Hosea belongs to the period of Israelite history when the ancient nation was divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. His ministry began during the reigns of Jeroboam II in Israel and Uzziah in Judah, and continued through the reigns of succeeding kings (Hosea 1:1).
A time of prosperity
Jeroboam II and Uzziah (or Azariah) came to power about the same time, in the early part of the eighth century BC. Both had long and prosperous reigns. During their time Israel and Judah experienced stability such as they had not known since the days of David, and economic prosperity unparalleled in their history. This was possible partly because the political situation in the region favoured Israel and Judah. Syria, the former major power, had declined, and Assyria, the rising power, was involved in a struggle with nations to its north and for forty years did not bother Israel and Judah.
Under these conditions Jeroboam II expanded his kingdom from Hamath in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, as foretold by the prophet Jonah. This gave him control over many of the region’s trade routes, which helped considerably to increase Israel’s strength. Religiously, however, he was a failure
(2 Kings 14:23-29).
Uzziah, meanwhile, was extending his kingdom. He spread his rule west over Philistine territory, east over Ammonite territory, and south as far as the Red Sea and Egypt. He fortified Jerusalem, improved farming and pastoral conditions throughout the country, built up the armed forces, and equipped his army with the most modern weapons. His great mistake was to think that he could be religious head of the nation as well, and for this misguided zeal he was severely punished (2 Kings 15:1-7; 2 Chron 26:6-23).
The economic development of the eighth century brought with it greed and corruption far greater than anything Israel or Judah had experienced previously. Those who benefited from the prosperity were not the ordinary people (such as the farmers, who made up the majority of the population) but the officials and merchants. These were the people of power and influence. They exploited the poor as they pleased, knowing that because of the corruption of the courts, the poor had no way to defend themselves.
Godly people began to see that such practices would lead eventually to God’s judgment in the destruction of the nation. The first prophet of this period whose writings are recorded was Amos, who directed his attacks mainly against the upper class people of the northern kingdom. (For fuller details of the social corruption of the time see background notes to Amos.)
In spite of Amos’s accusations and warnings, social conditions in Israel worsened. This is seen from the writings of Hosea. Like Amos, Hosea was concerned chiefly with the northern kingdom, though at times he referred to the southern kingdom.
Not only the merchants and officials but also the priests oppressed the poor. The religion was now completely corrupt, and this was what Hosea particularly opposed. He saw this as the cause of all Israel’s evil. Baal worship, complete with its fertility rites and prostitution (see ‘Baal worship’ below), was more widely practised than in Amos’s day. Israel knew nothing of the character of Yahweh (Hosea 4:1-6,17-19; 5:4; 6:6-10; 7:14-16; 8:5-6; 13:6; cf. Amos 2:7-8).
Since the covenant bond between Israel and Yahweh was likened to the marriage bond, Israel’s association with other gods was really spiritual adultery. Hosea had this impressed upon him when his own wife, Gomer, committed adultery. She left him for other lovers. But her pleasures did not last and she was sold as a slave. All this time Hosea remained faithful to his marriage covenant and still loved his erring wife. When he found her a slave he therefore bought her back.
Hosea’s love for his wife was a picture of the covenant love of God for his unfaithful people. They too would go into captivity, but when they had been cleansed of the filth of their adulterous association with the Canaanite gods, they would be brought back to live in their land again.
Canaanite gods were known as Baalim (plural of Baal, a word meaning ‘master, owner, or husband’). Goddesses were known either as Ashtaroth (plural of Ashtoreth) or Asherim (plural of Asherah). These were gods of nature that people believed had the power to increase fertility in human beings, animals and soil alike.
From the early days of their settlement in Canaan, the Israelites had been easily led astray by the local Canaanite religions. They saw similarities between the worship of Yahweh and the worship of the local gods, and soon they combined the two. After all, they thought, Yahweh was the God of nature, and he was Israel’s husband and master (Hebrew: baal). Also, the Canaanites worshipped at altars on the tops of hills (the ‘high places’), just as Israel’s leaders did in the past. Among the features of the Baalist places of worship were sacred gardens and pillars, the latter being known as Asherim (plural of Asherah, the goddess after whom they were named).
At these high places there were prostitutes, both male and female, with whom worshippers could conduct fertility rites. These were religious-sexual ceremonies that the worshippers believed could influence the gods to give increase in family, herds, flocks and crops. In forsaking Yahweh for Baal, Israelites were guilty of prostitution, both spiritual and literal (Hosea 2:5,8; 4:10-13; 7:14-16; 9:1-2).
Political decline in Israel and Judah
The social and religious evils that developed during the reigns of Jeroboam II and Uzziah continued in the reigns of the kings who followed. There were also serious political troubles.
In Israel Jeroboam had been in such firm control for so long, that when he died there was no one capable of governing the country as he had. The result was political chaos, as ambitious men fought to seize power. A series of plots and assassinations resulted in frequent changes of government and the nation quickly lost its stability (2 Kings 15:8-26).
Within a short time Assyria began to show interest in adding Israel to its rapidly expanding empire. As successive Israelite kings changed between pro-Assyrian and anti-Assyrian policies, Assyria became increasingly involved in Israel’s affairs (2 Kings 15:19,29; 17:3-4). Finally, in 722 BC, Assyria conquered Israel and carried its people into captivity (2 Kings 17:5-6).
Political conditions in Judah were, for a while, more stable than in Israel. This was mainly because Jotham, the son of Uzziah, continued his father’s policies (2 Kings 15:32-36). But the next king, Ahaz, had a disastrous reign. Politically weak, he led Judah into an alliance with Assyria that almost destroyed Judah’s independence. Religiously he was a failure (2 Kings 16:1-20). The next king, Hezekiah, made a courageous effort to restore Judah’s independence and reform its religion (2 Kings 18:1-19:37). (For fuller details of the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, see background notes to Micah, subheading ‘Political events’.)