The Doctrine of Grace in the Book of Hosea
By Malcolm H. Watts
We know little about the prophet Hosea, who was evidently a young man when the Word came to him. He appears to have ministered as a prophet for some thirty years (probably 755-725 BC) during one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history.
Hosea lived to see four kings in the Northern Kingdom murdered – Zechariah, Shallum, Pekahiah and Pekah. The ruin of the kingdom was the climax to all the tragedies which overtook God’s ancient people. It was, of course, a judgment: a consequence of the spiritual and moral decline in that favoured but ungrateful nation.
Hosea, whose name means “salvation”, preaches on this theme throughout his prophecy; and while he exposes national apostasy and threatens inevitable punishment, he holds out to the people gracious promises, especially to those who are penitent and believing. Also, he looks forward to the day when a spiritual kingdom would be established under the one Head, whom he describes as “David their king” – which clearly refers to great David’s greater Son, our Lord Jesus Christ (Hosea 3:5; Jeremiah 30:9; Ezekiel 34:23,24; 37:22,24).
An analysis of the book is not easy to make; but perhaps the following divisions may prove helpful. In the first three chapters we are shown God’s relationship to Israel, and, of course, to all His true people in the spiritual sense. A symbolic action on the part of Hosea shows God’s wonderful love, and highlights that love in contrast with Israel’s unfaithfulness. Then, in the section from chapter 4 to the end of the book, we have a number of threatenings and promises. In chapters 4-10, there are threatenings of judgement against the people, the priests and the princes. Chapters 11-14 mainly contain promises of mercy (despite the people’s sins) and promises that a people restored unto God would know His richest blessing.
In this article we shall be considering only the first main section, God’s relationship to His people, symbolised by Hosea’s marriage to Gomer (chapters 1-3).
Hosea is commanded to take “a wife of whoredoms” or “harlotries” (Hosea
1:2), that is, an unchaste, unclean woman, by whom he was to have “children of whoredoms,” later named as Jezreel, Loruhamah and Loammi (1:4,6,8). As a result of her unfaithfulness, Gomer experiences separation from Hosea (2:1-5). But in spite of all this, Hosea’s love for her continues; and refusing to put her away or have her put to death, as legally he could have done (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22), he “bought her” (Hosea 3:2), presumably from her lover (see 3:1) for “fifteen pieces of silver,” half the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32), that in the future she may be chaste and pure, in an abiding union with her true husband (Hosea 3:1-3).
Then, as he determined before, saying “I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and make a wall that she shall not find her paths” (2:6), he brought upon her great trouble and sorrow; and, according to his earlier words “and now will I discover her lewdness” (2:10), he exposed her for what she was and convinced her of her wickedness and folly. After this, he dealt kindly with her even as he promised: “Behold, I will allure her”, that is, draw her by my love, “into the wilderness”, some quiet and solitary place, “and speak comfortably to her”, literally “speak to her heart” (2:14). Thus Hosea fulfilled the desire he had expressed – “I will betroth thee unto me for ever” – and he brought Gomer into the blessing of an everlasting contract, a covenant which would stand and never be broken (2:19).
Is all this to be regarded as parable, vision, or history? Calvin seemed to think it a kind of parable. Hosea, he says, assumed a character and the whole event was a dramatic parable. But there is no real indication of this in the text, and the names given both to Gomer, and then to her children, militate against this view. The narrative reads as historical fact.
Is it all a vision? Jeremiah Burroughs, the Puritan, thought so. In his famous Puritan Commentary on Hosea (now republished), he maintains that all these events appeared to Hosea in a vision. But this suffers from the same defect as the former view, and it also fails to explain the intensity of the prophet’s feelings, which come through the text and narrative.
Is it, then, history? Thomas Scott and many other commentators believe that it is. The prophet, he says, “was called to his prophetical office in a very remarkable way.” Certainly the words, “Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms…” find parallels elsewhere in the prophetical books where they can only be understood literally (Isaiah 7:3; 8:1; 20:2; Jeremiah 13:1; 18:1,2; 19:1,2; Ezekiel 4:1,2; 5:1). We take this to be the most consistent and therefore the most acceptable view.
