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Introduction to the Book of Hosea

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General Info

The book of Hosea addresses spiritual and historical events in the several decades prior to the forced exile of the northern tribes of Israel.  The deteriorating spiritual conditions at the time closely mirrors that of modern day America.  It is one of the most personal accounts of the Jewish nation’s relation to God.  As such it also gives us great insight into God’s love for His people.  Someone rightly said, reading the Book of Hosea is like looking into an open window, straight into the very heart of God.

In the Protestant Canon, Hosea is the first book, along with eleven other books, in the section called the “Minor Prophets”.  Each of the twelve books are named for its author and main character.  Hosea in Hebrew means “Salvation”, just as Yehoshua, Hoshea or Joshua.  In the Hebrew Bible Canon, the twelve books of the minor prophets (along with Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) are grouped into a section called the Nevi’im Aharonim, or the “Latter Prophets”.

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Brief Survey

The first three chapters of Hosea focus on the unhappy marriage of the prophet to an unfaithful wife named Gomer.  However, the primary purpose of this section is not to present a biography of the prophet himself, but to illuminate God’s painful relationship with unfaithful Israel, his chosen people.  Hosea’s wife reperesents a picture of adulterous Israel, who were unfaithful to the true God while worshiping the false Canaanite gods.  Hosea proclaimed God’s judgment, but he also announced God’s desire to reclaim his wayward bride and restore her relationship with Him.  At the same time, we also see God’s calling of the Gentiles.  We also witness an allegorical proclamation of the coming punishment and restoration of Israel (chapter 2), with Hosea’s reconciliation with his wife as symbolic of the future national restoration (chapter 3).

Chapters 4–14 contains a diverse collection of Hosea’s prophecies, from early in his ministry until just before the destruction of Israel in 722 BC.  They are presented in roughly chronological order, from the reign of Jeroboam II through the reign of Hoshea, the final king of the northern tribe who died in Assyrian captivity.  This final segment of the book alternates between first-person announcements of God’s message and third-person reports from the prophet Hosea.  Chapters 4 and 5 contain a summary of the charges against Israel, namely unfaithfulness, lack of love and compassion, and practically no knowledge or relationship with the true God.  Chapters 6 and 7 contain a call to repentance for breaking the covenant, along with a listing of their many sins.  Chapters 8-10 reveals that Israel arrogantly attempted to seek success based on their own merits, such as by political and military means rather than by trusting the promises of God.  Chapters 11-13 contains another proclamation of God’s love for His people even though they sought security among foreign allies rather than relying on Him.  Finally, in chapter 14, a final appeal is made with a promise of healing for repentance.

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Key Verses

The word of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel:  When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.”  So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.  Then the LORD said to Hosea, “Call him Jezreel, because I will soon punish the house of Jehu for the massacre at Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel.  In that day I will break Israel's bow in the Valley of Jezreel.” (1:1-5)

Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter.  Then the LORD said to Hosea, “Call her Lo-Ruhamah, for I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them.  Yet I will show love to the house of Judah; and I will save them--not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but by the LORD their God.”  After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son.  Then the LORD said, “Call him Lo-Ammi, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.  Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted.  In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’  The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.” (1:6-11)

The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress.  Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”   So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about seven bushels of barley.  Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.”  For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king.  They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days. (3:1-5)

You stumble day and night, and the prophets stumble with you.  So I will destroy your mother-- my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge.  “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children”. (4:5-6)

Come, let us return to the LORD.  He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.  After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.  (6:1-2)

When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.  But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved. (9:10)

Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the LORD, until he comes and showers righteousness on you.  But you have planted wickedness, you have reaped evil, you have eaten the fruit of deception.  Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors, the roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all your fortresses will be devastated-- as Shalman devastated Beth Arbel on the day of battle, when mothers were dashed to the ground with their children.  Thus will it happen to you, O Bethel, because your wickedness is great.  When that day dawns, the king of Israel will be completely destroyed. (10:12-15)

