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by Joseph Exell
God has many ways by which He prepares His servants for the doing of His work--many schools to which He sends them. But there is no teacher whom He uses more frequently than the stern teacher whose name is Sorrow. He makes His children acquainted with bitter trial and privation and loss; He “brings them into the wilderness,” as Hosea says, in order that among the barren rocks and sands He may speak to their hearts; He imparts to them their wisdom and their strength through the discipline of sacrifice and pain. Moses is sent to the deserts of Midian, that he may be accustomed there to the endurance of difficulty and opposition, and that in these lonely solitudes, where he is shut out from intercourse with his fellow-men, he may learn to hold close fellowship with his Divine Master and King. Paul writes his loftiest and profoundest letters from the prison-house of Nero, where for the hope of Israel he is bound with a chain. It was in the school-house of sorrow that God fashioned the prophet Hosea into fitness for his life-task.
I. The nature of the mission which God gave Hosea to fulfil--He was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom--a preacher to Israel rather than to Judah. Amos had the same sphere of labour assigned him. But Amos was himself a native of Judea, although his public career, so far as we know it, was confined to the North. He came to Bethel and Samaria, a stranger from the wilderness of Tekoa away in the South--a stranger who had been charged to deliver a terrible message of denunciation and of impending punishment. He carried out his commission, and then he withdrew again to his own land and people. Having spent a few stirring and memorable days in the guilty cities of Israel--having seen their violence and immorality and forgetfulness of God, and lifted up his voice like a trumpet against them--he went back to the silent pastures of the desert, to write down in quietness the story of what he had said and done at the Lord’s commandment, and to live and die far from the scenes of his brief prophetic labours. It was different altogether with Hosea, the son of Bceri. That he was himself a child of that evil Northern land with whose inhabitants he pied on behalf of God is evident to every one who reads his book. Only one born and brought up in the very midst of the sinful people whose disobedience he bewails, linked to them by the tenderest bonds of family affection and national feeling, could pity them so truly, and yearn over them with so fond a love, and entreat them with such a beseeching and persistent earnestness to return to the Lord. Then, too, throughout his prophecy there are constantly recurring allusions to places in the territory of the ten tribes, to Mount Tabor, and the streams of Gilead, and the idolatrous shrines of Gilgal, and the splendid woods of Lebanon--references which speak of the writer’s perfect familiarity with the scenery of the Northern Kingdom. It was indeed a goodly land. The fairest and grandest regions within the entire country were to be found in it. Its plains and forests and rivers were nobler by far than those of Judah. And Hosea knew it well, and was proud of its beauty, and grieved much that men and women to whom God had given a home so happy and so richly dowered should yet be unmindful of Him and rebel against Him. His religion, we may even venture to say, was colored to some extent by the pleasantness and geniality of his natural surroundings. It had in it more of freedom and of trust and of joy than that of the dwellers in the South, where nature was less kindly and her moods more severe. If it had not been that his heart was kept in perpetual sadness by the contemplation of his people’s sin his would certainly have been a very glad and peace-bringing faith. A native of this attractive land, and gifted himself with a temperament naturally joyous, Hosea was nevertheless called to work that plunged him into gloom. His lot was cast in a period when his country had to contend with many fears and fightings from without, and when it was full of utter corruption within. His prophetic activity extended over a long time, and in this respect too he stands in sharp contrast to Amos, whose ministry was but an episode in his life and was quickly fulfilled. All his days he seems to have preached righteousness and temperance and judgment to come in the hearing of men who paid little heed to his message. His labours stretched over a series of terrible years, during which he saw his people sink from one depth of degradation and sorrow to other and lower depths. He began to speak in God’s name while Jeroboam II., the greatest of the rulers of Israel, was still on the throne. But the reign of this monarch was drawing to its close, and the deluge came when he was gone. Amos had, indeed, found much to condemn in Israel even in the days of Jeroboam; but, bad as things undoubtedly were then, society was compact and pure compared with what it became after the king’s death. A long interregnum followed, and for years no governor guided the affairs of the commonwealth. Then one sovereign after another--Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah--mounted the throne, placed on it like the later Roman emperors by the rough soldiers of the palace, and each of them permitted to rule for only a few months. It was in the midst of this unquiet time that Hosea addressed his countrymen. With these changes in the state he was familiar. And, while the government of the land was so unsettled, its inhabitants went from stage to