The church has to go through varied conditions in its pilgrimage through this world. In Old Testament times there were days of success and favour as, for example, under David. There were also periods of persecution like that experienced when Ahab and Jezebel were ruling. There were eras too when God's people were tolerated by pagan powers though their liberties were curtailed, as in the times of Ezra, Nehemiah and beyond.
In our own day, in one part of the world the church may be flourishing numerically with crowded buildings, while in another it might be despised and neglected or even persecuted. At one time it may have great courage and integrity. At another it might be compromised by worldly ways and be tamely submissive to worldly rulers.
In Hosea's days the politics of northern Israel were murderously violent and conspiratorial. The economy was deceptively prosperous during the days of Jeroboam but dropped rapidly in subsequent years. Israel's social concern was non-existent so far as one can tell. At the root of the entire situation was corrupt, immoral and idolatrous religion. Hosea's message had to relate to the precise situation of his day. He does not simply give himself to systematic exposition of the Mosaic law. Rather, soaked in the truth of that law, he now presents his own message for the days in which he lives.
1. Each age needs God's spokesmen with their own distinctive message. We need men and women with a message from God which they will boldly and courageously press upon the people of God.
The book of Hosea begins with a title: The word of Yahweh that came to Hosea son of Been during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Joash king of Israel (1:1).
The five kings highlight the varied situations of Hosea's times. Uzziah was famous for the easy, prosperous days in which he lived, and for his formal, inherited religion, his negligence of God's ways, and his little achievement for God.
Jotham was famous for tinkering with small things while forgetting big things. The Assyrian threat was growing, but Jotham was refining the beauty of the temple (2 Kings 15:35-38), straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.
Ahaz was an unbelieving man who failed to learn the lessons of history. He sank to as low a level as any king of Judah had ever sunk, when he gave his son in human sacrifice (2 Kings 16:2-3), and he turned to the immoral worship of northern Israel (2 Kings 16:4).
Hezekiah loved God, hated idols, and was willing to get involved in actually making progress with God and for God. He removed high places, and broke down the apparatus that had been used in pagan worship. He was willing to do things that had never been done before. 'He trusted in the Lord God of Israel!' (2 Kings 18:5).
Jeroboam was famous for a long, prosperous reign badly used. He continued the idolatry of the first Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:24). His days were days of crime, immorality and injustice. Sanctuaries were crowded with worshippers but gods of fertility were worshipped. Decades of stability (790s to 750s) would be followed by decades of instability (750s to 720s) and the end of the nation. At the death of Jeroboam II (753 bc) the nation had only thirty years to survive. God did not want the nation to be totally exterminated without warning (2 Kings 2:27) and gave them another generation to consider their ways. Jeroboam's military success, like his economic success, was apt to promote self-confidence and nationalistic self-congratulation.
These were the situations in which Hosea proclaimed a God-given message.
2. God's spokesmen rebuke spiritual adultery. The opening verse also mentions Hosea himself. His central message was to warn about spiritual adultery. He was a man who had learned by very painful experience. His traumatic marriage was used in his life to get him to feel the burden of the spiritual unfaithfulness of Israel.
2 When Yahweh began to speak through Hosea, Yahweh said to Hosea, 'Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry and adopt children of harlotry, for the land is committing great harlotry and so is forsaking Yahweh' (1:2).
The most natural way to take these words (see my comments above, pp 12-13) is that Hosea's call to be a prophet came in connection with a call to marry an immoral woman who already had children as the result of her immoralities. It was a shocking command, but then the prophets were sometimes urged to do shocking things. It was not against the Mosaic law, although generally it would be exceedingly unwise. Marriage is the deepest union possible between two people. It is the most intensely personal relationship that there is. It involves feelings, emotions and, perhaps, resentments and jealousies. Everything about marriage is intensely intimate. It is even participation in each other's bodies. It is the joining together of interests and concerns. It is the producing together of children. It is loyalty. If a wife or husband says one word against the other in public, the other feels betrayed. It is extreme sensitivity.
What then is spiritual adultery? It is broken conversation. It is when God is no longer speaking to or listening to his people, and when his people are no longer listening or speaking to him. It is prayerlessness. It is broken loyalty. It is fractured and dissevered channels of fellowship. There is no pain like the pain of disloyalty within marriage, and in Hosea's day this was the way God felt about Israel. 'The land commits great harlotry and so is forsaking Yahweh.' The essential sin of Israel was spiritual unfaithfulness, 'forsaking the Lord' (1:2), disloyalty (9:1), forsaking the compassion of God and turning to violence. They turned to other 'lovers', the Canaanite gods (2:5), who were treated with affection. God's demands were left aside (4:1-3) and the people turned to robbery and banditry (7:1). The leadership was affected; prophets (4:5), priests (4:6, 9) and long were all content with wickedness (7:3).
