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True Repentance and True Forgiveness -- a study of Hosea 14:1-9

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

Turn from your sin and return to the Lord.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Hosea 14:1-9

In this final lesson from Hosea, God's words come full circle to the promises made to Hosea's adopted children in our first lesson -- God will forgive His people and restore them to the land. All they have to do is repent of their sin and turn from their idolatry. It was that simple then; it's that simple today. Why do we make it so hard?

I will heal their turning; I will freely love them, (14:4)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

You Were Right, I Was Wrong

There's a fun (and underused) commercial series by Progressive about "instant replay in life". In this commercial, the couple is arguing about who said they would be responsible for the life jackets.

Do you have any stories you would want to share about a time you discovered/were told you were wrong about something and had to admit it and apologize?

Someone in my household (whose name rhymes with Kara) recently discovered a musical on Netflix about 13-yr-olds in a small town in Indiana (not Hawkins) who were extremely gifted in singing and dancing. That was the believable part compared to how well-adjusted, thoughtful, and self-aware they were. The climax of the musical was this amazing song-and-dance routine in the school cafeteria centered around "tell her you were wrong, and tell her that you're sorry", and then all of the main characters go to the people they had wronged and ask for forgiveness and there are tears and hugs all around. (At least, I think that's what was going on -- I walked in during the cafeteria song-and-dance.) But again, these were 13-yr-olds. 13. Yr. Olds.

It got me thinking -- would it be easier to apologize to someone in a big song-and-dance number backed up by most of your peers? Maybe?

What's your go-to strategy for apologies? How good a job have you done teaching and modeling apologies to your kids?

What Is Repentance?

Opening discussion topics don't have to be "light" -- they just have to draw everyone in. Everyone knows at least a little about repentance (and it's the most important topic we can focus on today), so bring it up as a topic. And remember that repentance doesn't just refer to us and God! We might not call it "repentance" when we're dealing with other people, but it's similar.

Use a variation of one of these bullet points:

  • What is repentance?

  • How are repentance and forgiveness related?

  • How does somebody repent?

  • Describe a time you had to repent to God, and a time you had to repent to another person.

At its core, "repentance" just refers to a change of mind. In its biblical usage, it's about the deep regret someone feels over a wrong that has been done that leads to a desire to change one's thinking and behavior. The pinnacle of repentance in the Bible is about turning from one's sin and self to God.

The Old Testament -- particular the books we are studying this quarter -- talks about repentance with words like "turn" and "return". In places like Amos 4-5, Hosea 6&14, and Jonah 3, God explains that He sends calamity for the purpose of bringing a person/nation to repentance, and He relents after repentance has occurred. (You can also look at passages like Ezekiel 18 and Isaiah 55.)

In the New Testament, the shift is fully to individual repentance. This was the basic message for both John the Baptist (Matt 3:2) and Jesus (Mk 1:4). But Jesus goes on to explain that true repentance isn't simply feeling sorry for one's sins -- it's a commitment to a total life change oriented around God's view of the world (Luke 3, Matt 5-7). The classic definition of gospel repentance (Holman Bible Dictionary) is

Repentance can be said to have occurred when someone has been convicted of the reality of their personal sinfulness, rejects and renounces that life of sin, and turns to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

But there is something about this topic I feel compelled to bring up every time we talk about this -- there is a slight difference between the way God handles our repentance and the way we handle one another's repentance. It can be summed up like this: Christians are required by God to forgive another person even if that person shows no sign of repentance. Why? Because ultimate judgment belongs to God alone. Can we be fooled by a false demonstration of repentance? Yes. But God cannot. Can we misunderstand a true demonstration of repentance? Yes. But God cannot. Can we be crushed by the fear of having responded the wrong way? Yes. But God cannot. So, God tells us to forgive everyone and trust Him to render righteous judgment. "Forgive" doesn't mean to put ourselves in a dangerous situation; it means to release that offense and its consequences into God's hands.

(To be clear, these are not good models for forgiveness.)

Conversely, God is the Keeper of eternal judgment. By His own rules, only those who have repented of their sin and turned to Jesus Christ for forgiveness will be eternally forgiven. So, God forgives everyone who repents, and He condemns everyone who does not repent. But only He knows true from false repentance, and that's why we trust Him with judgment.


