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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Hosea 11

 

 

Verses 1-12

THE FATHERHOOD AND HUMANITY OF GOD

Hosea 11:1-12

FROM the thick jungle of Hosea’s travail, the eleventh chapter breaks like a high and open mound. The prophet enjoys the first of his two clear visions-that of the past. Judgment continues to descend. Israel’s sun is near his setting, but before he sinks-

"A lingering light he fondly throws

On the dear hills, whence first he rose."

Across these confused and vicious years, through which he has painfully made his way, Hosea sees the tenderness and the romance of the early history of his people. And although he must strike the old despairing note-that, by the insincerity of the present generation, all the ancient guidance of their God must end in this!-yet for some moments the blessed memory shines by itself, and God’s mercy appears to triumph over Israel’s ingratitude. Surely their sun will not set; Love must prevail. To which assurance a later voice from the Exile has added, in Hosea 10:10-11, a confirmation suitable to its own circumstances.

"When Israel was a child, then I loved him,

And from Egypt I called him to be My son."

The early history of Israel was a romance. Think of it historically. Before the Most High there spread an array of kingdoms and peoples. At their head were three strong princes-sons indeed of God, if all the heritage of the past, the power of the present, and the promise of the future be tokens. Egypt, wrapt in the rich and jeweled web of centuries, basked by Nile and Pyramid, all the wonder of the world’s art in his dreamy eyes. Opposite him Assyria, with barer but more massive limbs, stood erect upon his highlands, grasping in his sword the promise of the world’s power. Between the two, and rising both of them, yet with his eyes westward on an empire of which neither dreamed, the Phoenician on his sea-coast built his storehouses and sped his navies, the promise of the world’s wealth. It must ever remain the supreme romance of history, that the true son of God, bearer of His love and righteousness to all mankind, should be found, not only outside this powerful trinity, but in the puny and despised captive of one of them-in a people that was not a state, that had not a country, that was without a history, and, if appearances be true, was as yet devoid of even the rudiments of civilization-a child people and a slave.

That was the Romance, and Hosea gives us the Grace which made it. "When Israel was a child then I loved him." The verb is a distinct impulse: "I began, I learned, to love him." God’s eyes, that passed unheeding the adult princes of the world, fell upon this little slave boy, and He loved him and gave him a career: "from Egypt I called" him "to be My son."

Now, historically, it was the persuasion of this which made Israel. All their distinctiveness and character, their progress from a level with other nomadic tribes to the rank of the greatest religious teachers of humanity, started from the memory of these two facts-that God loved them, and that God called them. This was an unfailing conscience-the obligation that they were not their own, the irresistible motive to repentance even in their utmost backsliding, the unquenchable hope of a destiny in their direst days of defeat and scattering.

Some, of course, may cavil at the narrow, national scale on which such a belief was held, but let them: remember that it was held in trust for all mankind. To snarl that Israel felt this sonship to God only for themselves, is to forget that it is they who have persuaded humanity that this is the only kind of sonship worth claiming. Almost every other nation of antiquity imagined a filial relation to the deity, but it was either through some fabulous physical descent, and then often confined only to kings and heroes, or by some mystical mingling of the Divine with the human, which was just as gross and sensuous. Israel alone defined the connection as a historical and a moral one. "The sons of God are begotten not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Sonship to God is something not physical, but moral and historical, into which men are carried by a supreme awakening to the Divine love and authority. Israel, it is true, felt this only in a general way for the nation as a whole; but their conception of it embraced just those moral contents which form the glory of Christ’s doctrine of the Divine sonship of the individual. The belief that God is our Father does not come to us with our carnal birth-except in possibility: the persuasion of it is not conferred by our baptism except in so far as that is Christ’s own seal to the fact that God Almighty loves us and has marked us for His own. To us sonship is a becoming, not a being-the awakening of our adult minds "into the surprise of a Father’s undeserved mercy, into the constraint of His authority and the assurance of the destiny He has laid up for us. It is conferred by love, and confirmed by duty. Neither has power brought it, nor wisdom, nor wealth, but it has come solely with the wonder of the knowledge that God loves us, and has always loved us, as well as in the sense, immediately following, of a true vocation to serve Him." Sonship which is less than this is no sonship at all. But so much as this is possible to every man through Jesus Christ. His constant message is that the Father loves every one of us, and that if we know that love, we are God’s sons indeed. To them who feel it, adoption into the number and privileges of the sons of God comes with the amazement and the romance which glorified God’s choice of the child-slave Israel. "Behold," they cry, "what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God." [1 John 3:1-24]

