One of the most familiar elements in the birth narrative of Christ is the arrival of the magi to worship “Him who is born King of the Jews.” After they left their extravagant gifts at the feet of a speechless mother and father, they return to their country. However, Matthew tells us that they did not return to Jerusalem and tell Herod the Great where the child was located because they were warned in a dream to return to their country by another route.
And thus ends the school plays, at the end of Matthew 2.12. But, the narrative continues.
13When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2.13-18)
The most disturbing part of the story is what is typically called, “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” Herod had roughly a dozen male babies under the age of two murdered just to make sure that any threat to his throne was eliminate. This was keeping with the character of Herod who had murdered almost as many of his own family members to keep his throne secure.
But my attention tonight is set on a throw away line in verse 15. Of all of the gospel writers, Matthew is the one most interested in pointing out the fulfilled prophecies of the Old Testament. He is constantly making the reader aware of how an event in Christ’s life fulfilled a prophecy. And he likes this formula, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet.”
In the birth narrative, Matthew has already pointed out that Micah prophesied the birth town of Jesus (2.6). Now, he makes it clear that the weeping that resulted form the slaughter of the male babies was also prophesied through the prophet Jeremiah (2.18). But in verse 15, he makes it clear that sovereign plan of God included the Christ child spending some of His early days in Egypt. For Matthew writes, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” The prophesy that the gospel writer is referring to is found in the book of Hosea. And I invite you to consider with me the words of the prophet in their original context, and the meaning of these words for us who live thousands of years after they were spoken.
Hosea ministered during a strange time. He lived in Israel, the northern kingdom. From a political and social perspective, things were going great in Israel. There was exploding prosperity, but the type that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. This, of course, led to economic corruption, heavier taxes on the working class, and the failure of the justice system to bring relief to the poor. So, Hosea lived in a prosperous time that was full of social ills. If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the spiritual condition of Israel was even worse.
The people had turned their affections to the Baal cult. The Baal cult was basically a fertility religion. Baal was the male deity; Asherah his female consort. The fertility of the land was believe to depend on the sexual relationship between Baal and his consort. To encourage intercourse in their gods, the worshippers came together at shrines or groves, usually locate on hills or other high places. There, in an attempt to stimulate their gods sexually, they engaged in cult prostitution, orgies, and other erotic practices. This kind of activity had even begun to migrate into the temple of YHWH.
Against this backdrop, the Lord called the prophet Hosea. And Hosea, like Ezekiel and a few other prophets, was called to live out his message with his very life. Hosea was called by God to marry a prostitute. In this marriage, he would act out the relationship of God to an unfaithful people. In chapter one, we read about his call experience. The Lord told Hosea, “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” (Hosea 1.2). So, Hosea married Gomer, but that marriage would not follow the Disney storyline of happily ever after. Unfortunately, Gomer would leave Hosea and return to a life of prostitution. And if that wasn’t enough, Hosea was then told by the Lord to seek Gomer out again and to love her again as the Lord has loved Israel (Hosea 3.1).
Even the name of his children told the story of his message. They would be named Jezreel (“God Sows”), Lo-Ruhamah (“Not Loved”), and Lo-Ammi (“Not My People”). These three children tell the story of God planting His people in the Promised Land, but because of their adultery, they would be removed from that land.
Chapter 11 of Hosea’s prophecy tells quite a story. In eleven short verses, the prophet describes God’s amazing love for His people, Israel’s unfaithfulness, and God’s response to their spiritual adultery.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; I lifted the yoke from their neck and bent down to feed them.
Will they not return to Egypt and will not Assyria rule over them because they refuse to repent? Swords will flash in their cities, will destroy the bars of their gates and put an end to their plans. My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath. They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion. When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. I will settle them in their homes,” declares the LORD. Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, the house of Israel with deceit. And Judah is unruly against God, even against the faithful Holy One. (Hosea 11.1-11)
The prophet recounts, in poetic fashion, the love story between YHWH and Israel. In the first act, God loved Israel when they were just a child, when they were still in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt (11.1). This, of course, is a reference to the exodus story. Israel was enslaved by Egypt, used by the Pharaohs for building projects. And in their bondage, God loved them, called them His very own children, and brought them out by His mighty hand.
But this is more than just a story from long ago. This is a living picture of our own relationship with a loving Father. The bondage of Israel in Egypt is the best living picture of our condition before God chose us to be the objects of His love. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul describe our condition:
1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2.1-3)
16Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. 18You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. (Romans 6.16-18)
The words of Hosea 11 describe in living color what has happened in our own lives. God called us out of bondage in Egypt, He called us to be His own children, and He set His affection upon us as the apple of His eye.
But something dreadful happened in the love story between YHWH and Israel. The more the Lord reached out to them, the further away they went (11.2). The Lord reached out with cords of human kindness (11.4). The Lord taught them how to walk, establishing them as a nation, setting them in a land that flowed with milk and honey, blessing them with prosperity and security. But even when He healed them and blessed them and delivered them from the oppressive yoke of the Egyptian task masters, they still turned away from YHWH.
