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 today: the book of the prophet Hosea. This morning we look at Hosea 1.1 - 2.1. Please have that open in front of you.
Those frequent headlines in the press with stories about adultery and prostitution are at a safe distance from us. But how would we respond if the issue came closer to home? Maybe it already has in our 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. And 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's unleashed is intense. The anger runs deep. Nerve 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:
1. 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, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the 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 first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea…"
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 prophesied 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. But they were riding for a fall, and when Jeroboam died, the crash came. 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.
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. Verses 2-3:
"When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, "Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by foresaking the Lord." So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim…"
So 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 are like. 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 the behaviour of his people is graphic and strong. 'Whoredom' here:
"…a spirit of whoredom has lead them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore." (Hosea 4.12)
"They are all adulterers; they are like a heated oven …" (Hosea 7.4)
"for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. You have loved a prostitute's wages on all threshing floors." (Hosea 9.1)
And it's not just them. The New Testament is clear, and our hearts bear witness when we face up to 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 (Galatians 1.6-7):
"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one…"
In other words, they were engaging in spiritual adultery. You can see the symptoms of that 'great whoredom by forsaking the Lord' in the life of our own nation. Church attendance has collapsed. 48% of all childbirths are outside of marriage, up from 5% in the 1950s. There were 190,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2016. Immorality is celebrated 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's 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:
2. 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 righteous anger that drives what happens next in the living visual aid of Hosea and Gomer's marriage. 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 their 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'. Hosea 1.3-4:
"So [Hosea] want and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son [this one at least, it seems, is Hosea's child]. And the Lord said to him, "Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel."
It was at Jezreel that Jehu had killed the King of Israel and lead a bloody coup to establish himself on the throne. God's judgement will come. The second child is called 'No Mercy'. Verse 6:
"She conceived again and bore a daughter. [Notice no mention here of bearing Hosea a child – maybe even Gomer didn't know who the father was.] And the Lord said to him, "Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all.""
'No Mercy' – 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, 'Not My People'. Verses 8-9:
"When she had weaned No Mercy, [Gomer] conceived and bore a son. And the Lord said, "Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God."
'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 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:
"For the wrath [in other words, anger] of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth."
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:
3. 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 whoredom. The first sign of hope here is in verse 7, where Judah is at least for now spared the judgement that falls on Israel in the north. God says:
"But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen."
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. Hosea 1.10 – 2.1:
"Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place it was said to them, "You are not my people" it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God." And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel." Say to your brothers, "You are my people", and to your sisters, "You have received mercy.""
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 race, … a people for his own possession, … Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; 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. God loves his people and will not let them perish. We are responsible for our own sin. 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 John's vision of Revelation 21.2-3 becomes reality:
"And I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.""