One of the clearest Old Testament pictures of the gospel and of God as a missionary God is found in the opening metaphor in the book of the minor prophet Hosea. God, the faithful, takes an unfaithful wife and remains faithful to that wife to illustrate his saving faithfulness to his people Israel. The rest of the book picks up two themes, that of a calling of the unfaithful to return to their faithful God and then secondly the theme of impending judgment for those who refuse to return. Taken together these three concepts bring into focus three of the essential concepts of the gospel message and of mission. God is a faithful God who calls men and woman to return to him or else face devastating judgment. We shall explore these three themes and place them into the context of firstly the Bible as a whole and then secondly into the context of the subject of mission.
Hosea, a native of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, prophesied in the Northern Kingdom from approximately 750 to 715 B.C. (Dillard & Longman: 1994: 354). Verse 1 of chapter 1 tells us that he prophesied during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah who were kings of Judah and also during the reigns of Jeroboam. It is also clear, from the historical record that Hosea overlapped with the reigns of Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea, kings of the Northern Kingdom, who are not mentioned in the first verse (McConville in Carson, France, Motyer & Wenham [eds.]: 1994: 22).
This period of history in the Northern Kingdom begins with relative material prosperity but ends in 722 B.C. with the total obliteration of the nation by the Assyrian Empire under Shalmaneser V. Dillard and Longman point out that at the beginning of Hosea’s prophetic ministry the Northern Kingdom sat in a rather secure position as its usual enemies, the surrounding nations, were preoccupied with other concerns (1994: 355). This false sense of security led, eventually, to spiritual complacency on the part of Samaria. After Jeroboam II the whole political security of Israel began to unravel. Hubbard points out that ‘six kings toppled in thirty years, three of whom, ruled two years or less and four of whom were assassinated, while the fifth was deposed.’ (1989: 24-25). This coincided with a rise in power and rejuvenation of the Assyrian Empire under Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V. The Northern Kingdom became engaged in vicious war firstly with Judah in approximately 735 B.C. which then ultimately lead to their second devastating war with the Assyrian Empire in which they were completely destroyed in 722 B.C. This period was marked by political intrigue and backstabbing, covenantal unfaithfulness and continual increase in the desecration and distortion of the holy practices of the Mosaic Law. It is against this backdrop that the prophet speaks God’s Word into the lives of the unfaithful Northerners.
Faithful to the Unfaithful – The Motivation for Mission
The first three chapters of Hosea record the word of the Lord coming to Hosea and commanding him to ‘take an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness’ (1:2). The prophet is to live out a metaphor of the Lord’s relationship with his people, Israel and Judah. Hosea is to love the wife even though she is completely unfaithful. This love is likened to the love with which ‘the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods…’ (3:1). It shows a passionate God with a passionate love for his people, one scholar writes that ‘no other book in the Old Testament includes such a detailed description of God’s inner feelings as Hosea does.’ (Bostrom in Alexander & Rosner [eds.]: 2000: 237). He is a God who cares passionately about being united to a people. The book of Hosea makes clear, by it’s discarding of the physical nation of Israel, as in the Northern Kingdom, which takes place in a literary sense in chapter 8, that God’s people, promised and described in verses 10 and 11 of chapter 1 include far more than just the old covenant people of Judah and Samaria.
This gives us a picture of a missionary God who is passionately concerned with the people he is to be united with in the union of marriage, which the New Testament instructs us to see as a saving relationship. In this sense the metaphor of the opening of Hosea serves as a fundamental motivation for missions. Why seek out the lost? Why be passionate about those who are not in a relationship with the living God? The answer lies clearly in that that same living God is passionately in love with the lost, and those who will become his people. Goldsworthy remarks that this metaphor ‘presents a magnificent illustration … of the covenant love and faithfulness of God.’ (2000: 173). A magnificent illustration it is, and a magnificent motivation too.