This Week's Big Idea: Prophecy and Hosea

Yes, the true "big idea" is repentance, but I finagled a way to cover that already. Instead, I'd like to look at two passages in Hosea that cause some scholarly debate. When it comes to the New Testament, they are probably the two most important.

Out of Egypt - Hosea 11:1-2

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 Israel called to the Egyptians even as Israel was leaving them. They kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.

This passage follows last week's passage. We know from the context we studied that God is giving yet another example of how He cared for His people even while they were ungrateful. In this case, God rescued them from slavery in Egypt, but they would rather have gone back. They couldn't leave Egypt behind, so to speak.

Matthew applies this passage to Jesus: Matt 2:14 "So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called my Son." Based on what we studied last week, we know that Jesus does not reflect miserable, rotten Israel in any way. God called His son (Israel) out of Egypt, but Israel didn't really want to leave. So, how can this apply to Jesus?

This is where we have to acknowledge that prophecy fulfillment is mysterious. Very rarely is it like a "code" where "A=B". In Matthew in particular, Matthew uses Old Testament passages to demonstrate how the Old Testament points to Jesus. And his key observation is that Jesus fulfills what Israel should have been. Jesus' life follows the steps of Israel, but Jesus succeeds where Israel failed. Matthew looks at Joseph's flight to Egypt with Jesus and says, "Huh -- even Jesus went to Egypt. But Jesus left Egypt behind."

Where, O Death - Hosea 13:14

I will ransom them from the power of Sheol. I will redeem them from death. Death, where are your barbs? Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

What's the problem with that? Well, the immediate context and the Hebrew grammar are pretty clear that the translation should be

Will I ransom them from the power of Sheol? (implying: no!) Will I redeem them from death? (implying: no!) Death, where are your barbs? (meaning: bring on your barbs!) Sheol, where is your sting? (meaning: bring on your sting!) Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

That's slightly different, don't you think? So, why do most translations go with earlier, positive version? You might have guessed this -- Paul cites this passage in his brilliant description of the resurrection (1 Cor 15:55), and that passage is entirely positive. Therefore, we must have misunderstood Hosea's grammar, right?

Not at all. We're just thinking about it too hard.

In Hosea's day, the people have sinned and now face God's punishment. Death will come for them and Sheol ("the grave") awaits them.

But everything changes in Jesus. Read how Paul introduces this prophecy:

54 When this corruptible body is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal body is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory. (see Isa 25:8) 55 Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting?

Now, in Jesus, when we face the same thing the sinful Jews did, we will find a very different outcome. "Death, bring on your barbs!" But wait, death has no power over us! "Sheol, bring on your sting!" But wait, we aren't bound for Sheol any longer! Instead,

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

So, the original Hosea passage that Paul quotes is entirely negative and terrifying. But now in Jesus, the conditions have changed, and we no longer face the outcome that they did in Hosea's day.

Read all of Paul's argument, and I think it makes Hosea's prophecy even more poignant.


Where We Are in Hosea

I already shared two of the most famous passages we skipped following last week's lesson. As I warned, chapters 11-13 just get more and more depressing.

  • Chapter 11. God cared for Israel and rescued him from Egypt, but Israel would rather be with Egypt than God. And so some of them will indeed end up in Egypt -- but as slaves. And others in Assyria as slaved. But a day will come when God calls them out of bondage and back to their homes in the Promised Land.

  • Chapter 12. Israel trusts more in Egypt and Assyria than God, and they will pay for their gross miscalculation. (There's a great reminder that Jacob was a deceiver from birth who struggled with God all his life and had to go to despised Aram for a wife.) Israel is filled with fraud, corruption and greed and deserves his punishment.

  • Chapter 13. Israel fell deeper and deeper into idol worship, even sacrificing their own children to their false gods. And so the same God who saved them from Egypt will remind them in no uncertain terms that He is God alone, and He will share worship with no other, and the people will suffer for their indiscretion.

But then comes chapter 14 -- a reminder that all is not lost. Repentance is still an option, and God will always forgive.


Part 1: True Repentance (Hosea 14:1-3)

Israel, return to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. 2 Take words of repentance with you and return to the Lord. Say to him, “Forgive all our iniquity and accept what is good*, so that we may repay you with praise from our lips. 3 Assyria will not save us, we will not ride on horses, and we will no longer proclaim, ‘Our gods!’ to the work of our hands. For the fatherless receives compassion in you.”

