Volume 1 - Issue 2

The way home: an exposition of Hosea 14

By Derek Kidner

While Themelios is primarily concerned with the academic interests of the student of theology, we recognize that the ultimate aim of such study, and particularly of study of the Bible, is to enable us to understand and respond to the Word of God. From time to time, therefore, Themelios will publish an exposition of a passage of Scripture, designed not primarily to solve exegetical puzzles, nor even as an example of expository preaching (though it may well be taken as such), but ‘for our own souls’ good’. The first such contribution is from Derek Kidner, the Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge, whose gift for concise and illuminating exposition is already well known from his Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries on Genesis, Psalms and Proverbs.

This little chapter of only nine verses,1 as quiet and gentle as its predecessors are tumultuous, leads us back again through the main areas of the book of Hosea, this time on our way home. Israel is being beckoned, and the way is signposted with the landmarks she has passed on her journey into the far country.

‘Draw near to God …’ (verses 1–3)

The first word, ‘Return,’ is an old friend, a strong feature of the book. Up to now it has brought only disappointment and reproach. Basically it means ‘turn’; and Israel has habitually turned the wrong way. They have been ‘bent on turning away from me’, as 11:7 puts it. This, incidentally, was obscured by the older translations that spoke of ‘backsliding’, which has a sound of failure rather than perversity, whereas in fact there had been a flat refusal to respond (11:5), born of pride (7:10) and of settled preference (5:4, ‘Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God’). Even the sudden change of mind which had prompted the words, ‘Come, let us return to the Lord’, had been as shallow as a passing impulse (6:1, 4). But God will not give up—how could he?2 If their repentance has been shallow, he will deepen it. There is warmth in the emphatic form of the word, ‘Return’ (la; verse 2 uses the ordinary form), and the preposition is a strong one.3 We could almost translate it, ‘Oh turn, Israel, right back to the Lord.’ Even the familiar words ‘your God’ have gained a new intensity from the threat which Israel’s fickleness had seemed to pose to her marriage bond with the Lord. Against all deserving, the marriage holds; he is still hers. Here is the costly equivalent of his word to the cuckolded Hosea: ‘Go again, love a woman who is beloved of a paramour …, even as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods’ (3:1).

Repentance, then, will be first and foremost personal. ‘I will allure her … and … she shall answer as in the days of her youth’ (2:14f.). As George Adam Smith finely puts it, ‘Amos cries, “Turn, for in front of you is destruction;” but Hosea, “Turn, for behind you is God.” ’4

For all its warmth, though, God’s call is exacting. It leaves no room for humbug: there must be ‘fruit that befits repentance’. Already 12:6 (Hebrew, verse 7) has held up to us the challenging implications of the word ‘return’. Manward, it will mean, ‘Hold fast to love and justice;’ heavenward, ‘Wait continually for your God.’ It is the second of these that our chapter will be chiefly spelling out.

First, then, ‘Take with you words’ (verse 2). Words can be facile, but so can actions. A major contrast in this book is between articulate, meaningful encounter, and the mere formalities and gifts which people try to substitute for it. ‘With their flocks and their herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they will not find him’ (5:6). Sub-personal religion never will (cf. 5:15).

These ‘words’ are to be without reservations or excuses. God has spoken of ‘your iniquity’ (verse 1); man must accept and echo that (verse 2), not jib at it as he did in 12:8 (Hebrew, verse 9), with his boast, ‘they shall find in me none iniquity that were sin’ (rv).

