THE BROADER CONTEXT:
The book of Hosea is the first of the twelve Minor Prophets. Hosea began service as a prophet about 750 B.C. and concluded his work about 722 B.C., shortly before the Assyrian conquest of Israel (the ten tribes that constituted the Northern Kingdom). He thus began his work shortly after Amos concluded his shorter prophetic ministry (about 760-755 B.C.).
Unlike Amos, who was a native of Judah (the Southern Kingdom), Hosea was a native of Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Both addressed their prophecies to Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Like Amos, Hosea proclaims a message of judgment on Israel for her unfaithfulness to Yahweh. However, Hosea also proclaims God’s continuing love and pleads for Israel’s repentance. He holds out the hope of forgiveness and restoration (1:10-11; and chapters 3, 11, and 14).
The superscription says that “the word of Yahweh that came to Hosea the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel” (1:1). The Jeroboam in question here is Jeroboam II, who reigned in Israel (the Northern Kingdom) from about 785-745 B.C.
Hosea began his prophetic work during the last years of Jeroboam’s reign. That reign appears to have been prosperous—both Amos and Hosea condemn the extravagance of Israel’s wealthier citizenry. However, Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of Yahweh” (2 Kings 14:24). He was succeeded by his son, Zechariah, who reigned for only six months before being assassinated. Zechariah’s successor, Shallum, reigned only a month before he was assassinated. In the three decades of his prophetic ministry, Hosea saw a total of seven kings—all bad—come and go.
Yahweh commands Hosea to take a wife known to be sexually promiscuous (chapters 1-3). His wife serves as a metaphor for Israel, which has engaged in the whoredom of idolatry—unfaithfulness to Yahweh. When Gomer bears three children, Yahweh commands Hosea to give them names that further the prophetic message. But when Gomer reverts to kind and suffers the fruits of her unfaithfulness, Yahweh commands Hosea to redeem her (chapter 3)—a metaphor for Yahweh’s love that seeks to redeem Israel.
THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT:
Chapter 8 spelled out Israel’s apostasy. Chapter 9 speaks of her sin and punishment. Chapter 10 speaks of her sin and captivity. Now chapter 11 speaks of God’s love and compassion.
These chapters include a series of metaphors that describe Yahweh’s relationship with Israel:
9:10: Israel as grapes in the wilderness
10:1: Israel as a luxuriant vine
10:11: Israel as a trained heifer
11:1: Israel as a child—a son
HOSEA 11:1-2. WHEN ISRAEL WAS A CHILD, THEN I LOVED HIM
1 When Israel was a child (Hebrew: na’ar), then I loved him,
and called my son out of Egypt.
2 They called to them, so they went from them.
They sacrificed to the Baals,
and burned incense to engraved images.
“When Israel was a child (na’ar—a child or youth), then I loved him” (v. 1a). In chapters 9 and 10, Yahweh recounted Israel’s sins and punishment, but now the tone becomes personal and affectionate. When Israel was a child, Yahweh loved him. Because Yahweh loved him, Yahweh established a covenant relationship with him.
“and called my son out of Egypt” (v. 1b). While Israel was in Egypt, Yahweh sent this message to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). That reference in Exodus and this one in Hosea are two of the few places in Hebrew scripture that refer to Israel as “my son.”
Israel went into Egypt as an extended family—but hardly a nation. She became a nation in Egypt, and was able to come out of Egypt only by virtue of Yahweh’s intervention.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of an angel warning Joseph to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the murderous Herod. Matthew concludes that story by saying, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matthew 2:13-15). This is one of the several instances in the Gospels where Jesus is seen as the new Moses—but greater than Moses (other instances include the Transfiguration and the feeding of the five thousand).
“They called to them, so they went from them. They sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to engraved images” (v. 2). Israel’s apostasy began almost immediately upon leaving Egypt. Before crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites complained, “For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Not long afterwards—but long enough for Israel to see their delivery from the Egyptian army as well as Yahweh’s provision of bread from heaven and water from a rock—they made and worshiped a golden calf (Exodus 34). Even before entering the Promised Land, they yoked themselves to Baal” (Numbers 25:3)—and after entering the Promised Land, they quickly succumbed to Baal worship (Judges 2:11-13; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6; etc.).
HOSEA 11:3-4. I TAUGHT EPHRAIM TO WALK
3 Yet I taught Ephraim to walk.
I took them by his arms;
but they didn’t know that I healed them.
4 I drew them with cords of a man, with ties of love;
and I was to them like those who lift up the yoke on their necks;
and I bent down to him and I fed him.
“Yet I taught Ephraim to walk” (v. 3a). Ephraim is one of the ten tribes of Israel. Its territory extends across the hill country in the southern extremity of the Northern Kingdom. By this time, Ephraim is often used to refer to Israel (the Northern Kingdom) as a whole. That is the intent in this verse.
