A cord of compassion that slips around our wandering hearts

When we get in touch with that kind of frustration over people we want to love, care for, and encourage but who respond only with rejection or manipulation, then we are able to understand God’s anguish over the nation Israel. Hosea 11 and 12 are two of the most moving, tender chapters in the Bible. They allow us to feel the heartbeat of God’s yearning love for his people. Both of these chapters are set in the context of family life. In chapter 11, the first eleven verses, the picture is drawn of a rejected father who exercises tough love-a suffering, enduring, “in-spite-of” kind of love-toward his son. God is that Father, and the nation Israel is the son who won’t return to his Father’s love. Look at the first four verses:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and burning incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms,
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of compassion,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one
who eases the yoke on their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them.

Innocent first steps

This passage recalls the innocence of the early days of the nation’s deliverance from bondage. God graciously loved his son Israel and helped him leave Egypt. Verse 2 tells us that Israel responded with rebellion: They chose new gods, violating the most basic responsibility of their covenant relationship with him: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Verse 3 stresses how quickly Ephraim turned-as soon as he was taught to walk by his loving heavenly Father, he immediately walked away after other gods.

Don’t miss the innocent delight that the Father and his child have over these first steps. Last week I looked back through photo albums of our four children to find pictures that we had taken of their first lurching attempts to walk. The thing that struck me, on all their faces as well as Candy’s and mine, was the incredible grins stretching from ear to ear. Do you remember the first staggering steps of your children into Mama’s and Dada’s arms, and how fun it was to catch them, pick them up, and affirm their first steps?

Throughout the Scriptures, the picture of walking with God is always synonymous with trusting and obeying him. Yahweh had called Ephraim to be like Enoch, Noah, and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who had all learned to walk with God.

A vital part of God’s teaching in their life was to bring them back to health after the bondage they had experienced for four hundred years in Egypt, so that they could walk in strength. Verse 4 is a beautiful image of how their Father God lifted that yoke of bondage and led Ephraim with a compassionate, guiding hand and with a band of love, not the control of a harness with a bit. We also see the picture of their heavenly Father stooping down to their level to meet their needs, feeding them tenderly-remember how God provided the manna in the wilderness.

But these memories of Ephraim’s early years couldn’t deny the reality of what the grown children had become. So verses 5-7 deal with the painful necessity of judgment or punishment-the reality of the consequences that sin always has:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword shall rage against their cities,
consume the bars of their gates,
and devour them in their fortresses
[or because of their schemes or counsels].
My people are bent on turning away from me;
so they are appointed to the yoke,
and none shall remove it.

Growing up and facing the consequences

As we have seen before in our studies in Hosea, Egypt is a symbol of re-entering bondage. Because of the nation’s disloyalty to the covenant, they will be returned to the kind of slavery to sin from which they have already been delivered. The reason for judgment is not just the sin of apostasy with the Baals, nor their schemes or counsels (verse 6), but their persistent refusal to return or repent; their commitment to turning away from God. There is only sadness in Yahweh‘s description of this forthcoming doom and destruction. As I was working through this I could see the invasion unfolding, the Assyrian armies wiping out city after city; and God standing as a lonely figure, watching with hands clasped behind his back, biting his lip in self-imposed restraint. He is refusing to invade their stubbornness with some sort of hasty intervention that would deny his people the opportunity to grow up through facing the consequences of their rebellion and sin.

God’s forgiving grace

In verses 8-9 God directly and personally appeals to his people. The emotion and pent-up grace in his heart are expressed in beautiful poetry:

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 fierce anger,
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to destroy.

Here is the glory of God’s grace at work. That is why he doesn’t give up on Israel, or on us. Our hope is based on the faithfulness of God regardless of our unfaithfulness to him. The words of these two verses weave together strands of his unqualified grace into a band of love, a cord of compassion that slips around our wandering hearts. God is relentlessly loving, and his love won’t let his people go. Although he does have to judge and punish them, he can never finally give up on them or hand them over to total destruction. He can’t do to Ephraim what he did to the two cities mentioned, Admah and Zeboiim. These were cities that were totally destroyed on the plain of Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 14; 19). The people aren’t going to receive the obliteration they deserve. After the destruction of the land by the Assyrians, the Lord will begin the process of restoring his people.

This passage tells us that God’s holiness is foundational to his love. God isn’t vindictive, but righteous in his judgment. His punishment is remedial. And overwhelmingly his forgiving grace is at work. His purpose in all the circumstances is reconciliation. And he says it is because he is not like man; he is not controlled by the “quid pro quo” of human nature. His holiness and forgiving love will ultimately bring his people back to the land.