Love That Will Not Let Me Go, part 1 (Hosea 14:1-3)

One of the things I love about the parable of the prodigal son is that it communicates the message: It’s always OK to come home.”  But coming home involved repentance on the part of the younger son.  In order to come home, we have to truly repent of our sins.

In Hosea 14 there is a call to come home and that call to come home must pass through the process of genuine repentance.  There is no other way.

Fortunately there is a way, a way out of our present predicament, a way beyond the level of our personal efforts.  Here in Hosea 14 we see Yahweh through Hosea calling the people to turn back, to make an about face and return to him.

It is the normal pattern for the Hebrew prophets to predict coming judgment but ultimate hope.  Hosea is not out of character here.  He has spent many chapters nailing Israel to the wall.  Their sins would be punished.  But beyond punishment lay hope.  Listen to the words of Hosea 14:

1 Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. 2 Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. 3 Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” 4 I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 6 his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. 7 They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. 8 O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit. 9 Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.

This is our last chapter in the book of Hosea.

Charles Spurgeon remarks on this chapter:

“This is a wonderful chapter to be at the end of such a book. I had never expected from such a prickly shrub to gather so fair a flower, so sweet a fruit; but so it is: where sin abounded, grace doth much more abound. No chapter in the Bible can be more rich in mercy than this last of Hosea; and yet no chapter in the Bible might, in the natural order of things, have been more terrible in judgment. Where we looked for the blackness of darkness, behold a noontide of light!” (Charles Spurgeon)

David Hubbard summarizes what we’ve seen in Hosea so far.  He points to the threats of judgment that have built up in the third section of Hosea (11:12-13:16), announcing a total and irreparable judgment that was soon upon them.

Here, in Hosea 14, Hosea is speaking to Israel’s distant future.  “His hope is that the divine constancy that has insisted on punishing a people who have abandoned their calling will reveal God’s holy love in forgiveness when the tattered remnant of the people seek it.  His approach to the future, there begins with a call to return (14:1-3), spelling out in detail the steps Israel must take to leave the days of judgment behind and move towards reconciliation.  That call is complimented by a record of God’s response in the form of a love song (14:4-8)” (David Hubbard, Hosea, p. 237).

Each term in the call to return (14:1-3) is chosen to recall and distill major aspects of Hosea’s messages to Israel.

This appeal is made to “Israel,” the nation.  We know from Israel’s history that Hosea’s generation of Israelites did not repent, but nevertheless, God’s invitation was open and genuine.  They cast off their God, but God did not cast off His people, whom He foreknew (Rom. 11:2).

The word “return” has been the characteristic way of stating God’s unfulfilled desire for Israel throughout the book (2:7, 9; 3:5; 5:4; 7:10, 16: 11:5; 12:6).  It is an old friend of Hosea.  He uses it twenty five times throughout his book.  But, as Derek Kidner aptly states: “Up to now it has brought only disappointment and reproach” (The Message of Hosea, pp. 120-121).

This word occurs four times in this concluding chapter (vv. 1, 2, 4, 7), expressing Yahweh’s longsuffering heart for Israel, as well as standing in contrast to the half-hearted return which Israel proposed in the earlier song in Hosea 6:1-3.  Remember that passage, the unfulfilled hope that it portrays?

1 “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.  2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. 3 Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”

How promising that had sounded!  But Yahweh saw right through the pretense and shallowness.

4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?  What shall I do with you, O Judah?  Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. 5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

The reality is that Israel had persistently turned the wrong way, away from the Lord, as Hosea had described in 11:7

7 My people are bent on turning away from me

Although the term “backsliding” has been used to describe such a disloyalty, the reality is that this was not an accidental mistake, but a perverse and stubborn treachery, born of pride (7:10) and a settled preference for their sin (5:4).  That is why Yahweh knew that any attempts at repentance now was false.

Yahweh is named specifically as the destination of their return (“Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God…”) because Israel’s confusion as to his nature and exclusive sovereignty over Israel has been the bone of contention between the prophet and people (cf. 2:16-17, where the very names of the Baals have to be eradicated in order that Yahweh’s true lordship be honored).

That exclusive right to their loyalty is driven home more forcefully by the addition, “the LORD your God…” (cf. 12:9 for this same self-introduction).

The need for return is expressed in the terms “stumbling” and “iniquity.”  That they have “stumbled” indicates the multiplicity of consequences that have accrued upon this defiant people, whose whole existence had become unstable and treacherously dangerous.

Sin makes life harder, as Jeremiah describes:

18:15 But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway,

Later, Isaiah would tell Judah that the same fate had befallen them:

Isaiah 3:8 For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the LORD, defying his glorious presence.

And even more graphic is Isaiah 59:10

10 We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor we are like dead men.

This word has been used twice before in Hosea in criticizing the attitude and actions of his people. In the first instance Hosea had challenged and condemned the priests as those most responsible for society’s spiritual infidelity and immoral behavior. For they have misled the people with their syncretistic teachings (Hos. 4:4-5).  In the following chapter (5:1-5) Hosea broadened the condemnation to include not only priests but also the upper class of society, especially those from the tribe of Ephraim (vv. 4-5).

They have all stumbled.

Given the paths they chose, Israel simply could not walk steadily and uprightly.  What they tripped over was their own iniquity.  According to Hosea 4:8 and 13:12, Ephraim was clinging to their iniquities as if they were priceless treasures.

The word “iniquity” itself has a sense of crookedness, which naturally causes stumbling.  “With a whole repertoire of terms at his disposal, Hosea chose this as the most encompassing and effective way of describing the endemic and manifold evil he decried.”

