The Message of Hosea 11
Hosea 11 illustrates God’s persevering love for his children – a love so strong that it continues despite rebellion, a love that leads God to restore his people after he has punished them.
Hosea 1-3 illustrates God’s persevering love for Israel by using the real-life drama of a husband who loves his wife so much that, despite her adulteries, he works to restore the marriage. Each of these three chapters illustrates the theme. In chapter 1, verse 2 sets forth the metaphor and alludes to Israel’s unfaithfulness, vv. 4-9 describe Israel’s punishment and alienation from God, and vv. 10-11 promise a restoration. In chapter 2, verse 2 sets the scene, vv. 2, 5, 8 describe unfaithfulness, vv. 3, 6, 9-13 describe punishment, and vv. 14-23 promise restoration. In chapter 3, v. 1a sets the scene of restoration, vv. 1c, 3c allude to unfaithfulness, v. 4 to punishment, and v. 5 to restoration.
Hosea 11 illustrates God’s persevering love using a parable built on the metaphor of a father’s love for a rebellious son. The theme is developed in a similar way: unfaithfulness and rebellion, punishment and restoration. The message, as it is developed in Hosea 11, is like a four-act drama in which Hosea is the only actor, speaking for God.
|"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.2 But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.|
Act 1: The case against Israel (vv. 1-4). The scene is that of a court in which the father is testifying against his rebellious children. ("Son" is singular in v. 1, but subsequent verses use plural pronouns for Israel.) He recounts his love for them, citing actions such as calling them out of slavery (v. 1), teaching them to walk (3a), and comforting them when they fell (3b-c). But the response was persistent rebellion (2) and ingratitude (3c).
Act 1 ends with more evidence of the father’s love: leading the sons with leniency (4a-b), making life easier for them (4c-d), and, to top it off, humbling himself by leaning down to attend to their needs (4e). Mention of these actions of love serves two functions at the end of Act 1: First, they are the father’s self-defense, indicating that he was a loving parent and that the sons’ rebellion was not caused by poor parenting. Second, they soften the emotional tone from accusation to love, making the punishments of Act 2 seem more severe in comparison, subtly preparing for the remorse and compassion of Act 3.
|"Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent?6 Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans.7 My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them.|
Act 2: Punishment pronounced (vv. 5-7). The scene is still the courtroom, and Hosea is still speaking for God, but now he plays the role of a judge giving a sentence on the rebellious children. The benefits the Father had given Israel will be reversed. Whereas God had taken Israel out of Egypt (v. 1), now Israel will be sent back into Egypt (5a). Whereas they had persistently gone away from God (2a-b), they now will return (shub) to Egypt because of their refusal to return (shub) to God (5c). Whereas they sacrificed animals to Baalim (2c), they themselves will be killed (6a). Whereas they burned incense to idols (2d), their cities will be consumed (6b-c). Whereas they were not grateful for God’s easing their yoke (4c-d), they will be put back under the yoke of slavery (7b). Whereas they did not acknowledge that God shortened their pain through healing (3c), their pains will not be removed (7c).
The sentencing proceeds in an alternating pattern: punishment (5a-b), reason (5c), punishment (6), reason (7a), and punishment (7b). The last phrase of Act 2, "none shall remove it," gives a note of finality to the sentence, as if the judge had banged the gavel.
|"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 Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.9 I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.|
Act 3: Anguish of the Father/Judge (vv. 8-9). Acts 1 and 2 presented God in two roles, first as Father and then as Judge. But there is a tension between those two roles, and Act 3, in the emotional peak of this four-act drama, airs the inner turmoil of the Judge who has to pronounce such an awful punishment on his dearly loved children. In an American courtroom, a judge’s emotional anguish might be confined to a back room, but in an Israelite open-air court in a public meeting place, the anguish would be evident to all who were present. A respected member of the community, as judge, was being forced, as his duty to the community, to publicly expel, disown and punish his rebellious children. He pronounces the sentence, bangs his gavel and begins to weep.
