Restoration in the Wilderness
by Cynthia Bowen
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In Hosea chapters 1 and 2, the Bible paints a picture of Israel that is familiar, that of a wife espoused to God. He brought Israel out of slavery and bondage in Egypt. He delivered the nation with undeniable miracles, showing His great mercy and love over her. He mercifully brought the Israelites through desert areas for forty years, all the while providing water from rocks and manna from Heaven. The heathen kings who tried to curse Israel ended up adding blessing to them. As if all this were not enough, God Himself walked with them. The Israelites saw God's tangible Presence as a cloud, or pillar of fire on a daily basis. When Israel finally entered the Promised Land, God struck fear into the hearts of the inhabitants everywhere they went. They faced battle after battle knowing God was with them, delivering armies stronger than them into their hands.
Eventually, the land was possessed. The big battles were over and Israel became prosperous. The nations that surrounded them no longer looked like threatening powers, but became neighbors. As time passed, Israel became friendlier with those neighboring nations. Not long after, they began worshiping the same false gods that their prosperous neighbors worshiped. This was the place where Hosea picks up the story.
Israel , the espoused wife of God, had been unfaithful. She became bored with her marriage and began to look at the idols around her. She knew she was married to God, and that the first commandment He had given her was to love Him with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength. The kind of love God gave her was all encompassing, and that is the kind of love He required in return. If she had kept that first commandment, Israel would not have had any trouble being faithful to Him. The easy places of prosperity were dangerous for Israel. She turned her eyes away from Jehovah and sought the thrill of new relationships. For most of her history, Israel continued bringing sacrifices and holding religious ceremonies. Though she went through the motions of a dutiful wife for a while, her Divine Husband knew her heart. Slowly He began to withdraw His hand of blessings. The harvests failed and the neighbors she courted attacked her. Prosperity slipped away and Israel's comfortable, pleasant things were stripped at God's orchestration. He had every right to cast Israel away completely. She was an adulterous wife.
But listen closely to God's love and mercy in Hosea 2:14-16:
14 Therefore, behold, I will allure her [Israel] and bring her into the wilderness, and I will speak tenderly and to her heart.
15 There I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor [troubling] to be for her a door of hope and expectation. And she shall sing there and respond as in the days of her youth and as at the time when she came up out of the land of Egypt.
16 And it shall be in that day, says the Lord, that you will call Me Ishi [my Husband], and you shall no more call Me Baali [my Baal].
Remember, Israel had been an unfaithful wife. God had the right to divorce her and never look at her again. He even had the right to demand her destruction. But mercy triumphs over justice with our God. Doesn't that remind you of the day the religious leaders brought the woman taken in adultery and stood her in front of Jesus? He looked at the angry, self-righteous men and said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." As He stooped and wrote on the ground, the men realized they did not qualify to throw rocks at her. The only Man in the crowd who did qualify, because of His sinless life, chose to show her mercy.
In verse 14, God says He, the Husband, will allure Israel and bring her into the wilderness. Allure is not a word of judgment. It is a lover's word. It means to tempt with something desirable, to attract, to fascinate, or charm. It is a passionate word for God to use. Notice where God allures her to: the wilderness. I think that living in this geographic area spoils the concept of wilderness for us. We hear that word and think of Daniel Boone cutting a trail through lush forests and dense vegetation. That is not the picture the Israelites envisioned at the word wilderness. Rather, they imagined a rocky, barren deserted place. There is nothing lush or green around, only a dry and thirsty wasteland. That is the place the Divine Husband allures His wife. When she gets there, there is nothing to look at or to except her Husband. There are no glittering distractions to catch her gaze in the wilderness. He has all her attention now. With the loud sounds of foreign music quieted, He begins to talk to His wife. Surely she can expect angry, hard words of condemnation. However, she hears lovely, tender words that touch her heart from the lips of the Creator. The words remind her of the sweet courtship she had enjoyed in earlier days.
