Lesson 34: “I Will Betroth Thee unto Me in Righteousness”
In what seems to me an unusual tack for Mormon lesson manuals, the current Sunday lesson examines Hosea’s representation of God and Israel as a man and his adulterous wife. The manual seems conscious of the unusual-to-us use of this unflattering metaphor by devoting significant space to explaining that this isn’t literal, folks, but only a literary device (although the manual’s label of “comparison” actually makes it sound more literal, not less). Then the manual goes on to make its chief point, that it is never too late for us to repent and return to God.
That chief point is the same in this 1944 lesson, which also covers Hosea’s life and the conditions of Israel during his active period.
Hosea – Prophet of Love
Facts and Suppositions Concerning the Prophet. – The superscription (1:1) of his book informs us that Hosea was the son of Beeri. Unfortunately we know nothing about the latter. The Hebrew name of the prophet, Hoshea, signifies “help,” “deliverance,” and “salvation,” and is derived from the same root as the names of Joshua and Jesus. By reason of numerous allusions in the prophecy to the Northern Kingdom, it is commonly supposed by commentators that Hosea was a native of that commonwealth. The superscription further informs us that Hosea was a prophet “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam, the son of Joash, king of Israel.” Jeroboam II, king of Israel, reigned from 788 B.C. until 747 B.C. We may not be far from the truth, therefore, if we date Hosea’s ministry from about 755 B.C. to 725 B.C. He was, then, a contemporary of three other great prophets, Isaiah, Amos, and Micah.
Under what conditions did Hosea live as a youth? How was he raised? What were the circumstances under which God called him to the ministry? When did he receive the Holy Melchizedek Priesthood? All these questions and a host of others that we should like answered must be passed by for lack of specific information. All we know about Hosea and his ministry is contained in the short fourteen chapters of the book that goes under his name. But it is perfectly apparent that a prophet of God does not function in a social vacuum. Hosea had much work to do, many sermons to preach, and found it necessary to provide leadership for a group of disciples who were true followers of the Hebrew Jehovah. Prophets of the Lord are much concerned about people. It is not at all unlikely that the disciples presided over by Hosea fellowshipped with other folk having similar ideals in various centers of population in Israel and Judah. These other folk were in turn under the leadership of prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Micah, or other God-fearing men, at present unknown to us. Let us call the little bands of disciples the Hebrew Church of God. It is not unreasonable to suppose that leaders like Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Amos, and others, conferred with one another respecting the common problems found in each of their branches of the Church. Not unlike the situation in our own day, the church had to contend with problems that arose because of the beliefs and practices of other churches or cults among the Hebrews. Witness the action of Amaziah, the hireling or professional priest of Bethel, in attempting to prevent the prophet Amos from giving his message to Israel. Amaziah, in this instance, seems to have acted as a professional agent of a state religion that was not at all compatible with the prophetic spirit of men like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah.
All answers to questions concerning Hosea’s domestic life hinge on the interpretation given to chapters 1-3. The latter have been very diversely interpreted by able commentators and for the present we shall pass by the problem of the prophet’s domestic status.
Of Hosea’s personal characteristics we frankly know little. Students of his prophecy may differ more or less in their estimate of him.
The Prophet’s Times. – In the days of Hosea the Northern Kingdom had been lifted by Jeroboam II to a commanding position of power and wealth. Israel’s ancient boundaries had been restored and her leaders and chief men were haughty and proud. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, too, had been revived under King Uzziah in a really marvelous way according to the account in II Chron. 26:6-15. Both kingdoms prospered greatly, especially from the booty taken in conquest and the revival of trade. The rich build “summer houses,” and “winter houses,” “houses of ivory,” and “houses of ebony.” Their houses were furnished with costly articles of furniture, and for their own personal adornment they insisted on gorgeous robes and quantities of jewelry. They indulged in the luxuries of the table, taking for themselves the best of the veal and lamb that the country afforded. The wives of men in high places set the high standard of comfort and social life and insisted on drinking wine, regardless of the cost. The prophet Amos called them “cows.” (Amos 4:1.) These debauched women oppressed the poor, crushed the needy, and in numerous ways seriously weakened the moral fiber of their people.
Social and economic changes were widespread. The small landowner disappeared. He was supplanted by the wealthy landlord who created large estates out of little farms. Widows and orphans had little or no protection. Sons were often mortgaged and finally lost as slaves when the mortgage could not be cleared. Such practices were known as early s the days of Elisha. (II Kings 4:107.) Tenants on large estates paid rents that were ruinous. Often they became slaves as a result of this practice. Exactions of grain were made upon the poor by the upper crust of society. Seething want and corruption were everywhere apparent. There was cheating in the market places and perjury in the law courts, and politicians looked to their own interests rather than to the nation’s they were supposed to serve. On the one hand, we find selfish and arrogant luxury facing ragged and loathsome squalor on the other. These conditions meant that Israel was rotten to the core and ripe for destruction.