Again, this word “return” is used 4 times in this concluding chapter of Hosea’s prophecy.  First, Hosea calls his people to repent (vv. 1-2).  Then, Yahweh promises that his anger will turn (the same Hebrew word) from them (v. 4) and that the people would eventually return to Yahweh for their protection (v. 7).

The terms of a genuine return are listed in vv. 2-3:

2 Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. 3 Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.”

While we may be tempted to say “words are cheap,” they still reflect the reality that repentance involves a verbal confession.

The worship of the Israelites at this time was full of action—sacrificing to Baal, so Yahweh calls them to respond to him in words.  It is through heartfelt words that they would return to the Lord.

This is the same idea that Paul expressed in Romans 10:8-10But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. God commands us to communicate with Him in words, not only ideas or feelings or actions.

So E. B. Pusey says…

  1. “He bids them not bring costly offerings, that they might regain His favor; not whole burnt offerings of bullocks, goats or rams; with which, and with which alone, they had before gone to seek Him [cf. 5:6]; not the silver and gold which they had lavished on their idols; but what seems the cheapest of all, which any may have, without cost to their substance; words; worthless, as mere words; precious when from the heart; words of confession and prayer, blending humility, repentance, confession, entreaty and praise of God.” (1:136)

Some believe that the words are words of confession.  We know from the Greek language that confession meaning “saying the same thing.”  In particular, confessing our sins means that we say about our sins what God has said about them.

We don’t excuse them, minimize them, rename them, we acknowledge that we have sinned sins which God has condemned.  Possibly the best example of a confession in Scripture is found in Achan’s confession:

20 And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: 21 when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them.  And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

Achan acknowledged that he had indeed sinned against Yahweh and describes exactly what he did, including the motivation (“I coveted them”) as well as the actual sin (“took them”).

Of course, David speaks about his confession in Psalms 32 and 51.

We are encouraged to confess our sins in 1 John 1:9

9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Clearly, confessing our sins is a normal part of the act of repentance.

But most commentators believe we should treat “take with you words” as if it had a colon after it and the contents of the rest of vv. 2 and 3 are the actual things they were to say to Yahweh.

The first cry of their hearts will be “take away all iniquity.”  The word “all” comes first in this sentence, emphasizing the extent of their iniquity and completeness of the forgiveness they desired.

“The forgiveness pled for her is precisely what was denied in 1:6 and can be offered now only because judgment is complete.  Forgiveness deprived of justice would be a travesty of divine righteousness.  As 1 John 1:9 puts it ‘he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins.’  The cross is the ground of forgiveness because it is also the seat of judgment.” (David Hubbard, Hosea, p. 239).

We are forgiven not because God winks at our sin, but because our sin was judged on the cross.  Jesus paid the cost in full and God’s justice was satisfied.

“Accept what is good” is notoriously difficult to translate in Hebrew, but it seems to suggest  the desire that Yahweh would take what was good in their confession at face value, even if not all of it was commendable.  Their confession was well meant and to be trusted.  Their prayer and praise were now “purged of the evil influence of Baalism” (Duane Garrett, Hosea-Joel, p. 271).

The next clause is also difficult to translate, but the idea seems to be to pay God with the fruit of our lips.  “The prayer here is that God would pardon their transgressions and accept their prayers and praise as acceptable and good rather than reject them as tarnished by sin” (Duane Garrett, Hosea-Joel, p. 271).  It describes a commitment to fulfill the promises they are making.

The three pledges of verse 3 wrap up the major needs of reform.  Each contains the word not and represents a turning in Israel’s behavior.

“Assyria shall not save us” is both a fact and a commitment.  The silly dove has finally come to his senses and ceased his flitting (7:11); the unturned loaf of bread is finally done to a turn (7:8); the chronic sufferer has decided at last to change doctors (5:13); the wild ass is seeking to eat from the Trainer’s hand (8:9); the true identity of the Great King has been discovered, and his palace is not on the Tigris (5:13; 10:6).

The clause “we will not ride on horses” makes sense when we recognize the military significance of horses (cf. 1:7; Joel 2:4).  This is therefore a graphic way of denouncing all trust in military might for survival or expansion (cf. 8:14; 10:14).  Since the kings and the military commanders are often linked in Hosea as sources of national weakness or wickedness (7:7, 16; 8:4, 10; 10:3; 13:9-11), this vow may carry with it an unspoken commitment to a different role for the monarchy, as had been hinted at in 1:11 and 3:5.

Finally, “and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands” show their renouncing their former trust in idols.  The phrase “the work of our hands” epitomizes the folly of idolatry as Hosea saw it: human beings worshiping what they outrank; “they use the creativity granted to them by their Creator, in whose image they are made, to fashion images to pray to—a blatant case of a creator bowing before a creature and hence turning all of reality topsy-turvy (cf. on 2:8; 4:12; 8:5-6; 13:1-2).  The tragedy is that the idol lacks the capacity of inter-personal exchange: We may say ‘Our God’ to what we make; it can never say ‘my people’ to us (cf. 2:23)” (Hubbard, Hosea, p. 240).

The closing confession “In you the orphan finds mercy” heads us full circle back to the opening of the book.  It says, in effect, that Not-pitied is counting on divine pity and that Not-my-people orphaned by the severing of the covenant, is now trusting for restoration to the family (1:9-10; 2:23).

When we come to God with our words, it involves admitting the truth about ourselves and acknowledging the truth about God.  The truth is, as John Newton once said, “I am a great sinner, but I have a great Savior.”  And we, too, have been adopted into the family of God, never to be separated from His love.


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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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