Hosea 5:15 – 6:6
THE BROAD 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.
Chapters 1-3 constitute a unit in which Yahweh commands Hosea to take a wife known to be sexually promiscuous. His wife will serve 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:
While this lectionary reading begins with verse 5:15, the unit really begins with 5:1. Yahweh is speaking, and describes the judgment that is about to befall Israel and Judah. Ephraim (Israel—the northern kingdom) will stumble, and Judah (the southern kingdom) will stumble with them (5:5). They will seek Yahweh, but will not find him (5:6).
The background is the Syro-Ephramitic war of 735-733 B.C. Assyria is the reigning superpower. While Assyria is located far to the east in the Tigris-Euphrates region (modern Iraq), Tiglath-pileser III has expanded Assyria’s boundaries westward. Israel (the northern kingdom) formed an alliance with Syria to resist Assyria, resulting in conflict with Judah (the southern kingdom), which allied itself to Assyria. This resulted in Assyria conquering most of Israel and exiling most of its people. The remaining Israelites became vassals of Assyria (see 2 Kings 15-17).
HOSEA 5:15. THEY WILL SEEK ME EARNESTLY
15 I will go and return to my place,
until they acknowledge their offense,
and seek my face.
In their affliction they will seek me earnestly.
“I will go and return to my place, until they acknowledge their offense, and seek my face. In their affliction they will seek me earnestly” (v. 15). This is the concluding verse of chapter 15, in which Yahweh pronounced judgment on Israel and Judah. Yahweh described himself as a lion, who has ravaged Ephraim and Judah (5:14). Now he will return to his place—his lair—where he will await his repentant people. There will be no more wooing—no more cajoling. They will have to come to Yahweh; Yahweh is through coming to them.
HOSEA 6:1-3. COME, AND LET US RETURN TO YAHWEH
1 “Come, and let us return to Yahweh;
for he has torn us to pieces,
and he will heal us;
he has injured us,
and he will bind up our wounds.
2 After two days he will revive us.
On the third day he will raise us up,
and we will live before him.
3 Let us acknowledge Yahweh.
Let us press on to know Yahweh.
As surely as the sun rises,
Yahweh will appear.
He will come to us like the rain,
like the spring rain that waters the earth.”
In these verses, the one speaking is no longer Yahweh. It could be Hosea, or it could be the people of Israel and/or Judah.
“Come, and let us return to Yahweh; for he has torn us to pieces, and he will heal us; he has injured us, and he will bind up our wounds” (v. 6.1). In chapter 5, where Yahweh pronounced judgment on Israel and Judah, Yahweh spoke of Ephraim (another name for Israel, the northern kingdom) going to Assyria for solace, only to find that Assyria “is not able to cure you or heal your wound” (5:13).
Now Yahweh describes the day when Israel will return to Yahweh seeking healing. It is Yahweh, not Assyria, who has the power to heal. These people are aware that it is Yahweh who has torn them—has struck them down. Now they propose to return to Yahweh in the hope that he will heal them—will bind them up.
However, there is no hint of true repentance here—no confession of sin or plea for forgiveness. These people are conscious of their need for healing, but not their need for holiness.
“After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (v. 2). Their wounds have been fatal, or nearly so. They need Yahweh not only to bind their wounds but to restore them to life.
“Two days” corresponds to the time that Christ would later spend in the tomb, and “on the third day he will raise us up” sounds like an Easter resurrection. The immediate context has to do with renewed life for Israel and Judah. However, the prophet may have written of more than he was aware (see 1 Corinthians 15:4).
“Let us acknowledge Yahweh. Let us press on to know Yahweh” (v. 3a). There are different levels of knowing. The most basic level is to know a person by reputation only—or to be able to recognize a face without being able to call the person’s name. At a higher level, we might be able to carry on a casual conversation with a person. At a still higher level, we become privy to the other person’s deepest feelings and aspirations. We identify with them sufficiently that their joys become our joys and their sorrows become our sorrows. Our hearts are intertwined. It is this highest level of knowing that Yahweh desires.
If these are the words of the prophet, he is calling the people to know Yahweh at this intimate level. If these are the words of the people, it would appear that they understand their need to know Yahweh in this intimate way.
