The Book of Hosea is an intense, Old Testament record of God’s prophetic judgments upon the Northern Kingdom called Israel. There are some portions that pertain to the surrounding nations and to the Southern Kingdom also known as Judah. By and large, the majority of the prophecies deal with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its rebellion. The largest tribe within it was Ephraim, which is synonymous with Israel. Sometime in 722 B.C., the Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom in accordance with many of Hosea’s prophecies. Most scholars believe that the prophet Hosea died before the fall of Israel. Some might view his ministry as a failure due to the fact that Israel never turned from its idolatry and succumbed to the Assyrians. Still others might say, no, Hosea’s ministry was successful because God’s prophetic warnings about judgment were fulfilled en toto.
In all honesty, both views miss the bigger picture. Hosea’s call as a prophet meant being faithful to his God with the messages given to him. Another way to state this is that the prophet’s first priority was obedience to God. His faithfulness in carrying out God’s word stood in stark contrast to the people for whom judgment loomed around the corner. This is the main point about Hosea marrying a prostitute in accordance with God’s word (Hosea 1:2, ESV). Of course, such an act cuts against all human reasoning and common sense; however, Hosea represents the Lord while his wife stands in for the Northern Kingdom of Israel. From God’s perspective, Israel has lived like a harlot in her idolatry and rebellion toward him. It is a stark depiction of the historical reality in Hosea’s day; however, God promises to win Israel back in the future (Hosea 2:14-16, ESV).
There is an important truth to bring to light in this study. Israel’s future restoration did not have to be its only hope. One of my reasons for saying it this way has to do with the very essence of Hosea’s ministry. He had been sent by God to call Israel back, to provoke repentance and confession of sin within the people. What this means is that Israel’s restoration could have been experienced without having to face destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. Here is a passage from the book of Hosea that illustrates this point:
“11. Ephraim was a trained calf that loved to thresh, and I spared her fair neck; but I will put Ephraim to the yoke; Judah must plow; Jacob must harrow for himself. 12. Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hosea 10:11-12, ESV).
Let me draw some things out of this passage. Ephraim is a reference to the Northern Kingdom while Judah alludes to the Southern Kingdom. Through Hosea, God reveals the bright beginning of Ephraim, which ends with his judgment of the people through their servitude to Judah. At one point in Israel’s history, the whole nation stood as one people comprised of twelve tribes. Because of King Solomon’s slide into pagan worship, the Lord promised to tear the kingdom into two nations as an act of judgment (1 Kings 11:9-13, ESV). This occurred during the reign of King Rehoboam, who sat on the throne after his father, King Solomon (1 Kings 11:43; 12:16-20, ESV). One people wound up torn in two due to sin. Instead of dwelling together in unity as brothers, Ephraim serves Judah as an act of judgment. All of this takes place because of sin, because of rebellion against God and his commands.
Now, the great thing about the bible is that God reveals his uncanny ability to express and to maintain two seemingly opposite truths in tension. I examined the judgment of servitude upon Ephraim for its rebellion; however, the twelfth verse indicates a genuine promise from God about visiting righteousness upon his people provided that they repent (break up your fallow ground) and seek him (Hosea 10:12, ESV). One thing that jumps out at me is the Lord’s unwillingness to let his people off the hook. By commanding them to sow righteousness, he reminds them that they must choose him and follow through on it. There is no room for spiritual laziness or halfheartedness. God sums up his call to repent by commanding them to break up their fallow ground. Given their agrarian lifestyle, his people knew exactly what he saw in them and expected to see them overcome.
In the Hebrew, the word translated fallow means either untilled soil or tilled soil that lay dormant. Both of these uses illustrate the dire spiritual condition of the people. The only way to plant seed is to till the ground in order to enable it to receive the seed. Rocks, thorns, weeds and the like must be removed; however, if the hard work of tilling the ground has been done, but the field lies dormant, then it hardens. The ground is unable to receive moisture, and it does not allow the seed to sink into it for maximum growth. Through this farming analogy, God urges his people about the importance of preparing their hearts and souls to receive his word, his truth, for life transformation. This is the constant call of God through Hosea to his people. Should they respond to his voice, God promises to come to them and rain righteousness upon them (Hosea 10:12, ESV). He holds out both judgment and blessing for Israel, and each one is a genuine offer.
Lastly, the Northern Kingdom’s spiritual condition is one that serves as a warning. I doubt that any farmer would want to do the hard work of tilling the soil only to let it go for years. This defeats the purpose of tilling the soil. Fallow ground is hard, full of weeds, thorns, and thistles. It serves no good purpose for the farmer. When I allow my heart to become fallow, then it serves no purpose for God. His word bounces off of it. Because the hardness of my heart prevents the seed from germinating, there is no possibility of life and its transforming effects upon my soul. If the spiritual condition of the Northern Kingdom had not been so severe, I suspect Hosea’s message would not have been as bleak or sad. This last point needs to sink into our hearts and minds. The severity of Israel’s spiritual condition fits the severity of God’s judgment upon it. From this I gather the importance of heeding God’s warnings. Each one indicates that there is still time to turn back to him. Once he stops warning, then it is time to worry.