In verse 15, God does something only He could do. In the dry, barren, rocky wilderness, He gives Israel her vineyards. Who but God could make not just a grape vine, but an entire vineyard in a desert? I am reminded of Isaiah 35:1 that says that the desert will rejoice and blossom as a rose. God makes the Valley of Achor become a door of hope and expectancy for Israel. Achor means troubling. It is the place where Achan sinned and took cursed things for himself after the battle of Ai during the conquest of Canaan, causing Israel an embarrassing defeat. Now the Husband promises to take the place of sin, defeat, and troubling, and give it a new reputation. Now it will be a place of restoration, mercy, and love. Instead of weeping and judgment, the Valley of Achor will be filled with singing and rejoicing. It becomes a door through which Israel may walk toward her Husband, expecting to see His love and care. She looks at Him with new eyes, no longer bored or distracted. She sees Him like she did when He brought her out of Egypt. The courtship is fresh and the relationship is new again.
In verse 16, we see the heart change that has occured in Israel. No longer does Israel consider God as a master or owner. No longer will He be seen as equal to the idols erected by other people. Now she calls Him an intimate, loving name--Ishi, my Husband.
Though this is a lovely story of mercy and restored relationship between God and Israel, God has not changed. Everything that God is, Jesus is as well. There is a consistent thread that runs through the New Testament calling the Lord a Bridegroom, as well as references to the church as a chaste bride awaiting His coming. I believe the correlation between faithless Israel and the last days church is pretty close.
We, the church, always start off well. We come to Jesus broken, surrendered,and whole-heartedly in love. We are aware of the wonderful work He does in us, breaking bondages and granting freedom we could never deserve. He walks with us during hard times and fights our battles. Then things settle down. We get busy,complacent, and honestly, a little bored. Our passion for Jesus is no longer a blazing inferno. It is not necessarily completely out, only tamed down to a controlled, managable little fire.
As we get distracted the world around us begins to look better and brighter. We seek entertainment to tickle our minds. As the thrill fades, we seek out more risque forms of amusing ourselves. The movies we watch get racier. We tire of the same old Christian CDs in our car, so we tune the radio to music with a catchy beat and lyrics that hook our minds with a warped value system. We see the people around us as prosperous and happy, not seeing the tragic dramas hidden in the privacy of their homes. We begin to feel we need the same kind of "stuff" our neighbors and coworkers have, even if that means using credit cards and working ridiculous hours to make ends meet. Our children have an endless parade of extracurricular activities, and we need a little down time ourselves. Our Bibles start collecting dust and church attendance seems less important. We still go occasionally--it's our duty. We still clap to the music while we are there like everyone around us, but our minds are pondering the to-do list that awaits us when we leave. We still throw a little money into the offering plate as it passes. But deep inside, we sense something is amiss. We feel dry and empty. Where is the joy we once knew in serving God?
Did we forget that God doesn't need us to fill a church pew or pattycake during the service? He doesn't need us to give in the offering or spend time reading our Bibles. His glory is not diminished if we do not pray and worship Him, but we are. The truth is that we need Him. Without the Lord, our life is a dry, barren wilderness.
All the distractions were not really the problem. There is nothing wrong with watching an occasional movie, getting a new car, or going somewhere with our family. The real dilemma is the condition of our hearts, and if these things are drawing us away from Jesus and causing the passion we feel for Him to cool.
If this describes us, we don't have to walk around condemned. It just means we are human. The good news is that we have a High Priest who became human, as well, and was tempted like we are. Jesus sees us and understands. That High Priest is also our Bridegroom.
Can you hear the passionate voice of the Bridegroom speaking to His church, "Behold, I will allure you and bring you to the wilderness" ? He brings us to the dry, empty place so He can get our attention. He wants to speak to us tenderly and lovingly. He wants to draw us aside, away from our busyness, to remind us just how good His love feels. He lets us get dry and thirsty so we will look at Him again. Do you remember the passion for God that drove you to prayer and fellowship with Him? Do you remember the fire that His Word once stirred inside you? Do you remember the sweet awareness of His love and desire for your companionship?
You may be in a valley of Achor--a place of troubling. Maybe you are ashamed at the memory of sin and slackness in the place you find yourself. The devil saw you in that dried out, dusty place too, and he got comfortable because you are not a threat to his plans in that place. Don't worry,though. Jesus, our Bridegroom, has another plan. He's going to take that dry valley of troubling and make vineyards spring up. The vineyards mean that new wine is coming to the church. The barren wilderness can be a door of hope and expectation for us. We know our Bridegroom awaits on the other side for us. When we walk through the door, we don't call Him master or owner. Now we call Him something much more intimate...Ishi, my Husband.
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