Hosea the Prophet
It’s hard for us to think about these ancient prophets in terms of their daily lives. They were larger than life characters and you don’t get into the Old Testament by being a shrinking violet. Hosea’s personal circumstances are unique though in the Bible; the connection between his life circumstances and the message that he gave marks him out as a very different kind of suffering servant.
The name "Hosea", means "salvation", or "He saves", or "He helps". It is the same root as the word Hosanna. Hosea conducted his prophetic ministries in the Northern Israel (Samaria) of which he was a native. That is - not in Judah to the south where Jerusalem was situated. He lived an unusual life. He married the prostitute called Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, at God's command. Verse 2 tells us “When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son”. Our sense of prostitution is taken from what we see on TV or read in newspapers. It is a far from glamorous activity, hanging around places in Leith or Blythswood Square in Glasgow on cold and rainy winter nights. Maybe though that does not reflect prostitution in the time of Hosea and in Samaria, northern Israel at that time.
The prostitute was an accepted though deprecated member of the Israelite society, both in urban and rural life. The visits of Samson to the harlot of Gaza (Judg. 16:1) were not condemned, but conformed with his lifestyle. Nevertheless, prostitution was a shameful profession, and to treat an Israelite girl like a prostitute was considered a grave offence. The Israelites were warned against prostituting their daughters (Lev. 19:29), and priests were not allowed to marry prostitutes (21:7). Prostitutes might be encountered in the streets and squares, and on street corners, calling out to passers by (Prov. 7:10–23); “noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house at twilight, as the day was fading, as the dark of night set in. Then out came a woman to meet him, dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent. (She is unruly and defiant, her feet never stay at home; now in the street, now in the squares, at every corner she lurks.) She took hold of him and kissed him and with a brazen face she said: “Today I fulfilled my vows, and I have food from my fellowship offering at home. So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you! I have covered my bed with coloured linens from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink deeply of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love”.
Notice though that the woman is wealthy with her own house and quality items. She was probably well dressed. She was also probably attractive. The woman Jesus met at the well at Sychar in Samaria may have been similar. She was not a prostitute as such perhaps but lived the kind of life that Elizabeth Taylor did in Hollywood with serial common law husbands. In Hosea’s time, some prostitutes were accomplished entertainers. They sang and played the harp (like Japanese geisha girls) (Isa. 23:16), and bathed in public pools (I Kings 22:38). For God to tell Hosea to marry a prostitute was a departure from Israelite law and tradition. Is it possible that Hosea had fallen in love with this woman Gomer and that God had decided to turn what seemed a loss into a prophetic witness? If Hosea’s family had been observant Jews, they would not have been happy with his choice of wife. We don’t know. But we should not separate Hosea’s writings from the actuality of his life. He was living on the edge. But unlike all the other prophets who were good living and obedient Jews, Hosea’s calling included breaking the conventions of the society in which he lived. That this was God’s plan for him has to make us think also. We know that God always wants us to be good. But God also uses people who have not been good – and sometimes to greater effect for his purposes. Hosea's family life was to reflect the "adulterous" relationship which Israel had built with polytheistic gods. The relationship between Hosea and Gomer was to parallel the relationship between God and Israel. Preaching with words has only a limited effect. Dramatic life example was used in both Old and New Testaments to convey the Word of God.
Hosea and Gomer had three children together. But even the children were prophetic symbols. Their chosen names testifying to the alienation of the people from God at that time. The first born son (and remember that that was a God’s great blessing in that culture) was called after a place associated with disaster - “Jezreel”. (That was where Queen Jezebel was killed). It would be like calling your son Titanic. The name of Hosea's daughter, “Lo-ruhamah”, translates as "not pitied", and is chosen by God as a sign of displeasure with the people of Israel for following false gods. She is later redeemed, shown mercy with the term “Ruhamah”. The name of Hosea's second son, “Lo-ammi”, which translates as "not my people", is chosen by the Lord as a sign of the Lord's displeasure with the people of Israel for following those false gods. We have no idea how these children responded to the meaning of their names as they grew up. It used to be said that children of Church of Scotland Manses had a hard time growing up. Imagine being the children of Hosea!
