The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Hear ye this, O priests; and hearken, ye house of Israel; and give ye ear, O house of the king; for judgment is toward you, because ye have been a snare on Mizpah, and a net spread upon Tabor.Forsaking God
Hosea 4, Hosea 5 "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children" (
"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children" (Hosea 4:6).
The Lord must in some way find our life that he may either reward it or chastise it. In this case he will get at the parents through the children. He would not have done this if there had been any other way into their rebellious and obdurate hearts. We must leave him to explain himself in reference to the children; he will do that which is right and merciful; we need not plague ourselves about that aspect of mystery; rather let us fasten attention upon the fact that God means for our good to get at our souls somehow. He will try all the gates, and even if he has to break down the child-gate he will come in. That is the point upon which we are to fix our devout attention. We can of course be tempted in another direction: why attack the children, why conduct himself towards the innocent as if they were guilty? Why punish the innocent for those who have transgressed? So we metaphysically fritter away God's noblest meaning; we endeavour to solve the insoluble, when we might be accepting with grace and gratitude the inevitable, the disciplinary, and the high administration of divine righteousness.
Then he will proceed with his punishment, and "change their glory into shame." He shall make the noblest horse as a mean and stumbling ass; he will cause the genius that set itself against him to do menial work, to sing unworthy songs, to paint pictures for the walls of hell; he will turn their eloquence into a new method of lying; that which was once their crown shall be their disgrace; that which was once their chief glory shall be a cloud upon their lives. God will turn things upside down; he will have night at midday, if thereby he can do good to the sons of men. The lesson is that somehow, at some point, divine judgment will lay hold upon us, that it may prepare the way for divine mercy. Judgment will not come alone if he can help it; judgment is God's strange work. When the fire comes it is only to burn the stubble; when God strikes it is that he may awaken attention; when God takes away the little child it is that we may look up—the look that stirs heaven, the look that means, There must be something beyond; the inexplicable look, the attitude religious, even when the tongue is dumb as to praise. So we recur again and again to the deep sweet true lesson that whatever happens in the way of divine discipline, or in the administration of divine law, is meant not only to rebuke us for sin and judge us with tremendous judgment, but to invite us to thought and prayer, to penitence, and through contrition to pardon.
How vividly the sin of the people represented itself to God. We ought to ask, How do other people view our actions? For we are not judges at all times of our own behaviour. But the question should not end there; that inquiry is itself but a hint of broader criticism. We should ask, How does this life appeal to God? God has a right to be heard upon this subject. It is not for man to say that he is judge, and he knows all, and can settle everything, and that his opinion is final. Even art appeals to criticism; even music seems to say in all its undulation, in all its wizardry of sound: Do you feel this? Does it touch you, heal you, inspire you, have some effect upon you? And man must submit his life to divine criticism; his question should be, Lord, this looks well to me, but I can only see it from one point of view; how does it look from heaven? Things are in reality as God sees them, for God sees them in their reality.
"They eat up the sin of my people, and they set their heart on their iniquity." They live upon it, they pander to people rather than expose their sins, and so long as those sins are profitable the priests seize the produce, and spend it on their own lust, vanity, and ambition. Think of anointed men living on the produce of sin and shame! The people go out and do the sin, and those who are in the sanctuary say, Bring your gains; we will not ask how you got them; only plentifully dispense them to us, and we will ask nothing concerning processes. So the priest was made fat by the iniquity of the people, and the Lord was moved in heaven in the direction of controversy and judgment, and he shook the heaven in his wrath, and condemned those whom he called by the endearing name "My people." It is something to have a righteous God, whoever invented him. Say these prophets were inventors of a God, it was a noble God they dreamed. His moral character disposes of the theory of invention; it does not lie within the scope of iniquity to dream holiness; it is not within the power of diseased corrupt humanity to invent a spotless God, walking in righteousness, and judging the earth in equity. The Lord inquires about our gains and our produce and our enjoyments, and he will not have upon his altar the result of sin. We are willing to receive it because we are imperfect. A man who has made money by evil practices may bring it to the Church, and with a kind of Protestant papality we say, The end will sanctify the means; we will take this blood-money, and build holy walls with it; we will accept this treasure of shame, and pray it into a kind of purity. The Lord will not have such sacrifice. He loves honesty, truth, righteousness, reality, and he will not close his eyes in connivance when iniquity would seek to bribe the altar. These are the teachings of the Old Testament; verily those teachings might make it a New Testament every day; this morality never grows old; in this ineffable righteousness there is an infinite novelty. Here is the security of the universe, and the security of the Church.
