A Window of Hope in Hosea
Zachary R. Keele
When we think of the prophet Hosea, the first thing that comes to mind is his wife Gomer and their children. The Lord used them as a living metaphor for Israel's relationship to God, and so ours. But this is not all we should think of, for the last verse of Hosea calls us to understand and walk in the ways of the Lord, which lead to life. This gives us a beautifully unified message for our faith.
First of all, the prophet makes clear that Israel must keep the Lord's covenant law to have a blessed life in the Promised Land. God says in 6:6 that he desires loyal love from his people more than burnt offerings, showing the need for their obedience to the Decalogue and the whole Mosaic law.
Israel was well prepared to obey. The Lord had redeemed them from Egypt and had continued to care for them. Ephraim was a trained calf, which the Lord had taught and made ready to sow righteousness and reap the fruit of steadfast love (10:11–12). Indeed, Israel was the Lord's son (11:1). The Lord, as their loving and all-powerful father, had borne them in his arms and taught them to walk.
Disobedience and the Coming Judgment
Yet, despite the Lord's amazing nurture, Israel did not obey him. They failed miserably and rebelled. Israel broke the covenant of the Lord (8:1), as they were continually bent upon evil and apostasy. Like unfaithful Gomer, Israel had a promiscuous spirit: "The spirit of whoredom is within them, and they know not the Lord" (5:4). Israel was an unwise son doing only evil, like his forefather Jacob when he was young (12:2–4).
Israel broke the most fundamental commandment of the covenant by going after other gods. They worshiped Baal. They served and honored the works of their hands, the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. They even practiced human sacrifice while kissing the idols in homage (13:1–2).
Israel also put her confidence in the kingdoms of man, rather than in the Lord. She looked to other nations for help and security, making illicit treaties with Assyria and Egypt (12:1).
All these sins were Israel's strivings to earn life and security for herself. The people longed to earn their own wealth and life, following the example of the nations. But Hosea condemns them: "You have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors" (10:13). Israel forgot her Lord and maker, just as Gomer did.
So what will be the consequence of Israel's perverse spirit? Curses will be poured out in keeping with the terms of the covenant. Judgment is coming, and it will not be put off. No one will be able to save Israel from the hand of the Lord.
Israel wants to earn life through her idolatry, so the Lord will let her try. The powerlessness of the idols will be revealed as the land will languish. Israel has sown the wind, and so she will reap the whirlwind. Assyria and Egypt will not help her, but plunder her.
The Lord, then, will spring upon his people like a mother bear bereaved of her cubs. His fury will advance in a blind rage, which is inescapable, gruesome, and fatal. Ephraim's pregnant women will be cut open and her infants will be dashed on the rocks. Death will swallow up the people.
Then, the ultimate curse will be inflicted upon the people: they will return to Egypt. The curses of Deuteronomy 28 will come to pass, and Israel will again find herself a slave in Egypt. The name of Hosea's third child (Lo-Ammi, "Not My People") will be fulfilled. Israel will no longer be God's people. The covenant will be broken, repealed, and made invalid. Israel will again find herself without God and without hope in the world.
New Life after Judgment
However, this terrible conclusion will not be the end. The coming judgment is the Lord's discipline, intended for reformation. There is life after judgment.
The Lord promises a new exodus for his people. The Lord will once again bring them out of Egypt and make them dwell in houses (11:11). He will betroth them in righteousness, in love forever. Like Jacob, Israel will return after exile as a new man, able and willing to love and obey the Lord. Even though the Lord will punish his people, he will heal them and raise them up from Sheol. The Lord promises his people life through death, peace after judgment.
Furthermore, God's future redemption of his people does not merely restore the previous state of affairs. Rather, life on the other side of death clearly belongs to a higher realm. The future state is something wholly new.
This is obvious from the new marriage promised in chapter 2, where the bond will be everlasting, secured in righteousness, justice, mercy, and steadfast love. This means that not only will Gomer not sin or break the marriage bond again, but that she will be unable to do so. Hence, Gomer and the marriage point beyond her.
This higher state of life is seen in chapter 14 in the people's confession that they will no longer commit idolatry. Israel will be raised to a new life of righteousness, where rebellion and wickedness will no longer be possible. When Israel's ordeal at Penuel is over (cf. Gen. 32:24–30), she will enjoy the goodness of the Lord embracing her in righteousness.
The Lord will make Israel into a garden that is otherworldly, better than Eden. Israel will have roots like the pines of Lebanon and blooms like lilies. Moreover, the Lord himself will be a fruit-bearing evergreen, a veritable tree of life to his people. There will be blessed communion between God and his people. The Lord does not promise Israel through Hosea that he will merely reestablish the good times of Solomon, nor even the paradise of Eden. Rather, he promises something even greater: a life where sin and death are not even possible!
Yet how can this be? How can there be life on the other side of death, curse, and exile? How can Israel once again be My People after the pronouncement of being Not My People? How can God give his people new life after he punishes them for their rebellion and sin? Well, for this to be so, it means going beyond the Mosaic covenant to the promise given to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ (Gal. 3:16–17). The Mosaic covenant was a temporary, pedagogical administration of the covenant of grace.
God set up Israel in a covenant like Adam, so that they and we would see written in real history that sinful man cannot be saved by works. Israel could not obey the Mosaic law and so earn life in the land, and neither could they earn life for themselves through idolatry.
This means that the curse that Israel suffered in history (though hideous and terrible) was not the ultimate curse for sin, but only a picture of it. The ultimate curse for sin is not the first death, but the second death in hell for eternity.
Hence, we see in Israel what all humanity deserves for its sin. We deserve not only the terrible destruction of Israel, but the second death in hell, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever. We need a mediator.
Eternal Life through Faith in Christ
The curse of death for Israel was necessary, not just because of their breaking the covenant, but also because it pointed to the work of Christ, who died and rose again so that all those in him might put on immortality.
The destruction and exile of Israel, therefore, was a picture of that ultimate curse that the Mediator would truly suffer for God's people. Christ, as the Mediator and Surety of God's people, suffered the ultimate curse of hell for us, so that we could have life after death, so that resurrection would come to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus, the judgment of Israel was truly discipline for them and for us, those who have faith. It drove their faith, and it directs ours, to the Mediator, Jesus Christ, who kept the law perfectly for us and also suffered the pain of hell for us. Truly, God's ways are life for us. For if anyone thinks he can save himself or earn for herself a bit of life, then consider Israel! Anyone who puts his or her trust in anything or anyone except Christ shall suffer the fate of Israel—not just in this life, but in the life to come.
Christ's death, his suffering of the curse of hell for us, not only appeased God's holy wrath, so that we might be justified freely in him through faith, but also earned for us a new, higher life that is imperishable. The work of the Second Adam earned something greater than Eden. He brings us through judgment to a life and a land that will never perish, a life where we will be raised in imperishable bodies to be wedded to our Savior Jesus Christ forever. Then we will be betrothed to our Lord, and we will know him as he is, enjoying him in holiness. Yes, this is the message of Hosea; this is the way of God, and how upright it is! And this is the truth in which we live by faith in Jesus Christ.
The author is pastor of Escondido OPC in Escondido, Calif. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2008.