“Let’s read the minor prophets,” said Zack. “Neither of us have.”
I did not want to read the prophets. Four hundred pages of “You broke the covenant, now wham! Terrible judgment is coming.” But Zack prevailed (I didn’t have much of a case to skip an entire genre of Scripture). We didn’t set out to do a detailed study, just to know what was written.
As we read through Hosea, the first minor prophet, I found a lens through which to read the rest of the prophets: God’s wrath is so great because his love is so great.
Hosea is best known for the love story between Hosea and Gomer. Did you know that the whole encounter is only the first three out of 14 chapters? I didn’t.
The book illustrates God’s great love for his people through several metaphors, beginning with the marriage of Hosea to the adulterous Gomer to symbolize God’s faithful love to faithless Israel, who were mixing pagan religion into the worship of the one true God. God goes on to call to Israel as a loving parent to his son (Hosea 11:1), a master tenderly hand-feeding his livestock (Hosea 11:4), and a farmer nurturing his plants (Hosea 9:10; 14:5).
The Lord through Hosea describes how he had pursued Israel before resorting to the dire judgment found in Hosea’s prophesies:
For she said, “I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” … And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hosea 2:5b, 8)
Can you hear the aching grief of a scorned lover? Even as Israel pursued false gods, the Lord had mercy—instead of raining down the covenant curses Israel deserved, he lavished love on them—and Israel attributed their comfort to the pagan fertility gods. Hosea recounts that “The more [Israel’s] fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars,” and while for a time God had mercifully withheld judgment, “now they must bear their guilt” (from Hosea 10:1-2).
The story of Hosea and Gomer is followed by seven chapters enumerating Israel’s sins and describing the judgment to come, coming to a devastating crescendo of utter desolation:
Therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil. At dawn the king of Israel shall be utterly cut off. (Hosea 10:14-15)
And then, in the very next verse, it’s as if the Lord of the universe’s voice breaks with grief. “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” he says, “and out of Egypt I called my son. … Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:1, 3). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob laments that after centuries of covenant relationship, it has come to this. He has wooed Israel as a lover, nurtured and raised them as a parent, and now he must discipline them as their God. Chapters 12 and 13 lay out Israel’s further sin and due judgment, and it is ugly and bloody and sad.
The book of Hosea concludes with an impassioned call to even now return to the Lord. He takes no delight in destroying his beloved (see Hosea 11:8) but desires to restore Israel to covenant relationship with himself. “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them,” the Lord promises. The heat of God’s anger is exactly equal to the fire of his love. If he loved his people less, their unfaithfulness to him would be less offensive. But his love is fierce, and thus so is his discipline.
Were God a human, we would label these swings from judgment to compassion capricious, even vindictive. But God reminds us that “I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). God is not lashing out at Israel in a rage; he is pursuing a relationship with his people, first through mercy, and now through discipline (Hosea 5:2; 7:12; 10:10).
Our Lord still pursues a relationship with his people, no longer through prophets but now through his Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:1). In Jesus’ perfect life on earth, we see what a life of covenant faithfulness would look like–and how short we fall in comparison. In Jesus’ death on our behalf, we see all the curses, all the divine wrath described in the prophets, that our sin still deserves. Under the new covenant we see God’s justice and his love united at the cross, as the wrath of God is poured out, not on us, the unfaithful ones, but on Jesus, God’s own son. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that we, the faithless ones, could be called the bride of Christ, and we, the ungrateful children, could be called the sons of God.
Zack and I are still working through the minor prophets. I’m still pretty intimidated by them. We often lean on our study Bible notes for historical context and interpretive support. There is a lot of judgment—but also a lot else: persistent faithfulness, deep mercy, and relentless love.
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