For some scholars, the book of Hosea is nothing short of an embarrassment. On the face of it, the story of Hosea's marriage to a prostitute leaves much to be desired in terms of inspired reading. Yet, Hosea was able to take that experience and transform it through his preaching into one of the most powerful and intimate images involving God's ways with the world. Indeed, it has earned him the designation of being "the prophet of love." It is a story that is rooted in its historical setting.
Despite having very little biographical information about Hosea the person, scholars have been able to date his prophecies with some accuracy. It is believed that he began his ministry before the death of Jeroboam II (747-746 BCE). Most accept that it was sometime between 760-753. Hosea stopped short of describing the actual fall of Israel to Assyria in 722 BCE, so it is thought that his work ended before that. But some scholars think he might have worked right up to that time. In short, then, his prophetic ministry might have extended 30-40 years and included both the northern and southern kingdoms. And what turbulent decades those were!
Jeroboam II had reigned in the northern kingdom for forty-one years. He was one of those kings who "did evil in the eyes of the Lord" because he did not undo the sins of his predecessor. Nonetheless, Jeroboam was a gifted administrator. Together with his counterpart in Judah, King Uzziah (who also had a long and prosperous reign), they were able to restore their borders nearly to what the Israelites had enjoyed during the glory days of David and Solomon. The kings were a force to be reckoned with, both economically and politically. They, of course, benefited from the fact that the major international powers were jockeying among themselves for position during that time. While the powerful nations were preoccupied with each other, the smaller nations prospered and grew. Unfortunately, Jeroboam's administrative skills did not include concern for Israel's covenantal religion, and during those flourishing years, the people degenerated into sinning openly. "High places" were common, and people regularly worshiped Baal and Asherah. Part of their worship may have included the sexual activity typically associated with those religions.
This was the atmosphere that compelled God to command Hosea to marry a "woman of harlotry." It was an atmosphere wherein people were outwardly prosperous but inwardly bankrupt. Nor should it come, then, as a surprise that shortly after the death of Jeroboam, the country found itself facing the intrigues and pressures of the international community. Having turned away from God for decades, they naturally turned to other kingdoms for aid, ultimately to no avail. Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria invaded Israel in 733 BCE. The next king, Shalmaneser V, put the capital city of Samaria under siege in 724. When it capitulated in 722 BCE, it signified the end of Israel as a sovereign nation.
Into this deteriorating situation, Hosea preached a message for the nation. But what a message! Hosea had a completely different perspective on everything. He saw how God had become like a husband to Israel, from the time he had delivered them out of Egypt. He had made a covenant with them, as binding as any marriage contract. He had cared for them throughout the wilderness and showered them with gifts (land, prosperity, abundance). But Israel had been a rebellious people from the start. As soon as they had entered the Promised Land, they ran after other gods. And the more God tried to woo them back, the less obedient they had become, until, finally, God was all but forgotten.
Hosea identified this as a sin of harlotry, and primarily held the religious leaders accountable for leading the people astray. Judgment against them would be especially severe. The political leaders didn't fare any better; their sin was that they turned to human alliances for their security. The people, in choosing to follow these leaders, had also contributed to the sealing of their own fate. Hosea's message, then, was one of inevitable destruction. He felt it was too late for Israel to repent and return to God. The country was doomed. But unlike some of the other prophets who only focused on judgment, Hosea also preached that obliteration would not be the final word. Ultimately, God, and God alone, would save Israel – but no one would know when or how.
The most amazing thing about Hosea, of course, is that his life embodied his prophetic commission. His unfaithful "wife" represented unfaithful Israel; his three children represented increasing degrees of hopelessness. He understood firsthand the suffering occasioned by such faithlessness and spoke of his pain. His world, his life, his wife, became a prophecy of what God would do to Israel. Needless to say, this raises many issues for modern readers. The violence and oppression towards women and children is patently offensive. The threats of public humiliation and prayers for miscarriage are hardly consonant with "love." The question, of course, is whether this is literally true or only metaphorically true. Some have argued that God would never have called upon a prophet to marry a prostitute – someone inherently unclean. Others point out that only priests were prohibited from marrying anyone unclean. Nothing was ever said about prophets. Additionally, there is little indication from Hosea that this was only symbolic. Most scholars agree that the allegory between Hosea's marriage and God's relationship to Israel works best if Gomer became unfaithful after they were married. In that case, God's instruction to him to marry a "woman of harlotry" was proleptic, foreshadowing his trials to come. In like manner, God had chosen Israel despite his knowing that they would become unfaithful to him. The central theme, then, in Hosea concerns the breaking of the covenant. And despite Israel's running after other gods, God continued to love Israel and wanted them to return to him. So notwithstanding Hosea's harsh message, he returned again and again to the message of hope, of restoration, of the glad time to come when God would "speak tenderly" to Israel and "sing as in the days of her youth."