But what of the next plea, ‘Accept that which is good’? The av, perhaps scenting salvation by works, gave the rather forced translation, ‘Receive (us) graciously.’ Another just-possible rendering is mentioned by G. A. F. Knight (Torch Commentary): ‘Receive (us), O Good One.’ But more probably it is simply a plea that God will accept the offering from the lips and the heart which he has required of his people. This chimes in with the famous saying in 6:6 about the things which he desires above sacrifice, and with Psalm 51:17; perhaps, too, with the verbal echo, obscured in translation, between God’s call, ‘Take with you …’, and man’s responding plea, ‘Accept (lit. ‘take’) …’

The offering of words, which began with one kind of confession, the acknowledgment of sin, now turns into confession in its other sense, the acknowledgment of God in praise. The Hebrew of verse 2c is awkward again: lit., ‘and we will render bullocks, our lips’; but at least the word ‘render’ gives a good clue to the sense. It is the term used for paying one’s vows (e.g., Ps. 116:14), in due gratitude for answered prayer. Lips, then, will be our votive offering, our ‘bullocks’. But the point is made more gracefully in the Greek and Syriac versions, which read the same consonants to mean ‘the fruit of our lips’, and this is how Hebrews 13:15 quotes it.

So far, then, the positive side of repentance has been uppermost. The runaway must return, the sinner plead, the formalist use his mind and lips, to come back into fellowship with God. It is a turning to the light.

Now with verse 3 comes the negative requirement, a turning from the old ways, in a clear farewell to futile hopes and false beliefs. Both are familiar from the earlier chapters. For security, Israel has been flitting like ‘a silly senseless pigeon’ (7:11, neb) between the two great powers of the day: placating Assyria, cultivating Egypt (that source of chariots and horses, verse 3a; cf. Is. 31:1). Those two names appear in almost every chapter in the latter half of Hosea—for Israel was as loth as we are to think God relevant to practical affairs. His name carried no weight in politics. As a consequence, Israel’s outlook had become as worldly as her friends’. ‘Ephraim mixes himself with the peoples; … Aliens devour his strength, and he knows it not’ (7:8f.).

As for false beliefs, the gods of verse 3b are constantly in evidence throughout this book. Hosea’s scorn for them is as total as Israel’s infatuation. ‘Men’, he exclaims, ‘kiss calves!’ ‘A workman’ made the thing they bow to, using the very gold that the true God had lavished on them (13:2; 8:5; 2:8). The lunacy and ingratitude of all this is of course more obvious to us than are its modern counterparts. But as long as man-made deities, visible and invisible, keep their power to seduce us, verse 3b will still have words for us to use.

The trustful climax of the confession is beautifully if freely expressed in neb: ‘for in thee the fatherless find a father’s love’—which brings out the allusion in the Hebrew to the way the book began, with the prophet’s broken marriage and disowned daughter, Lo-ruhamah, which means virtually ‘Unloved’ (1:6). For Lo-ruhamah was to be re-named Ruhamah, ‘She is loved’ (2:1, 23), in token of the Lord’s reclaiming grace for Israel. The word is usually translated by some expression for pity, which it certainly implies; but it is an emotional word, well suited to express a father’s or a mother’s tender affection (cf. Ps. 103:13; Is. 49:15). Once again this chapter has taken up the opening themes of the book, filling them with hope.

‘… and he will draw near to you’ (verses 4–7)

Now God speaks, and the whole scene lights up before us. The word ‘(Re)turn’ still echoes through the chapter, as it has echoed through the whole book. It was heard in verses 1 and 2, and will reappear in verse 7; meanwhile it comes twice in verse 4, first concealed in the word ‘faithlessness’ (verse 4, rsv; lit., ‘turning’; i.e., ‘apostasy’, neb), to remind us that our waywardness is incurable until God heals it, and then in the assurance of the last line that his anger has turned away. Between these two reminders of the past comes one of the purest expressions of what the New Testament will call grace, prevailing over the language of judgment and desert heard in 9:15 (‘I will love them no more’). The neb translates our present line, ‘Of my own bounty I will love them.’ We can notice, too, a striking contrast, not only between this outgoing love and the scant affection of Israel’s paramours (2:7), but between this tireless Giver and the reluctant hirelings of 8:8f.

After the perfect clarity of these promises—and clarity is vital to the anxious and conscience-stricken—the poetry is free to spread itself in the next verses (5–7). All the imagery of them is from nature, at its happiest and most bountiful.

