The most neglected book of the Bible is actually a collection of little books, often known as The Minor Prophets or The Book of the Twelve. These twelve books were written over a period of about 500 years, from the 9th century BC to the 5th century AD, and they encompass Israel’s history from the period of the divided kingdom after the reign of Solomon through the return of Israel from exile in Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. While these books are often neglected, they shouldn’t be because they are filled with majestic content. They speak to the critical issues of life everyone faces, from finances and time management to interpersonal relationships. They contain some of the most sweeping and profound statements in Scripture of the love of God for His people. Over the summer, I’m going to write about each book in the collection known as The Minor Prophets to give a basic overview and help frame the book so readers can better understand these books as they study them for themselves. I’ll start this week with Hosea.
Hosea gives the dates of his prophetic ministry in Hosea 1:1. The time frame described lasted over 100 years, so it is likely that Hosea began his ministry toward the end of Jeroboam’s reign in the northern kingdom and ended his ministry around the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign in Judah to the south. His ministry lasted perhaps as long as 50 or 60 years, since he was but a young man when he began to serve the Lord as a prophet (Hosea 1:2). During this period of time, the nation of Israel (the northern kingdom, sometimes referred to as Ephraim) underwent significant turmoil and decline, ending with their exile and Assyrian captivity in 722 BC. Hosea was one of the few prophets who lived in the northern kingdom, and during his days he saw seven different kings on the throne, beginning with Jeroboam II. After Jeroboam died, he was succeeded by Zechariah, who was assassinated six months into his reign. His assassin, Shallum, assumed the throne, only to be assassinated himself one month later by Menahem. Menahem managed to stay in power for ten years, but only by paying tribute to the king of Assyria, Tiglath-pileser III. He was succeeded by Pekahiah, who was in turn assassinated by his top military commander Pekah after a short two year reign. Pekah gave way to Hoshea, who was king when Israel fell to the Assyrians. The background of the book of Hosea is one of political, economic, and military disaster for the nation of Israel. More significantly, however, it was a period of spiritual disaster.
In contemporary evangelicalism we have concocted any number of euphemisms to avoid the word sin. A recent article on the Christian satire site The Babylon Bee panned evangelicalism’s allergic reaction to the term sin. We prefer to call our sin something a little more palatable, like bad habits, hangups, mistakes, and so on. The book of Hosea also deals with sin in euphemistic terms, but not such as we are accustomed. Hosea likens our sin the prostitution. Hosea does not try to wash over our sinfulness or make it seem less wicked than it really is. He does not want to make anyone feel comfortable in his sin or help people simply “accept themselves” as they are. To the contrary, he wants to make people as uncomfortable as possible over their sin. He wants to shock his audience into realizing just how sinful sin really is. Those who abandon God and pursue idols are not merely making a mistake; they are committing spiritual prostitution, selling themselves to an idol with the hope of some kind of monetary gain, some kind of blessing they think God is unable or unwilling to give. Hosea exposes our sinfulness for what it is – spiritual harlotry.
This imagery dominates the book, as it opens with Hosea taking a wife of harlotry, as God condemns the people of Israel for the harlotry that is throughout the land. The people of Israel have gone to the Baals with the hope of securing prosperity for themselves. While they have not abandoned and rejected God outright, they had blended their worship of the true God with that of false gods. But God will have no rivals, and to try to mix true worship with idolatry is nothing less horrific than for a wife to try to remain with her husband while selling herself as a prostitute on the side to make a little extra cash. No loving husband would stand for it, and neither will God. His people Israel will be punished for their sins. Judgment will come. It will come in the most dreadful way imaginable, through exile to Assyria (Hosea 13:16).
The message of divine judgment against sin in the Bible is given to people not to drive them into judgment, but to warn them against it. That is true of Hosea as well. God declares that His judgment against Israel’s sin is unavoidable but not the end of the story. For those who repent, His judgment will give way to mercy, forgiveness, grace, and salvation. In fact, the final plea of God through the prophet Hosea is for repentance with a promise of blessing. Yes, Israel has become a disaster through its idolatry and violation of God’s covenant, but God is a faithful God even when His people are not. He will save those who turn to Him in repentance and faith, even after they have prostituted themselves to the Baals.
While today we don’t have the same idols as ancient Israel (I’ve never yet seen an American with a shrine to Baal), we are idolators by nature. We worship at the altar of the god of self, which manifests itself in materialism, narcissism, self-righteousness, compromise with the world, and a thousand other evils. As evangelicals, we can easily fall into this idolatry, and we need to be reminded again and again that idolatry has no legitimate place in the life of a follower of Christ. We are to be devoted to our God, trusting Him alone. As Hosea spells out in Hosea 14:3, we can’t cling to political power, military might, or self-sufficiency if we would genuinely repent and worship God. We must realize instead that our fruit comes from God alone (Hosea 14:8), whose ways are right (Hosea 14:9). If we are the people of God, we will understand this and walk in God’s righteous ways.