The Prophets: Hosea: The Great Reversal of the Great I-Am
The Book of Hosea is the first book of the Book of the Twelve, the so-called Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. Hosea is given primary place among these prophets for good theological reasons. His prophecy (750-730 B.C.) is second chronologically behind Amos (about 760 B.C.), but Hosea is first because of the fundamental notions he works with to explain Israel’s past as the people of God and to foretell its future.
This explanation and proclamation involves the great reversal of the Great I-AM with Israel as his people, the object of his divinely passionate attention in a world that is his creation.
The eighth century before Christ was a watershed in the history of Israel. Before this time, prophets did not write down their ministries. No books are attributed to Elijah or Elisha.
The vitality of the eighth-century prophets is bound up with the way they saw beyond Israel’s punishment for breaking the covenant between Israel and God. They saw a new world coming in the latter days that is and will be the destiny of God’s people with their Lord.
They wrote down their ministries as if to say: “We see that you will not obey. You have not listened, even from the beginning of our covenant with God. But the Day of the Lord will come, when you will hear, and you will be his people. Time will prove that we are the true prophets of the Lord.”
Fundamental to Israel’s sin history is the breaking of the covenant established by the Great I-AM of God through Moses at Mt. Sinai.
When God appeared to Moses in the incident of the burning bush, Moses asked God what his name was (Exodus 3:13, Revised Standard Version). “God said to Moses, `I am who I am.’ And he said, `Say this to the people of Israel, `I am has sent me to you’ ” (verse 14).
Hosea 1 introduces us to the problem the Great I-AM has with his people. Hosea 1:1 is a historical introduction that places the prophecy before the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.
Hosea 1:2-2:1 introduces us to the fundamentals of this problem. The marriage between the prophet Hosea and his wife, Gomer, a temple priestess, is to be used as a metaphor to describe the relationship between Israel and the Lord God.
The prophet embodies the Word of God whose message he must bear to his people. God is to Israel as Hosea is to Gomer.
Other metaphors are also used in the book. Hosea 11:1 will render the covenant in terms of a father-and-son relationship. The love of a father for his son may also be used to explain the nature of the covenant relationship between God and his people. But the marriage relationship is primary to the prophecy of Hosea.
The marriage produces three children. The names of these children signify the nature of the history of the covenant between God and Israel. In the Semitic world, names were vital.
The first boy born to Gomer is named Jezreel (Hosea 1:4-5). It is a play on words with the name of Israel. The end of the kingdom of Israel is prophesied to come just as surely as King Jehu once massacred the followers of the Baalim in the Valley of Jezreel (2 Kings 9-10).
Jezreel means “God will sow.” Much bitter irony is inherent in this name. Jacob means “bent,” and Israel means “God will straighten.” Israel was once bent, and now the God of Jacob will sow his judgment with what must be straightened again. Like the Baalim of Tyre and Canaan, the Lord will remove Israel from the land.
The second child is a girl. She is named “Not-Pitied.” This name belongs to the beginning of God’s determined passion to struggle with his people in order that they might come to know him for who he truly is. We may refer to Exodus 34:6-7. Even after Sinai, Israel prefers a golden calf to the great I-AM of her Exodus from Egypt.
She can reject her husband. But to live without the deep compassion of God for humanity is to not know the love of God that shapes the beginning of every true marriage. It is to believe that conception belongs to something other than the Living God’s care, compassion and holy love for that which has been conceived. On the other hand, it is to be pitied to know the womb-like character of the Lord God’s care for his conception of Israel. This is the Hebrew meaning of the word for pity.
The third child is a boy, who marks the completion of the accusation the prophet makes against Israel. The boy is named “Not-My-People,” the reversal of the covenant name given Israel in relation to the Lord (Hosea 1:9a). Ratification of the covenant concluded with the proclamation that Israel belonged in marriage to the Lord God (Exodus 19-24).
He declared her to be “His People.” Not to be “His People” is to join other nations in their opposition to the Creator and Redeemer of the world. It is to bring down on their own heads the curses inherent in the covenant between God and the world.
The reason for naming the boy “Not-My-People” is explicit. Because you have named me, says the Lord, `”Not-I-AM,” I have named you “Not-My-People.” The reference must be to Exodus 3:14 and the Self-Naming God (I am Who I AM) of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.
Scholars have observed in Hosea 1:9b that the people called God “Not I-AM,” using the word found in Ex. 3:14. But our Bibles still read this way: “Then the Lord said, `Call him Lo-Ammi, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.’ ”
I read the Hebrew as follows: “Call his name `Lo-Ammi’ (Not-My-People), because you are not my people, since I am `Not-I-AM’ to you.” The point is that behind the names of God for the biblical world lies the great I-AM of the ministry of Moses at Sinai with the people of God.
