The Repentant God
By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
If you are a parent who has gone through the particularly difficult tragedy of having a wayward and rebellious child, Hosea is not your favorite book in the Bible. It is absolutely filled with dysfunction, and if that’s a sensitive subject for you, you may not have much appreciation for this prophet.
When we are introduced to Hosea, we find God telling him to enter into a marital relationship with a woman named Gomer. All the while, God knows that Gomer will prove to be unfaithful to her man. It simply is not in her to stay at home and be a good wife and mother. God knows just how unfaithful Gomer will be, and God knows just how loving Hosea will be in return, despite the fact that Gomer does nothing to deserve her husband’s love.
And that is the point of this story. Their relationship, marked by unfaithfulness, is the living illustration of what is wrong between God and his people Israel. Despite God’s steadfast love, Israel has gone looking for other gods.
As is always the case in a situation like this, the dysfunction between Hosea and Gomer doesn’t keep them from having children. But if you think the marriage had problems before, you haven’t seen anything yet. A sure sign that they’re in trouble is that Gomer and Hosea don’t get to name their own children. God does it for them. And what names does God choose? Well, I’ll put it this way… If you are a parent, and this is the best God can do, you better be glad that God didn’t consult with you on this.
The first child is named Jezreel. Now, that probably isn’t something you would pick out, but it’s not so bad, is it? Jezreel. Sounds biblical… very Old Testament. Actually, he’s named after a town. Don’t laugh, it’s been done before.
Our daughter’s sister-in-law named her first son after a small town in North Carolina. Our son Tim, who is the pundit in the family, said that when they couldn’t find an acceptable name in the baby-naming book, they consulted Rand-McNally! Unfortunately, however, Jezreel is the town where God had promised to put an end to Israel. So, it doesn’t exactly have a positive connotation for most folk.
Names can be like that, you know. When Janet and I were expecting our first child, we had a name picked out if our baby was to be a girl. Obviously, in those days you couldn’t find out in advance, so you chose a name for each gender, just in case. But in our little church in rural Kentucky, there was a young girl who had that name. She was not – how shall I put this? – she was not our favorite child to be around. So we chose another name.
The name Jezreel wasn’t so bad… but it wasn’t so good either.
Things got worse for Mr. and Mrs. Hosea. The next child, a girl, is named Lo-ruhamah. That’s Hebrew, of course. Translated, it means “Not Pitied.” “I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel,” God tells her papa, “nor will I forgive them.” Ouch.
You’d think they would stop with the babies after that. The score is two-to-nothing in favor of the other side. But no, misery loves company. Not Pitied is hardly weaned when Hosea and Gomer have a third child, another son. And God said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”
Jezreel, Not Pitied, Not My People. “They were dismal names, the bitter offspring of a bitter marriage, which made Hosea’s whole family a kind of poster family for God’s disappointment with Israel.”1
It makes you wonder… It’s one thing to ruin Hosea’s life by using him in such a way, but why did God pick on these poor, hapless children? Why mark them for life by giving them such names?
To say that things had gotten bad between God and his children Israel is a gross understatement. And that’s where we are as we enter this passage we read earlier from the prophet. Israel has gone a’whoring and God has turned his back on his sinful children and disowned them. And that is why, if you have ever had wayward or rebellious children, this is not your favorite book of the Bible. It conjures up too many painful memories. It reaches down into the marrow of your soul and grabs your gut and won’t let go.
But that is exactly why you have to travel all the way through the book with the prophet Hosea. You have to get, at least, to chapter 11. It is here we find that God changes his mind, that God repents of what he was going to do to Israel. But not before there are some painful things that happen along the way.
As we enter this passage, we find it is God who is speaking. “When Israel was a child, I loved him.” “When…”
When can be a terrible word. It speaks of the past, of course. It refers to what used to be, but is no longer. And for some reason, it has within it the sense, the feeling, that what used to be was far better than what is. Used in a certain context, the word when has a deep sadness about it, a feeling of pathos, a nostalgia that comes flooding into your soul. You are left with the feeling that the past was better than the present, and life will never again be as good as it once was. All because of the simple word when.
