“Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears…
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:4b, 6 NIV)
In amazing brevity and precision, these two verses from Hosea presents the whole comprehensive reality of mankind’s deepest spiritual problem.
First a little context.
The people of Israel had entered into a covenant relationship with God following his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt and God has established them in the promised land.
Unfortunately they backslide.
They start to mix worship of the pagan deities of the surrounding nations in with their worship of Yahweh.
Yahweh does not accept this and so decides he will show them the powerlessness of these other gods and allows the nation to experience one disaster after another.
Finally the penny drops and the priests call the people to offer sacrifices to Yahweh.
But this merely exposes the root of their misunderstanding.
Yahweh doesn’t want their sacrifices. He wants their obedience.
This is the core of not only Israel’s but mankind’s deepest spiritual problem. All pagan religion, indeed all magic, has a mercantile basis.
People try to manipulate the gods into doing what they want by giving them stuff.
But the Bible tells us that,
Yahweh doesn’t want our stuff.
Indeed as C.S. Lewis powerfully made the point in his “Sixpence none the richer story” – we have nothing to give God apart from that which he has first given us. God is never any better off for having been given back his own stuff!
The root spiritual problem we, as human beings, have is this,
We want to be saved without being changed.
But this is not how Yahweh works.
‘An acknowledgement of God’ means an acknowledge with heart and life of the lordship of the God of the Exodus and covenant.
Indeed, the whole history of Israel is the sphere of the struggle and dialogue between man and God. This is expressed in some of the possible meanings of the name Israel e.g. “God strives” or “Struggles with God”.
As Mays reminds us,
“Yahweh is the exclusive Lord of Israel and alone has the right to fix the conditions of their existence. One does not turn to a suzerain for help while ignoring his desire.”
Israel’s problem (and ours) is the struggle to accept this in the reality of our daily lives. To give God his rightful place.
I was brought up in the Evangelical tradition and we liked to express spiritual truth in memorable aphorisms. One we used to quote regularly was,
“If Jesus isn’t Lord of all, he isn’t Lord at all”
There is a key moment of revelation in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” when the character of Aslan, the Jesus figure, is described,
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you?
Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” …
“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
In fact the human error is this folly of this search for a tame god.
We want a small, trivial god, that we can easily manipulate and turn to our ends. We are prepared to give God our stuff, but not ourselves. We can do once a week worship, or daily prayer, or even 10% of our income, but to give ourselves wholly to God, for him to control and guide and use as he will. No way.
All of which is understandable. It’s just not possible. Well not if we want to be saved.
The God who is revealed in the Bible works differently.
The God who called out and set apart Israel to live in relationship with him did not intend to relate to his people in the same meaningless, mercantile, worship exchange of paganism.
“In his election of Israel Yahweh had not meant to found one more religion of ritual by which men might manage the divine; he intended to become absolute Lord of all life”
When God called Israel it was to something far bigger than being their genie in a bottle; their “Get out of jail free” card in case of problems.
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.
Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a NIV)
It is in this context that we must understand Hosea’s critique of the people of Israel’s “love”. Their supposed “love” or “devotion” to God was wavering, changeable, inconstant. Whereas,
‘Devotion’ means the attitude and acts which loyally maintain and implement a given relationship
The “acknowledgement of God” implies,
“A knowing which becomes a state of being.”
Israel’s failure was in approaching Yahweh,
“… as though he was some Canaanite deity to whom the quality if their lives is irrelevant, as though there were no covenant and no revelation in the past of what it means ‘to be my people’”
In fact this is the key failure which will be resumed a few verses further on,
“but they do not realise that I remember all their evil deeds.
Their sins engulf them; they are always before me.” (Hosea 7:2 NIV)
The real issue, the crucial issue, never enters their minds – that it is the evil in their lives that God hates.
We cannot encounter God in any meaningful way, in his majesty, his glory and his power and merely ‘bumble on’ as before. Any time that something of God’s true wonder and holiness and glory begin to dawn on our consciousness, change will inevitably happen. Something that is made clear in the New Testament,
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV)
Indeed, to stay unchanged is to deny the reality of our encounter with God. To have met with God in a saving encounter always leads to transformation.
If we are in relationship with God it is always on HIS terms. God doesn’t invite us “to try our best”, or “to have a go” at living in a way that pleases him. He COMMANDS us to live holy lives.
Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.(Leviticus 19:2 NIV)
Much of the debate about Christian sexual ethics in the light of changing contemporary mores seems to me to be rooted in such a desire to avoid this radical call to holiness and the complete re-orientation of our lives. We want to be saved, but not to be changed. God please save me but leave me as I am.
However transformation into holiness, a re-orientation of our life in line with God’s standards, values, desires are the essential elements of a saving encounter with the awesome God of the Bible,
“Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” …
“He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
 Lewis C.S. Mere Christianity – Book III-Christian Behaviour – Chapter 11-Faith, Glasgow: Fount, 1952, p124
 Mays, James Luther The Old Testament Library – Hosea, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969, p95
 ibid., p98
 ibid., p103