In many ways grace is what the book of Hosea is about. Although Israel is consistently unfaithful and turns to idols and other nations for help instead of turning to their God, His heart is broken and He longs for their true return.
Our problem is that we don’t take sin seriously enough and our repentance, therefore, is insufficient. We heard the words of Israel’s repentance last week. They certainly sounded good.
1 “Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. 2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. 3 Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth.”
In these verses they express their intention to turn back to God for healing, expecting that He would revive them. They believed that if they pressed on to know Him, He would return to them. But, alas, their repentance never addressed their sin. Sure, they wanted healing, but didn’t ask for forgiveness. They wanted their circumstances fixed, but left their sin intact.
Listen to Yahweh’s response to this seemingly good repentance:
4 “What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. 5 Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth— then my judgments go forth like the sun. 6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
In this text Yahweh speaks of his frustration with the transitory devotion of Israel (v. 4). He then declares this is the reason for issuing judgments against them (v. 5) and proclaims that what He really wants is loyal love, not outward shows of religious zeal (v. 6).
You can hear the frustration, the cry of exasperated love in Yahweh’s voice. G. Campbell Morgan calls this paragraph “The Difficulty of God.”
“What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah?
One must not miss this outburst of emotion, like an anguished father not knowing what to do with his wayward child, or a husband agonizingly frustrated with his promiscuous bride (cf. 11:8; Luke 15:20).
Campbell Morgan notes how startling this question is:
I can understand a man saying, What shall I do to be saved? But here is God saying, What shall I do to save him? This is not the cry of the human soul seeking after God. It is the cry of God seeking after the human soul. This is not the picture of a man in difficulty because he cannot find God. It is the picture of God in difficulty because He cannot deal with man.
Both kingdoms were equally exasperating to God.
It is as if God should say, I have done my utmost, as in Isaiah 5:5 (where Yahweh expresses his consternation over a vineyard, a symbol of Israel, that produces only rotten grapes), Micah 5:3, and now am I at a standstill, and can scarce tell what to do more. Again, it is like Jesus’ cry in Matthew 23:37…
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.
As the loving hen is always caring for her chickens, and calling them about her, that she may gather and guard them from the mischief of all predators; but they will persistently be straggling, and so perish; so if God’s people will not listen to his voice, if Israel will have none of him, what can he do less than give them up to their own hearts’ lusts?
He is perturbed at their seeming inability to acknowledge their sins and truly return to Him. Because they were ungrateful of His blessings, they failed to love Him in return; instead loving other gods.
Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.
They declared their love, and they showed it…but for a brief moment. Then they were on to their next sin, their next love affair with another god. Like us, it was not that there was no faithfulness at all, just barely any at all.
As John Trapp says…
In a word, they were both false and fickle, unsteady and unstable, constant only in their inconstancy. Hence this pathetic complaint of them; God knew not where to have them, and therefore not what to do with them.
This pathetic pattern of loyalty-disloyalty-punishment had lodged in Israel’s psyche since the days of the Judges. Now, however, this malignancy of disloyalty had spread throughout the nation.
It is good to have mountain top experiences, those moments of ecstasy, but what God wants is the slow, constant producing of fruit in our lives. When we trust in those brief, beautiful moments, then God says, “What else can I do with you?”
Growing out of verse 3, there is a striking contrast between Yahweh’s hesed, which rises like the sun, and Israel’s, which disappears like the morning dew.
The word “love” in v. 4 is hesed, the word that describes loyal love, covenant faithfulness, devotedness. It is not the presence of sin that so perturbs Yahweh, but the absence of love.
Whatever faithfulness and devotion there was, quickly evaporated like the morning dew in summer. It is as ephemeral as a cloud, quickly blown away. Yes, both can be beautiful, but neither is constant.
Genuine repentance has an abiding element.
The only real hope for Israel is their Messiah, Jesus Christ. But before Yahweh would send His Son, He sent His prophets.
5 Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth— then my judgments go forth like the sun.
Throughout history God had sent them prophets to turn them back to Yahweh. The priests had failed them, now the prophets have been sent to them. God’s judgment goes out as a light, exposing their sins and idolatries.
The prophets would come, wielding the Word like a sword, bringing judgment and hope. Hosea probably had in mind those earlier prophets of Israel, such as Elijah, Ahijah, Micaiah ben Imlah—prophets whose words were a sword.
The words of verse 6 take us back to the time of Samuel, while the “cutting in pieces” fits the time of Elijah. It merely shows that faithfulness has been a longstanding problem with Israel.
By the way, the statement “my judgments go forth like the sun” is ironic, given the fact that Israel’s promise of return in vv. 1-3 depended upon Him coming to them “as the sun rises.” What they hoped would bring healing, would instead bring judgment…at least for the immediate future.
