I remember vividly the last time I got a spanking. I was twelve years old. My father and I had just returned home from a Little League game in which I had played poorly and had blown up at everyone around me. My father confronted me about my bad attitude, and I talked back to him with all the disrespect I could muster. My father was enraged. Suddenly I was over his knee, getting what I deserved.
I also remember vividly the last time my father told me that he loved me. I was forty-five years old. My father was dying of cancer. He put his hands on my face, looked deep into my eyes and said tenderly, “I’m so glad you’re here. I love you.”
Here are two conflicting images of my father. In fact if you were to isolate them and evaluate my father’s character on the basis of just these two scenes, you might conclude he was emotionally unsettled and unpredictable. Yet that assessment would be wrong. Though the images of rage and tenderness collide on the surface, both expressed my father’s love for his son. Love is often tender, but sometimes it must also be tough.
In the Book of Hosea we see conflicting images of God. On the one hand He is a raging lion ripping its prey (Hos. 5:14; 13:8). He sends fire on Israel’s cities and robs mothers of their babies (8:14; 9:11–16). On the other hand He is a tender lover trying to win back a wayward bride (2:14–15). He urges Israel to repent and promises, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them” (14:4). God’s intense anger appears to collide with His passionate love, but both express His unfailing commitment to His people.
Nowhere is God’s commitment to His people so vivid as in Hosea. In the time of Moses, God made a binding agreement with Israel. The people agreed to worship and obey God, while He promised in return to protect them and make them a model nation that would attract others to the one true God.
Hosea compares this covenant to marriage and depicts Israel as God’s wife. “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them” (14:4).
Unfortunately Israel violated God’s Law and worshiped other gods. Hosea compares this to adultery. One god in particular, the Canaanite fertility deity Baal, held a special attraction for Israel (2:13; 11:2; 13:2).
Why? Because Baal worship promised what most Israelites wanted—a big family and good crops. The Lord God offered these things to Israel as well, but He demanded obedience to His Law as a prerequisite (Deut. 28:1–6). Baalism set no such moral standards. It appealed to the baser side of sinful human nature. All one had to do to make Baal happy was to engage in sexual rituals at religious shrines (Hos. 4:14).
The Lord God was not about to tolerate any rivals. He judged Israel harshly but appropriately. God had blessed His people with crops and children, but they thought that Baal had provided these gifts (2:5, 8). So the Lord God took away the produce from their fields and made it difficult for the women to have children (2:9, 12; 9:11). The babies who were born died at the hands of enemies (9:12–13). The punishment fit the crime. Attributing God’s blessings to some false source brought the loss of those same blessings.
God punished Israel, but He stopped short of wiping them out. The sight of their misery stirred up His compassion. God is not like human beings. Sinful men and women often allow rage to dominate every other emotion as they seek to destroy the object of their anger. That does not happen with God. He holds His anger and compassion in perfect balance (11:8–9). His disciplinary judgment is meant to bring His people to their senses, not to annihilate them (2:2–15).
To illustrate His great devotion to His people, the Lord God asked Hosea to live out an object lesson that proved to be gut-wrenching. He told the prophet to marry a woman who would be unfaithful and leave him. Before abandoning Hosea, she bore three children, all of whom received names foreshadowing God’s judgment.
The first, Jezreel, was a warning that a bloody incident from the past (2 Kings 9–10), which had occurred at the city of Jezreel, would be repeated in Israel’s experience. The second, Lo-Ruhamah, meaning “not pitied,” symbolized the withdrawal of God’s compassion. The third, Lo-Ammi, meaning “not my people,” signaled that God would sever His relationship with Israel (1:2–9; 2:2–4).
But this divorce would not be final. God’s discipline would bring His people to their senses, and He would restore them to His favor. He would show them pity and reclaim them as His people (1:10–2:1). He would bring them back from exile and plant them in the Promised Land (1:11; 2:23). (The name Jezreel means “God plants.”) As an illustration of this, the Lord God told Hosea to reclaim his wayward wife, who by now was the property of another. Hosea paid the price to redeem her (3:1–5).
Yes, Hosea describes an offended, angry God who severely disciplines His people. But that discipline is the expression of eternal divine love that could never abandon God’s children. Perhaps Hosea’s most important contribution is not a lesson, but a picture—a picture of a God who agonizes over His wayward children and a God who works to draw them back to Himself.
Robert B. Chisholm Jr. (ThD, 1983) is chair and professor of Old Testament Studies.
This article was taken from Decision magazine, January, 2002; ©2001 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, used by permission, all rights reserved.
Dr. Chisholm’s book, Handbook on the Prophets, surveys the structure, message, and theological themes of each of the twelve Minor Prophets. But the author does not stop with a mere survey. He also emphasizes the literary and rhetorical aspects of each prophet’s message as the key to understanding the prophetic books.