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Introduction to the Book of Hosea

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Hosea the prophet

Hosea, is introduced as the son of Beeri. His name is derived from the Hebrew word “hoshiy’a”, which means "salvation" or "deliverance". The word has the same root as Joshua, and of Jesus. His name is significant as it shows God’s ability to save Israel from their sins.

He was a prophet from Israel, the northern kingdom, prophesying to the northern kingdom, his home country. We know very little about his life, apart from his relationship with Gomer, and know nothing of his call to be a prophet.

He was younger than Amos, but older than Isaiah and Micah who all prophesied to Judah during this period. One of a group of four prophets (Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Micah) of the eighth century BC. He was probably one of the last prophets to the northern kingdom, bringing God’s word to the last generation of Israel, the last appeal for repentance before the judgement and exile.

Historical background

Hosea started his ministry during the long reign of Jeroboam II of Israel, at the same time as Ahaz, Jotham and Hezekiah in Judah (1:1). This was a period of affluence and political freedom for both nations. Assyria was weak, being concerned with affairs at home, which allowed Israel to expand geographically and strengthen politically and economically. Jeroboam was Israel's last powerful king, when the country was prosperous.

The prosperity was built on immorality, rejecting God and adopting the worship of Baal. The peace and prosperity were superficial. Israel was decadent, with social disintegration and moral decay. Severe economic imbalance between rich and poor, so the greedy rich oppressed the poor, as criticised by Amos. The courts were corrupt, so the poor had no hope of justice. The nation was prosperous and opulent. The people were complacent and self-indulgent. The politicians and merchants had ever increasing living standards, but the workers and farmers were oppressed, and suffering poverty and hunger. The rich had no sense of responsibility for the poor.

Israel had become more prosperous and sought political power among the surrounding nations. This had brought foreign cultural influences to the nation. The most damaging was Baal worship (11:2), which Hosea refers to as, “pursuing her lovers” (2:5,7), implying that this worship involved sacred prostitution (4:12), as well as excessive drinking (4:11). Hosea sarcastically refers to this worship as, “consulting pieces of wood” (4:12).

The worship of Yahweh had been mixed with Canaanite worship. Religious ritual continued, but was superficial and uncommitted. All they remembered of the covenant was that Israel as a nation was blessed by God. There was little or no heart response to Yahweh or true faithfulness to the covenant. They practices many sacrifices, paid tithes, but the worship of Yahweh was mixed with pagan rituals, involving erotic practices and religious rituals. These sacrifices did not please God (8:11-13, 9:4), their heart is false, even though they build more and more altars (10:1-2).

Israel had forsaken the covenant, and ignored their calling to be totally loyal to Yahweh alone. Instead Israel had chosen the gods of prosperity (Baal), power (through political alliances) and sex (Baal, Asherah). Israel no longer lived as a distinct people with a different culture based on divine revelation.

Hosea’s spiritual insight

His book shows that Hosea had a thorough understanding of the religious systems currently dominating Israel. He know the nature, content and language of the pagan religious cult. He knows its practices, purposes and perversions. Its theology is wrong, giving credit to Baal for gifts which are really from God (2:5,8-9). It is only Yahweh who has power to bring fertility and blessing. Their means of revelation are worthless, which cannot give the will of God (4:12). He criticises their harlotry (4:13-14), as well as their sexual orgies and lewdness (4:18). He speaks out against their priests who are not teaching the people (4:4-5, 5:1). He also mocks their religious practices, like kissing calves (13:2), and the calf of Samaria (8:6).

He holds his own people totally responsible. He does not blame the Canaanites for corrupting his people. Both people and priests had no excuse not to know these practices are wrong, there were plenty of commands against them in the law of Moses.

There was also a vacuum of spiritual leadership as many Levities and priests had left the north and fled to Judah (2 Chr 11:13-14). The priests were corrupt and failing in their duty to teach the people. The people are destroyed through lack of knowledge, the priests have forgotten the law of God, and are greedy for iniquity (4:4-9). He describes the priests as a snare at Mizpah, Tabor and Shittim, high places (5:1), and as robbers & murderers (6:9).

This shallow commitment to Yahweh threatened the actual existence of the nation, and ultimately led to a moral and political landslide with six kings in twenty years, four of whom assassinated their predecessor (2 Kg 15:8-15).