stage in the evil ways of sin. They seemed to have lost all sense of shame. They had east every restraining influence to the winds. There was no moral energy in their hearts, and no self-control in their lives. Few prophets draw such pictures of prevalent ungodliness as the son of Beeri does. “Whoredom and wine and new wine,” he tells us, “took away the understanding” of his people “False swearing and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery broke out, and blood touched blood,” one dark crime treading close on the heels of another. If princes and subjects had only been wise, what a glorious history a land so favoured by heaven might well have had! And now the strength of the nation was spent; it had fought and finished an evil fight; its powers were wasted; there was no great future in store for it--only a future of misery during which it would reap as it had sown; it was already old. “Strangers have devoured the strength of Israel, and he knows it not.” Hosea mourned, “yea, grey hairs are here and there upon him, yet he knows not.” The enthusiasm and the possibilities of youth were gone for ever; the weakness of age had come long before the time; and so blind were the people that they were unconscious of their sad decay. Hosea was the prophet of the decline and fall of the Northern Kingdom. He has been called “the Jeremiah of Israel,” and the name is a good one, for he preached when his nation was tottering to its ruin, as Jeremiah preached in the troublous days when the sun of Judah was about to set in clouds and darkness. God raised him up to speak plain words to his fellow-countrymen about their sin, and to predict the heavy doom which such sin must bring on the wrong-doers. This was a sore and bitter duty--was it not?--for one who had in him a very tender heart, and who loved his people with an overmastering affection. What wonder was it that he should resemble Jeremiah in another characteristic also--in this, that he was scarcely able to utter his message for weeping? The herdsman of Tekoa might journey from his southern home to Bethel, and proclaim against it God’s exceeding great and fearful woe; and his voice might never once so much as falter while he thundered out his message of death; he might show himself stern and inexorable from first to last. It was little marital that he should be so unflinching; he was himself an alien from the commonwealth of Israel. But it was impossible for Hosea to fulfil his task in such a fashion. For they were his brothers and sisters whose transgression he was bidden expose, and whose punishment he had to foretell. He had grown up among them. He was bound to them by the strongest ties. He did not hide or extenuate the tidings of wrath which Jehovah had commanded him to publish abroad; he was too faithful to do that; but when he tried to announce them he was almost overcome by his emotion. His prophecy is a succession of sighs and sobs. Each verse is “one heavy toll in a funeral knell.,” That was the mission entrusted to Hosea.
II. But if the task itself seemed painful in the extreme, the prophet was made ready for executing it by a discipline which was more painful still.--It was through sore experiences in his own history that he was moulded into God’s messenger and representative. What these experiences were he explains in the opening chapters of his book. This, then, is the miserable recital. Some time in the reign of Jeroboam II., when the nation was already far from perfect in God s sight, and yet was not so confirmed in its wickedness as it afterwards became, Hosea married Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim. He hoped, we may be sure, that she would prove a good and loyal wife to him; for the supposition of some expositors that Jehovah commanded His prophet to unite himself with a woman who was already known to be of impure character is absurd and revolting. But the trustfulness with which Hosea regarded his spouse was not justified in actual fact: she showed herself unfaithful to him; she left his roof to go after other lovers, and became the mother of children born in infidelity. Was it not the most grievous wound which a man could receive? On Ezekiel, another in the goodly fellowship of the prophets, a great sorrow fell once. His wife, the desire of his eyes, was taken from him with a stroke. He spake unto the people in the morning, and at even she died, and God bade him refrain from every token of mourning, that he might be a sign to the nation of the Jews. But death, though it overwhelms us with grief, is not so dreadful as dishonour; and they were deeper floods of trouble into which Hosea went down with his naked feet than any which Ezekiel knew. And yet, despite Gomer’s disloyalty, he loved her still. His love was that master-feeling which the Song of Solomon calls “strong as death” and “obstinate as the grave.” He acknowledged her three children for his own, and gave them names, to each of which a prophetic lesson was attached. And by and by he resolved that, if it were possible, he would win her back to her old allegiance. He went after her, and found her in a state of utter misery, apparently sold as a slave, for he had to buy her to himself “for fifteen pieces of silver, and for a homer of barley, and a half homer of barley.” So she came to dwell once more under her husband’s roof, yet not to dwell there just as she had done formerly. Things could not go on as though there had been no faithlessness on her part. For many days the prophet had to watch over his wife, secluding her from temptation, exercising a wise carefulness and jealousy. It was