Being a prophet in ancient Israel wasn’t always the greatest task in the world; it often left the prophet in troubled situations. Jonah ends up in the belly of a whale for three days, although that was sort of his fault. Jeremiah is constantly on the run because everyone in the kingdom it seems wants to kill him. And Isaiah walks around barefoot and naked for three years as a sign of impending doom. But Hosea may have the most difficult task of all. Hosea is called to marry an adulterous wife.
The first thing God ever tells Hosea is to go and marry an adulterous wife as a sign of Israel’s own unfaithfulness. So, Hosea marries Gomer, a cult prostitute, as a sign to the community that Israel has cheated on its first love. Just as Gomer is unfaithful, Israel has been unfaithful. Israel was to be married to God in covenant faithfulness, but Israel has chased other loves. Israel has chased after lovers of rock and stone, other created things instead of the Creator of all things. Israel has chased these other lovers looking for fulfillment, or hope, or security, or some other unattainable goal; unattainable, because only the true God can meet these needs. So Hosea marries Gomer as a sign of Israel’s sin. Every time Hosea and Gomer go to the market to buy food, or even go to the festivals to worship God, they would serve as a reminder that Israel has been unfaithful to Yahweh God. It’s a hard life’s calling.
Later, Gomer has children, but even these children serve as a sign of Israel’s sin. The first is named Jezreel because God is going to punish the community for the blood King Jehu spilled at Jezreel. The second is named Lo-Ruhammah (which means not pitied or no mercy) because God will no longer have mercy on Israel. Finally, the third child is named Lo-Ammi (which means not my people) because God is so disappointed in Israel’s unfaithfulness that God will no longer claim them as God’s people. Again, a hard life, and a sad story.
But the story gets worse. Gomer remains unfaithful. While she was pretending to be happily married, she was constantly living a double life. While she was pretending to be a committed member of the family, loving Hosea openly and caring for her young children, she was secretly living out her idolatrous life. She still made her normal sacrifices to God at the Temple, but secretly she was living a life of promiscuity. She was keeping her sins to herself. Hiding them from her immediate family, hiding them from her religious family, and at times even trying to lie to herself that really what she was doing wasn’t so bad. She was unfaithful, and Hosea had finally had enough. He sends her away. He can’t take the hurt any longer.
We understand Hosea’s frustration. We honestly wonder how he held on for so long. Many of us wouldn’t have accepted the initial call, or would have at least thrown Gomer out after the first sign of unfaithfulness. The fact that Hosea held on so long is a testimony to his love. But none of us our upset that he finally gives up on the relationship, because we would have done the same thing.
That’s partially why the story is so sad. We understand why someone would give up after so much hurt, and that makes the story regrettable. Because we understand, this isn’t just a story of Hosea and Gomer, Lo-Ruhammah and Lo-Ammi. This is our story. It’s a story of us and God. We have been married to God. We have been in a covenant relationship with God. God the father invited us into a relationship, even when we were stuck in our sins. God welcomed us into the family even when we didn’t deserve it, and provided a place for us. We had moved from worthless and abused to become the beloved of the Lord. Yet we threw it all away. We continued in sin. We continue to seek after other loves. We remained unfaithful. And we fear that God will toss us away, because we know that’s what we would do as well.
Yet, luckily, God doesn’t love like we do.
The story that Hosea becomes an image for is of God as a wounded lover who doesn’t respond out of anger, but out of love. God becomes the wounded lover who travels out into the wilderness that we have created and woos us back. God speaks tenderly to us. God offers us gifts and security. God woos us in order to win back our love. God doesn’t wait for us to recognize our sins and repent. Instead, God travels into the wilderness to rewrite our story. God comes to us and says, I will change your name. I will call you Ruhammah, the one to whom the Lord has shown mercy. I will call you Ammi, for you are my people. God takes the initiative to pursue us, even as we run away. And God promises to love us back into the family.
God’s love for us is true love. God doesn’t wait for us to come back from our self-inflicted exiles. Instead, God pursues us with a relentless love that says “I love you no matter what you’ve done, and I love you too much to leave you in your sin.” We are the people of the Lord, not because we’ve earned it, but because God loves us too much to leave us in the wilderness.
That’s true love.