There are two topics amongst others that come up again and again in the headlines of our newspapers and news bulletins. They are adultery and prostitution.
Here are some examples:
Council vows prostitution crackdown
Sharia state pays prostitutes to quit
Korean court upholds anti-adultery laws
Berlin prostitution no longer immoral
Vietnam clamps down on prostitution
One of the themes running through those reports is the issue of how such behaviour should be dealt with: be tough and crack down? Or try a gentler approach? Or deny that there's anything wrong with it.
Prostitution and adultery are unsavoury topics and I wouldn't talk about them except that the Bible forces us to think about them - not least the book that we're beginning a series in this evening: the book of the prophet Hosea.
Tonight we look at 1.1 to 2.1. Please have that open in front of you. My title is 'A Marriage Made In Heaven'.
The thing about reading headlines on adultery and prostitution is that what they describe is at a safe distance from us. But how would you respond if the issue came closer to home? Maybe it already has in your experience in one way or another.
That, you see, is the issue that faces God. And I'm afraid that in this case, none of us can look on from a safe distance, tut-tutting with self-righteous indignation at what other people get up to, and lapping up every sordid detail. In this case, every one of us is implicated. Because in the book of Hosea, the relationship between God and his people is talked of as a marriage. But this is no fairy tale Cinderella-and-the-Prince story, with never a cloud on the horizon of their perfect happiness. Here the husband is faced with a wife who willingly prostitutes herself with other men.
This book is effectively the letter of a faithful and loving husband to his adulterous wife. The husband is God. The wife is God's people. That's a way of talking that's carried over into the New Testament. So, for instance, in Ephesians 5.25 Paul urges:
Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…
This wife is adulterous. And in one way or another, that's us. So Hosea is not comfortable reading. Tackling such issues head on in a marriage is a tough thing to do. The emotion that is unleashed is intense. The anger runs deep. Nerves endings are left raw and exposed. And humanly speaking the outcome is uncertain. The marriage could be left in tatters. Or maybe there is a way through. A hard road, especially for the faithful spouse. A road requiring profound heart-searching, honest facing up to the truth, and deep change on the part of the adulterer. That's what we have to be ready for if we're going to get to grips with the message of Hosea, as we'll see in more detail over the coming weeks.
What, then, is the message of Hosea? Well, my first heading is simply this:
First, THE UNFAITHFULNESS OF GOD'S PEOPLE
The first verse gives us the clues about the historical background that we need if we're going to make sense of this. Take a look:
The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Joash king of Israel.
This is direct communication from God. The start of verse 2 couldn't be clearer on that:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him…
So, just to make sure that we get the point, there's a threefold repetition just in the first one-and-a-bit verses that this is God speaking to and through Hosea.
And the lists of Kings' names are there not as a switch-off but to earth what is being said in a particular place and time. This is reality. So God spoke to Hosea about 750 years before Jesus was born. Let me outline what has been going on.
At that time the original country of Israel had split into two: the northern Kingdom still called Israel, and also referred to as Ephraim after one of its tribes, and the southern Kingdom called Judah after its main tribe. A bit like England and Scotland if the SNP had their way. Both had their own capital cities and kings.
Hosea lived in the north. He prophecied for about 25 years. At first Jeroboam II was king, and things were peaceful and prosperous during his long reign – at least on the surface. Under the surface, Israel was into a spiritual and moral nosedive. In religion, they were chasing after other so-called gods. They got tangled up in all kinds of dubious, dangerous and spiritually distracting power politics. And as far as the moral life of the nation was concerned, there was unbridled sex and violence. Sounds as if it could come straight out of our newspapers today doesn't it?
But they were riding for a fall, and when Jeroboam died, the crash came. Five kings followed in quick succession. Four of them were murdered. And then Israel was invaded for the last time by their aggressive superpower enemy, Assyria. The population was exiled. Israel effectively ceased to exist as a nation. For a while, Judah in the south carried on.
Those are the bald facts. What Hosea exposes is the relationship between God and his people that lies behind them. As for Hosea himself, we know little about him. What we do know is that he suffered the normal occupational hazard of being a prophet and God required him to make his very life a living visual aid of God's dealings with his people. Verse 2:
When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, "Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord." So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim…
Now you can't technically commit adultery before your married, but the fact is that this woman Gomer who Hosea married was not the kind of woman that your mother would be pleased to meet if you brought her home as her potential daughter-in-law. We're not told what Hosea's mum thought of her.
