Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him, “Take away all guilt, accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” (Hos. 14:1-3)
I would like to comment on this passage from the prophet Hosea.
His story, of course, is a famous one. He is told by God to marry Gomer, a prostitute, who will cheat on him and abandon him, just as Israel “cheats on” God and abandons Him in the pursuit of other gods. Then he is told to take Gomer back, just as God will receive Israel back to Him in spite of their spiritual adultery. After this story, Hosea proceeds to prophesy directly against Israel (not so much Judah) for its idolatry, to which Hosea refers as “whoredom.” There is very much in Hosea’s oracles that is worth commenting on perhaps at another time.
The particular passage which I have cited is from the end of Hosea’s book, after God has threatened to punish Israel (not Judah) for its idolatry and faithlessness before the Lord.
The first thing Hosea tells them is: Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Scripture teaches that “there is a time for everything” (Eccl. 3:1). This means that there is also a proper time to undertake a return to the Lord, namely when a person has stumbled because of iniquity. Especially important in this respect is that Scripture’s teaching regarding the proper time be admitted irrespective of what we feel. It may happen that a person who has stumbled because of her iniquity does not feel like returning to the Lord. She might not feel like it for a number of reasons: for example, she may think that a life apart from the Lord is preferable to a life with Him; or she may think that there is no hope for her now that she has stumbled, i.e. she may feel that she has stumbled too far and the Lord has given up on her. Both of these thoughts are false and must be rejected out of preference for the teaching of Scripture. When a person stumbles because of her iniquity, that is a proper time for her to return to the Lord, not to fall further into her sin, nor to wallow in thoughts of divine abandonment and hopelessness.
But how is this return to the Lord to be undertaken? How do we go about returning to the Lord when we have stumbled because of our iniquity? Hosea specifies this when he says: Take words with you and return to the Lord. This is also very important. One of the curious effects of sin is that it makes it difficult to pray. A person may very well make up her mind that she will not do certain things again, but for whatever reason, if she has stumbled because of her iniquity, she finds it hard to pray. I wonder whether the reason might not be the following. If we make up our minds not to sin again, we can do this while keeping God at a distance somehow; we do not find ourselves face-to-face with God in those moments, but rather with ourselves or with our own consciences. But when we pray, we put ourselves face-to-face with God, and this is precisely what we do not want to do when we have stumbled because of our iniquity. Our shame over our sin makes us want to hide from God, to run away from Him just as Adam and Eve did in the Garden. In praying, on the other hand, we recognize our nothingness before God and our total dependence upon Him for everything, even for our repentance from sin. For this reason it is important not only to make up our minds not to sin, but also to come before the Lord with words and to pray to Him when we repent.
I know from my own experience that many times when I go before the Lord in the prayer of repentance, I do not know what to say. Perhaps others have this same problem. It is all the more wonderful, then, that the Bible contains a prayer of repentance which I can claim for my own and use when I repent! This is what the prayer says:
“Take away all guilt, accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.”
Let’s consider the content of this prayer piece-by-piece.
“Take away all guilt.” The biblical teaching, as far as I understand it, is that our guilt before God cannot be erased by anything we do. It has to be taken away by God if it is to be resolved at all. Therefore, when we repent of our sins, we should not have the impression that what we are doing is such as to erase the fact of our sin before God. Repentance for what we do against others may have this effect, but sin before God is not like that. God must erase it; even if we repent and live lives of perfect righteousness from the moment of repentance forward, we have not done anything except what was already our obligation from the beginning. Repentance can perhaps erase our guilt vis-à–vis others because our relationships with others are conditioned upon trust. I only want to be your friend if I can trust you, and your repentance when you do me wrong establishes that I can trust you. But our relationship with God is not so conditioned; we are always already in relationship with God and we cannot avoid it. Moreover, God is omniscient and does not need my repentance to know that He can or cannot trust me. For that reason, repentance does not have the same effect with God as with our neighbors. No, God must take away our guilt if it is to be removed at all.
“Accept that which is good.” This is an interesting petition. My comments will be tentative and exploratory. Perhaps the idea is something like this. In our lives as Christians, as people of God, we do not only ever commit horrible sins. There are still some good things which we do. In our prayer of repentance, we might rightly ask that God accept whatever good we might have done and not to forget it. This was a prayer that various figures in the Old Testament did, for example Hezekiah, when he received word from the prophet Isaiah that he would die: “‘Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly” (Isa. 38:3).