Instead of responding in love to YHWH, they turned their backs on their Redeemer. They reached out to the Baals, believing the lies of the Canaanites that their future success and security rested upon the fertility between the false gods and goddesses. They trusted in false gods to make their crops to grow, and they credited false gods when the crops did grow.
Israel was Gomer. Hosea selected his wife from among the prostitutes of Israel, a woman caught in a horrible life of oppressive prostitution. But Hosea loved her, and called her out of that life, and claimed her as his own. He led her with cords of human kindness, with ties of love, and broke the yoke of her oppressor. And in response to all of that love poured out upon her, Gomer returned to her life of prostitution. She hoped in a lifestyle of selling her body instead of hoping in the security of a faithful husband’s love. And Israel had done the same. Israel had returned to a life of prostitution, to life of bondage.
And YHWH knew what would happen to them. They would return to bondage. God’s protection and blessing would be lifted. They would enter a crisis, and they would try to make a deal with Egypt to escape. But Egypt was powerless to save. Eventually, they would suffer at the hands of Assyria (11.5). The army would invade, the swords would flash, their gates would be destroyed, and all of their plans for future prosperity and joy would come to an end (11.6).
And to add insult to injury, when the swords began to flash, the people would send out an SOS to the Lord. They would call out for God to save them. They would have the audacity to ask the very God who delivered them from Egypt, who rescued them, who led them with cords of kindness, and against whom they turned their backs as they enjoyed the very good gifts He had given to them, they would be brash enough to ask this God for help. But God would not be mocked. He knew that their cries for help had no relational ties. They were only using God for their own pleasures.
But what does a loving father do? How could He given them up? How could He just toss aside the object of His affections? How could He treat them as Admah and Zeboiim? The reference to Admah and Zeboiim is a reference to the story of Sodom and Gommorah. In Deuteronomy 29.23, we read, “The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur– nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger.” So, we can almost replace Admah and Zeboiim with Sodom and Gomorrah and get the import of what the Lord is saying. How could the Lord treat Israel with the same finality as He did Sodom and Gomorrah?
Short answer, He couldn’t. Just like Hosea went after Gomer, to love her again, so God went after Israel. Listen to the awesome expression of His love for Israel:
My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. (Hosea 11.8)
And so, the loving Father again chooses Israel to be an object of love, and not wrath. He will not carry out his anger, and He will not devastate the adulterous people. Instead, He will roar again as the Lion of Judah. And when He roars, His children will come trembling, and God will settle them in their homes. Once again, they will be the loved children of God.
Remember the names of Hosea’s children. His oldest was called “God Sows.” The middle child was called “Not Loved.” And the youngest was called “Not My People.” But that would not be the end of it. There would come a day when “Not My People” would again become “My People.” Listen to the words of the apostle Peter,
9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2.9-10)
There would come a day when the Lord would roar, when He would again call His children out of bondage and into freedom. And Matthew knew He was a witness to “that day.”
So, when Matthew quotes the fist line of Hosea 11, “Out of Egypt I called my Son,” there really is a double meaning. On one hand, it applied to Jesus who was going to spend some time in Egypt as a young baby. It was a geographical prophecy. But on the other hand, it was Matthew’s way of putting the birth narrative of Christ in context. The birth of the Messiah was God reaching out to a people who had committed spiritual adultery. A people who should have known Him, but didn’t. A people that He led with cords of human kindness, with ties of love, but a people who chose to worship other gods. And even though he called them out of darkness, and even though they returned to the darkness after He rescued them, He still set His compassion upon them.
Sometimes we forget how much the Christmas story is really a love story. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son. But God did not give His only Son to a people who were good natured, who loved Him back, or who were striving very hard to find their way out of the darkness. No, He sent His Son to a people who were quite content to live in darkness. Sometimes we are tempted to think that the birth of Christ is the first act of the play, but it is not. God demonstrates His love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. The “while we were yet sinners” is one of the early acts in the play. The love of God displayed in Christmas is God’s gracious response to our love for the darkness. He rescued us from Egypt, but we wanted to return to Egypt because in our hearts, we preferred the darkness.
But He couldn’t give us up. He couldn’t hand us over. Instead, His heart was changed, and His compassion was aroused. And He reached out to us again. He roared in love and sent His Son to be our Savior, to be our Redeemer, and to give us new life.
Allow me the freedom to rewrite the prophetic words of Hosea so that we can hear and feel the love of our Father for us that is expressed in the Christmas story.
When you were a child, God loved you, and out of bondage to sin He called you His child. But the more He called you, the further you went from Him. You trusted your future to false gods even though it was God who taught you to walk, taking you by the arms; but you did not realize it was God who healed you. You gave His glory to another. God led you with cords of human kindness, with ties of love; God lifted the yoke from your neck and bent down to feed you. But you longed to return to filth of your sin.
Could God just give you up? Would God hand you over? Could He just treat you like Sodom or Gomorrah? No! Because of His great love and mercy, His heart was changed within Him; all His compassion was aroused. He will not carry out His fierce anger, nor will He turn and devastate you. For He is God, and not a human—the Holy One among you. God will not come in wrath. (Hosea 11.1-11, adapted)
Instead, there is the good news. In the words of the angels,
I bring you good news of great joy….Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord.