I Will Not Come in Wrath

Robert S. Turner
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2016
Hosea 11:1–11


The eleventh chapter of the book of Hosea represents a pivotal moment in what
Hollywood types would call the arc of God’s narrative in the Bible. For pathos it rivals
anything else in all of Scripture. And it stands as a significant milestone on our journey
of learning how to interpret the Bible responsibly.
What could be more heart-wrenching than Hosea’s portrait of God in this passage? How
poetic is the prophet’s description of the turmoil God suffers in God’s inner being? What
better example of grace can you find than the way God resolves that inward debate?
Hosea depicts God as a loving parent who is spurned by her child. I say her child
because the imagery in this passage is overwhelmingly maternal. God loves her child
Israel. She teaches him to walk and provides him with caring discipline. She bends
down to feed him. God is a loving mother who has been rejected by her wayward son.
Hosea knows something about rejection by a loved one. In the first couple of chapters
of the book we hear about his marriage to a woman named Gomer, who is either a
reformed prostitute who doesn’t stay reformed or just a serially unfaithful wife. The
prophet’s anguish at her infidelities, which he is unable to beat out of her, though not for
a lack of trying, leads him to doubt the paternity of the couple’s three children. He goes
so far as to name his youngest child Lo-Ammi, or “Not my son,” which one might
imagine scars the young tyke’s psyche just a tad. Yeah, Hosea has some issues of his
own. Neither partner is blameless in this dysfunctional marriage.
In the course of time it dawns on Hosea that his domestic problems intersect with his
profession as a prophet. He begins to look at his unhappy union with Gomer as a
metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. Even though God delivered them from
bondage in Egypt, gave them the land of Canaan to possess, and provides for them
abundantly from farm and flock, Israel is ungrateful, choosing to run after other lovers.
The nation’s adultery takes the form of idolatry; specifically, the worship of the
Canaanite fertility gods Asherah and Baal. Hosea encapsulates Israel’s ingratitude with
this verse from chapter 2: “She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the
wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for
Baal” (Hos 2:8).
Hosea sees such a kinship between Israel’s unfaithfulness and Gomer’s that he claims
that God deliberately told him to marry her in the first place, as a way of hammering
home God’s point about Israel. “Go,” God supposedly tells the prophet, “take for
yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great
whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (Hos 1:2). With this, Hosea steps over the line. We
must not take his claim literally. It doesn’t sound like the character of the God whom
Jesus came to reveal. Not to me, anyway.
Chapter 11 depicts God’s relationship with Israel metaphorically, but this time the
prophet makes no attempt to draw an analogy with his family life. Considering the cruel
names he gave his children and the picture of him that emerges in parts of the book as
an abusive husband and parent, Hosea probably has experienced rejection by his
children, but our passage today deals strictly with God and Israel. In fact, throughout
most of the reading, God speaks in the first person. This is an account of the
relationship between nation and deity from the deity’s point of view.
God says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (v. 1)
—an obvious reference to the exodus. God delivered the children of Israel out of
bondage, and says here what is never made explicit in the book of Exodus, that the
motivation for God to liberate Israel was because God loved them. God is a nurturing
parent who goes to great lengths to free her child and provide for his needs; not for any
reason as mundane or utilitarian as merely keeping a covenant, but because of that
deeper sense of commitment and attachment that can only be defined as love.
Things are not as idyllic as they seem, however: “The more I called them, the more they
went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (v. 2).
God here describes a heartbreaking but familiar scenario—the wayward child who runs
away not only from discipline but also from tenderness. Israel was an incorrigible youth
whose defining characteristic was ingratitude. You can almost hear the plaintive note in
God’s voice when God says, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk” (Ephraim is another
name for Israel), “I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed
them” (v. 3).
Like Hosea’s wife, who received food, shelter, and creature comforts from her husband
but who gave all the credit and most of her affection to her lovers, Israel turns to idolatry,
not realizing, or choosing not to acknowledge, that God is the true source of their life,
security, and abundance. Listen to God’s complaint with the emphasis on the pronoun I:
“I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them” (v. 4). Who is this
Baal you keep squawking about? I’m the real God, the God who loves you, the only
God you’ll ever need.
Now things take an ominous turn. Verse 5 represents the start of the second movement,
the part where the Sturm und Drang kick in. God has had enough. The long-suffering
mother has run out of patience. She is fed up. “They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. The sword
rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their
schemes. My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but
he does not raise them up at all” (vv. 5–7).
Notice a couple of things about these verses. First, notice the mention of Egypt and
Assyria as though they are the same entity: “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and
Assyria shall be their king.” Which is it? Egypt and Assyria are nearly a thousand miles
apart and in opposite directions from Israel. They can’t go to both places at once.
Ah, but they can, if we understand “Egypt” as the archetype of Empire, and “Assyria” as
just the latest incarnation of that archetype. In Egypt the Israelites were dominated,
oppressed, enslaved, and brutalized. To “return to Egypt” in this case means that the
Assyrian Empire will take over the role of dominator, oppressor, enslaver, and brutalizer.
When the people reject the liberating God who loves them, what can they expect but to
lose their liberty and autonomy? To be brought under the thumb of the Empire of the
Month?
The second thing to notice is the repeated use of the words “return” and “turn” in these
