What shall I do unto thee?" No, this is not a distraught father, crying out in perplexity over his wayward son. It is God Himself appealing to His people. Thus the prophet Hosea sees the Lord's great problem because of Israel's stubborn perverseness.
Hosea, the first book of the Minor Prophets, may appropriately be called God's love letter to His people. The book is a loving appeal, offering forgiveness and salvation to a nation plunging headlong into sin and impending destruction. Of all the writers of Holy Scripture none has succeeded so well as Hosea, with the one exception of John, the beloved apostle, in delineating the character of our loving heavenly Father. God is portrayed as the ardent lover of His people. He longs earnestly for their love in return. "What shall I do unto thee?" (Hosea 6:4), He implores. What more could God do to prove His love? Why were they so perverse? their response so weak and halfhearted? And then, when in spite of all His efforts to save them, Israel's multiplied sins and crimes, with murder following murder (Hosea 4:2), call to high heaven for retribution, God's love triumphs over justice, and He cries out of the depths of a broken heart, "How shall I give thee up?" (Hosea 11:8). The book concludes with a most earnest appeal to His people to return to Him, pledging, "I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely" (Hosea 14:4).
Domestic Troubles Bring Triumph
Who is Hosea? Why did God choose him as His penman for this impassioned appeal? What experience did he have that enabled him to get such an insight into God's character? What, indeed, could give him an appreciation of the depths of divine love? He had no opportunity to see God's love demonstrated in the life of His Son Jesus, as John the Beloved was privileged to do. Hosea lived in the eighth century B.C. No, Hosea caught the vision of his loving heavenly Father in the cruel experience of years of domestic trouble, which the Lord, by His grace, enabled him to endure, even to triumph over.
Evidently about the time Hosea began his ministry, he married a young woman named Gomer. A child of her times, Gomer was so tainted with the false philosophy of the nature-fertility cult, known as Baal worship, that she soon fell into the corrupt ways of her associates, and proved utterly unfaithful to her husband. Although they were blessed with three children, two boys, and a girl, neither her husband nor her children could bind Gomer to her home. The prophet's deeply religious character is indicated by his giving his children names with meanings significant of God's dealings with Israel. It is conceivable that his wife was already unfaithful to him when the last two children were born, for their names mean "Not having obtained mercy" and "Not my people" (Hosea 1:6, 9, margin). In speaking to them, however, Hosea seems to have omitted the negatives, and to have lovingly called them "Mercy" and "My people" (Hosea 2:1, margin).
Love Is a Gift
Gomer became so dissolute and unresponsive to the loving pleas of her husband that rather than listen she snapped petulantly, "I will go after my lovers, that give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, mine oil and my drink" (Hosea 2:5). In her infatuation she was applying to her lovers what the Baal worshipers chanted in honor of their gods, utterly forgetful of the fact that all these blessings come from God (verse 8). Nothing Hosea could do could hold her back. She left a brokenhearted husband. Later, when he heard that she had fallen so low as to be sold as a slave, his love impelled him to go to the market and buy her back (Hosea 3:2). In her dissolute, wanton condition it was utterly impossible for him to reinstate her to the full privileges of wifehood, but in spite of this he promised that after a probationary period (suggestive of the captivity of Israel) he would do so, if only she would abjure her evil ways and return to him in heart (verse 3).
Then it came to him. He caught a vision of God's love. He saw that the love he had for Gomer was really not his own. God had put it in his heart. Had it not been for God's grace he would have repudiated her utterly. Surely if ever a man had grounds for divorce, Hosea had. The natural man would have taken advantage gladly of the provision made through Moses that such a marriage relationship might be terminated (Deut. 24:1). But Hosea 's love would not accept such a solution. He loved Gomer. He could not give her up. He must go and buy her hack. Now he could see God's hand in it all. God had allowed him to marry her and have this terrible experience (Hosea 1:2). Was this really so? Could it be true? If so, why? Yes, God had permitted it that Hosea might enter into God's experience of suffering. The natural heart revolts at such a thought. Still God was bestowing upon Hosea His highest honor—"the fellowship of his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10). One has well said: "Of all the gifts that heaven can bestow upon men, fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is the most weighty trust and the highest honor."—The Ministry of Healing, p. 478.
