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Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Studies in Hosea (7) (Hosea 5:15)

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STUDIES IN HOSEA

Study Number 7

(Hosea 5:15)

Spiritual desertion--what is that? There was a time when every church member knew the answer. Many sermons were preached on this subject and books written to give direction to those who were going through this affliction known as "spiritual desertion." The reference here is to a believer's sense of feeling deserted by God, when spiritual life is dry and cold and when there is an almost complete absence of joy and delight in the service of the Lord.

Why are so few sermons preached or books written on this subject today? Is it perhaps because Christians today enjoy the presence of the Lord more than the previous generation and are favoured with more abundant outpourings of the Holy Spirit?

There are those, of course, who believe this is indeed the case. The victorious life Christians think they are better off today than their forefathers, who, they feel, were altogether too gloomy and negative in their religion. We have learned to be more positive and emphasize the joy of salvation more than used to be the case, they claim.

I'm afraid that this kind of talk betrays a serious lack of understanding what Biblical religion is all about. This new emphasis owes more to modern psychology than to the teachings of Scripture.

If we examine the experiences of the saints in Bible times, as well as the lives of Christians in church history, we will find that many of them went through difficult periods in their spiritual lives. To be sure, they had their times of joy and peace, times when they could testify of the Lord's goodness and nearness, but precisely because they knew of such good times, they also felt miserable when the presence of the Lord left them.

The reason for this sense of desertion was usually that sin had come between them and the Lord (not always--think of Job), but in most cases the absence of God was understood to be the consequence of backsliding and unfaithfulness.

God's people are not better than their brothers and sisters in the past. They still sin and go astray many times. Since God does not change either, He is still grieved by our sins and often withdraws His sensible presence from us, leaving us in that sad condition called "spiritual desertion."

In Hosea 5 we have a striking illustration of the Lord's withdrawing Himself, not just from one or two believers, but from His people as a whole. The passage we will focus on is verse 15, where the Lord says, I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.

I will go--the speaker is Jehovah. He had sent Hosea to warn Israel, the ten-tribe nation, collectively called Ephraim, that the Lord was going to punish His people for their sins, especially the sin of idolatry or spiritual adultery. Already the Chaldeans were poised to invade Israel and take its people captive. Instead of turning to the Lord in their distress and asking for pardon, Israel appealed to the Assyrians and Judah for help.

Hosea warned Judah not to get involved. Don't make an alliance with Israel, he said, for Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone. Judah ignored this warning and entered into a league with Israel and together they looked to Assyria for protection.

Hosea then proceeds to announce the Lord's judgment which will fall on Israel, and by implication also on Judah, unless she breaks off the alliance. God's judgment will be a progressive one. It will come in stages.

The first stage is mentioned in verse 12, where the Lord says: I am unto Ephraim as a moth. The second appears in verse 14, where He threatens: I will be unto Ephraim as a lion. The last stage we find in verse 15, where the Lord announces: I will go and return to my place.

The Lord tells Israel that He will withdraw Himself from His people. Nothing could be worse than this! The desertion mentioned here refers literally to God abandoning His covenant people to the power of the Chaldeans and other enemies. These heathen nations would enslave Israel and subject them to all sorts of indignities and humiliations.

We may also take these words in a spiritual sense, as descriptive of the spiritual desertion which all believers experience to a greater or less degree during their pilgrimage on earth. I will go and return unto my place, the Lord says. This is exactly what happens to a believer when the Lord withdraws Himself from him or her. What we have here is, of course, an anthropomorphism, that is, a figure of speech whereby God is described in human terms. Here He is like a man who departs from a certain place and goes to his own place or home.

Strictly speaking, of course, God cannot be said to stay in or go to any one place. He is in every place; He filleth all in all. Yet, in a special sense God is said to be in heaven. He is the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose Name is holy and who dwells in the high and holy place. When the Lord visits the earth either in judgment or mercy, He leaves as it were His proper dwelling-place and comes down to our domain. Conversely, when He terminates such visits, He may be said to go back to His place again. The reference, then, is not to an actual, physical moving from one place to another, but to the manifestation of God's presence and the lack of them. Accordingly, spiritual desertion refers to the Lord withdrawing His presence from the soul so that His nearness is no longer felt and communion with Him is interrupted.

