The book of Hosea describes Hosea's marriage to Gomer and its prophetic meaning for Israel. Chapters 4–14 give excerpts from Hosea's preaching of grace and judgment leading up to the fall of Israel in 722 BC. Chapters 1–3 are so powerful and personal that I want to walk through them with you and make some brief comments and applications as we go. If you grasp the point of chapters 1–3, you have grasped the point of the book. I believe the point for us at Bethlehem at the end of 1982 is: Love God warmly as your husband, don't just serve him as your Lord.
Hosea's Unique Prophecy
Let's begin with 1:1, "The word of the Lord came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jereboam the son of Joash, king of Israel." This means that Hosea was prophesying in the thirty years or so leading up to Assyria's destruction of Israel in 722 BC. The whole book seems to be addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel, not the southern kingdom of Judah. So Hosea is a contemporary of Amos, and they were addressing the same corrupt and idolatrous northern kingdom during the last decades of its existence.
But Hosea is utterly unique in one respect. God made him live the tragedy of Israel's unfaithfulness by marrying a harlot. What follows is shocking because the idolatry of Israel is shocking. Verses 2, 3: "When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, 'Go take to yourself a wife of harlotry and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the Lord.' So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son." Some Christians who would never dream of marrying a pimp or a prostitute will fall in love with a well-bred unbeliever. But in God's eyes, everyone who forsakes the Lord is a whore. There are no religious singles in God's eyes. Everyone is either faithfully married to God or is a prostitute. God made you (not just Israel) for himself. If you get your kicks from somewhere else, you commit great harlotry against God. That was Israel's condition. And so God took Hosea and said, as it were, "Before I give you a word of judgment and grace, I am going to make you know what it's like to be married to an unfaithful wife. Go, marry a harlot!" Hosea obeys and has a son. His marriage is an acted-out parable of God's relation to Israel.
Judgment and Hope
Verses 4, 5: "And the Lord said to him, 'Call his name Jezreel; for yet a little while, and I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.'" Gomer is going to bear three children, and each one is going to symbolize the judgment of God which harlotry always begets. The first is named Jezreel to remind the people of the fury of Jehu (a former king of Israel) when he killed Joram and Amaziah and Jezebel and 70 sons of Ahab in the city of Jezreel. Even though Jehu was carrying out the penal purposes of God, he was reckless and impetuous and high-handed in his dealings. When God says in verse 5 that he will therefore break the bow of Israel, he means that this is still Israel's spirit. She is unfaithful and begets violence and treachery. The first son stands for this sin of Israel.
Verses 6–9: "She [Gomer] conceived again and bore a daughter. And the Lord said to him, 'Call her name Not pitied, for I will no more have pity on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God; I will not deliver them by bow, nor by sword nor by war, nor by horses, nor by horsemen.' When she had weaned Not pitied, she conceived and bore a son, and the Lord said, 'Call his name Not my people, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.'" Hosea doesn't tell us whether these last two were his children or not. When your wife is a harlot, you never know. But, like Jezreel, their names show what harlotry, or forsaking the Lord, begets: God's pity will come to an end, and he will cast off Israel as his people. There is a point of no return in the faithlessness of a wife and the faithlessness of a people.
But 1:10–2:1 show that these judgments are not the last word. Judgment may be coming (as indeed it came in 722 BC when the Assyrians deported Israel), but somewhere down the line God would have back his people, his wife of harlotry.
Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Sons of the living God." And the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head, and they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel. Say to your brother, "My people," and to your sister, "She has obtained pity."
God may replace pity with wrath for a season. He may disinherit some generations of Israel. But he will not give up Israel forever. He will, at some future time, overcome the alienation of "Not pitied" and "Not my people," and great will be the day of Jezreel.
So (to sum up chapter 1) Hosea married a harlot to symbolize and act out God's relation to faithless Israel. She had three children whose names symbolize God's judgment which unfaithfulness begets. Yet the promise is given that some day the judgment will be reversed.
