Hosea 14:1-3 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.”
The other night at DG a child (who shall remain anonymous) was running backwards at an impressive clip down a hallway and into a room where the men and small children were gathered. Unintentionally this child collided with their much younger sibling, knocking them to the ground. There didn’t seem to be any concern in the offending child’s face until they looked up and saw the faces of the surprised men who were trying to discern the level of injury. Upon noticing that they were being noticed, the child quickly blurted out to the fallen sibling (while looking at the men), “I’m sorry. Are you OK?”
Everyone who has or has been around kids has witnessed something similar. And let’s be honest, every one of us have participated in something similar. We’re all guilty of throwing out insincere apologies occasionally.
There’s something particularly obvious about a fake sorry, isn’t there? Somehow we can usually tell when someone doesn’t really mean it. There’s also something particularly unhelpful about fake apologies as well, right? In fact, insincere sorrys tend to make things even worse; like adding insult to injury.
On the other hand, there’s something particularly healing when someone who wrongs us genuinely feels bad about it, stops doing it, and asks for our forgiveness. I imagine we’ve all felt the unique joy of a relationship restored when a friend owned up to a wrong they’d committed.
While it’s easy to see the role that genuine repentance plays in restoring our earthly relationships, we’re left with two critical questions as we contemplate our relationship with God: 1) What exactly constitutes genuine repentance?, and 2) How does God respond to genuine repentance?
Grace, God is kind to us in including Hosea 14 in the bible, for in that chapter he answers those two questions in no uncertain terms. In fact, it seems as if answering them for the Israelites is the primary point of chapter 14. The first three verses (which we’ll look at this morning) answer the first question (what exactly constitutes genuine repentance?). Verses 4-8 (which we’ll look at next week) answer the second question (how does God respond to genuine repentance?). The final verse (v.9, which we’ll consider two weeks from now in what will likely be the final sermon in Hosea) deals with the superiority of a life lived according to the wisdom of God.
Would you pray with me, then, that God would make this passage clear to us, that as a result we might become people of genuine repentance, and that God would deal with us as he promised the Israelites he would should they genuinely repent?
TURNING TO GOD MEANS TURNING TO HIM AS HE TRULY IS (1A)
Most of the time I hear people talking about repentance (which isn’t all that often) they seem to equate it with stopping a particular sin. That is, for many people repentance is merely about turning away from something that dishonors God. It definitely is that, but Hosea 14:1-3 teaches us that genuine repentance includes both turning from something and turning to something. That is, genuine repentance means turning from sin to God. To be even more clear, Hosea helps us to see that there are two key aspects to turning from sin and two more in turning to God. There are, therefore, according to the first three verses of Hosea, four parts to genuine repentance. Let’s consider each, beginning with the first: turning to God means turning to Him as He truly is. That’s the essence of 14:1a.
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God…
To illustrate what I think Hosea means, and to highlight the sneaky prevalence of it in our culture today, I’m going to do something that I rarely do…make a pop culture reference. I heard about a mini rant that Lady Gaga went on at a recent concert. I was so intrigued by what I’d heard she said that I had to look it up. Sure enough, there are quite a few YouTube clips of the event. Here’s a transcript (as close as I can get anyway) of the content of her brief interlude (delivered to an enthusiastically cheering crowd).
“To Mike Pence, who thinks that it’s okay that his wife works at a school that bans LGBTQ, you’re wrong. You’re the worst representation of what it means to be a Christian…”
“I am a Christian woman, and what I do know about Christianity is that we bear no prejudice and everybody is welcome. So you can take all that disgrace, Mr. Pence, and look yourself in the mirror and you’ll find it right there.”
What Lady Gaga never mentions is how she knows these things about the best and worst representations of Christianity. She never mentions the source of her convictions. We are right to wonder on what basis she believes what she believes about God’s perspective on LGBTQ, prejudice, disgrace, or any other aspect of Christianity. Clearly Lady Gaga believes that she is in right relationship with God and would love for the Pences to join her in it. And yet, the question remains: why does she believe she’s in the right?
What seems plain to me is that Lady Gaga is simply making stuff up. Much like the Israelites in Hosea’s day, she is her own authority. Perhaps without even realizing it, the best and worst representations of Christianity are for her whatever she says they are. Hosea’s point in 14:1a is that we do this only at our own peril. Over and over and over again Hosea stated plainly that mankind cannot be our own authority and live.
Genuine repentance begins with returning to God, but returning to God is not a return to a subjective, individually-defined being (as Israel had and Lady Gaga has come to believe); it is to the only One who possesses legitimate, objective power and authority to define. Returning to God is not a return to the product of contemporary culture’s common consensus about God, it is a return to “the LORD your God”; the Creator/King and Righteous/Judge of all that exists.
What’s more, God has determined that He can only be truly known through his own self-revelation, which has been preserved exclusively in the pages of our bibles. We can only know about God that which he has chosen to reveal to us about himself and we can only definitively know that through the Holy Scriptures.
