Hosea prophesied during the reigns of five kings, four of Judah (Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah) and one of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Jeroboam II), Hos. 1. 1. He was a prophet of the eighth century BC and was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, Micah, and possibly Jonah. The decline of the Syrian empire gave Jeroboam II the opportunity to greatly extend the Northern Kingdom. ‘He restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the Lord God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher’, 2 Kgs. 14. 25. This ushered in an unprecedented period of prosperity for Israel. Social injustice and decadence, however, became an everyday occurrence, and even though Israel still observed religious requirements assiduously, it was altogether superficial and meaningless. Israel’s prosperity was taken to be evidence of God’s favour, but, in reality, their complacency made them ripe for judgement. Jeroboam II failed to see the dark clouds of Assyria forming on the horizon, and this eventually led to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser in 722 BC, 2 Kgs. 17. 3.1 As Ehijd Ben Zvi states, ‘It is a period of apostasy, of social disintegration, of wrongful leadership, of failed alliances, in sum a period in which knowledge of (and reverence for) the Lord are lacking’.2
Hosea lived in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was probably active during the period leading up to the destruction of that kingdom. What is evident, even from a cursory reading of Hosea’s prophecy, is the overwhelming sense of grief felt by the prophet because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord. His own life story provides us with an object lesson or a living illustration of Israel’s failure to comply with the precepts of God’s word and to be called His people, Hos. 1. 1 - 2. 23. So, hope for Israel is set against a backdrop of seeming hopelessness.
The name ‘Hosea’ is derived from the Hebrew word yasar meaning ‘to save’, or ‘one who delivers’. He was the son of Beeri, which literally means ‘the deep wells of Jehovah’.
One might suggest, therefore, that Hosea is a prophet who exhibits the tenderness and compassion of a saving God who is prepared to deliver His people, but who will not overlook their sins. Little wonder then that G. Campbell Morgan entitled his commentary on this prophecy, The Heart and Holiness of God. The key word in the prophecy is ‘return’, which is referred to on fifteen occasions and which is an important theme in the book. Hosea is raised up by God to call the nation to repentance. Robert Lee suggests, ‘it is a book for backsliders. Here we have a delightful exhibition of God’s methods in the restoration of a backsliding people’.3
The name ‘Ephraim’ occurs in the book over thirty-five times and the name ‘Israel’ with equal frequency.
Ephraim is used as an alternative name for Israel, cp. Isa. 7. 2. The reason for this is probably because the Northern Kingdom’s first ruler, Jeroboam I, was from the tribe of Ephraim, 1 Kgs. 11. 26, and the land occupied by the tribe of Ephraim was central to the administration of the Northern Kingdom, 1 Kgs. 12. 25. Judah is only mentioned fourteen times, and the city of Jerusalem is never mentioned. The cities that are mentioned by Hosea are Samaria, Bethel, and Gilgal, which were located in the Northern Kingdom and were of significant importance in terms of administration and public worship, see 1 Kgs. 12. 25, 33.
The prophecy is difficult to structure as it ‘appears to be a loose anthology of speeches rather than a tightly structured collection’.4 We think, however, it can be divided into the following two parts:
|Hosea’s family history symbolic of God’s relationship with Israel.|
|The charge against Israel and its ultimate restoration.|
One of the important aspects of this prophecy is that although the setting is in the Northern Kingdom, it is also aimed at the Judeans so that they might reflect upon the judgement and destruction of the Northern Kingdom. In this sense, therefore, it has a dual perspective and purpose.