There was drunkenness (4:11; 7:5), immorality (4:11; 7:4), idolatry (4:12). Then the people turned to Assyria for help (5:13; 8:9) and there was plotting (7:6) and assassinations (7:7). Israel mixed herself with the ways of the nations (7:8; 8:8; 11:5), including Egypt (11:11; 12:1) from which the nation had once been rescued. Beneath the chaos was ingrained prayerlessness (7:7) at a national level (7:10, 14) and slander of God (7:13). Hosea sums it all up in one idea: spiritual adultery.
Many things tend to corrupt the church. The people may start 'using' God to get their own ways. The first generation lives for God and his will. The second generation decides that respectability is a good thing for business, and starts to 'use' God to get on in life, while not being too distinctive in lifestyle. Within no time at all the church becomes powerless. Then a little further still down the road the church becomes idolatrous. It starts worshipping a 'god' which is a reconstructed version of the God of the Bible, but is no longer God at all. Or the church may be corrupted by the influence of devious national rulers. The world either flatters the church or persecutes or ignores it, but the world never helps the church.
So the church of Jesus Christ has to face many varied temptations and pressures. Success is as dangerous as persecution. In Hosea's day, politics were corrupt, society was unjust, and religion was idolatrous. So what does the church need in these varied situations? It needs prophets or their equivalent, men and women with a message from God boldly proclaimed.
3. God's spokesmen warn that inherited ways of violence arouse God's reprisal. God used Hosea to warn that the brutality of Israel's society was about to receive its retribution.
The days of Hosea were days of great ferocity. One murder followed speedily after another. The situation originated in the days of Jehu, who, about eighty years before, had been commissioned to remove the idolatry of the house of Ahab (see 1 Kings 19:17). But the way in which he fulfilled his call was hateful. Jehu (841-814/3 bc) was one of the most violent men of human history. He killed first Jehoram of Israel, then Ahaziah of Judah, then Jezebel (2 Kings 9:30-37), then Ahab's sons (2 Kings 10:1-11), and the Judean family of Ahaziah (2 Kings 10:12-14). His zeal for bloodthirsty slaughter went beyond his commission from God. This is the background to Hosea 1:3-5.
3 And so he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. 4 And Yahweh said to him, 'Call his name Jezreel; for in a little while I will visit the blood of Jezreel on the house of Jehu, and I will put an end to the rule of the house of Israel. 5 And it shall be that on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.
Jehu's line which began in bloodshed ended likewise. Zechariah, Jehu's great-great-grandson, was murdered and was the last of Jehu's line. Then another regime began (2 Kings 15:8-12). The murderer was Shallum, but he was killed within a month (15:13-16). Menahem, his successor, came from another family. His line lasted for one more reign (15:17-22). Pekahiah his son was the last of his short dynasty (15:23-26). Pekah who assassinated Pekahiah was from a ninth family among the kings of Israel. He too was assassinated (15:27-31). Later Hoshea killed Pekah. In Hoshea's reign, the Assyrians brought the northern kingdom of Israel to an end. It was never to be revived. Hosea's second child with Gomer was given a name which spoke of the retribution that would soon fall on generations of violence.
'Jezreel' was the place where Jehu slaughtered the house of Ahab, with frenzied brutality (see 2 Kings 9-10). God had allowed Jehu his four generations as he had promised (2 Kings 10:30), but now the hatred and violence which had been in Jehu's heart and had characterised his dynasty would itself be avenged. Presumably this oracle comes from a period before the death of Jeroboam II. Soon Jeroboam's son would become king but would be slaughtered and the line would come to an end. Thirty years later northern Israel lost its identity altogether.
Violence is easier to bring into a land than to eradicate. In many parts of the world, today's children are trained in violence via TV programmes, and learn to practise blasting people out of existence in computer games. Meanwhile one picks up the newspaper and reads about 'the lessons of Hiroshima', 'fire-bombing' in World War II, the situation in an African country where half a million of one of its tribes were butchered, the horrors of the first 41 months of war in a part of Europe, and so on.
The name of Hosea's son gave warning of coming judgement upon the brutality of Israel's society. Yet the point of the warning was to give the opportunity for change. The Lord leaves the blunt threat without further comment, but the very fact that the people have been warned leaves open the possibility that they might fall upon their knees and ask for mercy.