Here’s the point: genuine repentance begins with the realizations that we have left and must return to the One True God, and that His Word is the only definitive source of knowing who God is.
Let us acknowledge our tendency, then, to make God in our image. Let’s give ourselves to seeking out any ideas we have about God that have come from something/someone other than God. Let us put off the kind of pride that had enveloped the Israelites in Hosea’s day and Lady Gaga at her Las Vegas concert last week. And let’s constantly remind ourselves that any god of our creation (no matter how many “desirable traits” we add) is infinitely inferior to the LORD our God.
If we are to return to God, it will be to God as he truly is and as he has revealed himself in his Word.
TURNING TO GOD MEANS TURNING TO HIM AS HE HAS COMMANDED (2-3)
The second part of genuine repentance is revealed in Hosea 14:2-3. It is the fact that just as we must return to God as he truly is, we must return to him as he has truly commanded. It is not up to us to decide who God is, and it is not up to us to decide how to return to God. God has revealed both of these things to us and, once again, we ignore them (as Israel had) only at the cost of our own destruction (as Israel experienced).
With that, I marveled all week at how much Hosea has packed into verses 2 and 3. In these two simple verses we have a roadmap back to God. In vs.2-3 God has revealed to us his three requirements to returning to him.
Use Words (2a)
The first thing we see is at the beginning of v.2.
Take with you words and return to the LORD…
Simply, we must use words. If we mean to return to God, He calls us to begin with prayer. Just as it is not enough to merely think apologies with our friends/family, but to actually say them, we must bring our prayers before the LORD.
You might be wondering, “What words?” or “What prayers?”. Well, God graciously gives clarity. He inspired Hosea to describe for his people the heart/content of the words required he requires. That is, he tells us that our words must consist of the things we see in Hosea 14:1-3…specifically (as we’ve just seen), an acknowledgement of who God is and (as we’re about to see), an acknowledgement of our utter dependence on God for rescue, and an acknowledgement that our sin as the reason we need to be rescued.
The simple fact is this: if you are not in fellowship with God, he invites you back and you begin to respond to his invitation by praying the things we find in this passage. These are God’s terms and he will receive all who honor them.
Acknowledge God’s Unique Ability to Rescue
In addition, secondly, we see from v.3 that God’s terms include acknowledging his unique ability to rescue.
- Other nations cannot save (3a). If we are to repent and return to God it will include prayerfully acknowledging the impotency of any other nation to save. Genuine repentance means renouncing all other nations as savior.
Assyria shall not save us…
- No other part of creation can save us (3b). In Hosea’s time horses were symbols of an army’s power. It was easy for the Israelites to think that their rescue (from the hands of hostile neighbor nations) was inextricably tied to possessing implements of military might. But Hosea made clear that as long as their hope was rooted in horses (or anything else in creation), they could not return to God. Genuine repentance means renouncing all other aspects of creation as savior as well.
… we will not ride on horses…
- We cannot save ourselves (3c). And God has determined that genuine repentance means renouncing anything in ourselves as savior.
… and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.
This might not look for you and I like it did for ancient Israel (making actual carved images to worship), but we too have many ways in which we try to rescue ourselves. For some it’s savings, for others it’s education, for others it’s relationships, for others it’s healthy boundaries, for others it’s something different still. Again, though, Hosea reminded the Israelites (and you and me) that we will either forsake anything in us as able to rescue us or we will not be reconciled to God.
Truly, in God alone “the orphan finds mercy” (3d). To return to God is to return to him as he truly is and as he has commanded. And he has commanded that we use words and acknowledge his unique ability to rescue.
Accept God’s Means of Atonement (2d)
The third aspect of coming to God as he commands is accepting his means of atonement. If we aren’t rescued by other nations, horses, or ourselves, then what? How has God determined to rescue us? Hosea answers that question in the last part of v.2.
Take away all iniquity; accept what is good; and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.
At that point in redemptive history God required sacrifices to remain in and return to his favor. In particular, as Hosea pointed out, those sacrifices included killing bulls as an expression of the death they deserved.
Scholars are unsure whether Hosea meant that God here charged the Israelites to make proper animal sacrifices or if his charge was to offer sacrificial prayers of repentance (as if they were bulls). Either way, the point is that Israel must accept God’s means of atonement. To return to him meant no longer seeking it through self-concocted or pagan rituals.
In doing so (in accepting God’s means of atonement), Israel could be confident that God would “accept what is good.” That is, he would receive their sacrifices and prayers of repentance as sufficient.
We know today that the blood of bulls and goats are no longer necessary since Jesus died once for all. Bulls and goats were only a means of demonstrating to the Israelites the holiness of God and their need for a substitute sacrifice. What was temporary and inadequate in Hosea’s day has become permanent and entirely sufficient today. What countless bulls over countless years could not do, Jesus did at once on the cross. He is the new and living way and the only means by which man can come to God.
