The Tragedy of God

The prophets saw the love of God, but saw too how Israel spurned it and refused to understand it. It must have been a tragic and awful experience. The prophets weren't satisfied just because a minority responded to their message of God's love. They were heartbroken because the majority rejected it. I suspect we tend to think that 1 response in 1000 is good, 1 in 10,000 isn’t bad. But what about the other 999, or 9,999, who receive our tracts, hit our web-sites, hear our witness - and don’t respond? Is our witness in the spirit of the prophets? Are we happy that the tiny minority respond, not sparing a thought for the tragedy of the majority who don’t? Not only their tragedy, but the tragedy for God?


The deathless love of Hosea for Gomer, the very intensity and height of it, in itself highlights the tragedy of God. That His love, yes, the passion and longing of God Himself, was rejected by His people. Consider how Hosea names the child, ‘Not my people’. Consider his hurt, to reject a child from his family. This was God’s hurt. God, like Hosea, had no other children, no other people. For God to say to Israel ‘You are not My people’ would leave God without a people, as it were alone in the earth. Hosea shared the tragic loneliness of God.

God at Stake

For Hebrew men like Hosea, the chastity of virgins and the faithfulness of wives were most important (cp. Dt. 22:13-30). And so, the point is being made, God values our faithfulness supremely. The man had a deep sense of shame before the whole world if the woman he trusted betrayed him (Jer. 2:37). The shame of God over Israel was before the whole cosmos, not just some village in Palestine. No wonder Jeremiah wept at the thought of what was being done to God in this way (Jer. 8:22-9:3). The image of the unfaithful wife played deeply on male fears of female sexuality. Hosea was a Hebrew male. They all feared their women in one way - that she might be unfaithful to them. And this was and is the fear of God for our sin, our unfaithfulness. The Jews who first heard Hosea and others would have been led into having sympathy with the man, agreeing that the punishment for the woman was appropriate to her sin (Jer. 2:30-37; 13:20-27). And yet, of course, the point was that it was they who were the woman in all of this. We’ve all seen jealous men in relationships, querying every one who calls their home number, wanting to know who the wife’s been out with… and on a far, far higher and altogether non petty level, this is the kind of God with whom we are in relationship.

Hosea2:7,12 reveals Hosea’s hurt and anger that his wife considered other men to be the providers of her food and needs; for this was his honour, to provide for his wife, not for other men to do so. And so we could say that in our unfaithfulness, in our turning to other supports other than Him… no less that God Himself is at stake. God is at stake. That’s how He sees it. That’s how much He’s risked Himself for us, when He need never have even gotten involved with us. No less than God Himself is at stake.

It's not only that God's essential 'Godhood' was at stake. Just as Hosea's great love for Gomer made him so obviously and tragically vulnerable, so God's love for us on this tiny planet has done the same for Him. A great lover is the most vulnerable of persons to hurt and depression. The tragedy of unrequited love is awful, biting in its tragedy. And the love of God, so infinitely above the dearest of human love, makes Him a vulnerable and potentially tragic figure, just as Hosea was. And yet Hosea's hope and fantasy will ultimately come true for God. The most broken of relationships, that between God and Israel, the deepest betrayal...will one day soon be gloriously resolved in a new world. And we are playing our parts towards that end; for if nothing else, we are called to be God's faithful Israel, His duteous wife... to make up for the mess His first woman made.

The Baal Cult: An Insult to God's Godhood and Hosea's Manhood

By allowing her lovers to provide her food and clothing, she was insulting her husband Hosea (Hos. 2:3-7). Our lack of faith that God really will provide, our seeking of those things from others apart from Him, is a similar insult to Him at the most essential level of His being and our relationship. The parallel in the God / Israel relationship is clear. The Baal cult was a fertility cult. The idea was that by sleeping with the temple prostitutes, Baal would provide fertility in family life and also good harvests and fullness of bread. Yet Yahweh was the giver of bread to Israel (Ex. 16:29 cp. Dt. 8:18; Ps. 136:25; Ps. 146:7). For Israel to trust Baal for these things was a denial of Him. Hos. 2:8 implies that Israel even called Yahweh “my Baal”. And so when Gomer participated in these fertility rituals, she was living out the very picture of Israel’s unfaithfulness to their God.