Then a familiar tale – a familiar pattern. Gomer left Hosea and went off with another man. In our society today it is a common thing. More common though today is the husband walking out on the wife for someone else. Maybe this high spirited and highly sexualised woman Gomer was bored with Hosea and his prophecies. She was not domesticated and she did not understand or respect her husband. She felt free to go and took the risk but possibly, probably, she went with someone wealthy enough to look after her better than Hosea could do. Remember Sarah Fergusons’ mother leaving her husband Ronald and their five children to go to the polo player Hector Barrantes in Argentine? Remember Roman Catholic Antonia Fraser leaving her older husband Sir Hugh and their six children for the playwright Harold Pinter? Men are serial deserters in family life but we put wives and mothers on pedestals. It’s strange how we revere the words in the Bible but people such as Hosea lived lives. They had to eat and they had to have homes for shelter. How did they earn a crust? What sustained them. Infuriatingly, the Old Testament does not really tells us. We do though have a clearer picture in the New Testament where people supported Jesus’ itinerant ministry and the disciples carried a collection box and Paul who worked at his trade making and selling tents to finance his missionary endeavours before the Churches began to support him full-time.
Hosea had feelings. We should not think that he was happy that he lost his wife. He was not however vengeful. Even if he had doubts God told him what to do. Chapter 3 begins thus. '“The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”' Hosea bribed or compensated the man his wife had been living with so that he could take her back. He paid in the region of 3 months wages – we might say £5000 roughly speaking. It may just have been the way things were done then. Hosea told Gomer to be faithful to him for the rest of their lives and he promised to be faithful to her. It is a touching and very human story. Amid all the blood and guts of the Old Testament you have what is in effect a love story. And its purpose is to tell the story of God’s love.
Hosea’s words in 6:6 have been quoted ever since. They form the heart and soul of our understanding of God’s nature and being and relationship with us. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. Jesus quoted Hosea as recorded in Matthew 9:13. This was on the occasion when he called Matthew to be a disciple and went to his home and shared a meal with him. Matthew was a tax collector, an employee of the Romans, despised for being so. Onlookers asked why Jesus was eating with such excommunicants and sinners and his reply was “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”.
Hosea stood against the entire establishment of temple worship and the place of animal sacrifices among the People of God. 700 years before Jesus, Hosea understood the heart of God as love, mercy, forgiveness. We have had near 2000 years of Christianity with the same core message but many have still not accepted it. On Friday The Telegraph had a very unusual article entitled “Policewoman sacked after elbowing her mother's love rival into the reduced meat fridge in Asda”. It seems a strange incident but reflects the opposite of the lifestyle of Hosea.
The question for Christians today is ‘How far do we go?’. Hosea redeemed his errant wife. Many a woman takes a wandering husband back. Parents have had their hearts broken by children who have wrecked their young lives by rejecting their Christian upbringing. They welcome them back. But Hosea gently told Gomer that they had to live together faithfully in marriage as a sign of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel. We know that Jesus prevented the stoning of a woman taken in adultery with the words “Well then you who are guiltless throw the first stone”. But he said to her “Go and do not sin any more”. Jesus called Matthew and his like to spiritual health and personal relationship with God. Jesus did not leave them where they were. He did not authorise or validate their previous lifestyles. ‘How far do we go?’. Surely in recent times the public morality of Britain has departed from Christianity. The people have not necessarily become polytheistic as they did in Hosea’s time. They are largely atheistic, agnostic, careless about God, unthinking about Jesus Christ, unaware of the Holy Spirit. They may be patronising towards Christianity and contemptuous of the Churches. They have their material idols, goals and ambitions. They have their alternative lifestyles and they have politicised them and made them the new non-morality. But our attitudes must be informed by the example and words of Hosea. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. It is a difficult path to travel. But it is the Christ-like way.