Jeroboam II 790 - 749 Great prosperity and expansion
Zechariah 748 Reigned six months until killed by Shallum,
ending the five generations of the dynasty of Jehu
(Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Zechariah)
Shallum 748 Reigned one month until killed by Menahem
Menahem 748 - 738 Unspeakably cruel puppet of Assyria who paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser
Pekahiah 738 - 736 Ruled for two years before being killed by Pekah
Pekah 738 - 730 Made alliance with Syria. Killed by Hoshea, Galilee taken into captivity in 734 BC
Hoshea 730 - 721 Puppet king under Tiglath-pileser.
Made an alliance with Egypt, and was attacked by Assyria, leading to Fall of Samaria and end of northern kingdom (2 Kg 17)

Hosea alluded to this chaos by saying, “all their kings have fallen, none call on me” (7:7), and “they made kings - but not through me ...” (8:4).

He also prophesied to Judah. His prophetic ministry probably began from around 755 BC, when he pronounced judgement on the dynasty of Jehu, which fell in 748 BC, and lasted until to around 725 BC, just before the fall of Samaria, which is not mentioned in his prophecy.

Style of writing

Chapters 1to 3 (except ch 2) are in pain-filled prose with a focus on Hosea and his family. Chapters 4-14 are in poetry, expressing great deeply-felt emotion.

He uses much imagery which is drawn from every aspect of life, especially from nature, and family life. He uses proverbs, irony, large numbers of metaphors, similies, & wordplays.

He addresses the priests (4:9, 5:1, 6:9), and speaks out against the false prophets (4:5, 7:12-14). He describes Israel as a prostitute (ch 1-3), a stubborn heifer (4:6), a trained heifer (10:11), a silly dove (7:11-12), and as morning mist, or dew, or chaff blown away in the wind (13:3). In other words Israel was unreliable, worthless, rebellious, and self-important, but empty.

He also uses legal language to speak for God against the people. He summoned Israel to the courtroom to stand before the Lord for their spiritual, moral and political sins, holding them accountable to the covenant. He calls Gomer’s children to, “Plead with your mother, plead, for she is not my wife” (2:2). He calls Israel to, “Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel, for the LORD has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land” (4:1). He addresses the priests, “Yet let no one contend, let no one accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest” (4:4), and states that, “The LORD has an indictment against Judah, and will repay Jacob according tho his ways” (12:2).

He calls Israel to repentance, calling them to return to God, and to turn away from the belief that Assyria will save them (14:1-3). If they repent using the words he gives them, “Take away all guilt, accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips” (v2), then they will receive the blessings expressed in the salvation oracles (1:10 - 2:1, 2:14-23, 11:10-11, 14:4-9)

He uses sarcasm, declaring that, “My people consult a piece of wood ... sacrifice on the hills under the trees because their shade is good” (4:12-13). He also uses quotations from other people, particularly his opponents (2:5,7, 4:15, 8:2, 10:3,8, 12:8, 13:10-11). He also uses woe oracles (7:13, 9:12), and a love song (14:5-7). His wide use of geographical references show that he was clearly very familiar with the land.

Structure of the book

The structure of Hosea is quite difficult to determine, but there is a clear division after chapter three:

ch 1-3 Hosea’s failed marriage and family, applied to Israel
    ch 1    Hosea’s marriage
    ch 2    Separation from his wife, and application to situation in Israel
    ch 3    Restoration of Gomer

ch 4-14 God’s steadfast love for Israel
    ch 4-8    Sin and guilt of Israel / Ephraim
    ch 9-10    Judgement coming on Ephraim
    ch 11-14    Restoration

Message of the book

The main theme of Hosea's message is spiritual & physical adultery. He pictured idolatry as adultery. In Israel, idolatry was literally adultery, Israel really did go whoring after idols. The Canaanite religious system was based on sacred prostitution, the worship of sex. The local deities called Ba’als (Lords) were owners of the soil. Ba’al’s personal name was Hadad, the storm god responsible for germination and growth of crops, as well as fertility of livestock and humans. His consort was Ba’alith (Lady). Her personal name was Astarte or Astoreth, a warrior goddesss of sexual passion and sadistic brutality. They believed that the fertility of the soil was dependent on the mating of this divine pair.

