By Shelley Neese

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Hosea’s judgment speech spans from 6:4-11:7 without a pause for a breath. These last passages of the book provide further insight into the purpose of God’s retribution.

While Hosea is the prophet who was most sensitive to Israel’s inner spiritual life, he did not ignore Israel’s more obvious signs of rebellion. He identified the public actions that Yahweh found most repulsive. He continued to use similes and metaphors throughout the last sections of his oracle, springing from judgment to mercy so often that you cannot help but wonder if he will land on a compassionate note. Only at the end, in Hosea’s attempt towards resolution, are the symbols for Israel’s current sins reinvented to represent the nation’s future redemption.

The transgressions committed by Israel that Hosea most often mentioned are idolatry, desperate military alliances, and the coronation of illegitimate kings. A quick history lesson is needed to understand how these acts were specific to this time and place. I believe one reason these prophetic texts are so rarely taught in churches is because it is difficult to close the gap in time and culture between the ancient and modern worlds in a 45-minute sermon.

The rift

After a rift separated the tribes of Israel from the Kingdom of Judah, Israel’s King Jeroboam I went to great lengths to distinguish the Israelite kingdom from the Judahite kingdom (1 Kings 12). He felt he could not risk the people of Israel making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh on the biblical feast days, because they might have renewed their allegiance to his rival, the House of David, so he established alternative shrines within his own kingdom at Bethel and Dan. He placed golden calves in these shrines and inaugurated a priesthood outside the Levitical system. He even appointed alternative feast days for sacrificial worship. Every Israelite king after Jeroboam I continued in this apostasy. They made up their own religion, while maintaining a quasi-Yahwistic appearance.

By Hosea’s time in the eighth century BCE, the pagan altars and pillars littered Israel’s countryside. King Jeroboam II also did “evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:23). While Israel prospered materially during his reign, she plummeted into detestable idolatry (10:1). When Hosea spotted the beautified altars and sanctuaries to Baal, he saw them for what they actually represented: the proliferation of Israel’s sin (8:11).

Yahweh declared, “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and offering incense to idols” (11:2). Ignoring the divine standard to have no other gods before Yahweh and not to make graven images, Bethel became a center for Israel’s cult worship. Hosea referenced Bethel as Beth-Aven, but Bible scholars think he was using wordplay. Bethel was the town’s historical name, which means “House of God.” Hosea called it Beth-Aven, which means “House of Evil.”

Idol worship sickened Hosea. He mocked the idea of worshiping something fashioned by an artisan from wood or metal (8:6, 13:2). Hosea pointed scornfully at the calf idol in Bethel and predicted that one day it would be carted off along with the captives to Assyria. The idol would no longer be an object of Israel’s worship, but a symbol of its powerlessness (10:6). Likewise, with the Israelites living in captivity, thorns and thistles would grow over the dismantled pagan altars (10:8). Hosea predicted the return of the people and the disappearance of Baal’s name after the exile (2:17).

Illegitimate kings

Hosea did not see the kings of Israel as legitimate heirs to the throne. Zechariah, Jeroboam II’s son, was the last king in the line of Jehu. After only six months on the throne, Zechariah’s army commander Shallum assassinated him, and every other family member left in the Jehu dynasty (2 Kings 1). Though Jehu was not a godly king, God had appointed him to capture the throne from the evil King Ahab, so his descendants possessed divine endorsement to the throne since the days of Elisha.

Every king from Shallum onward, until the fall of Israel, accessed the throne by way of murder and deception. Menahem, another army captain, overthrew Shallum after only a month-long rule. Violence characterized his decade in power. Menahem’s son Pekahiah succeeded him, only to be assassinated by the army captain Pekah. Pekah lasted 20 years on the throne before his own army captain Hoshea killed him. The book of 2 Kings provides most of the story of Israel’s violent succession of military leaders-turned-kings. The details concur with the Assyrian chronicles of that era.

Zechariah was the last legitimate ruler among the kings. Hosea said, “They made kings but not through me; they set up princes but without my knowledge” (8:4). Israel’s spiritual leaders, going back to Samuel, had foreseen the dangers of kingship (1 Sam. 8:4-18). Still, God had granted the people’s desire to have kings like the other nations. In the end, Israel’s kings were the source of her ruin, to which even the evil Assyria could attest.

Hosea predicted that when the Assyrians attacked, Israel’s monarchy would dissolve like a splinter floating on the surface of the water (10:7). God, reinforcing the theme that he alone was the source of Israel’s deliverance, asked rhetorically, “Where now is your king, that he may save you?” And he added, “I gave you a king in my anger, and I took him away in my wrath” (13:10-11).