Then we come to words which are often quoted as a proverb: "And there shall be, like people, like priest." The people may have what they like, and the priest will say, "You could not help it." The priest will reproduce what the people are doing, and the people will take encouragement from the priest to go out and do double wickedness, and thus they shall keep the action even. To this degree of corruptness may holiest institutions be dragged. The priest—meaning by that word teacher, preacher, minister, apostle—should always be strong enough to condemn; he can condemn generally, but not particularly; he can damn the distant, he must pet and flatter and gratify the near. He will outgrow this—when he knows Christ better; when he is enabled to complete his faith by feeling that it is not necessary for him to live, but it is necessary for him to speak the truth; when he comes to the point of feeling that it is not at all needful that he should have a roof over his head, but it is necessary that he should have an approving conscience; when he completes his theology by this divinest morality, he will be a rare man in the earth, with a great voice thundering its judgments, and with a tender voice uttering its benedictions and solaces where hearts are broken with real contrition. Priests should lead; priests should not neglect denunciation, even where they are unable to follow their denunciation by examples to the contrary. The word should be spoken boldly, roundly, grandly. It will be a woesome day for the nation when the word is not sounded out in all its simplicity, purity, rigour, and tenderness.
The Lord says, "I will punish them for their ways, and reward them for their doings." When we find this word "doings" in the Old Testament associated with God it means great doings. This is one of those words which is at once both substantive and adjective. "Doings" associated with the divine name is a word meaning great things—marvellous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty—and when the word doings in the old Hebrew is associated with men, it means bold doings, audacity, impudence at its highest height; doings that seek to accomplish by boisterousness and audacity and madness what cannot be accomplished by quietness and wisdom and moral strength. The Lord will crush the impertinence and the folly of sinners.
A wonderful discovery the Lord makes as to the sin of the people; he says, "They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills." That is the bold aspect, that is the public phase; instead of doing all these things, as Ezekiel would say, in a chamber of imagery far down, at which you get through a hole in the wall, they go up to high places, and invite the sun to look upon them; they kiss the calf in public. Some credit should be due to audacity; but there is another sin which cannot be done on the tops of the mountains, so the charge continues—"under oaks and poplars and elms, because the shadow thereof is good." Here is the secret aspect of rebellion. Do not believe that the blusterer lives only in public as fool and criminal; do not say, There is a fine frankness about this man, anyhow; when he sins he sins in high places; he goes upon the mountain and stamps his foot upon the high hills, and the great hill throbs and vibrates under his sturdy step. That is not the whole man; he will seek the oak, the poplar, and the elm, because the shadow thereof is good. It is a broad shadow; it makes night in daytime; it casts such a shadow upon the earth which it covers that it amounts to practical darkness. So the blustering sinner is upon the mountain, trying to perpetrate some trick that shall deserve the commendation of being frank, and when he has achieved that commendation he will seek the shadow that is good, the shadow at daytime, the darkness underneath the noontide sun. How the Lord searches us, and tries our life, and puts his fingers through and through us, that nothing may be hidden from him! He touches us at every point, and looks through us, and understands us altogether. There is not a word upon our tongue, there is not a thought in our hearts, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether; thou knowest our thought afar off; ere it is quite rounded into shapeliness thou dost know it in its plasm, in its earliest hint; before the mind knows its own thinking thou knowest it all, and seest it in overt act, in positive malignant disposition.