If you didn't have the "repentance" discussion already, have it here. Then transition with a question like "This section is called 'true repentance' -- what's the difference between true repentance and false repentance?"

Everything we say from now on assumes that we are dealing with a person who has truly repented.

Note the repeated phrase, "Return to the Lord". If that was Israel's understanding of repentance, that would be good enough. Today, we know the "how" -- we know that repentance is only possible through Jesus. Because Jesus paid the price for our sins to satisfy God's justice, God can freely forgive us without violating His own holiness.

But they didn't know about Jesus in Hosea's day. All they knew was that repentance was possible, and that God would accept true repentance. They didn't know the "how" -- they had to trust that there was a "how". They simply had to trust that God had a plan which would reconcile the people's unrighteousness with God's righteousness.

And the words the people were to say are pretty amazing! Frankly, for someone who wouldn't know a thing about Jesus, I think they make clear sense.

On a white board, have your group spell out what they ask God to do and what they say they will do:

  • God: forgive completely (or, forgive all of our sins)

  • God: accept what is "good" (actually, this is the same root for "word", so it is more likely that the people are saying "accept our words/prayer"

  • The people: offer praise in thanksgiving (the Hebrew might be easier said "that we may praise You with our lips as an offering/sacrifice")

  • The people: no longer look to idols as saviors

  • God: give compassion to the fatherless

The end of verse 3 might be a really cool callback to Gomer's children that we talked about in the very first lesson in Hosea. The scenario is a bit different -- Gomer the mother abandoned her children, but Hosea the adoptive father never did. The imagery was of God as the caring father of a wayward child who would never abandon His children.

But what had the people done? They had abandoned the true God for idols. Were idols going to be a faithful "father" to their worshipers? Of course not! But just as God had compassion on Gomer's literally abandoned children (by providing them with Hosea), God would have compassion on them who had been abandoned by their false gods. Go back and read about the names God gave to those children.

Amazing, right?


Part 2: True Forgiveness (Hosea 14:4-7)

4 I will heal their apostasy; I will freely love them, for my anger will have turned from him. 5 I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like the lily and take root like the cedars of Lebanon. 6 His new branches will spread, and his splendor will be like the olive tree, his fragrance, like the forest of Lebanon. 7 The people will return and live beneath his shade. They will grow grain and blossom like the vine. His renown will be like the wine of Lebanon.

The gospel application is that true forgiveness always follows true repentance. If anyone in your group is not a Christian or has questioning his/her faith, please hunker down on "repentance" and "forgiveness".

[Big theological question that people often have here: if Jesus' sacrifice was sufficient to pay for everyone's sins, why doesn't everyone go to heaven? Oversimplified answer: Jesus' sacrifice is sufficient for every sin, but it is only efficient for those people who accept His sacrifice in their place. Think of it like this: let's say you have a crazy rich uncle who offered to pay for your college expenses; all you have to do is send him your bills. But for whatever reason, you decide you would rather pay for college yourself and never send him the bills. He had the money to pay your bills, but you chose to pay for it yourself. Not going to Jesus for salvation is kinda like that -- you're telling God that you would rather pay your sin debt yourself than let Jesus pay it for you. Okay ... it will take you an eternity to pay off your infinite debt. Are you sure that's how you want to do it?]

Verse 4 is very cool -- the word translated "apostasy" is the same root as the word "return" in verses 1 & 2. We have to realize that "repentance" is simply changing one's mind -- it doesn't inherently tell us which direction that change goes. Here, we realize that the Israelites had repented of God! They had turned away from God and turned to Egypt/Assyria and their false gods. God would heal them of their turning away from Him. That could mean two things: (1) it could simply mean He would forgive them for turning from Him, or (2) it could mean that He would heal them of their tendency to turn from Him.

I think it's the latter. That makes me think of this amazing verse in "Come Thou Fount":

Oh, to grace how great a debtor Daily I'm constrained to be. Let Thy goodness like a fetter Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love. Here's my heart, oh take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.

And the wordplay continues with God's reference to His own anger:

  • If Israel will return to Him,

  • He will heal them of their tendency to turn from Him,

  • and He will turn His anger from them.

But it's not just withholding His anger from the people. Ask this question: what is mercy, and what is grace?

Mercy is not giving somebody the punishment they deserve. Grace is giving somebody the blessing they don't deserve. With God, mercy and grace go hand-in-hand.

