Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 24, 2016
Hosea 1:1-10 Commentary
Few parents seem to pick their children’s first names on the basis of their meaning anymore. It appears many pick names on the basis of their popularity or family history.
Israelites, however, chose their children’s names because of their meanings. So, for example, Hannah names her son Samuel because she “asked the Lord for him.” And an angel tells Joseph to name his son Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.”
In fact, biblical names are so laden with meaning that when God transformed a person’s character, God also changed her name. So, for example, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham when God makes him the father of many nations. And Saul the persecutor of Jesus’ followers becomes Paul the follower of Jesus when God converts him.
Names also play a major role in this Sunday’s Old Testament Lectionary text. In fact, we know relatively little about its messenger except his name. Hosea’s name means, “he has helped” or “he has saved.” So the prophet’s name is appropriate for someone who speaks God’s redeeming word to Israel. God had, after all, “saved” Israel from Egyptian slavery, “helped” her through the wilderness and planted her in the land of promise.
Israel, however, rebelled against God not only in the desert, but also in her beautiful new home. It’s a malady that still inflicts God’s adopted sons and daughters. When God’s people need God’s help, we often quickly pray to God for it. We even sometimes make promises to be more faithful to God if God just gives us a job or restores our health. Yet, like Israel, as soon as God gives us what we’ve begged for, we naturally turn away from the Lord again.
Hosea’s Israel had, in fact, turned away from God her divine husband who’d given her so much in order to give herself to other lovers. Israel turned to the Baals of Canaanite fertility religion. Hosea often calls this sin “unfaithfulness” toward Israel’s Husband, the Lord.
In verse 1 Hosea emphasizes that his message for adulterous Israel is “the word of the Lord.” However, as is so often the case, that word comes to and through a human being. In this case it comes through Hosea. Yet as the Old Testament scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier noted, the fact that the Bible tells us so little about this messenger shows that God’s message is far more important than this man.
And yet God’s message is, in many ways, a personal one for its human transmitter. In verse 2, after all, God calls Hosea to marry what the NIV calls an “adulterous” woman. Paraphrases and other translations are more graphic in their description of Hosea’s wife’s immorality. Eugene Peterson refers to her a “whore,” while the New Revised Standard Version calls her a “wife of harlotry.” The Bible’s original language, after all, suggests that Gomer wasn’t just unfaithful; she was also probably a prostitute.
Hosea 1’s preachers and teachers might want to reflect with their hearers on Hosea’s possible reactions to God’s call. They may find it hard to even imagine God calling them to marry someone like the guy who was intimate with many of their high school classmates. Or like the women who work for sleazy “escort services” or walk some big cities’ streets.
Most of us can’t imagine God calling us to marry such a person because faithfulness is at the heart not just of so much of God’s Word, but also all human relationships, including marriage. Yet here God calls someone who preaches about that faithfulness to give his heart to someone who’s been completely unfaithful.
On top of that, God calls Hosea to have children with his adulterous wife. This will make them what verse 2 calls “children of unfaithfulness.” It’s easy to miss our text’s ambiguity about Gomer’s children’s paternity. Verse 3 reports that Gomer bore Hosea a son. Yet neither verses 6 or 8 mention Hosea. They simply report that Gomer had a daughter and another son. So Hosea 1 at least leaves open the possibility that the prophet is not the father of his wife’s second and third children.
Had we been Hosea, most of us would have been very reluctant to obey God’s command to marry such a promiscuous person. At least some of us might even have vigorously argued with God about it. Yet Hosea 1 says nothing about the prophet’s reluctance. It simply reports that Hosea “married Gomer daughter of Diblaim.” The prophet probably at least suspects, though this text doesn’t make that implicit, that his marriage is some kind of “sign.”
God, after all, often commanded prophets to do something symbolic rather than speak. So, for example, God told Jeremiah to wear a wooden yoke as a sign that Babylon would soon enslave Israel. Many modern marriage ceremonies include not just words, but also similar signs, including the exchanging of rings. Wedding rings, after all, symbolize spouses’ lasting commitment to each other.
