The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
O Israel, return unto the LORD thy God; for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.An Open Door
All know what a tempest is. Perhaps all do not know the real sweep and force of a cyclone; such knowledge it is not always desirable to acquire, but being acquired, it is not easy to forget. The prophecy of Hosea has hitherto been tempest, and storm, and whirlwind, and cyclone, and great rage and tumult of all elements; but now in this closing chapter we have light, peace, comfort, gospel words, evangelical music, an easy and inviting slope right up into heaven. Judge nothing before the time. Do not judge the book by the preface; do not determine the real scope and temper of providence by occasional occurrences: wait until the voice from heaven says, It is finished, then survey the whole, and fear not to let the heart pronounce its judgment even upon the ways of God. There have been times when we expected no such conclusion as this. Sometimes we thought in reading these prophecies by Hosea that all must end in midnight, and that the objects of the divine judgment must be carried away by an infinite whirlwind, none knowing whither they have been borne; but the wind cries itself to rest, the cloudy sky outgrows its frown, and lo, at eventide there is light, and in the closing hours there is prophecy, and there is assurance of immortality. The Gospel itself has gone no further than the elements which constitute this closing chapter.
"O Israel,"—the nation addressed in its unity; all the details brought into living cohesion, and God's gentle eyes moist with pity fixed only upon the great unit,—"return unto the Lord thy God": come back; do not any longer pursue the way of folly and the path of darkness; turn round, be converted. What said Jesus Christ in his opening sermon that was all music; so brief, yet so elaborate; though in a word, yet filling all the volumes that human literature could write? "Repent." That is the cry of this closing chapter: "Return," be converted, be healed, come home. That is an evangelical cry; that is the very passion and the very meaning of the Cross of Christ. Then the door is not closed; then a man need not be a fool unto the end of his life, and die a criminal; then having once set his foot upon the wrong road, there is no divine necessity, as of election or predestination, that he must go on and on until he is burned in perdition. Is it true that somewhere in life—yes, anywhere, so that the old man may have his gospel as well as the young prodigal—there is a possibility of returning? Who, having heard of that possibility, would resist its play? Who would not say, This is a divinely created opportunity; I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him, I have sinned? "If thou hast fallen by thine iniquity." Then man is not called to come down, but to come up; thou hast fallen flat upon the earth, into the deep gully, into the immeasurable abyss, into the bottomless pit. This is a call from a fall. We are inclined to be a little timid in our use of that old theological term. We have changed the word "fall"; we have elaborated it into a polysyllable, or we have in some way, not wholly explained or justified, got rid of it. But having conjured with the word, have we parted with the solemnity and tragedy of the fact? The fall is not to be argued into a man; the fall is an experience which must be confirmed by the consciousness of the heart itself. The heart cannot speak coherently upon this question, or rest in any argument of its own invention; it dreams, and half-dreams, it plunges into the clouds and mists; then out it springs into green places where the summer seems to be lying in all welcome and hospitality of beauty and fruitfulness. The experience of the heart about this matter of the fall is a varied, conflicting, tumultuous experience. Sometimes the heart would deny it and say, I have never left the Lord; and sometimes the heart would say, I have so far left my God that to return is impossible. Here is a recognition of fallen manhood. The word is "fallen"; there is no mistake about the line of movement; it is not oblique, vertical, collateral, eccentric; it is done. To come up is the difficulty; to ascend is the miracle. There is a kind of gravitation that would seem to be against that action, for all things are tethered to an invisible centre, and limited by lines impalpable. But the gospel delights in miracle; delights in carrying forward nature and its actions to higher applications; delights to find in the darkness stars which the telescope of genius never discovered.
