[K:NWTS 6/2 (Sep 1991) 3-22]

The Wonderful Tree

Hosea 14:8

Geerhardus Vos

This prophetic utterance represents one of the two inseparable sides in the makeup of religion. If we say that religion consists of what God is for man and of what man is for God, then our text in the divine statement, "From me is thy fruit found," stands for the former. To balance it with the other side, some such word as that of Isaiah might be taken: "The vineyard of Jehovah of Hosts is the house of Israel" (Is. 5:7). Nor would it be an arbitrary combination of disconnected passages thus pointedly to place the one over against the other. In each case a careful study of the prophet would reveal that not some incidental turn of thought, but an habitual point of view, imparting tone and color to the entire religious experience, had found expression in a characteristic form of statement. The two points of view are supplementary and, taken together, exhaustive of what the normal relation between God and man involves. Until we learn to unite the Isaiah-type of piety with that of Hosea, we shall not attain a full and harmonious development of our religious life.

Hosea and the World to Come

Let us this time look at the half-circle of truth expressed by the older prophet. The text stands in the most beautiful surroundings, not merely within Hosea's own prophecy, but in the entire Old Testament. There is a charm about this chapter more easily felt than described. It is like the clear shining after rain, when the sun rises, a morning without clouds. In what precedes, there is much that is hard to understand. Hosea's style is abrupt, full of strange leaps from vision to vision. But here we suddenly pass out of the labyrinth of involved oracles into the clear open. It is a prophecy suffused with deep feeling. All the native tenderness of the prophet, the acute sensitiveness and responsiveness of his emotional nature, rendering him, as it were, a musical instrument expectant of the Spirit's touch, are here in striking evidence; the dissonances of the many prophecies of woe resolve themselves in the sweet harmony of a closing prophecy of promise. And besides, the incomparable light of the future shines upon this chapter. It is bathed in the glory of the latter days, those glories which no prophet could describe without giving forth the finest notes of which his organ was capable. In the repertoire of the prophets, the choicest always belongs to the farthest. When their eye rests on the world to come, a miracle is wrought in their speech so that, in accord with the things described, it borrows from the melodies of the other world. 

Still the spell thrown upon our minds by this piece is by no means wholly, or even chiefly, due to its form. It is the peculiar content that captivates the heart as the music captivates the ear. It is not to be expected of any prophet that he shall put into his prophecies relating to the end indiscriminately of his treasure, but chiefly what is to him its most precious part, that which the Spirit of revelation had led him, and him above others, to apprehend and appreciate. From utterances of this kind, therefore, we get our best perception of what lay nearest to the prophet's heart.

Certainly it is so here with Hosea. In its last analysis, the charm of this chapter is none other than the innate charm of the prophet's most cherished acquaintance with Jehovah. And, applied to the future, this may be summed up in the idea that the possession of Jehovah himself by his people will be of all the delights of the world to come the chief and most satisfying—the paradise within the paradise of God. The whole description leads up to this and revolves around it. As preparing for it, the return to Jehovah is mentioned first. The end of the great change is that the people may once more live in the presence of God. The prayer the prophet puts upon their lips is "take away all iniquity" (Hos. 14:2), with the emphasis upon the all, so as to indicate that not otherwise than by the absolute removal of all sin can the cloudless atmosphere be created for the supreme enjoyment of God. And the people pledge that their eyes and hearts henceforth shall be closed to the lure of idols. As a helpless orphan Israel casts herself upon Jehovah's grace: "We will not say anymore to the work of our hands, ye are our gods, for in thee the fatherless findeth mercy" (v. 3). But clearest of all, the idea appears in the direct speech Jehovah is represented as in that day addressing [to] the people, to the effect that he himself is eagerly desirous to pour out the riches of his affection upon the heart of Israel and meet her desire for him to the utmost measure of its capacity: "I have answered and will regard him; I will be as the dew to Israel: he shall blossom as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree, and his smell as Lebanon. They shall revive as the grain, and blossom as the vine; I am like a green fir tree; from me is thy fruit found" (vv. 5-8).