“We will offer you the fruit of our lips.” This represents one of the central prophetic insights about the true nature of sacrifice and the nature of God. God is not fed by our sacrifices, He is not strengthened or improved by them, He does not need them in any way. The true “sacrifice” (in the sense of “offering”) which God desires from us is not an animal but praise and thanksgiving from the heart. This is what God really wants: a heart which loves Him and thanks Him for the good things which He has given. In the context of the prayer of repentance, this promise suggests that the penitent person recognizes the true nature of her relationship before God. She is not repenting of her sins by means of some sacrifice which appeases an angry and hungry God, but rather is reorienting her entire life, her being, vis-à-vis God. She will recognize her total and utter dependence upon God for everything, even for the act of repentance and the removal of guilt, and will thank Him for His goodness and grace.
“Assyria shall not save us.” Of course, this petition has a specific meaning in the original context in which Hosea’s prophecy is uttered. Israel was looking left and right for beneficial political allegiances rather than depending upon God for salvation. But perhaps similar that we do in our own lives. Perhaps we look to an “Assyria” of our day and age to save us from our problems, rather than looking to the Lord. What is Assyria for the 21st century American Christian? Perhaps it is a political program, or perhaps it consists in various spiritual practices that have a dubious or uncertain connection to biblical revelation, or perhaps it is something else altogether. This is not to say that the “things of this world” are not useful and don’t have their own place in the life of a Christian. For example, I would never suggest that a Christian forego reasonable medical intervention and simply pray for healing from God. But with respect to the problem of sin, no one else can save us except God. No social program, no spiritual practices, and indeed nothing apart from God can save us from the guilt of our sins, and whatever other benefit these things might have in the short or long term, it is still ultimately necessary that each person confront God personally and seek salvation on a personal, individual level.
“We will not ride upon horses.” I think this is closely connected to the previous affirmation that Assyria will not save us. If Assyria will not save us, i.e. if things outside of us but still at the level of the human will not save us, then neither will we try to ride upon horses and save ourselves. Just as nothing terrestrial and created can save us, so also neither can we save ourselves. We cannot erase our guilt before God and we cannot create righteousness in us by our own efforts. If we are to be saved at all, we must be saved by God.
“We will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.” Hosea is talking about physical idols which the Israelites were wont to produce and to worship. In our own day and age, the idolatry resides perhaps at the level of ideas and beliefs. We conceive our own ideas about God and about who He is, what He wants, how He deals with us, rather than being taught by God in Scripture and especially in the person of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son who has made the Father known to us (John 1:18). Part of the prayer of repentance is abandoning our idolatrous disposition to make up our own ideas about God — e.g., that God is not really so bothered by our sin, or that He overlooks it, or that He doesn’t call us to account for it, etc. — and recognizing our dependence upon God even to have knowledge of Him and to know what He is like and what He wants from us.
“In you the orphan finds mercy.” What is the state of an orphan? An orphan is a child who belongs to no one and who has no one to take care of her. An orphan is as lonely and as decontextualized as possible; an orphan is a human being who doesn’t belong to anyone or anywhere. The prayer of repentance which Hosea offers here puts the penitent person in the position of the orphan. Because of our sins, we are orphans in the world: we do not belong to God and we do not belong to His world, either, since we have sinned against Him and are liable to punishment. In repentance, we ought to recognize this as our state and come before God in admission of our weak and fallen state. At the same time, however, we do this with full conviction that in God the orphan finds mercy. God is not a despot who may or may not help us; rather, He is a Father to the orphans and rejects no one who comes to Him (cf. John 6:37). We repent not because we have no chance before God, but precisely because only in God do we have a sure chance at restoration. That is why the proper time for repentance is when we have stumbled because of our iniquity: because God, “whose property it is always to have mercy,” as the Anglican liturgy states, Himself calls us to repent so that He can accept us and restore us.
If I were briefly to summarize the idea of the prayer of repentance which Hosea offers here, I think I would say the following. Whereas sin is an attempt to assert our independence and self-sufficiency in the world, repentance means recognizing our total dependence upon God for everything — for knowledge of Him, for the act of repentance itself, for the removal of our guilt, etc.