In the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours last week we read from the Book of the Prophet Hosea. The story of the Prophet Hosea’s troubled marriage is a powerful testimony to two things: our tendency to be unfaithful to God, but also God’s passionate love for us. This is particularly important today as there has been so much discussion about divorce and “remarriage.” While many people have endured difficult marriages, remember that God Himself is in a very painful marriage—with us, His people! God surely knows what it is like to have a difficult spouse. The story of Hosea depicts some of God’s grief and shows what He chooses to do about it.
The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy; we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. Here are the basic facts along with some of that “fill in”:
- Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2).
- Hosea and Gomer have three children together, each with a meaningful name: Jezreel (God was about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (meaning “not pitied”), and Lo-Ammi (meaning “not my people”). It is possible that these children were not actually Hosea’s but rather the offspring of one or more of Gomer’s various lovers, for although they were born during the marriage, God later refers to them as children of harlotry.
- At some point, although the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Gomer leaves Hosea and enters into an adulterous relationship. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea’s reaction, but God’s is well-documented.
- Hosea takes Gomer back. After an unspecified period of time, God instructs Hosea, Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1). While the passage does not clearly state that this woman is Gomer, the overall context of the first three chapters of Hosea 1-3 make it clear that it is she. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back, Gomer and re-establish his marital bond with her.
- Hosea pays a hefty price to purchase Gomer back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and about a homer and a lethech [about 10½ bushels] of barley (Hosea 3:2). The willingness of her adulterous lover to “sell her back” demonstrates quite poetically that his love, like the love given by the world, is not real love at all; it is for sale to the highest bidder.
- Prior to restoring her to any intimacy, Hosea institutes a period of purification and testing: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you” (Hosea 3:3).
This story is both difficult and beautiful. Its purpose is not so much to tell us about Hosea’s marriage as it is to show the troubled marriage of the Lord, whose bride—His people—is unfaithful to Him. Both collectively and individually, we have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism (usually on our behalf) and we have renewed them on many occasions since that time.
All too often, though, we casually “become intimate” with other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps we have become enamored of money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, or worldly philosophies. Some have outright left God; others keep two or more beds, speaking of their love for God but dallying with others as well. Yes, it is a troubled marriage, but we are the unfaithful ones.
What does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride—and at quite a cost: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid dearly to draw us back to Him. Yet still we stray and often show little appreciation of His love. There’s an old gospel song says, “Oh, Lord, I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”
A deeper look into the story of Hosea reveals God’s grieving heart. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to examine describes God as grieving, angry, and weighing His options; but it also shows Him as loving and almost romantic. On one level, we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. God is said to be like this, but He is not angry the way we are angry; He does not grieve the way we do; He is not romantic in the way that we are. Although we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor, we cannot wholly set them aside as having no direct meaning. In some sense, God is grieving, angry, loving, and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how He experiences these is mysterious to us, but He does choose to describe Himself to us in this way.
With this balanced caution, let’s take a look at some excerpts from the second chapter of Hosea, in which God decodes the story of Hosea and applies it to us. He describes to us His grieving heart as well as His plan of action to win back His lover and bride.
Thoughts of divorce – Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband [Hosea 2:4]. The text suggests that God is weighing His options, but perhaps the better explanation is that this line is intended for us readers, so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. However, God will not do that, for although we break the covenant, He will not. Though we are unfaithful, God will not be. If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
The bitter charge against her – Let her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts …. “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil, and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal [Hosea 2:4, 7-10]. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing, but so often we do not thank Him. We run after the world and the powerful in it, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. We love the world and forget about God. We “sleep with” the world. We give credit to medicine, science, and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry, for we are enamored of secondary causes and not of God, who is the cause of all. We get into bed with the world and its agenda, and we adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is distressed by our ingratitude and adultery and is presented in this passage as a wounded and jealous lover. Remember that these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that although He is not hurt, angered, or passionate the way that we are, neither is He indifferent to our infidelity.
Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishment – I will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. … I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers, and no one can deliver her out of my hand. I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities. … I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense … If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them, she shall not find them [Hosea 2:5-7, 12-13, 15, 9]. This text could be seen as describing God in a jealous rage, but God has a result in mind. He does not punish as might some despot exacting revenge. He punishes for its medicinal effect. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God; we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion with us.
The hoped-for result – Then she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now” [Hosea 2:9]. God’s intent is to bring His bride back to sanity, to the point that she is ready to seek union once again. Without it she will perish; with it, she will be united with the only one who ever loved her and the only one who can save her.
Passionate lover – So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked [Hosea 2:16-19]. God wants to be alone with His bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare His love for her again. She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that when we die, we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world: creature comforts, power, pride, and the like. As we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart, and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this He restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
Renewed covenant – I will make a covenant for them on that day …. I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. … and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” [Hosea 2:20-22, 2519] God renews the marriage bond with us, both in the Church and individually!
Here, then, is the astonishing, undying, and pursuing love of God for His bride, the Church, and for each of us individually. After all our whoring and infidelity, we do not deserve it, but God is a passionate lover. As He commanded Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God Himself buy us back—at a high price. Certainly, God did not pay Satan. Rather, the large payment in Hosea’s story indicates the great sacrifice God had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far, and He had to journey far and then carry us back.
I am not here to render a personal judgment on those who have tried valiantly to save their marriage but were unable to do so. Rather, my purpose is to reach those of you who are currently struggling, who are trying to persevere, so that you realize that God understands your pain. He, too, experiences it from us, time and time again. Yet each day He renews His covenant with us and offers us mercy. In the words of a famous spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows but Jesus.”
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Hosea’s Stormy Marriage