Holy Scripture is littered with countless examples of God’s love for his people. His love is expressed in the beautiful poetry of the psalter. It is expressed through the Law which brings life and protects the vulnerable. It is revealed in God’s actions in the great Old Testament narratives. And, of course, it culminates in that expression of love par excellence—our Lord Jesus on the cross: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13).
Hosea 11 is a passage that can keep you up at night and make you wonder afresh ‘what is man that you are mindful of him …?’
And yet lately I have not been able to stop thinking about the emotional love of God expressed in Hosea 11. It stirs me to ponder the extent of God’s love for his people; a love in fact that he could only have because he is God and not a mere human (c.f. Hos 11:9b). It is a passage that can keep you up at night and make you wonder afresh “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4).
Loving the Adulterer
Hosea describes the rebellion of God’s people in the face of God’s love, care and tenderness. The point is illustrated via an enacted parable when God asks the prophet to marry Gomer, a woman who will not be faithful to him. The book then delicately dances between Hosea’s pained reflections on a wife who seeks gratification outside the marriage, and the bigger image of God loving a people who keep abandoning him for vain and fruitless pleasures. Just as God’s faithfulness and loving kindness is expressed in not abandoning his people, so God calls Hosea to buy back Gomer despite her adulterous actions.
One can only imagine that as Hosea delivered this word of the Lord to the people, that they must have hung on every word he said—feeling his anguish at his own situation, and yet also smarting at the rebuke to their own spiritual adultery. This tension becomes more plain as God makes a case against his people (Hos 4:1ff), charging that they have turned away from him; not worshipped him as they ought; and stayed away despite many calls to come back.
Hosea gives us a great depiction of the tension between God’s love and justice.
With this context, we reach Hosea 11 and are shown God’s emotional display of love. It is presented as a conflict: God’s right judgment in punishing his people butting against his overwhelming love for them. Although we may not want to read this too literally in terms of our doctrine of God, Hosea gives us a great depiction of the tension between God’s love and justice. Scripture makes it clear that adultery is wrong and causes significant pain. And yet, in the context of this relationship, the rightly felt anger is met with waves of compassion and grief—both for the situation and for the other person. And I take it that this is the case for anyone who has been through a difficult relationship, irrespective of whether adultery was involved. Just maybe, this gives us an insight into the mind of God—his love for his people that goes on, despite their rebellion that brings him to the end of his tether.
Now the language changes. God speaks of his electing Israel using the image of a parent: a father loving a child; adopting them and lifting them out of slavery (Hos 11:1). He has taught them to walk as you would teach a toddler (Hos 11:3). He has comforted them in his arms as you might comfort a child who has fallen over in a playground. He has eased their burdens and bent down to feed them. And he has done all of this with a love that cannot be fathomed—that is deeper than even the best of human filial relationships (Hos 11:4).
And yet, his anger ought rightfully to burn (Hos 11:6, 7b). The more God loved them, the more they adulterated themselves to others (Hos 11:2). They refused to come back to the God who promised himself to them, healed them, and nurtured them (Hos 11:5, 7a). Yet, God’s compassion is stirred nonetheless!
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboyim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused. (Hos 11:8).
Despite his people’s stubborn rebellion, God will not abandon them.
It is like you can hear this playing out between a husband and a wife: I know this has happened, and I feel so much anger and hatred, but how can I let you go? I love you! The power of the four rhetorical questions have the implied answer, in the context of ugly tears: I can’t! Despite his people’s stubborn rebellion, God will not abandon them, and he won’t destroy them like he destroyed Admah and Zeboyim in the days of Abraham (cf. Gen 14:2, 8). No, he will have compassion. Yes the people will be judged and they will face some consequences, but God will relent from the full fury of his anger (Hos 11:9). And why? He does this because he is God. He is set apart, like no other. He is love. Instead of what his people deserve, God will use the exile to rouse his people, and the remnant will come back to him trembling (Hos 11:10-11). God will be faithful to his chosen people, and salvation will come from the tribe of Judah (Hos 11:12).
Like all of the Old Testament, Hosea 11 anticipates the Amen of all of God’s promises in our Lord Jesus (2Cor 1:20). The picture of love that comes through judgment is an especially important theme in the New Testament—and it is no coincidence that this passage in Hosea is quoted by Matthew (c.f. Mt 2:15). Hosea anticipates Jesus as God’s example of true love: God’s true Son who leads his people out of slavery to sin, and back to a reconciled relationship with God. In the end, Hosea anticipates the ultimate expression of God’s emotional love for his people, in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).