come, says the Lord, when they will not be my people. That’s what the name Lo-Ammi means, “not my people.”
If that sounds like God was going to break the marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel, that’s exactly what God is saying, or rather picturing. God has been saying that through the prophets for a long, long time, but the people didn’t believe it. Maybe a picture will convince them.
Now, that sounds unthinkable, given the way God had always spoken of his covenant. It was unconditional and unbreakable. Israel had always believed that, so much so, in fact, that they took advantage of God’s faithfulness. No matter what we do, they thought, God will always love us. Thus, we can do what we want. He will simply forgive us in the end. And God did.
We have a foretaste of that in verses 10-11, where the names of the children are seemingly reversed in a future day. God’s covenant will be renewed by God, the nation will be reunited, the covenant blessings will be restored, and the names of those children will be changed to reflect God’s ongoing love. Hosea 3 shows Hosea taking his adulterous wife back, even as God will take Israel back when she repents and returns to God in faithfulness.
So, is this text an exercise in bluster, an attempt to scare Israel straight? No, this is a most serious warning about the seriousness and consequences of the sin of idolatry and its evil twin, injustice. The temporary divorce that occurred in the Exile was no small thing; it very nearly wiped Israel from the face of the earth. Grace and mercy may be the last words of God, but they are not God’s only words. Therefore, we must not presume that life will go just fine if we simply believe in God, and do what we please. Here’s a picture of what happens when God’s people depart from their God in spiritual adultery.
There are three contact points between this ancient Hebrew text and a contemporary Christian congregation. First, according to verse 1, the word of God came to Hosea during the last days of the northern kingdom, perhaps in the last 50 years of its pre-Exilic life. This was, if not “the best of times and the worst of times,” then at least a mix of prosperity within and danger from without. The reign of Jeroboam was long and stable, and political stability usually meant prosperity, at least for the upper crust. We hear about that in the prophecy of Amos. But there was also the threat of Assyrian looming off to the north and east. That threat would become a clear and present danger in a very short time. In other words, this prophecy came to a nation in circumstances much like North American countries face—internal prosperity and external threat.
Second, in such an historical setting, we are tempted like Israel to commit adultery with many of the gods of our neighbors– not Baal and Asherah, but other gods that promise us fertility and prosperity, success and victory. There is, most notably, the central god of our time, the Sovereign Self, which we must care for and cultivate, trust and worship.
And there is the god of Nation and the machinery of government that promises to fix every problem if we’ll simply vote for the right or left side. This national god occupies much of our waking time through the constant words that flow from our media. Again, there is the god Jesus called Mammon, money and all the things it will buy. Your imagination and observation will spot many more altars to the gods along our streets.
Some Christians who sincerely believe in Jesus are committing adultery with these other gods, by dividing their trust between Jesus and another god, giving of their time and talent to other gods, and centering their lives on these gods while saying, “Jesus is Lord.”
Third, we must be sure that a sermon on this powerful text doesn’t leave your people feeling guilty without taking them to the source of forgiveness. While not giving permission to “sin the more that grace may abound,” we must hold out the solid hope that this sin of spiritual adultery can be forgiven because Jesus died for this sin, too. He suffered estrangement from God on the cross, a divorce if you will, as evidenced by his cry of God-forsakenness.
A good text to use here is Ephesians 5:21-33, where our relationship with God is compared to a marriage. The good news is that Jesus gave his life for his wife, so that she could be “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Take care that this strange and sordid text finally leads your people to that lovely picture of a beautiful bride saved from sin by the unconditional love of God in Christ.
The use of the marriage analogy to highlight the seriousness of idolatry might not work in some churches, because of the variety of marriages in our culture today. Think of the TV show, “Modern Family,” with its traditional marriages, second marriages, and same sex marriage. And proponents of open marriage or polygamous marriage might not get the shock of adultery. On the other hand, you might use the condition of modern marriage as a foil to talk about the marriage between Hosea and Gomer, and by extension between Yahweh and Israel.
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