by Daniel Harrell
Today’s celebration of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem is darkly ironic. By week’s end, the crowd’s shouts of “hosanna” will give way to “crucify him.” It’s a sad reminder of how easily our own faith in Jesus can wane. Throw too much difficulty or disappointment in your path and what had been “praise God” easily becomes “why me Lord?” And yet even sadder for most of us is that difficulty and disappointment don’t diminish our faith nearly as much as prosperity and satisfaction. Throw too much prosperity or satisfaction in our path and what had been “thank God” becomes “God who?” Who needs God when everything’s fine? Or better, who needs a Lord who commands that you share your prosperity with others and be suspicious of your satisfaction. For the ancient Israelites in Hosea, the Lord could be quite the party pooper. Thus they decided that rather than hooking up with holiness they’d chase after idols and the parties they promised―a do-it-yourself kind of religion that allowed you to do whatever you wanted. Never mind that it was the Lord who had rescued them from slavery and given them land and lavished them with all they could ever need. Never mind that it was the Lord who had made all of their prosperity possible.
Normally the book of Hosea would be an odd place to spend Palm Sunday―except that Jesus himself alludes to the prophet in Luke’s Holy Week narrative. In the 23rd chapter of Luke’s gospel, with cheering crowds having soured into a jeering mob, Jesus tells a group of women who weep for him to weep for themselves and their children instead. “The time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ You will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” All of this echoes Hosea 10. Verse 8: “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed―it is the sin of Israel. Thorns and thistles will grow up and cover their altars. Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’” And verse 14 too: “The roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated―as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle (a possible reference to 2 Kings 17), when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.” The last line the reason that childlessness would be blessed.
As we have seen, Hosea is hardly the feel-good book of the Bible. It’s all about God’s anger at Israel for their cheating ways. Bad enough that they chased after other lovers, but their other lovers weren’t even real. Instead of loving the Lord as their husband and worshipping him as Maker of Heaven and Earth, they settled for cheap imitations, idols made of wood and stone, tinker toys and Lincoln logs. Why the fascination? Why ever the fascination? As Americans we spend billions of dollars every year on all kinds of crap we have to have but never use, all in an effort to make us happy while while millions go hungry and suffer the ravages of disaster and war. Hosea can’t stand it. “Sow some righteousness!” he says in verse 12, “Reap some love! Break up your hard hearts! Seek the Lord!” All to no avail: “You have plowed wickedness and reaped injustice. You eat the fruit of lies. You trust in your own power.” Hosea’s anger is God’s anger. He knows how God feels. That’s because Hosea was married to a cheating spouse too. God commanded it so that Hosea would understand what infidelity felt like. Hosea understood God’s broken heart and thus could speak for the Lord.
We left off last in chapter 5, but you’re really not missing a whole lot by skipping to chapter 10. The intervening chapters read pretty much the same. Israel is one messed up wife. She had been a luxuriant spreading vine, we read in verse 1—one of the Bible’s favorite metaphors for the good life. But rather than giving thanks to God and spreading the wealth, the people bought more toys for themselves. As the Lord does whenever greed shows up in the Bible, he shows his anger in verse 2, promising to “demolish their altars and destroy their sacred stones.” Yet because Israel’s was both a religious and political promiscuity, he would destroy their nation too. On their border were the Assyrians, a mighty army that God’s people flirted with and then tried to buy off for their own personal protection. The move backfired. Assyria eventually invades and annihilate the northern kingdom. Verse 7: “Samaria and its king (the capital of Israel in contrast to Jerusalem the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah) and its king will float away like a twig on the water.” And verse 15: “the king of Israel will be completely destroyed.” It is God who unleashes the destruction. Verse 10: “I will punish them at my pleasure; I will call out the armies of the nations against you for your multiplied sins.” The end of Hosea would spell the end of the northern kingdom.
This is hard truth to take from a God whose calling card is supposed to be mercy. Readers of the Bible perennially struggle with the Old Testament portrayal of God’s anger. It’s why you should only read the New Testament. Except that when you read the New Testament it’s the same material. Jesus allusion to Hosea 10 in Luke’s gospel occurs in the context of history doomed to repeat itself: a vine grown proud withered to wickedness, the rejection of God, a terrible judgment to come as a result of infidelity and trusting in military might, the dire warning to mothers and their children, and finally, the death of Israel’s King. Israel the vine kicked their addiction to idols, but they did so mostly by idolizing themselves. They converted their disobedience to God into an over-obedience; a twisted kind of faithfulness achieved without faith. Go through the right motions and be good without God. This delusion led to different kind of infidelity, a proud self-reliance whereby their rejection of God took the form of indifference. It’s one thing to hate your husband—at least you still have feelings. It’s another thing to no longer need him.
Rather than the Assyrians, it was the Romans with whom God’s people tried to cozy up. But the results were the same. Only instead of the King of Samaria getting carried away in the current, it would be Jesus himself, the King of Kings. His death would be a precursor to the total demolition of Israel and Judah 40 years hence. The chosen people of God rejected their husband again—even though He had come to them in the flesh. “So save your tears,” Jesus said. “You’ll need them later.” Their children playing in the streets as Jesus spoke would become the adult casualties of the Roman onslaught. This concluding judgment on Israel’s infidelity would prove so disastrous that those same adults would beg the mountains and hills to cover them up just as Hosea promised—not as a means of protection or as a place to hide, but as a death wish to cut short the horrible misery.