"Take with you words." How easy! That is the mistake. How cheap! That is the fatal blunder. "Take with you words": when men are in earnest their words are themselves. We say in our homely proverb, "His word is his bond." "Take with you words": leave the bullock, leave the calf, leave the sacrifice, leave all ritualism and pomp and circumstance, and take with you yourselves, speech of the heart, prayer of the soul, cry of the felt necessity. We are coming quickly now upon spiritual regions; presently we shall get rid altogether of bullock and calf and sacrifice of animal, and all the reeking flowing blood; presently we shall come to a new seizure or method of appropriation in relation to God; there shall be between us a Word:—In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. and the Word was God. The Word was made flesh: and man, if he were made in the image and likeness of God, would be a word, unmarred by any insincerity, unconcealed under any garb of ambiguity. Here is a call to spiritual worship. The Lord is tired of all the offerings which have been placed upon his altar; he cannot away with them, but when the heart speaks to him he will listen; that will be a new order of service. Now we shall come to whispered penitence and whispered love; to a suppressed cry of weakness; then to a louder cry of hope; then to a shout of thanksgiving; then to a storm of triumph. Here we come upon a new era: God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. The Old Testament here unloads itself, and is prepared to introduce us to an era in which there shall be spiritual perception, spiritual communion, the voice of words tenderer than love, more eloquent than music. What words shall be spoken? Is any hint given of the new speech? It is written here in plain letters, but never can be written in all its meaning: "say unto him,"—Lord teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. Here is the Lord before John, through the medium of a prophet, teaching us a prayer. What shall we say? Here is your speech: "Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously"—do us good. "Take away all iniquity"—here is confession. "Take away all iniquity"—here is a consciousness that God only can do it. We can commit the sin, but cannot pardon it; we can do the evil, but cannot expunge it; we can incur the burden, we cannot discharge the responsibility. "And receive us graciously": receive us into grace, into favour, yea, do us good; restore us wholly, as a dislocated joint may be put back into its place again. That is all petition. Are words to be limited to request? is there to be nothing in prayer but this monotonous asking?
The answer we find in the latter part of the second verse: "So will we render the calves of our lips": our sacrifice shall be a living sacrifice; we have nothing to slay; we will live unto the Lord. The "lips" here stand for life; the "calves" must be regarded as representing symbolically the old sacrifice in a new form,—not the unintelligent and irresponsive calves of the meadow, but the calves of our lips, the living sacrifice, the personal offering. What a prayer, thus modelled and outlined! Here is confession, here is hope, here is poetry, here is consecration, here is communion with God: yet is there no bargain-making. Man is not inviting God to enter into a covenant in which there shall be so much for so much. Forgive us, and we will obey. Pardon us, and reckon then upon our worship;—the worship does not come as a payment, but as a necessity of nature; it will be the utterance of gratitude; it represents the irrepressible music of spiritual thanksgiving. When the prophet says, "Take with you words, he has often been misunderstood. Some have thought that this is an authority for using forms of prayer; so quick, yet so blind, is the exegetical ingenuity of unqualified expositors. "Take with you words" has been regarded as an instance that we have only to utter a certain description of pious words, and all will be well. The term here signifies heart, life, truth, sincerity, and independence of all ritual, an interview with God. Do not amend these conditions. We cannot surprise God by the magnificence of our offering; we must surprise ourselves by the magnificence of poverty. We must be led to see that there is nothing in grandeur, and that all grandeur is in simplicity. The most difficult lesson for man to learn at a certain point in his spiritual education is that he is doing everything by doing nothing; that he is praying most when he is saying least; that he is moving all heaven not by the might of his intellect, but by the weakness of his tears. How can we take with us words? Only by taking with us the Word—the Word that was made flesh, and that dwelt with man. We are not invited to go alone to God; there is no way spoken of now by which a man shall go unaccompanied to face his Creator; we go in the name of Christ, in the company of Christ. We have a meeting-place, and there is none other, and the name of that meeting-place is the Cross.
But can Israel so pray and so promise, and then repeat yesterday as if nothing had occurred in the night time of penitence? No; this is a miracle not permitted by the Lord. Israel must be complete in confession and complete in renunciation. That completeness of renunciation we find in the following words:—
"Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses: neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods" (Hosea 14:3).
It comes to this, that a man must at some point say Good-bye to his old ruined self. There were cleansing days in the moral life—days when Assyria must be warned away as a helper that is helpless, as only a name of pride without being an arm of power. Asshur must go. "We will not ride upon horses": the stables must be cleansed. The horse has always in ancient history, as given in the Old Testament, been regarded as an emblem of pride. Israel at one period bought horses; Solomon committed the folly of having a boundless stable, he would have horses like the Egyptians. The Lord will not have anything to do with such horses in such relations. Men must ride upon his almightiness, and not upon the bared back of some steed of the wilderness; though he fly with the wind, and tear up the desert in the passion of his urgency, it is running itself to death.
"Neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods." Here is the day of good-bye, life-cleansing, a renewal that is complete, all old companionships dismissed, old habitudes given up, the Ethiopian's skin torn away, the spots or the leper taken out by some divine action. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new": old trusts, old superstitions, old hopes, old sacrifices, all old things have gone, and life enjoys a newness that is not without a touch of the venerableness of eternity; not a paltry superficial newness as of polish just put on, but a newness that connects itself with eternal origins, with eternal springs. This is the mystery of the gospel, this is the mystery of grace, that a man shall grow newer as he grows older; he shall become younger with the flying years, he shall use time as a ladder by which he scales the ramparts of eternity. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and his Church; this is a mystery only to the dense understanding that has never felt the splendour and the warmth of the new morning.