verses. “They shall return to … Egypt … because they have refused to return to me….
My people are bent on turning away from me.” Hosea highlights the contrast between
waywardness or sin on one hand and repentance on the other. The people are bent on
turning away—following the ways of sin and disobedience—and they continually refuse
to return to God in repentance. As a result, God will give them over to the
consequences of their choices, with the inevitable result that they will return to a
condition of subjugation and slavery. God pledges to remove the hand that has held off
the raging sword for so long, and will not even listen when they do call. By then, the
time for repentance will have passed: “To the Most High they call, but he does not raise
them up at all.”
If the passage ended there, it would go down as just another dismal sermon from one of
those doom-and-gloom prophets who saw in the disasters of their time the hand of God
descending in well-deserved judgment on the people’s sins. But when we get to verses
8 and 9, we find the beginning of a third movement in which the tensions introduced in
the first two movements find resolution.
Again God speaks, and this time Hosea gives us a fascinating glimpse into the inner life
of God. We get to eavesdrop on a monologue in which God wrestles with two warring
impulses. The first is the impulse toward love and care that we saw in verses 1–4. The
second is the impulse toward punishment and abandonment featured in verses 5–7.
Which will win out? Let’s listen in.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?” God cries. “How can I hand you over, O Israel? How
can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?” (Admah and Zeboiim
were two of the “cities of the plain” destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.) “My
heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my
fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no [man], the Holy One
in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (vv. 8–9, emphasis added).
Here we see why I called this passage a pivotal moment in God’s story. God chooses to
relent from punishing the disobedient child, not because the child has repented, but
because God has. The Torah declares that rebellious children are to be stoned to death,
so, according to God’s law, Israel deserves not only discipline but destruction. But God
cannot muster the will to carry out the sentence. God’s heart recoils at the thought of
inflicting on Israel the horrors of the three previous verses. But this means that God is
breaking God’s own Torah for the sake of the beloved child. In a sense, it is no longer
just Israel who has rebelled against the law, but God’s very heart. The child has proven
unwilling or incapable of turning in repentance, so the parent does the turning instead!
In the third movement, God’s compassion wins out over God’s will to punish, even
though God’s own law demands punishment for the wrongdoer. In choosing
compassion, God displays God’s utter freedom. God is not bound by any of our notions
of justice or righteousness or legalism or propriety. We can come up with laws that
demand death for disobedience, that exclude certain persons from participation in the
community and utterly demonize others, that justify or even command violence and the
perpetuation of hierarchies of domination, but God has the right and the ability to break
each and every one of them in the interest of compassion. This third movement of
Hosea 11 is a revelation of God’s nature as grace.
“I will not come in wrath,” God solemnly declares in verse 9. Even if you deserve it; even
if you treat me with utter contempt, lavishing your devotion on every new idol that
comes along; even if the Bible says I’m supposed to punish you; even if karma says
you’ve got it coming; even then I will not come in wrath. As the song says, after all,
“Grace travels outside of karma.” And Grace is my middle name.
I don't know if you have ever heard someone claim that a particular disaster or disease
or tragedy is an example of God’s judgment on sinners, but I have. And it makes me
sick. The 9/11 attacks happened because of God’s wrath at America for being lenient on
“homosexual sinners.” God’s wrath against the decadence of New Orleans took the
form of Hurricane Katrina. France keeps getting attacked because they have turned
their backs on God and become completely secularized. And all manner of
irresponsible, unloving drivel like that. When I hear that sort of thing, I want to grab the
person who said it by the lapels and scream, “God does not kill!”
I know what the response would be, of course. “God doesn't kill? Then what about all
the wars and smitings and so forth in the Old Testament?” Then would come the smirk
of someone who has played the ultimate trump card. If the Bible says it, what gives you
the right to say otherwise?
What gives me the right—nay, the duty—to go against what the Bible says elsewhere is
verse 9 of Hosea 11, where God goes against what the Bible says. The disobedient son
must be stoned to death, the Torah says. No, God says, I will not come in wrath. Jesus
carries on this tradition in the New Testament. “You have heard that it was said”—
meaning it’s in the Bible—“‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to
you” (Matt 5:38–39, emphasis added) … turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give
the tunic as well as the cloak. The Bible may say those things, but I speak with God’s
authority and I’m telling you something different. God does not kill. God will not come in
wrath.
The dangerous element in all this comes when we remember that the kingdom of Israel
did fall to the sword of the Assyrians. Judah did fall to the sword of the Babylonians. The
rebels in Judea did fall to the sword of the Romans. Does that not mean that God did
come in wrath after all, in which case we are still justified in depicting God as violent and
vindictive? But just because someone interprets a bad thing that happened as God’s
anger made manifest does not make it so. Grace travels outside of karma. God does
not come in wrath.
Far from being the author of destruction, God is continually engaged in creation—in
seeking to bring life out of death, to replace conflict with peace, to overcome evil with
good. And God calls us to join in this creative work, getting our hands and clothes dirty
as we, guided by the Holy Spirit, mold the sticky clay of the world-that-is into God’s
beautiful vision of the world-that-can-be. In that world, also known as the reign of God,
justice prevails, perfect love drives out fear, the banquet table has room for all, and God
comes not in wrath but in compassion. In healing. In forgiveness.
In grace.

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