"But we cannot be loved by God and left where we are. Beyond the grace there lie the long discipline and destiny. We are called from servitude to freedom, from the world of God-each of us to run a course, and do a work, which can be done by no one else. That Israel did not perceive this was God’s sore sorrow with them. "The more I called to them the farther they went from Me. They to the Ba’alim kept sacrificing, and to images offering incense." But God persevered with grace, and the story is at first continued in the figure of Fatherhood with which it commenced; then it changes to the metaphor of a humane man’s goodness to his beasts. "Yet I taught Ephraim to walk, holding them on Mine arms; but they knew not that I healed them"-presumably when they fell and hurt themselves. "With the cords of a man I would draw them, with bands of love; and I was to them as those who lift up the yoke on their jaws, and gently would I give them to eat." It is the picture of a team of bullocks, in charge of a kind driver. Israel are no longer the wanton young cattle of the previous chapter, which need the yoke firmly fastened on their neck, [Hosea 10:11] but a team of toiling oxen mounting some steep road. There is no use now for the rough ropes, by which frisky animals are kept to their work; but the driver, coming to his beasts’ heads, by the gentle touch of his hand at their mouths and by words of sympathy draws them after him. "I drew them with cords of a man, and with bands of love." Yet there is the yoke, and it would seem that certain forms of this, when beasts were working upwards, as we should say "against the collar," pressed and rubbed upon them, so that the humane driver, when he came to their heads, eased the yoke with his hands. "I was as they that take the yoke off their jaws"; and then, when they got to the top of the hill, he would rest and feed them. That is the picture, and however uncertain we may feel as to some of its details it is obviously a passage-Ewald says "the earliest of all passages-in which "humane means precisely the same as love." It ought to be taken along with that other passage in the great Prophecy of the Exile, where God is described as He that led them through "the deep, as a horse in the wilderness, that they should not stumble: as a beast goeth down into the valley, the Spirit of the Lord gave him rest." [Isaiah 63:13-14]

Thus then the figure of the fatherliness of God changes into that of His gentleness or humanity. Do not let us think that there is here either any descent of the poetry or want of connection between the two figures. The change is true, not only to Israel’s, but to our own experience. Men are all either the eager children of happy, irresponsible days, or the bounden, plodding draught-cattle of life’s serious burdens and charges. Hosea’s double figure reflects human life in its whole range. Which of us has not known this fatherliness of the Most High, exercised upon us, as upon Israel, throughout our years of carelessness and disregard? It was God Himself who taught and trained us then; -

"When through the slippery paths of youth

With heedless steps I ran,

Thine arm unseen conveyed me safe,

And led me up to man."

Those speedy recoveries from the blunders of early willfulness, those redemptions from the sins of youth-happy were we if we knew that it was "He who healed us." But there comes a time when men pass from leading-strings to harness when we feel faith less and duty more-when our work touches us more closely than our God. Death must be a strange transformer of the spirit, yet surely not more strange than life, which out of the eager buoyant child makes in time the slow automaton of duty. It is such a stage which the fourth of these verses suits, when we look up, not so much for the fatherliness as for the gentleness and humanity of our God. A man has a mystic power of a very wonderful kind upon the animals over whom he is placed. On any of these wintry roads of ours we may see it, when a kind carter gets down at a hill, and, throwing the reins on his beast’s back, will come to its head and touch it with his bare hands, and speak to it as if it were his fellow; till the deep eyes fill with light, and out of these things, so much weaker than itself, a touch, a glance, a word, there will come to it new strength to pull the stranded wagon onward. The man is as a god to the beast, coming down to help it, and it almost makes the beast human that he does so. Not otherwise does Hosea feel the help which God gives His own on the weary hills of life. We need not discipline, for our work is discipline enough, and the cares we carry of themselves keep us straight and steady. But we need sympathy and gentleness-this very humanity which the prophet attributes to our God. God comes and takes us by the head; through the mystic power which is above us, but which makes us like itself, we are lifted to our task. Let no one judge this incredible. The incredible would be that our God should prove any less to us than the merciful man to his beast. But we are saved from argument by experience. When we remember how, as life has become steep and our strength exhausted, there has visited us a thought which has sharpened to a word, a word which has warmed to a touch, and we have drawn ourselves together and leapt up new men, can we feel that God was any less in these things, than in the voice of conscience or the message of forgiveness, or the restraints of His discipline? Nay, though the reins be no longer felt, God is at our head, that we should not stumble nor stand still. Upon this gracious passage there follows one of those swift revulsions of feeling, which we have learned almost to expect in Hosea. His insight again overtakes his love. The people will not respond to the goodness of their God; it is impossible to work upon minds so fickle and insincere. Discipline is what they need. "He shall return to the land of Egypt, or Asshur shall be his king" (it is still an alternative), "for they have refused to return" to ‘Tis but one more instance of the age-long apostasy of the people. "My people have a bias to turn from Me; and though they" (the prophets) "call them upwards, none of them can lift them."

