Chasing Emptiness

The prophet Hosea offers two evocative images for the pursuit of vanity.

An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.
An Assyrian king engages in a royal lion hunt. 7th century B.C.

One of my joys in reading the Bible happens when a poetic image in the text suddenly arrests my attention. I stop to consider it. Then my imagination kicks in. I begin to make associations that carry me in unexpected directions.

That happened a couple of days ago when I was reading the prophet Hosea. I was just beginning to read Chapter 12 in the New English Bible translation. It begins:

Ephraim is a shepherd whose flock is but wind,
a hunter chasing the east wind all day;
he makes a treaty with Assyria
and carries tribute oil to Egypt.*

One of the great themes of Hosea is his denunciation of the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) for seeking its security by manipulating power politics in the Middle East. On the one hand Israel seeks a treaty with the Assyrian empire. On the other it delivers tribute to Assyria’s rival, the Egyptian empire. The hope is that maybe Israel can remain safe by playing one power off against the other.

Hosea, however, sees the whole diplomatic exercise as a game of illusions. Earlier in chapter 8, he says that Israel is sowing to the wind and is reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Its diplomatic games will bring no peace. Instead they will bring disaster. His words proved true when Assyria sweeps down in 722 B.C. and obliterates Israel from the political map.

Shepherds of Emptiness

Hosea returns to this theme in Chapter 12 when he picks up this same image of sowing to the wind. But this time, it comes across in two arresting images (at least in the NEB translation). First he compares Israel’s pursuit to a shepherd who herds a flock of the wind. Its flock consists of nothing but invisible air. I immediately make the association with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the emperor’s new clothes.

The Israelite king and his court may think themselves astute politicians. Hosea, however, suggests they are nothing but shepherds of illusions and herdsmen of emptiness.

Then the prophet goes on to compare Israel’s diplomacy to a hunter who chases the east wind all day. It was this image that so captured me.

Hunting has traditionally been a favored sport of the aristocracy in many cultures. (See the stone relief above from the ancient Assyrian empire.) It offers the thrill of the chase, whether that be after the lion, the deer, the boar, or the fox. (The favored prey varies from culture to culture.) As the prey races through the forests, over the hill ridges and down into the valleys and then across the plains, the horsemen follow, hoping to wear the animal out and corner it into its death.

That’s the association that Hosea’s image brings to my mind. Except that the prey that Israel pursues is the east wind. It is impossible to ever capture and imprison the wind. As one chases it, it forever eludes capture. In the end it is the hunter who is worn out, not the wind.

Now I find that a powerful image for the pursuit of vanity, however, we define vanity. When we pursue vanity, we are constantly pursuing something that slips out of our grasp in terms of giving us true, deep satisfaction. Just when we think we have achieved our dream, we find it has dissolved into thin air.

In many ways this image of the hunter chasing the east wind strikes home for me as a description of my own personal spiritual journey. For many years, I pursued God, like the hunter chasing the swift gazelle. But God always seemed to slip out of my grasp. All the reward I got for my obsession was exhaustion and frustration.

It is the tried and true experience of deeply spiritual people (as described by some of the great spiritual writers) that we can never cage God and force him to bless us with a vivid sense of his presence. As one of my favorite writers on prayer, Russian Orthodox bishop Anthony Bloom, puts it, God is like a wild tiger.** We cannot domesticate God. He is beyond our control.

The Great Value of Being over Doing

What I had to learn was that if I want—and I believe if anyone wants—to experience a vivid presence of God, then we must stop chasing God obsessively. If we try to grasp the wind, the wind will simply slip through our fingers.

But if we stop the chase and try to sit calmly and expectantly, we may find that God slips into our life and consciousness quietly and unobtrusively. The tiger dwells with us intimately in his own gentle way. He has become the loving house cat. The elusive wind makes its presence known to us by its gentle caress upon our face. We sense God’s presence not in dramatic miracles, but in elusive intuition. But that we know God by intuition does not make that knowledge any less real.

This is why the practice of contemplative prayer has come to play such an important place in my spiritual journey. In contemplative prayer we do not try to do anything with God. We give up speaking and arguing and debating with God. We even give up trying to be pious. Instead we choose to sit with God in silence. We simply be with God.

Being rather than doing becomes the royal gateway into the presence that we have spent so much time and energy chasing. And then comes another surprise. As we settle into just being, the Lord begins to fill us with his Spirit, pouring energy into us that issues eventually into action, but now action that moves in harmony with God’s will. We can begin as spiritual hunters to chase the values that eternally count.

