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by John Dummelow
1. The Man and his Message. The book of Hosea is for several reasons one of exceptional interest. With that of Amos, his older contemporary, it marks the beginning of literary, as distinct from purely oral, prophecy. By this is not meant that Hosea was a composer in the sense that the word would be applied to a Macaulay or a Bishop Butler; but that his discourses, some or all of them at first delivered orally, were afterwards written down in a collected form, together with such incidents of his life as had a direct bearing upon his teaching. This fact is of great importance. We know that Elijah and Elisha exercised a great influence upon the religious history of their time; but we can only to a small extent gauge that influence, because we can form only a crude notion of what their teaching was really like. It is their acts, rather than their words, which claim the reader’s interest. With Hosea it is very different. It is impossible not to see that he was a living force; and if his actual influence was not great, that was due to no weakness or omission on his part, but to the fatuity and moral degradation of the people.
Like Amos Hosea was a prophet to the northern kingdom, but unlike him he was also a prophet of the north. His sympathy was unquestionably with Israel: the fortunes of Judah have only a subordinate interest for him. His mission was to check, if possible, the growing corruption of morals, religion, and politics; and to rouse the nation to repentance, in order to ward off the impending catastrophe. The nation had acquired great prosperity and wealth under Jeroboam II; but these, without moral character and religious purity, only tended to disruption and decline.
What gives quite a unique and pathetic interest to the book is the personal history of the prophet, and its influence on the form which his early and, to some extent, all his teaching took. Other prophets performed various symbolical acts to explain or enforce their teaching (see e.g. Isaiah 20:2-3; Jeremiah 13:1; Ezekiel 4), but Hosea’s domestic life was itself an acted parable. Sweet and noble as that life was, its importance, as the prophet understood it, lay not in itself, but in the religious truth which it symbolically expressed. In early life he married a woman who proved a faithless wife, and he seems to have made many fruitless efforts to reclaim her (Hosea 1:2-3).
After bearing him three children, to whom he gave symbolic names, she deserted him for her lovers (Hosea 2:2). So forbearing was he, however, that he redeemed her for the price of a slave (Hosea 3:1), and tried to win her back to purity and love by gentle restraint (Hosea 3:3).
As Hosea looked abroad on the idolatry and wickedness of his time, he realised that ’the state was the individual writ large,’ and that here was being repeated on a larger scale his own domestic tragedy. In Gomer’s unfaithfulness to him, he saw a parable of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God; in his own love and tenderness, he saw the reflection of God’s love to Israel; and in his own forgiveness and continued efforts for his wife’s salvation, he saw a parallel to Jehovah’s loving-kindness and tender mercy towards the faithless nation (Hosea 3:3-5). Israel, the paramour of heathen gods, had been wooed and wedded by Jehovah, but had proved faithless, going back again to idols, and coquetting with foreign powers. But ever and again, and now most of all, Jehovah was seeking to win the nation back; even though, as with Gomer, a painful discipline might be necessary (Hosea 4:1-4).
Tenderness may, in fact, be described as the keynote of Hosea’s prophecy. It was a necessary attribute of God, without which He would not be true to Himself. Those who imagine that the God of the Old Testament is only a God of justice and wrath might well study this book attentively.
Though we find no such definite Messianic pictures as those of Isaiah, more than once the prophet foretells the restoration of Israel from captivity, the union of Israel and Judah in one kingdom under a Davidic king, and the establishment of a purer worship and a fuller knowledge of God, as constituting a glorious hope. This hope appears sometimes as imminent, as succeeding a short period of captivity, or even as an alternative to it; sometimes as belonging to a far-off, or possibly ideal, future: see especially Hosea 1:10-11; Hosea 3:5; Hosea 6:1-3; Hosea 14:4-8. St. Paul explains some of Hosea’s prophecies as fulfilled in the Christian church: see Romans 9:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55.
The style of the book is very terse and difficult, and marked by rapid changes of thought and feeling. In some cases it may be conjectured that we have before us fragments of teaching, rather than complete discourses. In many verses the meaning is so obscure that the explanations offered must be regarded as far from certain. In some few no really satisfactory explanation has been yet given, and that partly because our knowledge of many of the events alluded to is very meagre.
2. The Historical Situation. Hosea lived and prophesied in the last period of the northern kingdom of Israel, and probably witnessed, perhaps even shared, the captivity. His work began in the closing years of Jeroboam II (782-741), and was continued under his successors: see Hosea 1:1. In Jeroboam’s hands the government was firm and stable, and the northern kingdom extended its boundaries as far as the borders of Hamath (2 Kings 14:25) on the north, and to the Dead Sea and ’the brook of the wilderness’ (Amos 6:14) on the south. The death of Jeroboam was followed by a period of anarchy and terror, which was only ended by the Assyrian captivity. Zechariah, the son of Jeroboam, reigned for only six months, when his career was closed by assassination at the hands of Shallum, an adventurer, who mounted the throne only to be slain and f succeeded a month later by Menahem, the general commanding the troops at Tirzah (2 Kings 15:10-14; Hosea 7:3-7). In order to strengthen his position, Menahem seems to have asked assistance from Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria (the Pul of 2 Kings 16:19), who took advantage of the weakness of the king’s position to claim a tribute. Menahem’s reign extended only over four or five years. He was succeeded by his son Pekahiah (2 Kings 15:23), who reigned two years when Pekah, one of his generals, murdered him in his palace and seized the throne. Pekah was probably the leader of the party in the state that was opposed to Menahem’s alliance with Assyria, and preferred to seek the aid of Assyria’s rival Egypt (Hosea 7:11). In 735 Pekah joined with Rezin of Damascus in an expedition against Ahaz, king of Judah (2 Kings 16:5; Isaiah 7:1-9). Ahaz invoked Assyrian aid, and Tiglath-pileser came to his assistance, ravaging Galilee and Gilead (2 Kings 15:29), and taking the inhabitants into captivity. Pekah, who had reigned for about three years, fell a victim to a conspiracy headed by Hoshea, whom the Assyrian ruler recognised as king. Hoshea ruled quietly for nine years (731-722); but, on the death of Tiglath-pileser, he entered into a conspiracy with Seve or So, king of Egypt, and ceased his tribute to Assyria. Shalmaneser, the new king of Assyria, thereupon invaded his territory, and laid siege to Samaria, which fell to his successor Sargon (722), when the kingdom of Israel came to an end.
