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Hosea’s Use of Reversal

Even a casual glance at Hosea’s prophecy is sufficient to convince the reader that Hosea was a master literary craftsman.371 Although many have noted these features of Hosea’s literary repertoire, one prominent element is often overlooked—his careful use of reversal. Indeed, reversal forms an essential element in his authorial design. To be sure, reversal is most often viewed as a sub-set of plot in narrative literature. Reversal has been defined as, “An action that produces the opposite of the effect intended. More loosely defined, reversal encompasses any change of fortune story in which a sudden or decisive change is a mainspring of the plot.”372 In biblical literature, reversal is especially prominent in the prophetic writings: “No genre in the Bible is more saturated with reversal than prophetic and apocalyptic literature.”373
In what follows we shall examine Hosea’s use of literary reversal in connection with the major themes in his oracles as well as in his imagery and figures of speech. We shall begin by noting examples of reversal with reference to God and to Israel. Our major focus will be centered on the technique of reversal in Hosea’s last chapter. There he brings together many of the previous elements and sets them in a positive perspective of future hope.374
Preliminary Examples of Reversal
In a dramatic simile connected with an oracle of judgment Hosea cites the Lord’s declaration: “I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a young lion to the house of Judah. I myself will tear them to pieces, then I will carry them off, and no one will be able to rescue them!” (Hos.5:14). In a similar vein the Lord is presented in terms of a number of vicious animals such as a leopard and “a bear robbed of her cubs” (Hos. 13:7-8). In addition to the savage lion the leopard was particularly appropriate for Israel’s coming judgment at the hands of the Babylonians, for their warhorses could be described as being “faster than leopards” (cf. Hab. 1:8). The imagery of God as a roaring lion, however, was particularly apropos, for God would use a mighty Assyrian army to punish his wayward people. Interestingly enough, the Assyrian King Sennacherib uses the image of a raging lion in depicting his victory over the Elamites during his eighth campaign.375
Accordingly, it is somewhat startling to note that in another setting the image of a voracious lion becomes altered to that of a lion roaring not in anger against his prey, but as a parent lion roaring for his children and calling them out of exile (Hos. 11:10). The reversal of the earlier image (5:14) thus is exchanged for a compassionate and carrying lion parent summoning his dear children (cubs) to follow him. It is a portent of a future purified people who will choose to follow the Lord, and will therefore be led out of exile and returned to their homeland.
No less striking is the reversal of imagery associated with Israel. While God was portrayed as an animal, Israel was likened to a bird. This was noted in connection with Israel’s foolish foreign policy in seeking associations with and/or the favor of foreign nations rather than depending upon God (7:11). Therefore, Israel’s present glory was destined to “fly away like a bird” (9:11), for God, the divine fowler, was soon to trap his flying bird in his net of judgment (7:11-12).
In the vast number of cases, however, Hosea’s use of reversal in reference to Israel centers on God’s punishment of Israel, his child. Thus the names assigned to Hosea and Gomer’s children contain symbolically a message of God’s judgment against Israel the nation (1:2, 4, 6, 8-9).376 Hosea’s later prophecies concerning child Israel are also sometimes negative ones (e.g., 13:12). Thus the Lord points out that even though he was a beneficent father (11:1-4), Israel soon proved to be a wayward son, which “sacrificed to the Baal idols and burnt incense to images” (v. 2). Hosea’s Israel was not less guilty of worshiping Baal and other deities even while feigning allegiance to the Lord. Therefore, Hosea conveyed God’s warning that “child” Israel’s literal children would suffer greatly in the Lord’s coming judgment (e.g., 4:6; 5:7; 9:1-12; 10:14).
It was thus doubtless a grand note of hope when Hosea delivered prophecies in which the negative imagery of Israel as a child was reversed. In those messages God’s gracious compassion as a concerned parent is underscored. He will bring back a repentant and purified remnant, which will desire fellowship with God (6:1-3) and will respond to his wooing (11:8-11).
Reversal in Hosea 14
As Andersen and Freedman observe, “This discourse is a fitting conclusion to the entire prophecy… . As a recapitulation, most of its vocabulary can be found in earlier parts of the prophecy.”377 Chapter 14 opens on a high note of hope. To be sure, the previously announced judgment must come to Israel, but a repentant Israel could expect God’s forgiveness and restoration. Accordingly, Hosea’s final prophecy points not only to a caring God’s compassion and love for his people, but offers a distinctive hope. Israel’s future can and will one day be a glorious one. Israel’s changed status is expressed in language that serves as a reminder of Israel’s present condition that needs to and can be altered.
Thus the opening verses underscore the need for repentance in unmistakable terms. God’s people are to acknowledge their sins, repent of them, and ask the Lord for his forgiveness and restoration. The theme of repentance has been sounded often throughout Hosea’s prophetic messages. Israel has neither repented of its sins nor turned from its sinful ways. It will be recalled that the entire fourth and fifth chapters contain a catalog of the sins for which Israel will be judged and from which God’s people do not turn so as to return to God (cf. also 7:8-10; 8:4-6) or show remorse (cf. 9:1; 11:7).Indeed, Israel stands in dire need of repentance and Hosea passionately urges his people to do so, and turn to God so as to be healed of their sinful condition (2:7; 6:1-3). For Israel’s lack of repentance could be reversed and when that is forthcoming, God’s people will experience God’ forgiveness and be healed. Then they will again bask in his love (14: 1-4; cf. 3:5).
In verses 3 and 4 several of God’s frequent charges against his people are mentioned. Paramount among these is Israel’s infidelity toward the Lord and his covenant. Unfortunately, Hosea’s Israel has perpetuated the people’s long history of covenant violation (8:1,12; 11:2) and rebellion against the Lord 8:1; 13:16). Yet this negative appraisal can and will be reversed when God enacts a new covenant with his people (2:18-23), and God’s once unfaithful Israel will be restored to full covenant standing. Therefore, Hosea pleads with the people to return to the Lord (14:1).378 If they do, God declares that he will” heal their waywardness” thereby removing the earlier condemnation for their unfaithfulness and going astray.
Intertwined with the specific mention of Israel’s covenant violation is the charge of the people’s infidelity (cf. 6:7) as demonstrated in their failure to keep God’s covenantal standards of proper social and moral conduct, and especially their idolatry (8:4; 10:5-6; 13:2), which is often termed “prostitution” (4:10-13; 5:3-4; 6:10). As was noted in the Commentary, such an association was certainly a logical one, for in Israel’s past history God’s people entered into a physical immorality with Moabite women, which in turn led them into the fertility rites associated with the Canaanite god Baal (cf. Num. 31:15-16 with Rev. 2:14). For all of this Israel was severely punished by the Lord (Num. 25:4-9; Deut. 4:3; Ps. 106:28). Hosea conveyed God’s warning to his people that if he so judged Israel for its sinful disloyalty to God and his standards of morality (Hos. 4:13-14, 18), Hosea’s Israel should expect nothing less (9:10-13, 15-17).
Further chargers of covenant violation and prostitution are seen in Israel’s current fascination with and political relations with certain foreign powers. Israel is accused of courting the favor of both Assyria and Egypt (5:13; 8:9; 12:1), often flitting between first one and then the other “like a dove” (7:11). Therefore, Israel will suffer at the hands of both powers (9:3; 10:6; 11:5).
Nevertheless, God’s chastisement for all of this will one day be reversed when God summons his people and brings them back to their homeland (11:10-11). What Israel must do is recognize and confess that it cannot rely on false gods, which cannot save them or foreign powers. Rather, they must fully rely on the mercies of their true Redeemer whose great compassion will be exercised on their behalf. It is the Lord alone who can and will heal their “waywardness and love them freely” (14:4; cf. 5:13).
Associated with the themes of covenant violation, prostitution, and idolatry as well as reliance on human agencies and methods is the theme of God’s certain judgment for these sins. The warning of coming judgment is sounded throughout Hosea’s prophecies. Nevertheless, there is coming a day when a repentant and purified people of Israel will have their judgment reversed (e.g., 3:5), and God’s anger will be turned away from them. This is due to God’s great compassion and love (1:6; 2:4; 9:15), which he once withheld from his people due to their love of their sinful ways (3:1; 4:1, 18; 6:4; 9:1). In a future day God’s love will be exercised (cf. 2:19, 23; 11:8; 14:3) on behalf of a righteous Israel, for they will once again demonstrate proper covenant love (10:12; 12:6).
In a series of picturesque images expressed as similes (14:5-7} the Lord is quoted as to the resultant effects of his love and compassion for a repentant and restored people. “All the horror of the preceding judgments is cancelled by the ardor of this promise. It is Yahweh’s last word, and it is a word of life.”379 Hereby a number of the images that earlier bore negative connotations are now reversed into positive ones. Thus in verse five the earlier portrait of Israel’s faithfulness to the Lord being likened to the fleeting nature of morning dew or mist (6:4; 13:3) is now reversed to depict the life-giving vitality and refreshment, which Israel will experience due to God’s blessings. God is thereby seen to be the true source of Israel’s water supply rather than the Baal in whom they have trusted for so long. The further result is that with Israel’s newly refreshed spiritual life, it will “blossom like a lily.”
In addition to the pictures of Israel’s spiritual vitality and refreshment symbolized in the dew and that of beauty suggested by the lily, the Lord conveys a scene of strength for future Israel by comparing this reversed state to the cedars of Lebanon.380 The reference to Israel’s newly established “roots” conveys a sense of an established and stable durability rather than the earlier negative picture of Israel as having withered roots (9:10).
This idyllic imagery is enhanced in verse six where three forms of plant life are again portrayed. The first mentions Israel’s new “shoots” testifying to the fact that a regathered Israel is both alive in its land and productive. The reference to the olive tree presents another example of image reversal. Earlier Israel was condemned for its foreign policy by a reference to sending “olive oil to Egypt” (12:1). Now future Israel is likened to an olive tree in its “splendor.” The imagery in verse six is rounded out by noting that Israel’s “fragrance” will be like a “cedar of Lebanon.” Thus the imagery in the similes of verse six adds to those in verse five by portraying Israel’s future productivity, visible splendor, and fragrant desirability.
The threefold imagery of renewal in verse six is augmented in verse seven by another group of three images: grain, the vine, and wine. All were symbolic of God’s blessed provision for his people. They were also products that could become objects affected in God’s judgment of a disobedient people. Earlier Hosea delivered God’s denunciation of his people for consuming the grain and new wine while turning away from God (7:14) or even worse, attributing their possession of such things to Baal (2:8-9). As well God had pronounced his judgment upon their grain because of their flawed foreign policy of trusting in other nations such as Assyria rather than relying on the Lord (8:7-10).
Likewise the imagery associated with the vine and wine was previously presented in a negative light. Just as the grain, so God would take away the new wine (2:9; 9:2) by ruining Israel’s vines (2:12). This was because in gathering their grain and new wine, they foolishly ignored or even turned away from God (7:14). Moreover, they used the wine for drunken debauchery (7:5) and for in seasons of cultic prostitution (4:4-13). Further, Israel itself was like a wayward vine, for it used its prosperity selfishly and for its debased religious experiences (10:12).
Yet all of this imagery finds reversal in Hosea’s prophecies. Earlier in Hosea (2:21-22) it was prophesied of the grain and wine (as well as oil) that the ground would yield these products again in abundance for a faithful Israelite people. In Hosea 14:7 Israel itself would become so blessed that “they will plant and harvest grain in abundance. They will blossom like a vine, and his fame will be like the wine from Lebanon.” Thus the imagery conveyed in verses five through seven portrays a renewed and faithful covenant people.381
The image of fruitfulness portrayed in verses five though seven reaches its climax in verse eight, where the Lord states categorically contrary to Israel’s historic fascination with idolatry, its well being and prosperity come only from the Lord: “Your fruitfulness comes from me.” Because Israel has failed to acknowledge this in the past (10:13), God needed to bring judgment toward his people (9:16). It had not always been like this. God’s original relation with Israel was so good that it was “like finding grapes in the wilderness. I viewed your ancestors like an early fig on a fig tree in its first season” (9:10). Yet there was hope, for in turning back to the Lord and truly loving him and living for him and his covenant stipulations, like Gomer (2:7) Israel will come to understand that true living comes only by a relationship with the Lord. Whatever earthly success Israel hoped to have was intimately bound with her spiritual relation to the Lord.
