Hosea is a love story. Hosea is not, however, a fairy tale love story. There is no prince or princess, but there is a happily ever after. Hosea is a story about true love that is filled with betrayal, desperation, and uncommon grace.
The main theme of Hosea is a familiar one in the Old Testament. Israel has rebelled against the LORD and severe consequences will follow. The LORD’s faithful love, however, is more powerful than Israel’s sin. The LORD’s ultimate purpose is to heal and save. While the theme of sin, judgement, and salvation should be a familiar one, the way that Hosea weaves his personal life story into this national narrative of Israel is absolutely unique.
Hosea takes place in the northern kingdom of Israel, which is often referred to as Ephraim in Hosea after the largest tribe of the northern kingdom. Hosea’s roughly 40-year ministry stretched from about 755 to about 710 BC, making him a younger contemporary of fellow northern kingdom prophet Amos as well as southern kingdom prophets Isaiah and Micah. His ministry began during the reign of King Jeroboam II and continued over the reigns of the last six kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. You can read more about these kings in 2 Kings 14:23-29; 15:8-31; and 17. The key takeaway about these kings is that none of them were considered to be a good and faithful king. When Hosea began his ministry, the northern kingdom was at its peak politically and economically. By the end of his ministry, Assyria had crushed the northern kingdom.
Hosea is a collection of Hosea’s preaching and biography. It is primarily a book of poetry, and there are two main sections to the book. The first section is the very personal story of Hosea and his wife Gomer. This section comprises the first three chapters, and it moves from wedding to adultery to a resolution in restoration. The second section comprises the rest of the book, and, mirroring the first, moves from covenant to idolatry to resolve in covenant renewal.
A key implied question throughout Hosea is why does it end in restoration? The answer, given in 2:19-20, is God’s love, compassion, and faithfulness.
“And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.”The Hebrew word in verse 19 is hesed, which means even more than “steadfast love.” We lack a good word for this in English, because hesed involves an unending commitment to faithfulness and devoted love. Hesed gets at a disposition and a way of living that many of us these days might even struggle to imagine and may even judge to be naively foolish.
Hosea 1:2 is one of the most bizarre verses in the whole of the Bible.
“When the LORD spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, ‘Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.’”Wow! What a command by God to Hosea! Just let that sink in for a moment. Remarkably, Hosea obeys the LORD. Hosea marries Gomer, and they have three children together. As an adulterer, Gomer sleeps with other men, and chapter two is a poem about adultery, prostitution, and idolatry. In the course of her “whoredom,” Gomer needs to be ransomed from her lovers turned pimps for a sum of money. In chapter three, Hosea ransoms Gomer for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a half of barley. He restores her to himself, telling her to be faithful to him as he is to you.
Just reflect on that story for a moment. What did Gomer do to Hosea in front of their entire community? How would Hosea have felt? How would her children have felt? What did Gomer do to win back her husband? Is there any way that Gomer could have earned her way back to Hosea? Gomer’s restoration depends completely on Hosea’s gracious forgiveness. How grateful do you think Gomer was to Hosea for saving her? In the most graphic real-world terms imaginable, the story of Hosea and Gomer is a retelling of the story of the LORD and His people.
The rest of the book fleshes out this story of marriage, infidelity, and restoration between the LORD and Israel. Chapters 4 through 10 is a poem about the causes and effects of Israel’s adulterous idolatry. It begins in chapter 4:1 with the charge against Israel that it has rejected the knowledge of God in the land. The Hebrew word for “knowledge” here is yada. The ancient Hebrew sense of knowing someone, yada, is a much more personal and intimate knowledge than we typically mean when we say that we know someone. For instance, in Genesis 4:1, Adam knew Eve his wife who then conceived and bore their son Cain. In Genesis 18:19, the LORD says that He knows Abraham, meaning that He has a very close relationship with Abraham. For this knowledge, it is not enough to know about someone, like I might mean if I were to say that I know that Abraham Lincoln was alive during the Civil War or that I know that Paul McCartney was a member of the Beatles. This is like asking someone if they really know Paul McCartney. Having met Sir Paul would not be enough here. To honestly answer that they really do know Paul McCartney, that person would need to have an actual relationship with him.
This yada knowledge is also an experiential knowledge, because it is relational knowledge. Think of how important relationships in your own life have affected you, even possibly transforming you. Relationships like a marriage or within a family have this power. Whether good or bad, these relationships and our experience of them have the power to transform us.
This experiential and relational knowledge of God is what Israel has rejected. Of course, they know about God and believe He exists and rules over them. They regularly make public sacrifices to him. They are not atheists in rejecting knowledge of God. They are adulterers fleeing the deep, intimate, and relational knowledge of a spouse to pursue other desires.
This is why Israel is charged with hypocrisy. They publicly sacrifice to God, pretending that all is well with their relationship to Him. But that public profession is all pretend. They do not follow the Law. There is rampant social injustice. They keep the high places and altars to Baal at Bethel and Gilgal. They trust in politics and military power for their safety and security, forging political alliances like all of the other nations.
They have rejected their relationship with the LORD as his holy people. Therefore, Assyria will soon come crashing down upon them.
Chapters 12 and 13 are a history lesson about Israel feeding on the wind. A person cannot, of course, feed on the wind. It is not even sensible, which is the point. Israel’s desires are so misguided that those desires are akin to trying to satisfy your hunger by feeding on the wind. Life was not designed to work that way. Feeding on the wind will never work. It will never really satisfy you. Nevertheless, Israel persists.
Hosea provides three case studies from earlier history. The first example references Jacob and his lying and treachery from Genesis 27 and 28. The second example is from Numbers 12 through 20 when Israel rebelled against the LORD in the wilderness. They were nourished, and their clothes never wore out. Yet, they wanted to go back to Egypt. The third and final example is from 1 Samuel chapters 12 and 15 when Israel wanted to be like all of the other nations and have a king. They chose the faithless Saul as their king.
These examples span the beginning of the nation of Israel from its inception with its namesake through their inaugural king. In each example, they walk away from the LORD who truly nourishes them to try and feast on the wind. It never works out. They lack real yada knowledge of God and His hesed to them.
Israel’s sin is worthy of destruction and damnation. Assyria will come. Judgement is real and necessary, as it always is with adultery. There are real consequences and effects to cheating and unfaithfulness. Nevertheless, the LORD loves Israel.
In chapter 11 the LORD is portrayed as a loving father who raised a son who betrayed Him. In 11:3-4 the LORD is a doting father teaching His son to walk, leading him with love. The LORD’s heart is broken and turned over like plowed soil when His son betrays him to follow after other desires.
In chapter 14, Israel is to be miraculously healed of its selfish heart. A Messiah will come to restore Israel, saving God’s people. They will become the broad shade tree of blessing to the nations they were always meant to be. This shade tree will bear fruit from the LORD like love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Hosea is a book among the minor prophets, but it is minor only in terms of its length. Its message is cosmic and eternal. Sin is rebellion and adultery. There are real and significant consequences to it. Nevertheless, the LORD is faithful and loving. His loving kindness is greater than our sin. While Hosea and Israel did not yet witness Jesus from Bethlehem, they were certainly given the LORD’s message and promise of salvation and hope.