Israel’s mixture of Yahweh worship with Baal worship is demonstrated by the reference to their being “lovers of raisin cakes” (Hos. 3:1). According to 2 Sam. 6:19, these cakes appear to have been part of the legitimate worship of Yahweh - and yet in Song 2:5 they are referred to as an aphrodisiac. There was a heady mix of Yahweh worship with participation in the sexual rituals of the Baal cult. It was this mixture which was so abhorrent to God- and time and again, in essence, we likewise mix flesh and spirit. A brother may express the most awful hatred and spite in ‘upholding the faith’ against one whom he perceives as apostate and thus show the same mixture of flesh and spirit. A sister may indulge in gossip, kidding herself it’s all for the cause of Christian love and concern… and the examples multiply, hour by hour, in daily Christian experience. We see it again in Hos. 3:4: the people were using “cult pillars… ephods” in their Baal worship. The patriarchs set up pillars in faith; and an ephod was part of Yahweh worship. But yet again, the same external things were used in a wrong context with wrong motives.

The Pain of God

The Canaanite tribes spoke of how their gods were married to their land and would defend it. But the prophets, especially Hosea, reveal Yahweh as married to His people. “Thus says the Lord, O my dear people [bath ‘ami- as if they are God’s partner]… make mourning… for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us” (Jer. 6:22,26). God delicately speaks as if He is married to Israel and that even in their sufferings He would suffer with them, as a husband suffers with his wife. “The destroyer will come upon us”.

God left Himself as a mighty man that cannot save, as a wayfaring man wandering through His own deserted land (Jer. 14:8,9). “The Lord of hosts” even calls the mourning women to come “and raise a lament over us” (Jer. 9:17,18). The “us” is God and Israel. The tragedy is awful, beyond words. All commentary is bathos. His love is wondrous. “Thy love is better than life”, David said (Ps. 63:3)- ‘more than my own life do I value God’s love, hesed , covenant love, for me’. Indeed, Hosea’s reference to daath elohim, the knowledge of God, has been observed as strikingly intimate, hinting as it does of God ‘knowing’ His people and them knowing Him.It was that very “knowledge of God” which He desired, rather than burnt offerings (Hos. 6:6). For as Amos put it, “You only have I known…” (Am. 3:2). No wonder the prophets needed psychological strengthening to be able to share in these tragic feelings of God. But this was part of their spirit, and it is to be the spirit of our urgent appeal to men to respond in faithfulness to God’s love.

Struggle of God

Not only was God on the side of Israel’s enemies; yet through all that, He somehow was with Israel; quite simply, “God is with us”, even though it is He who encamps against them too (Is. 8:9,10; 18:4). The God of Auschwitz is somehow still the God of Israel. The very torment, even torture, of understanding that was etched clearly in the prophets, and it will be in us too, as we struggle with our understanding of the God of love who causes such awful tragedies in human experience.

Some of the finest descriptions of God’s coming Kingdom on earth, based around Jerusalem and the land of Israel, are to be found wedged between the most angry predictions of God’s wrath and judgment against His people. This in itself reflects the ‘two minds’ of God toward His people and the resulting tension within the prophet’s personality too; the ‘struggle’ between law and grace, between justice and mercy. Hosea especially mixes such prophecies, e.g. that God will “slay her with thirst”, rend her like a lion, with declarations that God passionately loves Israel as a lover who’ll forgive anything. The wrath of God, His grief at sin and being rejected, is intertwined with His amazing grace and love. That the extent of God’s anger arises from the degree of His love is perhaps reflected in the way the Hebrew words for “lover” and “hater” are so closely related - oheb and oyeb. Hos. 2:9 appears to make a word play based around this. The gravity and emotional enormity of each ‘side’ of the total equation, the huge tension of the equilibrium that keeps them in perfect balance in God’s character and words, was reflected in the prophets personally; and it will be in us too.

But when Lo-ammi was born and named “ye are not my people”, immediately the prophet is inspired to make a tender prophecy of Israel’s final glory: “Ye are not my people, and I will not be your God. Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea…it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God” (Hos. 1:9,10; another example is in 12:8,9; 13:8,9). The word to circle in our Bibles is “yet”. In the face of all Israel’s sin, in the face of the inevitable judgment which this attracted, in the very moment when it is declared, God goes on to speak of His loving salvation. This is so hard for humans to take on board, called as we are to manifest this same grace of God. In the heat of the moment of others’ sin against us, we rarely find it in us to think, let alone speak, of their ultimate hope of salvation by grace. But this is the challenge of Hosea.  