3. Politics and Religion. There seem to have been two political parties in the kingdom of Israel in the latter years of the nation, just as there were in the kingdom of Judah, one of which favoured alliance with Assyria, the other alliance with Egypt and resistance to Assyria (Hosea 7:11). Sometimes one of these was in the ascendant and sometimes the other, but the prophets looked upon the policies of both parties as unfaithfulness to God (Hosea 8:9). Isaiah told the people of Judah that their true policy was to trust in Jehovah, and not entangle themselves in foreign bonds. The prophets of Israel took up a similar attitude, and maintained that every movement after outside help was a movement away from God, who would watch over them and preserve them, if they repented and put their trust in Him.
The religious condition was also extremely corrupt. Worship was offered to Jehovah at many high places throughout the land. These were probably in many cases the old Canaanite shrines, and it was but natural that when the Israelites first came into possession of the land they should worship Jehovah at the places where the Canaanites had worshipped their gods. In Hosea’s day Jehovah was worshipped at these high places. He was symbolised by the figure of a bull—the natural symbol to an agricultural people of life and power. Jeroboam I set up two such symbols, one at Bethel and one at Dan, where he established the northern Kingdom; and in all probability similar symbols were erected at other holy places: cp. Amos 4:4; Amos 5:5; Hosea 4:15; Hosea 5:10-15; Hosea 12:11. The temptation to combine the worship of Jehovah with elements borrowed from the worship of the Canaanite nature-gods was too strong for the Israelites, who had adopted many of the old religious festivals in celebration of the agricultural seasons.
Their familiarity with the worship of the Canaanite local deities or Baalim (Hosea 2:17) made the lapse into idolatry easy for them, especially as the Israelites were in the habit of addressing Jehovah as Baali (my Lord) (Hosea 2:16), a title innocent and proper enough in itself, but improper and dangerous in view of its heathen application. It was no great step from worshipping Jehovah symbolised by a bull to worshipping the bull-image as a symbol of the local Baal: consequently they came to identify Jehovah with the local deity, and assimilated the worship of God to the worship of the Baalim in such a way that the former was practically lost sight of, and they became to all intents and purposes idolaters (Hosea 2:5). ’For they served idols, whereof the Lord said unto them, Ye shall not do this thing’ (2 Kings 17:12). This worship of the bull-images (or ’calves,’ as AV renders) is the idolatry which Hosea so vehemently denounces (Hosea 4:12, Hosea 4:17; Hosea 8:5; Hosea 9:10; Hosea 10:1-2; Hosea 11:2; Hosea 13:1-2, Hosea 13:8).
The religious condition of the people was reflected in their moral state. The sanctuaries were scenes not only of idolatry, but of gross immorality. The whoredom and adultery of which Hosea speaks (Hosea 4:10-15; Hosea 5:3-4, etc.) are not only figurative of the departure of Israel from the service of God; they are also descriptive of actual moral degradation. The priests were men of no principle (Hosea 4:6); they let the people destroy themselves for lack of teaching (Hosea 4:6); they rejoiced at the sin of the people, because they benefited by their sin-offerings (Hosea 4:8); and they provided temptations to induce them to evil (Hosea 5:1). And so it came to pass, as the proverb has it, ’like people, like priest’ (Hosea 4:9). The worshippers were only too ready to abandon themselves to the sensual rites of debasing worship, and thus degradation and decay spread through the nation. ’The heathenish, secular worship and heathen immorality overpowered it, and brought about the premature dissolution of the state.’
4. Contents. The book falls into two parts.
1. Hosea 1-3 describe in different ways and at different stages the domestic tragedy of Hosea’s life and its symbolical interpretation.
2. Hosea 4-14 contain separate prophecies dealing with Israel’s moral, religious, and political faults, the impending calamity, and the possibility of averting it by repentance or recovering from it after punishment has done its work.
The first part belongs to the time of Jeroboam II (see Hosea 1:1), when the judgment had not yet overtaken the dynasty of Jehu (Hosea 1:4); the second, for the most part at least, to that of his immediate successors, but especially Menahem. There are passages which imply a change of dynasty effected by violence (cp. Hosea 8:4 and Hosea 7:5-7), a state of general disorder such as is naturally associated with a weak government (Hosea 4:10, Hosea 4:18; Hosea 6:8-10, etc.) and the heavy taxation exacted under Menahem (Hosea 7:9-11; Hosea 8:10).
the Second Week of Advent