Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel. This week, we are continuing our study of Hosea so be sure to read Hosea chapters 10 through 14 as part of our Bible Reading challenge.
We stopped in Hosea 9 last week but that was an artificial stop point. Really, the prophet’s judgement speech goes from 6:4 to 11:7 without pausing for a breath. We continue to gain insight in these last chapters into the purpose of God’s retribution. While Hosea is the prophet most sensitive to Israel’s inner spiritual life, he by no means ignores Israel’s more obvious signs of rebellion. Hosea is very specific about the public actions of the people that Yahweh finds most repulsive. Also, his similes and metaphors endure throughout the last chapters, springing back and forth from judgement to mercy so often that you cannot help but worry he will not land on a compassionate note. Only at the end, in an attempt towards resolution, do his previously used symbols for Israel’s current sins get craftily reinvented to represent Israel’s future redemption.
Idolatry, desperate military alliances, and illegitimate kings are the most frequently mentioned outer transgressions committed by Israel. Because these acts are so specific to this people, living at this place and at this exact time, I want to pause and give a miniature history lesson. I believe one of the reasons these prophetic texts are so little read is because it is hard in a 45-minute sermon to try and close the gap in time and culture between the ancient and modern.
When a rift separated the people of Israel from the kingdom of Judah, 1 Kings 12 says Israel’s King Jeroboam I went to great lengths to distinguish the Israelite kingdom from the Judahite kingdom. He could not risk the people of Israel pilgrimaging to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh on the biblical feast days. While there, they might have decided to renew their allegiance to the House of David. Jeroboam I established alternative shrines within his own kingdom at Bethel and Dan. He placed golden calves in his holy places and inaugurated a priesthood outside the Levitical system. He even appointed feast days for sacrificial worship. Every Israelite king after Jeroboam I continued in the apostasy. They were making up their own religion, while also keeping a quasi-Yahwistic appearance.
By Hosea’s time in the 8th century BCE, the pagan altars and pillars proliferated all over Israel’s countryside. King Jeroboam II, like his namesake, did “evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:23). The more Israel prospered, and she was very much prospering, the more she turned to idolatry (Hos. 10:1). When Hosea spotted the beautified altars and sanctuaries to Ba’al, he saw them for what they represented: the spreading sickness of Israel’s sin (Hos. 8:11). Yahweh says, “the more I called for them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Ba’als and burning incense to idols” (Hos. 11:2). Ignoring the Divine standard to have no other gods before Yahweh and to refrain from making graven images, Bethel became a center for Israel’s cult worship. Hosea routinely references Bethel as Beth-Aven, but Bible scholars think this is wordplay. Bethel was the historical name which means “house of God;” Hosea calls it Beth-Aven which means “House of Evil.” The prophet Amos, a contemporary of Hosea who we will read in November, directly confronted the priests in Bethel and was turned away. Gilgal was another center of pagan worship in Israel that would become nothing more than a heap of stones after the Assyrian invasion (Hos. 12:11).
Hosea was sickened by idol worship. He constantly mocked the idea of worshiping something fashioned by craftsman from wood or metal (Hos. 8:6, 13:2). Hosea scornfully points to the calf idol at Bethel, predicting the coming day when the calf will be carted off with the captives to Assyria. The idol will no longer be an object of Israel’s worship, but of its shame and a symbol of its powerlessness (Hos. 10:6). Likewise, with the Israelites living in captivity, thorns and thistles will grow over the dismantled altars (Hos. 10:8). Hosea envisioned a time, when the exile was over, that the people would return and Ba’al as a name would no longer even be mentioned (Hos. 2:17).
Hosea also did not see the kings of Israel as legitimate. Zechariah, Jeroboam II’s son, was the last king in the line of Jehu. After only six months on the throne, he was assassinated by his army commander Shallum who killed not only Zechariah but every family member left in the Jehu dynasty (2 Kings 1). Though Jehu was not a godly king, he was appointed by God to capture the throne from the evil King Ahab and therefore his descendants possessed divine endorsement to the throne since the days of Elisha.
Every king from Shallum to the fall of Israel accessed the throne through murder and deception. Menahem, another army captain, overthrew Shallum after only a month-long rule. Not surprisingly, his decade in power was marked by violence. Menahem’s son Pekahiah succeeded him, only to be assassinated by the army captain Pekah. Pekah lasted twenty years on the throne before he too was killed by his own army captain Hoshea. The book of 2 Kings provides most of the story of Israel’s violent succession of military leaders turned kings. Many of the details are confirmed in Assyrian chronicles from the period as well.
None of the kings after Zechariah had the right to rule through God’s divine endorsement. Hosea 8:4 says, “They set up kings but not through me.” Israel’s spiritual leaders going back to Samuel had foreseen the dangers of kingship (1 Sam. 8:4-18). Still, God granted them their desire to have kings like the other nations. In the end, their kings were the source of their ruin, which even the evil Assyria could attest. Hosea sardonically predicts that when the Assyrians attack, Israel’s monarchy will dissolve like a splinter floating on the surface of the water (Hos. 10:7). God, reinforcing the theme that He alone is the source of Israel’s deliverance, asked rhetorically, “Where now is your king, to save you?” And He adds, “I have given you kings in my anger, and I have taken them away in my wrath” (Hos. 13:10-11).
