1 “Come, let us return to the LORD.
He has torn us to pieces
but he will heal us;
he has injured us
but he will bind up our wounds.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
3 Let us acknowledge the LORD;
let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.” (hosea 5.15-6.3 niv)
The Second Lesson for this past Sunday was Hosea 5:15-6:3. This short lesson holds much in the way of prophecy and encouragement. It’s a fitting lesson to hear in the season of Lent, focusing as it does on the theme of repentance. It was often traditionally used on Good Friday in years past, and it’s easy to see why. My comments below follow the words of Hosea in italics.
Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me. Here we may remember Jesus’ words from the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Many times while undergoing trials or suffering we might feel like God has retreated from us to a place where we can’t find Him — that He has hidden Himself from us, beyond our reach. Our God is indeed a hidden God (Isa 45.15), but the truth is that He is always near His children; it is we who forget that fact. It is we who wander. He is near us by virtue of our baptisms, when the Spirit came to live in our hearts. He is near us through His Word: ““The Word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (rom 10.8-9). When God feels far away, it is not He who has moved — but us.
God sometimes allows Himself to feel far away from us, or us to feel far away from Him, to bring us to repentance. When God seems far away, we cry out even more desperately and seek Him more urgently. Luther often spoke of how God seemed distant, and how the Christian must wrestle with this fact and grapple with it until he or she derived full assurance from the promises of the Word and his or her faith. Faith always seeks God’s face, that is, it wants to appear before Him, to know Him, and to live in His presence. This is a Hebrew idiom, but nonetheless vivid for us. We all know what it means if you can’t look someone in the face — you’re ashamed. But if you do look someone in the face, it means that you have a trusting, honest relationship with them. Thus also with God.
God’s wrath is fearsome and not to be taken lightly. We see this most graphically at Calvary, where our Lord endured the surging floods of the Father’s full wrath against the sin of the world. It almost turns your stomach to see an innocent man so battered and bloodied in injustice and scorn — and it brings tears to your eyes when you consider that the spiritual punishment was by far more painful and intense and extensive than the visible, physical suffering. Jesus was forsaken by God. God turned His back on His own Son and shut Him out from His love and attention, the love He had enjoyed in the highest degree before the creation of the world. Yet how great His love, that He would willingly submit to abandonment by His own Father! The depths of degradation, loneliness, and anguish that Christ plumbed bear eloquent testimony to His heart full of love and grace for sinners such as you and me. “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53.5)
Now the speaker or speakers switch, and Israel is speaking about the Lord. Those who speak are enjoining repentance on the rest of Israel. They express confidence that He will show mercy to them, and a long view that looks past their present suffering to the healing and salvation of God. They use three different figures to describe this: wounds God gave them, like the wounds that a marauding lion would deal out; attacks from God that He will nonetheless heal; God granting life and restoration to His people. In each case the underlying meaning is the same.
This refers to the action of God’s law, which attacks, tears, smites, and kills our sin. Oftentimes the denial of self and the purgative effects of suffering via the cross are an aid to the working of the law. The ultimate goal is for God to bind our wounds with the healing salve of His gospel, which announces gladness, life, and forgiveness to wounded and crushed sinners. It’s remarkable that God is both the One who wounds and the One who heals, yet this accords closely with other passages of Scripture, e.g. Deuteronomy 32:39 : ““See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me.
I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.” In both wounding with the law and binding up and healing with the gospel, God alone is the sole agent. He alone is the One who makes it happen. He works through His law and gospel to accomplish His ends, the salvation of sinful people.
V.2 contains another Hebrew idiom that nonetheless reminds us of more than just a reference to time passing. Patterns of “two, then three” or “three, even four” are common in Hebrew thought. Sometimes the numbers even go as high as seven and eight. Here two and three denote a measured span of time which is long enough but not too long. God crushes His people for a time to bring them back to Him, but He does not crush them beyond measure. He is not cruel in the action of His law, even though it hurts His children at the time. The pain is still necessary because of our sin, like an eye-dropper full of medicine that stings even as it cleanses a wounded eye of infection. Here we see God’s grace even in the working of the law.