The fundamental sin of Israel in covenant with her Lord is to turn the great I-AM that God is with her, into something that does not exist. This temptation allowed Israel to marry the name of Yahweh Elohim (translated Lord God in English Bibles) to the Baalim of the Canaanite world. It is this syncretism that allowed her to break her marriage vows with the Holy One.
We should feel the finality of the divorce if we are going to appreciate the vitality of the restoration of this marriage. Only then may we understand the depths of our opposition toward the Creator and Redeemer of our lives. Only then may we hear a real word of redemption for our lives. God and God’s salvation cannot be divorced from one another, and in time Israel will know him for who he truly is. That is the time in which Hosea sees, according to the Wisdom of God, the ultimate destiny of Israel.
We shall try to follow the way the prophecy announces both Israel’s judgment and her salvation in the latter days. Israel will not be forever Jezreel. She will become “Pitied” again. She will become “My-People” again.
Because of her future I title this study “The Great Reversal of the Great I-AM of God.” The prophecy sees a future for Israel as a time when God will be known for who he truly is with her, when she will be his people, and they shall enjoy majestically the fruits of their marriage to one another.
In the latter days, the purpose of the covenant relationship between the Lord God and Israel will be fulfilled among the nations. His people will possess real knowledge of God. This knowledge will be understood among the nations.
We can learn much of the Lord God when we take the time to reflect upon this great reversal of Israel’s fortunes.
In the beginning of our study of the book of Hosea, we saw how the I-AM of God in Israel’s Exodus (Exodus 3:13-14) lies behind the development of the prophetic vision of the People of God.
We saw how the People of God became Not-My-People because they turned the I-AM of God into the Not-I-AM and made way for themselves to “marry” their idols to the names of God in the Old Testament.
Hosea’s marriage to the temple priestess Gomer and the three children she bore him portrays God’s judgment upon Israel.
The final consequence of this judgment will bring about, in the latter days of the history of God’s People, a great messianic salvation for Israel. It is with the grace of this judgment and the judgment of this grace that we can see the book’s shape and substance for us.
If we consider chapters one to three as an introduction to the whole of the vision, then we notice that both judgment and salvation are bound up with one another in the mind of the author with a passionate and personal commitment to the covenant between God and his people.
God and Israel are in relationship with each other just as Hosea and Gomer are married to one another. The reversal of their broken marriage is surprisingly described throughout the book. Though an oracle of judgment is announced, Israel’s ultimate salvation is proclaimed (Hosea 2).
Then the call of Israel to hope in her God is made with great anticipation (Hosea 3). We cannot understand the judgment apart from the salvation proclaimed in the book. We cannot understand the reversal of her fortunes foretold in the book apart from this judgment.
How can we learn to think the modes of judgment and salvation in the being of God’s great I-AM? How may we develop some meaningful concept of the message of this prophet to the People of God?
After this introduction to the prophecy of Hosea, we begin to read two judgment speeches. They are addressed first to all Israel and her corruption of the covenant with her God (Hosea 4) and secondly to Israel’s priesthood (Hosea 5:1-7).
To come to an appropriate understanding of the judgment, we may study Hosea 4:1-3: “Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, Because the Lord has a lawsuit against you: There is no faithfulness, there is no covenant love, there is no knowledge of God in the land. Instead there are only curses, lying and murder, stealing and adultery. All the boundaries are broken, and violence follows bloodshed. Because of this, the land mourns, all who live on it waste away. The beasts of the fields, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea are dying” (my translation).
This judgment speech begins with a call to attention. The exhortation is important in Israel. Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!”) also calls Israel to attention. Without hearing the word of God, his people will not obey.
Once the attention is obtained, the covenant lawsuit is announced against the nation. In it God will act through the message of the prophet as a prosecutor of his people. The irony is not lost upon the prophets. His people will be convicted and punished through the very prophets they refuse to hear.
This is because they have turned the great I-AM of God into a Not-I-AM, according to what we have read in chapter one: “There is no truth or faithfulness, no covenant loyalty or love, and no knowledge of God throughout the nation living on God’s promised land.”
These three terms mark the reason for the judgment just as, in the introduction to the prophecy, the names of Gomer’s children marked the curse of God upon the monarchies of Israel and Judah.
1) There is no truth, no ultimate reality upon which Israel can rely. She is doomed for desolation.
2) There is no covenant love (hesed) in the land. Scholars have studied this term thoroughly. It is the fundamental concept by which the promise of God in covenant with his people will be kept.