On the face of it, Hosea is commanded by God to marry a prostitute named Gomer, 1. 2, 3, who would consistently return to her promiscuous ways, 3. 1, but there are difficulties with this interpretation. The question that arises from chapter 1 verse 2 is whether God would command Hosea to marry a prostitute. This moral dilemma has had a profound impact on how the verse should be interpreted, and scholars are divided on this issue. Thomas E. McComiskey writes, ‘The majority of commentators have espoused the proleptic5 view of Hosea’s marriage. This view holds that Gomer was chaste when Hosea married her, and only after some time did her propensity to unfaithfulness manifest itself. In this view it is necessary to hold that only one group of children appears in the narratives, since Gomer had no children when Hosea took her as his wife. As a result of this, the proleptic view regards the children of 1. 2 and 1. 3-9 as the same. This makes it necessary to view the children of 1. 2 as yet unborn, and the command to Hosea to mean that he should have children by Gomer — not adopt children already born to her. Several versions reflect this understanding of the text (RSV and NASB “have”; NEB “get children”). This is not indicated by the text, however. The command states literally, “Go take to yourself a wife of fornications, and children of fornications.” The implications of this literal rendition of the command is that the prophet married an unchaste woman and, at the same time, adopted the children who were already hers because of her sexual promiscuity’.6
The story is, in effect, a metaphor of how God suffers because of His people’s infidelity. It also shows how grace operates in that, despite what our spiritual condition might be, God can still love us and bring us back to Himself, as Hosea restored Gomer. But, like all metaphors, they do not totally mirror reality and are simply used for comparison or symbolism. Robert B. Chisholm Jr. writes, ‘Gomer’s subsequent unfaithfulness, no matter what her status at the time of the marriage, was enough to satisfy the intended symbolism’.7
As a result of the union, three children are born, two sons and a daughter. All of the children’s names are prophetic and convey a message to Israel. The first child is a son, whom they name Jezreel, 1. 3, 4, which literally means ‘scattered’ and speaks prophetically of the scattering of Israel. The massacre of Ahab’s family by Jehu at Jezreel was a violent affair, 1 Kgs. 19. 17; 2 Kgs. 9, 10, and the same fate awaited the house of Jehu because of its wickedness. This prophecy would be fulfilled when Shallum assassinated Zechariah, 2 Kgs. 15. 8-12.8 The second child is a daughter, whom they name Loruhamah, 1. 6, 7. This child’s name means ‘unloved’ or ‘not having obtained mercy’. This spoke prophetically of God withholding His love and mercy from the Northern Kingdom. On the contrary, He would intervene in the affairs of Judah to save them and establish the Southern Kingdom, 1. 7. After the daughter had been weaned, Gomer conceived again and had another son, whom they named Lo-ammi, 1. 8, 9. This child’s name means ‘not my people’ and expresses the final chapter in Israel’s sorry story when God would reject them. He would no longer be their God, nor would they be the people of His pasture or the flock under His care, Ps. 95. 7. But this rejection would not be permanent as God would restore His people again in the future. They would lose the title ‘not my people’ and be renamed ‘sons of the living God’, 1. 10, and Israel and Judah would be reunited again under one (Davidic) leader, 1. 11; 3. 5. The name ‘Jezreel’ would no longer then have a negative association but would be interpreted positively as ‘sown (or planted) of God’ with the idea of growth and fruitfulness. So, in the very depths of despair, a future is promised to Israel, cp. 2. 23; Rom. 9 - 11. Chapter 1, therefore, sets the scene for the whole book.
See also Hosea chapter 7 verse 7 and chapter 8 verse 4 that probably refer to the events of 2 Kings chapter 15.
Ehijd Ben Zvi, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, pg. 1144.
Robert Lee, The Outlined Bible, Analysis No. 28, Pickering and Inglis.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr, Handbook on the Prophets, Baker, 2009, pg. 336.
The word ‘proleptic’ refers to the assumption of a future act or development as if it presently existed or has been accomplished.
Thomas E. McComiskey, The Minor Prophets, A Commentary on Hosea, Joel, Amos, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Zondervan, pp. 11, 12. For a complete survey of this issue see pages 13-17.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr., op cit., pg. 337.
The massacre of the family of Ahab by Jehu is referred to in Hosea chapter 1 verse 4.
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