Does God Need to Punish? – Hosea 11:1-11

A Jewish Legend

“When God was about to create [humans], He took into His counsel the angels that stood about his throne. “Create him not,” said the angel of Justice, “for if you do he will commit all kinds of wickedness against his fellow humans; he will be hard and cruel and dishonest and unrighteous.” “Create him not,” said the angel of Truth, “for he will be false and deceitful to his fellow humans, and even to You.” “Create him not,” said the angel of Holiness, “he will follow that which is impure in Your sight, and dishonor You to Your face.”

Then stepped forward the angel of Mercy (God’s best beloved) and said: “Create him, our Heavenly Father for when he sins and turns from the path of right and truth and holiness I will take him tenderly by the hand, and speak loving words to him, and then lead him back to You.”—J. A. Clarks[1]

God is not bound to wrathful justice even when the punishment is justified.

If God’s heart can be led from retribution to restoration, surely ours can as well.  

If God can choose mercy over wrath, then surely we, as bearers of the divine image, have it within us to choose mercy when punishment is warranted.

Here’s the problem: We believe that God’s holiness MUST end in God’s wrathful punishment against the offender.

Even though the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament – has some passages that talk about God not changing God’s mind, there are actually more passages in the Bible that talk about God relenting and changing God’s mind. These are especially found among the prophetic writings and are particularly focused on the potential consequences the Israelites might face for their unfaithfulness to their covenant with YHWY.

In our Hosea passage, we see what we might call an internal emotional struggle if we were talking about a human. But since we are talking about God, we can call it a “divine tension.” This tension being God wrestling with knowing the Israelites have earned punishment but also knowing that they are God’s chosen children…

If we only believe that God never changes God’s mind even with plenty of biblical support to the contrary, then passages like Hosea can be confusing. They might even be a little angering. Because if we believe only in a God that hands out wrathful punishment to those who deserve it, then divine acts of mercy can be bothersome.

But here in Hosea and many other places in the Bible, we see that God is not bound to wrathful justice even when the punishment is justified. Particularly in the Hebrew Bible, we see multiple instances of God’s heart being led from a position of divine retribution to divine restoration.

God shows here in Hosea and throughout the entire narrative of Jesus an ability and a willingness to embrace a “divine tension that gradually but decisively resolves itself on the side of mercy” and grace.

Because, let’s be completely honest, if we believe in a God that only hands out wrathful punishment to those who deserve it, then the whole Jesus narrative makes absolutely zero sense.

And if we believe only in a God of divine punishment, then it becomes ESPECIALLY nonsensical to believe that Jesus is God when the Gospels show us portraits of a man that not only didn’t hand out wrath, but completely took the wrath of human sinfulness upon himself out of obedience to love.

No. God shows throughout scripture an ability and a willingness to embrace a “divine tension that gradually but decisively resolves itself on the side of mercy” and grace. And as Christians, we believe this decisive resolution was embodied in Jesus and is re-embodied through us when we are in Christ.

Why, in spite the example in Hosea and everything Jesus lived and died for, do we continue to gravitate toward a God of wrath who metes out retribution against the unfaithful?

Unlike God the Father and Jesus the Son, we do not want to wrestle with the implications of unmerited forgiveness.

In Christ, God’s Holy Spirit empowers us to wrestle with this. But we don’t want to have that internal struggle. We want people to pay.

And we use the limited biblical examples of the punitive wrathfulness of God as an excuse because retribution is easy…but restoration is really hard.

We merely claim to be following in God’s divine footsteps when we punish those people we deem evil. I think it more likely that the biblical writers sometimes did what we often do: paint a portrait of God who looks a lot more like us than we do God.

This is especially true when we take the Hebrew and remove it from our place in a post resurrection world. We MUST view every bit of scripture through the lens of Christ, even if that scripture is not specifically about Jesus. Because the crucial question we should always ask when trying to understand these texts is “Where is the love of Jesus in this?”