He took it away from Saul’s house, but promised never to remove it from the House of David (2 Sam. 7:13-14). It is with the freedom of the Lord God’s divine passion to keep the promise made once to Abraham that the term achieves its significance. The whole history of Israel is bound up with its meaning (see Psalm 136).
There is no knowledge of God in the land. Knowledge of God is knowledge gained in an intimate and saving relationship with him. This knowledge cannot be divorced from the wisdom by which the Lord gives himself to be known in covenant with his people.
When they turn the great I-AM that he truly is into the Not-I-AM that he is not, then whatever they possess as knowledge is no knowledge. It is but the dumb and deaf dreams of idols and idol makers. It is also the stuff that allows the Torah of God, given through Moses at Mount Sinai, to go unheeded.
That is what the list of sins against Israel are—deafness to the Torah of the People of God. There was a prohibition against swearing and cursing in the Law. There was a prohibition against lying and deceiving in the Law. There was a prohibition against murdering, thievery and adultery in the Law.
When all these are broken, what can the land do but mourn, and when the land mourns, what happens to those who live upon it? They waste away. Beasts of the fields, birds of the heavens and fish of the seas die.
In his lawsuit against his people, we are plainly taught that all of the creation suffers under the curse upon God’s people. When Israel is cursed, the whole world suffers. The creation itself is made to bear witness to this judgment.
The covenant lawsuit of the Lord God against his people does not result merely in a lack of knowledge about him, from lack of loyal love for him, from lack of a faithfulness that belongs to his truth’s faithfulness, but it results in the demise of the whole world.
When Israel is punished, the whole world knows death rather than life.
The profundity of this judgment must be announced throughout the society of ancient Israel. Beside the people, priest, prophet and king must understand the thoroughness of its accusation against all Israel.
Thus we read the progress that is made with the writhing repetitions of judgment that whirl on throughout the rest of the chapters of the book’s accusations against Israel.
Though all of society protests, still Israel is judged. Hosea announces in no uncertain terms the reasons for the judgment against people, priesthood, prophet and royal rule alike.
All of them together shall experience not only the thoroughness of the judgment, but surprisingly also the faithfulness, the holy love and the wisdom of God in his covenanted interaction with Israel.
Without this kind of judgment, there will be no salvation of the God who would be known among his people. In the latter days he will be known for who he truly is.
It seems that the judgment is absolutely devastating, but it also is not the last word from the Lord God.
There will come again the salvation of the Lord God for them. There will be real knowledge of God in the land. There will true loyal love for God among his people.
Faithfulness and holy love will be wed in Israel once again. Israel will know in the latter days the deep and profound love of God for her. He will win her back to himself. We shall look into the nature of this passion in the salvation speeches we find in Hosea for Israel in our next study.
We have shown in the last two studies how Israel turned the great I-AM of the Lord her God into the Not-I-AM that allows her to break her covenant vows to Yahweh and marry herself to her idols.
For this sin against her covenant-making God, the People of God bring down upon themselves the fire of his judgment against their evil opposition to him. The children of the marriage of the prophet Hosea to the temple priestess Gomer bear names that embody the divine judgment against Israel.
Nature of this judgment
We have also studied the nature of this judgment. When the great I-AM who covenants with his people is denied his real presence with Israel, the result is disobedience throughout the land.
Instead of faithfulness, loyal covenant love and real knowledge of God in the land, there are false swearing of oaths, murder, stealing, adultery and ecological crises in Israel.
Yahweh’s case against his people is won with evidence not even the heavens and the earth can deny.
Ignorance of who God truly is in his acts toward his people mean for Israel a complete breakdown of her existence and eventual exile from the land at the hands of the Assyrian Empire.
But we have also seen that this judgment is not the last word of the prophet. Hosea also knows of a salvation that is the ultimate word of the Lord for Israel.
Love songs in Hosea
In fact, it is the point and counterpoint resolution of divine judgment and salvation that is marked by the whirlwind of God’s word blowing through the land. The holy passion of the divine judge is experienced with a purpose that rests ultimately in the promise he will keep with his people. We may study this passion by looking at the love songs in the Book of Hosea (Hosea 11:1-11 and Hosea 14:1-8).
Hosea 11:1-11 involves a change in the main metaphor of marriage in the Book of Hosea. It relies on the father-son relation rather than the husband-wife relation for speaking about the covenant between God and Israel.
It sees Israel being delivered as a son from his slavery in Egypt. The whole history of the People of God in covenant with the Lord is rehearsed in this complaint of a father over his son.