Yet God is God, and though prophecy fail He will attempt His love once more. There follows the greatest passage in Hosea-deepest if not highest of his book-the breaking forth of that exhaustless mercy of the Most High which no sin of man can bar back nor wear out.

"How am I to give thee up, O Ephraim?

How am I to let thee go, O Israel?

How am I to give thee up?

Am I to make an Admah of thee a Seboim?

My heart is turned upon Me,

My compassions begin to boil:

I will not perform the fierceness of Mine anger,

I will not turn to destroy Ephraim;

For God am I and not man,

The Holy One in the midst of thee, yet I come not to consume!"

Such a love has been the secret of Hosea’s persistence through so many years with so faithless a people, and now, when he has failed, it takes voice to itself and in its irresistible fullness makes this last appeal. Once more before the end let Israel hear God in the utterness of His Love!

The verses are a climax, and obviously to be succeeded by a pause. On the brink of his doom, will Israel turn to such a God, at such a call? The next verse, though dependent for its promise on this same exhaustless Love, is from an entirely different circumstance, and cannot have been put by Hosea here.


Verse 8

11; Hosea 2:1-23; Hosea 3:1-5

THE SIN AGAINST LOVE

Hosea 1:1-11; Hosea 2:1-23; Hosea 3:1-5;, Hosea 4:11 ff.; Hosea 9:10 ff.; Hosea 11:8 f.

The Love of God is a terrible thing-that is the last lesson of the Book of Hosea. "My God will cast them away." [Hosea 10:1-15]

"My God"-let us remember the right which Hosea had to use these words. Of all the prophets he was the first to break into the full aspect of the Divine Mercy to learn and to proclaim that God is Love. But he was worthy to do so, by the patient love of his own heart towards another who for years had outraged all his trust and tenderness. He had loved, believed and been betrayed; pardoned and waited and yearned, and sorrowed and pardoned again. It is in this long-suffering that his breast beats upon the breast of God with the cry "My God." As He had loved Gomer, so had God loved Israel, past hope, against hate, through ages of ingratitude and apostasy. Quivering with his own pain, Hosea has exhausted all human care and affection for figures to express the Divine tenderness, and he declares God’s love to be deeper than all the passion of men, and broader than all their patience: "How can I give thee up, Ephraim? How can I let thee go, Israel? I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger. For I am God, and not man." And yet, like poor human affection, this Love of God, too, confesses its failure-"My God shall cast them away." It is God’s sentence of relinquishment upon those who sin against His Love, but the poor human lips which deliver it quiver with an agony of their own, and here, as more explicitly in twenty other passages of the book, declare it to be equally, the doom of those who outrage the love of their fellow men and women.

We have heard it said: "The lives of men are never the same after they have loved; if they are not better, they must be worse." "Be afraid of the love that loves you: it is either your heaven or your hell." "All the discipline of men springs from their love-if they take it not so, then all their sorrow must spring from the same source." "There is a depth of sorrow, which can only be known to a soul that has loved the most perfect thing and beholds itself fallen." These things are true of the Love, both of our brother and of our God. And the eternal interest of the life of Hosea is that he learned how, for strength and weakness, for better or for worse, our human and our Divine loves are inseparably joined.

I.