How should we then view and understand these first three chapters? It seems to me that we are to discover in them a revelation of the doctrine of grace. If we see in Gomer a picture of people fallen and in shame, and if we see in Hosea the God of all grace lamenting over their miserable and wretched state, desiring and effecting their spiritual recovery, then, I believe, we shall gain insight into the mind of the Holy Spirit and discover a rich vein of truth in this part of God’s Word.
First of all, total depravity is taught here, especially in reference to Gomer as “a wife of whoredoms” (1:2). This indicates she was a woman particularly known for her departures and for her uncleanness. It is a similar expression to that found elsewhere in the Old Testament – “a man of blood” – which denotes a man particularly distinguished by cruelty and given to crimes of violence and murder (2 Samuel 16:7). The problem in Gomer is the problem in all mankind, in that the hearts of all sinners are false and wicked through and through. It was Gomer’s deceitful heart that led her to depart from her lawful husband, even as it is the deceitful hearts of sinners that incline them to leave the true and the living God to go “a whoring” after other objects of their choice. (Psalm 51:5; Jeremiah 17:9; Hebrews 3:12).
Departing from Hosea, she gave free play to her corruptions (she played the harlot). Just so, sinners, turning away from God, throw off all restraint, sinning with a “high-hand” (Numbers 15:30; Genesis 6:5; 2 Peter 2:14). Gomer, representing sinners, was in love with her sins. (Proverbs 21:10; John 3:19,20).
In ancient times, harlots covered and adorned themselves (Proverbs 7:10) and used fragrant perfume (7:17) to make what was essentially loathsome, acceptable. Similarly, sinners will go to great lengths to hide their vile and dreadful sins, but whatever they do, it makes their sins no less odious (Proverbs 28:13; Matthew 23:14, 25, 27). Did not Gomer have a conscience about what she did? It does not appear so, just as sinners have no conscience over how they behave. The apostle Paul tells us that this is all part of their depravity, even their “consciences” are “seared”, literally, “cauterised”, so that they are deprived of sensitivity, deadened (1 Timothy 4:2).
Hosea looking upon Gomer, surely hated what he saw in her. It was to him a great grief and a provocation. And is it not so when God looks upon men and women in their fallen state, seeing their wretchedness: is He not profoundly disturbed by what He sees in their hearts and lives?
Amazingly, Hosea “loved” Gomer, even in her heinous sin; and he went and “took” her, according to chapter 1:3. The Hebrew word for “take” in verse 2 and 3 is the word used for “choosing” a bride (Genesis 4:19; 6:2; 11:29; 12:19) This action of his finds a parallel in God’s eternal, sovereign and free election, (Matthew 24:22,31; Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13).
We observe that the initiative was definitely with Hosea. He went and took Gomer. And so it is in election. The initiative is not with sinners; the initiative is with God, who, before time began, chose to love a fallen people and then loved the people of His choice – “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3).
Josiah Conder expressed this truth in the following words:
‘Tis not that I did choose Thee,
For, Lord, that could not be;
This heart would still refuse Thee
Hadst Thou not chosen me.
The prophet’s choice was of one individual, his choice was personal and
particular. Divine election, of course, is not of a single person, but of countless millions, and yet it is still very special and it does concern individuals. Hence, we read of “the elect lady” (2 John 1) and God says in His Word, “Jacob have I loved” and mention is made of “Rufus, chosen in the Lord” (Romans 9:13; 16:13). It is not an election of a class or a group, but of certain specific men and women.
For Hosea, his choice meant that Gomer would be his for all time. God’s
purpose in His electing love is the same: namely, that sinners beloved might be saved and be for Him and to with Him for evermore. So the Scriptures teach: “He hath chosen us … that we should be holy and without blame before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4).
The unconditional aspect of election is to be drawn from the fact that Hosea saw in Gomer, and in her ways, nothing pure or lovely which might have attracted him. Why did he then love such a woman? He loved her simply because he would love her. That is exactly how it is with God. The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the LORD loved you…” (Deuteronomy 7:7,8). That is why it is called, not the election of merit, but “the election of grace” (Romans 11:5).
(To be concluded)