When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. – Hosea 11:1-4 ESV
Sometimes, because God is transcendent and invisible to our eyes, we can see Him as distant and difficult to comprehend. After all, He is the creator of the universe. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is sinless and perfect in all His ways. So we find it hard to relate to Him. While we speak of His love and rely upon His grace and mercy, it’s not always easy to feel those things in daily life. After all, we can’t experience a hug from God. We have never been able to talk a walk with Him and have Him put His arm on our shoulder to encourage us. There is a sense in which His transcendence makes Him unapproachable and somewhat aloof to us. But God would have us see Him as our Father. In fact, He uses the imagery of fatherhood throughout the Scriptures. And Jesus Himself encouraged His disciples to approach God in prayer with the word, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9 ESV).
Here in chapter 11, God addresses the people of Israel as a father would speak to his child. He reminds them of their past and jars their collective memory in order to get them to recall what their relationship with Him used to be like. He had been like a father to them. They had been like a helpless child, trapped in the bonds of slavery in Egypt. They were oppressed. They were crying out in pain and suffering. And God had heard them. When He had called Moses, God had told him, “I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries of distress because of their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and lead them out of Egypt into their own fertile and spacious land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8 NLT). And that is exactly what He had done. He had rescued them, set them free and led them to the land of Canaan, just as He had promised to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.
God had shown the people of Israel unconditional love. He had rescued them, not because they deserved it, but because of His love for them. And yet, their response to His love had been to refuse it. The failed to recognize and appreciate the incredible miracle that the God of the universe had chosen to shower His love on them. He had adopted them as His own and yet, they had treated His love with contempt. The prophet Isaiah recorded these indicting words from God against the southern kingdom of Judah.
Listen, O heavens! Pay attention, earth! This is what the Lord says: “The children I raised and cared for have rebelled against me. Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care—but Israel doesn’t know its master. My people don’t recognize my care for them.” Oh, what a sinful nation they are—loaded down with a burden of guilt. They are evil people, corrupt children who have rejected the Lord. They have despised the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. – Isaiah 1:2-4 NLT
They were corrupt children who had rejected the love of God. And God uses the imagery of a father teaching his child to walk to illustrate just how painful their rejection of Him was. He had held their hand and lovingly, patiently guided their every step. He had walked alongside them, steadying their way and ensuring their safety. And then had inevitably fallen, He had lovingly healed them. Just like any earthly father would have done. It was Jesus who said of His heavenly Father, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11 ESV). God is a faithful, loving Father. And yet, Israel, His adopted children, had forsaken Him for false gods. He had “led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love” (Hosea 11:4 ESV), but they had chosen to reject His love and come out from under His protection. Those cords of kindness and bands of love, portrayed through His holy law, had been intended to provide them with loving protection. Like a father’s rules for his children, God’s law was meant to provide appropriate boundaries and protective guidelines for their lives. But they had repeatedly broken God’s laws. They had seen them as oppressive and overly restrictive. But now they were going to understand what the yoke of oppression was really like. The generation to whom Hosea spoke had long ago forgotten the trials and tribulations their ancestors had gone through in Egypt. Slavery was not something to which they could relate. They had been born free and had enjoyed the privilege of growing up in a powerful, successful nation where problems were few and the blessings of God had been many. But the love of the Father had not been enough to hold their attention or keep them faithful.
When we fail to recognize God’s love, His fatherly care and protective presence in our lives, we find it easy to walk away from Him. Like the prodigal son who only saw his father as a source of financial blessing, we can overlook and take for granted our heavenly Father’s unceasing, undeserved love, care and protection. We can end up wanting what we can get from Him more than we want Him. We can treat Him as some kind of genie in a bottle, obligated to grant our wishes and fulfill our every self-centered desire. But God would have us realize just how much He loves us. The apostle John reminds us, “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NLT). And God demonstrated just how much He loved us in a powerful and very costly manner. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The Father’s love for His children is real. It is boundless and tireless. It is patient and unceasing. And Paul would have us come to grips with the startling reality that nothing can separate us from God’s love. “If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself” (Romans 8:31-33 NLT).