Tales of the Nevi'im - Hosea
The Tales of the Nevi’im are the Stories of the Prophets. In Hebrew navi (nah-vee') means prophet and the plural, prophets, is nevi'im (neh-vee-eem'). Israel had many prophets, some of whom we know from the Old Testament, others are lost to us in history. Many of Israel's prophets spoke to the people but didn't write anything down, likely because their message was meant for a specific people and time. Others proclaimed a message meant to instruct us as well. God spoke his word through these men for all people for all times, and we read them today as the books of the prophets in our Bibles. This series will explore their stories and message.
The Story of Hosea
After the death of king Solomon, the unity of the Israelites came to an end. In 930 BC the ten northern tribes formed the kingdom of Israel and the two southern tribes became the kingdom of Judah. Over the next three hundred years the Israelites were under the rule of Egypt, the great power to their south, or one of the many empires which came and went to the north.
The story of the prophet Hosea takes place in the latter half of the 8th century BC. Hosea's context played a really important role in his ministry. In order to understand his message, we need to spend a few minutes understanding the kind of turmoil that had taken place in Israel right before he came on the scene. Hosea was prophesying after the fall of the Northern Empire. Here's how it happened.The Assyrian empire, occupying the modern lands of Iraq and Iran, was the dominant power in the Middle East at this time. In the northern kingdom of Israel, a king named Jeroboam II (793-753 BC) took advantage of Assyria’s internal political problems to conquer Syria to his north. This conquest brought a brief age of prosperity to Israel. But as so often happens, prosperity lead to a process of moral decay.
In the middle of the 8th century, a new Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BC) assumed the throne (I keep waiting for this to come back as a popular baby name!). He began to reestablish Assyrian dominance throughout the region. His military campaigns were so successful that Assyrian monarchs would rule over the Middle East for the next century.
At the same time, Israel’s age of prosperity was coming to an end. Following the death of Jeroboam II in 753 BC political turmoil engulfed the nation. The next king, Zechariah, was murdered after only six months in office. His successor Shallum was assassinated just one month later. Next, Menahem and his son Pekahiah ruled from 752-740 but paid huge annual tributes to the Assyrians in exchange for securing their throne. Eventually an army officer named Pekah assassinated Pekahiah and became king, only to be killed by Hoshea. Whew! I think that makes our American political scene look a little more tame by comparison!
King Hoshea has the dubious distinction of being the last king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Hoshea fancied himself a statesman and made some political and military alliances against Assyria. Unfortunately, he was no Henry Kissinger and during his reign, in 722 BC, the Assyrians invaded the land and Israel’s people were lead away to slavery and exile in foreign lands. The ten northern tribes of Israel faded into the pages of history, from then on to be known as the ten lost tribes of Israel.
The prophet Hosea, like his contemporaries Jonah and Amos, spoke God’s word to Israel during this time of political turmoil and spiritual decay. While Jonah took God’s message of warning to Assyria, Hosea and Amos were sent to remind Israel of the vows she had made to God.
Being a prophet was not an easy job. We often think of the prophets as preachers of God’s message, and that is often the case. In the book of Hosea, chapters 4 through 14 are this kind of message – a warning to Israel; a beautiful message in the form of poetry. But God had an even more graphic lesson to teach Israel and He used Hosea’s life to do it. In chapter 1, the word of the Lord came to Hosea saying, “Go, take to yourself a wife of prostitution and have children of prostitution, for the land commits great unfaithfulness by forsaking the Lord.”
Now wait a minute. Can you imagine Hosea’s answer? “Lord, pardon me, but I thought I heard you say that I should find a prostitute, marry her and have children.” “That’s right,” said the Lord. “Israel has committed spiritual adultery. Perhaps she can be shocked into coming to her senses.” In one of the great testimonies to faith, the Scripture says Hosea did what God told him to do. He married a prostitute named Gomer. Their first child was named Jezreel, after the valley of Jezreel, to signify the place where the Assyrians would eventually destroy Israel. The account goes on, “She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, ‘Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all.’” And finally, “When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the Lord said, ‘Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.’”
