“Plead with your mother, plead – for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband – that she put away her whoring 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, and make her like a wilderness, and make her like a parched land, and kill her with thirst.” (Hosea 2:2-3)
No, we’re not at Sexpo, but you could be forgiven for wondering what place words such as these should have in the church, or, moreover, in the Bible! Ah, but we are in the book of Hosea, which has to be one of the most bizarre books in the Bible, and certainly contains one of the most bizarre stories.
Last week we looked at Amos – my favourite prophet. This week I get to introduce you to his bizarre mate, Hosea – another character who prophesied a message of judgement to Northern Israel, in the 8th century B.C.
These men may actually have been mates! Certainly they were preaching in the same place to roughly the same group of people at the same point in Israel‘s history. Many scholars think that Hosea might have started his work just as Amos finished his. Even so, there may well have been some overlap.
Certainly they were speaking to the same generation of people in the same place, and both were delivering equally grim messages of doom, though, despite all these similarities, there is no mistaking one prophet for the other!
Amos, you will remember, was a farmer from the South, who felt called to go and preach to the people of the North, after which he presumably returned to his farm. Hosea seems to have been a northerner to begin with, and we don’t know what his vocational background was, but he certainly seemed to have had a strong connection to the sex industry!
Hosea indeed married to a sex worker. That is clear. What is not so clear is whether, after divorcing his first wife, he then went on to marry a second sex worker, or whether, as most scholars who have tried to reconstruct his story suggest, he went back to his first wife and married her again – plucking her directly from the brothel, it seems, to take her back home!
However we piece together the details, two things about Hosea are uncontestable:
- That he had a highly dysfunctional family life.
- That his life, and most especially his tragic marriage, was his message!
Christian couples who give a priority to ministry have always recognised that there is no shielding your family from the work, and I don’t only mean persons in the ordained ministry. Any family that gives priority to ministry and mission recognises that giving yourself to God and to other people cannot be constrained within a nine-to-five framework. All your family will be effected.
Every couple in mission drags their children with them. It is inevitable! But no one in the history of the missionary work of the people of God, so far as I know, has ever pushed the envelope further in this regard than did Hosea!
Hosea did not just drag his family with him into battle (so to speak) while doing his best to shield them. Rather, he more or less threw his family out in front of him and stood behind them! He did this not only to his wife – his living sermon illustration of unfaithfulness. He did it equally to his three children, each of whom received a horrible symbolic name!
I admit, I did at one stage feel tempted to call our baby son, ‘Doom’, but that was because I really loved the game (the world’s first 3D shooter).
Hosea named his son, ‘Jezreel’, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that Jezreel was the place where Jehu, after killing King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, butchered their entire household – children, family, friends, associates, and really anybody who had even been rumoured to have had a friendly conversation with the deposed royal family. Each had his or her head thrown into a basket at Jezreel.
Calling your son Jezreel was like calling him, ‘9/11’ or even ‘Auschwitz’ – a name that evoked memories of violence and judgement. And the two girls didn’t fare much better. The first was named, “not pitied”, and the second, “not my people”. Admittedly, their names don’t sound too bad in Hebrew – Lo’-ruhamah and Lo’-ammi – but I’m still guessing that they had a hard time at school. Indeed, I can’t imagine their teacher keeping a straight face during roll-call:
- Jessica (here sir)
- Jacob (here sir)
- Not my people …
It is Hosea’s wife, Gomer, though who was the real focus of the prophet’s message, for in her waywardness, Hosea believed, she illustrated the essential problem in the relationship between Israel and her God.
It matters not whether Hosea’s tragic marriage only started after he received his prophetic calling or whether he and Gomer had always struggled, as a couple and as individuals. What is clear is that Hosea saw Gomer’s inability to remain faithful to him as mirroring his nation’s failure in faithfulness towards their God. Gomer flirted and played and got sexually involved with a variety of partners. So likewise, Hosea said, Israel was flirting with the ‘Baals’’, and waking up in bed with even the most vile of foreign deities!
It’s very graphic – the book of Hosea – and full of passion. For what is at stake, Hosea believes, is not simply a nation that’s breaking a few commandments, but rather a people that had forsaken the lover of their souls. They had turned their backs on the one who loved them and who had always loved them.
