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“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?” – Hosea 11:8a
A Love That Won’t Let Go
Many people enjoyed The Lion King, a Disney movie that became even more popular as a musical production on Broadway and world tours. Integral to the imaginative story is the lion king Mufasa, who died while saving his son Simba from a stampede of wildebeests engineered by his jealous brother Scar.
Overcome with fear and shame, Simba ran away and chose a life of escapism rather than returning to face down his usurping uncle and live up to his potential. After being challenged by the spirit of his father Mufasa, Simba returned to his rightful place – and learned to roar.
Today’s text offers a stirring promise of hope in the midst of a gloomy prophetic cloud, and concludes with an image of the eternal Lion King who roars for God’s lost children to return from across the earth.
Before we get to God as the Lion King, however, we must first ponder another picture – an image of God as the weeping parent, torn between love and justice, determined to do what is best for children gone astray.
Images of God’s love for the lost are common in the Bible, but nowhere is this deep truth expressed more beautifully or poignantly than in Hosea 11.
Looking back(vv. 1-4)
You may know how it feels to raise your children with all the love and ability you have, only to see them turn away from you or your chosen way of life. You may know how it feels to be the child who walked away. All of us, at some point, have gone our own way. In vv. 1-4, Hosea imagines what our rejection must feel like to God.
Hosea testified that God loved Israel as a parent loves a child. “When Israel was a child” refers to the nation’s early history. Though Israel’s name goes back to Jacob and its calling to Abraham, there is a real sense in which the nation of Israel was conceived in Egypt and born at Sinai: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (v. 1).
But Israel was a rebellious child: “the more I called them, the more they went from me” (v. 2a). As an example, Hosea points to the way Israel so facilely adopted the idolatrous religion practiced by the indigenous peoples of Canaan: “they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (v. 2b).
Why might that have happened? When the Israelites moved into the land of promise and adopted a more agrarian lifestyle, they naturally would have inquired about local farming methods from their Canaanite neighbors, who explained how they offered sacrifices to the weather god Baal to ensure the annual rains. New-comers could have accepted that as “local wisdom” and begun to participate in worshiping the fertility gods.
As Hosea saw it, the people had forgotten how Yahweh delivered them from Egypt and taught them to walk in a covenant relationship (vv. 3-4). The wilderness experience was a time of both discipline and grace. The Israelites stumbled, but God picked them up and set them on their feet time and time again.
When they complained of hunger, God provided manna from heaven and quail on the wind. When they turned against Moses because of thirst, God brought them water from a rock. When enemies threatened, God gave them victory. Surely the same God could have blessed their crops with no assistance from Baal – but Israel seemed afflicted by short memories.
There is deep beauty in this picture of God as parent. Sometimes it is most appropriate to think of God as high and mighty and lifted up, but the Bible insists that God is also personally, lovingly involved with people. God deigns to come to where we are and lift us to a higher plane. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks,” Hosea said of Yahweh. “I bent down to them, and fed them” (v. 4).
This image of God reminds us of Jesus sitting with children on his knee, scolding the disciples who sought to keep them away (Matt. 19:13-15). Despite God’s deep and abiding love, the children of Israel lost faith and turned away. That problem was not limited to the ancient Israelites. We who follow Christ are also subject to putting our trust in self or in other gods.
Think about your own position as a child of God. In what ways have you turned your back on God as a child might do to a parent?
Looking forward(vv. 5-9)
This is where we learn the true depth of God’s love – and the extent of God’s pain. Hosea’s message suggests that Yahweh believed discipline was necessary and that Israel should learn for itself the tragic consequences of sin. Discipline is difficult for any parent, and in that sense, God is no exception.
In vv. 5-7, Hosea describes the natural consequences of Israel’s sin and the pathos God felt in allowing them to learn their lessons. Because the people had turned from God, their nation had grown weak and become easy prey. They might call to the “Most High” (a reference to El, the high god of the Canaanites), but he would do nothing for them (v. 7). Armies would soon ravage their cities and they would be back in bondage – not in Egypt, but in Assyria.
Hosea believed God loved Israel enough to let them go and let them learn. Mature parental love is strong enough to know when it is better to allow children to learn the hard lessons of life without rushing to rescue them from their own foolishness. To show that kind of love may be the hardest thing a parent can do.
Allowing Israel to experience punishment does not mean that God gave up on them. He would not allow them to be wiped out like Admah and Zeboiim, smaller “cities of the plain” that had fallen along with Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-28, Deut. 29:23). The just consequences of the people’s sin were looming, but God would not, could not forget them. Hear Hosea’s testimony of divine love: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (v. 8).
God chose to hold back the full extent of what Israel deserved. God would not destroy the people, despite their rebellion, measuring discipline by the need of the child rather than the wrath of the parent. “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim,” Hosea said in God’s behalf: “. . . for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (v. 9).
Child abuse is a perpetual problem in our society and others. Unable to control their inner rage, stressed-out parents sometimes overreact to their children’s faults and punish them without mercy. Often, they learned this behavior from their own parents. What can we learn from our heavenly parent?
Looking way ahead(vv. 10-11)
In even the bleakest of days, when God is involved, there is hope. Exile does not last forever. Hosea saw a day when God would shout for his children to come to his arms, to come home.
Now we meet the cosmic Lion King. Hosea declared: “They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord” (vv. 10-11). The lion’s roar might cause them to come fearfully, trembling, but God’s desire would be to bring them home.
In the context of Hosea’s prophecy, this promise applied to Israel, who would be scattered east and west by the Assyrians, but not forever. God would call the people home. In one sense, this has not happened: the northern kingdom was not restored, and its people became known as the “ten lost tribes.” Later, the people of Judah would be exiled to Babylon but allowed to return about 50 years later. Exactly where the northern Israelites went after the kingdom fell in 722, and how many of them may have returned later, is a mystery.
But, Hosea’s prophecy extends beyond Ephraim. This text holds words of hope for every child of God who knows what it is like to sin and suffer. Because of God’s stubborn love, we can know that our exile is not forever. Our suffering on this earth will end. In the person of Jesus Christ – called the “Lion of Judah” in Rev. 5:5 – the Lord God has roared a call for all to come home.
Hosea’s prophecy suggests that the punishment we deserve is more than God is willing for us to bear, and so in Christ God has come down to where we are. In some way beyond our understanding, Jesus took upon himself the ultimate and terrible punishment that our sin deserves. He has given us new birth so that he can lift us up and hold us close. No matter where we go, no matter what evil comes into our lives, we can know that God is near, God’s love never fails, and God’s mercy overflows.
Hosea’s prophecy and the gospel message together lead us to imagine a day when God will stand upon the stars and give voice to a great roar of eternal victory. We who believe may come with quivering expectation to follow God’s voice. Our time of exile will be over, and our God will lead us home, for the Father’s love will reign triumphant.
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for July 31, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Hosea 11:1-11
In Hosea 11 God questions the harmful decisions that the people of Israel have made after giving them everything that they have ever needed. There is no doubt that as parents, you have felt the same way. “How did my child make the decision that they did?” “I know that I raised them better than that?” “They know that is wrong?” How many times have you said one of those things? How do we react when our children have done such things? Like here in Hosea, and like the return of the Prodigal, we accept them back with open arms. We accept them back, because in their returning they have admitted their wrong.
Teaching Resources |Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Mufasa’s Ghost” from The Lion King
Read Scripture online: Hosea 11:1-11