The Fierce Love of God

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hosea 12-13 Divine Romance: The Fierce Love of God

Positive and Uplifting?
Ray and Jean and I were at a conference in Dallas, Texas this week. We drove straight home on Friday. 14 hours of driving. We left at noon. Here’s how late it was when we got home: we had to dim our lights once on the highway between Sheldon and Spencer.

Anyway, driving that late night we listened to Christian radio. In fact, we tuned into 3 different Christian radio stations between Omaha and home and I noticed they all had basically the same tag line: “Positive and Uplifting.” “Positive, Encouraging.”

Now, I like Christian radio and I’m glad we have it and I listen to plenty of it, but I was reminded Friday night of something I figured out a long time ago: Christian radio has a target audience, and it’s not me.

Have you ever noticed that? Do you know who the target audience for Christian radio is? It’s young moms with kids at home. They’re not even subtle about it. That’s who they’re going after. Soccer moms. Think of the things they say: “Safe for the whole family.” “Faith, Hope and Family.” “There for you in all the seasons of life.” “Radio the whole family can listen to.”

They’re trying to connect with moms who are driving between dance rehearsal and soccer practice and youth group and Mom’s morning out. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just that’s not me.

In fact, I’ll tell you how much that’s not me. Christian radio likes to use these little nostalgic bumps where a man with a pleasing baritone says something like: “Football on the radio. The sweaters are out. You’ve just finished 3 hours of raking the back yard when the kids run full speed into your leaf pile (sound of children laughing) and you find yourself in the midst of a leaf fight. Oh well, guess you’ll have to rake again.”

No. No., That happens to me the kids are going to find themselves with rakes in their hands and I’m gonna go watch football.

Again, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but next time you listen to Christian radio: if you are a young mom, notice how blatantly they are stereotyping you; and if you are not a young mom, notice how much they’re not talking to you.

But, anyway, back to the phrase “Positive and uplifting.” Have you noticed how that’s become the rule of thumb for Christianity these days? Everything needs to be positive and encouraging. God is love. He’s all about grace and forgiveness. Let’s keep things sugary sweet and happy.

One of the most famous sermons in U.S. history was preached by Jonathan Edwards in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741. It was part of what was known as “the Great Awakening”, a huge revival. The sermon was called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

I remember being introduced to this sermon in college, in an American Literature course. It was used as an example of the writing from the colonial period. It was also cited as an example of the, quote, “religious extremism” of the period. If you have heard of this sermon, or of Jonathan Edwards, chances are you have been told they were typical of the “puritan severity” of the time.

In the sermon, Edwards uses a number of vivid word pictures to give a sense of the horror and reality of hell. At one point he talks about God dangling sinners over hell much like you might hold a spider by a thread over a campfire. At another point, he compares God’s wrath to a bow that is bent, with the arrow ready to pierce the heart of the sinner. It is a terrifying look at the anger of God, and it was met with criticism then just as it continues to be criticized today. It was neither positive, nor uplifting.

And yet, the Bible talks about God’s anger plenty. In fact, as J.I. Packer points out, a study of an exhaustive concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness. Packer says “the Bible could be called the book of God’s wrath, for it is full of portrayals of divine retribution.” (p. 135)

We might not like the idea of an angry God—we might prefer a Christian culture that is “safe for the whole family”--but we cannot escape the fact that the Bible often describes Him that way. He is a husband whose wife is chasing other lovers. He’s a father whose son is determined to run away from Him. He is righteously angry over the sins of His people.

I’ll define God’s anger like this: When you are against God, then God is against you. When we set ourselves up against God, then He will set himself up against us. That’s the theme of our text today. Israel is against God. You see it in the first verse, Hosea 11:28:

12Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, the house of Israel with deceit. And Judah is unruly against God, even against the faithful Holy One.

And then it gets repeated in 13:9:

9You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.

Israel against God. They are opposed to God. And if you are against God, God will be against you.

Sins upon Sins
So let’s begin by looking at the ways Israel was against God. We’re going to do a quick read through of Hosea chapters 12 and 13, and as we do we will see God identify sins upon sins that they were guilty of.

The first was deception. Start with the last verse of chapter 11:

12Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, the house of Israel with deceit. And Judah is unruly against God, even against the faithful Holy One.

Israel had a problem with honesty. They were full of lies. Even Judah, the sister nation to the south—the one that’s supposed to be far more virtuous and loyal to God—is showing signs of dishonesty.

And when you lie, you are lying against God.

