Foundational to Hosea's message and teaching about God are his marriage to Gomer and her departure after the birth of three children. The opening surprise of the book is that God initiated Hosea's marriage to this harlot ( 1:2 ); but the greater, unexpected surprise is that he tells Hosea to find his adulterous wife, bring her back, and love her again ( 3:1-2 ). Hosea's personal tragedy speaks to readers at the deepest level, moving them emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
Hosea's theology brings together an awareness of God as holy ( Hosea 11:9 Hosea 11:1 ) and sovereign ( 12:5 ) with an appreciation for his actions as husband ( 2:16 ) and parent ( 11:1-4 ) toward his people. Hosea's theology is not remotely theoretical but grows out of a grassroots understanding of his people as illustrated by frequent allusions to historical events and places and his personal involvement.
The details of Hosea's marriage begin the book but are quickly dropped as the focus shifts away from the personal life of Hosea to the relationship between God and Israel. Immortalized in this event that transcends culture are the message and emotions of God. The love, care, and feelings of God for his people as he calls for their return in the face of imminent judgment are a major part of Hosea's theology.
Fueling the symbolism of Hosea's marriage was the covenant, which provided a legal form for the expression and governance of the relationship God desired with his people. For Israel it provided a blueprint for the historical foundation of their faith and gave tangible evidence for God's requirements. At the same time it provided God with an acceptable witness to their loyalty and love. The Book of Hosea is a commentary on that relationship. It moves from the heights of an intimate knowledge, symbolized by marriage and paternal love, to the depths of anguish and despair over Israel's apostasy and idolatry as pictured by the adultery of Gomer.
The love of God for his people is more graphically portrayed by Hosea than any other Old Testament prophet. Refusing to give up on Israel, God continued to seek their return even in their apostate condition. Judgment and exile would come but restoration and future hope were always in sight. Israel would not be annihilated like the cities around Sodom but preserved ( 11:8-9 ).
God's continual provision for his people was further evidence of his love. Hosea likens God's care for Israel to that of a parent who daily provides for a child. In one of the most moving images in the book God depicts his paternal care for Israel when he says, "I bent down to feed them" ( 11:4 ). Through Hosea's life and message we see the strength of God's feeling for Israelhis compassion ( 11:8 ), his love ( 11:4 ), and his longing to be with them ( 7:13 ).
Yet, while glimmers of hope permeate the prophet's oracles God's judgment is given a more prominent place in his theology. After years of waywardness God was going to scatter the Israelites among the nations whose gods they served. In keeping with previous revelation the Lord would not allow his people to continue to violate their relationship with him. Just as an adulteress was stripped naked and expelled from her house ( Hosea 2:3 Hosea 2:10 ) so too the land would be denuded of God's blessings ( 2:9-12 ; 9:2 ) and its people sent into exile ( 5:14 ; 9:15-17 ). The graciousness and mercy of God did not include ignoring sin!
Hosea's understanding of sin and its effects upon people is vividly presented through his own marriage and the list of crimes levied against his people. Enumerated are social, moral, political, and religious evils ( 4:2 ; 6:9 ; 7:1 ; 12:1 ). Attention is called to Israel's pride ( 5:5 ; 7:10 ), false trust ( 5:13 ; 8:14 ; 10:13 ), and violent actions ( 4:2 ; 6:9 ; 12:1 ). Paramount, however, was their neglected and broken relationship with God.
Impending judgment was a result of their breaking the covenant. Punishment was outlined in the covenant stipulations, which they had violated at every turn. Just as Jacob of old ( 12:2 ) they would reap the disaster of their ways ( 4:9 ; 8:7 ; 10:13 ). God sent his prophets to warn the people ( 6:5 ; 12:10 ), but eventually he allowed an enemy to conquer them and devastate the land ( 10:14 ; 13:16 ) with none to deliver them ( 13:10 ). Even future generations would be affected by their sin ( 4:14 ; Hosea 4:11-12 Hosea 4:16 ).
Hosea focuses on Israel's accountability with specific reference to the covenant requirements. The covenant blessings and curses ( Deut 28 ) as well as the required reading of the law ( Deut 31:10-13 ) were constant reminders of the people's obligation to the Lord. Despite God's warnings to the contrary Israel forgot God ( 2:13 ; 4:6 ). Turning away from God they took the fruits of the land and offered them to pagan idols, eventually attributing the source of these blessings to the gods of Canaan ( 2:8 ; 11:1 ). In contrast to Israel's unfaithfulness Hosea presents God as one who remembers and provides for Israel.
A major theological theme developed by the prophet is the concept of the knowledge of God. Hosea uses this concept to show the extent of God's relationship with his people and its reciprocal nature. The verb "to know" reflects both the intimacy of a relationship and mutual recognition on the part of suzerain and vassal. God's legal case against Israel was that there was "no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land" ( 4:1 ). But this was not a passive situation. Israel had willfully rejected the knowledge of God and would be judged accordingly ( Hosea 1:1 Hosea 4:6 ). The key to the knowledge of God was obedience that came from the heart. God's reminder "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" ( 6:6 ) confirmed that their religious practices were without proper motivation and therefore worthless.
