Hosea was probably from the northern kingdom of Israel. He most likely taught between 755 B.C. to 725 B.C. He was, then, a contemporary of three other great prophets, Isaiah, Amos, and Micah. He lived not only at a time of spiritual apostasy, but political turmoil and danger. Israel was repeatedly attacked by Syria and Assyria, and finally devastated and taken captive by the latter. All the Israelite kings were wicked, and governments were repeatedly overthrown by violent means.
Hosea speaks of infidelity. The Lord is the faithful husband who has been betrayed. This is the story of a broken covenant, and a husband who stands ready to forgive, forget, and receive His chosen back into full fellowship. During the time of Hosea, the Israelites had given themselves fully over to the pagan deities of the Canaanites, essentially “whoring” after their pagan gods and partaking in the licentiousness not only of the Canaanitish lifestyle, but also their sin-drenched forms of worship.
The Lord uses marriage imagery to demonstrate that He will never divorce Israel and hopes only for Israel’s return.
“In the symbolic marriage covenant, God is the husband and Israel, the covenant people, is the bride. God wed Israel in the covenant of Abraham (see Genesis 17 ). That covenant was renewed with Moses’ people at the foot of Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:4–8 ). Isaiah 54:5 reads, ‘For thy Maker is thine husband,’ and Jeremiah 3:14 reads, ‘For I am married unto you.’ Further references to God’s role as husband in the covenant are found in Jeremiah 3:20 ; 31:32 and Revelation 19:7 .
“When Israel turned away from her husband to worship other gods, then she broke the covenants. She ‘hath committed great whoredom, departing from the Lord’ ( Hosea 1:2 ) and ‘hath played the harlot’ ( Hosea 2:5 ; see also Jeremiah 2:20 ; 3:1, 9 ; 5:7 ; Exodus 34:14–16 ; Deuteronomy 31:16 ). Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: ‘In a spiritual sense, to emphasize how serious it is, the damning sin of idolatry is called adultery. When the Lord’s people forsake him and worship false gods, their infidelity to Jehovah is described as whoredoms and adultery. ( Jer. 3:8–9 ; Hos. 1:2 ; 3:1 .) By forsaking the Lord, his people are unfaithful to their covenant vows, vows made to him who symbolically is their Husband.’ ( Mormon Doctrine, p. 25.)
“The symbolism is central to Hosea’s message. He depicts Israel’s unfaithfulness to the Lord as that of a wife who has turned her back on a faithful husband to follow her lovers.”
In Hosea 1:2-3, the Lord commands Hosea to marry a harlot as a symbol of Israel’s desertion from the Lord. Scholars disagree as to whether this was an actual command, or a symbolic one. There are five possibilities: 1) Hosea was actually asked by the Lord to marry a harlot; 2) This was symbolic; the Lord would never have command Hosea to marry out of the covenant, and the Lord can’t look upon sin without abhoring it; 3) The whole thing was just a dream or vision (this view is usually rejected); 4) Gomer (Hosea’s wife) was a harlot only in the sense that she worshipped Baal (which would also have Hosea marrying out of the covenant); 5) Gomer was faithful when Hosea married her, but she later became a Baal-worshipper.
The LDS Church would favor the idea that the whole thing is symbolic. Said Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency of the Church:
“…even my youngest students knew that the husband was a metaphor for Jehovah, Jesus Christ. And they knew that the wife represented his covenant people, Israel, who had gone after strange gods. They understood that the Lord was teaching them, through this metaphor, an important principle. Even though those with whom he has covenanted may be horribly unfaithful to him, he would not divorce them if they would only turn back to him with full purpose of heart.
“For more reasons than I can explain, during those days teaching Hosea, I felt something new, something more powerful. This was not a story about a business deal between partners, nor about business law. . . . This was a love story. This was a story of a marriage covenant bound by love, by steadfast love. What I felt then, and it has increased over the years, was that the Lord, with whom I am blessed to have made covenants, loves me, and you, . . . with a steadfastness about which I continually marvel and which I want with all my heart to emulate” ( Covenants and Sacrifice [address to religious educators, 15 Aug. 1995], pp. 1–2).
The bride price paid for Gomer was just the price of a slave, and Hosea paid it half in barley (Hosea 3:2 ), not very flattering, and symbolic of how low Israel had descended.
Hosea and Gomer had three children, and their names symbolized the destruction Israel was facing. “Jezreel” is the valley where the Battle of Armageddon will take place. It infers a scattering, which is what happened as the children of Israel were flung into diaspora by Assyria. “Lo-ruhamah” means “not having obtained mercy. “Lo-ammi” means “not my people.”
In Hosea 4:16 the Lord calls Israel a backsliding heifer and a lamb in a large place. “A backsliding heifer is one who refuses to follow when led and sets her feet and slides in the dirt. She is an unmanageable animal and will not pull together with the other ox yoked with her, nor will she submit to the guidance of the driver. A lamb in a large place suggests a helpless animal lost in a large open area with no protection. This figure suggests Israel’s being scattered among the Gentiles.”
In Hosea 6:6 , the Lord defines the kind of love He expects. The word in the scripture is the Hebrew hesed, which is steadfast love, perfectly faithful and enduring. Hosea 7:8–9 calls Ephraim (the northern tribes) a “cake unturned.” This could be equated with the American idiom, “half-baked.” Israel was incomplete and unfulfilled, half-committed.
Hosea 7:11–13 speaks of Israel’s entangling alliances with other countries. Israel was supposed to turn to God, and then God would protect her. Instead, they made alliances with Egypt and Assyria for safety, but it all ended very badly. Hosea 10:12 speaks of obtaining mercy:
“Mercy is not showered [indiscriminately] upon mankind, except in the general sense that it is manifest in the creation and peopling of the earth and in the granting of immortality to all men as a free gift. Rather, mercy is granted (because of the grace, love, and condescension of God), as it is with all blessings, to those who comply with the law upon which its receipt is predicated. ( D. & C. 130:20–21 .) That law is the law of righteousness; those who sow righteousness, reap mercy. ( Hos. 10:12 .) There is no promise of mercy to the wicked; rather, as stated in the Ten Commandments, the Lord promises to show mercy unto thousands of them that love him and keep his commandments. ( Ex. 20:6 ; Dan. 9:4 ; D. & C. 70:18 .)” (McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 484.)
“Hosea 13:14 uses the figures of resurrection as a metaphor that promises the gathering and restoration of Israel. The ‘dry bones’ metaphor in Ezekiel 37:1–14 conveys the same message. The fact that the resurrection is symbolic of the gathering of Israel does not diminish the usefulness of these passages in proving that the resurrection was a firm doctrine among the Israelites. In fact, just the opposite is true; for a metaphor of this type loses its force if the type or figure used is not real. ”
The story of Gomer and its symbolism of Israel should give hope to all who read it. The Lord will never desert us. No matter how far we stray, He stands still, ready to receive us back into full fellowship upon our repentance. Returning back to the arms of the Lord promises a full restoration of lost blessings.
*This article was adapted from the LDS Institute Old Testament Manual.
Next: The Ten Lost Tribes