Fortunately, it’s actually pretty easy to see the love of Jesus in our Hosea passage today. We see a godly amount of patience and compassion in the text when we break it down into its parts:

In verses 1-4, we see God as a healer, as one who called Israel out of captivity and bondage in Egypt. We see a God who loved God’s children. We also see a people who turned their back on God to seek refuge and safety in rulers other than God once again.

In verses 5-7, we see Israel as having “returned to Egypt” rather than being saved from it. This isn’t a literal returning to Egypt. Instead, we have to understand the historical context of Hosea. Without going down a very long rabbit hole, I’ll attempt to explain what’s being talked about in these verses.

Hosea was a prophet born and bred in the Northern Kingdom of Israel which contained 10 of the 12 tribes. At the time of his prophetic witness, the northern kingdom of Israel was under the threat of the Assyrian Empire, which would ultimately come to crush the entire region and exile the Israelites. It is looking ahead at this very possibility that forms the basis of the destructive prophecies contained in Hosea.

The ”return to Egypt” is in reference to the Israelite king, King Hoshea, being forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians in an attempt to keep them from conquering the region. In our text, Hosea is speaking to the metaphorical, and eventual literal, bondage of a new overlord who will exile them once again.

God once led his people out of bondage and exile only to have them put their faith in religions and tributes to other gods and powers the moment trouble came again. And the end result, as Hosea has God speaking, is a new ruler and a new exile.

And finally in verses 8-9, we see a very surprising reversal that I don’t think we take enough time to appreciate. And it is precisely here where we find the character of God reflected in the person of Jesus: through unmerited mercy and grace breaking the cycle of disobedience and punishment.

God makes an amazing statement that ought to configure how we view ascriptions of divine retribution to God: “I am God and no mortal.” God is making a claim here that the cycle of retribution to which we humans find ourselves so easily embroiled is not a cycle to which The Almighty is held captive.

God breaks that cycle in verses 8-9 in spite of everything pointing to the Israelites deserving divine punishment and annihilation. God has a change of heart, even though the Israelites do not deserve it.

This is called mercy. Justice is someone getting what they deserve. Mercy is someone not getting what they deserve.

God’s anger at unreciprocated love and the urge toward retaliation and retribution are quelled…and not by some outside force. God changes God’s heart because God’s nature is love, and love builds up, it restores, and it sacrifices. God’s love is merciful.

As commentator J. Blake Couey writes,

“Despite the pain of rejection, God admits feeling internal turmoil at the thought of disowning God’s children: “My heart recoils within me / my compassion grows warm and tender” (verse 8). This is no aloof, detached deity. Rather, God’s relationship with humankind involves emotional risk. The choice to love is the choice to open oneself to pain. Despite the very real dangers of Hosea’s familial imagery for God, it is a powerful tool for expressing this shocking divine vulnerability.”

And THAT is the implication of unmerited grace: we risk the pain of loving completely, just as God does in Hosea. And the love of Jesus that led him to the cross mirrored the image of God when he chose to accept that risk as well.

We don’t want to wrestle with that implication because we don’t want to risk real, Christ-like love. We want to put the risk anywhere else but on ourselves.

But God in Hosea and Jesus in the Gospels took on that risk to show the fullness of divine love. Unless we are willing to risk restoration and unmerited mercy and grace, we limit ourselves from embracing that most fulfilling aspect of being a disciple of Jesus: “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”

We might add to that quote from Jesus, “Just as I have loved you even though you didn’t deserve it, love one another even though they don’t deserve it.” And THAT is grace.

If justice is getting what you deserve, and mercy is not getting what you deserve, then grace is getting what you don’t deserve. Loving us enough to die for us is a love none of us deserved, but, by the grace of God through Jesus, we got it anyway.

Praise: I am thankful for a God that chooses mercy and grace when wrath is justified.

May we go and do likewise. Amen.

[1] Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), 493.


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