When Tess and I first got married, I always had coffee white. Now I always have it black. And for a while in between, I sometimes did one and sometimes did the other – which Tess found embarrassing, because we'd be at someone else's house, and she'd be asked, 'How does Ian like his coffee?' And she'd have to say, 'I honestly don't know.' And she said to me one time, 'Can't you make your mind up? It looks like I don't know my own husband.'
Well on Sunday mornings, we're looking at the Old Testament book of Hosea. And he was a prophet who said that God's people Israel were like God's wife – but tragically she didn't know her own husband. So at the beginning of today's bit, Hosea says (Hosea 4.1):
"There is… no knowledge of God in the land."
That begs the question, 'How well would you say you know God?', which is different from being asked, 'Do you believe in God?' Many of us would say an immediate, 'Yes' to that. But it's much more searching to be asked, 'Would you say you know God – like you might say you know a husband or wife or a good friend?' Because it makes you wonder, 'What does that really mean and involve?' And that's what today's bit of Hosea is about. So please would you turn in the Bible to Hosea chapter 1, where I want to remind us about Hosea's marriage – because the story of his marriage was basically his message in a nutshell. So first we have Hosea. And if you look at Hosea 1.2-3 it says:
"When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom [in other words, marry this woman who's already had various sexual partners] and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD." So he went and took Gomer…"
So let's add Gomer to the picture: unmarried, but with her various partners. And Gomer at the beginning of the story stands for the people of Israel back in Egypt, before God rescued them and then metaphorically married them as his people. Because the Bible says that back in Egypt they'd forgotten about the LORD, and were worshipping the gods of Egypt just like everyone else. Just like Gomer with her various partners. But then, Hosea married Gomer, knowing full well her capacity for unfaithfulness. And that stands for the way the LORD committed himself to the people of Israel, after rescuing them from Egypt – knowing full well (as he does about us) their capacity for unfaithfulness.
So that part of Hosea's story stands for Israel's past. What happened next is that Gomer was unfaithful to Hosea. So there she is: still married to him – but off with more partners. And that part of Hosea's story stands for what Israel was doing in the present, in Hosea's time. Which was: turning to other so-called 'gods' whom they thought would meet their needs better than the LORD. So now turn over to chapter 3 and we'll remind ourselves of the rest of Hosea's story. Hosea 3.1-3:
"And the LORD said to me, "Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress [which is talking about Gomer], even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins [which they offered to those gods]." So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley [Hosea had to do a deal with the latest partner to get Gomer back]. And I said to her, "You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you."
And that last bit means that although Gomer was back with Hosea, they were not going to be sexually intimate for some time. And that was a period of discipline designed to wean Gomer off her unfaithfulness. So there in the next picture is Hosea still loving Gomer, and determined to do whatever it takes to make her faithful. And that stands for the LORD still loving his people, and determined to do whatever it takes to have a faithful people one day, who really would know him as they should. And we know that what that would ultimately take was the coming and ministry of Jesus.
So let's get into today's bit, and see how it pointed forward to Jesus and what we need him to do for us. So my headings are two questions and the first is this:
1. What Needs Changing in Us If We're Going to Know God as We Should?
Well, look down to Hosea 4.1:
"Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land"
So there's the tragedy: a wife, Israel, who doesn't know her own husband, the LORD. Now I've been given two chapters, so I'm just going to give you select bits which get across the message of the whole. So skip to Hosea 4.12, where the LORD says through Hosea:
"My people enquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles. [In other words, they're praying to man-made gods, and using divining sticks for guidance – you know, 'If it falls this way, I'll do this, if it falls that way, I'll do that.'] For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore [just like Gomer left Hosea for what felt like the greater freedom of her affairs]."
So the picture is that God's people have left him because marriage to him felt so constrained, whereas turning to other so-called gods (who allowed anything morally) felt like freedom. And our culture loves to tell us that to be a Christian is a terrible constraint on your life – especially your sex life. And those of you about to head off to uni will hear that message at full volume: 'Poor you, coming from a Christian background. You don't know what you've been missing. Leave that behind and be free like us!' But look over to Hosea 5.4 to how Hosea sees the so-called freedom of walking away from God:
"Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. [In other words, they're now not free to stop what they're doing.] For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they do not know the LORD."