Harlotry with the Baals
In 2:2 Hosea speaks again of his wife, Gomer. But there are also words of God to his faithless wife, Israel: "Plead with your mother, plead—for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband—that she put away her harlotry from her face and her adultery from between her breasts, lest I strip her naked and make her as in the day she was born." Hosea is now back where he started in 1:2. He is not thinking of Israel as the violent child Jezreel or as bastards born of harlotry (as he did in 1:6–8). He is thinking now of Israel again as a wife of harlotry. And in 2:2–13 Hosea and God speak as one about the faithlessness of their wives and the judgment coming upon them.
Three verses sum up this unit: first, verse 5, "Their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. For she said, 'I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink."' Then in verse 8 God says, "She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold which she used for Baal." Then verse 13, "I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals, when she burned incense to them and decked herself with her ring and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me, says the Lord." In those three verses we see the tragedy of Israel: 1) God wants to be her husband, but she is a harlot loving other gods; 2) all she has she gets from her true husband, but thinks she is getting it from the Baals; 3) God will punish this harlotry. For when he is treated as less than a husband, he shows that he is vastly more than a husband.
Pursuing an Unfaithful Wife
Hosea 2:14–23 is one of the most tender and most beautiful love songs in the Bible. It is sung by God to his unfaithful wife, Israel. But before we look at it, skip over to chapter 3. Here we see Hosea and Gomer for the last time. She has run off and lives now with a paramour, a "significant other." So Hosea is free, right? Now he can get a divorce. She has ended the marriage once and for all. She has another man. Hosea is free. Right? Wrong! God would not give up on Israel, and he aims for Hosea to symbolize his undying love to his wife of harlotry. Verse 1: "The Lord said to me, 'Go again and love a woman who is beloved of a paramour and is an adulteress; even as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.' So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley." When you think a moment on what God asked Hosea to do here, you get a glimpse into what God's love for us in our wretchedness is like.
She had been faithless all along, and finally she had gone off with another man. Hosea could have had her stoned by law, just like we stand condemned by law. But God commands him to love her. "Go again, love her." And not just to go and get her and love her, but to even be willing to pay this "significant other" for her. If that was not almost an emotional impossibility, Hosea could not afford it. If he could have, he probably would have paid cash. But he couldn't. So he paid half in cash and half in barley. And the total amounted to what Exodus 21:32 says a female slave costs. Gomer had evidently sunk to the lowest possible level. And God says to Hosea, "Get her back, whatever it costs, get her back."
The reason God could expect that of Hosea is that he aims to do just that with his wayward Israel, and he had shown this to Hosea in 2:14–23. Recall from other messages the principle that guides me in my interpretation of passages like this. It looks beyond the Assyrian captivity to a literal fulfillment for ethnic Israel some day. But the fulfillment will also include us who are children of Abraham by faith (Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:7, 29). When Christians read Hosea 2:14–23, they should say, "Those are promises for me; that is God's will for me." This principle is confirmed here by the fact that Paul, in Romans 9:24, and Peter, in 1 Peter 2:10, apply Hosea 2:23 to the church. So this is a word of God for us today.
God's Love Song
I see in Hosea 2:14–23 at least three things God does for us, his rebellious wife, to win us back; and I see one overriding thing that he wants from us. The first thing he does is woo us tenderly. Verse 14: "Behold, I will allure her and bring her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her." We are all guilty of harlotry. We have loved other lovers more than God. We have gotten our kicks elsewhere. He has been at times an annoying deity. We, like Gomer, were enslaved to a paramour, the world, pleasure, ambition. But God has not cast us off. He promises to take us into the wilderness. He wants to be alone with us. Why? So that he can speak tenderly to us. Literally, the Hebrew says, so that he can speak "to her heart." And when he speaks, he will allure you. He will entice you and woo you. He will say what a lover says to his lady when they walk away from the party into the garden. God wants to talk that way with you. Go with him into the wilderness and listen with your heart. Do not think you are too ugly or too rotten. He knows that his wife is a harlot. That's the meaning of mercy: God is wooing a wife of harlotry.