Jehovah as a Green Tree

It will be seen from this that our text is really the climax of this speech of Jehovah. Through the addition of image to image, the divine purpose of giving himself gathers intensity till at last God appears as a green tree, bearing fruit for his people. This is truly a marvelous representation, well adapted to startle us when we think ourselves into it. It seems to imply something in God that, in the desire for self-communication, exceeds even the strongest affection of a human parent for his children. And yet, my hearers, when reflecting upon it for a moment, can we fail to observe that the marvel in it is nothing else than the heart-miracle of all true religion, the great paradox underlying all God's concern with us. That he, the all-sufficient One, forever rich and blessed in himself, should, as it were, take himself in his own hands, making of himself an object to be bestowed upon a creature, so as to change before the eyes of the prophet into a tree, showering its fruit upon Israel, lavish as nothing in all nature but a tree can be.

This surely is something to be wondered at, and something which, though it recurs a thousand times, no experience or enjoyment ought to be able to rob of its wonder. There is in it more than we convey by the term "communion with God." That admits of relativity, there are degrees in it, but this figure depicts the thing in its highest and deepest possibility, as flowing from the divine desire so to take us into the immediate, intimate circle of his own life and blessedness, as to make all its resources serve our delight, a river of pleasures from his right hand. It might almost seem as if there were here a reversal of the process of religion itself, inasmuch as God appears putting himself at the service of man, and that with the absolute generosity born of supreme love. This relation into which it pleases God to receive Israel with himself has in it a sublime abandon; it knows neither restraint nor reserve. Using human language, one might say that God enters into this heart and soul and mind and strength. Since God thus gives himself to his people for fruition, and his resources are infinite, there is no possibility of their ever craving more or seeking more of him than it is good for them to receive. To deprive religion of this by putting it upon the barren basis of pure disinterestedness is not merely a pretense to be wiser than God, it is also an act of robbing God of his own joy through refusing the joy into which he has, as it were, resolved himself for us. So far from being a matter of gloom and depression, religion in its true concept is an exultant state, the supreme feast and Sabbath of the soul.

Religion and Fallen Man

Of course, in saying this, we do not forget that such religion in its absoluteness can be for a fallen race but a memory and a hope. The painful and distressing elements that enter into our Christian experience are by no means the product of a perverted and bigoted imagination. Religion need not be in error or insincere when it makes man put ashes on his head, instead of every day anointing his countenance with the oil of gladness. In order to be of any use whatever to us in a state of sin, it must assume the form of redemption, and from redemption the elements of penitence and pain are inseparable. Here lies the one source of all the discomfort and self-repression entering into the occupation of man with God, of the sad litany which revealed religion, and to some extent even natural religion, has chanted through the ages. Let no one in a spirit of superficial lightheartedness ridicule it, for, though it may have its excrescences and hypocrisies, in itself it is as inevitable as the joy of religion itself. There is as much reason to pity the man to whom religion has brought no sorrow as the one to whom it has brought no joy. The bitter herbs may not be omitted from the Paschal feast of deliverance. Perhaps the saddest thing to be said of sin is that it has thus been able to invade religion at its very core of joy, injecting into it the opposite of its nature.

And yet it is equally true that there is no religious joy like the joy engendered by redemption. Nor is this simply due to the law of contrast which makes the relief of deliverance proportionate to the pain which it succeeds. A more particular cause is at work here. In redemption God opens up himself to us and surrenders his inner life to our possession in a wholly unprecedented manner of which the religion of nature can have neither dream nor anticipation. It is more clearly in saving us than in creating us that God shows himself God. To taste and feel the riches of his Godhead as freely given unto us, one must have passed not only through the abjectness and poverty and despair of sin, but through the overwhelming experience of salvation. He who is saved explores and receives more of God than unfallen man or even the unfallen angel can. The song of Moses and of the Lamb has in it a deeper exultation than that which the sons of God and the morning stars sang together for joy in the Creator.