Yahweh speaks of teaching Ephraim to walk—a particularly poignant moment in a father’s life and an important moment in a child’s life.
“I took them by his arms” (v. 3b). This might better be translated, “I took him by his arms,” which better portrays a father teaching his son to walk.
“but they didn’t know that I healed them” (v. 3c). Yahweh cared for Israel in many obvious ways, but Israel failed to acknowledge Yahweh’s care.
“I drew them with cords of a man, with ties of love” (v. 4a). There are various styles of leadership. “Drivers” wield a whip to motivate people, but “lovers” take care of those whom they are supervising, binding people to themselves with cords of affection—cords knit by acts of human kindness. Yahweh has led Israel with loving kindness—giving them many reasons to love him.
“and I was to them like those who lift up the yoke on their necks” (v. 4b). There are various possibilities for translating this phrase. Some scholars prefer to translate it, “To them I was like one who eases the yoke from their jaws.” With either translation, the image is of a loving, nurturing relationship.
“and I bent down to him and I fed him” (v. 4c). The obvious allusion here is to the manna in the wilderness, but the reality is that God feeds all of us day by day.
HOSEA 11:5-7. ASSYRIA WILL BE THEIR KING
5 “They won’t return (Hebrew: yasub—from sub) into the land of Egypt;
but the Assyrian will be their king,
because they refused to repent (Hebrew: sub)
6 The sword will fall on their cities,
and will destroy the bars of their gates (Hebrew: bad),
and will put an end to their plans.
7 My people are determined to turn from (Hebrew: mesubat—from sub) me.
Though they call to the Most High (Hebrew: ‘al),
he certainly won’t exalt them.
“They won’t return (yasub—from sub) into the land of Egypt” (v. 5a). This has two possible meanings, both of which are almost certainly true.
• One is that, threatened by Assyria, some Israelites will seek refuge in Egypt.
• The other is that the “return into the land of Egypt” is a metaphor for slavery. Israel will return again to the kind of slavery that she experienced in Egypt—but this time under a different slave master.
“but the Assyrian will be their king” (v. 5b). Their new slave master will be Assyria, which will put down a revolt in Israel in 722 B.C., killing many Israelites and taking the rest into exile in Assyria.
Yahweh has always been Israel’s rightful king, but Israel long ago sought a human king, to be like other nations (1 Samuel 8:5). That proved their undoing, because they had more bad kings than good. That was especially true of Israel (the Northern Kingdom), which had nineteen kings, all bad.
“because they refused to repent (sub)“ (v. 5b). Israel will return (yasub—from sub) to their status as slaves because they refused to return (sub) to Yahweh. Yahweh did everything possible to woo them with affection, but they chose to follow other gods. Now they will suffer the consequences.
“The sword will fall on their cities” (v. 6a). This is what will happen when the Assyrians subdue Israel. Assyria will kill thousands of Israelites, and will take the rest into captivity.
“and will destroy the bars of their gates” (bad) (v. 6b). This is a difficult verse to translate, because the Hebrew word, bad, has a variety of meanings. The NIV says, “will destroy the bars of their gates”—and the ESV is similar. The NKJV says, “Devour his districts, and consume them.”
While the exact translation of this phrase is uncertain, the general tone is certain. Yahweh’s judgment will bring ruin on Israel.
“and will put an end to their plans” (v. 6c). Israel’s destruction will happen, ostensibly, because of her schemes against Assyria. However, her destruction is really rooted in her schemes that represent unfaithfulness to Yahweh. Assyria will be only a tool to carry out Yahweh’s judgment.
“My people are determined to turn (mesubat—from sub) from me” (v. 7a). Here we have that sub (“turn”) word again. Israel should be turning toward Yahweh, but they insist on turning away.
“Though they call to the Most High (‘al)“ (v. 7b). Earlier, Yahweh said, “They turn to that which does not profit” (NRSV)—literally, “They turn, but not (lo’) to the most high” (‘al) (7:16). But now, in desperation, they remember Yahweh and cry out for relief.
But ‘al is a generic word for lord or god (as in Ba’al), so this verse could mean that Israel is turning to Baal for relief.
“he certainly won’t exalt them” (v. 7c). If we translate 7b “to the Most High,” 7c means that Yahweh will not help them. If we translate 7b, “to Baal,” 7c means that Baal will not help them. In either event, Israel will find itself alone and helpless.
HOSEA 11:8-9. HOW CAN I GIVE YOU UP?
8 “How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is turned within me,
my compassion is aroused.