Verse eight also contains the Lord’s reply to Israel’s earlier calling upon him for forgiveness (14:2-3). Unlike Israel’s present spiritual condition in which its abandonment of God so disrupts their fellowship with him so that he cannot answer their petitions (11:7), God will one day answer the prayers of a repentant people, and forgive and care for them.
The literary device of reversal has its final touches in Hosea’s closing advice (14:9). Earlier Israel was compared to an unwise baby who refuses to go through with the birthing process (13:13). Now through a rhetorical question the prophet urges a wiser Israel to listen to the promises, which God has just made and realize that the truly godly person will desire to walk in the Lord’s ways. Earlier Israel was repeatedly chided for unwisely choosing to walk in its own way. Such had only brought many cases of injustice. God’s way is now declared to be the right way. To walk in one’s own way is to follow a crooked path; to reverse that course by following the Lord is to travel a straight and level one.
A final instance of reversal is found in the call for proper understanding. In the majority of cases Israel has been charged with a lack of any genuine knowledge or even acknowledgement of the Lord, whether in what he has given her (2:8; 11:1-3) or in his very person. Such was evident by their idolatrous worship practices (5:4) and immoral behavior. Indeed, their failure to acknowledge the Lord will lead Israel to certain judgment (4:6). All of this will one day be reversed, however, because of God’s faithfulness to his own righteous standards when Israel properly acknowledges the Lord as sovereign over its life (cf. 2:20). Israel need only acknowledge him and truly seek to know him as God and Lord of the life (6:1-3). It was now time for Israel to be discerning of all that the Lord and Hosea have been telling them and “understand” that God’s way is the only right way.
Concluding Observations
The examination of Hosea’s technique of reversal demonstrates once again Hosea’s literary craftsmanship. It also reminds interpreters of the importance of adding a literary approach to that of the historical/cultural and theological data. Thus Alter declares, “The literary vehicle is so much the necessary medium through which the Hebrew writers realized their meanings that we will grasp the meanings at best imperfectly if we ignore their fine articulations as literature.”382 In Hosea’s case, literary appreciation of the technique of reversal immediately provides a key to the author’s principle theme: Israel’s sin has cut God’s people off from the Lord, for which the penalty of breaking its covenant with God must be imposed. Yet after the judgment has accomplished its divine purpose, a repentant and purified Israel will find its status reversed. It will once again enjoy God’s everlasting blessings. Hosea’s central message, then, is one of hope veiled in soon coming judgment.
The theme of reversal is thus a central feature of Hosea’s designed plan for his accumulated oracles. Such is apparent in the manner in which chapters one through three are bookended by chapter fourteen so as to form a grand inclusio for the entire corpus of his writings. This may be seen in the contrasting themes of Israel’s turning away from God (1:2) and the admonition to return to God (14:1-2).
As noted in the Commentary, the situation with Hosea and Gomer stands as a visible symbol of God’s relations with Israel. Thus the names of their three children are significant: sown and scattered Israel (“Jezreel,” 1:4-5) will one day “send down its roots like a cedar of Lebanon” (14:5); “no pity” (1:6) will one day experience God’s compassion (14:3-4); and “not my people” (1:8) will again become the people of God (14:4-8).
Of course, such was already made clear as well in Hosea’s opening oracles (cf. 1:10-2:1). Here Hosea prophesies of the prospect of God’s renewed love for Israel (2:19). These messages are also reinforced by God’s own words: “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger will turn away from them” (14:4). The early promises of renewed blessings in Hosea 2:18-23; 3:5 are reconfirmed in 14:4-8, for Israel will again declare that Yahweh is “my God” (2:23; cf. 14:2-3).