The Gift of Redemption

This redemptive self-communication of God is what the prophet has particularly in mind in recording the promise of our text. As already stated, it is a gift of the future, and, of course, the entire future stands to him, as to every prophet, in the sign of redemption. Not as if the future meant only redemption. There is no more characteristic trait in prophecy than that it never makes the crisis of judgment a road to mere restoration of what existed before, but the occasion for the bringing in of something wholly new and inexperienced in the past, so that Jehovah comes out of the conflict, not as one who has barely snatched his work from destruction, but as the great Victor who has made the forces of sin and evil his servants for the accomplishment of a higher and wider purpose. 

There is an exact correspondence in this respect between the large movement of redemption, taken as a whole, and the enactment of its principles on a smaller scale within the history of Israel. As the second Adam is greater than the first, and the paradise of the future fairer than that of the past, so the newborn Israel to the prophet's vision is a nobler figure and exists under far more favorable conditions than the empirical Israel of before. Once its Peniel night is over, it will live in the light and feed upon the goodness of God, and be beautified through its religious embrace of him. This thought is not unclearly suggested by the very figure of our text.

Whatever may be the precise tree species designated by the word berosh (here rendered as "fir tree"), at any rate an evergreen is meant, a tree retaining its verdure in all seasons of the year, never failing in its power to shade and to refresh. The reason is none other than that for which Israel in its beauty is compared to the olive tree (v. 6), a tree likewise perennially clothed with foliage. But there is still something else and far more wonderful about this tree. While by nature not a fruit bearing tree in the ordinary sense, it changes itself into one before the eyes of the prophet. If nothing more than the idea of fruitfulness were intended, the figure of the olive tree would have lain closer at hand. But the labor of the olive is a process of nature and bound to the seasons, and evidently what Hosea wishes to express is the concurrence in the same tree of miraculous fruitage, perennial yield and never failing shade (for the context emphasizes all three).

It is evident that we are here in another tree-world than that of Palestine; it is the neighborhood of the tree of life of which we read elsewhere that it yields its fruit every month. Plainly Jehovah is thus represented on account of his specific redemptive productiveness, and that in its heightened future form when new unheard of influences shall proceed from him for the nourishing and enjoyment of his people. Surely here is something that nature, even God's goodness in nature, could never yield.

Perhaps we are not assuming too much by finding still another element in the comparison. In emphasizing the verdant, living character of Jehovah with reference to Israel, the prophet may have had in mind, by way of contrast, the pagan deity from which these qualities of life and fruitfulness and miraculous provision are utterly absent. There used to stand beside the altar of idolatry a pole rudely fashioned in the image of Asherah, the spouse of Baal and goddess of fruitfulness. Nothing could have more strikingly symbolized the barrenness and hopelessness of nature worship than this dead stump in which no bud could sprout, and on which no bird would alight, and of which no fruit was to be found forever. How desperate is the plight of those Canaanites, modern no less than ancient, who must look for the satisfaction of their hunger to the dead wood of the Asherah of nature because they have no faith in the perpetual miracle of the fruit bearing fir tree of redemption.

The Promised Fruit

But let us endeavor to ascertain what concrete meaning the prophet attaches to the image of the text. What is the fruit that is promised to Israel? To answer this we shall have to go beyond the confines of the text and look around us in the preceding prophecy. The study of this will teach that there are four outstanding features to Jehovah's gift to Israel of the fruition of himself. We find that it is eminently personal, exclusive, individual and transforming in its influence. 

In the first place then, Israel's fruition of Jehovah is eminently personal. One might truthfully say that the idea of the possession of one's God in this pointedly personal sense is an idea grown on the soil of revelation, nurtured by the agelong self-communication of God to his own. To be sure, the thought that the fortunes of life must be related to the deity is a common one in Semitic religion. Edom and Moab and Ammon also have joy before their gods. But this is still something far different from having joy in one's God. The latter is Israel's distinction. To have a god and to have God are two things. The difference can be measured by the presence and the absence of the covenant idea in the two different circles. When Jehovah, entering into covenant with Israel, says, "I will be unto you a God, and ye shall be unto me a people," this means infinitely more than the trite idea: henceforth ye shall worship me and I will cultivate you. It is the mutual surrender of person to person. Jehovah throws in his lot with Israel, no less truly than Israel's lot is bound up with Jehovah. To express it in terms of the text, one would have to force the figure and say that not merely the fruit, nor merely the tree for its fruit, but the tree itself as a glorious living being is the cherished treasure of the owner. The sense of this is so vivid that it has given rise to the phrase "Portion of Israel" as a personal name of God.