Jesus alludes to Hosea, and then tacks on another one of his riddles in Luke 23:31: “If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
To understand the riddle, you need to appreciate the distinction between green wood and dry. If you grew up chopping wood like I did (with an ax and not a chainsaw―my dad knew better than to let me use a chainsaw), then you know how impossible it is to chop green wood. And then to burn it? All you get for your effort is a whole lot of smoke and hissing. By contrast, dry, dead wood catches fire like paper and roars into a blaze almost instantly. The green wood is Jesus (representative of faithful Israel, the true living vine), while the dry deadwood is historically unfaithful Israel. If crucifixion and death can happen to Jesus—blameless victim and Son of God—what will happen to everybody else? Having crucified one whom they considered innocent in Jesus, the Romans were going to have a field day against the deadwood Jews once they defied the Empire a few years later. Yet turn to the New Testament book of Revelation, and you read that Jesus’ riddle applies to more than deadwood Israel. The Roman assault foreshadowed Judgment Day. If God did not spare his innocent son a bloody death, how much worse will it be for people like us when God unleashes his final, righteous wrath?
In Revelation 6, a ferocious rider rides out on a horse the pale color of Death―one of the storied four horsemen of the Apocalypse. He’s empowered along with the Grave to affix further violence, famine, disease and persecution to the miseries of war, strife and economic scarcity already holding sway. That there are four riders indicates that the misery is universal. Together they shatter the illusion that people can find true security in the borders of a nation or empire, in a flourishing economy or in their own health and success. Making this all so disturbing is the fact that the horse-mounted misery rains down on the righteous and unrighteous alike. More troubling is that the four horsemen’s global havoc is wreaked at the bidding of the Lamb who opens the seven seals of judgment. It is God who unleashes the destruction. “The sixth seal was opened and there was a great earthquake. The sun turned black …and the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth… People cried to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and cover us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of wrath has come. Who can survive it?’”
No wonder churches traditionally keep Palm Sunday so festive. Why dredge up this doom and gloom, not to mention all the gore of Holy Week? Jesus died and rose already, see you on Easter! The problem is that the chaotic doom and gloom of Revelation comes from a Jesus who’s already risen. The Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world is coming back and he’s coming back mad.
The anger is nothing new. Jesus was angry when he took away our sins in the first place. We tend to envision Jesus silently limping his way to the cross in a posture of resigned, submissive obedience. But if Luke’s depiction is right, then Jesus was mad. Angry at the unwillingness of his people to embrace Him as their God though he had loved them from the foundation of the world and lavished them with the wonders of his good pleasure and kindness. Mad at their preference for self-absorption and quick gratification that shunned his deeper and more enduring intent for their happiness. Angry that His love for them never translated into their love of others, into care for the poor and needy, into compassion and forgiveness. Mad that they refused to honor his ways of peace and justice and goodness.
And now to top it off, his people rejected his own coming in the flesh, choosing to kill Jesus rather than follow him. Who wouldn’t be mad? “Save your tears for yourself,” Jesus snapped, in a passage that never shows up in any of the Easter liturgies. There’s no promise of new life, no hope for absolution, no apparent grace to blunt the serrated edge of Jesus’ troubling temper. “If these things happen to living green wood, what do you think is going to happen to deadwood like you?”
The remarkable answer comes in the next verse. Luke writes, “Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the other criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. And Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” How is this possible? How can God extend love even as he is unloved, rejected and hung to die?
That remarkable answer is found in Hosea who grants us a glimpse into the inner life of God; a God who is not some self-detached sovereign, but instead a passionate husband to whom deception and adultery come by way of his two-timing bride, but who nevertheless goes on pleading for her to be loyal, utterly longing for reunion, eagerly seeking embrace. As Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel writes, “Over and above the immediate and contingent emotional reaction of the Lord we are informed about an eternal and basic disposition. God still loves his people. And it is this love, expressed first in the bitterness of disillusionment, that will find its climax in the hope of reconciliation.”
“How can I give you up, my people?” says the Lord in Hosea 11. “My heart is changed within me and all my compassion is aroused. I cannot carry out my fierce anger nor destroy you. For I am God and no mortal—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.” But then God does come in wrath―a wrath described as the paradoxical wrath of the Lamb―a phrase summoning to our imagination both Good Friday terror and Easter joy. Christ comes as the Judge—only to be judged in our place. The Punisher is the punished. “Who can survive the great day of his wrath?” Whoever is covered not by falling rocks but with Christ’s own shed blood, his own awful grace: A grace that condemns in order to have mercy, a grace that kills in order to make alive, a grace that rides out in order to draw in—so that none may perish, but that all may come to repentance.
Jerusalem would be destroyed, but only to make room for the new Jerusalem, which Revelation describes as “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a faithful bride adorned for her husband.” In that new Jerusalem every tear will be wiped from our eyes. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.” Our dry, deadwood selves, refined by fire, are resurrected into living green trees like Jesus It’s what’s always made Good Friday so good and Easter a Sunday that even marginal believers make it a point to show up for. “The LORD will roar like a lion,” Hosea will write in chapter 14, “And when he roars, his children will come trembling…” But “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, says the Lord, for my anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; she will blossom like a lily. Like a cedar of Lebanon my people will send down roots; young shoots will grow. Their splendor will be like an olive tree, their fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.”