So it was that Israel, which had violated the terms of God’s covenant with her Lord will one day enter into a new covenant with him and experience all the everlasting blessings that God has intended for her (2:18-23; 14:4-8). For Christians who are partakers of the New Covenant (Matt. 26:28; 2 Cor. 3:6; cf. Heb. 8-9) there is the assured hope that this sinful world will one day be judged and then purified, and will experience God’s eternal blessings (e.g., Rev. 11:15-19; 19:11-21; 20:7-22:20). Christians should thus learn a lesson from Israel’s example of infidelity both to God and his covenant standards. As taken into union with Christ (Col. 1:27) believers should be mindful of occasional lapses into sin, confess it, and experience God’s forgiveness (cf. Hos. 14:1-4 with 1 John 1:8-2:2).
Indeed, in a far more intimate way than ever before, Christians can and should realize that “The ways of the Lord are right; the godly walk in them” (Hos. 14:9; cf. Matt. 6:33; Mark 12:29-33; John 14:6; Phil. 1:21; 1 John 1:7). And as we do so, may we be sensitive to the leading of the Lord so that we may walk in his conscious presence.383 The poet expresses it well,
Teach me they way, O Lord, Teach me thy way!
Thy guiding grace afford—Teach me thy way!
Help me to walk aright, more by faith less by sight;
Lead me with heavenly light, Teach me thy way!384
371 For an example of Hosea’s elevated style, prevalent literary themes, and rich use of figurative language, see Richard D. Patterson, “Portraits From a Prophet’s Portfolio: Hosea 4,” BibSac 165 (2008): 294-308.
372 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds., “Reversal,” DBI (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 717. Many have pointed out that the use of reversal in western literature is at least as old as Aristotle who associated it with discovery and is especially prominent in tragedy and comedy. See further Robert Scholes, Carl H. Klaus, and Michael Silverman, eds., “Modes of Drama,” Elements of Literature (New York: Oxford, 1978), 747.
373 Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman III, eds. DBI, 718.
374 The reader is encouraged to refer to the earlier remarks in the main body of the commentary for fuller details concerning the contexts, which are mentioned in this study.
375 See Luckenbill, ARA, 2:137.
376 Israel is also portrayed as an unfaithful wife who God rejects (1:2; 2:2), but whose negative situation will be reversed. For one day wife Israel will be restored to her ever faithful husband (2:16, 19; 3:1).
377 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 643.
378 See the excellent discussion by Robin Wakely in NIDOTTE, 2:1121-23.
379 Andersen and Freedman, Hosea, 646.
380 For the imagery conveyed by the cedar tree, see Richard D. Patterson, “Psalm 92:12-15: The Flourishing of the Righteous,” BibSac 166 (2009): 271-88.
381 The fragrance of the cedar tree may also contain a veiled hint of God’s people being so purified and dedicated that they are virtually a living sweet savor offering. Although the background of the imagery is different, being associated with the release of sweet odors along a triumphal procession route, yet the spread of the Gospel message was likened by Paul to the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ (2 Cor. 2:15). As Murray Harris, (“2 Corinthians,” EBC, rev. ed., eds. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005] 11:456) suggests, “Paul’s thought moves from the ‘fragrance’ associated with the Roman triumph (v. 14) to the ‘aroma’ associated with OT sacrifice… . As faithful creatures and followers of Christ, the apostles themselves formed a sweet fragrance of Christ rising up to God as a pleasing odor. To the extent that they diffused the fragrance of Christ by life and word (v. 14b), they were the fragrance or aroma.”
382 Robert Alter, The World of Biblical Literature (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 63-64.
383 See further Richard D. Patterson, “The Pleasure of His Presence,” Biblical Studies Press, 2009.
384 B. Maxwell Ramsey, “Teach Me Thy Way O Lord!,” in Hymns for the Living Church (Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Co., 1974), 379.

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