We now come upon words never excelled by John or by Paul for sweep of thought and tenderness of pathos:—
"I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him" (Hosea 14:4).
"I will love them freely" is an expression which literally means, I am impelled to love them; some old memory is awakened, some long-disused energy comes into play, considerations that have fallen into desuetude arise, awaken, and operate, and I the Eternal am impelled to love the returning prodigal. Here is another profound mystery; when God meets man it is on both sides as the result of an impulsion not to be fully described in words. They know one another, they have been seeking one another; across the darkness of the foulest apostasy there have shot occasional gleams as if from the lamp that made the old home bright with love; in the revel of midnight, in the debauch of darkness, there have been heard broken tones as of a voice that once filled the soul with ineffable music. When God sees the returned prodigal he sees more than the sin—he sees the sinner within the sin, the man within the sinner, the God within the man; old memories, so to say—for we must use a language that will accommodate itself to human conceptions—are aroused on both sides, and when the sinner and the offended Father meet it is by impulsion, constraint; it is a recognition of the fitness of things, a restoration of suspended harmonies; it is in very deed, in apostolic language, a "reconciliation."
Now the Lord will betake himself to poetry. To what else could he betake himself? He is all sublimity; his tears are jewels; his words are eternities; his glance is the glory that lights up the universe—"I will be as the dew unto Israel." It would seem as if the Lord had something to make up to the sinner. This is the view which he always takes of the case of repentance; no sooner does the prodigal return than he seems to say, What can I do for him? Bring forth the best robe, the ring, the fatted calf, and instrument of music: let it be heard in vibrant sound or in tender winsomeness of tone: for my son was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found. "I will be as the dew unto Israel,"—a great beauty, but nothing to carry in the way of burdensomeness. What flower ever said, O thou Maker of flowers, this dewdrop is too heavy a load for my poor strength to carry? An infinite jewellery, but quite unburdensome, without one touch of oppression. "He shall grow as the lily,"—an image referring to the pureness of God himself. The lily was a flower of dazzling whiteness, the very summation of all colour, caught in a velocity which reconciled and united the colours in one brilliant white. But the lily may be cut down: does the figure terminate with frailty and evanescence? No; for the Lord says, "and cast forth his roots as Lebanon." The roots shall be as long as the branches. The Chinese proverb is, that when a tree has been blown down it shows that the branches have been longer than the roots. This is not the case with those who really live and move and have their being in God. Measure the branch, that is the length of the root; measure the root, that is the length of the branch; to get at the branch you must get at the root. Blessed be God, the figure was never amended but by him who originated it; said he, "I am the Vine, ye are the branches: as the branch cannot bear fruit in itself, no more can ye, except ye abide in me." So that we are no longer either branch or root independently, but we are a branch in a living Vine, and if we have aught of root that root is hidden in the infinity and sovereignty of God.
"I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree, and his smell as Lebanon" (Hosea 14:5-6).
And so the wind around him shall be odoriferous. Let your light so shine before men, that they may know your Father; let your fragrance be as the odour of many choice spices that men may know ye belong to the garden of the Lord. Do not have a limited piety. All the little flowers in the well-concealed garden are struggling to get out. Some men—how dare they live?—wall their gardens round, and there is not a violet in the estate that is not trying to escape; the little thing is saying, I can't get over that wall, but I can send a kiss over it to some little child that may happen to be chalking the wall on the other side. Children will chalk walls as long as there are walls to be chalked. And every little rose is saying, This is too small a place for me; I can't get out, but I will breathe a benediction, and perhaps some poor o'er-laboured wight, some burden-carrying old woman, may get a waft of the fragrance, and know that there is a garden on this side the wall. The Church is to be fragrant; the Church is to make itself known. There is no violence here, but the tender violence of love, the aggression of a pity that would save the world.
"Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols?" (Hosea 14:8.)
Ephraim has seen his folly; Ephraim has sounded the depths of superstition; Ephraim does not give up his idols without a reason. He says, I have tried you, and you are vain; I have leaned upon you, and you are broken staves; I have consulted you, and you had no answer; I have looked to you, but you never turned a kind eye upon me. The great apostle says, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols"; the old Scotch version says, "Wee bairns, keep yourselves frae dolls": the meaning is the same. I like the quaintness of the Scotch version. There is a caressing tenderness in that gruff old tone; listen to it; it is the kind of tone that grows upon the heart; at first it is very singular, and not wholly desirable, but there is in it a latent music; if you say the words over and over again, you will come to like them. The time is on the surface; open it, and you find eternity.