The Whores We Once Were
So now it begins. Today we kick off our series on the Minor Prophets and we’re starting here with the book of Hosea, and the first thing to notice about this book is the power of metaphor.
It’s been said that metaphor is the communication art that integrates the invisible world with the visible. Metaphors help us see things that are otherwise unseen. For example, take sin against God. What is sin against God? Well, we could say that sin against God is simply sin against God. That’s just what it is.
Or, we could say that sin against God is when a woman is married to a husband who is a good man, a husband who loves her and cares for her, and yet this woman leaves her husband, abandons his love, and she goes to sell her body on the streets . . . “and in a pipe she flies to the Motherland // Or sells love to another man” and she does this not because she’s desperate but because she wants to. She has white lips and a pale face and ripped gloves and wet clothes because she prefers that over the affection and security given to her by her loving husband. And as sad as all this sounds, she does all of this not sadly, but boasting. She actually relishes the whole thing.
That’s another way to describe sin against God.
And that’s the way that Hosea explains it to us, and actually dramatizes it to us in this book. And if we are going to understand what God is saying to us here, we have to understand this metaphor.
So I want us to go ahead and start there right now. There are really just three things I want us to see today . . .
I want us to look at, first, the grossness of sin; second, the necessity of judgment; and then third, the insanity of mercy. And here first, is the grossness of sin.
1. The Grossness of Sin
And when I say grossness, I mean sickness or nastiness or griminess. Or let’s just look at how Hosea describes it in chapter 2.
Let me first bring you up to speed here. In chapter one, God tells Hosea to go and marry a prostitute and start a family with her as symbol of Israel’s spiritual adultery to God. And so Hosea does this. He goes marries a women named Gomer — [so if anyone in here is looking for baby names, this is one to mark off that list]. So Hosea marries Gomer and they have three children who are each of the children are given special names. The first is Jezreel, which means “God will sow.” The second is Lo-Ruhama, which means, “No mercy.” And the third is Lo-ammi, which means “Not my people.” [So three more baby names you might want to mark off your list]. So there’s Hosea and Gomer and their three little kids running around: God will sow, No Mercy, and Not My People.
But the main symbol we see in this book, especially in in the first three chapters, is that Gomer — as a prostitute married to Hosea — is the symbol of Israel in her idolatry. Gomer, Hosea’s wife, is a real life drama of a heart that has turned away from God. And we have to understand the metaphor. It goes like this:
- When Hosea is talking about Gomer, the prostitute, it is
- God talking about Israel in her idolatry
- which is relevant to anyone whose heart has turned from God.
And what is said here uncovers for us the grossness of sin. It’s basically like divorce court. God is saying that Israel is no longer his wife because of her unfaithfulness, and then he describes how that looks. Let me give you the three words that I think summarize the grossness of sin here in chapter 2: bargain, block, and barrel.
For the bargain, look at verse 5:
“For their mother has played the whore; she who conceived them has acted shamefully. 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.’”
The lovers mentioned here, the men Gomer has been been sleeping with, are pagan nations, and Israel has been forming different alliances with them. Israel has been making agreements with these nations in exchange for stuff. She wants bread and water and wool and flax, and she wants it so badly that she is abandoning God and is going out, late at night, to sell her body for it. That’s the bargain that has been made. Israel gives and Israel gets. That is what a bargain is. There is an exchange. To get what you want, it costs you something. And when it comes to sin, we can’t forget this.
Sin — idolatry, when we put other things before God — it will always make us pay something. It cost you something. So the question is what? What kind of bargain is on the table before you? How much is it asking you to pay?
See, Gomer valued her prostitution revenue more than she valued Hosea’s love, and therefore she was willing pay whatever she had to — As long as you give me this, you can do whatever you want with my body. And in our sin, when we turn from God, something like that is the bargain we make. And one of the big problems here is that deals like this will always go sideways. Sin, idolatry, the things that we put before God, will always ask more of us than we are willing to pay — and it will never be able to keep up its end of the bargain. You will pay more than you thought you agreed to, and the sin will not deliver. It just won’t happen. Maybe for a while things go okay. But it won’t last. And God will see to that, which gets to that second word.
There’s the bargain, now look at the block. Hosea 2:6,
“Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths.”
Some English translations use the word “block” here. The NIV puts it: “There I will block her path with thornbushes.” And what this means is that God will frustrate Israel’s idolatry.