The Bible says freedom is being able to say yes or no to our desires, depending on whether they're desires for the right thing – or for the right thing in the right context. Whereas the world says freedom is simply being able to say yes to every desire. But that isn't freedom – just ask the person addicted to alcohol or pornography (which might be asking yourself).
So the picture in Hosea is that we turn from God because we doubt we're really free with him. But we also turn from God because we doubt he'll really meet our needs. And Israel's two big needs were:
- for good harvests so they could eat
- for security in the face of the hostile countries around them
And those are always everyone's needs, including ours: 'supply' and 'security'.
When it came to harvests, instead of trusting the LORD for rain and crops, Israel turned to the so-called fertility gods, the Baals. That might seem like irrelevant, ancient history, but we're equally capable of turning to God-substitutes. And Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, says we often discover our God-substitutes when they're threatened or when they fail us and we realise that our reaction is unhealthily big and disproportionate.
For example, your job can become a God-substitute – where, instead of trusting the Lord who's given you the job and the income you need, you turn to trusting in the job itself. So that when the job is threatened you're unhealthily and disproportionately anxious. Or when the job is lost you're unnecessarily devastated. And there are all sorts of God-substitutes – from relationships to academic achievements, from trying to be perfect to trying to be in control.
So for harvests, Israel turned to the fertility gods. And for security, she turned to political deals. You need to know that the superpower back then was Assyria, and Assyria wanted to expand and was gradually eating in to Israel's northern border. And the LORD was allowing that as a judgment on Israel's unfaithfulness. It was like he was saying, 'I'm not going to let you enjoy the gift of my land if you ignore me, the Giver.' So now look on to Hosea 5.11-13, where the LORD says:
"Ephraim [that's just another name Israel] is oppressed, crushed in judgement, because he was determined to go after filth [or you can translate that 'emptiness', 'nothingness', which is how the LORD sees false gods]. But I am like a moth to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah [which are two startling pictures of how God, in judgment, was gradually 'eating into' Israel by allowing Assyria to come at them]. When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound…"
It would be nice if that verse finished, 'then he finally realised his mistake and turned back to me.' Only it doesn't. It says:
"…then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king…"
So Assyria was their big threat. And they made Assyria their new God-substitute and sent their diplomats to offer money in exchange for belonging to Assyria and getting its protection. Which was like asking a lion to protect you. Sometimes we'll do anything but turn to the LORD, won't we – however irrational it may be? And the LORD says (Hosea 5.13-15):
"…But he [Assyria] is not able to cure you or heal your wound. For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah [in other words, I'll use Assyria to invade you and exile you from your land]. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me."
And that's the Old Testament story in a nutshell. It's the story of how God took Israel and brought them to the point of facing up to what was wrong with them. That is what's wrong with all of us – this natural inclination to turn from God because we doubt that we're really free with him, and doubt that he'll really meet our needs.
So the LORD brings Israel to the point where their God-substitutes fail them. Maybe he's repeated that story in your life. Maybe a crisis like that is how he brought you to faith – or how he's bringing you to faith right now. Or maybe a crisis like that is how he brought you back to faith – or how he's bringing you back to himself right now.
So we've done what needs changing in us if we're going to know God as we should. Then my other question is:
2. What Do We Need to Do to Be Changed?
Well look on to Hosea 6.1-2, where Hosea spells out what our response to God needs to look like:
"Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him."
So one side of our response is that:
a) We Need to Turn to The LORD for His Work in Us
… because Hosea uses two pictures here of things we cannot do. One is to heal a gaping, infected wound – which in Hosea's pre-antibiotics day would have spelt certain death. And the other is to revive or raise the dead. And with those pictures Hosea is saying that by nature, we're spiritually infected by unfaithfulness to God, and that by nature, we're spiritually dead – as unresponsive to God as a corpse is to being given orders. So that if we're to change and know God as we should, we need God to work in us.
It's so easy to get the Christian message wrong and think it says, 'Look, we've messed up in relationship with God, but we can put that right by turning back to him and changing.' But we can't. All we can do about our need to change is turn to God and ask him to change us. To say, 'Lord Jesus, by nature I'm spiritually infected – please would you forgive me that, and work in me by your Spirit to clean the sinfulness out of me? And Lord Jesus, by nature I'm spiritually dead – please would you forgive me that and work in me by your Spirit to make me responsive to you?'