Although so greatly needed, the religion of the time had little hope and direction to offer the great masses of the people. So far as the official cults were concerned, religion in the larger centers such as Jerusalem, Gilgal, Bethel, and Beersheba, had made little change for the better in over a hundred years – from the days of Ahab to Jeroboam II, Jehovah, to be sure, was worshipped, but as an old Canaanite Baal. Note the words used by Hosea in 2:13, 16, 17.
Most of the people of the time thought that they were engaged in the true worship of Jehovah, but Hosea makes plain that their worship was in reality no more than a revival of an old Baal cult. To be sure, m en were outwardly more devout and more scrupulous in religious observances than ever before. The courts of the temple and other religious shrines were filled with crowds; altars smoked with sacrifices; tithes were paid exactly when due; the Sabbath and other impressive occasions were observed with meticulous care. But all of this ceremonial swank failed to touch Israel’s real evils. The religion of her leaders had little or no concern with social morality; in fact, religion not merely condoned m any of the evils of which we have spoken, but actually enjoined them. Such is true of immorality, and ritual fornication was by no means unknown. Says Professor Theodore H. Robinson:
“So far from giving help and guidance to the people in the great moral and social crisis of her history, the established religion was much more likely to have thrown all its weight into the other scale, and to have fostered those very tendencies which threatened the life of the nation.”
But with the moral decay of Israel the thing that seems to have impressed and saddened Hosea most was the state of family life. It had become dissolute and, accordingly, the prophet lays upon it his heaviest indictment. The Hebrew root zanah, translated variously as ‘whoredom,” “harlotry,” “adultery” – words so distasteful to us – is used by the prophet over twenty times to express his opinion of the situation.
Such were the times in which Hosea prophesied. A knowledge of them will help us substantially in understanding the prophet’s problem and message.
Some Observations Regarding the Book. – The Hebrew text of Hosea ism ore corrupt than that of any other Old Testament book. It has suffered seriously in the process of transmission, an certain parts of it defy successful translation. Some students think that there is scarcely a verse which one can be certain is in the form in which it left the pen of the original writer. The style of the book is broken, and to a remarkable degree the text is incapable of logical division. This is especially true in chapters 4-14.
Hosea may be divided into two sections of very unequal length. The first section, chapters 1-3, is a fairly compact unit, containing much narrative which purports to tell the domestic lie of the prophet. Whether regarded as a symbolic action or otherwise in the narrative, God commands the prophet to “take a wife of harlotry” for the purpose of begetting children whose significant names were to set forth to Israel the disastrous fruits of her spiritual whoredom.
Israel’s spiritual adultery, which the prophet has described in the first section, is more elaborately dealt with. He tells of God’s controversy with His people, their moral decay, and the punishment that must inevitably follow. Judah is also referred to occasionally. Finally, he appends a solemn appeal to return to Jehovah and promises that the Lord will show compassion to the penitent and heal their apostasy.
Hosea abounds in sentences of irregular construction. Novel forms of syntax, peculiar terms of expression, and unusual formations of words and phrases are also to be noted. Most of the book is rhythmical, and abounds in highly figurative and metaphorical language. Similes and metaphors are frequently so intermixed that it is difficult to discover their exact bearing and force. The diction of the prophet is concise and laconic; number and gender are often neglected; the unexpected change of person is of frequent occurrence. Use of particles is infrequent as compared with other prophets, which adds not a little to the difficulty o interpretation. often Hosea is lively energetic, and sublime. From the viewpoint of language, he is the most obscure and difficult to understand of all the prophets. We may now profitably turn to the teaching of the book.
The Story of Hosea’s Strange Marriage. – In the first section of the prophecy, chapters 1-3, we find the strange story of Hosea’s marriage to a profligate woman. A person reading the text for the first time may be considerably agitated when he finds that the marriage is not only condoned, but is actually commanded by the Lord. (1:2.)
Accordingly, Hosea takes to wife a woman by the name of Gomer, who bears to him two sons and a daughter. These children were given names that symbolized the Lord’s intention of taking action against Israel because of her evil and apostate condition. The first son was called Jezreel, “Whom God Sows.” (1:4.) the first daughter was named Lo-ruha-mah, “that hath not obtained compassion.” (1:6.) The third and last child, a son, was given the name of Lo-ammi, “Not my people.” (1:9.)
What a strange situation for a prophet to find himself in! married to such a wife and having children with such ominous and undesirable names. is there any wonder that the story of Hosea’s marriage has had so many different interpretations placed upon it? How are we to construe the story? Is it to be interpreted literally or is it to be taken as an allegory or parable? views of capable commentators are very diverse.
The following seems to be a reasonable view of Hosea’s marriage or marriages (see 3:1) in the first three chapters of the prophecy: The Lord’s call to Hosea to take a harlotrous woman to wife represented the prophet’s call to the ministry – a ministry to an apostate and covenant-breaking people. The evil children of this apparent union represent the coming of the judgments of the Lord upon Israel, warning of which was to be carried to the people by the prophet. The figure of the harlotrous wife and children would be readily understood at the time by the Hebrew people without reflecting on Hosea’s own wife, or, if he was unmarried on himself.