While God knew Israel ( 5:3 ) in the closeness of a relationship that could be imaged by marriage, Israel no longer knew God ( 2:8 ; 11:3 ). Their actions led them farther away from God ( 4:6 ; 5:4 ) and although they thought they still knew him ( 8:2 ) their actions proved otherwise. God announced his judgment so that Israel would realize the consequences ( 9:7-9 ). In the end, however, God's love would triumph by bringing back Israel to himself as Hosea did Gomer, by paying a price. Israel would once again know the Lord ( 2:20 ).
Undoubtedly the most blatant rejection of God was Israel's idolatry. It distorted their thinking and ultimately replaced God with another ( 4:11-12 ). Gomer's adulterous affairs provided penetrating images of Israel's apostasy and revealed the hurt and disaster associated with idolatryhurt suffered by God and disaster suffered by the people since the eventual outcome led to exile and destruction.
Fueled by a fertility cult religion Israel's neighbors linked productivity of the land, animals, and people with their gods. Caught up in the rituals of this fertility cult Israel attributed the gifts of God to pagan gods ( 2:8 ). Years of participation led them so far from the Lord that they could not return. They had developed a spirit of prostitution in their hearts ( 5:4 ; cf. 4:12 ). Altars and idols were proliferated ( Hosea 8:4 Hosea 8:11 ), with special emphasis on the bull ( 8:5-6 ; 10:5 ; 13:2 ). Hosea understands idolatry's grip upon the people. Their pride and arrogance caused them to pursue it more vehemently. They multiplied altars and alliances, which drove them farther from God ( 5:4-5 ). In an inescapable spiral this path led them even farther away from God ( 11:2 ) until they completely corrupted themselves ( 9:10 ). God, however, would not force them to return ( 4:17 ), but sadly watched as they withdrew from him ( 4:17 ; 11:8 ).
By emphasizing Israel's idolatry Hosea underscores both the waywardness of Israel and the jealousy of God. Having chosen, cared for, and entered into a special relationship with his people, God would accept no rival, especially the emptiness of idolatry. In the end God would destroy their idols ( 10:2 ).
Predating the parable of the prodigal son Hosea portrays Israel as realizing that the best days were those spent close to God ( Hosea 2:7 Hosea 2:15 ). Israel had been taught the way back and the mercy of God ( 6:1-3 ), but they were blinded by arrogance and adultery ( Hosea 7:10 Hosea 7:16 ; 11:7 ). Instead of moving back to God they went to their idols and formed alliances with Egypt and Assyria ( 7:11 ; 11:5 ).
For the most part God's endeavors to reach them went unheeded. Israel's half-hearted attempts to return were met by his absence ( 4:17 ; 5:6 ). True repentance was to be evidenced by internal ( 7:14 ) and external change ( 14:2-3 ). God wanted actioncovenant loyalty that evidenced kindness in action, justice at all levels, and a knowledge that portrayed the Lord's righteousness ( 6:6 ; 10:12 ; 12:6 )but Israel offered insincerity and rejected God ( 6:4 ; 8:2-3 ).
Hosea never waivers from his understanding of the Lord as sovereign. God was in control of the situation rather than Israel and certainly not their impotent idols. Hosea effectively brings out the tension God felt as he agonized over the demands of his holiness and his love for his people. This is portrayed by Hosea with surprising force when the Lord says: "My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused" ( 11:8 ). God's justice meant that he would bring judgment upon them; his holiness meant that it was inescapable. But judgment, applied by a gracious Lord, is also discipline and effective discipline seeks restoration rather than alienation so God worked to restore his people to himself ( 2:12 ). In language reminiscent of a lover Hosea presents God as alluring and speaking tenderly to Israel to affect her return ( 2:14 ).
Hosea's eschatology is built upon the covenant relationship as administered by a sovereign Lord. The oscillation between hope and the certain judgment parallels the tension God feels between loving and judging his people. God's love, so powerfully illustrated by Hosea, reached beyond the people's stubborn rebellion and offered a future hope. But Hosea does not play God against himself. He presents restoration as God's planned goal in light of Israel's repentance, a repentance nurtured and won by God ( 2:14-16 ).
Restoration, however, depended upon genuine confession ( 5:15 ) and repentance ( 6:1-3 ). In its full form restoration would bring both physical and spiritual blessings. Hosea envisioned a new betrothal ( 2:19 ) and a new relationship ( 1:10 ; 2:16 ) that would produce the true covenant fruit of righteousness, justice, love, compassion, and knowledge ( 2:19-20 ). Material blessings of peace ( 2:18 ), unity ( 1:10-11 ), and productivity of the land ( 2:21-22 ) would also characterize this new relationship. Although judgment was inevitable God desired restoration reaching even to the grave ( 13:14 ).
Attempts to sever from the prophet's words the message of hope and the invitation to return that concludes the book have not effectively dealt with the continuity of its perspective. The allusions to a new, restored relationship so strongly portrayed in Hosea's marriage and by the names of his children are effectively balanced at the end of the book, which encloses the judgment of God within the parameters of his love and mercy. The people were challenged to understand that their salvation was only in God ( 13:4 ), anticipating the full scope of God's redemption through Christ.
Robert D. Spender
Bibliography. F. Anderson and D. N. Freedman, Hosea; H. L. Ellison, The Prophets of Israel; D. A. Hubbard, Hosea; H. B. Huffmon, BASOR 181 (1966): 31-37; D. Kidner, Love to the Loveless; J. L. Mays, Hosea; N. H. Snaith, Mercy and Sacrifice; J. O. Strange, Rev Exp 82 (1967): 437-48; D. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Hosea, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".