There are two main divisions: Hosea's Marriage and Children 1-3; Israel's Punishment, Indictment, and Restoration 4-14.
I – Hosea's Marriage and Children 1-3
- The command to marry a woman of harlotry (Gomer)
- Hosea's children
- The first child: Son named Jezreel – place where Omri had been massacred by the house of Jehu
- Second child: Daughter named "Not pitied"
- Third child: Son named "Not my people"
- Names indicate progression of judgment
- Word of hope for the future
- "Not my people" will be called "Sons of the living God"
- Destruction would not be the final word
- The Great divorce
- Hosea begins with a formal statement of divorce
- "She is not my wife; I am not her husband"
- Reason for divorce was Gomer's persistent unfaithfulness
- Threats of disgrace and violence against Gomer
- Whole scene functions as an allegory of God's relationship to Israel
- Description of Israel's sins
- God reiterates willingness to bring them back to himself
- Hope of a new Covenant
- Salvation will once again be known
- There will be a "new marriage"
- Love and intimacy will be restored
- Result will be a new covenant, complete with promises of abundance
- Weapons of war would be eliminated; peace would reign
- Names of Hosea's children would be overturned
- Jezreel – God will sow
- Not Pitied – Pitied
- Not my people – My people
- People will acknowledge: "Thou art my God"
- Remarriage to Gomer
- Hosea is told to love a woman of harlotry
- He had to buy her back (fifteen shekels was amount need to redeem from slavery)
- They lived in seclusion, attempting to restore their love, trust in each other
II Israel's Punishment, Indictment, and Restoration 4-14
- Indictment against the Priests
- Case against Israel
- List of transgressions
- Condemnation of the Priests
- The priests had failed in their task
- They no longer taught about God
- Rather than condemn apostasy, they encouraged it and prospered from it
- They delighted in practicing pagan rites
- Priestly failings in no way absolved the people from their own responsibility
- They made choices and followed the leadings of the priests
- They chose the easy path
- A message for Priests, Officials
- Hunting images were used to describe the actions of the priests
- Net, snare, pit – Priests used these methods: people lost their freedom
- Their chastisement awaited them
- Some people tried to worship both Yahweh and Baal – cover all bases
- That didn't work either
- Such people will seek the Lord, but they will not find him
- Chastisement is a word meaning "discipline intended to instruct"
- It, too, embodied an element of hope
- Sound the alarm
- Ephraim will become a desolation
- Of that the Lord is sure
- Both Judah and Israel will be judged
- Addressed to Israel, but included Judah
- God will be an irritant, like a festering sore
- Israel had looked to Assyria for help
- Assyria will not be able to help
- God will be like a lion to them; he will snatch and no one can rescue
- But one day the people would return
- On the third day, they will be raised up (probably not a messianic reference)
- If they turn to God with repentance, there is hope
- Love that's like a morning cloud
- Love is like a morning mist; it dissipates as the day wears on
- Words are easy to say; people refuse to accept underlying significance of words
- Hide behind rituals and sacrifice
- These are no substitutes for what is really in one's heart
- List of crimes showing hypocritical nature of worship
- Covenant was broken; blood was shed; priests plotted murder
- Inhabitants probably knew of these events
- Therefore, Israel had become a defiled nation
- Judah was no better; a "harvest" of judgment awaited her, too
- Part political comment and part religious critique
- God longed to heal Ephraim, sent prophets to warn them
- God could see their sins
- Kings and princes were delighted with sad situation
- Sin of adultery mentioned
- Might have had links to Baal worship, sexual activity
- Used image of hot oven, hot passion
- Result was assassination of king during festival
- (Four kings were assassinated during Hosea's time)
- Foreign policy fared no better
- Israel was oblivious to inroads made by foreigners
- Accepted and incorporated foreign worship into their own culture
- Used image of a dove – easily deceived and senseless
- Israel sought first one national power, then another – fickle
- God will be the fowler, will permit chastisement
- Chaos will reign; people will not know what to do
- Will say meaningless words; God will not respond
- Words of approaching judgment
- Description of consequences of their many sins
- Again, time to sound the alarm, blow the trumpet
- Israel will cry out, but in desperation, not sincerity
- They have chosen kings without consulting God