This symbolic representation of God’s call to Hosea would be a most forceful and effective means of calling Israel’s attention to her carnal state. We cannot believe the marriage to be a literal one, for, as those who have taken it as an allegory or parable have always pointed out, to do so would be imputing to God a command inconsistent with His holy character. Furthermore, for Hosea to marry a woman with a questionable past would make it impossible for him to preach to his people and expose their sexual immoralities. They could point the finger of scorn at him and say, “you are as guilty as we are; don’t preach to us.” In chapter 3:1-3, we have another account of a marriage Hosea contracts with an unchaste woman. There are those who hold that this is not in reality another woman, that the scripture has reference to the final redemption of Gomer, the original wife mentioned in chapter 1. To this explanation we cannot accede. The language seems plain and unequivocal. It refers to a woman, whereas if it had referred to Gomer more specific language could have been expected.
Surely no one could reasonably expect the Lord to command two such literal marriages for a prophet. We take it that the very literal portrayal of these marriages was a representation to the prophet of the real and very grim nature of the call he had to warn Israel of her misdeeds.
But whether our interpretation of Hosea’s marriages be accepted or some other, the religious significance of chapters 1-3 is quite clear. Hosea’s wives represent Israel, the disloyal and harlotrous consort of Jehovah. The latter stipulates that unless Israel puts aside her harlotries and reforms she will meet with stern action. For her gross sins she will be checked and punished and thus learn in the crucible of bitter experience that her husband means more to her than she at first supposed. (2:6, 7.)
Jehovah’s steadfast affection for Israel despite her waywardness through the years is shown in His attempts to woo her again. (2;14.)
His tender and compassionate wooing will result in Israel’s eventual return to the fold. No longer will she indulge in the vicious Canaanite immoralities mentioned so frequently in chapter 2. (2:16, 17.)
The attention of the reader is called to the wonderful promises made by the Lord to Israel at the end of each of chapters 1-3. He affirms that in the latter days – the dispensation in which we now live – Israel shall be highly blessed and the covenant that existed at the first shall be renewed between them. (2:19-23.)
It is perhaps no wonder that Hosea has been called the prophet of love. Some writers have called him the St. John of the Old Testament. He portrays God’s love and kindness as constantly reaching out for his people, more especially when their deeds and actions betoken a change of heart.
The Lord’s Controversy with Israel. – In the second section of Hosea’s prophecy, chapters 4-14, we shall take notice of a number of teachings that are worthy of special attention. One of the finest of these is that the Lord objects to the lack of knowledge – religious knowledge – among His people. This lack of knowledge is destroying them. (4:1, 2.) Notice truth, mercy, knowledge. What a trilogy!
The prophet continues in similar vein, but accuses the priests and professional prophets in particular. (4:4-6.)
The common people, guilty as they are, are not so guilty or responsible as their religious counselors who live upon the people’s fines and sin-offerings. Priests and prophets alike have given themselves over to formal ritual and have forgotten that they have an intellectual and moral responsibility to the nation. Let us never forget that Hosea and the other true prophets of Israel always kept their eyes open to the fact that priesthood is an intellectual, as well as a moral, trust.
Hosea adds another statement that is well worth quoting: “Harlotry, wine, and new wine take away the heart.” (4:11.) The word “heart” in Hebrew is often equivalent to our English words “brains” or “understanding.” So again Hosea is administering an intellectual rebuke. He means here that sexual immorality and strong drink (anciently they went hand in hand as now) weaken mental power and produce “a people stupid and falling to ruin.”
God’s Love for His People. – We have noted some of the transgressions that Hosea believed would bring about the fall of Israel. Professor George L. Robinson traces in Hosea the successive steps in Israel’s national downfall as follows: 1. Lack of knowledge, 2. Price, 3. Instability, 4. Worldliness, 5. Corruption, 6. Backsliding, 7. Idolatry. It is apparent that inward corruption of a nation is more dangerous to its existence than external enemies. France in our own time has found out this bitter lesson taught so long ago by the prophets. In presenting God’s grim message to His people, Hosea’s heart must have been heavy. But despite the corruption of that generation, God gives Hosea a ray of hope for a future time. His love for His people is such that He cannot give them up completely. (11:8, 9.)
This is a great scripture, perhaps the greatest in Hosea. It breathes the spirit of the Man of Galilee whose mercy and love for His brethren transcend all understanding. The passage does not mean that Israel shall escape the due consequences of all her sins. But it does foreshadow the long arm of Jehovah’s love reaching for her in the day of redemption – the latter days – and rescuing the little righteous remnant of which Isaiah and other prophets also speak.
Finally, Hosea is shown, as it were, Israel’s redemption, and in a beautiful poetic passage describes it. (14:5-8.)