So the Lord proceeds with his charge, and in a tone of intolerable mockery and irony he returns to Bethaven.
"Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The Lord liveth" (Hosea 4:15).
Bethaven substitutes Bethel. In the old, old history Bethel meant house of God, and still means that etymologically; but it has so changed its character that no longer is it Bethel, but Beth-aven—house of vanity. Thus the sanctuary may be made a stable; thus the altar may be sold for bread that shall minister to the hunger of wickedness; thus is glory turned into shame: on the temple door is written Ichabod—the glory hath departed; the walls are there, let the owls and satyrs find within them what hospitality they can, for the Lord hath gone up with a shout of derision, and Beth-el is Bethaven. Thus do we lose our character; thus the names in which we are baptised become associated with every form of shame, debasement, and disgrace; thus may sweetest memories be depraved; thus may the wine of love become the sour drink of remorse, disappointment, and alienation. How is the fine gold become dim; how are the lofty brought low; and see swirling yonder in the abyss of space the star that made the morning glad! Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
"For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place" (Hosea 4:16).
This metaphor is full of suggestion, and full of high philosophy. Israel complained of limitation; Israel was chafed by the yoke, and Israel resented the puncture of the goad. Israel said, "I want liberty, I do not want this moral bondage any longer; I do not want to be surrounded by commandments, I do not want to live in a cage of ten bars called the ten commandments of God: I want liberty; let me follow my reason, my instincts, let me obey myself." The Lord said, So be it. "The Lord will feed thee as a lamb in a large place": thou shalt have liberty enough, but it shall be the liberty of a wilderness. You can have liberty, but you will find no garden in it; if you want the garden you must have the law. Here is a lamb that says, "I want liberty; I do not want this pasture and this fold, and this shepherdliness; I want to go where I like." Very good, saith the great Shepherd in heaven, go: you shall have place enough, but it shall be the place of a wilderness. Let us take care how we trifle with law, obligation, responsibility, limitation. When we are tethered down to a centre it means something; we are tethered for our good. Our brain can only do a certain amount of work: if we want a larger liberty we may take the liberty of insanity. That is open folly. He is the wise man who says, I have but a certain capacity, I have so many talents, I have so much time in which to work: Lord, teach me how to make the best of what thou hast given me to begin the world with; I will not pine for five talents or ten, thou hast given me two: help me to double them; I should like to do as large thinking as some other men, and be as brilliant as they are, but I know I never should be what they are in thy great Church and world; therefore make me contented with what I have, obedient, simple-minded, frank-hearted, always seeking opportunities of doing what little thing or great thing may be in my power. Poor foolish lamb! it was not content with the home pasture; it said, There is food enough here, but I want more than food; the grass is rich and succulent, and green and plentiful, but I want liberty. And the lamb vaulted over the stone wall, or pushed itself through the sheltering hedge, and away it went into the liberty of a stony desert. We still need the commandments, we still need the beatitudes; we are yet mortal. Blessed is he who knows the number of his days, and who spends them in a spirit of wisdom. Do not seek too much liberty. The moment you pass beyond the appointed boundary you are lost, and only he can find you who is willing to leave the unfallen, that he may seek and save that which is lost. Do not run the risk. The devil is so acute that you may be tempted, even in the wilderness, to think you can feed your hunger with stones. Consider and be wise, for there may a time come when the Lord will say, "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone;" that is to say, Give him rest; let him get out of his idols what he can; let there be no longer any expostulation, entreaty, beseechment, importunity, care, anxious love, solicitous philanthropy; he is lost, now let him alone. Awful word, tremendous judgment! For God to let us alone is hell.