“When Israel was a child,” God says to his beleaguered prophet Hosea, “I loved him.” “When…”
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If you’ve had a wayward child, you know what God means. You imagine what kind of places your child is walking into, places you would never go yourself. Your memory flashes back to your child’s first steps. The video camera of your mind reveals the bright and happy images: your child’s lack of confidence as he wobbles on two untrained legs, the faltering, the uncertainty. You see it in your mind’s eye as if it were yesterday. You held out your hand for guidance until your child could do it on her own. You called out, “You can do it! You can do it! Come to daddy, come to mommy.” But now, your child is coming to someone else, something else. Someone you would not have chosen, something you do not condone. And your heart is breaking because of it.
Those first few faltering steps brought your child into your arms and you celebrated together this important moment in your lives. There’s nothing like that time when your child takes his first steps. But now, he’s walking in strange places. She is in someone else’s arms. As far as your child is concerned, you no longer exist.
“I led them with cords of human kindness,” God reminds Hosea, “with bands of love.”
I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
And what did God get in return? Heartburn. Nothing but heartburn.
Okay, God will show them who’s boss.
They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
Wait a minute. How can Israel be returned to Egypt if Assyria is their king? Don’t take Egypt literally. Egypt is a metaphor for bondage, for slavery. They will walk right back where they had been before, where freedom is turned into tyranny and celebration morphs into agony. God is angry, and God will show Israel who’s boss.
The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their priests, and devours because of their schemes.
But just as we are ready for more images of violence and vengeance, suddenly and without warning, God does a complete U-turn.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
What does Israel do to deserve such grace? Nothing. As they would say where I come from, not a cotton-pickin’ thing. You want an explanation for why God repented of his wrath toward Israel? The closest you will get is when God says, “For I am God and no mortal.” Our human minds cannot conceive of why God loves us so. There is no explanation for why God does what God does. God is God and God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts as our thoughts.
Yet, isn’t it true that in this story God comes across as more human than in any other? Look at the way God wrestles with and changes his heart and mind. That’s Hosea’s very human way of depicting a very un-human God. Hosea knows he’s been graced, that his people Israel are the recipients of a love and devotion they do not deserve. He can’t explain it or describe it in any other way then to tell his people that God has changed his mind… that God’s heart has melted… that God has – yes – repented.
This is not the only place in scripture where God is depicted as changing his mind, of having promised vengeance and then turned around and shown mercy. But it is the most poignant.
It is not to say that God is soft, and that when the going gets tough suddenly God turns to mush. Think about this: sometimes there is power and great redemption in not doing what one has threatened to do. Israel did nothing to deserve God’s mercy, but God gave it to them anyway.
As a sign of such mercy, God says to Hosea, “Bring your children before me.” Into the room comes the prophet’s three bedraggled children. Imagine the taunts they have endured at the hands of the other children in town. Not only do they have a sinful mother, but such awful names. Sometimes children can be cruel, you know.
God bends down on his knee before Jezreel and places his hand under the boy’s chin to lift his face. God wants to be able to look him in the eye. “Your name will no longer be associated with a place of destruction,” God tells him. “From now on it shall mean ‘God Sows.'” God does the same to the little girl and says, “‘Not Pitied’ shall be known as ‘I Will Have Pity.'” And finally, God takes the little one, the baby, into his arms and says, “‘Not My People’ shall become ‘You Are Now My People.'” God then straightens up, gives the baby back to his father, looks at Hosea, and says, “Go and get your unfaithful wife and bring her home. She shall be faithless no more.”
Curse becomes blessing, and what threatened to be a dead relationship becomes alive again. There is redemption in the house of Hosea and in the house of Israel.
Are you beginning to sense something here? Do you get the feeling that this isn’t the last time God will show such mercy to his people?
Picture in your mind’s eye that fateful day when three crosses stand against a sullen Jerusalem sky. Consider the one in the middle, the one that holds the carpenter from Nazareth. The man’s name is Jesus. He has something in common with the children of Hosea, doesn’t he? God has chosen his name as well. It means “God Saves.” It means that God will no longer promise vengeance, that God will no longer need to repent or change his mind. It means that you and I, because he died on the cross that day, are given a name as well.
Regardless of what names our parents may have chosen for us, we are called the children of God, and the only thing left for us to do is go out and claim the name. We can do that because God repented of what God said he would do. We can do that because God is God and not mortal like you and me. We can do that because God loves us that much. And what have we done to deserve this love? Not a cotton-pickin’ thing.
Lord, thank you for your mercy and grace. We don’t deserve it, to be sure. Help us to accept it, to celebrate it, to share it freely with other undeserving folk. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge/Boston, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 51.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.