To the mind of Hosea the most forcible, indeed final and absolute, expression of this precious truth had been reached in the form of the marriage union between God and Israel. That is simply a closer specification of the covenant idea, and it brings out precisely that side of it on which we are dwelling, the personal aspect of the union involved. While this is from the nature of the case conceived of as mutual, yet the emphasis rests perceptibly on the divine side of it. To be sure, Israel also personally surrendered herself to Jehovah, for we read that she made answer in the days of her youth, and through Jeremiah God declares: "I remember thee for the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, how thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown" (Jer. 2:2). But that was in the beginning; in the sequel Israel soon proved indifferent and faithless. The burden of the message lies in the ascription of this to Jehovah as a permanent, unchangeable disposition. He had not for one moment ceased to be the personal and intimate life companion of Israel. The covenant might be suspended, but so long as it lasted, it could have no other meaning than this, for this lay at its heart.

In a number of delicate little touches the prophet reveals his consciousness of it. After the dire calamities of the judgment have overwhelmed the people and seemingly left nothing further to be swept away, then, as a climax, by the side of which all else shrinks into insignificance, Jehovah announces that he will now personally withdraw from Israel. And corresponding to this, after they have sat many days in the desolation of exile, all but divorced from God, the first and supremely important step in their conversion is that they come trembling unto Jehovah and unto his goodliness in the latter days. Even in the Messianic outlook this strongly personal viewpoint appears. With a peculiarly affectionate turn to the thought, the prophet represents the people as in the end seeking David their king, through remembrance of the sure covenant mercies attaching to the name of one who was the man after God's heart, and thus in himself a pledge of the divine love towards the people.

In the sphere of external, terrestrial gifts the same principle applies. Here, of course, revealed religion comes nearest to the circle of ideas of paganism. Baal, no less than Jehovah, is supposed to give to his servants the produce of the soil. But what a principle difference between the attitude in which paganism entertains this idea and the spirit in which the prophet expects Israel to cherish it! The pagan cult cleaves to the sod, and buries itself in the heaps of grain and the rivers of oil, and remembers not, except in the most external way, the god who gave. The worship sits loosely upon the life; it is a habit rather than an organic function, and subject to change, if the turn of fortune requires. Paganized Israel herself is introduced as speaking in the distress of harvest failure, "I will go after my lovers, that give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, mine oil and my drink" (Hos. 2:5). "But," says Jehovah, "she knew not that I gave her the grain and the must and the oil and multiplied unto her silver and gold" (Hos. 2:8). 

To Hosea the main principle is that the gifts shall come to the people with the dew of Jehovah's love upon them, deriving their value not so much from what they are intrinsically but from the fact of their being tokens of affection, to each one of which clings something of the personality of the giver. And Jehovah knows such a special art of putting himself into these favors; he is not imprisoned in them as are the Baals, but freely lives in and loves through them so as to make them touch the heart of Israel. When the time of her new betrothal comes, and she sees the gifts for her adornment, she exclaims, "Ishi, my husband!" and no longer "Baali, my lord!" (Hos. 2:16). 

