We are currently reading from the Book of the Prophet Hosea at daily Mass. The story of the Prophet Hosea’s troubled marriage is a powerful testimony to two things: our own tendency to be unfaithful to God, but also of God’s passionate love for us. We do well to recall the story, especially given the “great debate” among some in the Church today over the question of divorce and remarriage. And while there are many painful stories of what some have had to endure in difficult marriages, remember that God is in a very painful marriage with His people—yes, very painful! God knows the pain of a difficult marriage and a difficult spouse. The story of Hosea depicts some of God’s grief and what He chooses to do about it.
The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy; we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some “fill in”:
- Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2).
- Together they have three children, each with a symbolic name: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers, for although they are born during the marriage, God later refers to them as children of harlotry.
- At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Gomer leaves Hosea for another lover and enters into an adulterous relationship. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea’s reaction, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well-documented.
- Hosea takes her back. After an unspecified period of time, God instructs Hosea, Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1). Now while the quoted text does not clearly specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back, Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
- Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase Gomer back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley (Hosea 3:2). The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and of all false lovers is not real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
- Prior to restoring her to any intimacy, a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you” (Hosea 3:3).
This story is both difficult and beautiful. Its purpose, as you likely know, is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. Its truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of the Lord, who has a bride—a people—who are unfaithful to Him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and we renewed them on many other occasions.
But all too often we casually “sleep with” other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies, or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God; others keep two or more beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.
And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride—and at quite a cost: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid dearly to draw us back to Him. And yet still we stray and often show little appreciation of His love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”
A deeper look into the story of Hosea reveals a view into the grieving heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as grieving, angry, and weighing out His options; but it also shows Him as loving and almost romantic. On one level, we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. Although God is said to be like this, He is not angry the way we are angry. He does not grieve the way we do; He is not romantic the way we are. Although we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor, we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieving, angry, loving, and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how He experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe Himself to us.
With this balanced caution, let’s take a look at excerpts from the second chapter of Hosea, in which God decodes the story of Hosea and applies it to us. He describes to us His grieving heart as well as His plan of action to win back His lover and bride.
- Thoughts of Divorce! Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. The text suggests that God is weighing His options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us readers, so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But as we will see, He will not do that. For although we break the covenant, He will not. Though we are unfaithful, God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
- The bitter charge against her – Let her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts … “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank Him. We run after the world and after the powerful, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. They do not—it is God who does so. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We “sleep with” the world. We give credit to medicine, science, and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry, for we are enamored of secondary causes and not of God, who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda, and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is distressed by our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover. Is God a wounded and jealous lover? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is neither hurt nor angered by the way we are. And yet we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that although He is not passionate as we are, neither is He indifferent to our infidelity.
- Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishment – I will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. … I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers. … I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities. … I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense. … If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them. This text could be seen as describing God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God; we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
- The hoped-for result – Then she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” God’s intent was to bring His bride back to sanity, to bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever loved her and who can save her.
- Passionate lover – So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked. See how God wants to get alone with His bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again His love for her in a kind of Marriage Encounter She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that when we die we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world: creature comforts, power, pride, misplaced priorities, and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart, and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this He restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
- Renewed Covenant – I will make a covenant for them on that day. … I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. … and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!
Here, then, is the astonishing, undying, and pursuing love of God for His bride, the Church, and for each of us individually. After all our whoring and infidelity, we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As He commanded Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, God did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment He rendered was an indication of the high sacrifice He had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and He had to journey far and then carry us back.
I am not here to render a personal judgment on those who have struggled to save a marriage but were unable to do so. Rather, my purpose is to reach those who are currently struggling, striving to persevere, so that you realize that God knows your pain—he too experiences it from us, time and time again. Yet each day He renews His covenant with us and offers us mercy. If it helps to realize that God knows your pain, please understand that He does. In the words of the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”