Most men learn that love is inseparable from pain where Hosea learned it-at home. There it is that we are all reminded that when love is strongest she feels her weakness most. For the anguish which love must bear, as it were from the foundation of the world, is the contradiction at her heart between the largeness of her wishes and the littleness of her power to realize them. A mother feels it, bending over the bed of her child, when its body is racked with pain or its breath spent with coughing. So great is the feeling of her love that it ought to do something, that she will actually feel herself cruel because nothing can be done. Let the sick-bed become the beach of death, and she must feel the helplessness and the anguish still more as the dear life is now plucked from her and now tossed back by the mocking waves, and then drawn slowly out to sea upon the ebb from which there is no returning.

But the pain which disease and death thus cause to love is nothing to the agony that sin inflicts when he takes the game into his unclean hands. We know what pain love brings, if our love be a fair face and a fresh body in which Death brands his sores while we stand by, as if with arms bound. But what if our love be a childlike heart, and a frank expression and honest eyes, and a clean and clever mind. Our powerlessness is just as great and infinitely more tormented when sin comes by and casts his shadow over these. Ah, that is Love’s greatest torment when her children, who have run from her to the bosom of sin, look back and their eyes are changed! That is the greatest torment of Love-to pour herself without avail into one of those careless natures which seem capacious and receptive, yet never fill with love, for there is a crack and a leak at the bottom of them. The fields where Love suffers her sorest defeats are not the sick-bed and not death’s margin, not the cold lips and sealed eyes kissed without response; but the changed eyes of children, and the breaking of the "full-orbed face," and the darkening look of growing sons and daughters, and the home the first time the unclean laugh breaks across it. To watch, though unable to soothe, a dear body racked with pain, is peace beside the awful vigil of watching a soul shrink and blacken with vice, and your love unable to redeem it.

Such a clinical study Hosea endured for years. The prophet of God, we are told, brought a dead child to life by taking him in his arms and kissing him. But Hosea with all his love could not make Gomer a true, whole wife again. Love had no power on this woman-no power even at the merciful call to make all things new. Hosea, who had once placed all hope in tenderness, had to admit that Love’s moral power is not absolute. Love may retire defeated from the highest issues of life. Sin may conquer Love.

Yet it is in this his triumph that Sin must feel the ultimate revenge. When a man has conquered this weak thing, and beaten her down beneath his feet, God speaks the sentence of abandonment.

There is enough of the whipped dog in all of us to make us dread penalty when we come into conflict with the strong things of life. But it takes us all our days to learn that there is far more condemnation to them who offend the weak things of life, and particularly the weakest of all, its love. It was on sins against the weak that Christ passed His sternest judgments: "Woe unto him that offends one of these little ones; it were better for him that he had never been born." God’s little ones are not only little children, but all things which, like little children, have only love for their strength. They are pure and loving men and women-men with no weapon but their love, women with no shield but their trust. They are the innocent affections of our own hearts-the memories of our childhood, the ideals of our youth, the prayers of our parents, the faith in us of our friends. These are the little ones of whom Christ spake, that he who sins against them had better never have been born. Often may the dear solicitudes of home, a father’s counsels, a mother’s prayers, seem foolish things against the challenges of a world calling us to play the man and do as it does; often may the vows and enthusiasms of boyhood seem impertinent against the temptations which are so necessary to manhood: yet let us be true to the weak, for if we betray them, we betray our own souls. We may sin against law and maim or mutilate ourselves, but to sin against love is to be cast out of life altogether. He who violates the purity of the love with which God has filled his heart, he who abuses the love God has sent to meet him in his opening manhood, he who slights any of the affections, whether they be of man or woman, of young or of old, which God lays upon us as the most powerful redemptive forces of our life, next to that of His dear Son-he sinneth against his own soul, and it is of such that Hosea spake: "My God will cast them away."

We talk of breaking law: we can only break ourselves against it. But if we sin against Love, we do destroy her: we take from her the power to redeem and sanctify us. Though in their youth men think Love a quick and careless thing-a servant always at their side, a winged messenger easy of dispatch-let them know that every time they send her on an evil errand she returns with heavier feet and broken wings. When they make her a pander they kill her outright. When she is no more they waken to that which Gomer came to know, that love abused is love lost, and love lost means Hell.

II

This, however, is only the margin from which Hosea beholds an abandonment still deeper. All that has been said of human love and the penalty of outraging it is equally true of the Divine love and the sin against that.