“As surely as the sun rises, Yahweh will appear. He will come to us like the rain,
like the spring rain that waters the earth” (v. 3b). Sunrise—showers—spring rains—these are refreshing images in a place where water is scarce. When rain fails to come, “the land will mourn”—and people “waste away”—and birds and fish perish (4:3). But just as dawn brings light, so also showers and spring rains bring life.
But this verse isn’t about dawn or spring rains. It is about the certainty of Yahweh appearing—a certainty “as sure as the sun rises”—as sure as the fact that the sun will rise in the morning. It is about the renewed life that will come with Yahweh’s presence.
HOSEA 6:4-6. WHAT SHALL I DO TO YOU?
4 “Ephraim, what shall I do to you?
Judah, what shall I do to you?
For your love is like a morning cloud,
and like the dew that disappears early.
5 Therefore I have cut them to pieces with the prophets;
I killed them with the words of my mouth.
Your judgments are like a flash of lightning.
6 For I desire mercy (Hebrew: he∙sed), and not sacrifice;
and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
“Ephraim, what shall I do to you? Judah, what shall I do to you?” (v. 4a). These two phrases are an example of parallelism, a common literary form in Hebrew poetry. They use similar but different images to reinforce the same point. Ephraim is one of the tribes of the northern kingdom, but as used here the word is synonymous with the northern kingdom itself. Judah, of course, is the southern kingdom.
Yahweh is speaking once again, and we hear the keening lament of his voice. These are the words of a broken-hearted father who has tried everything, but sees his child continuing on a self-destructive path. It is his love that keeps Yahweh in relationship with these rebellious people. He cannot allow himself to write them off.
“For your love is like a morning cloud, and like the dew that disappears early” (v. 4b). This is another example of parallelism. The morning cloud lasts only until the sun starts to rise in the sky, and then it goes away. Likewise, the dew vanishes early in the morning. Both are ephemeral—transient—fleeting. So also is the love of Israel-Judah for Yahweh.
“Therefore I have cut them to pieces with the prophets; I killed them with the words of my mouth” (v. 5ab). These two phrases are another example of parallelism.
Yahweh’s words have power. In the beginning, Yahweh spoke a word and the universe came into being. Now Yahweh uses his words, delivered by the prophets, to hew these people—to kill them—to punish them for their infidelity.
“Your judgments are like a flash of lightning” (v. 5c). The meaning of this phrase is difficult to determine. It could mean that Yahweh’s judgment is as certain as the light of the dawn, or it could mean that Yahweh’s judgment shines light on the sins of these people.
“For I desire mercy (he∙sed) and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (v. 6). This verse is the heart of this text, and is another example of parallelism.
Yahweh desires steadfast love (he∙sed) rather than sacrifice. This word he·sed is has a rich variety of meanings—kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. Like the Greek word, agape, in the New Testament, he·sed is a word that involves action—kindness or love as expressed through kind or loving actions rather than just feelings.
In a similar vein, Yahweh desires “the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” As noted in the comments on 3a above, there are different levels of knowing. The knowledge of God that Yahweh desires involves a deep relationship—the kind of knowing that causes hearts to be intertwined.
This verse is an example of hyperbole—exaggeration for effect. It would not be right to say that Yahweh does not desire sacrifices or burnt offerings. Torah law requires these things and specifies in exact detail the procedures that the people must follow to satisfy Torah requirements.
The problem is not with sacrifices or burnt offerings. The problem is that these people have substituted ritual observances for true allegiance to Yahweh. These observances, intended to bind the people to Yahweh, have had the opposite effect. This verse shouldn’t be regarded as giving these people authority to discontinue sacrifices. Instead, it lifts up the things that the offerings were intended to foster—steadfast love and a deep relationship with God. If these people truly want to please Yahweh and to secure Yahweh’s help, these are the characteristics that they must develop. At that point, the sacrifices and burnt offerings can achieve the purpose for which they were intended.
HOSEA 6:7 – 7:16. POSTSCRIPT
Our lectionary reading goes only through 6:6, but verses 6:7 – 7:10 continue the description of the transgressions of Israel and Judah. Verses 7:11-16 describe their foolish reliance on Egypt and Assyria. They should be placing their trust in Yahweh—not other nations.
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)
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)
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.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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