In Canaanite mythology, Mot, the god of the summer drought killed Ba’al during the summer and carried him to the underworld. Astarte then violently attacked Mot and killed him after a ferocious struggle, after which Ba’al and Astarte were reunited as lovers. The seasonal cycle of the year was controlled by the divine death of Ba’al, and his rising and sexual union with Astarte. The Canaanites believed that the mating of Ba’al and Astarte would be assisted by imitation and magic. Men played the part of Ba’al, and women played the part of Astarte. By dramatising the divine mating in sacred prostitution, they could help bring the two together and therefore encourage the fertility of their crops. They would bring wine, oil, first-fruits, and yearlings to the sacred high places on the tops of the mountains. At these high places, there would be pillars, representing the male sex organ, and sacred trees (Asherahs), representing the female sex organs. In this place, they would have sex.

The covenant of Moses likened to a marriage covenant. Breaking the covenant was seen as marital infidelity. Hosea speaks about the covenant made on Sinai in terms of the marriage relationship. This is a new and shocking thing. Later prophets develop this further, especially Ezekiel, who uses very strong sexual imagery. The same picture used in N.T. when church likened as a pure virgin bride, so sin is the same as adultery.

What was happening in Hosea’s family was a replica of the shattered relationship between God and Israel. Hosea was called by God to marry Gomer the prostitute, an unfaithful wife, who betrayed and deserted him. God was the husband of Israel, in the same way Hosea was the husband of Gomer. Israel had spiritual and moral failures comparable to Gomer’s moral failings.

Particularly following the rule of Ahab and Jezebel, Israel had increasingly been drawn into the fertility religions of the Canaanites, particularly the worship of Baal and Astarte (Asherah), which were fundamentally sexually based religious systems. In the same way, Gomer had been increasingly drawn into harlotry and immorality.

Hosea’s experienced the most painful emotions as his wife was increasingly unfaithful to him. He would felt shame, embarrassment, anger, pain, revulsion as he watched his wife’s unfaithfulness, and especially when he realised that two of the children were not his own. Hosea realised that the Lord felt the same strong emotions as he watched Israel turn their backs on him.

Both Hosea and the Lord now faced a difficult problem: what to do with their unfaithful wives. The Lord had a choice was between: acting in judgement and destroying his people, on basis of justice, with the consequence of losing his people and his plan of salvation being threatened; or allowing his love to over-rule and ignore their sin, and not have any people who are loyal to him.

Hosea faced a similar choice between: publically divorcing Gomer and losing the wife he loved; or allowing his love to over-rule and ignoring his wife’s sin and losing any sort of proper marriage relationship and family life.

Instead, God called Hosea to present a third option: giving one last opportunity for the people to repent and turn from their evil ways, before the Assyrians come and destroy the nation and take them into exile. He would allow Assyria to destroy them, but will preserve a remnant with whom he will rebuild the covenant. As a sign of this Hosea brought Gomer back from slavery (3:1). He was willing to face the ridicule and disgrace of taking her back. He paid the price to buy her back, redeem her from a life of shame and accepted her back into his family, restoring her to purity, and committing himself to her. This graphically shows God's love for his people, judging their apostasy, but showing amazing love and mercy. It is no wonder that Israel cries, “The prophet is a fool, the man of the Spirit is mad” (9:7-8).

Hosea’s children

Hosea's three children were given symbolic names which showed Israel's unfaithfulness: The first son: "Jezreel" (1:4-5), meaning “God sows”. As it says that Gomer, “bore him a son” (1:3), it was likely that Jezreel was truly Hosea’s son. Jezreel was a royal city in a very productive fertile valley, the Valley of Jezreel. Not long before, Jehu attacked the city of Jezreel and brutally slaughtered Jezebel and the seventy sons of Ahab.(2 Kg 9:30 - 10:11). This was predicted by the prophet Elijah (1 Kg 21:17-24), and performed by Jehu after he was anointed by Elisha (2 Kg 9:6-7). Jehu’s bloodbath led to lasting resentment, and left Israel crippled with a vacuum of leadership and vulnerable to enemy attack. Power was only regained during the reign of Jeroboam II. Hosea’s son is given this name because God will avenge the blood of Jezreel on Jehu, he will bring the dynasty of Jehu to an end. This happened in 748 BC when Zechariah was murdered by Shallum, six months after the death of Jeroboam II. The Lord said that, “God will break the bow of Israel” (v5), a phrase normally for destroying God’s enemies. In the same way Jehu destroyed the dynasty of Ahab in Jezreel - God will destroy the dynasty of Jehu and bring the nation of Israel to an end.