The prophets would preach the word. It is the Word of God that is powerful. Hebrews 4:12 says…
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Just as a surgeon’s scalpel lays bare the flesh and organs, in order to bring healing, so God’s Word penetrates even deeper, into the soul and spirit, able to “judge the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” It exposes our motives behind our actions.
Jeremiah spoke of God’s Word as like a hammer; breaking the rock in pieces, like a winnow, separating wheat and chaff; like a consuming fire, destroying the chaff (Jere. 23:28ff). The Word of God itself is performative (or in the words of Andersen and Freedman, “almost autonomous”), carrying within itself the power to transform. Isaiah 55:10-11…
10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
All we must do is preach the word, and it will do the work. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, once said…
“Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble…. I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.”
Isaiah goes on to describe the kind of transformation that the Word of God can effect:
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the LORD’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.”
It is impossible for a juniper to come from a thornbush, or a myrtle from thistles, but God’s Word can change the very nature of things, or people. All we have to do is preach it.
Paul David Tripp, encouraging (and admonishing) pastors in his book Dangerous Calling, says,
The picture here is of fundamental, specific, and personal transformation. When the Word of God, faithfully taught by the people of God and empowered by the Spirit of God, falls down, people become different. Lusting people become pure, fearful people become courageous, thieves become givers, demanding people become servants, angry people become peacemakers, complainers become thankful, and idolaters come to joyfully worship the one true God (p. 51).
So God had sent Israel prophets. Unfortunately, the words of the prophets sent to Israel were more judgment than transformation. Their words were “deadly” and possibly refer to the covenant curses of Deuteronomy 30.
Yet what Israel found refuge in was religion, religious practices. But Yahweh is always more concerned with reality over ritual, with relationship over religion. Hosea 6:6 says…
6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Andersen and Freedman note that the emotional verb “I desire” matches the early emotional expressions of disappointment and anguish (v. 4).
It is not that God wanted to do away with the sacrificial system (that would come later), but He is illustrating the higher importance of what goes on in the heart. As Yahweh looked at their multiple sacrifices He saw no “loyal love” (this is the same word used in v. 4) and no real “acknowledgement” of God.
Sacrifices were meaningless, even offensive, unless offered out of a heart of love that demonstrated obedience to God’s Word (cf. 1 Sam. 15:22; Isa. 1:11-17; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Matt. 9:13; 12:7).
Jesus twice quoted this passage of Hosea to the religious leaders of His day (Matthew 9:13 and 12:7). They also missed the heart of God, focusing on the wrong and superficial things. Israel brought animals for sacrifice, but they never brought themselves as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). They missed what God really wants: a deep, close relationship with Him.
God wanted steadfastness over sacrifice and faithfulness over formality. What they were doing, practicing rituals without real devotion, was meaninglessness and hypocritical.
Both Isaiah and Malachi called a stop to such sacrifices, because they were nauseating to God. In Isaiah 1, Isaiah says…
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 14 Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!
Isaiah’s next words were a call to urgent repentance.
David recognized the greater value of a repentant heart over ritual sacrifices when he wrote (Psalm 51):
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
Again, the prophets are not opposed to acts of worship, but merely recognizing that without a heart of loyal love behind it, it is worth nothing.
As Duane Garrett says…
In modern language one might appropriately rephrase this verse as: “I desire devotion and not hymn-singing, service and not sermons,” without thereby concluding that hymns and sermons were evil.
Or, in the words of Andersen and Freedman, “sacrifice is not denigrated; it is simply put in second place.”
Think about that as you worship this Sunday. Whether you sing hymns or praise songs, is your heart engaged? Are you singing from a heart that is deeply in love with Jesus, deeply grateful for all that He has done for you? Are you singing from a heart ecstatic that your sins are forgiven?
Can you sing “I Surrender All” and really mean it?
This is what Yahweh looked for in Israel and Judah, and what Jesus looks for in us today. He wants us to worship Him “in spirit and truth.”
Henry and Richard Blackaby, in their Experiencing God Day-by Day devotional, say…
No amount of activity for God will ever take the place of a heart that is right with Him. Through the ages God’s people have been persuaded that they could please Him through their service and their offerings, regardless of their heart condition. King Saul offered generous sacrifices, hoping God would overlook his disobedience (1 Samuel 15:22-23). David may have assumed that after all he had done on God’s behalf, God would overlook his sin (2 Samuel 12:7-15). Ananias and Sapphira thought that their generous gift to the church would compensate for their deceitfulness (Acts 5:1-11). Paul was certainly one who had thought his zealousness would please God. After his conversion, however, he concluded that even if he had faith to remove mountains, gave all he had to feed the poor, and offered his body to be burned for the sake of God, and yet had a heart that was not right, it would all be for nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).
We are susceptible to the same misunderstanding as all of these people were. We can be deceived into assuming God is more interested in our activity for Him than He is in the condition of our heart. But His desire is that we devote ourselves to knowing Him and loving Him with all of our hearts.