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God’s Pursuit of His Bride: Covenant Drama in Hosea

“The covenant is neither a hypothetical relationship, nor a conditional position; rather it is the fresh, living fellowship in which the power of grace is operative.”

– Geerhardus Vos

There is a felt tension in the book of Hosea that pulls at the heartstrings of the reader. What holds together both the severe judgments of God and his tender mercies? How can the same person promise both destruction and restoration? Is it not absurd to mingle oracles of doom with those of hope? Why trust someone who promises to heal you like a physician though he was the very one who tore you to pieces like a lion (Hos. 6:1)?

These questions open up the chest of Hosea’s message to reveal a covenantal heart pulsating with the lifeblood of God’s dealings with his people. Central to Hosea’s message is God’s covenant.[1] Far from a cold, rigid and impersonal contract, covenant life is warm, relational, vigorous and filled with intense drama. In fact, the various evocative metaphors for Israel reflect something of the internal dynamics of the covenant relationship, especially as it reveals not a domineering king imposing harsh regulations upon a people he is indifferent to, but a deeply and personally invested God who pledges himself in faithfulness and love to a people; a people who, if they leave and forsake him, will break his heart; yet, a people he will nevertheless pursue with the full vigor of his love to the ends of the earth. Far from a cold contract, God’s covenant is the sphere of deep marital affection. God actively betroths a people to himself by way of covenant (2:18-20). It is a relationship overflowing with חסד (chesed). God freely and willingly places his name upon a people so that his lot is their lot and their lot is his.

A Wayward Son and His Loving Father

In order to illustrate the above exposition of covenant, note the action of God’s heart upon contemplating the prospect of abandoning Israel, his son: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (11:8). The covenant, it could be said, was the home in which Israel was reared by the Lord God their Father. Israel was God’s beloved son whom he called out of Egypt (11:1; cf. 3:1). He “taught Ephraim to walk”; he “took them up by their arms”; and like a nursing mother to her helpless, but immensely loved infant, he “bent down to them and fed them” (11:3-4). The Lord is conscious, even heartbroken, that his son has forgotten him (13:6).

A Promiscuous Wife and Her Ever-Pursuant Husband

In Hosea the covenant drama is portrayed as a father caring for his wayward son, but more centrally as a marriage interplay between a promiscuous wife and her ever-pursuant husband. The blood of the covenant is the life source of Hosea. The refrain that pulses in the covenant is the goal and desire of mutual union and communion: “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.” The consummation of this relationship in eschatological marriage is the future prospect given to instill hope in God’s wayward bride.[2] Hosea looks with eager longing to this day in which the Lord would again allure his bride, bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her, as he once did when he brought her out of Egypt—a sort of second honeymoon (2:14-15).

And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me “My Husband,” and no longer will you call me “My Baal.” For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord (2:16-20).

Covenant Curses unto Covenant Blessings

It should be evident now that understanding God’s covenant with Israel is central to Hosea’s message. Israel will be disciplined in terms of the covenant (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14-15), receiving its curses, but that discipline is unto and for the sake of restoration, salvation, even betrothment, so that she might fully experience her Husband’s promised blessings. The Lord’s steadfast love will never depart from her. So grounds the deeply emotional appeal of Hosea:

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth (6:1-3).

The apostle Paul tapped into this infinite reservoir of God’s never-failing, ever-pursuant covenant love in his letter to the Romans:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:35-39).

While the word “covenant” can grow dull as it is used so often, especially in Reformed circles, we must never forget the white-hot passion of God for his bride that it entails and which Hosea invites us to experience.

[1] “Hosea’s prophetic message cannot be understood or appreciated in its entirety unless it is considered in the broad context of Yahweh’s cosmic kingdom and particularly his unique covenant, including its full creational, redemptive, restorative aspects with Israel, the chosen seed of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Van Groningen, From Creation to Consummation, 58).

[2] Look for a future post on the eschatology of Hosea next week.


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