By Barnard C. Taylor
Parallel reading: 2 Kings'9 to 17; Amos; Jonah; Ezekiel 23.
1. Date and Occasion
In the title of the book the time of the prophecy is put during the reign of Jeroboam of Israel, where the prophet worked, and of four kings of Judah, Uzziah to Hezekiah. These are named probably to help indicate more definitely the character of the times of Hosea. Jeroboam died about 745 B. C, and it is likely that Hosea began his career in the latter part of this reign. It is not certain how late he continued to prophesy. Hezekiah of Judah ascended the throne not before 726.
Hosea thus belongs to the Assyrian period. The fall of Samaria was not far in the future. (722.) The reign of Jeroboam was a remarkable one because of the extensive power reached by Israel under this king, and because of the excessive wickedness that resulted from the luxury of the times. The sway of Israel had been no wider at any time since the reign of Solomon. The Syrian power was checked, and Assyria had been going through one of her periods of decline in power. The Israelites were rich and living in ease. They gave themselves up to the gratification of sensuous appetites. They became greedy for gain, and selfish avarice ruled everywhere. They forsook Jehovah even more completely than they had before, and adopted all forms of idolatry. Crime of every sort prevailed, and the greedy rich used their strength to oppress the defenseless poor. It would not be easy to exaggerate the depth of wickedness reached by the Israelites at this time. The two chief national characteristics were idolatry and oppression.
In studying Hosea it must also be kept in mind that the punishment so long threatened was near at hand. For centuries the sins of the people had been accumulating. There were no prospects of reform. Israel was confronted by destruction, though she refused to see it.
Assyria was about to enter upon that last great period of empire sway under the reign of Tiglath-pileser III. Had Israel remained faithful to Jehovah she might have escaped this terrible power, but she was to be swept from her land within a few years.
2. The Chief Work of Hosea
Although the northern tribes had separated from the kingdom of Judah, and established a kingdom of their own, they still called themselves the people of Jehovah, and continued to be treated as such. Their use of the name of Jehovah seems to have been little more than a formal title to distinguish themselves from the nations worshiping other gods, for they had adopted almost all forms of idolatry, while they kept the name of Jehovah. During most of the history of the kingdom of Israel the prophetic class was active in the endeavor to secure fidelity to Jehovah. These prophets were more numerous in the north than in the south. Elijah and Elisha belonged to Israel, the northern kingdom. The tribes of the north were not cut off from being God’s chosen people when they revolted from Rehoboam. Jehovah’s care over them and love for them were constantly manifested.
The work to which Hosea was called was that of reproving, condemning, threatening. He shows that Israel’s condemnation is all the more certain, and clearly just, because they have despised the love of Jehovah which had been so abundant. Hosea was not only to threaten the Israelites with the punishment that was at hand, but was especially to show that this chiefly resulted because they had despised God’s love. Thus his work was to warn and to interpret, and both the warning and the interpretation were for the permanent teaching that God loves man, and that he will punish sin.
3. The Chief Thought of Hosea
Hosea has been called the prophet of love. He does make prominent the fact of Jehovah’s great love for his people, but the most of his book is devoted to the description of the sins of the Israelites and the punishment that would come. The love of God is used as a background for destruction, and the destruction would be all the greater because the love was so great.
The figure of speech that appears so often and so prominently in Hosea is that of the marriage relation. Jehovah is the husband, Israel is the wife. The husband loved; the wife was untrue. The spiritual adultery of Israel would be punished by exile. But Jehovah would take his people back in spite of their faithlessness, just as Hosea was commanded to love a woman who was an adulteress.
The principal truths that are found in Hosea occur in other prophets, though Israel’s sinning against the love of God is more emphasized here. So the figure of the marriage relation is used by other prophets, but it is more prominent in Hosea.
4. General Style of Hosea’s Writings
It is very likely that what we have in this book is for the most part abstracts of the addresses of the prophet. The style is exceedingly abrupt in places, and there is great difficulty in determining the connection of the thought. In part, it must be remembered that we have prophecies that belong to a number of years, and are not to expect a continuous thought through the book. Sometimes the present chapter divisions do not correspond to the real divisions of thought. Where the thought seems to be continuous, and is yet difficult to understand, it is often most helpful to seek the general course of the thought, and then determine the meaning and connection of each part. This often requires much study and careful thinking. In places the prophet changes to a thought that is suggested by some word or phrase that he has used in a different sense. The connection can be discovered, but it is not obvious. There is an illustration of this in ch. 7. The figure of the oven gives the ideas of heat, bread, eating, then the cake not fit for food, and the people eaten, devoured by the heathen.