How can he cast his children completely away? (8a-d). Though they are rebellious, they are still his children. The Judge has a change of heart; he becomes compassionate again and resolves to stop short of complete destruction (8e-9b). Why? Because he is God, not a human (9c). He is not bitter or vengeful (as a human might be), because his love endures forever. Because he is faithful, the Israelites are not destroyed (cf. Malachi 3:6). The punishment that Israel is to experience is designed for redemption and rehabilitation, not destruction. God, since he is holy, loves his people and keeps his commitment to them; he cannot be unfaithful as a human might be. He is beyond reproach or accusation; he is qualitatively different in motive and emotion. His holiness is inextricably linked to his love and his desire to redeem. He has a holy purpose for the nation as he works in their midst (9d). Therefore he will not return (shub) to destroy them (9e). The punishment will be, in judicial terms, commuted.
|They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.sup>11 They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. I will settle them in their homes," declares the LORD.|
Act 4: Resolution of the dilemma (vv. 10-11). How can Israel be both destroyed (v. 6) and not destroyed (v. 9)? How can God’s compassion be reconciled with the punishment he has already pronounced? The final act in this drama presents a solution to this dilemma. Acts 1 and 2 were clearly judicial in nature; Act 3 becomes less typically like a court of law. Act 4 becomes even less judicial in nature, but if we wish to continue the judicial theme, here we find the Judge explaining how the commuted sentence will be an effective way to deal with the wayward children.
Though the nation’s cities and fortresses will be destroyed (v. 6), the people will continue to exist, although in captivity (5, 7). After a period of captivity, the children will return humbly to their homes (11). They "shall go after the LORD" (10). The Hebrew word for "seek" is not used in v. 10, perhaps because physical movement is meant more than spiritual. But it does seem significant that the people are mentioned first; they are taking some initiative to return to God. And God will lead them like a lion (10 b-c). Though Hosea describes God as a destructive lion in 5:14 and 13:7-8, here the image is more like that of a protective lion leading the cubs to a new den. (In several places Hosea uses a word in both a positive and a negative context.)
Whereas in the original Exodus, the Israelites went out with a high hand, this time they will return trembling (11:10d-11a; "in fear," says 3:5). Whereas they had flown like a dove to Egypt and Assyria searching for help (7:11), now they will fly like a dove back to God (11:11b). And God will return them not just to houses, but to "homes" (11c). They will be rehabilitated. Other sections of Hosea (such as 1:10-11, 2:14-23, and 3:5) describe the restoration in greater detail, but this is sufficient for the drama of Hosea 11. The tension has been resolved. The rebellious children have been both punished and rehabilitated; the Judge has fulfilled his roles as faithful parent and as upholder of standards of conduct. The drama ends with a note of finality: I will do this, "says the LORD."
Epilogue: Hosea’s drama has taken four slices of history’s timeline to illustrate God’s continuing love for his people. Act 1 is from the past; Act 2 is about the near future. Act 3 presents God’s current emotions, and Act 4 gives a glimpse of the future. Through these four segments of history, we see some of the complexity of God’s relationship with Israel. God’s love prevails.
This is a message the Israelites needed to hear. Destruction was just around the corner for them because they had rejected God and his covenant. But this did not mean that God would cast them away forever. There was hope. Yahweh is not a God of destruction – he is a God of salvation – in the past, in the present and in the future. God can accomplish what humans cannot; he can achieve his holy purpose even in a rebellious people. The God who loved them in antiquity still loved them and would continue to love them. (The implication is that even God’s punishment is motivated by love.) There would be a restoration not only of the nation, but also of the people’s relationship with the Father.
The meaning of Hosea 11 is that God continues to love his people. An application of this truth to today reassures us that God continues to love us. Even though we may have rebelled and rejected God, he continues to love us. If he allows punishments to come, we can have confidence that such trials are not vindictive – they are intended to be restorative. Though we may backslide or fall away for many years, we can have confidence that God wants to restore the relationship and its blessings. This is a message needed by those who despair that they have lost their love, neglected the faith or fallen back into the captivity of sin.
