The church is a “woman with a past.” You know the type. For all our social “progress,” our world still frowns on sexual promiscuity. And this is precisely what the church has become. Sure, we’d like to live under an assumed innocence, but the concept of sin simply won’t let us escape the gravity of knowing that we are all have “a past.” In his book Reagan’s America, Gary Willis writes:
“We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness. There is no ‘clean slate’ of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebears….At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as ‘having a past.’ The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, ‘has a past.’” (Gary Willis, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, p. 384)
In Hosea 12, Israel’s past comes back to haunt her. Like Gomer, Israel was a “woman with a past.” And now, we’ll see how God deals with this.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
The passage opens by looking at the history of Jacob:
Ephraim feeds on the wind and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehood and violence; they make a covenant with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt. 2 The LORD has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. 3 In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. 4 He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us– 5 the LORD, the God of hosts, the LORD is his memorial name: 6 “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (Hosea 12:1-6)
If you have a background in church, you probably remember the story of Israel. God had first made a promise to Abraham—that his many descendants would possess God’s promised land. Abraham became the father of Isaac, and Isaac had two twin sons: Jacob and Esau. Esau was technically the firstborn, but Jacob came out clutching his brother by the heel. Even the name “Jacob” means “heel-grabber,” what became a self-fulfilling prophecy as Jacob grew to become a shrewd manipulator and con artist. He scammed his family out of his brother’s share of the inheritance, and took off. Later, worried that Esau would exact revenge, he tried to buy him off by sending cattle and livestock ahead of him. Then, when the sun had set and he was all alone, he was hurled to the ground by a powerful force (Genesis 32). Though he’d lived a life of conning his family and manipulating his way into success, he could not best his opponent, and his hip was torn out of joint. Only when he admitted his name was Jacob did the mysterious opponent let go. We’re left to believe that this man wrestled with God himself. Jacob would never be the same. His encounter with God would leave him with a permanent limp—but also a new name. Do you remember what name he was given? Israel. It was a name that literally meant “God fights.” Returning to a place called “Bethel,” Jacob/Israel made good on a former vow of obedience.
So Israel was a nation that had emerged from a checkered past. We all do. Forget even your family for a moment—though I’m sure you’d find plenty of “nuts in your family tree” (to borrow Randy Buchman’s phrase). Think about your own past. Any secrets? Any regrets? Any skeletons in your closet? Chances are there are things in your life that you’d rather not be there. And this is why you need the gospel.
The irony is that Israel wasn’t remorseful over her past. In fact, she’d seemed to have forgotten all about it. Instead, their response was one of misplaced pride:
7 A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. 8 Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.” 9 I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast. 10 I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. 11 If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps on the furrows of the field. (Hosea 12:7-11)
No one likes to feel guilty. In today’s world, the message is consistently one of “What have you done for me lately?” You’re only as good (or bad) as your last performance. I may have sin in my life, but as long as I’m maintaining a good public image, I’m fine. That’s what Israel was doing. Sure, Israel was oppressing surrounding nations, but she looked so good doing it.
THE UNLOVED BRIDE
Jacob would later serve as a shepherd—probably one of a larger staff—in order to marry Rachel:
12 Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep. 13 By a prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded. 14 Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds. (Hosea 12:12-14)
You remember this story, right? Not exactly Hallmark channel material. Jacob served for seven years for Rachel, but the night after their wedding, he awoke to discover that it wasn’t Rachel, but her older sister Leah. He was forced to work another seven years to marry Rachel, a woman he loved because he found her more beautiful. So now Israel had two wives. One was beautiful and loved—yet infertile. The other was unloved—yet fertile. God would continue the line of Israel through Jacob’s unloved bride.
And so the rest of Israel’s history was marked by God’s faithfulness in the midst of man’s failings. And that’s the real nature of the gospel. Like Leah, we are not loved because we are beautiful. But in the gospel, we become beautiful because we are loved. God is in the business of reversing our histories in order to provide for our futures.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:3-4)
When were we chosen? Before the foundation of the world. Before time itself even began. What’s in your past? Failure? Sin? Regret? The gospel tells us that because of God’s love, we can look at our past and see the word chosen. And for what purpose? To be “holy and blameless before him.” For some of us, this means that like Jacob, we walk with a limp. But it also means that like Jacob, we receive a new name and a new promise of life.
This is why the whole book of Hosea concludes with a call for the nation to repent—to change their attitude and to once again experience the life that God provides:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. 2 Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. 3 Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” 4 I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; 6 his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. (Hosea 14:1-6)
The same experience can be yours as well. Are you ashamed of your past? Do you long for a better future? Perhaps today is the day for you to believe the gospel—to tell God that your life is damaged but that you trust in the work that Christ has done for you. Consider contacting one of our pastors today; we’d love to hear from you.