The Lord is not content with calling one class to judgment; he is universal in his claim. He says, "Hear ye this, O priests;"—that is one class—"and hearken, ye house of Israel;"—that is another class—"and give ye ear, O house of the king;"—that is the greatest dignity. So you have the sacerdotal and the popular and the royal; and the reason is that "judgment is toward" them, "because ye have been a snare on Mizpah and a net spread upon Tabor." The Lord charges them all with having been "profound to make slaughter"—deep in iniquity, wonderful power of scheming in the art of destruction. Men can be clever in wickedness. There is a bungling criminality that any vulgar mind can imitate; but even crime may be carried on to the point of a fine art; the mind takes eagerly with a fine willingness to certain species of sin and evil. If men would turn these great talents which are prostituted in the cause of wickedness to honest ways of obtaining a livelihood, to what eminence they might attain! How is it that the heart loves to be skilled in evil? Is there no meaning in this? Is it a mere chance in the mystery of life, or does it indicate the solemn tremendous fact that we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; there is none righteous, no, not one?
The Lord says, "I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hid from me" (Hosea 5:3). In English we do not get the meaning of this fully. The "I" is emphatic. Very seldom in English rhetoric is any emphasis to be laid upon a word like "I"; we should throw the emphasis upon the word "know." "I know Ephraim," and in English that would be equal to what it is in Hebrew, namely, "I, even I, know Ephraim": whether he is on the hill, or whether he is in the shadow which he considers good, wherever he is, whatever he is doing, my eye is fixed upon him; he does not escape criticism; God's mind is watching judicially everything that the sinner is doing, "Thou God seest me"—not in the sense of thou protectest me, and thou knowest me; but in a critical sense—thou dost penetrate my reins and my heart, my thought and my unconfessed purpose, and it is not in man to find an inviolable solitude.
"They will not frame their doings to turn unto their God: for the spirit of whoredoms is in the midst of them" (Hosea 5:4).
They cannot set up any framework of God; they are poor moral carpenters: their fingers lose all skill when they seek to put up something that shall have the appearance at least of morality and goodness. They no sooner set up one side of the edifice than the other falls down, and the framework will not hold together, because the spirit is wrong. Away with your mechanical morality; away with your frameworks of honour and social security, even of education when it is meant as a substitute for moral earnestness and purity. It is the spirit that must be renewed; we do not want a framework, but a genius of heart, an atmosphere of soul, a new manhood—"Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again." Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good. Do not trouble yourselves about the framework. You are not carpenters, you are men; you are not mechanics, you are souls. Do not trifle with the tragedy of life.
Almighty God, we need thy sweet Word evermore. It is not enough to live to-day; we must never cease to live. This is the mystery of life; with all its pain and shadow, its weakness and disappointment, still it clings to itself, it lingers and yearns after immortality. Thy commandment is exceeding broad, but so is thy promise: thy mercy endureth for ever. This is our joy; into this holy place we come from time to time to renew our life, to sing our hymn of praise and thanks, and to take again into the world redoubled and ennobled strength. Thou hast been our God; thou wilt not forsake us; thou wast our father's God, and thou didst never exclude the children from thine overflowing and redundant blessing. When didst thou speak alone to those who were living? Thou didst speak beyond them, to all the ages that should come. Why should the Lord speak twice? Doth not his breath fill infinity? Is not the look of his love the look of eternity? We bless thee, therefore, for thy Word once spoken, once delivered unto the saints, once made clear to the hungry, yearning, agonised heart of man. It is enough, it is finished; the river of God is full of water. Pity us in all our littleness; have mercy upon us in all the aggravation of our sin. We thought of sin like an infinite cloud until we saw the Cross; then understood we the Word. Where sin abounded grace hath much more abounded; heaven is broader than perdition; God is mightier than all his enemies; the throne of the Lord covereth all space and all duration. If we have rendered any service to thee, the praise be thine; if aught has been done to make thy kingdom appear in its truest beauty, the vision was from heaven. We praise thee, therefore, with undivided tribute and eulogy for all thy tender grace, for all thy lovingkindness. Bind us up in the bundle of life; see to it that no man pluck us out of thine hand. May we never perish in sight of land, but be brought safely home, quite home, right into the innermost place of home; there not to change, but to continue and heighten our Christian song. Amen.
