Poison & Wine: Heschel’s Hosea

tumblr_mq65ayjwyg1rj588zo1_500In a song made popular by the folk duo The Civil Wars, “Poison & Wine,” the anguished love of a married couple cries out: “I don’t love you/but I always will.”[1] These are the honest words of two lovers whose commitment to one another has endured a severe test. Surrendering, they confess: “I don’t have a choice/but I’d still choose you.”[2]

This song of suffering love between husband and wife is the one that came to mind as I considered Abraham Heschel’s account of the prophet Hosea in The Prophets. “It is as if there were a dramatic tension in God,” says Heschel as he reflects on the intense harmony of divine anger and compassion revealed in the prophet Hosea’s words.[3] Yet, in a way reflected by the words of The Civil Wars, this harmony cannot last. The tension breaks as Hosea “flashes a glimpse into the inner life of God” where we discover that suffering love – and not anger – is the “decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history.”[4]

As scandalous as it seems, God is bound to Israel by an “ineradicable”[5] love: “I will not execute my fierce anger… for I am God and no mortal.”[6] Hosea does not merely feel God’s momentary, incidental reaction to Israel’s disloyalty; he is drawn into “the fundamental emotion… [existing within] the constitutive relationship between God and Israel.”[7] Hosea proclaims the very being of God as supreme love “expressed first in the bitterness of disillusionment” which “finds its climax in the hope of reconciliation.”[8]

However, Hosea does not merely proclaim this message – he lives it. The anguish in God’s voice belongs to Hosea as well. He has been educated in daath elohim – “the knowledge of God” – which plunges Hosea into the depths of “suffering together” with God where “both persons share the same feeling.”[9] Through Hosea, God calls Israel along with all those who would call upon God to “know” the emotions, concerns, and inwardness of God in a relationship of “constant solidarity.”[10] This is love like no other; this is hope beyond all hope.

Like Israel, I “forget” God and turn to idols. God looks and sings, “You think your dreams are the same as mine.”[11] Unlike Hosea, I have yet to feel the intensity of God’s burning anger towards the idolatry of my heart. Is it possible to “know” the God of profound love apart from “knowing” this rage? While I am overwhelmed by God’s faithful acts of love and compassion towards me, Hosea calls me into the deep, wild, raging currents of triune Love by the way of suffering, of self-emptying, the way of Christ in the power of the Spirit.


[1] John Paul White, Joy Williams, and Chris Lindsey, Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars, 2011 by Sensibility Recordings LLC, Compact Disc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, 57.

[4] Heschel, 58.

[5] Heschel, 52.

[6] Hosea 11:9, NRSV.

[7] Heschel., 59.

[8] Heschel, 63.

[9] Heschel, 73.

[10] Heschel, 74.

[11] Poison & Wine, The Civil Wars.

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hesed

And now they keep on sinning

and make a cast image for themselves,
idols of silver made according to their understanding,
all of them the work of artisans…

Yet I have been the Lord your God
ever since the land of Egypt;
you know no God but me,
and besides me there is no saviour.
It was I who fed you in the wilderness,
in the land of drought.
When I fed them, they were satisfied;
they were satisfied, and their heart was proud;
therefore they forgot me.
So I will become like a lion to them,
like a leopard I will lurk beside the way.
I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering of their heart;
there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild animal would mangle them.

I will destroy you, O Israel;   who can help you?

hesed

‘Come, let us return to the Lord;

for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him. 

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;   

his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’

hesed

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?
What shall I do with you, O Judah?
Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have killed them by the words of my mouth,

and my judgement goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.

hesed

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger;

I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal,

the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.