Notice the role that nature plays in effecting this; the externals are by no means despised; they have simply ceased to be externals and been turned into one great sacramental vehicle of spiritual favor. Jehovah sets in motion the whole circuit of nature for the service of his people: "It shall come to pass in that day, I will answer the heavens and they shall answer the grain and the new wine and the oil, and they shall answer Jezreel" (Hos. 2:21,22). The things do not mutely grow: they speak, they answer, they sing and the voice that travels through them is the voice of Jehovah. Nature becomes the instrument of grace. That in the spiritual sphere proper everything proceeds along the same line need hardly be pointed out. God speaks comfortably unto Israel to call her back to repentance. He loves her freely, and it is through making her realize this fact that he effects her return. His bridal gifts to Israel are righteousness and mercy and faithfulness and lovingkindness. The mercy that he shows them in their distress is at bottom something far deeper and finer and more spiritualized than the generic sense of pity. It is chesed ("lovingkindness"), i.e., mercy intensified a thousand times by the tenderness of an antecedent love. It is not compassion that saves Israel, for compassion, though truly spiritual in itself, lies but on the circumference of that mysterious saving movement that springs in the divine heart from love and grace as its center.

Jehovah's Exclusive Possession

In the second place, the possession and enjoyment for which Jehovah offers himself to Israel are an exclusive relationship. Here the figure of marriage comes into play. Hosea has greatly idealized this figure, at least as compared with the customs of his time. No matter which side we choose in the exegetical dispute as to whether the first three chapters are allegory or recite facts, in either case, be it by a unique experience or through a unique vision, the prophet has produced a marriage ideal fit to be the parable of the covenant. In this idealized form, it renders most faithfully the latter's essential features. For emphasizing the pure spirituality of the relation nothing could be more suitable. In this respect, it excels even the figure of fatherhood and sonship. For these originate in nature without free choice.

The bond of marriage, as conceived by Hosea, was established through a spiritual process. God, after having created Israel, sought and cultivated her affection. He did this in the beginning and will do it again in the future. So intent is the prophet upon guarding the ideal, ethereal perfection of the union that he studiously avoids representing the coming state of blessedness as a restoration of the previous bond, lest the sin clouds of the past should project their shadows into it. Therefore the consistency of the figure is disregarded; no reparation, no remarriage is mentioned; the past is blotted out; the sin loses both stain and sting; the future arises as a fresh creation out of the waters of oblivion beneath which Israel's guilt has been buried. It is the new, otherwise unrepeatable, love of the first bloom of youth shedding its fragrance over all: "I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness, and I will say, Thou art my people, and they shall say, Thou art our God" (Hos. 2:20,23). 

Now this same idealization also appears in regard to the mutual exclusiveness of the covenant attachment. For we must remember that the prophet affirms this with equal absoluteness with reference to the covenant husband as to the wife, and in this respect custom in his day fell far short of the ideal. When God gives himself to Israel, it is with the clear understanding and promise that he does not do so to any other people. And the exclusiveness on the part of God demands an equally exclusive return of love and service such as shall leave no room for strange devotion. Still, at this point, the reality somehow again transcends the figure. Not that God is husband, but the kind of husband he is comes under consideration. It is not merely his general honor that is at stake, as would be the case in ordinary human marriage; apart from all else the specifically divine character of his person and love renders exclusiveness imperative. Even in giving himself God remains God and requires from Israel the acknowledgment of this. The gift is divine and desires for itself a temple where no other presence shall be tolerated. If we feel God to be ours, then we also feel that no one but God can ever be ours in the same exclusive ineffable sense and that every similar absorption by any purely human relationship would partake of the idolatrous.

The only thing that can give a faint suggestion of the engrossing character of the divine hold upon his people is the first awakening of what we call romantic love in the youthful heart with its concentration of all the intensified impulses and forces and desires upon one object and its utter obliviousness to all other interests. This actually in some measure resembles the single-minded, world-forgetful affection we owe to God, and for that very reason is called worship. But it is a state of momentary, supernormal exaltation which cannot last because in the creature there is not that which will justify and sustain it. Eternalize this and put into it the divine instead of the human, and you will have a dim image of what the mutual exclusiveness of devotion between God and man in the covenant bond implies. Here lies the infallible test of what is truly religious in our so-called religion. Everything that lacks the unique reference to God as its supreme owner and end is automatically ruled out from that sphere. Yea, anything that is cherished and cultivated apart from God in such a sense that we cannot carry it with us in the Godward movement of our life becomes necessarily a hindrance, a profanation and at last a source of idolatry.