Do you see how powerful this idea is? With people, our forgiveness often just goes as far as not wanting the person to be punished for what they did. God doesn't stop there. He goes beyond mercy into grace -- a forgiveness that results in Him pouring out blessings on the offender.

(Btw, that's why Jesus is so upset with people who don't show mercy to another person. They clearly have no appreciation for how much more than mercy God has shown them!)

Let's walk through the grace God will show His people:

"Like the dew" -- in Israel's dry climate, morning dew was the equivalent of rainfall. (God placed plants there that could drink in the dew like our plants drink rain.)

"Blossom like the lily" -- because Jesus also talked about the beauty of the lilies (Matt 6), you can find lots of web pages about Israel's lilies. Really, we should think of this term as applying to any of a range of wildflowers in Israel.

High praise to be compared with a lily!

"Root like the cedars of Lebanon" -- we talked about this when we studied Solomon's Temple. He used cedars from Lebanon to build it and his palace (1 Ki 5-7). They were mighty -- symbols of strength and longevity. (The word "cedar" doesn't appear in the Hebrew, but it's obviously what Hosea was talking about.)

"Splendor like the olive tree" -- olive trees are also stunning, though in a different way (in the pictures below, the left one is a lebanese cedar, the right is an olive).

"The wine of Lebanon" -- other than this passage, I would not have known that ancient Lebanon was renowned for its wine. You learn something new every day.

So here's a summary of God's blessings:

  • He will water them so their roots grow deep and their flowers blossom brightly.

  • They will grow thick and dense, providing shade to everyone there.

  • They will be pleasant and fruitful -- sweet-smelling and beautiful.

  • Their productivity will be more than olives -- they will bring forth grain and wine (the "ingredients" of the Lord's Supper, symbols of God's provision).

The point is to make us think of the bounty and beauty of the Garden of Eden. The perfect place where God provides for our every need and more -- a place where people don't simply survive but thrive.

This is the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for God's people who repent. The final piece of the wordplay comes in verse 7 -- the people will physically return to their land.


Part 3: True Wisdom (Hosea 14:8-9)

8 Ephraim, why should I have anything more to do with idols? It is I who answer and watch over him. I am like a flourishing pine tree; your fruit comes from me.
9 Let whoever is wise understand these things, and whoever is insightful recognize them. For the ways of the Lord are right, and the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them.

This is the payoff for the entire book. The beginning of verse 8 is most literally, "Ephraim, I do not want to have anything to do with idols anymore." The leader guide catches the sense of its meaning -- there is nothing more to be said. God doesn't want the Israelites to bring up the topic ever again. (For their own good. Have you ever been there as a parent?)

The rest of verse 8 is interesting. God compares Himself to a pine tree (probably a "cypress" tree -- ancient Israelites didn't have the scientific precision in referring to coniferous trees that some might have today).

I'm not exactly sure if the "your fruit comes from me" has a botanical referent. Cypress trees are ridiculously drought-resistant, and their root systems are strong enough to resist erosion from sudden floods. They have been known to filter pollutants out of the groundwater, and they are home to many forest animals, including pollinators.

Maybe God is making a deep point here, or maybe God is simply reminding the people that they can only bear fruit because of Him. Sometimes the simplest answer is best.

And then verse 9 sends us to all of the great wisdom studies we did in Proverbs!!

That passage is based on the familiar "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" and explains that listening to God's wisdom keeps one off of the path of sin and on the path of righteousness.

This passage explains the general principles that following God's rules for living is the best way toward a long, happy, and fulfilled life. Two ground rules: trust God and honor God.

This passage explains that all people have a choice -- to obey God or disobey God. The consequences are based on your choice.

If you spend time highlighting some of the principles we learned in Proverbs, it would be good to remind everybody that Proverbs is filled with principles, not promises. We all know that living a righteous life is no guarantee of experiencing only good things in life (cf: Jesus). But the blessings of walking in the steps of Jesus are so much more than worldly rewards!

You might take a few steps down the study of Proverbs. Remind everyone that Solomon wrote the proverbs for his children and the people of Israel hundreds of years before Hosea. How well did the people listen? But God continued to allow them the choice, just as He does us today. How well are we doing at choosing wisdom? What choices do we need to make to turn around on our path away from God and walk back toward God?

This is the evangelistic focus lesson, so this is the perfect time to make sure everyone in your group knows and understands the gospel message, either to act on it themselves or to help someone in their life come to Jesus.

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