God's Love Is In Your Future: A Universalist Reading of Hosea

In 2007 I wrote about a conversation Jana and I had about the biblical support for universal reconciliation in Christ. We mainly discussed the various New Testament passages relevant to this topic but we eventually turned to the Old Testament. For my part, I think the Old Testament is a little used but very relevant resource in working through these discussions. Particularly when it comes to describing the nature of God, which seems to me to be the foundational issue.

For example, while Old Testament doesn't say a lot about life after death and little about heaven or hell, in the Old Treatment there is a 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.

In my 2007 post I illustrated this idea by turning to the book of Hosea, a book we were then studying at church:

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, Hosea goes on to describe in Part 2 how God 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, thus, 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 God is “God and not man.”

This brings me to a universalist reading of Hosea.

I believe one of the messages of Hosea is that while the punishment of God may be described with apocalyptic 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 or 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 one reason 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 human conversations about God 's grace will tend to get bogged down in the the crime/punishment conversation. As it says in Hosea 11:9, that's just how we humans think. As humans we'll never be able to articulate a coherent theology of grace.

Consequently, any talk about universal salvation will appear disconnected, random, and inexplicable when framed in human terms and categories.

Grace transcends theology.

And finally, 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's love is always in your future.

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

12 thoughts on “God's Love Is In Your Future: A Universalist Reading of Hosea”

  1. Beautiful post!

    This reminds me of the OT verse: "my ways are not your ways" in Isaiah, which many Christians quote to "prove" God's wrath/hell, when, if read in context, the entire passage is also about God's grace and mercy.

  2. I believe a wonderful example of your post is Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, regarding his time in Auschwitz concentration camp where the present was filled with punishment, death and decay. Yet, He stressed having a positive purpose in life and imagining that outcome. And the vein, as well as the goal, for this purpose and imagining was LOVE. He wrote, "The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can
    aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love".

    What we must come to understand is that this is not something we can wait to feel. It is the truth we must choose to imagine. And doing so while in our deepest mental and emotional valleys is probably the hardest work that some of us will ever do to stay alive.

  3. Thank you, this is a really helpful reading of these passages!

    I'm not sure how it fits into existing formal theories of theology (hopefully some upcoming classes will help with that), but I've been thinking hard about the analogy of God as parent, which gets brought up again and again throughout scripture, including in the passage you quote above. It seems like that analogy is a particularly helpful one for accessing the idea of God's unending grace and forgiveness; anyone with a toddler knows the exasperation of trying, and failing, and trying again to convince a small human to do something that, in the long run, is for their own good. And the parent knows that, however frustrated he or she may get, however stubbornly the child resists behaviors that are in his or her own best interest, the parent will still wrap the child close and love him or her and try again tomorrow. Because that's what being a parent is- unending grace and love and reconciliation. So we have this experience of parenting, and we have God telling us, over and over again, that he is a parent.

    It's been a very helpful analogy for me, both in terms of intellectual reasoning (if we're able to love to that extent, why do we think less of God?) as well as the visceral feeling of knowing I'm loved with the same (greater) intensity and immutability with which I love my children.

  4. Thought: The God who is in our future...is in our present. Here and now. And every present moment after this one. And this one. And this one...

  5. "Grace transcends theology."
    That's the best thing I've heard all day.

  6. As AMOS is contemporary with Hosea .
    I like the way this is put,about the coming wrath in judgement and eventful restoration
    In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen,

    Amo 9:9 For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel
    among all the nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not
    the least grain fall upon the earth.

    AMOS 9:11

    Amo 9:6 it is he that buildeth his chambers in the heaven, and hath founded his vault upon the earth; he that calleth for the waters of the sea and poureth them out upon the face of the earth; the LORD is his name.
    Amo 9:7 Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?
    Amo 9:8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from off the face of the earth; saving that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, saith the LORD.
    Amo 9:9 For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all the nations, like as corn is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least grain fall upon the earth.
    Amo 9:10 All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, which say, The evil shall not overtake nor prevent us.
    Amo 9:11 In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old;

  7. "This is one reason 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."

    I'm a universalist who deeply appreciates this. I actually feel frustrated with many arguments for Christian universalism that say universalism is clearly articulated in Scripture. Alternatively, many Christian universalists feel frustrated with us who say that universalism is indirectly taught in the Bible.

  8. This one and your post on 'empathic open theism' are two of the best pieces I've ever read from you. This is poetic, soul-stirring stuff, but also rigorously theological and biblical. Thanks.

  9. Viewed in a different light, perhaps the teaching could stand as a model of forgiveness, a model humans can strive for. No matter how injured we are, no matter how horrible the vengeance we claim, the process of healing is never completed until we reach the plateau of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Such healing may not always be possible but perhaps we could embrace this model as a sort of default approach to those who offend us.



    Acts 2:41 So then, those who received his word were baptized; and there were added about three thousand souls. Acts 2:47....And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    All three thousand believed the apostle Peter's message and were baptized in water. Then they were added to the Lord's church by the Lord Himself. The Lord did not add the unsaved to His church. They had to believe and be baptized in water prior to being added to the body of Christ.

    1. Acts 2:22 Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know---

    All three thousand believed Jesus was a miracle worker.

    2. Acts 2:31-32 he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. 32 This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.

    All three thousand believed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    3. Acts 2:36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ---this Jesus whom you crucified."

    All three thousand believed that Jesus was Lord and Christ.

    4. Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    All three thousand repented in order to have sins forgiven. (repentance meant that they made the commitment to turn from their unbelief and sinful lifestyle and turn toward God).

    All three thousand were baptized in water in order to have their sins forgiven.

    All three thousand received the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit after they believed, repented, and were baptized in water.

    5. Acts 2:40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, "Be saved from this perverse generation!"

    All three thousand were saved after they believed Peter's message: They believed, repented, confessed, and were baptized in water. (Mark 16:16, John 3:16, Acts 3:19, Acts 2:38, Romans 10:9-10, Acts 8:35-38) THEN THEY WERE ADDED TO THE LORD'S CHURCH! (Acts 2:47)


    1.Peter did not preach that men were saved by grace alone.

    2.Peter did not preach that men were saved by faith only

    3.Peter did not preach that God had selected a few to be saved and that all others would go to hell.

    4. Peter did not preach that water baptism was not essential to salvation.

    5. Peter did not preach that Jesus was just one of many Saviors.

    6. Peter did not preach that once you were saved, that you could continue in a sinful lifestyle and still be saved.

    7. Peter did not preach that God did not have the power to give us an inerrant translation of the Scriptures.

    8. Peter did not preach that God would provide hundreds or thousands of different Christian denominations, and that they would teach different ways of being saved.

    9. Peter did NOT preach that you had to speak in tongues as evidence that you were saved.

    AS BELIEVERS IN CHRIST, MEN SHOULD USE THE BIBLE AS THEIR GUIDE FOR SALVATION. Looking to man-made creed books, Bible commentaries, denominational statements of faith, and church catechisms, is looking in all the wrong places for the absolute truth!

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

Leave a Reply