Monday, August 22, 2011

"You want me to marry a prostitute?"

"...Okay God, if you say so." That was the story and attitude of the prophet Hosea. 

I've been teaching Jr. High and High School Sunday School at my church for many years. Currently, we are studying the Old Testament book of Hosea, per the request of one of the teens - "I know what we should do next! Isn't there some book about a guy who has to marry a prostitute or something?"

I love my punk class. This is most of it. Mia is MIA, he he he.

 At almost 7 mos pregnant, I don't love walking up 2 1/2 flights of these old stairs to get to my classroom. But the kids are worth it so I huff and puff the whole way up.
Leave it to the teens to suggest what we read next and Hosea is where we end up (it was this or Revelation!). We are only about half way through now, but wow, what an amazing book so far. Anyone who says the Bible is boring hasn't read Hosea.

First let me summarize... God chooses Hosea to be a prophet to the nation of Israel. Though a prophet is often thought of as someone who tells the future, it is really just a messenger for God. God tells Hosea things that he is to pass along to the people of Israel, and this includes but is not limited to what they should expect to see or experience in the future.

Israel was God's special chosen people. Many generations prior to Hosea, God had made a covenant with Israel regarding this: God would love, bless, take care of, grow and prosper Israel - even send a Savior/King from their blood line. And in return, Israel was to love, trust and obey God. Throughout scripture the relationship between God and Israel is described in the analogy of a marriage relationship. The book of Hosea is one of the strongest examples of this analogy.

So not only does Hosea follow God's call to be a prophet, an often unpopular if not hated role, but he accepts a very unique challenge from God that will enable him to take the messages God will give him very personally. Hosea is told by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. So Hosea does just that with the understanding that she will continue in her elicit ways and even bear him illegitimate children. God wanted Hosea to live a life that mirrored the relationship God has with Israel.

God, of course, is always faithful to His covenant. As promised, throughout Israel's history He performed miracle after miracle to provide for their every need - from helping them win impossible battles to feeding and clothing them in the dessert. He gave them laws to follow that were for their own good, that would keep them safe and healthy and help them keep up their end of the covenant to love, trust and obey God. But Israel, like a prostitute wife, was unfaithful to God. They strayed big time. They disregarded God's law and so quickly forgot all of God's provisions for them. They were lured by the surrounding nations' kings, riches, religions and idols. Israel replaced their faith in the one and only powerful and loving true God - who they could not see but had more than proved His existence to them - for faith in many powerless idols that they would actually make with their own hands. Hosea 4:12 says, "They consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God." I love God's sarcasm there... Answered by a stick of wood...NOT! :)

So God gave Hosea a warning message to pass along to Israel. They were to turn away from evil and turn back to God with all of their hearts. Hosea 4:1 says, "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land."  Verse 6 says, "Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I will ignore your children." Chapter 5 goes on to say that God will pour out His wrath on them, that they will be oppressed and trampled in judgement.  If the people of Israel did not repent and turn back to God, He would issue temporary punishment. Though He'd made a covenant with them, He would, for a period, treat them as if they were not His chosen people and not loved by Him. He would allow them to suffer until they were repentant and returned back to faithfulness.

Meanwhile, Hosea's wife Gomer was off being promiscuous, as prostitutes tend to do, and she bore two children that were not Hosea's. Though Hosea was expected to raise and love these children as his own, God told him to give the son a name that means "Not my people" and to give the daughter a name that means "Not loved." Ladies, can you imagine having a name that everyone clearly understands to mean "not loved"?? These names were to be constant reminders to Hosea of the judgement that God would issue upon Israel if they did not return to their covenant.

What I find most amazing and speaks to God's character is that immediately after each of God's messages of warning and judgement, He gives Hosea a message of redemption and forgiveness. For a time, God will treat Israel as if the are not loved and not His people, but He wants them to know that eventually He will restore the relationship, and ultimately keep His covenant - no matter what. Hosea 2:13 says, "I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewelry and went after her lovers, but me she forgot." Then verse 14 follows with, "Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead"I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord." God makes it clear their relationship will not end in his judgement, but in His love, compassion and forgiveness.

Hosea is expected to do likewise with his wife. Gomer has sold herself to another man whom she is living with, but Hosea is told by God to go find her and buy her back (even though she had become so worthless that she basically only cost a couple bucks to get back!). Hosea is to remind Gomer that he loves her and will remain faithful to her and ask her to stay with him and do the same.

Of course a Google images search turns up an image of Hosea buying back Gomer.
In chapter 6 we actually get a response from the Israelites. They say in verse 1, "Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us." In the verses that follow, the Israelites talk more about acknowledging that God will forgive them and restore them than they do actually acknowledging their own sin. Nowhere do they actually admit they are wrong, show any signs of sorrow or remorse, or any give any indication that they will turn away from their ways to again love, trust and obey God. God, who knows, sees, and understands all, obviously picks up on this. He can see their hearts, which are poised once again to take advantage of God's faithfulness to them. His response in verse 4 is, "What can I do with you...??? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears."

My favorite verse of the book so far is Hosea 6:6, where God responds: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." The laws He had given the Israelites included requirements of animal sacrifice and burnt offerings as signs of repentance and to pay for their sins. After bringing these sacrifices to the temple, they would essentially get a clean slate of forgiveness and "start over". The sacrifice was to be an outward sign of the payment for their sin but they were to bring and offer that sacrifice with a sorrowful and repentant heart. Though God still wanted them to turn away from idol worship and return back to following His sacrificial laws, He was more concerned with the state of their hearts. Instead of treating each other with hatred and abuse, He wanted them to have a heart of mercy. Rather than just go through the motions of bringing their burnt offerings, He wanted them to acknowledge Him and worship Him in their heart. God wasn't interested in legalism but instead wanted attitudes of love and obedience.

I like that verse because it helps me to apply the book of Hosea to my own life. I certainly don't consider myself to be like the Israelites - a prostitute in my relationship to God. I'm faithful to Him. I love, trust and obey....But how often am I just going through the motions? How often do I go to church, sing some songs, hear a sermon and walk out the door, yet my heart is not in it? Sometimes I get to the end of singing a song - whether in the car or in church - and realize my mouth uttered the all-familiar words but my mind was completely distracted. How often do I rush through my Bible study questions simply because I don't want to show up to my small group with an empty page? How often do I reach out to others expecting a huge pat on the back? God is not interested in my religious actions if my relationship with Him and the state of my heart is not where it is supposed to be. It's not about religion, its about relationship.

The other thing I really appreciate about this study of Hosea so far is the realization of what Hosea had to go through. What a privilege to be called and used as a messenger of God. But how would I respond if God asked me to do something as hard as entering into a committed, loving relationship with someone that was guaranteed to be unfaithful to me?  In Hosea 3:1, God tells Hosea to "Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites." When Hosea buys Gomer back, there is no mention of her telling him how sorry she is for cheating on him or any promise from her to never do it again. God asks us all to do some hard things. Am I listening? Am I willing to love others and not be loved in return? Am I willing to give and have it not get acknowledged? Am I willing to keep on forgiving no matter what?

As I skim over the rest of the book, I can see it continues to talk about Israel's sinful ways and stubborn hearts, God's punishment/judgement on them, and God's love for them and faithfulness to his covenant. And the book of Hosea ends with this treasure:

"Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them.
The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them."
Hosea 14:9

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