Hosea hated witnessing the political maneuvering of Israel’s corrupt kings. During the long reign of Jeroboam II, the Aramean and Assyrian kingdoms were both weakened by their own internal problems. This gave Israel a chance to expand and thrive, but only for a moment. After the death of Jeroboam II, Assyria revived during the reign of its new charismatic leader Tiglath-Pileser III. Once again, the Assyrian empire went on the march, hungry for heavier tributes from their vassal states.
For a decade, King Menahem obediently paid tribute to Assyria as a way of courting Assyria’s favor toward his ill-supported kingship (2 Kings 15: 19-20). When King Pekah of Israel ruled, he refused to continue paying the enormous tribute to Assyria and instead formed a coalition with King Rezin of Damascus. Pekah hoped Egypt and Judah would join their coalition to resist the Assyrian yoke, but when Judah refused the Israelites attacked Judah. Assyria quickly responded to King Pekah’s betrayal and Judah’s plea for assistance, killing Rezin and subduing northern Israel (2 Kings 16:9). When King Hoshea took the throne, he at first had the support of Tiglath-Pileser. But he soon refused to pay tribute to Assyria and appealed to Egypt for protection. King Hoshea’s action prompted an attack by Assyria (2 Kings 17) and he was taken prisoner. Fed up with the obstinate vassal state, Assyria captured all of Israel, once and for all, in 722 BCE, just as the prophets had been warning for decades.
Instead of relying on God, they hedged their bets on their own military strength and their weak alliances. Hosea gets to the crux of the matter in 10:13: “Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people” (Hos. 10:13). Over and over, the prophet Hosea teaches that Israel will not find help from her military might, her kings, or foreign coalitions. Her help can only come from Yahweh, but that is the one place she never looked.
On the surface, illegitimate kings and bad military alliances do not seem like spiritual offenses, but rather political missteps. That is how I felt first reading the prophets. I get the sin of idol worship, but why is it bad if King Pekah tried to build up his military and make strategic coalitions?
It’s important to remember that Israel was a nation entirely built by God, from its monarchy to its land borders, to its constitution. God had to be where they turned before battle, before appointment of a king, or before a national crisis. They were doing none of that and therefore their nation could no longer stand. And God destroyed the sources of Israel’s downfall: the idols (10:4), the monarchy (10:7), and the coalitions.
That is enough of a history lesson for now. But if you invest the energy in learning that history lesson, it will cover us for Amos, Micah, and Jonah too. Remember those prophets were breathing the same air as Hosea. If I went to fast, do not forget, I also post the transcript for every episode and include it on our website’s blog: www.thejerusalemconnection.us
So, on to Hosea’s metaphors. No Hosea reading portion is complete without them. In one of the more disturbing metaphors, Israel is portrayed as an infant still in the womb that refuses to come out and instead dies (Hos. 13:3). That is the degree of Israel’s resistance to life with Yahweh. Hosea’s harsh decrees are interrupted by frequent outbursts of mercy, but overall, most readers by chapter thirteen start to feel anxious for a transition in tone. There is not much time for the book to end on a positive note.
Even though the primary metaphor of Hosea begins with God as a jilted husband to Israel, Hosea’s final segment has God in the role of Father to Israel. The language of Yahweh’s father feelings towards Israel are the most tenderly worded verses in the whole book. Yahweh looks back nostalgically to the beginning of His journey with the people of the covenant. He says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (Hos. 11:1). The Hebrew prophets always point to the days of the wilderness wanderings with fondness. This was the time when the people trusted Yahweh completely, like children.
As a father, God is just and must let Israel experience the consequence of her actions; they “must bear their guilt” (Hos. 13:16). But also, as a father, God is merciful and longs for the day of Israel’s return, the day He can “rain salvation” upon them and “reap the fruit of steadfast love” (Hos. 10: 12). The pain of Yahweh comes through when right after chastising Israel, He cries out, “How can I give you up?” as his “heart recoils” within Him (Hos. 11:8-9). That is the tension of a father’s love, and it is the intimate emotional range of God provided throughout every chapter of this prophetic book. God is not abandoning Israel. He will be there for her and heal her wounds. A father’s love has a vast range.
Morning dew which had earlier been a symbol for Israel’s transience, is now used as a symbol for God’s nourishment of His people (Hos. 14:7). Sacred trees had been the site of Israel’s cavorting with idol worshippers. But now, Cypress trees are symbols of Yahweh’s eternal protective love (Hos. 14:8). Despite the certainty of Assyria’s attack and the pending captivity, Yahweh offers one last chance for repentance. In 14:2, Hosea even tries to put the words of confession directly in their mouths and give them the exact script they need to turn their fate around: “Take away all iniquity; accept that which is good and we will render the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us, we will not ride upon horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In thee the orphan finds mercy.” But the script was not followed so deliverance did not come, at least not to that generation.
While the confessional prayer of Hosea may not have saved the people from Assyrian captivity, the words of Hosea still live on today and do provide the script for one of the Jewish daily prayers. Every day, when Jewish men wrap the tefillin strap around their middle finger, they pray “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord.”
Jesus said, a prophet is never a prophet in his hometown (Luke 4:24), but perhaps also you could say a prophet is never a prophet in his own day. The wisdom and truth of the prophets live on today though.
Please join me next week as we begin our study of the prophet Joel. Joel is a short book so next week please read Joel 1.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.