People get married for lots of reasons. Some are better than others. “Because I’ve prayed about it, and I believe it’s God’s will,” is an excellent reason. If we ask God to help us find our car keys in early morning moments of frustration and hurry, how much more should we ask God to help us select a life partner! “Because I can trust this person to be my loving and faithful partner in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow throughout all our days” is also a good reason. You’d be crazy to marry someone you didn’t trust. Now some marriages do experience a breach of trust down the road even when there’s ample trust at the outset; human beings are, after all, fragile creatures and prone to making mistakes, but if your fiancé is something of a project, the area for improvement had better not be trustworthiness.
Now what’s curious, to say the least, about Hosea and Gomer’s wedding is that it pits these two, non-negotiable requirements against each other. It is God’s will that Hosea marry Gomer, and Gomer has been and is engaged in sexual immorality, and she will prove to be an unfaithful wife in the future. What kind of immorality? We don’t know. Some translations say that she’s a prostitute. If so, then it seems clear that Hosea is not Richard Gere, and Gomer is not Julia Roberts, and their life together is not going to unfold along the plot line of Pretty Woman. (By the way, for you Millennials, Pretty Woman is a movie that old people watched about a rich guy who hired an escort and fell in love with her.) Gomer has a cheating heart, and God wills that Hosea’s heart be broken by this union.
The marriage is what biblical scholars call a sign act. Prophets not only spoke words that the Lord God gave them to speak, they engaged in non-verbal communication on behalf of the Lord. Think of sign acts as performance art. If performance artists “challenge audiences to think in new and unconventional ways, break conventions of traditional arts, and break down conventional ideas about ‘what art is,’” then Hosea and the other prophets were performance prophets. Their strange actions questioned the conventional piety of their fellow Israelites and pronounced judgment on Israel’s proud and stubborn kings.
Ezekiel was the prophet who communicated the most in sign acts. He built a model city and laid siege to it with a toy army. “Why are you playing kid’s games, Zeke?” they asked him. “This ain’t no child’s play,” he replied. “God is going to bring war on this city because of her sins.” Another time he packed a bag, dug a hole through the clay wall of his house, and crawled out. He did this over and over. “What are you doing, Zeke?” “I’m doing what the king himself is going to do when the city falls: sneak out under cover of darkness with nothing more than what he can stuff in a backpack, like a refugee running for his life.”
And Hosea? He married a promiscuous woman as a sign of Israel’s religious promiscuity. They worshiped the Lord God, and they worshiped the idols that their Gentile neighbors worshiped. It seems the Israelite people compartmentalized their religious lives. They were grateful to the Lord God for liberating them from slavery and bringing them into the Promised Land, but as for managing the land, they turned to the gods the Canaanites worshipped. Baal was the Canaanite storm god; he was the rainmaker, both literally and figuratively. Baal sent the rains that caused their crops to grow and their pastureland to green up. He kept them from starving. He made them prosper.
Fools. “(Israel) did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her the silver and gold that they used for Baal,” said the Lord. It’s as if God brought home a dozen roses for his bride on Valentine’s Day, and she, delighting in the roses, gave them away to her paramour. Israel couldn’t appreciate that her God was truly beyond compare. Her covenant partner was the deep, unfathomable mystery that sustains all that is, both past and future, the rhythms of nature and the reigns of kings, and therefore deserved her exclusive loyalty.
Hosea and Gomer had three children. Each bore strange names that signified the bitter fruit that Israel’s spiritual fickleness yielded. The firstborn was named Jezreel. In years past, the king’s palace in the Jezreel valley bordered a vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. When Naboth turned down the king’s offer to buy the vineyard, the king’s wife, Jezebel, a militant missionary for the Baal religion, framed Naboth for serious crimes. Naboth was put to death, and the king took possession of his vineyard. Later, the king was overthrown, and he, his wife and sons, all his advisors, close friends, and priests were slain in Jezreel in a grisly act of vengeance for Naboth. When you worship gods made of gold and silver, your lust for gold and silver increases, and you’ll do anything to get it. Material gods beget a materialistic mindset, and violence and vengeance follow quickly on the heels of materialism.