with Hosea just as it was with the Arthur of our literature. Gomer was untrue like Guinevere, and her conduct pierced her lord’s heart and cut him to the quick. But the prophet was as compassionate and long-suffering, as changeless in his affection, as willing to pardon, as the blameless king. And in the end there was a reconciliation. If the past could not be cancelled quite, it was at least forgiven. The poor foolish wanderer returned to her loyalty. The truant was welcomed home. These are the details of Hosea’s home life, so far as they are related in the first and third chapters of his prophecy. It is difficult to understand why some interpreters should have denied the literal and historical significance of the account, and should have resolved the story into nothing more than parable or allegory. The whole narrative is given with perfect simplicity, and yet with touching reserve. It has an air of truthfulness about every one of its particulars. It appears only too real. But many of us may be inclined to ask why the prophet should have said anything about this great struggle and bitterness of his life. Ought he not to have kept such a matter with sacred care from the view of the world? Was it not one of those secret things about which God only should have been told? He had a very sufficient reason for the disclosure. He wished to show how it was that he became a prophet, and to explain why he was led to those conceptions which’ he had formed, of the conduct of Israel and of the character of God. It was from his own history that he learned at once the disobedience of his native land and the long-suffering pity of its Lord. He saw that the shame which had blighted his home was a representation in miniature of that shame which the seed of Jacob, whom Jehovah had espoused to Himself, had cruelly inflicted on Him; that the grief which he felt over the erring Gomer--a grief without an element of anger in it--was symbolic of God’s grief over His backsliding nation; that the Divine heart was but his own human heart, with all its feelings deepened and all its emotions intensified. As Hosea passed through the sad troubles of his household, his eyes were opened, and the thought dawned on him that his experience was only a type of God’s experience in His dealings with His people. His sufferings lifted him into fellowship with God, taught him to think as God thought, gave him a sympathetic insight into God’s heart; and so he came out of the fires God’s prophet and spokesman.
III. And now let us inquire how Hosea performed the work for which he had been trained by so terrible a discipline--how he made known God’s message to Israel. His words are strong and passionate. His heart seems ready to break with sorrow. His whole prophecy is a cry of agony. There is no finish or elaboration in his style, for a man whose spirit is moved to its depths is not careful how he orders his speech. But what his utterance lacks in sweetness it makes up in pathos and power. And through all the sudden transitions and swift changes of feeling that are characteristic of these chapters we can trace the effects of the painful education which Hosea had undergone to fit him for his duty. Israel at large, he fancied, was like the wayward Gomer of his home. Unfaithfulness to Jehovah--apostasy from the heavenly Husband whose kindness surpassed the kindness of men--that was the sin of his nation. And still, after all the provocations of the past, the aggrieved and injured Lord cared for His thankless spouse. The framer of hearts felt towards foolish Israel the same unselfish affection with which Hosea knew that he had himself followed the unstedfast daughter of Diblaim. Whatever gentleness and pity dwelt in his breast had been kindled at God’s altar. Whatever readiness to forgive he might display, God would display far more willingly and gladly. The disloyalty of Israel and the pitifulness of God--these are the two prominent ideas of this book. The former--the disloyalty of his nation--Hosea sets forth with great fulness of detail. He finds many tokens of ingratitude as he looks around him. There was, for example, the general and flagrant immorality of the land. How dark that was, and how notorious! Those who should have been freest from pollution were often ringleaders in crime. The very priests rejoiced in the spread of iniquity, and were foremost in outraging the law, lying in wait as robbers and murdering in the way to Shechem. The king and his princes found an unholy pleasure in conforming to the prevailing licence, and were glad rather than grieved when they contemplated the wickedness of their subjects. But besides this abounding lawlessness, and lying at its root and foundation, there were the religious declension and the false worship of the people. The prophet knew well that the outward errors of his fellow-countrymen sprang, as external transgressions so frequently do, from backsliding in religion. Had not Israel forsaken the spiritual worship of Jehovah? Had not the nation long since demanded a visible symbol of Him? Was it not given up to the adoration of the golden calves? Hosea was indeed very jealous for the honour of his God. No doubt he had heard many Israelites urge in extenuation of the image worship that it was really the service of Jehovah, and that those who went up to the local sanctuaries in Samaria and Bethel and Gilgal simply sought to give definiteness to their idea of the one living and true God when they knelt before an outward representation of Him. But he brushed aside with impatience the weak excuse. What was the calf but an idol?” The workman