The common caricature of the God of the Old Testament being wrathful, angry all the time, or almost crazed with revenge has no place here. It simply collapses when one actually reads the Old Testament with open eyes. Even in a book like Ezekiel, one full of repeated and severe pronouncements of law, is still full of God’s grace along with His wrath. He is both and He will be true to both.
The mention of three days bringing restoration puts us in mind of Christ’s resurrection, which did, in fact, take place on the third day. In His resurrection from the dead Our Lord restored what Adam had lost for mankind and what the devil had stolen: the image of God, the essential perfection and holiness that God gifted man with in the beginning. And Jesus’ resurrection gives us life in God’s presence –eternal life. That life is deeded to us in Holy Baptism, where Christ claims us as His own and puts His saving name on us as we are baptized into His death for sin and His resurrection to newness of life. Jesus’ gift to us is eternal life, right now. We get to enjoy the life we will have in heaven here on earth. Of course we still have sin living in our flesh and active in the world to contend with, but everything Jesus has promised us we already enjoy here on earth through faith; then we will see it fully and experience it wholly in heaven.
V.3 touches me. It’s insistent when it repeats the urging to acknowledge the Lord — to acknowledge Him as the Holy One of Israel, the One to whom we are all responsible, the One who provides perfect righteousness free of charge through His only Son. So much of the world refuses to acknowledge the Lord; it’s because they’re hoping He goes away, that’s He’s a figment or a myth. He is not. He is very real, more real than you or I because His life does not depend on another as ours does on Him. “There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”
The latter part of v.3 specifically calls to mind the Messiah again. He is compared to the sun in Malachi 4:2 : “But for you who revere My name, the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Other places make the same comparison. One of the reasons Christians started worshipping on Sunday morning was as a remembrance of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, just as the sun rises new at the start of the new day after the cold, dark night. Similarly, the Benedictus (Zechariah’s song from Luke 1:67-79, which is sung at Matins, and especially during the seasons of Advent and Lent) compares Christ to the rising sun that sheds His rays on us from heaven, the Dayspring that makes us glad with the light of His countenance. In the monasteries many times they would time the chanting of the Benedictus to the moment that the rising sun would flood the formerly dark abbey church with its warming light. This is to be a daily reminder to us that Christ is the world’s light, whether or not you engage in formal prayers at that hour.
Because they lived in a desert region, the people of Israel were very dependent on adequate rainfall. Several years of drought could spell disaster. Conversely, rain meant life and prosperity. The winter rains often helped the second planting of wheat to spring up and grow to maturity. In like fashion the appearance of the Messiah, the coming of Christ into the world, was to bring relief and gladness of heart to His people through the forgiveness of their sins. They would be one with their God again. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.” (eph 2.13-15)
Psalm 72, another Scripture replete with Messianic references, also refers to Christ using the figure of rains or showers: “He will be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the earth.” (ps 72:6) Just as rains bring fruitfulness and life to the land and everything that lives on it, so also Christ came to make us fruitful for God. He removed the barrenness of our natural hearts and the worthless, blighted fruit we produced out of our evil natures (Isaiah 5:1-7) and planted the good seed of the Word deep in our hearts, sanctifying us and making us the people of God. Rain brings fruitfulness and produces crops, just as those who are made holy through faith in Christ then become fruitful vines, trees planted by streams of water. Read and meditate on John 15 to see how this works in the life of the believer. “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” (james 1:21)
Interestingly, Isaiah 55:10-11 compares the action of God’s Word to rain and snow coming down from heaven and watering the earth, making it bud and flourish. The Word of God that is preached and believed is spoken of the same way as the Word made flesh, Christ the incarnate Son of God. What is said of one can fairly be said of the other. God’s Word is not a mere rule book or a historical record mixing facts and legends; it is the living voice of God, animated by the Spirit of God, in which Christ Himself speaks to us and works directly on our hearts. Thus He produces in us fruit that will endure to eternal life, and thus our days become as the days of a tree, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon; planted in the house of the LORD, they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age, they will stay fresh and green, proclaiming, “The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.” (Ps 92:12-15)