The tension within God is apparent, Hosea’ is the clearest on this. God wants nothing more to do with His adulterous people and then He pleads with them to come back to Him, breaking His own law, that a put-away woman can’t return to her first husband. “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?... mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together” (Hos. 11:8). And Jeremiah has more of the same: “How can I pardon you… shall I avenge myself on a nation such as this? Shall I not punish them for these things?” (Jer. 5:7-9,28,29). God reveals Himself as oscillating between punishing and redeeming, judging sin and overlooking it. God is open to changing His stated plans (e.g. to destroy Nineveh within forty days, to destroy Israel and make of Moses a new nation). He isn’t like the Allah of Islam, who conducts a monologue with his followers; the one true God of Israel earnestly seeks dialogue with His people, and as such He enters into all the contradictory feelings and internal debates which dialogue involves. ‘God loves the sinner and hates the sin’ has always seemed to me problematic, logically and practically. Love is in the end a personal thing; in the end love and hate are appropriate to persons, not abstractions. And the person can’t so easily be separated from their actions. Ultimately, it is persons who will be saved or condemned. The prophets reveal both the wrath and love of God towards His people, in the same way as a parent can feel both wrath and love towards their beloved.

Reflecting the Struggle of God

God’s threats to punish His people and His desire to forgive them don’t somehow cancel each other out as in an equation. They exist within the mind of God in a terrible tension. He cries out through Hosea of how His many ‘repentings’ are “kindled together” as He struggles within Himself to give up His people as He has threatened (Hos. 11:8). And this struggle was reflected within the emotions and through the speeches / writings / poetry of Hosea. Hosea’s speeches have an air of turbulence and struggle about them, which reflected the spirit / mind of the God who inspired him. The very way he was told to marry, in marked contrast to Jeremiah who was told not to marry (Jer. 16), perhaps indicates the duality of God’s feelings toward Israel - a desire to marry them and yet not to do so. The extent of God's wrath with Israel, and His harsh, angry language against her, was an outcome of His love for her. "For the wrath of God is the love of God", wrote Emil Brunner long ago. It's like when we see a child run out in front of a car and narrowly escape death; the mother is angry and shouts at the child, whilst we the, unlookers, breathe a prayer of thanks to God in much calmer terms. And this may help explain to us what appears the harder side of God at times.

Let’s remember that God’s own law was pretty clear about adultery. The adulterous woman was to be punished with death - for one act of adultery. Even if she repented. And in any case, it was a defiling abomination [according to the Mosaic Law] to remarry a divorced wife. But here in Hosea, Hosea doesn’t keep the law. He lets his wife commit multiple acts of adultery, and he still loves her and pleads with her - even though he was a man in love with God’s law. And this reflects the turmoil of God in dealing with human sin, and His sinful people. Hosea outlines his plan in Hosea 2. He will hamper her movements so she can’t find her lovers; if she does find them, he will take away her food and clothing, so she appreciates his generosity to her; and if she still doesn’t return, he will expose her naked and shamed in front of her lovers. But there’s no evidence Hosea ever did that. He just… loved her, was angry with her as an expression of that love, loved her yet more, yet more… And this perhaps, too, reflects God’s mind - devising and declaring judgments for Israel, which are themselves far less than what He has earlier stated in His own law, and yet the power of His love means He somehow keeps bearing with His people. Even in the context of speaking of His marriage to Israel, God says that He will punish them "as women that break wedlock are judged" (Ez. 16:38; 23:45). And yet, He didn't. His love was too great, His passion for them too strong; and He even shamed Himself by doing what His own law forbad, the remarriage to a divorced and defiled wife. Perhaps all love involves a degree of paradox and self-contradiction; and a jealous, Almighty God in love was no different. This, to me, is why some Bible verses indicate God has forsaken Israel; and others imply He hasn’t and never will. Somehow, even right now, the Jews you meet… are loved still by their God. And he still fantasizes, in a way, over their return to Him. Imagine His utter joy when even one of them does in fact turn to Him! That alone motivates me to preach to Israel today.

