The title of the book gives the name of its author. Hosea stands first among the Minor Prophets, which are thus designated only because of their comparative brevity and without any implication that the ministry of the men who wrote them was either of brief duration or minor consequence, or that their writings are of less importance or of lesser inspiration. The chronological statement with which the book opens indicates that Hosea's ministry extended over a period of at least 24 years, that is, assuming that he began his ministry in 753 b.c., the closing year of the reign of Jeroboam II, and ended it in 729 b.c., the 1st of Hezekiah, but his ministry doubtless extended some years before 753 b.c. and perhaps a short time after 729 b.c. Inasmuch as Hosea makes no reference to the fall of Samaria in 723/22 b.c., it may be assumed that his service ended prior to that tragic event. For a number of years his ministry was contemporary with that of Amos (ch 1:1), Micah (ch 1:1), and Isaiah (ch 1:1). Although a specific statement linking Hosea's ministry to the northern kingdom, Israel, is lacking, the familiarity with which the prophet speaks of various localities in that part of the divided kingdom strongly implies that his prophetic ministry was largely conducted there (Hos 4:15; 5:1; Hos 6:8, 9; 9:15; 10:5, 8, 15; 12:11; 14:5 8). The course of apostasy in Judah was less advanced than in Israel (chs 11:12; 12:2), and references to the former are more general in tone and somewhat incidental (chs 5:14; 6:4, 11; 8:14; 10:11; 11:12).
Hosea's ministry spans the closing decades of the history of the northern kingdom, and his message constituted God's final appeal to the 10 tribes prior to the disintegration of the kingdom and the permanent captivity of a majority of its people at the hands of the Assyrians. Hosea began his ministry sometime during Jeroboam II's long and successful reign, at a time when the nation was basking in the temporary light of an imposing but deceptive political and material prosperity. Jeroboam's success at pushing back the northern borders of the country practically to the limits attained in the days of David and Solomon had introduced an era of unprecedented luxury, but this served only to hasten the moral and spiritual decline that began nearly 2 cent. earlier in the nation with Jeroboam I, its 1st king. Apostasy, often referred to as "whoredom" or "adultery" (chs 1:2; 6:10; 9:1), had taken the form of Baal worship (chs 2:8, 13, 17; 9:10; 11:2; 13:1). Adultery had become a national custom (ch 7:4). Increasing prosperity had brought with it increased sin and corruption (Hos 4:7; 9:9), and the people pursued their iniquitous course with a greedy appetite (ch 4:8). Apostasy, based on a deliberate rejection of the revealed will of God (v 6), was practically universal (vs. 16, 17; cf. chs 6:7; 7:7, 13 16; 8:1, 14; 11:7), and the nation had refused God's repeated invitations to return to Him (chs 5:4; 7:10). The degrading effects of idolatry were inevitably reflected in the moral tone of society until there was "no faithfulness or kindness, and no knowledge of God in the land," but only "swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery" (ch 4:1, 2, RSV). Lamented the prophet, "They break all bounds and murder follows murder" (vs. 1, 2, RSV). The religious leaders engaged in the grossest crimes (ch 6:9), and the monarchy had fallen on evil days. Four of its last 5 kings assassinated their predecessors in order to become king (cf. ch 7:7). As a nation the people of Israel had ploughed wickedness and were reaping a harvest of iniquity (ch 10:13). The nation was ripe for dissolution, but in mercy God prolonged her day of grace for a few brief years before the Assyrians ended her national existence.
The dominant theme of the book is the infinite love and patient long-suffering of God. God's care for His people is presented in terms of a faithful husband's solicitous affection for an erring wife, as acted out in the tragic personal narrative of Hos 1 to 3. The prophet was instructed to "take a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms" (ch 1:2). Hosea's wife, Gomer, soon proved unfaithful (ch 2:2 5) and bore a succession of illegitimate children (chs 1:6, 9; 2:4, 5). His love for the erring wife was unabated, and he sought by every means possible to retrieve her affections (ch 2:2 9, 14, 15), but to no avail. Eventually he found her in a slave market and bought her back (ch 3). Opinion is divided as to whether more than one woman was involved and whether this narrative relates an actual experience, or whether it is to be considered an allegory or a dream. Those who deny it as an actual experience base their argument on the contention that God would not authorise a prophet to marry an adulteress, while those who consider it an account of Hosea's own experience hold that Gomer was not an adulteress at the time Hosea married her (ch 1:2). Either way, the national apostasy is accurately reflected in Hosea's attitude toward her (chs 1:10, 11; 2:16 23). The state of national affairs is a projection of the situation in Hosea's home.
The broken heart of Hosea for his wayward wife finds its counterpart in the broken literary pattern of God's message to Israel in Hos 4 to 14. There is no logical development of the theme, but a passionate alternation between passages mourning the waywardness of Israel and others appealing to her to return to her Lord and Master. Hosea's passionate appeals to Gomer are matched by God's appeals to Israel, and the sentences follow one another abruptly and sometimes almost incoherently, like the sobs of a broken heart. Like Jeremiah a century later, Hosea mourns for his people, unreconciled to the evil course they have chosen to follow and the evil fate that awaits them. The book is replete with vivid illustrations drawn from nature and from everyday life: a backsliding heifer (ch 4:16), the early and latter rains (ch 6:3), an overheated oven (ch 7:4 7), a cake unturned, perhaps burned to a cinder on one side and doughy on the other (v 8), an old man who still lives the life of a playboy (v 9), a wild ass in heat (ch 8:9), an empty vine (ch 10:1), and many others.
Though the book of Hosea does not readily lend itself to a logical analysis, the following general approximate line of thought development is evident: In the first 3 chapters, as already noted, Hosea recounts his personal experiences with Gomer, while in chs 4 to 14 he addresses Israel as if she were an unfaithful spouse to God. In ch 4 the Lord has "a controversy with the inhabitants of the land" (v 1), and in ch 5 he addresses the religious leaders, warning them of impending judgement (vs. 1, 15). In chs 6, 7 the prophet extends to Israel an invitation to return to the Lord, but then goes on to show how earlier invitations to return have only met with treachery on Israel's part, and, at best, half-hearted reform (chs 6:4, 7; 7:8, 11, 16). Chapters 8 and 9 announce impending captivity as the punishment for apostasy (chs 8:1, 7, 8; 9:3, 7, 15, 17). Reasons for the fearful fate soon to overtake the nation are outlined in chs 10 to 13, where God recounts what He has done for His people and charges them with being "an empty vine" (ch 10:1). Interspersed with the charges are tender appeals to return (chs 10:12; 11:8, 9; 12:6; 13:9, 10). Chapter 14 constitutes God's final invitation to return to Him, and He promises to "love them freely" and to "heal their backsliding" (v 4).
Horn, Siegfried H., Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary, (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association) 1979.