Sin, you know, is very accessible, but it’s not easy. In this case, God blocked the roads of commerce that Israel traveled to make deals with other nations. It’s like: Hosea knew that Gomer was leaving the house every night to drive down to the red light district, so he started hiding her keys, or he slashed her tires. He went to the corner of the street where she gets most of her business and he installed a row of street lights and an ice-cream shop and a build-a-bear store. And then he changed the names on all the streets signs and completely redeveloped downtown and made Peavy Park into a big family-friendly hockey rink. He just does whatever he has to do to make it harder for Gomer to do what she does. God gets in the way.
And I think that probably feels like judgment, but it’s actually not — not this part. See, judgment in the Bible for here and now, is more like Romans 1 than it is fire and brimstone. That means God’s judgment on us here is more like when he gives us over to our sin — that’s what he is doing in Romans 1 where Paul says three times that “God gave them up” to the lusts of their hearts. So, in many cases, God’s judgment on sin now is when he stops getting in the way.
So if God is making our sin unpleasant, if he is blocking our way to idolatry, we should see that as a kindness. And the main way that he does this blocking is through the conscience. And we want that. We want him to build really high walls in our conscience. When it comes to the roads that lead to sin and idolatry, we want him to throw as much stuff in the way as possible. I mean that when we come to the roads that lead to sin and idolatry, we want him to take our shoes away. We want to come there barefoot. And we want this road we have to walk down to get to sin to be filled with sharp nails and broken glass and poisonous snakes and lions, tigers, bears, a pack of hungry dogs foaming at the mouth — whatever it takes to block us from making it down that road. We want those blocks — and I’m not just talking about pornography here. I’m talking about when I’m tempted to get angry at my kids, or when we’re tempted to gossip about a neighbor, or when we’re put in a position to compromise our integrity. We want God to put up the blocks, and he does that.
But then there’s the barrel. Sometimes we just barrel through.
That’s the third word. Check out verse 7a.
“She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them.”
The blocks don’t always work. The word here for “pursue” is an intensive verb. Which means it doesn’t just mean “pursue” — it means to really pursue. So back in verse 5 it was that Israel “goes after her lovers.” Here is it that Israel is “intensely pursuing her lovers.”
It means you stand at the road of sin that is blocked all the way down with glass and snakes and rabid dogs, and you just barrel down it anyway. You just don’t care about how bad it is blocked, you run down it anyway, and you are so intent on getting to the sin and you just lower your shoulder and try to pound through what tries to stop you. And when you get to the end of the road, what your looking for isn’t there.
This intense pursuit of her lovers is when Gomer finds all the tires to her car are flat, and she sees the lights are on all down the street, and the ice-cream shop and all that, and she is still so determined to to get her goods that she drops her coat right there and she tries to solicit whoever walks by. And no body buys.
She made a bargain. It went sideways. The road has been blocked. And she still barrels through. Here, anyone, take my body. Just give me what I want.
That is the grossness of sin as it’s described in this chapter. That’s an overall understanding of sin — bargain, block, and barrel. And it will always bring us to a place worse than we were before.
And that brings us to the necessity of judgment.
2. The Necessity of Judgment
Just to be clear. Israel is doing all of this, and it’s not okay. To amplify the grossness of sin, and as a way to segue into God’s judgment, notice what verse 8 says.
“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.”
So in other words, all the stuff that Israel was chasing in her whoredom with other nations was actually stuff that only God could provide. Israel wanted grain and wine, and she sold her body for it, but didn’t she know that God himself owns all the grain? Didn’t she know that God himself is the great winemaker?
God himself is the giver of all good gifts, and somewhere along the way Israel thought they came from Baal, who was a false Canaanite god. So Israel takes the gifts that God gave Israel and Israel thinks they are actually gifts from Baal and so she uses those gifts to worship Baal. We can see this throughout the Old Testament. And it’s one of those awful experiences in Scripture when we as readers feel the dramatic irony of what’s taking place. Remember how dramatic irony works — it’s when an audience understands something that the characters don’t. It’s when we can see something unfolding and we know it’s bad, but those in the story don’t quite get it.
For example, we know early on in the Bible that God despises child sacrifice. He tells Israel, in Deuteronomy 18:9, that none of them should ever burn their son or daughter as an offering. This is evil. Never do that. But then we come to 2 Kings 16, and we read about Judah’s king, Ahaz.
