I remember the first (okay, the only) time I picked up a prostitute. I was 17 and far more eager than discerning. Seeing a normal looking woman walking unprotected in the rain in my Northern California city, I offered her a ride. Once she was in my car, her actions seemed a bit more forward than I expected. Fortunately, she was only going a few blocks and in my naïveté, I only realized what she was offering after she was at her destination. My morality remained in tact. My sense of the world's wholeness, though, changed from that day on. The brokenness I had been vaguely aware of broke its way into my comfy life.
The word of the LORD comes into the crisis situation of a divided nation. The author of verse 1 reminds the reader in his listing of kings that this is a broken situation that Hosea speaks into, that the LORD speaks into. Hosea's ministry, according to verse 1, covers almost 100 years between Uzziah and Hezekiah. He would have witnessed revolt and assassination of one of the northern kings, Zechariah, as well as watching (probably from Southern Kingdom) the 721/722 BC invasion of Israel by Assyria and subsequent dismantling of the ten northern tribes. Broken kingdoms, broken kings, broken covenants.
And into this scene steps Hosea, the Tabloid Prophet. "Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom" (ESV) says the LORD to his prophet. Marry a prostitute, one who has chosen by either necessity or constitution to live a life of unfaithfulness. We should not be too surprised. Corporate brokenness works itself out in the concrete details of people's lives. Although we may have a tendency to castigate Gomer for her unfaithfulness, we must recognize that her action is rooted in a corporate brokenness embodied in the kings of verse 1 that parallels and transcends her own faithlessness. The imagery of sexual violence that is hinted at here in chapter 1 and made explicit in chapter 2 is not license to further blame the weak, in this case Hosea's harlot wife. It is a sign of the real harlotry that we are quick to excuse--the leaders who happily have resorted to violence and cynicism in their pursuit of idolatrous power and position rather than faithfulness.
Once we have digested the context, we can start to have fun. We get to trot out a little Hebrew when we talk about these names. And we should--Hebrew punnery is at its least subtle here in Hosea 1. Each successive child of Hosea and Gomer is a slow unfolding over several years of the plan of hope-through-judgment that God has for Israel. A son called Jezreel, because of the judgment that is coming for Jehu and his archer's antics at Jezreel (2 Kings 9). Their bow will be broken. A daughter named No-Mercy because mercy is over for Israel, though Judah will be saved, even if unconventionally. A son named Not-My-People because the covenant relationship between God and Israel has apparently been too shattered.
Imagine the national and theological crisis that must exist to constitute Hosea's marriage to Gomer and child naming scheme as prophetic action and speech. How bad must things get that God is at work through things like prophets marrying prostitutes in order to get his people's attention? In fact, we live in a world that God might name Not-So-Different. The infinite divisions of our churches scandalize us. Hypocrisy is rampant, even among those who subscribe to weekly lectionary recaps. The brokenness of our own national community forces us into a series of disgraceful options, though the violence of our world is often sanitized and filtered by social and geographical distance. What will it take for the LORD to communicate the word to a church which takes this brokenness as a given? How could we ever be saved from this brokenness?
Let's take the second question first. Hosea does not leave us in despair. By the end of the first chapter, we know that this child naming scheme has begun as judgment and by its conclusion, will be a faint memory of unity and reunification with their God and Father. The name that stands over the whole book--Hosea, indicating salvation--will be the final hopeful word over the people of God even if the word at this moment is Jezreel, No Mercy and Not My People. We must not rush through the message of Hosea, but we also must not despair. The Lord God will save (1:7), though not through force or violence but through a word. May the preacher know that the preaching of the word of the LORD and administration of the sacrament is the communication of the Word which saves.
The first question, though, is more daunting for those of us that would dare to stand before the people of God and proclaim God's word. It is daunting because God may just possibly be asking God's servants to suffer along with the heart of God. Like Hosea bound to a prostitute wife, it may be that we are to be bound to a faithless church or a promiscuous community. And far from kicking up dust and screaming about the unfairness of our situation ("How did so-and-so get that great church with all those great people and that great facility and I'm stuck here with these Philistines?"), my sense is that it is more likely that we are to be a metaphor of God's faithfulness to an unhearing and unresponsive people. We are to be persistent and patient in our pursuit of our prostitute wife, knowing that her harlotry has not diminished God's love or passion for her in the same way that our own harlotry has not diminished God's love or passion for us.
May God bless the communication of the Word and in Christ Jesus, redeem us for this immensely important work. May we respond to God's pursuit of his people by modeling both a humble, penitent return to faithful living and the passionate pursuit of God's church.