Return to the Lord – The Call of Mission
Hosea chapter 7 verses 13 to 16 depict a God who longs for this unrepentant people to turn back to him – he longs for them to repent. Although the call to turn back to the Lord in the book of Hosea is not really explicit (calls to return to the Lord are extremely rare in Hosea’s prophecies), the concept of return is definitely implied through the attitude of a passionate God and through the promises of that God. Bartholomew and Goheen note that,
‘The Old Testament prophets bear ample witness to God’s patience with his people and to the repeated efforts he makes to call them back to faithfulness within the covenant.’ (2004: 107)
Added to God’s desire are his promises. These promises, as found particularly in chapter 1 verse 10 to the end of the chapter, show the heart of the Lord in wanting his people to return to him and be restored. John Stott explains the restoration as ‘described in the words which once more echo the promise to Abraham’ (in Winter & Hawthorne [eds.]: 1992: A-14). God promises an increase in descendants (vs. 10), a place (vs. 10) and that they will be God’s children – presumably living under his rule again (vs. 11). These images are completely in line with the universal missional promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12.
With these promises laid out on the table before unfaithful Israel one can assume that God’s call for them is to return to him. God is a missionary God who calls for their return. As the correlation with Genesis 12 has been shown, this is a universal call, for people to be reconciled with God – to become his people, in his place, under his rule and blessing. Peter, clearly drawing on the imagery of Hosea proclaims the Christians sense of belonging to the people of God in 1Peter 2: 9-10, further illustrating the result of the missionary call of Hosea. Ultimately Hosea presents the heart of the missionary call as it leaves this implicit message in its readers – that the unfaithful are to be reconciled to their faithful ruling king.
Judgment Awaits – The Concern of Mission
The missionary call of Hosea is not without its concerns for it seems that, in spite of the prophet’s urgent warnings against the idolatry of the Israelites and also taking into account the passionate love of a faithful God, the Israelites did not heed the warning. In 722 B.C. the Assyrian army swooped in and completely desolated the Northern Kingdom and scattering the people throughout the Near East, far away from the Promised Land. Chapter 8 picks up this warning with great detail as it describes Assyria waiting over the house of Israel like a vulture ready to devour (vs. 1). In the entire chapter there is no call to repent on the part of the Israelites, no plea for a turning from their wicked ways. It is almost as if at this point in the chronology of the prophecy, which is during the reign of the final king, King Hoshea, that God has sealed the fate of the Northern Kingdom and there is no return from this point. There is only judgment.
Mission has a serious concern – that is – that for those who reject the faithful love of God and choose not to make him their king and ruler, there is judgment. The judgment is final and it is total. The obliteration of the Northern Kingdom, and even later the Southern Kingdom stand as stern reminders that the God who loves passionately also judges violently because his holy character demands it. Mission’s concern is that people be reconciled with this God, because without reconciliation there is only judgment.
Hosea is a prophetic book against a stark historical background that gives us good insight into the workings and desires of a missionary God. The book shows us that God is a passionately loving God, even to the most undeserving of people, it shows us that God is a God who longs for reconciliation from our rebellious ways and finally it also shows that God is a God who will judge all rebellion once and for all. As we contemplate mission we cannot look past these three fundamental truths and so it is helpful to consider Hosea as making an important contribution to the canonical discussion of mission.
Alexander, T D & Rosner, B S. 2000. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester.
Bartholomew, C G & Goheen, M W. 2004. The Drama of Scripture. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Carson, D A, France, R T, Motyer, J A, Wenham, G J. 1994. The New Bible Commentary. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester.
Dillard, R B & Longman III, T. 1994. An Introduction to the Old Testament. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Hubbard, D A. 1989. Hosea – TOTC. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester.
Goldsworthy, G. 2000. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Inter-Varsity Press. Leicester.
Winter, R D & Hawthorne, S C. 1992. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. William Carey Library. Pasadena, California.