The love of God has the same weakness which we have seen in the love of man. It, too, may fail to redeem; it, too, has stood defeated on some of the highest moral battle-fields of life. God Himself has suffered anguish and rejection from sinful men. "Herein," says a theologian, "is the mystery of this love that God can never by His Almighty Power compel that which is the very highest gift in the life of His creatures-love to Himself, but that He receives it as the free gift of His creatures, and that He is only able to allow men to give it to Him in a free act of their own will." So Hosea also has told us how God does not compel, but allure or "woo," the sinful back to Himself. And it is the deepest anguish of the prophet’s heart, that this free grace of God may fail through man’s apathy or insincerity. The anguish appears in those frequent antitheses in which his torn heart reflects herself in the style of his discourse. "I have redeemed them-yet they have spoken lies against Me. [Hosea 7:13] I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness-they went to Ba’al-Peor. [Hosea 9:10] When Israel was a child, then I loved him but they sacrificed to Ba’alim. [Hosea 11:1-2] I taught Ephraim to walk, but they knew not that I healed them. [Hosea 9:4] How can I give thee up, Ephraim? how can I let thee go, O Israel? Ephraim compasseth Me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit." [Hosea 11:8;, Hosea 12:1]

We fear to apply all that we know of the weakness of human love to the love of God. Yet though He be God and not man, it was as man He commended His love to us. He came nearest us, not in the thunders of Sinai, but in Him Who presented Himself to the world with the caresses of a little child; who met men with no angelic majesty or heavenly aureole, but whom when we saw we found nothing that we should desire Him, His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form than the sons of men; Who came to His own and His own received Him not; Who, having loved His own that were in the world, loved them up to the end, and yet at the end was by them deserted and betrayed, -it is of Him that Hosea prophetically says: "I drew them with cords of a man and with bands of love."

We are not bound to God by any unbreakable chain. The strands which draw us upwards to God, to holiness and everlasting life, have the weakness of those which bind us to the earthly souls we love. It is possible for us to break them. We love Christ, not because He has compelled us by any magic, irresistible influence to do so; but, as John in his great simplicity says, "We love Him because He first loved us."

Now this is surely the terror of God’s love-that it can be resisted; that even as it is manifest in Jesus Christ we men have the power, not only to remain as so many do, outside its scope, feeling it to be far-off and vague, but having tasted it to fall away from it, having realized it to refuse it, having allowed it to begin its moral purposes in our lives to baffle and nullify these; to make the glory of Heaven absolutely ineffectual in our own characters; and to give our Savior the anguish of rejection.

Give Him the anguish, yet pass upon ourselves the doom! For, as I read the New Testament, the one unpardonable sin is the sin against our Blessed Redeemer’s Love as it is brought home to the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every other sin is forgiven to men but to crucify afresh Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. The most terrible of His judgments is "the wail of a heart wounded because its love has been despised": "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! how often would I have gathered thy children as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not. Behold your house is left unto you desolate!"

Men say they cannot believe in hell, because they cannot conceive how God may sentence men to misery for the breaking of laws they were born without power to keep. And one would agree with the inference if God had done any such thing. But for them which are under the law and the sentence of death, Christ died once for all that He might redeem them. Yet this does not make a hell less believable. When we see how Almighty was that Love of God in Christ Jesus, lifting our whole race and sending them forward with a freedom and a power of growth nothing else in history has won for them; when we prove again how weak it is, so that it is possible for millions of characters that have felt it to refuse its eternal influence for the sake of some base and transient passion; nay, when I myself know this power and this weakness of Christ’s love, so that one day being loyal I am raised beyond the reach of fear and of doubt, beyond the desire of sin and the habit of evil, and the next day finds me capable of putting it aside in preference for some slight enjoyment or ambition-then I know the peril and the terror of this love, that it may be to a man either Heaven or Hell.

Believe then in hell, because you believe in the Love of God-not in a hell to which God condemns men of His will and pleasure, but a hell into which men cast themselves from the very face of His love in Jesus Christ. The place has been painted as a place of fires. But when we contemplate that men come to it with the holiest flames in their nature quenched, we shall justly feel that it is rather a dreary waste of ash and cinder, strewn with snow-some ribbed and frosty Arctic zone, silent in death, for there is no life there, and there is no life there because there is no Love, and no Love because men, in rejecting or abusing her, have slain their own power ever again to feel her presence.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Hosea 11:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/hosea-11.html.

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