His second child was a daughter given the name “Lo-ruhamah” (1:6-7), meaning “Not pitied”. It says that Gomer, “bore a daughter”, implying that she was not Hosea’s daughter, but from another man. God will remove his mercy and love from Israel, but will have pity on Judah, and save them, but not by normal means of warfare, which may be a prediction of the deliverance of Jerusalem in 701 BC. The curses of the covenant in Deuteronomy will affect Israel, but because of the more godly kings on the throne of Judah (Uzziah, Hezekiah) God will continue to bless Judah. Hezekiah especially led the people in repentance. But no repentance has been seen in Israel.

His third was a son, given the name “Lo-ammi” (1:8), meaning, “Not my people”. Again it says that Gomer “bore a son”, implying that once again this was not Hosea’s son, but from another man. Israel’s sin has caused God to declare that his relationship with Israel had come to an end because they have broken the covenant. However God is still merciful and the relationship may possibly be renewed.

When did Gomer become a prostitute?

Many people have problems with the idea that God called his prophet to marry an adulteress. Did Gomer become a prostitute before or after she married Hosea? God’s command to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom ...” (1:2), would indicate that she was previously a prostitute. Some scholars argue that she only became a prostitute sometime after her marriage to Hosea, others say that this is just a story, a parable of Israel’s behaviour, and did not really happen. However, Hosea was not called to model a ideal happy marriage to Israel. Hosea’s shattered family life was to parallel the nation’s relationship with God. Their idolatry and disloyal religious behaviour were seen by God as the worst kind of adultery.

Some important themes of the book

Steadfast love(Hesed)

Jesus quoted the heart of the message of the prophet Hosea, when he quoted Hos 6:6 to the Pharisees (Mt 9:13, 12:7), “For I desire steadfast love (hesed) and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”. Hesed is translated variously as: steadfast love, loving-kindness, mercy, love, faithfulness. It especially describes loyalty in a covenant relationship, so some translators use “covenant-love”. This word describes love which is active and enduring. It is actions, rather than merely attitude. This which is why the marriage metaphor is so fitting. God was wanting more than religious activities, but a deep relationship with him, expressed in acts of faithfulness to his covenant. When Israel sinned, she did not just break rules, but broke her relationship with God, sinning against God himself, not just against a commandment.

Hosea show God’s great love (hesed) for Israel. Chapter eleven is the greatest statement of God’s love for Israel. It almost seems to drip with grief, as God weeps over his people, “How can I give you up ..., My heart recoils within me, My compassion grows warm and tender”. (11:8).

The Exodus and wilderness motif

Hosea often uses themes from the Exodus from Egypt and wilderness experiences as a way of showing God’s love for his people. "Out of Egypt I called my son" (11:1). "I taught Ephraim how to walk - took them up in my arms" (11:4). By a prophet (Moses) Lord brought Israel up from Egypt (12:13). I fed you in the wilderness, they were satisfied, but forgot me (13:5-6). God showed his love for Israel through: Exodus, wilderness and conquest of the land, but Israel responded by forgetting God and following ways of nations.

God had chosen Israel as an act of grace, and showed them his love, even though they did not deserve it. God found them like grapes in the wilderness (9:10). He declared, "I have been the Lord your God ever since the land of Egypt" (13:4). Therefore it was more serious that Israel had rebelled against God who loved her. He expected Israel to be a model to the nations as a royal nation, chosen and loved by God. He gave them revelation to live by, so they would be different from other nations (righteousness, love, justice, faithfulness to God), but they were characterised by unrighteousness, lack of love, injustice and unfaithfulness to God. Their apostasy went far back in their history: to Baal-peor (Num 25) (9:10), Sacrificing to Baals & idols (golden calf?) (11:2). According to Hosea, the worst apostasy was the choosing of Saul as a king to be like other nations (9:10, 10:9, 13:10-11)

God’s promise of the renewal of his love is like a second exodus. After their judgement, he will bring them back from the nations. God had called Israel to be holy, as he is holy. They were to be like him, set apart from the nations, but they had separated themselves from God through their idolatry and injustice, therefore God will separate them from himself and the land by sending them into exile. But even there, God had promised to love them, and eventually bring them back.

God’s judgement as separation from himself.

Hosea reveals the emotions of a God who is free to judge, but is bound by his love for his people. However his love for Israel must lead to judgement. He is so devoted to his relationship with his people, that he is willing to separate himself from them. “I will return to my place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face" (5:15). All people are called to repent, but the blessings of hope are only for the faithful remnant who respond to God by repenting. “I will return to my place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face” (5:15).


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