made it; therefore it was not God.” Moreover, this materialising of religion was leading only too directly and speedily to unmistakable Baal worship. The old Phoenician idolatry, against which Elijah had waged so fierce a battle on the summit of Carmel, was threatening again to overspread the land. The children of Ephraim were sinning more and more; they had made them molten images of their silver; they sacrificed upon the tops of the mountains, and burned incense upon the hills. Another indication of the fickleness of Israel, and of its want of true and deep attachment to its heavenly Bridegroom, Hosea discovered in its foolish foreign policy. It would rather lean on the nations round about its borders than on the strong arm of its Maker, who should have been its Husband too. It was far from giving Him the whole-hearted devotion which He claimed as His rightful portion. Sometimes it turned to one side, and sometimes to another. It fluttered from place to place, like a silly dove, calling now to Egypt and then going to Assyria. Such conduct the prophet felt to be not merely a crime but a blunder, for whenever the Israelites should forsake one of these great empires, the other would become indignant and would take revenge for the neglect inflicted upon it. But this coquetting with powerful neighbours--this “hiring lovers among the nations”--was sad and pitiable, chiefly because it showed that the heart of the chosen generation no longer beat true to its God. The people had forgotten Him who ought to have been their fortress and high-tower; and their forgetfulness would bring its chastisement. Still another proof of Israel’s faithlessness Hosea laid stress upon in his preaching. Was it not wrong, he asked, that the nation should remain separated from Judah, its brother? Was there not rebellion against God, disregard of His purposes, opposition to His will, in this division of the kingdom? Were not the ten tribes in grievous fault when they continued to foster their quarrel with the house and dynasty of David--the house which the Lord had blessed? This, the prophet declared, was part of God’s indictment of the subjects of the North: “They have set up kings, but not by Me; they have made princes, and I knew it not.” And he prayed eagerly for the healing of the ancient wound. A bright vision rose before him even in the midst of his griefs. For a moment he caught a glimpse of the glory of the latter days, when “the children of Israel should return and seek Jehovah their God and David their king.” Such was the country’s infidelity towards God--an infidelity which pierced as with a sharp knife the heart of Hosea, and wounded him as the unstedfastness of Gomer had done. But this was not the whole of his message. Over against the fickle and unreliable nation he saw standing the good and faithful God, and he had much to tell of the Divine mercy and graciousness. Like his own clinging, inextinguishable affection for his wife even in the period of her folly, like it, but purer and stronger and more per severing, was the affection of the Lord Jehovah for the land which He had wedded to Himself, and of which He was both the Father and the Husband. It was the high honour of Hosea that, first among all the prophets, he was prompted to call the feeling with which God regarded His people by the name of “love” None had used so sweet and pregnant a word before. Joel had said that the Lord was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. Amos had spoken of His goodness in redeeming the children of Israel from Egypt and in planting them in Canaan. But Hosea went further than either of his predecessors had done. He lit upon a treasure which they had not been permitted to find--he discovered a pearl of great price--when he realised that the chiefest of God’s perfections, the very glory and crown of His character, is His love. These were some of the words which this old preacher put into the lips of the Lord: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him”; and these also, “I will heal their backslidings; I will love them freely.” No doubt, it was upon the community as a whole rather than upon individual hearts that Hosea thought of Jehovah as lavishing this best of all His gifts. He concerned himself with the kingdom of God in its entirety, and not with the units that went to compose it. God’s affection for His people was in truth an invincible affection. He hoped against hope, when they went on in sin. He felt that He could not abandon them to utter ruin. His soul wept over them. “How can I give thee up, Ephraim? How can I cast thee away, Israel? My heart burns within Me; I am overcome with sympathy; I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger; I will not turn to destroy thee.” These were the thoughts of God which Hosea learned in the time of his sorrow, when he was taught to find in the emotions of his own breast a picture of the feelings that throbbed within the breast of the Lord of heaven and earth. If Israel persisted now in her folly and disobedience, she was without excuse. Amos had spoken to her of the righteousness and justice of God. But the knowledge that God is sternly righteous and inflexibly just will help none of us. But Hosea succeeded Amos; and the burden of Hosea’s message was this: “God is love; He will save you from your sins, if you seek HIS forgiveness; He will not retain His anger for ever.” And that is all that we need. This revelation of God should break down our rebelliousness. It should drive every suspicious thought far from our minds. It should melt us into submission. (Original Secession Magazine.)