Hosea 11 reminds us that God’s love does not depend on us – it depends on him, and he is dependable. Let us skim through the chapter and adapt some of the principles for Christians today: God initiated his love for us (cf. v. 1); since our actions did not initiate it, our actions cannot terminate it. While we were yet sinners, he provided for us a Passover and a way out of sin’s bondage (1b). Though some of his people refuse his invitation, though they seek the world and its values, he continues to invite them (2a). He has taught us how to live (3a), he has rescued us from some of our folly (3b), yet many people fail to recognize him as Savior (3c). Yet, despite this inadequate response, God still loves his people with compassion, and he still eases their burdens and supplies their needs (4). Though humans may be unfaithful, God is consistently reliable. To help them understand how much they’ve been given, the gifts may be taken away for a while, and they may return to bondage (5-7). But God allows such trials only with anguish (8a-d). He still has concern and compassion and a commitment to his people (8e-f). He is holy, not carnal; his holiness does not allow him to discard his desire for his people (9). So, as they repent and turn to follow him once again, God will roar with pride and protection (10). They will humbly come and God will restore them to their place in his kingdom (11).
All of us can be encouraged by Hosea’s reminder of God’s undying love for his children.
Ethical Implications of Hosea 11
Hosea 11 is a metaphor or parable primarily about God’s behavior toward his people. If we wish to infer some principles about ourbehavior, we should start with an acknowledgement that our observations will be tentative and limited.
We can see that God punishes his people for disobedience. Some of their sins are briefly mentioned (sins relevant to the father-son analogy), and we may infer that we should avoid such behavior. But punishment usually comes after instruction and warning, not before. It seems best to base ethical concepts on scriptures that give instruction or direct commands rather than try to infer them from metaphorical accusations.
We can also see that God continues to love his people despite their disobedience. We might infer that we should act as God does, but this is not always a safe inference. We know which attributes we should imitate from other scriptures. We should base our ethical understanding on those other scriptures, not on Hosea 11. Hosea 11 is only an illustration that might be adapted for ethical instruction.
After stating those cautions, I would like to comment on three ethical principles illustrated in Hosea 11.
1) We should acknowledge God. Hosea accuses Israel of worshipping idols (11:2). It is well known that idolatry was a serious sin against God; this requires little explanation. However, Hosea also accuses Israel of the sin of not knowing that God healed them (v. 3c). Why is ignorance a sin? The Israelites should have known their national traditions about God’s role in the nation. They claimed to know (8:2), but Hosea criticizes them for a lack of knowledge (2:8, 4:1, 4:6, 5:4, 8:14, etc.). The problem was not just a failure to know God in the sense of having a relationship with him, it was also not knowing the fact that he was the giver of their blessings. The Israelites gave the credit to idols (2:5, 2:12) and to themselves (12:8). Acknowledging God as Giver is fundamental to our relationship with him. As Paul criticized the gentiles, "although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him" (Rom. 1:21). Being a provider is one of God’s Fatherly functions, and it is good for us to be aware of the source of our blessings.
2) If we punish, it should be done in love, for rehabilitation rather than vengeance. This is true for parental discipline and for congregational discipline. Hosea 11:2 shows us that warnings (calling the children back to right conduct) should come before more severe discipline; love should be shown throughout. Before punishment, the wayward children should be assured of love and desire for reconciliation, just as the Israelites were given a promise of restoration.
3) We should always desire reconciliation and restoration, whether of rebellious children or fallen Christians. The latter situation is perhaps the most significant contemporary ethical implication of Hosea 11. How we ought to hope for the restoration of those who have fallen away! How can we cast them away? It is only with anguish that we can see them even temporarily separated from God’s people. How can we be content while they are falling short of God’s blessings? Our hearts should burn within us for the return of the lost sheep. We should consistently call them back to the right path. We should continue to teach that God is the source of all blessings, of every good gift, of the spiritual healing and nourishment that we all need, of the help that we need with our burdens.
Our Father always desires to pick us up when we stumble and fall, and we, as his children, should have the same desire and the same actions toward wayward children. No matter how far they stray, no matter what false gods they serve, we should yearn for their rehabilitation and restoration. We should never "write off" or forget someone who falls away, even someone who becomes bitter and turns against us. Though they go into exile away from the church, though they become captive to the bottle or the dollar, we must let them know that restoration is possible. And more than possible! Restoration is earnestly desired by us and by our Father. And as we make it known, we encourage it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Return to the Lord and follow him, and he will restore us to our homes in his kingdom. Our hopes and hearts need to be in the eventual restoration of our brothers and sisters.
Michael Morrison, 2001