Man's nature is so built that he must be religious either in a good or in a bad sense. Ill-religious he may, but simply non-religious he cannot be. What he fails to bring into the temple of God, he is sure to set up on the outside, and not seldom at the very gate, as a rival object of worship. And often the more ostensibly spiritual and refined these things are, the more potent and treacherous their lure. The modern man who seeks to save and perfect himself has a whole pantheon of ideals, each of them a veritable god sapping the vitals of his religion. Nay, the prophet goes even farther than this: Jehovah himself can be made an object of idolatry. If one fails to form a true conception of his character and weaves into the mental image formed of him the false features gathered from other quasi-divine beings, then, whatever the name employed, be it God or Jehovah or even "the Father," the reality of the divine life is not in it. In such a case, it is the perverted image that evokes the worship, instead of the true God.

Hence the prophet does not hesitate to place the calf of Bethel, in which all Israel meant to serve Jehovah, on a line with the idols of the Canaanites and to call it outright by the name of Baal. This may remind us that the rival interest which interferes with the exclusiveness of our devotion to God is not seldom taken from the sphere of religion itself. Where that happens, the most insidious form of adultery ensues because it permits the delusion to remain that with an undivided heart we are cleaving to the Lord. Our outgoing activities, our good works of service, our concern with the externals of religion, all this, unless kept in the closest, most vital contact with God himself, will inevitably tend to acquire a degree of detachment and independence in which it may easily withdraw from God the consecration that ought to go to and the satisfaction that ought to come from him alone. There is even such a thing as worshipping one's religion instead of one's God. How easily the mind falls into the habit of merely enlisting God as an ally in the fight for creature betterment, almost oblivious to the fact that he is the King of glory for whose sake the whole world exists and the entire battle is waged!

Sometimes it is difficult not to feel that God is reckoned with, chiefly because his name and prestige and resources are indispensable for success in a cause that really transcends him, and that the time may yet come when as a supernumerary he will be set aside. Is it not precisely this that often makes the atmosphere of Christian work so chill and uninspiring? Though we compel the feet to move to the accelerated pace of our modern religious machinery, the heart is atrophied and the lukewarm blood flows sluggishly through our veins. Let each one examine himself whether to any extent he is caught in the whirl of this centrifugal movement. The question, though searching, is an extremely simple one: Do we love God for his own sake and find in this love the inspiration of service, or do we patronize him as an influential partner under whose auspices we can better conduct our manifold activities in the service of the world? It was not said with a manward reference alone, that if one should bestow all his goods to feed the poor, and give his body to be burned, and not have love, it would profit him nothing. That which is necessary to hallow an act towards our neighbor must be certainly indispensable in any service for rendering it sacrifice well-pleasing unto God.

Jehovah Gives Himself

In the third place, the fruition of himself granted by God to us is individual. There can be no division to it; each must of necessity receive the whole, if he is to receive it at all. This follows from the nature of the gift itself. If the gift consisted of impersonal values, either material or spiritual, the supply might be quantitatively distributed over many persons. But being as it is, the personal favor of God, it must be poured as a whole into the receptacle of the human heart. The parable of marriage not only teaches that the covenant relation is a monogamic one, but implies besides that it is a bond binding unitary soul to soul. There is an inner sanctuary of communion where all else disappears from sight and the believer shut in with God gazes upon his loveliness and appropriates him, as though outside of him nothing mattered or existed. These may be fugitive moments, and they may be rare in our experience, but we surely must know them if God's fruitbearing for us is to be a reality in our lives.