The homiletic use of Hosea.--
I. The prophet.--We have no biography of Hosea, but his book leaves upon us such a clear impression of his character that the person who brings the message is as real as the message. He has five qualities which especially equip the man who would save souls.
1. Devotion to God. He loves God, is loyal to Him, is deeply interested in His cause. He dwells on His very names with fond and tender stress.
2. Yet he has a wondrous sympathy with Israel in her woes, and, what is far more, a vicarious fellowship in her guilt.
3. Zeal for righteousness. He denounces formal religion as worthless, however costly, and elaborate. He denounces the lying, swearing, stealing, adultery, and murder which pervaded the nation, in spite of its religious show, and declares that the Lord desires mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
4. Fidelity to truth. He declares the whole counsel of God as he knows it. Even sympathy for Israel does not keep him from affirming that “Ephraim shall be desolate in the day of rebuke.”
5. Hopefulness. With all the sorrow, reproof, and forecast of woe there is a spirit of hope that rises above all he sees and forebodes.
II. The times.--Hosea’s ministry certainly lay in the later years of the reign of Jeroboam II., and the troublous days that came just afterward. The reign of Jeroboam II. was the most brilliant of all in the kingdom. The brief account in the Book of Kings suggests power, enterprise, and military glory. But the account in Kings says: “Jeroboam did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Hosea’s description accords. This prosperity covers and decorates disease. Israel has forgotten that God has prospered her. Jeroboam is succeeded by a son, Zechariah, who is killed by a conspiracy after six months. His assassin, Shallum, reigns one month and is killed. His slayer and successor, Menahem, reigns longer. The Book of Kings gives him ten years; the critics say eight. But he has to pay heavy tribute to Assyria, and loads his people with taxes to do so. So the history goes on. They look for help now to Assyria, now to Egypt. Disaster, ruin, exile are close. The homiletic bearing of this is plain. Here is a picture of material prosperity and religious display gilding spiritual destitution and moral rottenness, and inevitably ending in overthrow.
III. The teachings of the prophet.--
1. His doctrine of God. There is a conception here of lasting value to our theology. Ineffable holiness is combined with yearning love for the sinner.
2. His doctrine of sin. This is thoroughly practical. Little or nothing is said of original sin. Actual transgression gets the chief attention. When people are lying, cheating, stealing, killing, and committing adultery, the philosophy of sin draws less notice than its phenomena. The indictment under which the several counts of transgression are to be marshalled is in Hosea 8:12. The progress of sin is shown in Hosea 13:2; its peril in Hosea 13:9 and in Hosea 13:16. The latter teaches also the true character of sin to be not misfortune, but rebellion against God.
3. The nature and the duty of the knowledge of God. This is a doctrine which is valuable to-day as a corrective of agnosticism. Hosea regards ignorance of God to be not a mishap or a mere limitation, but a grievous sin. In Hosea 4:1 he says God has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no knowledge of God in the land; in Hosea 6:3 he says, “So shall we know if we follow on to know the Lord” (R.V. substitutes “let us” for “shall we”). The knowledge is experiential and ethical. It is reached by repentance and prayer. It is retained by obedience. It is lost by transgression and neglect. The Christian pulpit to-day may fairly face the agnostic with the truth that the knowledge of God comes by ethical activity rather than metaphysical inquiry, that the thesaurus of its data is the spiritual consciousness rather than the realm of material nature, and that the phenomena of the latter can receive their highest and truest interpretation only in the light of the former.
4. The sin of schism. Hosea was a patriot of the Northern Kingdom, loyal to that part of the Lord’s people to which he belonged. Yet he exalts the ideal of unity and predicts the day when the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together and appoint themselves one head. Unity was lost through folly, sin, oppression, unwillingness to reform abuses. It was predicted, permitted, ordered in the providence of God; but it was not the ideal of the kingdom. It was the outgrowth of circumstances, but not a state wherewith to be content. The same is true of the Church. Historic causes produced divisions, which were permitted, even ordered, in God’s providence. But divided Christendom is not the ideal Hosea’s prophecy must he fulfilled in its broad spiritual meaning. The divided hosts of Jehovah must be gathered under the one Head. For this Christ prayed; for this we pray. (T. C. Straus.)
the Sixth Week after Easter