9 I will not execute the fierceness of my anger.
I will not return to destroy Ephraim:
for I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of you;
and I will not come in wrath.
“How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” (v. 8a). Once again, Ephraim and Israel are synonymous (see comments on v. 3). These two phrases are an example of parallelism—the expression of the same thought in two slightly different ways—a common literary form in Hebrew scripture.
In the earlier chapters, we saw Yahweh’s anger. Here we see Yahweh’s broken heart. Yes, Israel has been unfaithful. Yes, they deserve punishment—but it breaks Yahweh’s heart to punish them.
“How can I make you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim?” (v. 8b). Adman and Zeboiim were sister cities to Sodom and Gomorrah, were allied with Sodom and Gomorrah in the battle of the Valley of Siddim, and were destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 10:19; 14:8; Deuteronomy 29:23; see also Genesis 18 and 19). We would expect that Yahweh would refer to Sodom and Gomorrah, well-known cities, instead of Admah and Zeboiim—cities that nobody remembers. However, it is not unusual for the book of Hosea to be obscure.
“My heart is turned within me, my compassion is aroused” (v. 8c). Once again we hear Yahweh’s anguish as he contemplates Israel’s punishment.
“I will not execute the fierceness of my anger. I will not return to destroy Ephraim” (v. 9a). The key to understanding this verse is the reference to Admah and Zeboiim in verse 8b. In that verse, Admah and Zeboiim were surrogates for the better-known Sodom and Gomorrah, which Yahweh utterly destroyed.
Now, in verse 9, Yahweh is saying that he will not deal with Ephraim/Israel as he did with Sodom and Gomorrah. In the earlier story (see Genesis 18-19), Yahweh’s angels entered Sodom and concluded that it was so evil that it should be utterly destroyed.
Yahweh would certainly be justified in destroying Israel. Jewish law requires parents of an ungovernable child to identify the problem to the elders of the city, who then become responsible for stoning the ungovernable child to “put away the evil from the midst of you” (Deuteronomy 21:21).
“for I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of you” (v. 9b). As the Holy One, Yahweh is all-powerful and yet all-compassionate—qualities that live in tension with each other. In his holiness, Yahweh cannot abide that which is not holy, but his compassion tempers his temper.
“and I will not come in wrath” (v. 9c). This is another phrase that is difficult to translate with certainty. It could mean “I will not come in wrath” or it could mean “I will not come into the city.” In either case, it speaks of Yahweh’s restraint.
HOSEA 11:10-11. THEY SHALL WALK AFTER YAHWEH
10 They will walk after Yahweh,
who will roar like a lion;
for he will roar, and the children will come trembling from the west.
11 They will come trembling like a bird out of Egypt,
and like a dove out of the land of Assyria;
and I will settle them in their houses,” says Yahweh.
“They will walk after Yahweh, who will roar like a lion” (v. 10a). Lions were among the most ferocious and feared animals of Biblical times. Large, powerful, and fast, they were known to stalk and kill humans. The lion’s roar was loud and intimidating, and people feared to hear a lion roar.
To say that Yahweh roars like a lion is to say that he makes a public display—a frightening display—of his mighty power.
However, this display would be frightening only to Yahweh’s enemies—not to those in his good graces. The latter would “walk after” the one who roared, seeking the security of his presence.
“for he will roar, and the children will come trembling from the west” (v. 10b). We would expect Israelites to come from the east, from Assyria—or, perhaps, from the south, from Egypt. However, they will also come from the west, from the coastlands to which they have fled for their lives.
“They will come trembling like a bird out of Egypt, and like a dove out of the land of Assyria; and I will settle them in their houses,” says Yahweh” (v. 11). Doves are migratory birds that spend their summers in higher latitudes and their winters in lower latitudes. To see them flying south is to know that winter is coming. To see them flying north is to know that springtime has arrived. This verse portrays Israel, scattered by the punishment that Assyria is about to administer, following their inborn instinct to return home after the winter has gone and springtime has come.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., Westminster Bible Companion: Hosea, Joel, and Amos (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Dearman, J. Andrew, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: Hosea (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010)
NOTE: This commentary was not yet released when I wrote this exegesis, but promises to be an excellent resource on Hosea when it is released in October 2010.
Garrett, Duane A., The New American Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Vol. 19a (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1997)
Goldingay, John, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Guenther, Allen, Believers Church Bible Commentary: Hosea, Amos (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1998)
Hubbard, David Allan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Vol. 22a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989)
Kidner, Derek, The Message of Hosea: The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984)
Limburg, James, Interpretation Commentary: Hosea-Micah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988)
McComiskey, Thomas Edward, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Stuart, Douglas, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah, Vol. 31 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Yee, Gale A., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, the Twelve Prophets, Vol. VII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan