The mercy of God was the original experience of Israel throughout the hundreds of years of adventure and drama in its history. Their main experience, in a very special way, was the mercy and love of God. Their entire history is determined by God who, with the love of a father, draws close to people, enters their personal lives, and ultimately sets them free. This merciful God always sees their needs and is determined, out of love, to liberate them. The liberation and the Exodus of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt was, for the Chosen People, the most important experience and their deepest encounter with God. Very close to the story of Exodus is also the story of the Exile of Israel in Babylonia, and how God, without their merit, brought his people home after many many years of imprisonment, suffering and humiliation. The people of Israel always understood these events – even to the present day – as the greatest expression of the forgiving love and the absolute faithfulness of God. Through this merciful love, God reveals again and again his deepest desire and aim to be united with his people in an unbreakable covenant of love – a covenant, that is so unbreakable that even the greatest sin and the greatest unfaithfulness towards him cannot destroy it. In the Old Testament, we notice how God shows his love as the power and faithfulness of a spouse or bridegroom who is united for the ever to his bride. His love is so great and so faithful, that he is always willing to forgive her “adultery” and the ever recurring betrayal of his Chosen People. The prophets, throughout the Old Testament, proclaimed to the people the faithful mercy of God. Mercy, for them, is that special power of love – his fatherly gaze towards us – a power that is stronger than any sin or any unfaithfulness. For the coming Sundays, we will look at three examples of the witness of God’s mercy in the Old Testament: Firstly, the Prophet Hosea, secondly, the Prophet Isaiah, and then thirdly, Psalm 103.
Amongst the many prophets, we have a beautiful and powerful example in the story of the prophet Hosea. For Hosea, God’s mercy became the beacon of his preaching, and became the ultimate guiding star of his message to the people. We can see this, in a very revealing way, in the 11th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Hosea. We will look closer at Chapter 11 in a moment. Hosea was a was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom and was called by God to be a provocative and prophetic sign for the people – he appeared as a prophet in Samaria in Israel, probably around the 8th century BC. God asked him to marry Gomer, who was a fertility prostitute in the pagan temple, and would have been, in the eyes of the people, an “adulteress”. Nevertheless, Hosea is asked to marry her, and in spite of her constant unfaithfulness, to keep fighting to win her love. In this experience of the prophet, God reveals his passionate efforts to win our love even when we sin, or become unfaithful to him. His love never gives up. It seems that God wishes to punish his people for their lack of faithfulness – and, without doubt, they have deserved punishment. However, it only seems like this at first glance. God shows them his mercy, and as the prophets reveal, his mercy always triumphs in the end. We too sometimes deserve God’s punishment for our unfaithfulness. Nevertheless, God wants us to receive the mercy that we have not earned or merited. God’s love is so strong for us, that his sense of justice is taken up in the greater sense of mercy towards us. In other words, his justice is motivated by his mercy. However, God is not satisfied about teaching us something in a theoretical way. That is why he gives the prophet Hosea a rather strange task. Hosea would have been quite happy to live his own life and been left in peace to do his own thing. However, when he was called from God to be a prophet, he also had to share in a prophet’s destiny. That means that he is God’s messenger and his own life and wishes have to take second place. God asks him to marry a fertility prostitute of the pagan temple. Why should he marry a prostitute? Because this relationship and marriage between Hosea and Gomer, becomes the symbol for the true relationship between the people of Israel and their God. God sealed with them a covenant of love. And how often has Israel broken this covenant and become unfaithful by worshipping foreign Gods and ignoring God’s commandments? What is God trying to say to them? Just as this woman, Gomer was her name, is a prostitute and an adulteress, so are you –people of Israel – towards me also a prostitute and an adulteress. Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, Israel is unfaithful to God, Gomer runs away and hides from Hosea, Israel also runs away and hides from God; Gomer commits adultery in her marriage to Hosea, and Israel breaks the covenant with God. Therefore, the prophet Hosea now takes upon himself this unique mission to actually marry the adulteress. In this way, and through the witness of Hosea’s life, God shows that he has never given up on his people and he wants to renew his covenant with them over and over again. It is as if he is saying: “I know you have sinned, but I still love you and I want to be married to you, and I will do what it takes for us to be together.” This is a classic proof of the abundant and merciful love of God. He is the faithful partner in this relationship, even when the other partner commits adultery and is unfaithful. The life of the prophet Hosea becomes a “living catechism”, teaching us about the relationship between God and his people, but also how God tries, over and over again, to win back the heart of his people, and never gives up. From the marriage of Hosea, three children will be