[He began to reign] “And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Kings 16:2–3)
We see more clearly than Ahaz how messed up this is. The false god Molech or Baal or whoever, doesn’t give people children. But Ahaz, as well as Israel, took their children as gifts from these false gods and offered them to these false gods in sacrifice. God says in Ezekiel 16,
“And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them [to Baal] to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” (Ezekiel 16:20–21)
See what he says. God had given them the children. We see that. We know that. And yet, Israel, is so far gone, so deeply deceived, that she thinks the children came from a false god, and so the children are sacrificed to the false god. She is killing her children and she thinks she is doing the right thing. Can we even imagine what that is like? God gives the children, and yet a whole society of people slaughter these children to the god of Baal, or say, maybe, the god of choice, or the god of reproductive freedom.
[Quick side note: Here’s a question for us. We see the dramatic irony in Israel’s story because we’re reading it. But what about in our own stories? If someone were to step back and be reading your story, what might they see that you can’t see? What’s the ironic thing that they would see unfolding in your life that you can’t recognize? Just something to think about. End side note.]
So God gave Israel all grain and wine and gold and silver — we see that — but Israel thinks it came from Baal. Hosea gives Gomer everything she needs. He protects her and cares for her and takes her shopping, and gives her all kinds of good things, and she thinks it all comes from the strange men she sleeps with every night. And it’s not just a matter of giving credit to the wrong person, but she takes the gifts that Hosea gives her and she uses them to impress more strange men, to find more lovers that she can sell her body to.
And God says no. He must judge this. He must come and put a stop to this, and we hardly need an explanation why. The reality of sin is so clear here that we hardly need any explanation for why God sends judgment. We’ve seen what is happening here. We see the whoredom that’s going on here. Israel has made the one, true, sovereign God of the universe a cuckold. In a complete reverse, rather than spread the truth about God to the nations, Israel is spreading lies about him. Israel is saying that what she gets at home isn’t good enough. And God says no more. He is great and holy, righteous and pure, he is good giver of all good things. And the lies will be stopped.
“Therefore I will take back my grain in its time, and my wine in its season,”
“Now I will uncover her lewdness in the sight of her lovers, and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.”
Which means, God is going to shame her. He is going to strip her of the gifts he has given her and he is going to expose her crudeness to everyone. There will be no more parties. No more red lip stick and tight little skirts. All the prostitution revenue that she has built up is going to get burned. And nobody is going to help her.
All the strange men, all the other lovers, they are going to turn on her. And laugh at her. And want nothing to do with her. That’s what happens when idolatry is judged. What we have tried to worship in the place of god will eventually devour us. It will crush us. God will let it do that, and when it does, we will never have felt loneliness like. Loneliness that is the judgment of God, when everything turns against you. It is complete abandonment. Israel played the whore with God, and he, being just and true and right, brought punishment. He’s God. He’s holy. He punishes evil. That’s how it goes.
And this part, on the necessity of judgment, is actually the part that makes the most sense in this entire chapter. I don’t think any of you are looking at Hosea 2, reading through this chapter, and then when we get to this part on God’s judgment we think: “How could he!?” We’ve seen Gomer do her thing. We know what Israel has been up to. Judgment here is what makes the most sense.
What doesn’t make sense is what we read about in verse 14. This is the insanity of mercy.
3. The Insanity of Mercy
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wild, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. [The valley of Achor is a metonymy for curse. It’s a place where God’s wrath was poured out against Israel’s sin back in Joshua 7. But now, God makes the valley of wrath a door of hope.]
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
The last part of this verse is referring to when God first rescued Israel from the land of Egypt. This is going back to when Israel was free for the first time. It’s that small window before the golden calf, before she fell into sin and idolatry. And what God is saying here is that his mercy is almost like starting all over again. It means God’s forgiveness is his looking at us as if our sin never happened. It is him taking us back, turning back time, before our sin, and saying: Here you go. All that sin, all that mess, it’s gone.
And probably, right now, many of you are having a hard time believing that. You want to instantly start qualifying what I just said: But there are still consequences for sin. Grace ain’t cheap. Mercy isn’t easy.
And yeah, you’re right. But mercy is always insane. Always. I think a lot of times we can lose our marvel in the mercy of God. Mercy loses its wonder. It becomes unremarkable.
That at least is the case at a cultural level. When we have no category for the severity of our sin and the holiness of God, then forgiveness is just blah. Think about it: who cares if God forgives sin if sin isn’t a big deal, and God doesn’t really mind? For many, because they think all people are inherently good, and because they think God is a just a big teddy bear in the sky, forgiveness means nothing.
When we think we don’t really have a problem, or that God doesn’t really care what we do, then forgiveness is just another song on the radio. When we sugarcoat our spiritual condition or lose sight of God’s greatness, then forgiveness is just an empty idea that might mean something decent, but it does not amaze us.