As long as the Lord sits enthroned in our heart all is well. His nearness is felt and there is a peace that passes understanding. Our grasp of the way of salvation is clear and our fellowship with Jesus is sweet. Walking in the light of God's countenance and enjoying a sense of His favour, we have all that we can desire in life. But oh, when we begin to backslide, when we become negligent in our duty, slack in the fight against sin and temptation, when we allow the world and its pleasures to usurp the place in our heart that rightfully belongs to Christ, a gradual change will take place in our soul's condition. There will be fewer manifestations of God's love and consequently less confidence that we are His Own. Our interest in the things of God begins to wane. Communion with God is sought less frequently and becomes less ardent. Intimacy with the Lord rarely occurs any more. Prayer becomes perfunctory and motivated by duty rather than desire.

While in this condition, we are in great danger, for unless we immediately humble ourselves before God and implore His pardoning grace for having backslidden, we will find that the Lord will withdraw from us even more. Everything spiritual in us will decay. The beauty of summer will fade away; the gloom of autumn will set in and before long it will be winter in the soul. The corruptions of the heart will revive, not completely, indeed, but to an alarming degree they will make their presence felt again.

This is what happens when the Lord withdraws Himself from His people. Some can relate to this, others do not, but that is not necessarily a sign that things are better with the latter. It could be that they are in an even worse situation. It is the mark of a hypocrite to think all is well with his soul. The Lord's people are not always so confident. With John Newton they often sigh:

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I sought the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.

And all that because of our sins! It is our sins that separate between the Lord and our soul. When the Lord says, I will go and return to my place, that means He cannot have fellowship with us because of our sins. He cannot share the throne of our heart with idols.

Is it therefore hopeless for sinners and backsliders? Yes, if the Lord would deal with us strictly according to His justice. Then He would never look at us again. But the Lord is not like that. He is just and holy, and He lets us feel the power of these attributes by withdrawing His gracious presence from us. When He does that, His purpose is not to forsake us completely and permanently. He withdraws only for a season, but oh what a bitter season it is! His purpose, however, is that we might beseech Him to return again in grace. Then there must be repentance first, wholehearted, sincere repentance.

Our passage clearly shows this gracious purpose, for listen to what the Lord says: I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence. Spiritual desertion will last only until the sinner humbles himself and confesses sins and forsakes them.

Such repentance is necessary for the first time but also by renewal. It is an unchangeable law in the kingdom of heaven that he who covers his sins shall not prosper but he who confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy. A good example is David. It was only when he confessed, and by implication abandoned his sin of adultery and murder, that the Lord pardoned him (Ps.32:51). It involved much pain and soul sorrow!

All true believers are brought to that point. In their affliction they will seek me early, the Lord predicts. When the burden of sin becomes too great and the sense of divine displeasure too heavy, the sinner realizes his or her folly, turns to the Lord and begs for mercy. The Lord is eager to receive repentant sinners in mercy. He can do so because of Christ who has taken His people's sins upon Himself, including the sin of backsliding.

Christians may feel forsaken by the Lord, but they may remember that the Lord Jesus was also forsaken by God. He did not just feel forsaken. He was really forsaken. For us, spiritual desertion is only an experience, a feeling, be it a terrible one, but God never completely abandons us. For Christ, however, it was a terrible reality, a horrendous fact. This forced from His lips the heart-rending cry, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me! In this way He has earned back for us the Father's presence and favour. As the Lord's Supper Form used in Reformed churches puts it: He was forsaken that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken of Him.

How this should melt our hearts! How the love of Christ should move us to seek Him early! All who do so may take comfort from these reassuring words of our gracious God: For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercy will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy redeemer (Isa.54:7,8.).

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