5. The Chief Divisions of the Book
Only two divisions are evident: chs. 1 to 3, which are connected with the account of the marriage of the prophet; and chs. 4 to 14. This part of the book is not clearly divisible into minor parts. It is all of the same general character, and could all have been delivered at one time. Little help can be got from any attempt to group some of the chapters together.
6. The General Meaning of These Divisions
The account of the marriage of the prophet mentioned in ch. 1 is differently interpreted. Some think the marriage was actual; some think it an allegory. Most of those who think it actual believe that the woman Hosea married was either bad before he married her or became bad afterwards. Then ch. 3 is understood as showing that his wife left him, became the slave of another, and he bought her back at the command of Jehovah. Many of the reasons for this view are far-fetched. The slave idea is got from the claim that according to Exodus the price of a slave was thirty shekels, and according to 2 Kings 7:18 barley was worth a half-shekel per measure, and it is estimated that the woman Hosea bought cost thirty shekels, one half in money, the other in barley.
There is really no evidence that Hosea’s wife was a bad woman either before or after her marriage. It is clear from the context that the expression used in connection with her is suggested by the wicked conduct of the people. The children are named, just as were Isaiah’s, in order to teach the apostasy of Israel, and not because of anything wrong in them or in their mother, so far as the account shows. (See Isa. 7:3; 8:3; See Hastings’ H. D. B., art. “Hosea.”)
The idea of the faithless wife, meaning Israel, in ch. 2 is very full of meaning. The people had forsaken Jehovah and turned to Baal. They thought what they possessed was given by Baal as a reward for service. God says by the prophet that he will take away what he has given that Israel may realize that all came from him, and that they may turn back to him. This gives the key to the teaching of the book: Israel has been faithless, and punishment will be sent to bring back Jehovah’s people to himself. The certainty of the restoration is given along with the threat.
The general thought in chs. 4 and 5 is the excessive wickedness of the people, and the certainty of punishment. In most of this part the priests are regarded as leaders in sin. When they seek help from Assyria instead of from Jehovah, it will only result in a greater punishment. It was Jehovah who had bruised, and he only could deliver, or bind up. This pair of terms often occur together.
Words of confession and repentance are put into the mouths of the sinning people in the beginning of ch. 6. The rest of the chapter shows that the breaking of the covenant caused the desolation that was coming. And ch. 7 continues the same thought. They had sunken to the lowest depths of sin. They would be devoured. They might fly to Egypt or Assyria for help; they would be taken like birds in a net.
The trumpet sounds the alarm in ch. 8. An invader is coming like an eagle, or vulture, swooping down upon the nation. Instead of their idols saving them, they would be the cause of their destruction. The heathen to whom they look for help would devour. They treated with contempt the laws that God wrote for them, and so far as they have observed the law it was mere form. So instead of the sacrifices securing a removal of sin, their iniquity would still be remembered.
Ch. 9 contains threats of exile. They shall return to a condition of captivity, such as they experienced in Egypt, hence that country is here named, though it is declared that they shall go to Assyria. The great love of Jehovah for the people of Israel at the beginning of her course is here expressed. But all that was attractive shall perish.
In ch. 10 the course of thought is as follows: Israel has sinned in proportion to her prosperity; altars are many, and shall be destroyed; the very idols men trusted in shall be carried off with the rest; they have sinned from the first as at Gibeah. In ver. io the reference is probably to the two calves set up for worship. This suggests the figure of a heifer plowing, and this, the figure of sowing and reaping.
Ch. 11 starts with the thought that Jehovah had loved the people from the beginning, and had been calling to them ever since they came out of Egypt. He had been tenderly holding them. But because of their sins they shall go away into exile. The threat made long before that the land should be like the cities of the plain, shall now be fulfilled. Yet afterwards they shall be gathered again because of God’s great love and unswerving purpose.
The thought in ch. 12 is the weakness and poverty of the Israelites in their origin, as illustrated by the history of their ancestor Jacob, the goodness of God shown in all that he had done for them, and the punishment that shall result from their sin.
So in ch. 13 the wickedness of Israel in turning to worship idols is put in strong contrast with the fact that Jehovah had taken the people for his own, and there was no other that could help. The expression in v. 14 is better understood as a threat than a promise, because all the context is threat. Death and the grave are summoned to destroy.
After all the terrible threats in the most of the book, the promise of the wonderful favor of God in ch. 14 is all the more emphatic. They will turn from their false gods, and Jehovah will love them freely. The beautiful figures of the lily and the Lebanon are used to portray the blessed condition of Israel once more faithful to Jehovah.