They shall go with their flocks and with their herds to seek the LORD; but they shall not find him; he hath withdrawn himself from them.Divine Withdrawal
"Withdrawn" is a word that may well chill our heart. It would be enough to express intolerable displeasure if it stood just as it stands in this verse; but a larger meaning belongs to the word, "Withdrawn" is in some senses a negative relation, but it was a distinctly positive and may we add repelling action which the Lord meant to convey by the use of this term. All words were originally pictures, and the real dictionary when it appears will be pictorial. The Lord in this instance frees himself from them. That is the literal and broader meaning of the prophecy. He releases himself, he detaches himself, he shakes off an encumbrance, a nuisance, a claim that is without righteousness. This may be taken again in two senses. The people are going with flocks and herds as if bent on sacrificial purpose; they will give the Lord any quantity of blood—hot, reeking blood; but the Lord says, I will have no more of your sacrifices; they are an abomination to me; I hate all the programme of ritual and ceremony and attitude, if it fail to express a hunger and a reverence of the heart and mind. So the Lord is seen here in the act of taking up all these flocks and herds, and all these unwilling priests, and freeing himself from them, throwing them away, as men pass out from their custody things that are offensive, worthless, and corrupting. Or it may mean that the Lord shakes himself clear of the clutch of hands that hath no heart in them; he will walk alone. He will not give up his shepherdliness, though he have no flock to follow him. Every woman is mother, every man is father, and a man is not the less father that all his children are twice dead, and are as plants plucked up by the roots, and cast out to the burning. The shepherdliness is not determined by the number of sheep following or going before; shepherdliness is a quality, a disposition, an inspiration, an eternal solicitude. If need be God will continue his shepherdliness though every sheep go astray, and every lamb should die. Mark the disastrous possibility! Men may be left without God; the Almighty and All-merciful may have retired, gone away, away into the shade, the darkness of night; he may have enshrouded himself in a pavilion of thick darkness, where our poor prayers are lost on the outside. To this dreadful issue may things come. Variously hath the Lord punished the Church, and punished the lands where his altars ought to have been higher than the forest trees. "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread [the meanest of all famines], nor a thirst for water [a mere lip fire], but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord,"—a thirst that cannot be quenched by all the springs and fountains of the world. And in this chapter the same process of punishment is continued, and is most remarkable for the variety of its application.
There is a touch of satire in the suggestion that follows. After all this want of fealty and love on the part of the people, the Lord says, "Now shall a month devour them with their portions." The Lord will show, as it were, a visible diminution of the time of the wicked man; that time shall be a month long; the moon shall proclaim this gospel of dissolution. See how the moon waxes, wanes; it is the little month coming up with a kind of buoyancy as if it would last a year, and then suddenly falling back and quietly dying among the clouds. The Lord says, Watch the moon; O thou proud, bloated, blustering Church, watch the moon, that is thy picture: a time of waxing to be followed by a time of waning; a month shall eat thee, a handful of days shall devour thee in forgetfulness. The satire of God is keen, subtle, penetrating; if ever it appeared to be other, it is because the Lord must adopt language which the people whom he seeks to chastise can understand. Wonderful is the visible ministry of God if we had eyes to see it. "Day unto day" speaks of brevity. Whoever imagined that the sunny dawn would die? The dawn is an assured triumph: see how it comes! It comes with the quietness of strength. Weakness may be impetuous, violent, demonstrative, but omnipotence is, by the very necessity of its qualities, calm. The earth stands still because it flies so fast. So strength, because of its completeness, is easy, composed, tranquil. The dawn makes no noise as it rolls back the darkness. The dawn can never die: see how it fills the heavens, how it almost speaks in trumpet tones of triumph that cannot be baffled, enthusiasm that seems to mean benediction, everlasting and immeasurable. This proceeds up to midday; then afterwards there is a westering process, and the dawn, caught at the other end of heaven, dies. "And night unto night showeth knowledge"; and even the year, days and nights put together, has its youth, blustering, audacious, defiant; quite a little series of explosions of wind, and deluges of rain, and storms of snow; and then it is summer, and then it is quiet autumn, and autumn, like all the others, lies down and dies. Why not open our eyes to behold the wondrous lessons that God is writing visibly for us? There are a thousand lessons without voice or sound or sign, which only the soul can read and understand in absolute silence and secrecy. There are also lessons broad as heaven, and bright as the sun, which men might read, and out of which they might make an introductory Bible.