Gomer loved chasing after other men. And I'm not talking flirting here. Faithfulness was alien to her nature. And that, said God, is what my people – you lot – are like. Both Israel and Judah were guilty of idolatry and immorality, and not on one-off occasions but over and over and worse and worse. God's people were bound into an exclusive covenant relationship with God. God had given them everything they had and his love as well, and they couldn't care less. They took with both hands and then jumped into bed with whoever took their fancy.
The language God uses to describe them is graphic and strong. 'Vilest adultery' here. In 4.12, 'A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God.' 7.2, 'Their sins engulf them… They are all adulterers, burning like an oven …' 9.1, 'For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostiutute at every threshing floor.'
And it's not just them. The New Testament is clear, and our hearts bear witness when we face the truth, that this spirit of unfaithfulness is deep-seated within us all. That's what sin is. So the apostle Paul has to cry out to the young church in Galatia, newly married, as it were, to Christ:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.
In other words they were engaging in vile spiritual adultery. That's Galatians 1.6. And spiritual adultery gives rise to actual immorality. So later in that same letter, in 5.15, Paul warns them:
If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
And for instance he has to say to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 5.1):
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not even occur among pagans.
You can see the symptoms of that 'vilest adultery in departing from the Lord' in the life of our own nation. Church attendance is less than a quarter of what it was 150 years ago – and even then things were bad enough, and most people stayed away and didn't gather publically to worship the living God. Crime rates have soared. More than a third of all childbirths are outside marriage. Immorality is celebrated continually in our media. The church compromises on the uniqueness of Christ and the sanctity of marriage. Do you think God would tell Hosea to soften his tone if he were amongst us today, because things are no longer as bad? I don't think so.
And it's not just 'them out there' is it? We need to search our own hearts. We need to realise the seriousness of our own sin. We need to have a well developed sense of shame. It is the very shamelessness of our society that is so frightening because so dangerous. It's as if we put our hands into the fire and no longer feel the pain. We need to pray that God will not spare us the pain of seeing the reality of our sin. Only then will we continually look to Jesus as our remedy.
The unfaithfulness of God's people is the first thing we need to understand from Hosea. The second is this:
Secondly, THE FIERCE ANGER OF GOD
Not only must we realise how deeply serious is our sin. We must also face up to God's reaction to it. Yesterday there was a marriage here. We heard this vow being made:
Will you love him, comfort him, honour and protect him, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live? I will.
That's what marriage is all about. Now let me just ask you this. Whatever your actual situation, imagine yourself to be a husband - a loving, faithful husband who over many years has done everything he can for the good of his wife. Then imagine that your wife is consistently and cynically unfaithful, taking everything she can get from you and spending all your money without a word of gratitude, shamelessly chasing after other men, having children by her lovers and leaving you to care for them. How would you react? If ever there was a situation in which righteous anger was justified, that must be it.
Now transfer that to the relationship between God and his people. Every husband is deeply flawed – but God is not. And what God's people owe to him goes far beyond kindness and money in the bank, even to life itself. So multiply the provocation a million times and more. Then you have just an inkling of what God is faced with.
And how does he react? First of all with fierce anger. Righteous anger. And it's anger that drives what happens next in the living visual aid of Hosea and Gomer's marriage. The anger isn't mentioned here, though it's obvious enough under the surface. Later in the book God speaks about it himself. For instance, in 5.10:
"I will pour out my wrath on them like a flood of water."
And in 11.9, even as he chooses not to follow it through , the Lord says:
"I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim."
Does God have the right to destroy his people in the face of their vile adultery? Yes, of course. Would it be just for him to do so? Yes, of course. Will he turn his anger aside? Yes he will, as we know. And we'll come to that. But we'll never understand the extent of God's grace if we haven't seen what God has saved us from through Jesus. So this painful life of Hosea's continues and the children carry a message about God's fierce anger and the just consequence of it in their names.
There are three children. The first is named 'Jezreel'. 1.3-5:
So [Hosea] married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son [this one at least, it seems, is Hosea's child]. Then the Lord said to Hosea, "Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel. In that day I will break Israel's bow in the Valley of Jezreel."
