“Set me as a seal upon thine heart.”
Song of Solomon 8:6
This article will be divided into two parts. The first part will deal with the prophet Hosea and establish the historical background for his message. The second part will discuss Hosea’s message of covenant fidelity to God and God’s everlasting mercy to His children.
Hosea was active as prophet in the Northern Kingdom of Israel between 752 B.C. ((All dates are B.C. but the symbol “B.C.” will not be indicated throughout this article.)) until the destruction of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians in 721. We do not know as much as we would like about him because very few biographical details are offered in his record. However we can surmise with relative accuracy the years of his prophetic activity, which are based upon the dates of the kings mentioned in the superscription to the book (Hosea 1:1). ((Based on the writings of Hosea it is clear that he was a prophet in the Northern Kingdom (Israel) as opposed to a prophet in the Southern Kingdom (Judea). What is interesting about the superscription is the mention of four Judean kings but only one king of Israel. We would expect that the superscription would list all of the names of kings of Israel who were Hosea’s contemporaries (as we see in superscription to the Book of Amos). Since the focus of the superscription is upon the kings of the Southern Kingdom (Judea) it is believed that this editorial superscription was composed by Judean editors (who were more familiar with Judean kings) some time after the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721.))
The following chronological chart may be a useful guide for placing the proper historical context of various kings, prophets and events.
Hosea’s writings constitute the first among the writings of the twelve Minor Prophets in the arrangement of our present day Bibles though he chronologically follows Amos. In total there are fifteen prophetic books in the Bible broken into two sub-groups: the Major Prophets (including in order Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel) and the Minor Prophets (including in order Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). The names of these sub-groups have nothing to do with the importance of the individual prophet or the significance of their prophetic message but rather with the length of each prophetic book. The larger prophetic books are called “major” and the smaller books “minor.”
Hosea was only one among many prophets active in Israel and Judea proclaiming a message of covenant fidelity to the Lord God. Other prophets who raised their voices in warning against the sins and social ills of the people were Amos, Isaiah, and Micah. Hosea’s name is fitting for the prophetic and merciful message of love delivered to the people of Israel. In Hebrew Hosea means “salvation” and is related to other words of salvation such as Joshua, Hosanna and Jesus. ((Joshua means “savior” and the name Jesus is simply a variant of Joshua. Hosanna comes from the Hebrew hoshanna which means “O save us!”)) In fact, Hosea’s name comes from the Hebrew verb yasha which means “to help, deliver, save.” In particular this word carries with it the connotation of delivering one from “a burden, oppression, or danger” as well as the obligation to succor one who cries out for help in the midst of mistreatment or injustice. ((W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Atlanta: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), pp. 214-215.))
When Hosea began his prophetic activity (ca. 752–721) Israel was experiencing one of its most prosperous times. However, such conditions masked underlying moral and social distress that soon led to difficulties and disorders that Hosea specifically addressed in vivid language and imagery. Before experiencing the power of his message let us briefly review the history of his times.
Early in Hosea’s ministry Jeroboam II ruled on the throne of Israel from the capital city at Samaria ((Samaria was established as the capital city of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) under the rule of Omri (originator of the Omride dynasty) around the year 875. After the city of Samaria was destroyed by the Assyrian king Sargon II in 722 the larger region surrounding the city was named Samaria. The Assyrians had a policy of forcing immigration and emigration of conquered peoples. Once they had depopulated the city of Samaria and the surrounding regions of the upper classes they brought in conquered foreigners to settle the land (most likely people from “Babylon, Hamath and elsewhere”; see John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), p. 276). In later times, particularly during the New Testament time period, anyone from that region was called a Samaritan (cf. the parable of The Good Samaritan in Luke 10), though “pure blooded” Jews considered the people from Samaria as mongrels and mix-breeds, hence Jesus’ message to the Jews in the form of a parable was especially offensive to those who took safety in their lineage instead of their repentance and faith on the living Messiah. Today many people who still live in that region call themselves Samaritans and they practice animal sacrifice not unlike that conducted at the Jerusalem temple many generations ago.)) and Uzziah (also known as Azariah) reigned over Judah from Jerusalem. We remember that Israel and Judah had existed as two separate kingdoms for nearly two hundred years by this point and not always peacefully. However, several key historical factors led to great peace and prosperity during the 1st half of the 9th century BC. While Jeroboam and Uzziah sat upon their thrones, Assyria, which had hitherto been the major political and military force in the Middle East, had succumbed to inner turmoil as well as military threats from surrounding nations. Additionally, several successive weak Assyrian kings could not reverse the situation. ((Specifically the following Assyrian kings: Shalmaneser IV (783-774), Asshur-dan III (773-756), and Asshur-nirari V (755-746). See Bright, A History of Israel, p. 256.)) This allowed both Israel and Judah to pursue expansionist policies militarily, politically, and commercially. Trade was renewed between Tyre, Arabia, and the Red Sea region with Judah and Israel handsomely profiting from the commerce that ran directly through their kingdoms. Increased revenue from taxes, commerce, and tribute garnered praise and gratitude from the populace. It assured a measure of political stability and security for the kings and their kingdoms as well. This also allowed the people to be at greater ease. Furthermore, Jeroboam II and Uzziah maintained amicable relations with each other avoiding the querulous disputes of their predecessors which often plunged the two sister nations into ruinous war and destruction.