There is within every valid relationship an element of love/hate, patience/frustation, anger and yet also the tenderest love. And so it really was and is in God’s relationship with Israel. His love, patience and tenderness are, however, the dominant emotions; and it is these which are brought together in that wonderful final chapter of Hosea. There as we read,, we feel caught up in the passion of God’s love for His people. He has expressed the love and anger, the justice and grace, the truth and mercy, throughout the book. And now He pours out that love, contradicting His former angry judgments, picking up the words He has used and turning them right around. He has told them He won’t love them any more, but then concludes, that He will love them freely. He would give them the valley of Achor - symbol and epitome of their miserable failure toward Him, a place best forgotten in their history - as a door of hope. And she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, when she came up out of Egypt (2:15).

And so as you cough and hack your way through the routines of this monotonous life, know that there is a God above who passionately watches for your every move towards Him, who woos you to Him, as He seeks to allure Israel back to Him (2:14). When you decide, or don’t decide, to make that effort to get up earlier to pray more, to read, to meditate; when you weigh up whether or not to give something of ‘yours’ to Him; He is there watching as it were on the edge of His seat. This is the thrill of a living relationship with Him.

The Pain of our Sin

The reality was that Gomer was sexually addicted. She was a prostitute before her marriage, after her marriage she was an adulteress. Consider the language used about her / Israel: “committed whoredom continually” (4:18), “the spirit of whoredoms is in the midst of them” (5:4), “adulterers as an oven… hot as an oven” (7:4,7), a woman even paying lovers to sleep with her, using Hosea’s money (8:9 cp. 2:8), although she had other lovers who gave her gifts to sleep with them (2:12), “they sin more and more” (13:2). This is the language of addiction. Gomer was a sex addict. Like Israel, she didn’t consider in her heart that Hosea / God remembered / felt all her wickedness (7:2). She thought, as addicts do, that others are as insensitive as they are. Like addicts, she came to hate Hosea, the very one who enabled her as a person, who alone had loved her truly (9:7,8). And yet Hosea loved her to the end.

All this is, of course, a simple warning against sexual addiction, which is one of the most untabulated and significant addictions in our society. But for a man to love a woman like this is a marvellous picture of God’s love for His Israel, both then and now. Indeed, 9:10 seems to imply that in the same way as God fell in love with Israel in the wilderness, although they were worshipping idols even then, so Hosea did actually find Gomer attractive initially.  God’s lament through Hosea, “but me she forgot” (Hos. 2:13) is an insight into His broken heart. And how many hours of our days slip by with no conscious thought of Him… does He feel the same?

Hosea did everything for this worthless woman. He gave her “corn, wine, oil, and multiplied her silver and gold, which they [her lovers] prepared for Baal” (2:8). He was presumably a wealthy man, and yet gave it all to his wife, who in turn blew it all with her boyfriends on Baal worship. It’s like the millionaire marrying a worthless woman who manipulates him into giving her his money, which she blows at the casino day by day, and sleeps with the guys she hangs out with down there. But “she did not know that I gave her…” all these things (2:8) - i.e. she didn’t appreciate it one bit. And so Hosea decides that he will withdraw this generosity from her, and then, he surmises, “she shall say, I will go and return to my first husband” (2:7). This was Hosea’s hope, and in his own mind he put these words in her mouth. The hopefulness of Hosea was a reflection of the love he had for her.

And all this speaks eloquently of the hopefulness of the Almighty Father who thought “surely they will reverence my Son” when He sent Him. And the purposeful anticlimax of the parable is that, no, they did not and will not reverence His Son, and even worse, they killed Him. In the same way as Hosea had this plan to get Gomer to “return” to him, so God likewise planned that “afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the Lord their God” (3:5).

Both God and Hosea thought, “I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence… in their affliction they will seek me early” (5:15). But it didn’t work out like that. Both God with Israel and Hosea with Gomer ended up pleading with her to return (14:1); “and they do not return to the Lord their God, nor seek him for all this” (7:10). It was and is a tragedy. In our preaching to Israel, indeed to mankind generally, we are pleading with them to accept this most unusual love. The pain of God, the way He is left as it were standing there as a tragic figure, like Hosea was, itself inspires us to plead with people all the more passionately.

