“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.”
What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.– Hosea 6:1-6 ESV
These opening verses of chapter six have a positive ring to them. It sounds as if the people of Israel are recognizing the nature of God’s redemptive punishment and are returning to Him in repentance. But as we will see in the verses that follow, any repentance they attempt to show will be short-lived. The words in these three verses are filled with truth and accurately reflect the nature of God. He was going to tear them in order that He might heal them. He would eventually strike them down so that He might build them up. But these verses are actually an indictment of the people of Israel and provide a prophetic look at what their pseudo-repentance will look like in the future. When the full weight of God’s discipline falls on them, they will feign repentance, thinking that it will shorten the length of their punishment. That is the message behind verse 2: “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Their overly optimistic outlook regarding the brevity of their punishment reflects an ignorance of the depth of their sin. Like a child who says, “I’m sorry” hoping to escape the well-deserved discipline of his parents, the Israelites would try to appease God with false repentance.
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul referred to a previous letter he had written to them that contained some severe, corrective words. He had evidently received news that his words had hurt them. But he wrote and told them, “Now I am glad I sent it, not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to repent and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants his people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10 NLT). The worldly sorrow to which Paul referred is exactly what verses 1-3 in chapter six of Hosea are illustrating. The people will be sorry they got caught. They will be sorry that their actions have resulted in God’s divine discipline. But their sorrow will not lead them to true repentance.
In fact, there would be false prophets who would tell them that everything would be all right. They would try to convince the people that God was not all that mad and that His punishment would not be severe. Even after the northern kingdom of Israel fell, the southern kingdom of Judah would listen to the words of false prophets who showed up, promising good news instead of bad. God had some harsh words for these purveyors of positive motivational messages:
“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you, filling you with futile hopes. They are making up everything they say. They do not speak for the Lord! They keep saying to those who despise my word, ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’ And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires, they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT
Later on in the book of Jeremiah, God’s words get even harsher:
“Do not listen to your false prophets, fortune-tellers, interpreters of dreams, mediums, and sorcerers who say, ‘The king of Babylon will not conquer you.’ They are all liars, and their lies will lead to your being driven out of your land. I will drive you out and send you far away to die.” – Jeremiah 27:9-10 NLT
The severity of God’s punishment reflects the depths of their sin. Just saying they were sorry would not be enough. Making a few token sacrifices in the hopes that God would be satisfied and hold off His judgment reflects an incredible misunderstanding of God’s hatred of sin. There are those today who think that hell is either a figment of man’s imagination and doesn’t exist at all or that it is merely symbolic, since, the falsely believe, a loving God would never torture someone for eternity. But both of those perceptions are false and reflect a gross misunderstanding of God and His attitude toward sin. The severity of hell should provide us with a vivid reminder of just how much God despises sin. And ultimately, the sin God despises most is man’s rejection of Him as God. It is a refusal to love, honor and obey Him as God. And concerning the people of Israel, whom God had made His own, He said, “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight” (Hosea 6:4b NLT). They had failed to return to God the love He had graciously shown them. After all He had done for them, in most cases in spite of them, they had rejected Him as their God.
What God wanted most was their love. And man’s love for God is best motivated by an understanding of the severity of his sin and that responds in wonder at God’s gracious and merciful provision of a way to be made right with Him despite his undeserving state. It was while we were sinners that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). It was while we were hopelessly dead in our sins that God chose to give us life through Christ (Ephesians 2:5). That is why God called out to Israel, “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6 NLT).
God wanted true repentance. He was not interested in worldly sorrow or religious ritual done in the hopes of appeasing His wrath. King David said it best when he wrote Psalm 51 in the aftermath of his sordid affair with Bathsheba.
You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. – Psalm 51:16-17 NLT
Israel was not yet broken. The hearts of the people had not returned to God. They feared punishment more than they loved God. And the sad truth is that, for too many of us today, any repentance we attempt to show is motivated by fear of God, not a love for Him. We simply want to escape judgment, not know Him better. We underestimate our sin and under-value His sacrificial love for us. But the more we understand the gravity of our sin, the more we will appreciate His gracious, merciful love and show godly sorrow that leads to true repentance.