Such ease and prosperity, such peace and security, and such commercial and political intercourse among the several nations surrounding Israel and Judah allowed for serious distractions, temptations, difficulties and problems. Though outwardly prosperous, internally Israel slowly eroded away as their morals and faith in God were replaced by syncretistic worship, ease, and political security. What need is there for the Living God when you have a life secured through prosperity and peace?
Some of the problems that plagued Israel included a great disparity between the rich and the poor. The rich took advantage of the poor who had little to no redress through the judicial system (see Amos 2:6-8; 5-10-13; 8:4-6). ((Bright, A History of Israel, p. 260.)) Additionally, many Canaanites lived in the land of Israel and Israelites freely partook of their religious rites and lifestyle, ((In our Christian tradition evidence for devotion to God or Christ can be found in religious names of devotees. So it is not uncommon to find even today those who are of the Christian tradition named Jesus, Michael, John, Mark or Christianson, etc. Thus, we can take a rather perceptive social/religious temperature of a people by quantifying the number of names to any given deity among the populace. So as evidence for how thoroughly Canaanite lifestyles had permeated Israel, we but need to review the Samaria Ostraca that have nearly as many Israelite names with the term “Baal” as “Jehovah.” See Bright, A History of Israel, pp. 260-261. )) heedlessly forsaking the covenants and mercy of the God who had saved them from the terrible hand of the Egyptians, from the burden of bondage, and from the death of the desert. God had explicitly commanded his people, Israel, to love him, to obey him, and to covenant only with him. Nevertheless, many of the Israelites found satisfaction and opportunity in the religious beliefs and practices of the Canaanites or other surrounding nations. These problems were not addressed by moral leadership from the kings. So God called prophets, like Hosea, to denounce, testify, and teach by signs and symbols. As evidence of the unscrupulous and myopic leadership among the kings of Israel one scholar has noticed a relevant theme in the Biblical books of 1 & 2 Kings:
Kings of Israel are depicted as abusive of the rights of their subjects and dangerous to the religious integrity of Israel since they are often involved in foreign alliances, leading to the worship of foreign gods in Israel. ((Hershel Shanks, Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, revised and expanded edition, (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999), p. 141.))
The period of peace and prosperity known to Israel ended with the death of Jeroboam II in 746. The moral and social ills continued to contribute to a dark demise until the death of the Northern Kingdom in 721. Violence, assassination, anarchy, and social injustice were the common themes for many years after Jeroboam II. Such instability inevitably led to disaster. At the same time that Israel was on her knees recovering from the morbosity induced by the excesses of immorality and covenant infidelity to God, mighty Assyria had reasserted her power over all nations under the vigorous and militaristic leadership of Tiglath-pileser III (745-727). Israel could not avoid the yoke of tribute while her head was already bowed by internal disorder and moral decay. When successive kings of Israel foolishly and ineffectively sought to throw off this yoke, Assyria tightened its grip. For example, at one point under the leadership of king Pekah, Israel formed an alliance with Syria, ruled by king Rezin, to stand against the military prowess of Assyria. Pekah and Rezin, both rulers over relatively small and weak nations sought more strength through additional alliances. Naturally they turned to Judah, (ruled by Jotham at this time and then later by his son Ahaz) as a military and political ally. But when Judah would not join the alliance, Pekah and Rezin fought against Judah to force her to submit to the proposed alliance. This conflict has been called the Syro-Ephraimite war (734-732) and serves as the backdrop for some of the writings of Isaiah. ((This was so called because the leaders over Syria (Rezin) and Ephraim (Pekah) joined together against Judah. We learn more about this war in other biblical writings. For example, it frames the writings of Isaiah chapters 1-12 and is dealt with specifically in Isaiah 7. See also 2 Kings 15:37; 16:5-9; 2 Chronicles 27:1-9; 28:1-2.))