- They worship idols, possible reference to calf-idols at Dan and Bethel
- They will reap what they have sown
- They will fly away like the chaff, be consumed by others
- Reference to the loss of Israel's national identity
- They have become "worthless"
- The people had forgotten God; they would be returned to "Egypt"
- Assyria actually "took" them Final word included Judah as well
- More specifics about growing threat of Assyria
- The people would soon be taken, had no reason to rejoice
- They would eat "unclean" food; would have no temple for sacrifice
- They would not have proper worship or the ability to celebrate festivals
- Hosea recognizes they think him a fool for delivering this message
- The fleeting glory of Israel
- Exultation over Ephraim's earliest days
- God was delighted to find them
- God made of them a fine nation, only to have them sin incessantly
- Now their population would diminish and they would become "wanderers among the nations"
- Reasons for impending captivity
- References to their earlier history when they were a "luxuriant vine"
- Inverse relationship between increase in prosperity and decrease in spirituality
- As a result, they will be carried to Assyria as "tribute for the great king"
- High places would be destroyed
- People would be disgraced
- Sin and Punishment
- Mention of earlier sin, never repented
- Nations will gather against Israel
- Hosea exhorted the people to sow righteousness
- Changing is hard work, but they must do it
- Righteousness brings the fruit of unfailing love
- Instead the people planted wickedness
- Outcome will be the roar of battle; fortresses will be destroyed
- God's love and their rebellion
- God remembers how they were in the beginning
- Showered them with blessings, led them with "cords of human kindness"
- Tenderly taught them to walk, cared for them and fed them
- Despite God's grace, they turned to other nations
- Assyria will rule over them
- In the last days, there will be restoration
- Words look beyond chastisement to re-establishment as God's people
- Glimpse into the heart of God
- God can never let them go; all his "compassion is aroused"
- After destruction, people will return
- Then they will be resettled in their homes
- Israel's unfaithfulness to God
- They have surrounded God with deceit and dishonesty
- Israel has become worthless; Judah will also face retribution
- Example of how Jacob struggled for God
- They should be doing that now; instead they chase the wind
- The Lord blessed Jacob, wants to bless Israel now
- Example of wicked merchants
- People see themselves above reproach
- They are so self sufficient, they have no need of God
- God spoke through his prophets; people cannot use ignorance as excuse
- Punishment will soon come
- Historical transgressions
- At one time Ephraim was respected in all Israel
- But Baal worship led to spiritual death
- Recollections of how God cared for them in history
- Should have brought them to God in humility
- Instead, people became proud and had no need for God
- Chose kings that could not lead
- Sons were born "without wisdom"
- Still, one day God will ransom them from death
- For a while, they will thrive, but time of reckoning awaits
- Israel's repentance and God's blessing
- Words of promise – Like a rainbow after a storm
- Invitation to Israel to return; admission of sins
- People will ask for forgiveness, will recognize that Assyria cannot save them
- God will have compassion, shower them with blessings
- Used images of trees, flowers to illustrate blessings
- Israel will finally understand idols are nothing
- "The ways of the Lord are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them."
The final words are not a call to avoid catastrophe. They are words to be used to carry them through the catastrophe and beyond it. The nation of Israel ended in 722 BCE, never to be rebuilt. Ironically, right at that point where the nation disintegrated, Hosea found a message of hope for a future. God's love had not ended. It could not. God was ever ready to love even though he had been rejected time and time again. When the people realized they had nothing, they heard God's promise ringing in their ears, "I will love them freely."
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. "Minor Prophets I." New International Biblical Commentary. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996.
Craigie, Peter. "Twelve Prophets." Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984.
Davies, G.I. "Hosea." The New Century Bible Commentary. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
Stuart, Douglas. "Hosea-Jonah." Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1987.
Wolff, Hans Walter. "Hosea." Hermeneia. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press. Translated by Gary Stansell, 1974.