Even though the Lord brought Israel forth as his son from Egypt into the land, yet the boy would not return to his Father’s love. Even though the fire of the sword was upon him, Israel did not turn to his Father.
And then we read this:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
“I will deliver you, O Israel!
“How can I give you up as I did Admah?
“Or treat you as I did Zeboim?
“My heart writhes within me!
“With compassion, I long to be with you!
“I will not be angry with you!
“I will not turn and destroy Ephraim!
“For I am God and not a man,
“The Holy One in your midst!” (author’s translation).
For me, these texts are some of the most powerful verses in the Old Testament.
They show us the great I-AM in covenant with his people. In his divine and holy freedom he decides to save Israel, as if Israel were his son, even though his son is only and always the rebel toward him.
This verse demonstrates the loyal love of the Lord God in covenant with his people and the great pathos in God’s divine determination to save Israel as his people, in spite of their disobedience.
The salvation of Israel is rooted in the divinely free will and holy passion of God as Father for Israel his son. God is not only present with Israel in the history of the world, but also present with Israel as the son of his holy love.
Here, Israel’s fortunes are turned at last to the great I-AM. The same lion that devours his people in judgment shall gather them back together with a roaring love that none shall be able to deny.
The other love song appears in Hosea 14:1-8. Here words of love are put into the mouth of Israel.
“Wipe away our iniquity and embrace us with goodness that the peace offering may be the fruit of our lips.”
As the bride of the Lord God, Israel is to enjoy union and communion with her husband. In this way, their marriage will be restored. The covenant promise will be fulfilled.
These are words of love that remind us of one of the greatest love songs—the Song of Solomon.
Hosea declares that Jezreel will become once again the Lord’s Israel. Not-pitied will become Pitied. Not-My-People will become My-People. The Not I-AM shall be at last the great I-AM the Lord her God—all this with a love that drops down from the heavens to drench like the morning dew the thirsty land of the People of God.
It is possible to read verse 5 of this love song in the following way: “I-AM is as the dew with Israel!”
In this way, we might hear the usual translation “I will be as the dew to Israel” as the great reversal of the great I-AM with Israel. The Lord with his people would be as the dew is to the land.
According to the words of Hosea’s prophecy, this means that Israel will blossom in her covenant with her God. She shall be fruitful in his loyal love. She shall be healed in the shadow of his goodness, enriched in the beauty of his passion for her.
She shall know and be known by the great I-AM who is the Creator and Redeemer of the world. She shall be found embraced by his promise. The Ephraim that could not be given up is freed from her idols.
“O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols?” (Hosea 14: 8)
The day will come for the People of God when, freed from their idols and idol-making, freed from her betrayal of her husband, she will know the joy of union and communion with her God.
She will bear the Messianic promise. She will know no more the idols of her disobedience against the Lord, but rather she will bear the fruit of their covenanted love for one another.
This fruit will be as of the olive tree. It is a fruitfulness that comes when the great I-AM, the Lord God who is with her, fulfills his vows to her. Perhaps this is the greatest love song in the world.
These love songs teach us, even in the midst of the divine judgment, the source of the relentless freedom with which God pursues the one he loves.
In this covenant, God is for his people with such fearsome love that, beyond all the punishment of his judgment against her, they will experience the great promise of the Lord. The great I-AM will not be denied. In the world, Israel shall become his faithful wife.
The whirlwind of this judgment and salvation in the Book of Hosea ends with an exhortation that calls attention to the role of wisdom in the prophecy of the history of Israel:
“Who is wise? He will discern these things.
“Discerning, he will know them,
“For the ways of the Lord are right,
“And the righteous walk in them,
“But transgressors stumble in them” (Hosea 14:9).
The question asks the readers to be wise in such things as the book contains. The prophet would have his readers understand the future to which his ministry would point the People of God.
The righteousness of God in covenant with his people will be confirmed. His people will become fully justified. The wicked will stumble in the Lord God’s judgment against the unrighteous. They will perish. Wisdom and holy passion will come together so that Israel will experience in the latter days the joy of God’s redeeming love.
Next, we will consider the relation of wisdom to prophecy.
We have seen in the previous three studies that the Book of Hosea is to be read in the light of the great reversal of the Great I-AM, the Lord God of Israel.
Because his people turn the I-AM into the Not-I-AM, they become the Not-My-People, the Not-Pitied and the Jezreel rather than His People, Pitied and True Israel.
They have rejected their Redeemer and Creator. The prophecy of Hosea is thus a vision of this reversal of Israel’s fortunes. We saw how the marriage relation between Hosea and Gomer embodied this prophetic word of Yahweh with Israel. We saw how the holy passion of the Lord God roars like a whirlwind through Israel to destroy her in the Promised Land.
