Hosea was one of four ‘writing prophets’ (prophets whose prophecies were written down and preserved for us in the Bible) who lived in the eighth century bc. These four were (in roughly chronological as well as alphabetical order): Amos and Hosea, who prophesied in the northern kingdom, Israel; and Isaiah and Micah, who prophesied in the southern kingdom, Judah.
They lived in times of comparative affluence in Israel and Judah. This affluence, however, was not shared. The rich and powerful got richer and more powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. All the prophets addressed this situation but they have different emphases. Whereas Amos concentrated on the social injustices of the people, Hosea stressed their unfaithfulness to God in their idolatry.
Although we do not know much of the details of Hosea’s life (e.g. where he came from, or who his father Beeri was) his circumstances were of supreme importance for bringing home the significance of his message. For Hosea married Gomer, a woman who turned out to be like the people of Israel—unfaithful. She left him for someone else and in doing so, gave an accurate picture of the people of Israel who forsook God to ‘go after other gods’. Hosea, however, was commanded to go and take back his former wife, and so provide a powerful visual aid for the message that God had for his people: ‘You have sinned and must be punished, but I will take you back to myself and restore our relationship’ (see on chs. 1, 3 especially).
The prophet’s wife bore him three children and each of them was give a prophetic name: ‘Jezreel’, ‘Not-shown-compassion’ and ‘Not-my-people’ (see on 1:4–9). Together they speak of God’s judgment, but the judgment is also reversed (1:10–2:1, 21–23).
Hosea seems to have had a prophetic ministry of over thirty years, as we can see from the kings listed in 1:1, and from allusions to historical events in the book. He probably received his call to prophesy around 760 bc, towards the end of the reign of Jeroboam II (c. 793–753) and continued for about thirty years. In this year the so-called Syro-Ephraimite war took place. Syria and Israel (the northern kingdom, often referred to as Ephraim) tried to force Judah to join them in a rebellion against Assyria. Judah refused to join and appealed to Assyria, which then crushed Syria and Israel without trouble. Hosea may well have prophesied almost up to the time of the fall of Samaria in 722.
Hosea proclaimed his message verbally at the natural meeting-places. These would include sanctuaries (e.g. Bethel and Gilgal; 4:15) where people came to worship and offer sacrifice, and the city gates, where the elders gathered to settle legal disputes. He probably spent some time in the capital Samaria, which features in several prophecies (e.g. 7:1; 8:5–6).
In view of the references to Judah in the book (e.g. 1:1, 7, 11; 4:15; 5:10–14), it is possible that Hosea took refuge there at some point in his ministry. This would also explain how his prophecies came to be preserved when the northern kingdom was destroyed (see also the chart ‘The prophets’ in The Song of Songs).
During the first part of the eighth century bc the great powers of the known world were less dominant than they had been: Assyria and Babylon were engaged elsewhere and Egypt was comparatively weak (see the time chart in Approaching the Bible). This allowed the smaller states of Palestine to expand and engage freely in trade. Jeroboam II was a bad king, according to 2 Ki. 14:23–29; he achieved military success but caused suffering to the people of Israel. He was the fourth and last but one in the dynasty of Jehu, who had been anointed king by a representative of the prophet Elisha (2 Ki. 9:1–10) to destroy the line of Ahab. Jehu then killed Joram (2 Ki. 9:24) who had been recovering from his wounds in Jezreel, and followed this up with a massacre of the rest of his family (2 Ki. 10:1–8), also in Jezreel. Having got the taste for blood he apparently went way beyond God’s commands. He killed Ahab’s ‘chief men’, ‘close friends’ and ‘priests’ (2 Ki. 10:11), and followed this up by killing a temple-full of Baal worshippers (2 Ki. 10:18–28). The commendation given in 2 Ki. 10:30 is severely modified by Hosea’s reference to the ‘blood of Jezreel’, as it is by the statement that ‘he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit’ (2 Ki. 10:29). Jehu was followed by his son Jehoahaz and his grandson Jehoash. The third king after Jehu was the above mentioned Jeroboam II, the son of Jehoash.
2 Ki. 15 tells how when Jeroboam died (753) there was a series of brief reigns and assassinations. Jeroboam’s son Zechariah (not the prophet of Judah) was killed by Shallum, who was killed by Menahem. Menahem’s son Pekahiah succeeded him, but after two years was killed by Pekah, who was killed by Hoshea. (This name is spelt the same in Hebrew as Hosea the prophet, but clearly they were not the same person.) Ho. 1:1 does not refer to these kings although they overlap with the kings of Judah mentioned. This is possibly because they were each so insignificant.
The kings of Judah were Azariah (also known as Uzziah; c. 791–740), Jotham (c. 750–732), Ahaz c. 744–716) and Hezekiah (c. 716–687). Note that the dates overlap. This is because they adopted a system of co-regency: the king’s son was appointed co-ruler before the king died. This served to make the change-over smoother and less vulnerable to uprisings and attempted coups.