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son...  It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. (11:1,3)

“How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel?  How can I treat you like Admah?  How can I make you like Zeboiim?  My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.  I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.  For I am God, and not man-- the Holy One among you.  I will not come in wrath.  They will follow the LORD; he will roar like a lion.  When he roars, his children will come trembling from the west.  They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria.  I will settle them in their homes,” declares the LORD. (11:8-11)

The LORD has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds.  In the womb he grasped his brother's heel; as a man he struggled with God.  He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor.  He found him at Bethel and talked with him there-- the LORD God Almighty, the LORD is his name of renown!  But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always.  The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud.  Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy.  With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.”  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt; I will make you live in tents again, as in the days of your appointed feasts.  I spoke to the prophets, gave them many visions and told parables through them.” (12:2-10)

O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?  I will answer him and care for him.  I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me.  Who is wise?  He will realize these things.  Who is discerning?  He will understand them.  The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them. (14:8-9)

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Author and Date

The human author of the book is the prophet Hosea, son of Beeri, who prophesied from approximately 755 to 715 BC.  Very little information is available on his personal life outside of this book.  He is only mentioned once in the New Testament (NT), by Paul in Romans 9:25.  His long ministry spanned at least four decades, beginning during the reign of Jeroboam II, who ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel as co-regent with his father Jehoash from 793 to 782 BC, then individually to 753 BC.  Hosea then continued to minister during the reigns of the last six kings of the Northern Kingdom from Zechariah (753–752 BC) to Hoshea (732–722 BC).  The kingdom was then conquered and the Jews exiled by the Assyrians.  It is thought by some that Hosea died before the final battles and exile, while some others suggest he may have continued to minister for the first several years of the exile.

Hosea is probably best known for the descriptive account of his marriage to an unfaithful wife, under instructions from God.  His marriage to his wife Gomer pictured the current relationship between the righteous God and the adulterous people who were constantly chasing after and courting the various false gods of the native Canaanites.  God even selected names for Hosea’s children to further illustrate His relationship with the unfaithful people (1:2-9).  Thus the first son was named Jezreel, since the kingdom would be conquered in the decisive battle in the Valley of Jezreel.  Incidentally, the valley has been the site of many historical epic battles, and will be the location of the final future battle of Armageddon.  The couple’s next child was a daughter named Lo-Ruhamah meaning “not loved”.  This signified that the Lord was about to withdraw the covenant favors that He had lavished on His people.  Finally, the third child was a son to be named Lo-Ammi meaning “not my people”, thus a reversal of the covenant promise that “I will be their God and you will be My people”.  Finally, Hosea’s faithful love and forgiveness of his wayward wife illustrated God’s love for His wayward people, with continuing offers of forgiveness if they would only return to the Him as the only true God.

Although Hosea offered a few words here and there for the Southern Kingdom of Judah, he ministered primarily to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, sometimes referred to as “Ephraim”, since that was the name of their largest tribe.  Based on the many references to the history and geography, and a reference to the king of Israel as “our king” (7:5), it appears that Hosea lived in the northern kingdom.  See the historical books of 2nd Kings 14-20 and 2nd Chronicles 26-32 for additional information about this period.

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Historical Background and Timeline

The book of Hosea chronicles the prophetic ministry of Hosea from approximately 755 to 753 BC, or possibly a few years later.  It began during the final few years of the long reign of Jeroboam II and ended shortly before the fall and exile of the Northern Tribes of Israel at the hand of the Assyrians in 722 BC.  See the historical books of 2nd Kings 14-20 and 2nd Chronicles 26-32 for additional information about this period of time.