* The translation I was reading was an earlier version of the New English Bible. Verse 12:1 reads a bit differently in more recent editions. The book of Hosea has had a difficult history of textual transmission through the centuries, and so the Hebrew text is not always crystal clear. This accounts for a great diversity of readings in modern translations.

** This way of describing God comes from Anthony Bloom’s little masterpiece, Beginning to Pray. The book is now out of print, but I rank it high among the many books I have read on prayer. If you find a used copy, I suggest you buy it immediately.

The Wrath of God, the Agony of God

Bible text: Hosea 11:1-11

Years ago, I taught a course on the Old Testament prophets to an adult Sunday school class in Dallas. When the series ended, one woman came up to me and said she had hated every moment of it. All the passages in Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and the other prophets expressing the deep wrath of God against sinning Israel had appalled her, she said. She could not believe that God hated people so much.

It can be grim reading going through portions of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and their fellow prophets. They do not paint pretty pictures of the future facing Israel. Their pronouncements should alarm us. But was this woman right that they present a God who hates people so much?

If we are honest, we cannot ignore the fact that there is a lot of talk about the wrath of God in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and even in the words of Jesus. Just this morning I was reading a passage where Jesus pronounces woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, because the kingdom of God has come near them, and they have rejected it (Luke 10:10-15).

But I do not hear it to be the message of the Bible that God’s wrath reveals God’s hatred of people. God’s anger is real, but it is directed to the actions sinful humanity does. And I think that if we try to see things from God’s viewpoint, we must admit that wrathful anger can be the appropriate emotional response.

God created a world that he proclaims very good (Genesis 1:31). In fact, images of earth taken from the Apollo flights show the earth as a glowing jewel in the sky. It is an artwork of surpassing beauty. And it teems with life, sustained by all the carefully calibrated systems in nature that maintain that life and beauty.

Humanity, however, like a willful toddler knocking down a tower of blocks, has defaced, disordered, and destroyed this beautiful work of art. This is not just true for the physical environment, but even more true for the delicacy of human relationships. We have turned the impulse to love into abuse, exploitation, and injustice.

Faced with the willful or malicious ruination of any cherished creation we have created, anyone of us would naturally feel wrathful anger towards those responsible. How much more must that be true for God. We cannot believe in a God who upholds justice if we deny and ignore the reality of his anger. And the Bible, especially those disturbing prophets in the Old Testament, means to make sure we cannot ignore the reality of that anger in the thoughtless lives we live.

Our own emotional make-up means that we can and should expect that God will respond by lashing out in white-hot anger at those who are destroying the beauty and goodness of his creation. Amos captures that sentiment well with his book’s opening words:
The Lord roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds wither,
and the top of Carmel dries up.
[Amos 1:2]

We expect God in his legitimate rage to turn to ferocious violence to wreak revenge. And the Bible seems to be aware that that is always an option for God. The story of Noah’s flood represents one possible divine response. Except that that very story shows that a violent cleansing of evil through a kind of genocide does not solve the problem. For the source of evil lies in the human heart, and any kind of external or social cleansing does not touch that inner spring of evil.

If God resorts to such violent revenge, he betrays his own character of love. That is the remarkable insight we find in Hosea, chapter 11. Hosea, like Amos, is full of descriptions of God’s impending wrath on Israel. Israel’s national existence is about to be extinguished. The people who survive the Assyrian invasion will go into exile. They ultimately become the ten lost tribes of Israel.

Yet in chapter 11, we hear God cry out in agony at this prospect. Addressing Israel by the tribal name, Ephraim, he says:

How can I give you up, O 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 not man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come to destroy.
[Hosea 11:8-9]

The alternative to God’s wrath is the agony God feels over the terrible fate that awaits his people. His anger is not motivated by a hatred of his people but by an anger over what they have done. Buried behind the wrath lies this love in agony.

This suggests to me that God experiences a deep, deep agony over his spoiled creation. And this suggests to me that God realizes that the answer to evil in the world is not obliterating destruction. Some other solution must be found.

Here is where I believe Hosea sets the stage for the New Testament. For the New Testament suggests that God moves through his agony to the incarnation. God chooses to enter his creation as a human being and to die in agony on the cross so that God’s love for his creation—and for each one of us—may win out over his wrath.

Humanity is the beneficiary of this God who absorbs into himself the pain, evil, and suffering of the world and transforms them into wholeness.