God gives an example in the next verse:

1Ephraim feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt.

Here’s what the nation is doing: they make a treaty with Assyria, and then they turn around and send gifts to Assyria’s enemy Egypt. We might say they’re trying to play one side against the other. But as we’ve seen the last few weeks, they’re courting their own disaster. They think they’re being big players on the world stage as they whisper lies to these two superpowers, but in the end they’ll be cannon fodder. They’re trying to eat the wind. Not very nourishing.

Verses 2-5:

2The LORD has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. 3In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God. 4He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and talked with him there–5the LORD God Almighty, the LORD is his name of renown!

God goes back to their history, one of the patriarchs, Jacob. Jacob is a name that means “he deceives.” Even before he was born Jacob was grasping his twin brother Esau’s heel, as though he were trying to beat him to the birthright. Later, he swindled Esau out of the birthright for a pot of stew, and fooled his blind father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing. Most of Jacob’s life was about how he was trying to outmaneuver someone.

But one day, Jacob met someone that he couldn’t outmaneuver. He wrestled an angel and got a new name for it—Israel—“One who wrestles with God.” He won that match, but he found himself weeping and begging for favor, receiving grace.

And I think that God, through Hosea, is saying that this nation needs to go through a transformation like Jacob and receive God’s grace like Jacob. There was too much Jacob in Hosea’s day and not enough Israel. Too much lying and deceit, not enough wrestling with God, in a good way.

If they were just going to be against God, then God would be against them. But if they would turn and seek God? Verse 6:

6But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.

That’s being more like Israel than Jacob. We’ll come back to that.

But there are more sins in verse 7 and 8. The sin of greed:

7The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud. 8Ephraim boasts, ‘I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.’

Stop for just a minute and consider the audacity of that statement. Here are group of people lying and cheating each other, using dishonest scales and other corrupt business practices to take advantage of their neighbors, and then when they look at all the ill-gotten gains they’ve accumulated they take it as a sign that they are sin free. They actually believe God is pleased with them because they’ve gotten rich by cheating.

In a materialist culture like ours, it’s easy to fall into this trap. We think the only real measure of how we’re doing in this life is what we own or what we have in our bank accounts. So we start to trust in our money, and we do whatever we can to get more.

But be careful. Because when you trust in your money, you are trusting against God. And God will be against you. Verse 9:

9I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of your appointed feasts.

Don’t get too comfortable, God is saying. Remember the days when they came through the wilderness—40 years as nomads living in tents in the desert—God can bring them back to that. All their wealth can disappear in a moment.

They have been against Him. He is going to be against them.

More. They didn’t listen. Verses 10 and 11:

10I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them. [There were ample warnings. Were they heeded? V.11] 11Is Gilead wicked? [Is the Pope Catholic?] Its people are worthless! Do they sacrifice bulls in Gilgal? [Is the sky blue?] Their altars will be like piles of stones on a plowed field.”

They weren’t listening. They weren’t paying attention. God’s word was plenty clear. He spoke through the prophets. But they ignored Him.

Have you ever done that? I have. I’ve known exactly what God has wanted me to do—or not do—and yet I’ve done the exact opposite. I’ve ignored God.

And when you aren’t listening to God, you are listening against God. Verses 12 and 13:

12Jacob fled to the country of Aram; Israel served to get a wife, and to pay for her he tended sheep. 13The LORD used a prophet [Moses] to bring Israel up from Egypt, by a prophet he cared for him.

God has been caring for Israel. Providing for them. And how did they return His care? They were against Him.

In fact, they became violent. They started assaulting and killing one another. Verse 14:

But Ephraim has bitterly provoked him to anger; his Lord will leave upon him the guilt of his bloodshed and will repay him for his contempt.”

There’s that word: “anger.” God is angry. The Bible isn’t afraid to say it. He has been bitterly provoked and He is mad. Can you blame Him?

Understand something here: when we hurt someone else, we are going against God. Sometimes we get the idea that we can hurt someone else, and all we’ve done is hurt that person. But that’s not true. When you hurt someone else with your words, or with violence, you are also going against God. All sin is ultimately against God.

Of course, the ultimate way that Israel had gone against God was to go after other gods: idolatry. Chapter 13, verses 1 and 2:

1When Ephraim spoke, men trembled; he was exalted in Israel. But he became guilty of Baal worship and died. 2Now they sin more and more; they make idols for themselves from their silver, cleverly fashioned images, all of them the work of craftsmen. It is said of these people, ‘They offer human sacrifice and kiss the calf-idols.’

They’ve fallen so far into the corrupt religious practice of their neighbors. Even to the point where they are participating in human sacrifice.

When we worship anything that is not God, we are worshiping against God. Verses 3 and 4:

Therefore they will be like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears, like chaff swirling from a threshing floor, like smoke escaping through a window. ‘But I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt. You shall acknowledge no God but me, no Savior except me.”

Three powerful images: dew, dust and smoke. All things that are here for a moment, and then swept away. Who wants to be like smoke escaping through a window? As we’ve seen throughout this series: God is a jealous God who will not allow any rivals.

When we allow ourselves to worship anything that is not God, we are worshipping against God. And God will be against us.

Still more sin, perhaps the worst of all: they were pridefully forgetting God. Verses 5 and 6:

5I cared for you in the desert, in the land of burning heat. 6When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.

God cared for them, fed them, and satisfied them. But as soon as they were satisfied, they forgot all about Him.

Have you ever done that? I have. When life is going well, I tend to forget God and get full of myself as if I were responsible for everything good happening to me. When life is going well, we pridefully forget God.

And when you are forgetting God, when you are full of yourself, you are going against God. And God will be against you.

Devoured
So there’s a listing of Israel’s sins: Lying and deceit and fraud, trusting in money, not listening to the Word of God, bloodshed and violence and hurting people, idolatry, and prideful forgetting of God. It’s not a list to be proud of. Israel was against God.

And if you are against God, God will be against you. We’ve seen hints of God’s anger in the verse we just looked at, but now it comes out in full force. Verses 7 and 8:

8So I will come upon them like a lion, like a leopard I will lurk by the path. 9Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open. Like a lion I will devour them; a wild animal will tear them apart.”

This is not positive and uplifting.

The Israelites have removed themselves from the covenant, they’ve broken their end of the agreement. And so, the God who tenderly cared for his people in the early days will become like a voracious carnivore. Like a wild beast God spring upon Israel and rip their chests open.

If you have a picture in your head of God as a giant teddy bear, you need to lose that picture now. God is not soft and pliant and subject to our whims. There’s a reason the Bible talks so much about the fear of the Lord. He is holy and righteous and just and powerful and He is not to be trifled with. Verse 9:

9You are destroyed, O Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.”

I’ll say it again. If you are against God, God will be against you. Verses 10-12:

10Where is your king, that he may save you? Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, 'Give me a king and princes'? 11So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away. 12The guilt of Ephraim is stored up, his sins are kept on record.

There’s a reason Israel has had a revolving door of kings. They think a king can save them, God is demonstrating otherwise. Nobody is getting away with anything. Verse 13:

13Pains as of a woman in childbirth come to him, but he is a child without wisdom; when the time arrives, he does not come to the opening of the womb.

God is giving plenty of warning. Like labor pains. If the people would heed it, they could be reborn. But God says they’re too dumb to come out. Verses 14-16:

14‘I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction? I will have no compassion, 15even though he thrives among his brothers. An east wind from the LORD will come, blowing in from the desert; his spring will fail and his well dry up. His storehouse will be plundered of all its treasures. 16The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open.’

God’s anger is terrible to behold. The “east wind from the LORD” in verse 15 is Assyria. They are coming. They are coming with the sword. And Israel is going to be terrorized.

If you are against God, God will be against you.

It has to be said: God’s judgment is real. There really is a Hell. And for those who continue to be against God, it will be horrible and gruesome. Those who remain knowing, active and unrepentant enemies of God will experience God’s wrath. The wrath of a mother bear protecting her cubs from a threat. The wrath of invading army under orders to take no prisoners. The wrath of a Holy God who can bear no sin.

This is not good news. Understand what this is saying: there are people in our world—there are probably people in this room right now—who are against God. And that means God is against them. And God is going to judge those people. He’s going to destroy them.

It’s not good news. When I spoke at the Bible Conference a couple of months ago I made reference to Hell and reminded people that Hell was real. Somebody in the crowd shouted out “Amen!” And I called him on it. I stopped right in the middle of my message and said: “I’m not sure I would say ‘amen’ to that.” I find that when you are asked to speak someplace the best way to get them to invite you back is to antagonize the audience.

Now, I understand why he was shouting “Amen.” He was saying that he agreed with me about Hell. He was saying “Good on you for talking about it when so many others will not.” But here’s why I called him out: I don’t think Hell is something we should ever be happy about. While we have to acknowledge that Hell is real, and that the Bible teaches about it, we should never be glad that people are heading there. We should never be excited about Hell. Because, as these verses make clear, facing the wrath of God is a terrible thing.

Where, O death, is your sting?
And yet, there is good news. Verse 14. In the midst of this depressing list of sin and this horrible prediction of violent judgment, verse 14 stands out like a rose among the thorns:

14‘I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?

It seems out of place. Some scholars have even tried to change the way this verse reads so that the first two lines are questions: “Should I ransom from the power of the grave? Shall I redeem them from death?” If phrased that way, the answer would be “no”. Given the context of the verses immediately before and after, it seems unlikely that God would be giving a promise of resurrection here.

And yet, we’ve seen throughout Hosea that God can often switch from judgment to hope. Remember, He’s portraying Himself as a heartsick lover. He doesn’t want to give up on Israel.

Plus, no less an authority than the Apostle Paul believes this verse should be read as you see it before you. Perhaps you recognize it from our series at Easter time. Paul quotes this very verse in 1 Corinthians 15, one of the high points of the Bible:

54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” 56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s what Paul saw in Hosea 13:14. He saw a taunt against death and the grave. He saw a promise of the resurrection of Christ and His grace extended to us.

And here is the good news of this passage. If God is for you, then nothing can come against you.

If you are against God, then God will be against you. And that is a terrible place to be. All of His righteous anger will come against you, and you will suffer.

But there is a flip side to this. If God is for you, then all of that terrible anger will be turned—not against you—but against your enemies. God’s fierce wrath will work on your behalf against death and the grave—your greatest enemies.

The thing that strikes me as funny about all the criticism directed against Jonathan Edwards’ sermon is that it completely misunderstands his point. It’s not like he was excited about the prospect of people going to hell. It’s not like he was delighting in images of hellfire. No, he was pleading with his listeners to turn away. He was warning them to flee the wrath to come.

And his point is right there in the title: we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. But we are in the hands of God. God’s anger is horrible, but we are at the moment being held out of that anger by God himself.

God is merciful. God is love. And while He will pour His wrath out on us if He has to, He does not want to. There is an alternative. To those who will turn to Him in Jesus Christ He is willing to absorb that wrath Himself.

Look at Hosea 13:14 again. Even in a chapter where He spells out the judgment and wrath to come, still He reminds us that His love is relentless.

Still God is able to look forward to a day when hell and death will be beaten.
A day when the power of sin and the grave will be broken.
A day when death and sin will be buried in His son’s borrowed grave!

Can I get an “Amen” to that? Ernie, where are you at? And by the way, it doesn’t just have to be Ernie who says Amen during a sermon. I’m O.K. with the rest of you shouting it out once in a while. I promise, even if you say it at an inappropriate time, I’ll try not to call you out on it. I’m repenting of that sort of behavior.

But get this: In this passage God is angry. Justifiably so. His people are against Him, so He is against them. But, even in the midst of His anger He can still look ahead to a day when His anger will be satisfied by His own dear Son. Where He will take the sins of His rebellious people on His own shoulders and He will utterly vanquish our greatest enemies.

God will be for you if you trust in what Jesus has done on your behalf. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.

Lay down your weapons and surrender to His grace. Acknowledge Him as Savior.

There is no Savior but Him (13:4). And God will be for you. And if God is for you, who can be against you? No one.

Return, Maintain, Wait
So what should we do? How do we respond? We don’t want to be against God, so what does this passage say we should do instead?

Let’s go back to chapter 12, verse 6. I promised you we’d come back.

6But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.

Pay attention to the verbs. Three things: Return, maintain, wait.

To return is to repent. It is to go back to your first love. Israel needed to return to the LORD.

We may need to repent of something and return to Jesus. Don’t be afraid to repent. It hurts at first but it also feels so good. Admit your sins, agree with God about how bad they are, and make a sincere effort to turn away from them.

And maintain. Maintain love and justice.

In other words, do the opposite of what they have been doing. Instead of going against God, be for God. Instead of lies, truth. Instead of trusting in money, trusting in God. Instead of not listening, listening to the Word of God. Instead of bloodshed and violence and hurting people, it’s loving people and being concerned about people. Instead of idolatry, it’s true worship. Instead of prideful forgetting God, it’s remembering God and making him the center of your life.

Maintain love and justice.

And wait upon Him. Look for Him. Seek Him. Trust in God to be your all-sufficiency and your protection and your hope.

Return to God.
Maintain love and justice.
And wait for your God always.

Because if God is for you, who can be against you?