Now the Lord will proceed to tell the offending people what to do:—"Blow ye the cornet in Gibeah." The cornet was always used to give the signal of alarm. It was an instrument of horn; when the strong blower blew his blast through that horn, it meant that the enemy was at the gate; men were called upon to arise, put on their armour, stand erect, watch. "And the trumpet in Ramah." The trumpet was used as a signal for calling to worship; in the midst of the alarm there shall still be a place left for the adoration of God, for the exercise of those religious impulses and aspirations which make us men. Gibeah and Ramah were the weak points; through them the enemy would appear. The enemy already held Israel in savage grip, and through Gibeah and Ramah the enemy would seek the neck of Judah. What is to be done? Sound the cornet, blow the trumpet; be alarmed, and yet not irreligiously; be awakened, roused, but not so as to forget that God reigns and rules, and that the mightiest weapon is not formed of steel. Who can run his impious fingers over the sword of God's lightning? Alarm should never disable the religious faculty; panic should never be greater than the power of prayer; yea, rather when there is panic that can be vindicated by reason, there should be religiousness that can be justified by all that makes us what we are in the sight of God—rational, intelligent, responsible, immortal. We must go to the prophets if we would find what God can do in the way of punishment; there would seem to be no tongue equal to the explanation of chastisement and penalty equal to the Hebrew tongue. It was a tongue that could round a prayer into noblest majesty better than any other, and when it came to deal with penalty, chastisement, the vindication of the divine righteousness, it became an instrument of tremendous power.
"Ephraim shall be desolate in the day of rebuke" (Hosea 5:9).— "Desolate" may be ranked with energetic adjectives; it was another form of the word that the prophet used; it was a substantive, colder than ice, hollower than the wind: Ephraim shall be a desolation. We have seen already how the prophet used nouns of action in describing the moral condition of the people in the fourth verse. Here we come from the descriptive word into the concrete term—a desolation; a word which carries its own limitations and qualifications. You cannot amend the word, you cannot enlarge it, you can add nothing to its cheerless-ness; desolation admits of no companion term; it must be felt to be understood. There have been times when the house was a desolation; there was no light in the windows; though they stood squarely south, and looked right at the sun at midday, yet they caught no light; there was silence in the house; no sound; the fire crackled, and spluttered, and spent itself in vain explosions, but there was no poetry in all the way of the flame, there was no picture of home in all the blank shining of the hollow tongues of fire that licked the grate, but said nothing, yet only hinted that the place was empty; bed and cot and favourite fireside, all vacant, and the very grandeur of the house an aggravation of its vacancy. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Why is God so wrathful? Is this an arbitrary vengeance? Doth he delight to show his omnipotence, and to chastise the insects of a day because he is Almighty? Never. There is always a moral reason:—"The princes of Judah were like them that remove the bound." God has always been jealous of the landmark. God is honest; would his Church were also honest! God will not live in the house until the false weights and scales be taken out of it; God will not tabernacle with men whilst they are pinching the poor of one little inch of the yard length; he will trouble the house with a great moan of wind, until the balances be right; then he will say, You may now pray. And every sentence will be an answer. From the beginning we have seen that God would have the landmark respected. Here are the princes of Judah, thieves. It must be an awful thing to rob the poor as they were robbed by the