All the way back in the early fifth century, St. Augustine confessed that “because Hosea is such a profound prophet, it is no easy matter to get at his meaning. ”In some ways this is accurate. But not in others. The start of the book isn’t that opaque.
Right off the bat, in verse 2, we immediately get insight into God’s purposes for Hosea. “Go, marry a prostitute and have children of prostitution, for the people of the land commit great prostitution by deserting the LORD.” As many have preached and proclaimed, Hosea’s story is meant to illustrate God’s story and relationship with Israel. God is faithful, even when His bride is not. God is faithful to us, even when we stray.
Other parts of the book, however, do get a bit more complicated and prove Augustine to be right. Many of the earliest Fathers of the Church had creative interpretations regarding Hosea and Gomer and their children and what we can learn from their lives, especially within Hosea 1:2-10.
St. Irenaues, who died around 202 and served primarily in southern France, wrote within Against Heresies, “From these unlikely people God will build the church, which will be made holy through its union with the Son of God, as this woman was made holy by her union with the prophet.”
St. Jerome, who died in the year 420 and is considered a Doctor of the Church for his prolific writing and education, wrote in his Commentary on Hosea, “We should not blame the prophet if he converted a prostitute to virtue, but we should rather praise him because he turned a bad woman into a good one.... Hence we understand that it was not the prophet who lost virtue by joining with a prostitute, but rather the latter gained virtue that she never had before.”
Both Irenaeus and Jerome understood that any holiness we have comes from the Lord. The closer we draw to God’s side, the more we are purified of our sins. I’ve pastored churches where we were blessed to serve recovering drug addicts and felons and prostitutes and such, women and men who had made poor choices in life and were often struggling to stay sober or out of prison. From time to time people in the congregation would wonder if it was “safe” to have them in the facilities. “What if they lead our children astray?” some would ask. “What if they steal from the church?” Understandable questions. But our response was always to ask why we felt “sinners” would have an influence over the church more than the church would have over them? Don’t we believe that greater is the One who is in us than the one who is in the world? As Ireneaus said, we are made holy through our union with the Son of God. And as Jerome said, we should not fear that we will lose virtue by walking alongside persons still lost in their sin, but rather than they might come to repentance and know the grace that saved us and saves us still.
Theodore of Mopsuestia was a contemporary of Jerome and is considered perhaps the greatest example of the Antiochene school of hermeneutics. He commented on Hosea that “Hosea’s marriage demonstrated the greatest marvel of God’s condescending to choose such ungrateful people for special attention by the powerful example.”
Again, it illustrates that we are saved by God’s gracious action, not by our faithfulness. No matter what we’ve done, no matter where we’ve been, God’s grace is enough. He is sufficient. And when we trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace, when we claim His righteousness as our own, then even if for a large portion of our life we were not among God’s people, in the end it will be said of us, as it was said in Hosea 1:10, that we are “Children of the living God.”