It was at Jezreel that Jehu had assassinated the King of Israel and lead a bloody coup to establish himself on the throne. This is rather like President Bush calling his son 'Kandahar' while he waits to bring Bin Laden to justice. God's judgement will come.
The second child is called 'Lo-Ruhamah'. 1.6:
Gomer conceived again [notice no mention here of bearing Hosea a son – maybe even Gomer didn't know who the father was] and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, "Call her Lo-Ruhamah, for I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them.."
'Lo-Ruhamah' means 'Not Loved'. How about that for the name of a child. God's patience with Israel had run out. But that wasn't the end of it.
There was a third child, 'Lo-Ammi'. 1.8-9:
After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. Then the Lord said, "Call him Lo-Ammi, for you are not my people, and I am not your God."
'Lo-Ammi' means 'Not My People'. That is, if I can put it this way, a complete retraction of God's marriage vows to his people. They have broken the covenant. God's patience has run out. Judgement will fall on the nation. And it did. Assyria destroyed it. Even that disaster, though, was not the end, as we shall see. But first we need to recognise that God's anger is not just an Old Testament theme. God's anger against sin is a consistent theme of the New Testament as well. Just one example - Romans 1.18:
The wrath [in other words, anger] of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.
So what should our response be to God's fierce anger? We need to recognise the depth and justice of God's hatred of sin. And we need quite simply to fear the consequences of his anger. That's not the last word. But we can't hear the last word unless we've heard that one first.
So we've seen, first, the unfaithfulness of God's people. Secondly, we've seen the fierce anger of God. But we have to see also a third thing that cannot be kept down. In the end it comes to be the dominant theme of Hosea, as we'll see over the coming weeks. So:
Thirdly, THE FAITHFUL LOVE OF GOD
You see, the Lord has every right to destroy his people utterly because of the way they've behaved towards him. That goes for the people of Israel and Judah. It goes for the whole of humanity. And it goes for the church as well. None of us is innocent. None of us is pure. We have all broken our covenant with God and forfeited our right to life.
But God will not let us go. His love for us is such that he is not prepared to see his people destroyed for ever. He is the faithful husband who will not give up on his wife for all her vile adultery.
The first sign of hope here is in 1.7, where Judah is at least for now spared the judgement that falls on Israel in the north:
[God says,] "Yet I will show love to the house of Judah; and I will save them – not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but by the Lord their God.
Military firepower would do them no good, but God would save them.
But then at the end of the chapter an even more astonishing reversal is promised. 1.10 – 2.1:
"Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people', they will be called 'sons of the living God'. The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out the land for great will be the day of Jezreel. Say of your brothers, 'My people', and of your sisters, 'My loved one.'
Do you see how massive that promise is? A numberless people, united with one another, united around one leader, united with God, forgiven and restored, the marriage covenant between God and his people reinstated. There's only one way that's going to be fulfilled, and that's by looking on into the New Testament and the coming of Christ. So the apostle Peter says to all those who have faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile (this is 1 Peter 2.9-10):
But you are a chosen people, … a people belonging to God, … Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
God gave us his son, and at the cross the fierce anger of God was poured out on him as our representative and our substitute. God rescued us from his coming anger.
There was a TV dramatisation the other day about Ernest Shackleton. In 1914 he lead an expedition to the Antarctic, intending to be the first to cross it. Their ship, the Endeavour, was destroyed by ice. The men were trapped on the ice with just three small boats. But Shackleton was determined they wouldn't die. He risked his life to go for help hundreds of miles in one of the boats with a handful of men. The rest waited behind, with no other option but to depend on Shackleton. Shackleton nearly died. But they made it. Eventually, everyone was rescued. Shackleton loved his men and would not let them perish. Even the photographs survived.
On a different scale altogether, God loves his people and will not let them perish. Shackleton lead his expedition into deadly peril. We are responsible for our own. But God will not let his beloved people perish. Such is the faithful love of God.
How should we react to it? We should respond to God's letter of warning and of love – this letter – and turn away from our sin. We should reform our ways with his help. We should rejoice in his mercy. We should return his love. And we should long for the day when the John's vision of Revelation 21.2-3 becomes reality:
I saw the Holy City the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.".