Now the prophet could see God's problem with His people. He could appreciate the perplexity of love. Israel, God's covenanted, peculiar people, had forsaken Him utterly. The ten tribes, forming the kingdom of Israel, had fallen hopelessly into idolatry. Beginning by worshiping the golden calves set up in the name of Jehovah by Jeroboam, their first king, they had become inextricably entangled with Baal worship. While ostensibly worshiping God, keeping up the forms of true religion, they had forsaken His moral law entirely. Lacking knowledge of God, they lost sight of His truth, and became so given over to utter depravity that crime followed crime in rapid succession. Note the strong words of denunciation: "There is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out and blood toucheth blood ["murder follows murder," R.S.V.]" (Hosea 4:1, 2).
God in a Quandary!
Such a condition called for retribution. But God's heart of love went out to His people. He appealed to them most lovingly to listen. "What shall I do unto thee?" He questions. What more could God do to invoke their love in response? All His blessings they attributed to nature, and honored their nature gods. Even Judah, the southern kingdom, with Jerusalem as the capital, although not given over to idolatry to such an extent, was guilty also of worshiping God formally, without true heart service. Addressing Israel as Ephraim, the leading tribe of the northern kingdom, making His appeal to all twelve tribes by including Judah, the southern kingdom, God cries out: "0 Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? 0 Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away" (Hosea 6:4). What a thought! God in a quandary! Were Israel's sins too great? Was God powerless to deal with them? No, indeed. It should be noted it was not their sins, but their goodness that posed such a problem. Sins are serious. It was sin that took Christ's life. "But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound" (Rom. 5: 20). Sins as scarlet as Israel's could be washed white as snow, but what can God do with our goodness? All our righteousness is compared in the Scriptures to "filthy rags" (Isa. 64:6). Israel's goodness, like morning clouds and sparkling dew, was pleasant to behold. It gave promise of refreshing moisture, but quickly vanished away. Their response to God's love was empty form. They offered sacrifices and doubtless sang songs of praise to Jehovah, but their hearts were not in their worship. In heart they worshiped Baal. They were pagans, worshiping nature, not nature's God. Consequently God could say: "I have written to him the great things of my law, but they were counted as a strange thing" (Hosea 8:12).
Centuries later when our Lord trod the streets of Jerusalem the religious conditions were practically the same. It is true that the outward worship of idols was no longer a problem after the return from captivity, but worship had become so formal that the substance of true religion was almost entirely missing. When Jesus was condemned by the Pharisees for eating with publicans and sinners, He answered that it is the sick who need a physician, not those who are well. Then pointing His accusers to this passage in Hosea, in the Scriptures they claimed to know so fully, He said: "Go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice" (Matt. 9:13). Instead of a piety that failed to meet the challenge of the day, that vanished like the dew before the morning sun, the Lord called for sincere religion. The complete verse from which he quoted is: "For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings" (Hosea 6:6). Love and the knowledge of God, rather than formal religion, is what God requires.
Formal Love Inadequate
On another occasion when the Pharisees accosted Jesus, accusing His disciples of Sabbathbreaking because they plucked some grain to eat as they walked through the fields, Jesus reproved the self-righteous critics, charging them with failure to understand the Scriptures. "If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice," He said, "ye would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt. 12:7). Undoubtedly, this was a favorite text of our Lord's. So much of His teaching is but an enlargement of the thought expressed here. His great Sermon on the Mount, in which He set forth the principles of His kingdom, concludes with the warning: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). Not formal worship, but genuine love for God manifested in obedience to His commands, is the gift of true religion.
When Hosea wrote, ancient Israel was in a time of crisis. They faced annihilation at the hands of the Assyrians. Before the end of the century the ten tribes were carried away into captivity, never to return as a nation. The Jews at the time of Christ's earthly ministry likewise faced a crisis. Holding to the forms of religion, they persistently refused to walk in the light of God's Word, and consequently rejected their Saviour, denying and crucifying Him. Thus, having driven God's Holy Spirit from them, they were left defenseless before the enemy. In A.D. 70 the Temple was destroyed and the nation scattered.
Must We, Too, Perish?
Like Israel, we, too, face judgment. Time is quickly running out. Like them, instead of facing up to the challenge and turning to God with true repentance, we rely upon religion, while our hearts go after our idols. According to the latest census, two thirds of the people of our nation are members of some religious body. Still the increase of crime more than matches our population growth! What must be the anguish of heart of our Lord and Saviour as He sees us who take His name holding to formal religion, while denying Him a place in our hearts! Unrequited love must still fill heaven with deep perplexity. What more can God do? Must we, like ancient Israel, continue to be guilty of spiritual adultery, and go down to ruin? Listen, and one can hear Love pleading earnestly: "What shall I do unto thee?"
"Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein" (Hosea 14:9).
(To be continued)