great in all ages. It must be an infinitely difficult thing for a prince to be honest; it is an almost impossible thing for a rich man to be really honest. He wants the next field. You have a thousand acres. He says, I know it, but I want a thousand and one, to round the corner, to complete the estate. Your landmark ends here; he replies, I am not quite sure of that. I think it ought to be moved a little to the north. Why will much have more? Why covet the vineyard on the other side of the hedge? Why not let the poor have something? The Lord is the defender of the poor; he will never see the poor man stripped naked without interposing in some way. We cannot understand how, but there is in history, taking it in great breadths, a spirit that reclaims what has been taken unrighteously, that punishes the men who trifle with landmarks and boundaries and old family fences. God rebukes the rich; God never blesses human greediness. It seems to flourish, and the rich man appears to have simply to reach out his hand to put another estate in his pocket. Judge not by appearances, or by narrow instances; take in cycles of time, great spans of history, and see how the slow-moving, but sure-moving, spirit of Providence readjusts and reclaims, and finally establishes according to the law of honesty and righteousness.
How will God proceed in his punishment of Ephraim and of Judah? He will proceed variously:—"Therefore will I be unto Ephraim as a moth." The figure is not too humble to be adopted by the divine action for purposes of illustration. The moth works secretly, silently; you never hear its motions in the fabric which it is slowly consuming. God works thus amongst the children of men. We say from the human side: He is not the man he was; once he would not have made that mistake. How different he is now from what he was ten years ago; now he forgets, he mislays things, he mixes the succession of affairs; he is not marked now by the sharp punctuality, the honest punctuality which characterised him aforetime; he tells the same story twice over. What has taken place? Thus we remark from the outside; the Lord is as a moth within his brain. "And to the house of Judah as rottenness": a gradual process of decomposition; not coming to maturity all at once. Some men are, as to their intellect, and their spiritual qualities, and their moral attributes, visibly rotting before our eyes. You note the lowering of the moral tone; you observe how the bloom is removed from the fair peach. Where are the commandments now; where the lofty conception of human right and divine rule now? Is there any spectacle more revolting than that of a putrefying character? Hence the pestilence that fills the very air with death.
These are God's silent actions; but he proceeds to say, "I will be unto Ephraim as a lion, and as a young lion to the house of Judah." How he changes! How all things are possible to God! The moth is now a lion; the process of decay is now exchanged for the roaring and the fierceness of a young lion in the agony of its hunger. Thus various is the providence of God—retributive, instructive, comforting, desolating. The Lord rideth forth in twenty thousand chariots, and none can tell in what chariot he will come forth at his next appearance.
This contrastive image of penalty is beautifully given in an intermediate verse:—"When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah saw his wound." There you have precisely the parallel in each case—the sickness internal, the wound an outward bruise, a gash in the flesh. Who can tell the sickness of the heart? But who can miss the gaping gash in the bleeding body? One man is punished with sickness; another is wounded, so that the poor wound opens and the red blood leaps out in torrents. Both the punishments are from God. Does the matter end at this point? Could the almighty, all-loving God so punctuate his history of the administration of the affairs of the world as to leave at this point? It is impossible. The prophet will add a line:—
"I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early" (Hosea 5:15).