That's how the Christian life begins – when you turn to the Lord for his work in you for the first time. And that's how it goes on. Which is why, in 'the Lord's prayer', Jesus taught us not just to turn to God for daily bread, but for daily forgiveness and daily deliverance from sin as well.
But once we have experienced God's work in us, giving us a desire to be faithful to him, giving us a responsiveness to him, then there's the other side of our response in verse 3, to end with:
"Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD"
In other words…
b) We Need to Pursue Knowing The LORD More
And to see what that really means, we need to stick with Hosea's picture of our relationship with the LORD as being like a marriage. So let's think: what does it mean for a husband and wife to know one another – and to grow in knowing one another more? Well, it begins with each knowing that the other loves them unconditionally. Mike Mason in his book 'The Mystery of Marriage' writes this:
"When [you] know that [you are] already unconditionally accepted, there is no need anymore for [you] to preoccupy [yourself]… in making [yourself] worthy of being loved. As long as the self is consumed by the struggle to make itself lovely, it cannot love. First, it must come to the end of its own resources, for the power to love derives… solely from the knowledge that one is loved already… And so the best marriages and the deepest relationships with God grow out of the startling discovery that there is nothing one can do to earn love, and even more startling, that there is also nothing one can do to unearn it."
Knowing the Lord begins every day with knowing he loves you unconditionally. It begins every day by knowing how Jesus died on the cross to see all your sins forgiven, and saying to yourself, 'That's why he'll never give up on me.' But then a husband or wife has to spend a lifetime learning to love the other as the person they really are. Here's Mike Mason again:
"Our natural tendency is to treat other people as if they were not 'others' at all, but merely aspects of ourselves… Compared with us, they are not quite real. We see them… through… the haze of our own all-engulfing [self-centredness]. We are constantly filtering others through… our own… system of perception so that what finally registers… is not usually a 'real person' at all, but a sort of… reconstruction.
[But] the purpose [of marriage is] to get us… out of the shallows of our own… egocentricity and into the dangerous and unpredictable depths of a real encounter [with another person]. And that… is also what true religion is supposed to do. It is supposed to teach us that God is not an idol of our own making, not a human invention, not a concept or a theory, not a projection or extension of ourselves, and not a tool (any more than a marriage partner is a tool). No… the fact of the matter is that God is really there, a living being beyond our… imagining."
And so, knowing the Lord also means learning to love him as he really is. That will only happen if we let him tell us who he really is, through his written Word, the Bible. So just look back to Hosea 4.6. We skipped past this, but it fits here. Hosea 4.6, where the LORD says:
"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; [and then he tears into the priests who were meant to teach the Bible:] because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children."
So neglect the Bible and we'll worship a God of our own making – even if he's made from Christian-looking building blocks. But devote ourselves to the Bible and we'll learn to love him as he really is.
The last thing to say about how a husband and wife know each other is that it involves trusting and loving the other exclusively and faithfully. So Mike Mason, again, says:
"In both marriage and faith it is the quality of devotion that is tested, the ability to give unwavering and undivided trust in one direction."
So knowing the Lord also means trusting and loving him exclusively. Which means watching for where our trust and love has slipped towards God-substitutes (which they will), and bringing them back to Christ.
And lastly, it also means trusting and loving him faithfully. I don't know what you'd say if you were asked, 'What's at the heart of marriage?' I guess many people would say, 'Love'. But Christopher Ash in his book on marriage writes this:
"The heart of marriage is better expressed as faithfulness than love. The word 'love' on its own is too elastic in contemporary usage to serve as the fundamental virtue of marriage. Faithfulness is the foundation, or perhaps we may say faithful love."
That's because faithfulness is God's character – unchangingness, utter consistency – and he wants marriage to reflect his character.
And so in our marriage to him, if we're Christians, he wants faithfulness to him. Which means, like Hosea 6.3 says, pressing on to know him – doing what we've been looking at this morning, day in day out, for the rest of our lives. And pressing on will sometimes be an amazing, exciting journey of new discoveries about the LORD. But pressing on will sometimes be plodding on. And pressing on will sometimes be just struggling on – just clinging on in trusting and loving God – like Job did in all his troubles. But those are the times that most test how genuinely we really know the LORD, because they show up whether we trust and love him for what we can get out of him, or whether we trust and love him simply because he is God and is worthy of our trust and love – in the dark as much as in the light.