The second thing God does is promise her hope and safety. Verse 15: "And there I will give her vineyards and make the valley of Achor a door of hope." The valley of Achor is where Israel was first unfaithful to the Lord in the promised land. Just after Israel entered the land, Achan kept the forbidden booty and caused the defeat at Ai. But now God promises that if his harlot will come home, Achor will no longer be a "valley of trouble" (Joshua 7:26), but a door of hope. She will come home to rich vineyards. Verse 18 spells out her hope in more detail: "I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground, and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety." If only his estranged wife will come home, she will find a paradise with her husband: he will make a pact even with the animals, lest they do harm; and he will remove all violence and conflict. These are no doubt the words God speaks into the heart of his wife in the lonely place. "It will be so good, so good! Put away your harlotry and come home."
The third thing God does is renew his wife's betrothal and consummate the marriage again in purity. Verses 19, 20: "And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord." Three times: I will betroth you; I will betroth you; I will betroth you. "We will go back to the days of our engagement. We will start over. Harlots can start over! We will lay a fresh foundation: righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, faithfulness. Things will not only be good in the paradise around us. Things will also be right between us. These have always been my ways; but now they will be mutual." Yes, even a wife of harlotry can experience a new relationship of righteousness, justice, steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness with her divine husband.
But the most daring statement of all is the last one in verse 20: "And you shall know the Lord." To see what this means, recall the peculiar use of the word "know" in the Bible. For example, Genesis 4:1, "Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain." And Matthew 1:25, "Joseph knew her [Mary] not until she had borne a son." In the context of a broken marriage being renewed with the fresh vows of betrothal, must not the words, "and you shall know the Lord" (v. 20), mean, you shall enjoy an intimacy like that of the purest sexual intercourse. When the wife of harlotry returns to her husband, he will withhold nothing. He will not keep her at a distance. The fellowship and communion and profoundest union he will give to his prodigal wife when she comes home broken and empty.
This is the gospel story in the Old Testament. This is the meaning of Christmas interpreted seven centuries before Christ. God comes to woo us tenderly to himself; he promises us fullest hope and safety; he starts over with any who will come, and offers us the most intimate and pleasure-filled relationship possible.
And what must we do to qualify? What does he want from us? Verse 16: "In that day, says the Lord, you will call me, 'My husband,' and no longer will you call me, 'My Baal.'" I think the word Baal here has a double meaning. As the next verse shows, it means one of the false gods of Israel's idolatry. So verse 16 means: "You will no longer include me as one of many gods, or many lovers; you will talk to me as your only true God and husband."
But there is another sense of the word Baal. Fifteen times in the Old Testament it simply means "husband," but husband in the sense of owner and lord. The Baals were Israel's hard masters as well as her lovers. In 7:14, for example, the people gashed themselves to try to get benefits from the Baals (just like the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18:28). When Israel chose a Baal for her "significant other," she chose a cruel and merciless lord. So the other (and I think primary) meaning of Hosea 2:16 is: "Relate to me as a loving husband, not as a harsh master or owner. In that day, says the Lord, you will call me 'My husband,' and you will no longer call me 'My Baal.'"
The good news at the end of 1982 is that God wants you to love him warmly as your husband, not just serve him dutifully as your Lord. When you think of your failures in 1982—how little you have read his Word, how burdensome prayer has felt, how many other things of this world have given you more kicks than God—God wants you to remember that his desire to have you back is not based on a naïve estimation of your character. The point of Hosea is that God exalts his mercy by not giving up on his wife of harlotry. The good news of Hosea—and of the parable of the prodigal son, and of Christmas—is that God knows we have sold ourselves for a song in 1982, yet he is wooing us into the chambers of his love.
But, please take special notice of this, especially you who tend to keep God at arm's distance from your emotions. According to Hosea 2:16, God does not want you to return to him and say, "Yes, Sir," and set about your duties. He wants you to come into the wilderness, to listen to him speak tenderly, and to respond to him, "My husband." God wants your heart, not just your hands, because if he has your heart, he has everything.