In other words, if we don’t understand the grossness of sin and necessity of judgment, we’ll never understand the insanity of mercy.
Just think about how hard it is for us to extend mercy to others. Even within marriage, think about how tough it can be sometimes, when you feel wronged even by the tiniest of things, think about how hard it is to be gracious. Or think about that co-worker, or that boss, who has just rubbed you the wrong way. Even in these small things, we feel how hard it is to show mercy. We want to seal up our grace, to punish one another by withholding restoration. And the reason why is because we know, even in these small things, that forgiveness feels too weird. There is an insanity to forgiveness that makes it seem so out of place when we know it’s not deserved.
And that’s the whole point. It’s never deserved. Forgiveness is always the unexpected option. Sometimes I wonder if we have forgotten that. God has never owed us forgiveness. We have never deserved his mercy, but he gives it to us because he’s God. That’s the way he puts it in Hosea 11:8–9,
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
Do you see what God says here? The reason he forgives sin is because he is God and not a man. He forgives sin because he is not like us. He doesn’t forgive sin because sin is not that big a deal, and he doesn’t forgive sin because it doesn’t really bother him. He forgives sin because he is God, and because forgiving sin is insane. It’s too much for you. You don’t get it. It’s supposed to blow our minds.
And he doesn’t just stop there. Not only does he forgive sin, he rescues us from the idols that would destroy us. Notice verse 17: “For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth”
Then verses 19–20,
“And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”
This is a wedding. It’s a covenant. God rescues Israel and he makes a new covenant with her. It’s like he brings her back to the innocence she had when he first rescued her from Egypt. In fact, in verse 18 when he mentions the covenant with the beasts of the field and the birds of the heaven, this is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. So it’s like God brings Israel back to when he first rescued her, back even before Adam and Eve sinned, and he marries her. He makes a new covenant with her. And in this covenant, he ensures her faithfulness. His promise to her is not only that he will be faithful to her, but he promises her that she will be faithful to him. Again, just insane.
He does this, and he says, little Jezreel, God will sow, I’m going to plant him. Little No Mercy, I’m going to show her mercy. Little Not My People, she is going to be my people. Gomer is now Hosea’s faithful bride.
That’s what chapter two says. Or we might say it more the way chapter three does.
It’s half an hour past midnight. Hosea walks out his front door, and its October now, so it’s a little colder outside. So he zips his jacket, keeps his head down because its raining, and he calmly walks to the door of his car and opens it. As he sits inside he starts the car, turns the radio off, and begins driving in the quiet of the night down to Washington Avenue, past the North Loop, just on the outskirts of the city. He comes to the last street light there, parks the car, and gets out. He walks another block or two in the rain until he sees her. Gomer is sitting up against a building, white lips and a pale face and ripped gloves and wet clothes. And she huddled up between two others girls, as they share a cigarette. She’s got mascara stains running down the outside of her eyes. Her last layer of lip stick has rubbed off on the cigarette she keeps passing back and forth. And the girls are not talking, they’re just sitting there, trying to stay warm. And Hosea walks up to her and he says to her, Honey, it’s me. I’m here to take you home. And he stretches out his hand with a stack of cash and says, I’m taking you for tonight and I’m taking you for forever. So he reaches down, he holds her hand and he helps her up, and he wraps his other arm around her, and as they start walking to his car, and he says, I am your husband and you are my wife, and you’re not going to do this any more. I’m not going to let you do this. Your coming with me. I’m going to take care of you because I love you. And they were husband and wife, and they lived happily ever after.
And as insane as this is, Hosea, you know, is just pointing to another husband. See, years after Hosea goes and pays for his wife, there was another husband — the true and better husband. And this husband also went to the outskirts of the city, and this husband also paid for his wife.
But he didn’t pay with a stack of cash, or with silver and barley. He paid for his bride with his own life. This husband so loved his wife that he gave himself up for her, dying in her place, absorbing the punishment she deserved as a whore. And the blood that he shed for her is what he called the blood of the new covenant.
And when we come to the Lord’s Table, and we take this bread and cup, that is what we remember. When we take this cup and drink, we hear the resurrected Christ saying to us: I am your husband and you are my wife, and you’re not going to do that any more. Your coming with me. I’m going to take care of you because I love you.
Because of his mercy, that is what Jesus says to his church. And everyone here, whatever your story is, however messed up it might be, I want you to know that Jesus offers that forgiveness to you. He does.
And as the church, we want to drink to that.