Saturday, November 27, 2021

Mining the Minors: Hosea (3)

Two sentence recap: The northern kingdom of Israel went into Assyrian captivity in three stages, the final one occurring with the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. The southern kingdom of Judah went into Babylonian captivity over a century later, with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Those readers less familiar with the history of God’s earthly people may wonder why an empire as aggressively expansionist as the Assyrian would be satisfied with devouring only the northern kingdom, leaving the south to its own devices.

The answer is that it wasn’t.

Back to our study in Hosea, who was born and began to prophesy in Israel before either invasion occurred. The prophet was instructed by God to take to himself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, in order that his marriage would serve as a living illustration of the dysfunctional relationship between God and Israel. Hosea complied. This first chapter summarizes the first few years of the marriage, as children are born to Hosea’s wife Gomer. Like their parents and the marriage itself, these children served as living illustrations.

Hosea 1:6-7 — No Mercy

“[Gomer] conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, ‘Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.’ ”

A Specific Sort of Mercy

Once again it is God who chose the name for Gomer’s offspring. This second child was to be called Lo-ruhama in Hebrew, in English “No Mercy”. Her name confirmed that the northern kingdom was under the irreversible judgment of God. The opportunity for national repentance had passed, and the coming judgment of dispersion throughout the Assyrian Empire was fixed and certain. Of course individual repentance was still a possibility, and it is surely to this end that Hosea was preaching and living out in his own home a graphic illustration of Israel’s national adultery.

Now, we must be careful how we interpret phrases like “no more have mercy” and “to forgive them at all”. Some schools of interpretation hold that the northern kingdom was permanently set aside from the plans and purposes of God at this point, and that after this, the only blessing to be enjoyed by its citizens would be by moving to the southern kingdom and effectively becoming Judeans. That is not what is being taught here. The state of “no mercy” on Israel is to continue for a fixed period, not forever. Its purpose is to produce repentance so that God can in a future day restore the northern kingdom to its place of blessing and fruitfulness.

We can tell what specific sort of mercy (or the absence thereof) God has in mind here because Hosea contrasts the lack of mercy to be shown to Israel with the mercy to be shown to Judah under similar circumstances. Shalmaneser’s army would march into Israel and lay siege to its great cities; a few years later, Sennacherib’s army would march into Judah and do likewise. The difference between the two was that at this time in history, God would defend Jerusalem where he would absolutely not defend Samaria. Judah’s time would come, but this was not it.

This is the sort of “mercy” or “no mercy” God has in view: the scope of God’s judgment on Israel is not indefinite.

Mercy on Judah

The story of Judah’s deliverance from the fate that would befall Israel is significant enough that it appears in three different places in scripture: 2 Kings 18-19, 2 Chronicles 32 and Isaiah 36-37. The incident occurred in the 14th year of the reign of King Hezekiah, 702 BC or thereabouts, eight years after Samaria had fallen to Shalmaneser, confirming the prophetic word through Amos and Hosea.

Sennacherib king of Assyria marched into Judah in response to Hezekiah’s failure to pay the tribute levied on his nation. He took all the fortified cities of Judah and marched on Jerusalem to confront Hezekiah. Surrounding the city, he taunted Hezekiah, alternately insulting the God of Israel and claiming to be his emissary. Hezekiah spread out the Assyrian declaration of war before the Lord and humbly prayed for deliverance, which God granted. He sent Hezekiah a message of comfort through Isaiah the prophet, immediately following which the angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 Assyrians in their tents, all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp. Sennacherib packed his bags and went home, and was later murdered by his own sons.

Bow, Sword, War, Horses, Horsemen

Just as Hosea had prophesied, God’s mercy on the house of Judah did not come in the form of bow, or sword, or war, or horses or horsemen. It came by way of a destructive miracle. God did not need an alliance with Egypt to accomplish his purposes, and he certainly did not need Hezekiah’s vastly outnumbered army. He did not need Hezekiah’s tactical brilliance and motivational speeches to the troops, which are uniquely chronicled in, well ... Chronicles.

It is often said that God helps those who help themselves. Sometimes that is the case. At other times he helps those who cannot possibly help themselves, and who cast themselves on his mercy. My limited successes with unwise alliances, tactical brilliance and reliance on my own skills and strength are gradually teaching me to do more of what Hezekiah did, and to do it sooner rather than later.

In any case, just as God’s mercy on Judah would have a limitation period, his refusal to show mercy to Israel under similar circumstances by delivering Samaria from Shalmaneser did not mean God was done with Israel as a nation forever. “No Mercy” speaks to a period of judgment with a fixed termination point, a point I believe has yet to occur.

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