Without labouring the details, we can gain from this a threefold impression of Israel revived and reconciled to God. First, freshness (dew, flowers, fragrance, beauty, shade); secondly, stability (rooted like the poplar, perhaps; or like Lebanon; verse 5);5 thirdly, vigour (the spreading shoots of new growth, verse 6; the ‘corn in abundance’, verse 7, neb).6

But such a summary is only useful if it makes us look more closely at the passage, which has all the grace and vitality to match the realities of which it speaks. There is nothing stifling or constricting in the divine love expressed here. Like the river of Ezekiel 47, it brings life to everything it reaches.

The appeal pressed home (verse 8)

‘O Ephraim!’ In Hosea such an exclamation has more than once laid bare the heart of the prophecy and of its ultimate Author. Like David’s cry, ‘O my son Absalom!’ or our Lord’s ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’ it has voiced both love and anguish—‘What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?’ ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim!’ (6:4; 11:8). Now (as I see it) it is as though God turns to reason with the hearer for the last time—for the penitent words of verses 2f. and the fair prospect of verses 4–7 were part of an invitation (verses 1, 2a) which has yet to be accepted and made Israel’s own.

The plea (on this view)7 rests on the incomparable claims of God. Can he any longer8 be spoken of, even thought of, in the same breath as idols? Can Egypt’s or Assyria’s protection compete with his? Do they answer when you call? Do they care as he cares?

The last two lines of verse 8 read strangely until we remember that Hebrew thought has none of our inhibitions against mixed metaphors. God, these lines can well be saying, has all the constancy of the evergreen, all the richness of the fruit tree. Ephraim, if he is to live up to his own name (‘For God has made me fruitful …’, Gn. 41:52), need look no further.

To the reader (verse 9)

Whether the prophet himself or an editor added these words need hardly concern us here. The point that they drive home is that the prophecy is open-ended: its eloquence and passion could win Israel to repentance or could leave her unmoved. The response was hers to make. But not only hers. The ‘whoever’ of this verse suddenly exposes us to the same searching encounter, for the word of God goes on speaking; it never slips safely into the past. The rightness of God’s ways as revealed in this book is so far above us in both holiness and love, as to leave self-sufficient man without excuse, self-condemned, while those who turn into the way of righteousness find themselves met more than half-way.

‘To turn aside from thee is hell,

To walk with thee is heaven.’

The comment of G. A. F. Knight on this verse deserves to be the last word: ‘Therefore, dear reader, so runs the content of this Epilogue, ask yourself the question—how would you apply this message of Hosea to your own knowledge and experience of Israel’s God?’

1 The Hebrew Bible has ten verses, through starting the chapter at 13:16; so its numbering runs one verse ahead of the English versions throughout the chapter. The numbering of the English versions is followed in this exposition.

2 Cf. 11:8f.

3 Cf. BDB, s.v. ‘ad, citing this verse.

4 The Book of the Twelve Prophets, I, p. 339.

5 Most modern versions reckon that ‘Lebanon’ in verse 7 (Hebrew, verse 8) has induced a scribal error in verse 5 (Hebrew, verse 6), where libneh (poplar; cf. 4:13) is conjectured to have stood originally. But the Hebrew text and the ancient versions read ‘Lebanon’, which makes tolerable sense either as referring to its mountain range or to its cedars.

6 See rsv mg. The Hebrew text has ‘they shall make corn (dāgān) flourish’ (lit., ‘live’), which rsv emends to ‘they shall flourish as a garden’ (gan).

7 The English versions reflect something of the variety of possible interpretations. In the first line, jb and neb(‘What has Ephraim any more to do with idols?’) follow lxx. In av and rv, Ephraim is the speaker. In the last two lines, opinions differ as to the identity of the speaker or speakers; it has even been suggested that in the four lines of the verse, God and Ephraim speak alternately (Pusey).

8 rsv eases the question by omitting ‘any longer’. But the note of time is intelligible if it refers to the effect of the prophecy on the hearers’ understanding.

Derek Kidner