His judgment is devastating. He gives his people into the hands of the Assyrian armies. Israel as his bride is to be taken into exile by her enemy, with whom she has willingly committed adultery.
She does not know the grace or loyal love of Yahweh Elohim. We saw how with one judgment speech after another the prophecy applies to the whole of Israel’s affluent society, people, priest, prophet and king alike.
Without knowledge of the loyal love of the Holy One, Israel will not remain in the Promised Land.
Yet, judgment in Israel is not the last word. The judgment is ministered with a view to the keeping of the ancient promise. This view is given to us in the form of salvation oracles and love songs that follow the announcements of the judgment.
We are asked to hear the music of the Great I-AM himself with his Israel. Like the marriage relationship and the like the relationship between a father and his son (Hosea 11), the One who is divine shall ultimately deliver and save his people (Hosea 11:9-10).
If he can roar in judgment against his people, he can roar for Israel’s salvation. Thus, Israel is to know both the judgment and the salvation of the One God. Prophecy is to be understood in the light of the great reversal wrought by the Great I-AM in covenant with Israel.
Hosea concludes with a call that embraces the sage in Israel (Hosea 14:9). Who is wise? Let him realize these things! Not without wisdom shall the prophecy be understood.
True wisdom in Israel is that which knows the ultimate salvation of the people of God. This is the wisdom of the messianic hope of the prophets in Israel.
Beyond God’s judgment are the acts of his loyal love and salvation. In the final days, he will be known as the great I-AM that he truly is.
Consider the role of this wisdom tradition in the prophecy of ancient Israel. Scholars have struggled to relate biblical wisdom to biblical prophecy in a clear theology. Two great German Old Testament theologians, Walter Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad, were criticized for the manner in which they related the wisdom tradition to their understanding of Old Testament theology.
Since then, many have sought for a center around which a theology might be built that would include more naturally the wisdom and the prophetic traditions among the people of God.
It has not been an easy center to discover. Part of the reason may be credited to the way biblical theology in the early 20th century responded to the systematic theologies of the 18th and 19th centuries.
People had grown weary with the abstract notions of God developed in the so-called Age of Enlightenment.
They sought to realize afresh the dynamic God of the Bible, the God who acts in the history of his people.
That became the focus of the biblical theology movement—the acts of God in history. But when this focus denied that the being of God could be identified with what we can know of him in his acts, then a loss of relationship was experienced from which we have not yet recovered.
I liken this loss to the fundamental sin of Israel against her Lord and God. We have in this manner turned the Great I-AM the Lord God into something that he is not.
Only because God is who he truly is may we look for his salvation. The church, like Israel, must come to realize that in the Savior we are not merely given a little knowledge about God, but we have been given the knowledge of God that can only be given and actually has been freely given by God himself.
In Jesus Christ we are not given merely knowledge about God, but knowledge of who the Lord God is in his own being and nature. Thus, we must understand that the Messiah of Israel as the Lord Jesus Christ, the Great I-AM that the Lord is with his people, reveals the Father Almighty, maker of the heavens and the earth.
It is in this spirit that we may realize the things Hosea once called the people of God to understand.
We have been given those transcendent relationships that allow us, as he makes us into his people, to know him for who he truly is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the one true God of all things created.
The nature of the great I-AM is such that divine and human realities have been made in himself to correspond with one another so that the creation and the Creator are made to reflect each other.
The wisdom of the Creator and the Redeemer of the world is to be realized in this one person. The Great I-AM of the burning bush and the Great I-AM of the Incarnation are the same as the revelation of the Lord and God of all creation.
Both the Old and the New Testaments are to be understood according to these transcendent relations established for us by God in Christ.
To acknowledge this is to understand the final exhortation in Hosea: Who is wise? He will realize these things!
What do we make of all this?
God is not merely “out there” somewhere, intervening occasionally from the “far away heavens.” God is our all in all, the root and substance of our being.
“In him we live and move and have our being,” Paul wrote. And despite our sin and rebellion, God’s love is faithful. He comes to us in redemption and salvation to restore us to wholeness—to oneness with him.
He calls on us, as he did to Israel, to believe in him for who he truly is so that we may be restored to who we really are as his own children.
We can trust in God’s love. He is ever faithful, and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we can know him for who he truly is in Jesus Christ, the perfect revelation of the Father. Praise be to God!
David Alan Hubbard, Hosea, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary, InterVarsity Press, 1989.
Francis I. Andersen and David N. Freedman, Hosea, Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1980.
Author: John McKenna