“They return, but not upward.” Those five words from Hosea 7:16 provide a brief anatomy of sham repentance from the preaching of the Old Testament prophet Hosea. In response to his message, Israel seems to repent of sin, but it turns out they only wanted to escape consequences.
Repentance is the key theme of Hosea’s preaching. He repeatedly delivered God’s message to Israel, that they must “turn” from their sin and “return” to Yahweh (the Hebrew word is used twenty times). Turning and returning are the same Hebrew word—it’s Hosea’s word for repentance. To turn/return describes what it means to repent, to acknowledge a heart that is off-course and then to make course corrections.
Sin Begins With Unbelief
According to Hosea, the sins of Israel were numerous. God, as if a plaintiff, lists his allegations against the nation: swearing, lying, murdering, stealing, committing adultery, general indulgence and drunkenness, prostitution, greed, idolatry and more (4:1-19).
But the most offensive sin is Israel’s worship of a calf-idol (8:4-6; 10:5-8; 13:2). Whatever the historical details about this calf-idol may be, it represents the first principle of Israel’s sin—Yahweh was no longer their god. They were worshipping at other altars. Their list of sins, though despicable, were but the outgrowth of this root. There was “no knowledge of God in the land…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:1, 6).
This is where sin begins, unbelief. Not believing that God is full of grace. Not believing that his promises are true. Not believing that his commands for us are good and will lead to joy. When God’s character, his promises and his commands are unknown or unbelieved, what results is sin.
False Gods Give False Pleasures
Because Israel had turned away from God, and because their sins were ever-expanding, they experienced misery. They had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind (8:7). Indulgence yields misery; false gods give false pleasures. The insightful author David Foster Wallace describes this.
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
David Foster Wallace saw half the truth. Anything else you worship will eat you alive. That’s true. But demoting Yahweh to equality with the Wiccan mother-goddess is damning with faint praise. A god with no contours—with no definition, or where definition is meaningless—is as parasitical as unconscious gods like sex, power, intelligence, wealth, or calf-idols.
Israel had been eaten alive by their false worship. “You have plowed iniquity; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil” (10:13-15).
Deliverance With No Deliverer
So Israel is left surveying the damage done by their unbelief. And their misery led them to cry out to God. “Come let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord…he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (6:1-3). This looks like repentance, like they are about to give up their false gods and regain their former knowledge of the one true God, Yahweh.
But again, God’s evaluation—“They return, but not upward”—clarifies the nature of their regret. Those words of resolve were short-lived. They wanted their prosperity to improve and they wanted peace in their land, but in reality cared little for their relationship to God. They wanted deliverance, but not the Deliverer. Genuine repentance aims at a return to God, not a removal of discomfort.
Why We Repent Falsely
The misery sin brings often leads us to false repentance. An employee determines to stop squandering work hours only because of growing anxiety she may lose her job. A husband doesn’t want to live with the bitterness of his wife, so he apologizes to heal the relationship for his own benefit. Living contrary to God’s design often brings misery, either internal misery (anxiety, guilt, frustration) or circumstantial misery (unfulfilled ambitions, broken relationships, lost jobs). And that internal/external misery pushes us to the edge of repentance.
So there’s the pattern. Unbelief gives birth to sin. Sin blossoms into misery. Misery brings regret. Regret compels initial changes. But regret quickly fades and old habits resurface. As God said of Israel’s initial resolve: “ Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (6:4). Repentance for the sake of self-improvement is not repentance, but rather further idolatry.
Some Marks of True Turning
All the above thoughts are just some observations from Hosea regarding Israel’s false repentance. Much more needs to be said about the ongoing struggle we all have to live up to all that God has called us to, about true repentance, and about the inexhaustible forgiveness of Jesus Christ. So what are the marks of true turning? How can we avoid repenting in the wrong direction? Just jotting down a few suggestions here, maybe I can fill them out later.
- Repent before repercussions. Repenting before you are caught in act is evidence of sincerity.
- Be specific about the sin. What you did.
- Take your sins to the right place. The Christian can see more clearly than Hosea, there is only one place to take our sins: to Christ. He saw this only dimly (Hosea 3:4-5 predicts national repentance in the presence of a second David, an anointed figure, but this vision is ambiguous at best).
- Evaluate underlying motivations. Why you did it.
- Resolve by God’s help not to repeat. I won’t do it again. “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for God” (12:6).