Finally, under the poor leadership of king Hoshea, Israel refused to pay tribute to the mighty Assyrian master and instead sought to covenant with Egypt, a seditious act in the eyes of the Assyrian warlords. Thus, they came and leveled Israel to the dust and returned her to the ground from which she had been created. ((The forced deportation of some 27,290 citizens of Samaria (according to the Assyrian account commissioned by Sargon II) marked the beginning of the fall of Israel and the disappearance of the 10 Lost Tribes. Why are they lost? Because they drop out of the historical record. We know little of where these deportees went. There is a whisper of evidence of Israelites in Mesopotamia shortly after the fall of Israel and her capital city of Samaria. But the evidence ends there. For further reading on this evidence see W.F. Albright, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 149 (1958), pp. 33-36. See also W.F. Albright, The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra revised edition (Harper Torchbook, 1963), p. 73ff. Many theories abound as to the whereabouts of the 10 Lost Tribes. However, judicious caution should be exercised before we too readily accept any proposals. In most cases a careful search of the popular literature reflects a creative and imaginary attempt to account for the mysterious disappearance of these fabled groups as well as fanciful reconstructions of their anticipated return. Perhaps it is in human nature to excessively decorate the simple phrase, “we don’t know.”))
Hosea’s message may be one of the most powerful and relevant messages about covenants, atoning mercy, and the balm of healing repentance in all of scripture. However, the book’s first three chapters, redolent of extremely provocative imagery can be the cause for misunderstanding, a hindrance to reading the text, or an invitation to ask misguided questions. ((For example, much of the relevant literature on the Book of Hosea deals with the issue of whether Gomer truly was a prostitute and if Hosea as a prophet was truly commanded to marry her. Unfortunately, such useless questions lead to profitless answers and vacuous moral insights. All the while the Lord patiently cries out to us to return to his covenant fidelity and mercy as Hosea did to his errant wife expressed beautifully throughout the sacred text. If God truly wanted us to know if Gomer was a prostitute or not he would have made it explicitly certain. But God has much more tender and more everlastingly divine purposes to reveal to us through the words of Hosea if we but ask the better questions and read the text with an eye single to the glory of God.))
With careful and revelatory pondering we notice that chapters 1-3 of Hosea testify of fundamental truths as to the nature of God. It is God himself who teaches us these principles in the form of the most sacred and beautiful relationship expressed in human experience—covenant marriage. God is the bridegroom and we as the people of Israel are the bride. In everlasting mercy and tenderness he calls out to us:
And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, ((The English word “loving-kindness” is translated from the Hebrew word hesed. This unique and special Hebrew word carries powerful significance. One scholar has said the following things about the Biblical word hesed: “In general one may identify three basic meanings of the word, which always interact: ‘strength,’ ‘steadfastness,’ and ‘love.’ Any understanding of the word that fails to suggest all three inevitably loses some of its richness. ‘Love’ by itself easily becomes sentimentalized or universalized apart from the covenant. Yet ‘strength’ or ‘steadfastness’ suggest only the fulfillment of a legal or other obligation…Marital love is often related to hesed. Marriage certainly is a legal matter, and there are legal sanctions for infractions. Yet the relationship, if sound, far transcends mere legalities. The prophet Hosea applies the analogy to Yahweh’s [Jehovah’s] hesed to Israel within the covenant (e.g., 2:21). Hence, ‘devotion’ is sometimes the single English word best capable of capturing the nuance of the original. The [Revised Standard Version Translation] attempts to bring this out by its translation, ‘steadfast love.’ Hebrew writers often underscored the element of steadfastness (or strength) by paring hesed with `emet (‘truth, reliability’) and `emunah (‘faithfulness’).” Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, p. 142.)) and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know ((What is interesting about this word “know” is that in Biblical usage it is used both to signify conceptual knowledge as well as conjugal familiarity and intimacy, the highest form of covenantal unity and experience.)) the LORD. Hosea 2:19-20
What is so striking about these passages is the unbounded mercy expressed by God towards his covenant bride who had played the role of a whore with other husbands.