Hosea named the middle child No-mercy and the youngest Not-my-people. Can you imagine? “No-mercy; come in! Dinner’s ready!” Mercy is the wheel on which all good marriages turn. When Laura and I got married my theology professor sent us a card in which he wrote, “Remember: the one who says ‘I’m sorry’ first wins the argument!” I think we can both testify to the truth of that advice. But mutual forgiveness can only raise a marriage to new heights if the foundation is secure, and the foundation is mutual trust. Israel’s unrelenting idolatry has undermined her covenant with God at the foundation. Where there is no trust there can be no mercy, no forgiveness. And where there is neither mercy nor trust, there is no relationship. The covenant is broken. Israel is not God’s people. The marriage is over.
Or is it? Verse 10 beings with the word “Yet,” and what follows the “yet” is not the Lord keeping the door ever so slightly ajar on the possibility of a relationship, like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber. The last three verses of the Old Testament reading affirm that the Lord God’s marriage to his covenant partner, however troubled, endures and will yield blessed offspring. As a sign of this reconciliation, Hosea gave his kids nicknames. In the same way that parents sometimes shorten Elizabeth to Beth and Michael to Mike, Hosea began calling Lo-ruhamah Ruhamah. Mercy. Your name is mercy. Lo-ammi he shortened to Ammi. From now on, Not-my-people would be known around the house as My people. Because God, in the end, will still have Israel for a covenant partner, mercy and forgiveness will yet be conceived and raised up in the world. I admit, the whole naming of the children thing is bizarre and uncomfortable; I do wish God and the prophet had left the kids out of this piece of performance art, but it is strangely similar to the ways in which many parents call their children by their full names only when they’re really angry with them, and give them nicknames as a sign of their special affection for them.
What happened between verses 9 and 10? Reading ahead in the book of Hosea, it seems as though God didn’t initiate divorce proceedings; instead, God asked for a trial separation. And in that separation, Israel learned that her lover wasn’t all that reliable a partner. The idols couldn’t make it rain; Baal couldn’t keep the blight from killing the grape vines, or restrain the wilderness from reclaiming the parched farms and pasture lands. At an agreed upon time, the Lord dropped by and said, “I will still have you if you will have me,” and Israel said yes.
In the New Testament, the Church is called the bride of Christ. Now there are no temples of Baal in Columbia, Missouri that tempt us to be an unfaithful bride. But we are fully capable of breaking our covenant with the Lord when we, like Israel of old, compartmentalize our lives. We prove ourselves unfaithful when we leave it to Christ to take care of us in the next life, but rely on the things of this world to provide for and protect us in this life. If you’re looking to anything other than God to give your life meaning, purpose, and security, even benign things like good health, a loving family, success for your children, political activism or community service, hobbies, even church activities, then it’s likely that you’ve made an idol and are worshipping it. All these things—a loving family, meaningful work justly compensated, the right and responsibility to be a fully participating citizen in a free society, success for one’s offspring, an active member of a Christian congregation—are good, but they aren’t the end-all, be-all of existence. The one who gives you these gifts is. The one who sustains you when these gifts prove fragile is. This one deserves your highest loyalty. He’ll still have you, if you will have him. And if you will have him, there will be enough mercy and gratitude and contentment to go round.
I want to ask you to do one thing this week. Sit down with pen and paper, and make a list of the things in your life that are most precious to you. Then ask yourself, would losing any one of these things hurt more than losing my relationship with Jesus Christ? Be honest. If you do find someone or something that rivals Christ for your greatest affection, then pray this short prayer: “Thank you, God, for the gift of _____. I give it back to you, to do with as you see fit.” If that prayer sticks in your craw, then pray, “God, I can’t pray this prayer. I can’t let go of this whatever. Give me the grace to pray this prayer.” In the letting go, we smash the idol and open our hands to receive gifts from the One whose love is beyond compare.