During this period, Israel was generally enjoying a fairly stable time of both political peace and material prosperity.  Despite being an evil king, Jeroboam was a very capable political leader who expanded the boundaries of Israel to an extent not seen since the glorious days of David and Solomon (2 Kgs 14:23–28).  Unfortunately by contrast, it was also a time of great social injustice (as described by the Prophet Amos, a contemporary of Hosea), moral corruption and spiritual bankruptcy.  Thus, after Jeroboam II’s death in 753 BC, Israel promptly declined into anarchy.  Four of her next six kings were assassinated by their successors.  Spiritually, the nation was polluted by the Canaanite rituals that included Baal worship, fertility rituals, prostitution, and other detestable practices.  The warnings of Hosea, like his contemporary prophet Isaiah, were essentially ignored, until God was forced to fulfill the prophecies and allow the nation to be exiled.

See Chronology of the Monarchy Timeline for additional info.

~ 1446 BC Ten Commandments and other Laws at Mt Sinai - Birth of the Nation of Israel
931 BC Division of the Kingdom into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah
793-753 BC Jeroboam II King of Israel
~765-750 BC Amos Prophet of Judah to Israel
~755-715 BC Hosea Prophet of Israel
~740-685 BC Isaiah Prophet of Israel
722 BC Israel Conquered and Exiled by Assyrians

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The primary theme and purpose of the book is to provide a record of the prophetic ministry of Hosea during the decades leading up to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to Assyria.  The prophet explains the reasons why God would allow Israel to fall, and yet the prophet also foretells of their future restoration in Judah.  Other prominent themes are God’s holiness and sovereignty.  Another dominant theme is that of marital infidelity which is illustrated by Hosea’s relationship with his wife Gomer, that ultimately pictures the relationship between God and His adulterous people.  Furthermore, the people continually ignored Hosea calling them back to a faithful covenant relationship with God.

The overarching theological theme running throughout the book is grounded in the Mosaic covenant that God made with Moses at Mt Sinai in the mid-fifteenth century BC (see Exodus chapters 19-24).  Further covenant instructions were given throughout Leviticus and many restated to the next generation of Israelites in the book of Deuteronomy.  A key element of the covenant was God stating that “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12).  The covenant also contained promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Dt 28).  He had called the Israeli people out of Egyptian bondage and led them into the Promised Land.

Yet, even though God was steadfast in His loyalty to the covenant, his people had a history of almost continual disobedience to its terms.  She pursued false gods and relied on both her own military strength and forbidden foreign alliances for her protection.  As we’ve mentioned, the book distinctively pictures this spiritual adultery using the example of Gomer’s infidelity.

Hosea’s theology is rooted in the past acts of the Lord in behalf of His people. He called Israel out of Egypt (11:1), and He cared for the nation in the wilderness (11:3, 4).  The Lord then settled and secured Israel in the land of Canaan.  He served as the divine husband to His wife, Israel (2:16).  Thus, at the very heart of God’s relationship with Israel was God’s fidelity, faithfulness, and keeping of the covenant.  The Lord never wavered in His covenant loyalty to Israel.

On the other hand, Israel had a history of continual infidelity to the covenant.  She pursued “her lovers” (2:7) by going after other gods repeatedly.  She went so far as to “hire lovers” (8:9), an act that compares Israel’s idolatry to an act of prostitution.  Israel violated the terms of the covenant again and again (4:2; 8:1).  This concept of idolatry as adultery is vividly symbolized in the primary imagery of the book, which concerns the infidelity of Hosea’s wife.  Yet God continued to call His people Israel back to repentance through the messages of His prophets.  Indeed, Hosea’s final message was a calling of the people back to repentance and to renewal of the covenant (14:1–9).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

By far, the most commonly debated topic of the book concerns the marriage of Hosea to Gomer as described in the first three chapters.  The questions typically involve the genre of the writing, the debate over the chastity of Gomer at the time of the marriage, and the relationship between the narratives in the first and third chapters.  We’ll attempt to address each in turn.