Have you ever heard more chilling words? Israel’s spiritual infidelity cost her the protection, mercy, and intimate relationship with God. From the time Israel entered the promised land, the land called Canaan, God warned them about worshipping the idols of the neighboring people. In times of trouble, Israel turned to God but in this time of prosperity, Israel began to flirt with the gods of the Canaanites, in particular a god named Baal. Baal was the Canaanite god of fertility, thought to provide rain and agricultural prosperity. Baal worship became associated with sexual immorality – basically encouraging temple prostitution as an act of worship. It was a temptation that had plagued Israel ever since entering the land. How appropriate that God used the image of prostitution to refer to Israel’s spiritual infidelity!
But Hosea’s story isn’t finished. It seems that sometime after this Gomer appears to have left Hosea and the children and returned to her life of prostitution. In chapter 3 we read, “And the Lord said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.’ So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley.” [Note: You may be asking, what’s wrong with eating raisin cakes? In itself, nothing. These were likely eaten as part of a ritual to another god and hence represent their worship of other gods.]
I hope that by now you are realizing just how much faith Hosea placed in God. He probably did not completely understand the point of purchasing his wife out of the slavery she’d returned to, but he was obedient. Did Gomer deserve this? Of course not! And that’s what makes the story so attention-grabbing. It fascinates us, but doesn’t satisfy our curiosity because the Bible ends the story of Hosea and Gomer at this point!
As so often happens in the Bible, God engages our hearts and minds in the story and just as we are on the edge of our seats, waiting to see what happens next, He turns the book around and invites us into the story. As we look to find our place in the story, the lessons God is teaching come to life.
Lessons and Themes
Israel’s idolatry is described as spiritual adultery. God uses the shocking image of unfaithfulness in marriage to describe idolatry. In Hosea, Israel is variously described as a promiscuous wife, a neglectful mother and an ungrateful son. These images get our attention because they represent breaking the most intimate and important relationships we know. When we flirt with the idols of our contemporary society, money-security-sex-power, do we realize the seriousness with which God regards it?
The Book of Hosea is a mirror in which we see ourselves. Hosea’s story was meant to convict faithless Israel. As we look deeply into this book, we come to realize that in many ways, we are like Israel. As Romans 3:23 states, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We realize that spiritually, we are like unfaithful Gomer, running back to the life that enslaved her. Jesus, like Hosea, paid the price for us when we least deserved it.
Hosea’s life reinforced his message. Chapters 4 through 14 are an eloquent critique of Israel’s behavior and the danger they were facing in turning away from God. Read it and you will see that there are many memorable and poignant verses. But when we combine Hosea’s life with his message – wow! God’s loving invitation to Israel to turn back could not be made any clearer, in word or deed.
Hosea is a parallel to Jesus. Unlike the prophet Jonah, who showed us what Jesus is not, Hosea models Jesus’ obedience to God. When Hosea buys his own wife out of slavery and takes her back home, we see one of the Bible’s most beautiful pictures of Jesus. As the apostle Paul explains in Romans 5:6-8, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Questions for Further Reflection/Discussion:
Compare the statement in Hosea 8:7 with Galatians 6:7-8. What principle is God communicating? What are the implications of this for our spiritual lives?
Read Hosea 4:12. God describes the folly of looking to idols to meet our needs. We no longer ask carved pieces of wood for life guidance, yet we rely on our own modern idols nonetheless. What are some of the idols we consult for answers to the problems in our lives?
Hosea’s life, as much or more than his words, became his message. How do you feel about God using Hosea’s personal life to send a warning to Israel? Do you think God wants to use our lives in a similar way? Does that scare you?
Terry Feix is the Executive Pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City and a regular writer at So We Speak. Follow him @TerryFeix on Twitter.
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