Again, Hosea’s simple point is that genuine repentance means turning to God: 1) as he truly is, and 2) on his terms. And God’s terms include using words, acknowledging his unique ability to rescue, and accepting his appointed means of atonement.
TURNING FROM SIN MEANS ACKNOWLEDGING SIN AS SIN (1B)
Genuine repentance means turning to God (which we just saw), and (as we’ll now see) it means turning from sin. Hosea’s message was that God would receive the Israelites only as they came to confess that it was their sin that separated them from God in the first place. And that could only begin if they were to acknowledge their sin as sin.
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Sin is not the same as having a bad day. Sin is not a little mess-up. Sin is not a mere matter of missing the mark of perfection. Sin—all sin—is treason against God, it’s hostile rebellion against the King of kings, it’s a declaration of war on the holy maker of heaven and earth. Thus sin—all sin—carries with it the death penalty. Hosea makes plain that Israel needed to return to God for (because) of the nature of her iniquity; because of the sinfulness of her sin.
On one hand, none of us want to be told how bad we are. Who likes being reminded of their shortcommings? And yet, one of the greatest gifts of God is the ability to see our sin as it truly is. For only then can we realize our need to return to God and only then will he receive us.
On the sinfulness of sin, consider the words of Puritan, Ralph Venning (in, The Sinfulness of Sin).
God is holy, without spot or blemish, or any such thing, without any wrinkle, or anything like it, as they also that are in Christ shall one day be (Ephesians 5.27). He is so holy, that he cannot sin himself, nor be the cause or author of sin in another. He does not command sin to be committed, for to do so would be to cross his nature and will. Nor does he approve of any man’s sin, when it is committed, but hates it with a perfect hatred. He is without iniquity, and of purer eyes than to behold (i.e. approve) iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13).
On the contrary, as God is holy, all holy, only holy, altogether holy, and always holy, so sin is sinful, all sinful, only sinful, altogether sinful, and always sinful (Genesis 6.5). In my flesh, there dwelleth no good thing (Romans 7.18). As in God there is no evil, so in sin there is no good. God is the chiefest of goods and sin is the chiefest of evils. As no good can be compared with God for goodness, so no evil can be compared with sin for evil.
Genuine repentance means beginning to see at least the buds of this understanding of our sin and confessing it to God in prayer. Again, we are not charged to turn from a bad day or a brief lapse in judgment or our understandable response to the actions of others or the circumstances around us. We are charged to turn from sin, disgusting, vile, evil, deadly, abominable, God-dishonoring sin. If you don’t know the sinfulness of sin, you cannot know the kind of repentance God calls you to.
TURNING FROM SIN MEANS ACCEPTING EXCLUSIVE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR SIN (1B)
Turning from sin means acknowledging sin as sin. And finally, it also means accepting exclusive responsibility for our sin. Genuine repentance offers no excuses or justifications. It acknowledges that our sin results from our appetites and choices. It acknowledges that all the stumbling and falling that our sin produced is our responsibility. And it acknowledges that the death our sin produces is the just reward for our apostasy (v.4). Again, that was Hosea’s point in 1b.
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
There is no place in genuine repentance for blaming our circumstances. There is no place for blaming others. And there is no place for blaming God. Our sin is our sin and it is always first against God. Coming to God in a manner acceptable to him means accepting exclusive responsibility for our sin and all its consequences.
When I was young I lived out in the country so my choice of who I could play with (when I wasn’t in school) was very limited. In fact, there was only one kid on my street. We spent a lot of time together over the years. Much of it was fun. One day, however, he crossed the line. He blatantly cheated in a Super Mario Brothers tournament and he refused to acknowledge it. It was the most obvious lie I’d ever been a party to. I was so incensed that to this day I vividly remember vowing that I would never trust him again. His offense against me was that serious. There was no going back.
The book of Hosea contains countless examples of immeasurably greater offenses against an incalculably more valuable Being. If ever there has been a time when it would be just to cut off the path of return it is the time of our sin against God (not the Super Mario Bros debacle of ’86). And yet, Grace, God did not cut off the path of return. Through the blood of his Son, he flung it open wide and described it in detail for all who would hear.
To return to God we must come to him as he is and as he has commanded. And we must do so while acknowledging the sinfulness of our sin and our exclusive responsibility for the alienation it caused between us and God in the first place. We need to do these things with words of prayer, we need to do so while acknowledging God’s unique ability to rescue us, and we need to do so while accepting his means of rescue. All of this is on account of Jesus Christ who died in our place. When we do, when, by God’s grace (and it is only by God’s grace that) we repent as God has called us to, as we’ll see next week (in 14:1-8), God will receive us back into his presence; he will love us and heal us and restore us.
We’ve finally made it to the final chapter of Hosea. It is a chapter of hope. And it is a chapter of great light for all who would (re)turn to God in the manner he has provided for us. Let’s return to God and invite the entire world to join us. Amen.