God cannot say farewell until he is driven to it; and who can drive?—not omnipotence of the arm—hateful power!—but omnipotence of the heart, which, when controlling the omnipotence of the arm, makes both a merciful almightiness. "Till they acknowledge their offence." If we deny our sin God will search us and try us and punish us; but if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, we do not deceive God. "And seek my face." We have not to wait for the New Testament to find this beautiful word. We think when we come into the revelation of St. John the Divine, and read that his servants shall see his face, that we have come to some consummating promise. Rightly read, the Old Testament has been full of the face of God. He wants his children to see his face; not to hear him behind the clouds, but to see him eye to eye; and Moses conversed with the Lord, literally, mouth to mouth, and, as we have seen, God kissed Moses into heaven. "In their affliction they will seek me early." The literal rendering would be: In their affliction they will seek me in the morning; they will rise as men who have much work to do that day. In a sweet little favourite poem we hear a child say, "Wake me early, mother, dear." Why wake you early? The child knew, and told her mother; the night was too long for that child, for she had "to be Queen of the May," and she must be up with the sun, and before the lark. In their affliction they will hardly be able to sleep during the night. They will watch for the first white in the east; any hint of morning, and up they will spring, saying, The day will be all too short for us; we must begin this work early. We have a long prayer to make, a great confession to submit; is the sun rising—is there any hint of his rising, is there one gleam in the far east? O watchman, what of the night? He says, The morning cometh. Then shall all contrite souls spring to their orisons, hasten up for their matins, and before the light is fully abroad the prayer will be quite in heaven.
Thus the grand old Bible rolls like a majestic river through our human history. Let us hasten to it, and drink abundantly of its waters; they refresh and purify, and quench the soul's burning. Can any man find Jesus in Hosea? Jesus is in full presence in all this Book of Hosea. Why? Because he is in the prophet himself. The prophet speaks from the Christ-point. The prophet was himself a crucified man; in our next reading we shall find that the prophet declared the resurrection. Talk of importing meanings into the Bible? It is impossible, if those meanings be moral, just, redeeming, ennobling. This is the glory of the tree of life, that it bears all manner of fruits. Make it a large Bible, a great earth-covering Bible; make it a Bible that fills infinity, eternity; for one word of God must be greater than anything God has ever made. His thought is his deity.
Almighty God, we know thee by our love; thou dost come to us through our hearts; we feel thy presence; we know thy nearness because of the new warmth that is within us, so that when thy Word closes for a moment we say, Our hearts burned within us. We did not know the Speaker personally, but we knew him sympathetically. There is no voice like thine; as for thy Word, it abideth for ever—in winter and in summer; the night cannot frighten it away by its loads of darkness, and it stands in the sun like the angel of thy presence. Thy Word is a light, a lamp, a song, a fortress; if now and again it be as a sharp sword amongst our bones, behold this judgment is intended for our purification and our progress; but thy Word is full of gospel, good news, glad tidings, music from the heart of God: may we understand it as such, and receive it, and give it the hospitality of our whole heart Herein is love; herein is health; herein is immortality. All this we know in Christ Jesus thy Son; but for him we should be in darkness, but having Christ we see the light, we are children of the day, and we behold the inviting destiny of heaven; and because it lures us by all its light and joy, we would accept the discipline of the present toil, and act faithfully and lovingly towards our fellow men. May our Christianity be vindicated by our morality; may all that is noble in our thought embody itself in all that is generous in action. Then shall we be the children of Christ, redeemed ones, bearing the blood-mark, carrying the signature eternal; then we shall love the light and the truth and the ways of righteousness, and as for our latter end, it shall be the opening of our truest life. Regard all men from thy great throne; let thy providence be a ministry of helpfulness to all lives, to all workers, sufferers, travellers, strangers. Make the strange land a home; show where the garden grows even in the wilderness, and when thy loved ones are athirst lead them to secret fountains. On the old man and the little child let the sunlight of thy love fall in impartial fulness, and may all men know thy nearness by beholding the goodness which enriches their life. Establish us in the faith; when we want to do wrong send a sudden cloud upon us that shall make us forget our evil purpose; when we want to pray come and be thyself the Altar and the Sovereign; and when we think of our sin lead us to the Cross, whence no faithful soul ever brought his sin back again. The blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. At the Cross we leave it, and there it shall never be found any more; for is not the miracle of thy love the forgetfulness of our sin? Amen.