born. The first child carries the name “Have Mercy”. What does this mean? It means that even when people have broken the covenant with God, He will always remain faithful to his side of the covenant and he will make his people fruitful when they turn to him. After a short time, however, Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea once more. What does he do? Certainly, he is inwardly hurt and crushed and he leaves his wife for a time. However, it doesn’t take very long for God to tell Hosea that he should return to his wife and when he returns to her God proclaims: “I will always be faithful to my people, and I will always embrace them in my endless mercy”. God promises to be with his people again and always to be faithful to them. At this moment in the story, the first child now receives a new name. What is this new name? The child is now called “You have received the mercy of God”. God is hurt that his people have broken the covenant so many times and his love has been disappointed so many times. However, God can do nothing else but to reveal his endless mercy to his people. The more God cares for his people and the more he loves his people, the more the people left his side and became unfaithful to him. They worshipped strange gods, and they brought sacrifices to the idols of wood and metal. Just as a husband is hurt and disappointed at the unfaithfulness of his wife, so God is also disappointed in the unfaithfulness of his people. They do not realize how much they are loved, and how important they are to him. God says: “My heart recoils within me” – (Verse 8b), in other words, love will always triumph with me – not revenge or punishment. Hosea became the great proclaimer of the mercy of God in the Old Testament. He taught the people, by his life, that God will always be faithful to his promises and that we can always count on his mercy even when we have not merited it. Right at the beginning of his testimony we uses words that you will struggle to find anywhere else: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6) Probably, these well-used and quoted words are the most widely popular ones from the book Hosea. His task in life is to bring the message of God’s merciful love to the people, and convince them of this merciful love. He wants to explain to them and show them that God’s love will always be victorious even in the face of unfaithfulness and bitter disappointment. In chapter 11, God’s constant love for his people proves much stronger than any human unfaithfulness towards him. The love of God towards his people, is the most essential attribute and innermost reality of God. On the one hand, Hosea experienced how people make the same mistakes over and over again; but on the other hand, he also experienced the transforming power of God’s love. In this Year of Mercy, this is what we want to experience ourselves and hope that this gift will be shared within the whole Church – the transforming power of God’s merciful love. Let us now look closer at Chapter 11 and this wonderful text:
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Chapter 11 begins with looking back into Israel’s history. Hosea mentions the “cords of human kindness” (in verse 4), which we can understand as the little “nudges” and “educational interventions”, that God has used in Israel’s history to guide them and to draw them close to him in love. The love of God towards Israel is compared to the love of a father to his child. Here we find, some of the most tender words spoken about the relationship between God and his people. However, the many numerous proofs of God’s love to his people often meet with the constant ingratitude and unfaithfulness of Israel. Very quickly, the prophet Hosea “calls a spade a spade” and points out where the deepest problem lies: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.” (verse 2). Israel walks away from God side, and looks for other “fathers” and “idols”, that they think will bring them happiness. In actual fact, we see here the drama of every human generation: finding happiness and fulfillment with God, or forgetting God and “eclipsing” him in our lives, in order to find our own happiness and fulfillment with our own resources. Hosea expresses so beautifully that even when God is so disappointed about the unfaithfulness of his people, his tenderness, his compassion, and his merciful love are much greater, and for this reason, he still wants to be united with his people. If you like, God allows his disappointment and bitter hurt to be overcome by mercy: “For I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Verse 9b). God reveals, again and again his innermost self, his holiness and how different he is to how we think and act. We cannot understand God by comparing him to ourselves. He is totally different. In this passage from the Prophet Hosea, it becomes so evident that the ultimate motivation for God’s presence and activity in the life of every human being, is not his desire to hurt us or punish us, but his desire to love us and to show us his mercy, so that we can live in the most intimate communion with him. God’s mercy includes a love that wants to give and keep on giving; a love that is much stronger and much more evident than betrayal and sinfulness. Many scholars would claim that this chapter from the Hosea is one of the most beautiful chapters in the entire Old Testament. These few passages, which give witness with such compassion and tenderness, to the victorious power of God’s love even in the face of great adversity. Hosea allows us to catch a glimpse of God’s heart – where his fatherly and motherly love will always win the day and hold sway. Naturally, in the cross of Jesus Christ on the hill of Calvary, we will discover again how far this love is prepared to go to win back our hearts.