The prophet evidently had feeling for this, although the dispensation of the covenant under which he lived made it far more difficult to attain than in our time. The collective method of procedure pursued at that stage related everything in the first instance to the nation of Israel. To it belong the election, the love, the union with God, the future. It is quite in accordance with this that Israel as a body appears as the bride and the wife of Jehovah, or in the terms of a different figure as the son he has called out of Egypt. None the less it yields a pure abstraction when this is carried to the extreme of a denial of every individual bond between the single Israelite and Jehovah. On the basis of the collective relationship, in which the many unite as one, there must of necessity have sprung up an individual attachment in which the single believer and Jehovah directly touched each other. As there was private sacrifice alongside of the public ritual service, so there must have flourished personal worship and affection for God in the hearts of the pious. The devotional fragrance wafted to us from so many a page in the Old Testament bears abundant witness to this.

But, while no true Israelite could be entirely without this, there existed doubtless many degrees in the individualizing of what was so largely a common possession. The nature of the prophetic office brought with it a certain detachment from the mass and a peculiar intimacy with Jehovah. And yet the note of individualism is not equally strong in all the prophets. It is interesting to observe where and when and how it emerges. Its two great exponents before the exile are Hosea and Jeremiah. These two speak not only from and for Jehovah, but also to Jehovah. They are preeminently the prophets of prayer. In the case of each, there appears to be some connection between the temperament of the prophet and the cultivation of this element. Both exceptionally endowed in their emotional nature, they instinctively sought and (under the influence of the Spirit) were enabled to find what could satisfy this deep instinct. Religion as centered in the heart cannot but incline towards individualism, for the heart with its hidden feelings is the most incapable of duplication of all the factors that enter into it. Belief and intent of will may be standardized; the emotional reaction is like the wind of heaven: we hear the sound thereof, yet know not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth; so it is with the world of religious feeling; it has a coloring and tone of its own in each individual child of God. 

Hosea being of a most tender and impressionable temperament was on that account chosen to secure for the covenant bond in his own life, and through his influence in the life of others, that sweet privacy and inwardness which forms the most precious possession of every pious soul. Here lies the cause of that vivid, lifelike personification to which the prophet subjects the people of Israel, putting words upon their lips expressing a mode of feeling such as, strictly speaking, only an individual can experience. It is his own heart that the prophet has put into the body of Israel. The construction is in the plural, but the spirit is in the singular, and it needs only to be translated back into the singular to render it a most appropriate speech for every believer in addressing Jehovah: "Come and let us return unto Jehovah; for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he bath smitten and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live before him. And let us know, let us follow on to know Jehovah: his going forth is sure as the morning; and he will come unto us as the rain, as the latter rain that watereth the earth" (Hos. 6:1-3).

And thus the prophet, and through him doubtless others, had the wonderful experience that the God of Israel could give himself to a single person with the same individual interest and undivided devotion, as if that person were the only one to whom his favor extended. This is necessary to complete the fruition of God. Every child of God, no matter how broad his vision and enlarged his sympathies, is conscious of carrying within himself a private sanctuary, an inner guest chamber of the heart where he desires to be at times alone with God and have his Savior to himself. So instinctive and irrepressible is the craving for this, that it may easily give rise to a sort of spiritual jealousy, making it difficult to believe that the God who has given himself to millions of others should receive us along into absolute intimacy and show us the secret of his covenant. Does it seem improper to pray, "Come Lord to me alone, and close the door, that I may have thee to myself for a day and an hour?" Should this feeling come to us and perplex us, the best way to meet it is to consider the existence of the same mystery in the relation of earthly parents to their children. It matters not whether there be one or ten, each child has the full affection of the father's and mother's heart. If we that are creatures can experience the working of this miracle in our finite lives, how much more can the infinite God be present to a countless number of souls and give to each one of them the same ineffable gift? He is God and not man, the Holy One, both in our midst and in our hearts.

Transformation and Incarnation

Finally, the possession and enjoyment of Jehovah by Israel has, according to the prophet, a transforming effect. Here we touch upon the greatest wonder in our fruition of God. This tree, unlike the probation tree of paradise, has the veritable power of making man like unto God. Those who dwell together in the holy companionship of the covenant grow like unto each other. There is a magic assimilative influence in all the spiritual intimacies of life. But here the mystery is deepest because it plays between God and man. It works in both directions: as it has caused God's gift of himself to us to assume even the form of the incarnation in which he became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones, so in the opposite direction it makes us partakers of the divine nature, putting upon our souls God's image and superscription. This is not, of course, the fusing of two entities; such a thought lay far from Hosea's mind. It is the interpenetration of the two conscious lives of God and man, each holding the other in the close embrace of a perfect sympathy.