[She] hath played the harlot: she…hath done shamefully…And she shall follow after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them: then shall she say, I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now. Hosea 2:5, 8
Though Israel search for other lovers, she does not find them; yet God searches for her and finds her. Though she has been treacherously unfaithful to Him in the highest regard, with everlasting kindness He draws her unto Him again with all of the promises of the ages:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt. ((See the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15.)) And it shall be at that day, saith the LORD, that thou shalt call me Ishi; ((The Hebrew word Ish means husband and connotes loving kindness in covenantal relationship. Ishi = my husband))) and shalt call me no more Baali. ((The Hebrew word Baal means lord, master, husband. But it is not the term of endearing covenantal relationship evoked by the tenderness of the word Ish. (Baali = my lord, master, husband).)) For I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name. And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. Hosea 2:14-18
A few comments about the preceding passage may be useful. What is powerful about the mention of the beasts of the field, fowls of the heaven, and the creeping things of the ground is that they evoke the images of created order (in contrast to disorderly darkness). For example, Genesis 1-2 uses this same list of beasts, fowls, and creeping things as a sign of the created order. However, we see this same list used invertedly at the destruction of the earth in Genesis 7. Again in Genesis 8 the list is employed to indicate that God’s created order has been established on the earth; all things have been created anew by God for Noah and his posterity. We learn that God is the Master and Lord over all, the one who creates and gives order to all creation. It is in covenant relationship to him, exemplified by covenant marriage, that created order is nurtured, sustained and perpetuated. The final image of the passage evokes the principle and promise of peace for all of those who choose to have God as their Lord and Master.
Even after desecrating herself illicitly with foreign husbands, the Perfect Groom loves more tenderly and calls to her in invitation of repentance and restoration. Never has mercy been more perfect, more whole, or more healing. The God of the Old Testament is indeed still God today and his mercy is indestructible.
Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing. Know ye that the LORD he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name. For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations. Psalm 100
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children’s children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them. Psalm 103:17-18
Fear not; for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded; for thou shalt not be put to shame: for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more. For thy Maker is thine husband; the LORD of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called. For the LORD hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the LORD that hath mercy on thee. Isaiah 54:4-10
He is the God of the Nephites and the Lamanites who called out to them in the deepest pangs over their destruction:
And it came to pass that there came a voice again unto the people, and all the people did hear, and did witness of it, saying: O ye people of these great cities which have fallen, who are descendants of Jacob, yea, who are of the house of Israel, how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you. And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not. O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart. 3 Nephi 10:3-6
The Lord’s voice still cries out to us today:
And again, the Lord shall utter his voice out of heaven, saying: Hearken, O ye nations of the earth, and hear the words of that God who made you. O, ye nations of the earth, how often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not! How oft have I called upon you by the mouth of my servants, and by the ministering of angels, and by mine own voice, and by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind, and by the great sound of a trump, and by the voice of judgment, and by the voice of mercy all the day long, and by the voice of glory and honor and the riches of eternal life, and would have saved you with an everlasting salvation. D&C 43:23-25
God is steadfast, loyal and devoted in his everlasting love towards us. The gift of redemption, the gift of healing, the gift of covenantal relationship is offered to us at the small price of penitent fidelity. May we continue to seek Him as a most precious pearl. May we learn of Him and His everlasting mercy unto us as we humble search the scriptures. And, may we find our hearts and souls healed and filled as we experience the reality of the atonement like a pure garment as we are “encircled about eternally in the arms of his love” (2 Nephi 1:15).