In our text, God commands Hosea to perform a similar symbolic act by giving his children certain names. God tells him to name his oldest Jezreel, because he’s a sign of God coming punishment. After all, while Jezreel was a beautiful city with a beautiful name, Jehu began his reign there. And that king, who initially opposed the worship of Baal, eventually vigorously promoted it in Jezreel. On top of that, Jehu killed many people in Jezreel.
So James Limburg suggests naming a child “Jezreel” would be a bit like naming a child “Auschwitz” or “Darfur.” Hosea’s son’s name is, after all, like a walking reminder of the violence Israel has perpetrated.
When Gomer has a second child, God tells Hosea to give her a name that seems to have a beautiful ring to it. After all, the word ruhamah refers to the kind of “mercy” that characterizes the Lord himself. In fact, it often described a mom’s love for her daughter who completely depends on her.
However, the prefix lo negates that meaning. Gomer’s daughter’s name actually signals not God’s compassion, but God’s coming punishment. After all, while God has had compassion on Israel from the beginning, Lo-Ruhamah means that God will no longer show her such mercy. So giving a child such a name might almost be like naming a child “damnation.”
After perhaps another two or three years, Gomer has another son. The prophet obeys God’s call to name him “Lo-Ammi.” After all, while God repeatedly promised to be Israel’s God, God vows to no longer be her God or view her as his people. Through centuries of Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience, God had remained extraordinarily patient with her. Now, however, Hosea’s son’s name announces that God will abandon Israel to her enemies who will destroy her.
Israel has, after all, like an ancient bride, completely depended on the Lord for her very life. However, since Israel has been unfaithful to the Lord, God announces that God’s marital relationship with her is null and void. By calling Hosea to name his third child, “Lo-Ammi,” God announces that God is deserting Israel, his first love. So naming a daughter that might be a bit like naming a child, “punishment.”
There is, as James Limburg points out, a terrifying progression to Hosea’s children’s names. The first announces a future without a king. The prophet’s daughter’s name points to a future without God’s compassion. His youngest son’s name, however, announces a future without God.
Many 21st century North Americans assume we’re self-sufficient gods who don’t need the living God. We, however, completely rely on the Lord for every good thing. You and I couldn’t, in fact, draw even one more breath unless God was somehow giving it to us. God is the generous giver of every good thing we have.
In the midst of all of the destruction that Hosea promises, God startles us in verses 10 and 11 with promises of good gifts for unfaithful Israel. After all, there the Lord promises that the Israelites, whose numbers will be decimated, will someday again be as numerous as the grains of sand along the seashore. God, who will abandon Israel, promises to eventually again turn back to her in gracious love. God promises that Israel, that will be divided, will again be united in the future as one people under one king. And the land of promise that will be stripped of its people and fertility will someday again be full of Israelites.
Of course, this prediction seems too optimistic in the light of what actually happened to Israel. After all, only a small remnant of the Israelites ever returned from their various exiles. By Jesus’ time, Israel was little more than an occupied flyspeck on the world map.
Yet God’s people, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, have now become nearly as numerous as the grains of sand along the seashore. People from all over the world have received God’s covenant of grace through their faith in Jesus Christ. However, the fulfillment of God’s promises through Hosea in our text remains incomplete. Both Israel and all the nations still await our final salvation. So God’s word through Hosea still strains toward the future God has planned for his people.
In the meantime, however, we remember that our own name announces something similar to Hosea’s children’s. Not names like Linda or Jose, Ryan or Bella, Smith or Kim. No, the name that God has graciously given all of us: “Christian.”
By giving God’s children that name, after all, God pronounces judgment on the world’s ways of doing things. By naming us Christians, God reminds our world that God rejects hatred, violence, oppression and injustice. By naming you and me after God’s Son, God insists salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. So the only question that remains is whether our lives reflect our names.
In his book, Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Beuchner has a typically delightful way of describing Hosea’s children’s names. He calls them “queer names like Not-pitied-for-God-will-no-longer-pity-Israel-now-that-it’s-gone-to-the-dogs so that every time the roll was called at school, Hosea would [score] a prophetic bull’s eye in absentia.”
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