A long time ago I was a secondary school teacher. I well remember one unlikely, unplanned lesson. My subject was science but this day I had to stand in for the RE teacher, for a class that typically gave me a hard time when I taught them. The subject he would have taken was Hosea the Prophet. I took the brave decision to teach on that subject and began by telling them the story of how God told Hosea to go and marry a prostitute. Further to being taken aback by this unexpected account, I found myself teaching an interested class!
In the Bible studies I am leading at my church, I have now come to the Minor Prophets and it was the turn last night to study the first of them – Hosea. The story can be found in the Book of Hosea (see here), which comprises fourteen not too long chapters, of which the first three is to do with Hosea’s relationship with his wife, Gomer, with the remaining eleven picking up on this story and relating it to God’s relationship with Israel (to whom he was also betrothed) and how God feels when it became abundantly evident that Israel had broken their marriage vows and wantonly gone after other gods.
The culmination of all this was Israel (the ten northern tribes) being taken into exile by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and unlike Judah (the two southern tribes) who were taken into exile by the Babylonians 125 years later (again as part of God’s judgment, just as the prophets had prophesized), they did not return to their land as a recognizable entity (although the Bible predicts one day they will – and it will be a time of great blessing). As far as God was concerned, as related through Hosea, those who He was betrothed to (priests, prophets, princes, profiteers, people) had committed heinous sin by rejecting Him, worshipping false gods, making unholy alliances with God’s enemies and doing evil: infidelity, independence, intrigue, idolatry, ignorance, immorality, ingratitude. So much of the book of Hosea is about God pleading with His people, warnings of judgment if they did not repent, yet yearning that they return to him and find healing, blessing and restoration. They were beloved of Him and, while they were faithless, God remained faithful and yet could not overlook their sin, and He often used prophets as mouthpieces of His word.
But back to the prophet and the prostitute. It was clear that Hosea’s relationship with his wife was a metaphor on how it was between YHWH and Israel. It seems astonishing that God specifically told Hosea to marry someone who he knew was going to be unfaithful to him. It was likely that one of more of his three children were not his. Eventually, she sunk so low that she left the marital home altogether and was sold into slavery. Yet even then Hosea remained committed to his unfaithful wife (and such was God’s love to Israel (His wife)). Hosea redeemed his wife from the slave market and invited her to live with him again. It is a repeated theme that the prophets of the Bible were often told to do unusual things and often paid a high price (sometimes with their lives) although for Hosea the major indignity and sorrow was marrying and keeping married to an unfaithful woman. I doubt whether he could have understood the message he was commanded to give without that prior experience. Sadly, despite repeated warnings, he saw his message go unheeded and the disaster he predicted followed, likely while he was still alive.
One of the many remarkable things about the book of Hosea is its use of phrases, some of which have modern day usage (e.g. those included here). It is one of many reasons I love this book. Another is its continual reminder God is committed to His people, however many times they blow it. Yet another is the extraordinary parallel between Hosea’s experience and God’s. I can’t say though that Hosea is my favourite prophet given there are many other wonderful examples in the Bible, and as I continue my journey through the Minor Prophets, I would like to show why they are all my favourites. But Hosea did touch me deeply like no other prophet has, just as it had as a young teacher, but now as I look back on my own life at so many hurts and disappointments, beginning from childhood. For the lesson we can take from Hosea’s own life is that we can use these experiences to better communicate God’s message to a needy world.