“But I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; you know no God but me, and besides me there is no saviour. It was I who knew you in the wilderness, in the land of drought; but when they had grazed, they became full, they were filled, and their heart was lifted up; therefore they forgot me.” (Hosea 13:4-6)
Hosea prophecies judgement, but it is judgement with a purpose. The punishment of the people, the prophet hopes, will awaken them to the fact that they have abandoned their true partner and God, and so it will lead them back to Him.
[Israel has] “played the whore … 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.’ Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns, and I will build a wall against her, so that she cannot find her paths. She shall pursue her lovers but not overtake them, and she shall seek them but shall not find them. Then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for it was better for me then than now.’“ (Hosea 2:5-7)
The essential problem, Hosea says, is a lack of commitment to the relationship on the part of Israel – a steadfast marriage-like commitment, embodied in the Hebrew word, ’hesed’, normally translated as ’covenant faithfulness’ or ’steadfast love’.
“For I desire steadfast love (ie. ‘hesed’),” says the Lord, “and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Religion, as a set of empty rituals, he says, is not enough. Sacrifice and sacraments do not in themselves constitute a relationship with the Almighty any more than a wedding ceremony constitutes a meaningful marriage! It is love that is needed: real love, faithfulness, sacrifice, commitment, ‘hesed’.
Now I’m not going to plough further through Hosea today. You can read it yourself in about half an hour, and it really is a book with a single theme and a single message. What I want to conclude with is rather to think a little more about how this prophet, Hosea, compares with his contemporary, Amos.
For the two were, as I said, addressing roughly the same group of people at roughly the same time, and certainly in exactly the same place! Yet if you didn’t work that out, by looking at the timelines they each supply, you could be forgiven for thinking that they are addressing entirely different situations!
Amos’ message seemed to be basically a call to social justice! His words of judgment and doom came in response to the systematic oppression of the poor that was taking place in Israel. The people of the north had developed an unjust system whereby the rich and the powerful were crushing the poor and the weak. The judges were being bribed and there was no justice in the courts. The bottom line had become the bottom line, and all morality and human need had been set aside for the sake of good business!
Hosea barely mentions any of this. Indeed, he barely mentions the social situation at all. Instead, his focus is almost exclusively on the personal relationship between the people of Israel and their God, who is depicted as their lover, their husband, and their true and only life-partner.
So we must ask, were the two prophets just talking about totally different things? Did they have complimentary ministries – one focusing on the secular issues of the people and the other on their spiritual needs? Would it be correct to say that Amos and Hosea cover different issues within Israel – injustice and oppression on the one hand, idolatry and unfaithfulness on the other. One prophet challenges the priests and clergy with spiritual issues, the other challenges politicians and businessmen with economic issues.
This is how this pair of prophets have often been depicted, and I think that this is a mistake, for I believe that the distinction we like to make, between religious issues and justice issues, between the spiritual and the economic, is a distinction that is alien to the Bible itself.
In the Bible, the love of God and the love of neighbour cannot be easily separated. As the Apostle John would later say, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar” It’s not that the two are simply inconsistent. They are contradictory. “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1John 4:20)
When we work for justice and uphold the cause of the needy, we participate in a spiritual and religious act.
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD”, says the writer of Proverbs (19:17). Likewise, to stand up for someone who is weak is an act of love not only towards that person but towards his or her God! Conversely, to neglect your neighbour, even the least of your brethren, is Biblically understood as an act of unfaithfulness towards God Himself!
What we see in the prophecies of Amos and Hosea are not two men seeing two different dimensions to a national problem. They are seeing the same problem, but they describe it differently!
When Amos decried those who “sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2) he wasn’t upset because it was unconstitutional! Amos saw this as an offence against God, who took it personally, and would not tolerate a society where one segment of the population exploited another.
Likewise, when Hosea laments the loss of ‘hesed’ (ie. divine love) in the land, this is inextricably tied in to the crimes of violence he sees around him.
“There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.” (Hosea 4:1-2)
Friends, if there’s one thing I would like you to take home from our two-week venture into the 8th century prophets, it is this: that there is no distinction between sacred and secular worlds. There is no dividing wall between physical and spiritual, between the religious and the economic, between human issues and divine issues, between faith and politics.
All truth is God’s truth! All love is God’s love! All acts of mercy and justice are spiritual and religious acts, and genuine worship of the God of the Bible will always be embedded in communities that exude justice, mercy and love.
As Amos would say, if you want to genuinely worship the God of the Bible, then “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24), or as Hosea would put it, while those who “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” (8:7), if you “sow for yourselves justice, you will reap steadfast love”. (4:12)
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.