Hosea hated witnessing the political maneuvering of Israel’s corrupt kings. During the long reign of Jeroboam II, when the Aramean and Assyrian kingdoms were both weakened by their own internal problems, Israel had a brief opportunity to expand and prosper. After the death of Jeroboam II, Assyria revived during the reign of its new charismatic leader Tiglath-Pileser III. Once again, the Assyrian Empire went on the march, hungry for heavier tributes from their vassal states.

For a decade, King Menahem paid tribute to Assyria as a way of courting Assyria’s favor toward his ill-supported kingship (2 Kings 15:19-20). When King Pekah of Israel ruled, he refused to continue paying the enormous tribute to Assyria and instead formed a coalition with King Rezin of Damascus. Pekah hoped that Egypt and Judah would join their coalition to resist the Assyrian yoke, but when Judah refused to participate, the Israelites attacked Judah. Assyria responded to King Pekah’s betrayal and Judah’s plea for help, killing Rezin and subduing Northern Israel (2 Kings 16:9). Tiglath-Pileser initially supported King Hoshea, but he also soon refused to pay tribute to Assyria and appealed to Egypt for protection. King Hoshea’s action prompted an Assyrian attack in which he was taken prisoner (2 Kings 17). Fed up with the obstinate vassal state, Assyria finally captured all of the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, just as predicted by the prophets.

Instead of relying on God, Israel hedged her bets on her own military strength and unreliable alliances. Hosea addressed the crux of the matter: “Because you have trusted in your chariots, in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people” (10:13). Over and over, the prophet Hosea taught Israel that she would not find help from her military might, her kings, or foreign coalitions, because she had overlooked the one source of help available, Yahweh.

On the surface, illegitimate kings and bad military alliances may seem more like political missteps than spiritual offenses. Why was it so bad that King Pekah had tried to build up his military and strategic coalitions? Here, it’s important to remember that it was Yahweh who had established Israel as a nation, from its monarchy to its land borders, to its constitution. His people should have sought him before battle, before the appointment of a king, and before responding to a national crisis. God’s nation in rebellion against him could no longer stand. He destroyed the sources of Israel’s downfall: the idols (10:4), the monarchy (10:7), and the coalitions.

Israel’s youth

No reading of Hosea is complete without a dive into spiritual metaphors. In one of the prophet’s more disturbing figures of speech, he portrayed Israel as an infant still in the womb that refused to come out and died instead (13:3). This was the degree of Israel’s resistance to life with Yahweh. Although Hosea’s harsh decrees are interrupted with frequent outbursts of mercy, by the end of Hosea, many readers are eager for a transition in tone.

Whereas the primary metaphor of the book of Hosea portrays God as a jilted husband to Israel, Hosea’s last segment describes God as a Father to Israel. The language used to describe his paternal feelings towards Israel includes the most tenderly worded verses in the book. As Yahweh reminisced about the beginning of his journey with the covenant people, he remembered, “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (11:1). The Hebrew prophets often pointed to the days of the wilderness wanderings with fondness. The people trusted Yahweh completely, like children.

As a father, God allowed Israel to experience the consequences of her actions; she “must bear her guilt” (13:16). But also, as a father, God was merciful and longed for the day of Israel’s return, the day he could “rain righteousness” upon her and “reap steadfast love” (10:12). The reader is touched by his pain when, after chastising Israel, he cries out, “How can I give you up?” as his “heart recoils” within him (11:8-9). The tension of a father’s love resounds throughout every chapter of this prophetic book. God was not abandoning Israel. He was still there for her and would heal her wounds. A father’s love experiences a vast range of emotions.

Hosea closed his oracle with a reversal of his earlier imagery of Israel’s many sins. Morning dew, which had earlier been a symbol for Israel’s transience, became a symbol for God’s nourishment of his people (14:7). Earlier references to sacred trees portrayed them as the sites where Israel had cavorted with idol worshippers. Now, in closing, Hosea used cypress trees to symbolize Yahweh’s eternal protective love (14:8).

Despite the certainty of Assyria’s attack and the pending captivity, Yahweh offered one last chance for repentance. Hosea tried to put the words of confession in their mouths and gave them the exact script they needed to turn their fate around: “Take away all guilt; accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy” (14:2). Unfortunately, Hosea’s lament was left unheard, so there was no deliverance for that generation.

While the confessional prayer of Hosea may not have saved the people from Assyrian captivity, his words still live on today and provide the script for one of the Jewish morning prayers. When orthodox Jewish men wrap the tefillin strap around their finger, they recite, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord” (Hos. 2:19-20). The words of Hosea provide a daily reminder of God’s redeeming love for his people.