“God is always in your future”: A Universalist Reading of Hosea

A few weeks ago my wife and I were discussing universalism on a trip to see her family in Dallas. As we drove, Jana asked me about the biblical support for universal reconciliation. We discussed the various New Testament passages and then turned to the Old Testament. I stated that in the Old Testament there isn’t a lot about life after death and little about heaven or hell. But I noted that in the Old Treatment there is this recurrent rhythm that after the worst of God’s punishments there will be restoration. Punishment is never the last world. Restoration is always the last word.

I thought of this again as I prepared for my adult bible class this week. We are working through the book of Hosea.

After the first three chapters of Hosea, where the extended metaphor of Hosea and Gomer is recounted, we find three of Hosea’s sermons. Scholars believe that each sermon was given in response to various military and political events in Judah and Israel.

Each sermon shares a similar structure, roughly as follows:

Part 1: Accusations of Sin
Sermon 1 (4:1-19), Sermon 2 (6:7-7:16; 10:1-15), Sermon 3 (11:12-13:3)

Part 2: God’s Punishment
Sermon 1 (5:1-14), Sermon 2 (8:1-9:17), Sermon 3 (13:4-16)

Part 3: Message of Hope/Reconciliation
Sermon 1 (5:15-6:6), Sermon 2 (11:1-11), Sermon 3 (14:1-9)

A running motif in each sermon, carrying over from the Hosea/Gomer saga, is that each sermon uses the language of a divorce proceeding. That is, Hosea is formally articulating God’s warrant for divorce from Israel.

The main metaphor in Part 1 of each sermon is whoredom. Israel has gone lustfully after other “lovers” (the Canaanite gods).

Given Israel’s unfaithfulness in Part 1, God goes on to describe in Part 2 how he will punish Israel. These descriptions are some of the most shocking in all of Scripture. For example:

Otherwise I will strip her naked
and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.

So now I will expose her lewdness
before the eyes of her lovers;
no one will take her out of my hands.

For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.

Ephraim's glory will fly away like a bird—
no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.
Even if they rear children,
I will bereave them of every one.
Woe to them
when I turn away from them!

Give them, O LORD—
what will you give them?
Give them wombs that miscarry
and breasts that are dry.

Ephraim is blighted,
their root is withered,
they yield no fruit.
Even if they bear children,
I will slay their cherished offspring.

This language of punishment in Hosea is some of the strongest in Scripture. It makes your hair stand on end.

But, miraculously (and I’ll come back to this word in a moment), after the harshness of the Part 2 declarations of punishment we see songs of love break out in Part 3. It is difficult to overstate the shock of this transition. The change from punishment to love seems inexplicable, unpredictable, spontaneous, and, thus, utterly mysterious. For example, after the shocking punishment language God starts talking like this:

"Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt….

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.

"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.

"How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.

What is going on in this crazy abrupt transition from punishment to love? I think there is a deep clue in 11:9 (“For I am God and not man”).

Specifically, it appears to me that the link between Parts 1 (Sin) and Parts 2 (Punishment) is logical, like cause and effect. Given the “marital agreement” between God and Israel God’s responses (as harsh as they are) are predictable, even expected, given Israel’s unfaithfulness.

What is unpredictable and inexplicable and, yes, even miraculous, is the transition from Parts 2 (Punishment) to Parts 3 (Love). The songs of love, tenderness, forgiveness, and reconciliation come from out of nowhere. Further, they are God’s unsolicited acts. Israel isn’t doing anything to get this response. We see this pattern enacted in chapter 3 where God tells Hosea to “go love a woman who has another lover.” That is, God initiates the act of love and reconciliation. It is an act of unpredictable and spontaneous grace.

And, interestingly, 11:9 locates the source of this grace in the very character of God. The movement from Part 1 (Sin) to Part 2 (Punishment) is human. The movement from Part 2 (Punishment) to Part 3 (Love) is divine. God acts in loving spontaneity because he is “God and not man.”

This brings me to my universalist reading of Hosea.

I believe one of the messages of Hosea is that, although the punishment of God will be apocalyptic in its savagery, in the end God’s love will be the Final Word. And this final word will be spontaneous, inexplicable, unpredictable, and mysterious. That is, our theological systems will not be able to anticipate nor articulate this Final Word. All we have, as humans, are the logical links between crime and punishment. We don’t have the words to articulate the Final Word of grace. This is why I believe the universalist vision is not clearly articulated in Scripture. It can’t be written down in any obvious way. To write it down would decouple the proper links between crime and punishment. Thus, all our theological systems will be restricted to the crime/punishment conversation. Consequently, any talk about universal salvation will appear disconnected, random, and inexplicable when framed in human terms and categories. Grace transcends theology and will not be tamed by it.

The other message I take from Hosea is this: God is always in your future. That is, no matter the punishments, as severe as they are, God is in Israel’s future. I think this is one of the deepest truths of Scripture: No matter what, even if the punishments are hellish, God is in your future. Part 1 (Sin) and Part 2 (Punishment) will always be followed by Part 3 (Love).

That is the vision I believe in: God is always in your future.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

One thought on ““God is always in your future”: A Universalist Reading of Hosea”

  1. Thanks for this Dr. Beck. I appreciate your willingness to stand up for this odd doctrine. :-)
    Of course, since by your own admission there is no extended 'theology of the afterlife' in the OT, whatever can be found in Hosea has to be extended to make it applicable to questions of so-called 'heaven' and 'hell'.

    Personally, I would push the observation the other way. Apocalyptic imagery in the OT usually stands for concrete historical disaster, interpreted theologically as punishment for unfaithfulness. Many scholars (e.g. NT Wright, Andrew Perriman) would argue that Jesus' 'Gehenna' talk in the NT should be read in a similar vein.
    If the post-biblical concept of 'hell' (as post-mortem soul-torture) is done away with, the need for a response like universalism seems a little less pressing, it seems to me.
    Obviously, something like eternal Resurrection life is on the horizon of the NT, and so these thoughts may be helpful--but for a physicalist who doesn't think that human 'souls' survive death, I think the position traditionally labelled 'annihilationism' has many of the same theological 'benefits' of universalism.
    For whatever that's worth.


Leave a Reply