As we’ve previously explained, the marriage of Hosea and Gomer is historically symbolic of the relationship between a faithful God, represented by Hosea, and an adulterous people, represented by Gomer.  The debate centers on whether the marriage was historical or merely an allegory.  We strongly believe the marriage was historical for a number of reasons.  First, although almost all of the prophetical utterances of God and Hosea throughout the book are written in Hebrew poetry, but the account of the marriage (chapters 1 and 3) are written in straightforward prose.  Thus the narrative itself suggests that the account is literal history. 

If this was an allegory, it would be unique since there is no record in the Bible of a prophet ever making himself the subject of an allegory.  However, it was common for the Hebrew prophets to demonstrate their prophecy by “acting out” their message.  This practice is sometimes referred to as “prophetic actions”, “sign acts” or other similar terms.  For example, God instructed Isaiah to “Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.” And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot (Is 20:2) for three years as a warning to Cush (Ethiopia) and Egypt that they would be led into captivity, naked and afraid, by Assyria (Is 20:1-4).  On another occasion, God told the prophet Jeremiah to buy a clay pot and smash it to illustrate how God would “smash” Judah for their constant disobedience and rebellion (Jer 19).  In Ezekiel 4, God commands the prophet to perform a number of tasks as signs, including baking bread over cow dung to signal the coming famine and hardships due to the impending Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem.  Of course, this practice of acting out prophecy was not just confined to the typical prophets.  One of the best known prophetic actions involved the patriarch Abraham, when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, the son of the promise.  God stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a ram as a substitute for the sacrifice, symbolizing the ultimate  sacrifice for all by Christ on the cross.

Many who lean toward the allegorical theory do so because they object to the idea that God would instruct Hosea to marry a prostitute.  It is likely however, that Gomer was celibate at the time that she married Hosea, and only turned unfaithful afterward.  God’s command to “go marry a promiscuous woman...” (1:2) can be taken prophetically, since God knew the type of woman that she would become.  Statements in Scripture, particularly prophetic ones, often speak of future events in the present rather than the future tense since the outcome is certain (see Interpreting Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature for additional information).

Others attempt to solve the apparent “problem” by suggesting chapter three is a different marriage than in chapter one, that is, chapter one speaks of marriage to a chaste woman and chapter three of his marriage to unfaithful Gomer.  The first verse in chapter three clearly refutes this.  The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress...”.  The key word is “again”, making it clear that this is the same wife as in chapter one.  In addition, the concept of Hosea having two marriages would completely corrupt the allegory of Gomer representing the Israeli people.  The people were considered chaste at the formation of the nation at Mt Sinai, but they later walked away from God.  This interpretation would also have pictured God eventually rejecting Israel and adopting another nation from which to bring the Messiah.  Some might argue that Israel was rejected and replaced by the Gentiles, but that has no biblical support.  God has never, and never would permanently reject His chosen people.  Regenerated people from all other nations are grafted into the believing remnant of Israel (Rm 11:1-32).

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The Book of Hosea can be broken down into two sections.  The first three chapters contain the story of Hosea’s wife and family as a symbolic picture of Israel’s historic dealings with God.  Chapters 4-14 contain God’s messages (via Hosea) of warnings and promises to Israel.

1:1 - 2:1 Hosea’s Wife and Children
2:2 - 2:23 Adultery of Hosea’s Wife
3:1 - 3:15 Restoration of Hosea’s Wife
4:1 - 5:15 Coming Judgment against Israel
6:1 - 6:3 Calling Israel to Repentance
6:4 - 7:16 Israel’s Adultery against God
8:1 - 8:14 Israel to Reap the Whirlwind
9:1 - 10:15 Coming Exile of Israel
11:1 - 11:11 God’s Unending Love for Israel Despite her Rebellion
11:12 - 12:14 Israel’s and Judah’s History of Rebellion
13:1 - 13:16 Worshiping Idols and Rejecting the One True God
14:1 - 14:9 Promise of Blessings and Restoration for Repentance

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