The Lady Is a Tramp
She was a floozy, the kind of girl your mother warned you about and your dad might take a sneak peek at. She wore purple eye shadow, thick mascara and lipstick so red that hummingbirds buzzed around her. Her dresses were always a size or two smaller than they should have been, and her walk was more of a swing, always accompanied by the clickety-clack of shiny high heels.
Gomer was her name. And she was the preacher’s wife.
It’s a story of betrayal, a tale of shameless two-timing. A story so tawdry you’d expect to find it in a tabloid newspaper or The Maury Show. But this story is in the Bible. The Book of Hosea, to be exact.
Hosea was a prophet living some 700 years before Christ. He was a citizen of the Northern Kingdom, a contemporary of Isaiah who lived “down south” in Jerusalem. Hosea lived in turbulent times. During part of his prophetic career, Israel had six kings in just over 20 years, and four of them assassinated their predecessors. On top of that, a brutal pagan nation, Assyria, invaded Israel in 722 B.C., deporting many of its citizens.
A Two-Timing Nation
But the most serious problem wasn’t political – it was spiritual. Israel was running around on God. Committing adultery with idols, ogling foreign gods, flirting at strange altars. This was serious business. The Covenant People had shattered the covenant. Broken their promises. Flaunted their marital vows with the Lord. They had not only broken God’s law—they were breaking God’s heart. “(Israel) decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after other lovers, but me she forgot, declares the Lord” (Hosea 2:13 NIV).
Can you hear the anguish in these words? God is hurt. Betrayed. The Almighty is not a passive deity sitting on a distant throne, but a jilted mate whose true love had turned into a brazen hussy. I remember, years ago, when I wrote a pastoral column about this subject in the town newspaper. One of my church matriarchs was slightly embarrassed by it all. “Did you have to compare God to a lover?” she asked, a slight blush on her face. I said, “The Bible does.” And like any ditched lover, God wanted to win His beloved back. How could he do it? How could God illustrate how much pain unfaithful Israel was causing Him?
Preaching probably wouldn’t do it. Israel had heard a lot of preaching. Should God destroy them? A couple of divine Molotov cocktails ought to do the job. No, that’s not the answer. The Lord couldn’t bear to think about wiping out His chosen people.
So what does God do? He uses an earthly marriage to communicate His divine anguish. It’s not the first time the Bible uses wedding imagery. Jeremiah, Isaiah and others defined the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage. This is an image that everyone can understand, even children. No other relationship holds so much promise and potential. The romantic ideal of a “marriage made in heaven” still grabs our hearts. Most single people want to get married, and most married people desire to have happy, fulfilling nuptials.
But we also know that marriage holds the seeds of disappointment, abuse and betrayal. I didn’t realize how much I could irritate one person until I got married. God told Hosea to “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD” (Hos 1:2).
Hosea’s unhappy marriage would be a mirror, a microcosm, a mini-drama of the broken relationship between God and Israel. The neighbors would start whispering. The local gossip column would pick up the sleazy story. The church board would call Hosea in. “What is going on between you and your wife?”
“Thus saith the Lord,” Hosea replied, “Israel has decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot.”
Ah, now the lesson was painfully clear—this was a heavenly object lesson. We are the adulterers. Israel is the unfaithful one. Every time Gomer would run off to a cheap motel, it was an uncomfortable reminder that an entire nation had been running around on God.
If God were a betrayed woman, we would call her spouse a louse. We would urge her to divorce him. A judge might even acquit her if she killed him in a fit of passion. If she stayed with her faithless husband, we might question her sanity. We’d blather behind her back: “Why in the world does she stay with that skunk?” Reading the Book of Hosea, we wonder the same thing: “Why does God stick it out?”
God Can’t Snap Out of It
Cher and Nicholas Cage starred in a 1987 movie called Moonstruck. In the film, Cher’s fiancé rushes to his dying mother’s bedside in Sicily. During his absence, Cher meets his estranged younger brother, played by Nicholas Cage. Cher is thunderstruck when she takes an immediate liking to Cage and an uneasy romance develops. At one point in the movie, Cage tells Cher that he loves her, whereupon Cher slaps his face and says, “Snap out of it.”
We want to say the same thing to God: “Snap out of it, Lord! Get rid of Israel! Give her a certificate of divorce and be done with it!”
Until we realize that we, too, have been unfaithful. We have also betrayed God. We have chased after idols of possessions and popularity, put our faith in the Almighty Dollar instead of Almighty God. We won’t wear God’s ring anymore, but we proudly wear the bling of this world. There are internal idols, too—lust, greed, hatred, unforgiveness, self-pity. Attitudes that block God’s grace, impede the flow of the Holy Spirit, keep Jesus at arm’s-length.
Preachers aren’t exempt, either. Lots of churchfolk look up to their preachers, and that’s a good thing. But all you have to do is have a one-minute conversation with a pastor’s wife or kids to learn how imperfect we really are.
God’s gavel comes down.
Judgment is pronounced.
Not guilty? NOT guilty? “God, are…are you sure? I mean, I’m a sinner. I’ve been unfaithful to you and your laws.”
“Yes, my son,” the Lord softly replies. “I know, my daughter. But I am God—not man. I love you with an infinite love.”
“I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the LORD” (Hos 2:19-20).
You see, God’s love is always corrective—not condemnatory. It unbinds us from sin, not wraps us up in cruel judgments. God’s hot, angry words as recorded in the Book of Hosea are outweighed by affirmations of love, tenderness and affection. Mercy triumphs over judgment! God will lead Israel to a quiet spot in the desert and woo her again. She will turn to God and see the ache, longing and passion in His eyes. She will remember, long ago, how He called her into being, led her through the desert, and gave her the Promised Land as a wedding gift.
Is God a God of justice? Yes. He must punish sin. Is God a God of love? Absolutely. So how does God reconcile this tension?
The Sacrificial Bridegroom
Look no further than Jesus Christ. He is called the Bridegroom of the church (Rev 19:7) – a church that has failed him like Gomer failed Hosea, and Israel failed God. Jesus died for His bride, spilled His blood for her, yielded His body on the cross so the Body of Christ would live.
Why would Jesus die for us, as imperfect and Gomeresque as we are?
A love for the unlovely. The kind of stubborn love that Hosea repeatedly showed his wife. Gomer, by the way, means “complete” or “perfect,” and she was anything but. Just like us. But God gazes through our “Gomer imperfections” to see the complete and perfect person inside, a person that can be refined, cleansed, reclaimed by His relentless love. A love that doesn’t wink at sin, but erases it by supreme example and sacrifice. A love that melts hearts, releases captives, and calls prodigal sons and daughters into the Father’s great big house of joy and cheer.
Some of you will remember Ronald Reagan’s remark, years ago, that if it weren’t for women, men would still be dragging around clubs and living in caves. I know that’s true for me. My wife’s patient, unconditional love has knocked off my rough edges and spurred me on to become a better person. (I’m still not where I need to be, but that means I have goals).
You know, all of us have lived in a cave at some point or another. A cave of fear, apathy, anger, pride or sin. But Love calls out of our caves. Can you hear His voice? It is the voice of longsuffering, compassion, cleansing forgiveness. A love that heals our waywardness, calls us back to the altar of dedication, returns us to the all-embracing arms of the Perfect Lover, until we are utterly faithful forever.
A holy God and a sinful human race. Talk about your mixed marriages. But God wouldn’t have it any other way.