The religious context in which Hosea prophesied is reflected in many parts of the book. The Israelites under Joshua had conquered the land of Canaan but had failed to destroy the peoples already settled there. They and their descendants, and their religion, continued. The Canaanites worshipped many gods, the chief of which was called Baal. Baal was supposed to be the god who gave fertility to the land. According to a widespread myth he was killed by Moth, the god of summer and drought, but rose from the dead after the goddess Anath avenged his murder. This dying and rising reflected the annual cycle of the seasons. Canaanite religion was designed to give fertility to the land; it did not place a high value on morals. At the temples, men were able to ‘worship’ Baal and stimulate him to acts of fertility by having sexual intercourse with ‘sacred’ resident prostitutes.
Israel was supposed to worship one God, ‘the Lord’, who had no goddess consort. He could not be manipulated by ritual but required strict obedience instead. Clearly, the two religions were incompatible, but the Israelites tried to mix them (1 Ki. 18:21).
The text of the book of Hosea is one of the most obscure in the OT. It seems to have suffered in the process of being copied by one generation after another of scribes. Often, therefore, we cannot be sure of the detailed meaning of a particular passage. Nevertheless, the overall teaching is rarely in doubt; we must simply be satisfied with less precision than we might like.
The basic message of Hosea is that God loves Israel. However, they have sinned so grievously that he is forced to punish them. Nevertheless, he has not given them up for good and will restore them to himself again. Hosea makes use of a number of powerful images in order to enable his hearers to realize what he is saying.
Hosea emphasizes as strongly as possible that there is only one God for Israel: ‘the Lord’. There is no place at all for other gods. The Israelites had fallen into thinking that the Canaanites were right about Baal and the fertility of the land. ‘The Lord’ may well have done some things for the Israelites, like bringing them out of Egypt, but they thought that perhaps they needed to be on good terms with the god of the land as well (2:5). Hosea points out the seriousness of this error (2:8): because of it God will take away the blessing which he gave in the first place, and will bring Israel to realize the actual source of those blessings. She will have a time of deprivation (2:3, 6, 9) but will finally return to God and find restoration.
God’s covenant with Israel forms the basis of Hosea’s message. He chose Abraham and his descendants to be his people. They entered into an exclusive relationship with him which is expressed several times in the Bible in the words, ‘They shall be my people and I will be their God’ (e.g. Gn. 17:7–8; Je. 31:31–33; Zc. 8:8). In Hosea the word ‘covenant’ occurs only in 6:7 and 8:1 but there are many allusions to it. The name of Hosea’s third child, ‘Not-my-people’ signifies the most serious judgment possible: the breaking of the covenant and a rejection of Israel as God’s people. Hosea refers frequently to events in the nation’s early history, when God brought Israel out of Egypt and made them into his people (e.g. 2:15; 9:10; 11:1–4). It is interesting that he does not refer to the bare facts of the deliverance (the exodus, crossing the Red Sea, etc.) but to the personal implications of these events.
This amounts to a forceful statement about the uniqueness of ‘the Lord’. He alone is God, and has power to harm or to heal. He alone has entered into a covenant with Israel. Therefore, it is both wise and right for Israel to be committed to him alone. The consequences of turning away are dire, but there is a gracious invitation to return to the loving God who chose them in the first place. This is clearly the God of the New Testament as well as of the Old.
The prophet uses many metaphors and similies in order to bring home his message. God is portrayed as a husband (with Israel as the wife; 2:2–20); as a father (with Israel as a son; 11:1–11); as a healer (healing the sick Israel; 5:13; 6:1–2; 7:1; 14:4); and as a fowler (with Israel as the birds caught in his net; 7:12; 9:11). He is compared to a lion (5:14), a leopard and a bear (13:7–8); to dew (14:5), the winter and spring rains (6:3), a green pine tree (14:8) and even moth and rot (5:12)! Other imagery used of Israel is that of a heifer (4:16; 10:11), a vine and wine (10:1; 14:7), grapes and figs (9:10), a lily, and olive tree and a cedar of Lebanon (14:5–6), an unwise unborn son (13:13), a cake not turned over (7:8), a faulty bow (7:16), and morning mist, chaff and smoke (13:3).
F. D. Kidner, The Message of Hosea, BST (IVP, 1981).
P. C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Vol. 1, DSB (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984).
J. M. Boice, The Minor Prophets, 2 vols. (Zondervan, 1983, 1986).
D. A. Hubbard, Hosea, TOTC (IVP, 1989).
J. L. Mays, Hosea, OTL (SCM/Westminster/John Knox Press, 1969).
T. McComiskey, Hosea, in T. McComiskey (ed.), The Minor Prophets, vol. 1 (Baker Book House, 1992).
D. Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, WBC (Word, 1987).
c. circa, about (with dates)
OT Old Testament
BST The Bible Speaks Today
DSB Daily Study Bible
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
OTL Old Testament Library
WBC Word Biblical Commentary