The Fantasy of God

In Hos. 2:16-23 we appear to have a fantasy of Hosea about his family. After nostalgic dreaming about the early days of their relationship, Hosea fantasizes about once again wooing Gomer, becoming betrothed to her, marrying her in some sort of outdoor wedding ceremony in which the animals and physical creation witness the vows and participate in the joy, entering a new covenant with her, and renaming their children from ‘Not my people’ to ‘My people’. As the children were to be renamed, (Lo-ammi becoming Ammi) so the valley of Achor would become a door of hope (Hos. 2:15), and Jezreel, (scene of Israel’s rebellions), would become the place of joyful reconciliation between God and His people. The valley of Achor had previously been a block to Israel’s entry to the land; now it becomes the entrance to it. In that awful place, God wants to stage an outdoor wedding ceremony with His re-married people. Is. 65:10 mentions Achor as a place of special blessing in the Kingdom of God on earth - it’s as if God’s grace rejoices in inverting things, pouring out His richest blessing upon the places of our darkest failures. And we in daily life, in the interactions we have with others, are asked to reflect this same kind of grace.

This fantasy was, and is, the fantasy of God for His people. For doesn’t love involve an element of fantasy, imagination, wild hope? If God loves His people with passion, is it so inappropriate that He should have such fantasy about them? And this God is our God! Although He may appear silent, our response to the new covenant must give Him great joy, although this doesn’t cancel out the sorrow and tragedy of all His other rejected love. It makes me, for one, want to preach the harder to persuade men and women of His love. Let’s remember that the events in Hosea’s life, according to the information in Hos. 1:1, occurred over a span of at least 30, and perhaps even 50 years. His love for Gomer was the love of a lifetime, the hope and pain of a lifetime. And this, in its turn, reflects the long term love of the eternal God for His people. Hosea’s fantasy for Gomer was unbounded. He fantasized of how when she returned to him with all her heart, with the children renamed, actually the whole of creation would join with him and her in some sort of ceremony of renewal (Hos. 2:16-23). The heavens would echo back the earth’s joy. The wonderful thing is that this will happen when finally the Lord Jesus returns and Israel returns to their God. Hosea’s fantasy was also God’s. And God’s fantasy for His people will in the end come true. And yet the whole language of Israel's rejection and then a new covenant being made between God and her is, in essence marriage language. Jeremiah 31 speaks of how Rachel weeps for her slain children, but also, as a virgin, takes her tambourine in hand and dances, entering a new covenant with her ba'al, her Lord, her husband, who has obliterated the memory of all her sins in a way that only a Divine being could do. Women in love are stereotypically associated with emotions of giddiness, hysteria, excitement, joy... and this is the language applied to weeping Rachel, weeping over the children God had taken from her. And yet - according to the New Testament quotations and expositions of Jer. 31 -, this is the very same 'new covenant' into which we enter in baptism. This is God's joy over us, and it should be ours over Him.

Hosea’s Fantasy

Hosea’s prophecy ends with God protesting His eternal love for Israel and a description of them in the Kingdom, when they will have ‘returned’ to Him: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely… His beauty shall be as the olive tree… they… shall return… Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols?” (14:4-8). Remember that the God / Israel relationship was a reflection of the Hosea / Gomer situation. I take this final, majestic section to be a reflection of Hosea’s fantasy, his day dream, that one day Gomer would return to him and blossom as a person. For fantasies are all a part of true love. “From me is thy fruit found [Heb. ‘acquired’]” (14:8) is perhaps his fantasy that this worn out woman with a miscarrying womb, dry breasts and (9:14) would somehow one day still bear him children of their own and that in him “the fatherless [a reference to Gomer’s illegitimate children] findeth mercy” (14:3).

This fantasy of Hosea’s, rooted in his amazing love for Gomer - love that was partly in pure and amazing obedience to God’s command that he love her (3:1) - is a reflection of God’s dream for Israel. Hosea died with his dream unfulfilled. We are left with the question as to whether this similar loving intention of God for Israel will, in fact, be fulfilled, or whether it was what was potentially possible for Israel; or whether His fantasy for them will be fulfilled through a new Israel. If the latter,(and we are that new Israel) then we can imagine what passionate joy the Father finds in our humble attempts to respond to Him and be His loyal and faithful wife. Whatever, the simple fact is that it all reflects an amazing grace, an ineffable love… and this God is our God and Hosea, who reflected all this, is truly a pattern for ourselves in daily life. The very existence of such passionate love for us, love beyond reason, carries with it an inevitable warning as to our responsibilities: “Who is wise, that he may understand these things? prudent, that he may know them? for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them; but transgressors shall fall therein” (Hos. 14:9). Faced as we are by a love like this, we simply can’t be passive to it.

Duncan Heaster

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