The prophet has developed this thought also in connection with the marriage idea. As the wife becomes like unto the husband, and the husband unto the wife through the daily association of years, so Israel, the wife of Jehovah, is bound to undergo an inner change through which the features of God are slowly but surely wrought out in her character. The beauty of the Lord God is put upon her. This law works with absolute necessity. The prophet traces it even in the shameful pagan cult which in other respects is the caricature of the true religion of Israel. Those who come to Baal-Peor and consecrate themselves to the shameful thing become abominable like that which they love. The principle laid down applies to all idolatry, open or disguised; whatever man substitutes for the living God as an object of his supreme devotion not only turns into his master, but ends with becoming a superimposed character fashioning him irresistibly into likeness with itself. There is no worshipper but bears the image of his God. The self-sovereignty and the independence affected by sin are not allowed to exist. With a sure nemesis religion reclaims its own and in each one of its pseudo-forms thrusts man back into the attitude of worship.

Likeness to God, however, is not merely the effect of his giving himself to us, it is also the condition on which the reality of such divine self-communication is suspended. To have God and to be owned by God in the profound covenant sense would be impossible and result in doing violence to the nature of God and man alike, if the character of man could not be made to fit into the nature and will of God. The basis of all religion is that man must exist in the image of God. Only on this basis can the further assimilation proceed. But the prophet has given this thought the warm baptism of affection. A power of conscious love is at work in the process. To bring out his own image in Israel is the delight of Israel's lover and husband. This is the reason why the likeness is represented as beginning with the day of betrothal, and the chief qualities entering into it appear as a bridal gift from God to Israel, God giving her, as it were, of his own attributes: "I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in mercies, and thou shalt know Jehovah" (Hos. 2:19,20).

That the gift is a gift of likeness appears also in this, that it is equivalent to the knowledge of Jehovah. Hence the emphasis thrown on the need of knowledge in Hosea's prophecy. God is declared to have known Israel in the wilderness, in the land of great drought. And of Israel it is required, "Thou shalt know no God but me." In both cases the meaning of the word goes far beyond the intellectual sphere; to know is not a mere act or process of becoming informed, but an act of sympathetic absorption in the other's character. It describes Jehovah's original choice of Israel as a most affectionate determination of what Israel was to be, and the attitude of the people as a passionate searching after the perfections of the divine nature. It is that self-projection of the lover into the beloved which is more than knowledge through the understanding. Hence also the trait of eagerness which the prophet ascribes to it. It is not a state of contentment, but partakes of the extreme restlessness of love in motion: "O let us know, let us follow on to know Jehovah!" (Hos. 6:3). This is to such an extent the heart and soul of the marriage that the one great adultery consists in this: that Israel does not know and does not care to know Jehovah. For that is to fail of the end for which the covenant exists; it makes the marriage idle and fruitless.

And finally, my hearers, from this some light falls upon the mystery that a finite creature can receive and possess the infinite God. To speak of giving and possession and enjoyment is after all but speaking in figures. When we try to resolve the figure into the thing itself, the reality grows so great and deep that it transcends our minds, and we must resign ourselves to an experience without understanding. But here is something that we can at least make relatively clear to ourselves: the fruition of God consists in the reception by us of his likeness into ourselves, so that his beauty of character becomes literally our own. So close and so precious an identification no other love can dream of and no other union attain. In it the fruit and the tree become one; we feel and taste that the Lord is for our delight. And when that picture, which Hosea saw as in a glass darkly through the tracings of the imagery of lily and olive tree and grain and wine, when that picture shall have resolved itself for us into the spiritual realities of the life to come, then also the covenant climax will have been reached, every sacrament shall fall away, and our fruition shall be of God within God; we shall at last be like him, because we know him as he is.

Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey