“Hesitation Blues” is a very early blues song, probably most famously recorded by Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s. Some people claim Jelly Roll wrote it, but it appears to be traditional, and there are several versions of it out there that were published before Morton’s; and lots of people have covered it over the years, including Doc Watson, Asleep at the Wheel, and Dave Van Ronk, whose version is the first one I ever heard. There are verses included in his version that aren’t in Jelly Roll’s.
“Hesitation Blues” is a series of what are known in folk music circles as “free-floating couplets,” things like “My horses ain’t hungry, they won’t eat your hay/I’ll drive on a little further and feed ’em on the way.” That thing appears in tons of different songs. “Oh, the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies/she never hollers cuckoo till the fourth day of July.” And then, in “Hesitation Blues,” those are followed by a chorus that is the same in each verse.
Dave Van Ronk’s version, which probably has older origins but I don’t know all the details, seems to focus on the theme of a man trying to woo a greedy woman. This woman is, apparently, also not particularly monogamous:
“Well, a nickel is a nickel and a dime is a dime/
I got a houseful of children, not one of ’em mine.”
And that’s when we realize that, in a way, the song could be about the prophet Hosea. He was married to a woman who appears to have had children that may or may not have been his. When you heard the text, it says of the first one that Gomer bore that child to Hosea. But the second two, it doesn’t say that. It just says “she bore them.”
Now, when Hosea named them, just as when Joseph named Jesus, he was claiming them as his own, but biologically it was questionable.
The thing about those kids is that their names mean something. A lot of names in the Bible mean something: remember the story in Genesis 32, where Jacob wrestles with someone all night long, and neither one of them can prevail, and at the end when day is breaking, Jacob says, “Give me a blessing,” the blessing that this ambiguous character gives him is a new name. That new name is Israel, which means “one who struggles with God.”
Names mean things in the Bible. The mothers of Jacob’s children gave them names, usually something to the effect of “This child took away my disgrace,” or “God has given me a son.” And so Jacob’s children’s names mean something.
But I want to backtrack just a little bit and talk about Hosea’s marriage. I think that’s a big part of the theme of the book of Hosea.
One of the questions we often get asked, especially us pastors, is “How do I know if God is talking to me?” I remember a pastor when I was in seminary who decided to have as his sermon (he was filling in for our regular pastor, who was on vacation) a series of questions. He gave out note cards to everyone in the congregation and had them write down a question they wanted answered and hand them back to him. He went through and addressed a few of them. One of them came from a little girl about twelve or thirteen years old. She said, “How do I know if God is talking to me?”
There are a variety of ways. Morton Kelsey, who was the director of spiritual direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary, has written a couple books on the subject of dreams as a way God speaks to us. Now we know that not every dream comes from God. Some dreams are simply our brains trying to make sense of the fact that we have got indigestion. But sometimes our dreams are God speaking to us. They’re not always as direct as we’d like; we have to think about them a little bit. I remember having a dream like that when I was in spiritual direction, and my director having to help me figure out what God was saying to me through it. It was just a little snippet, one little scene; and I had to figure out what it meant. So dreams are one way that God speaks to us.
In the book Christy, the title character described how she knew God was speaking to her. She said, “By a thought that won’t leave.” Okay, that is one way; however, any of us who’ve struggled with depression or mental illness know that sometimes those intrusive thoughts that won’t leave are not from God. So we have to figure that out, and one of the ways we can figure that out is by knowing our Bible, and knowing how God speaks to us, and knowing what kinds of things God has said, and what God is like. And if we have an intrusive thought that stays around and will not leave us, sometimes that intrusive thought is not from God; it just doesn’t sound like the God we know through the Bible and revealed in Jesus Christ.
The prophets in the Old Testament tend to talk about how God speaks to them as though it is very direct. And quite probably it was at some times. But I think sometimes they may have expressed it much more directly than it really happened, and that could be the case with Hosea.
Hosea married this woman, Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, and she was not faithful. Did he know when he married her that she was not going to be faithful? Or was the fact that she was not faithful to him something that caused him to make a connection between her unfaithfulness, his troubled marriage and home life, and the troubled relationship between Israel and their God? So that, rather than God directly saying to him, “Go marry a prostitute,” and have children with her even though you know that some of those children may or may not be yours, it could just be that he interpreted his marriage to this unfaithful woman as a metaphor for this relationship with God.
Now back to the kids’ names, because this is really important. These names mean something, and what they mean is pretty chilling.
The first one is Jezreel. Jezreel is the name of a place where there have been a lot of battles, there have been some massacres, there was at least one instance of terrible injustice perpetrated on an ordinary citizen by the king and queen. That was Ahab and Jezebel, when they took land that belonged to a regular guy named Naboth (1 Kings 21). Ahab wanted his land to build himself a summer palace, but Naboth said, “I can’t give you my land; the law says I can only give it to a member of my own family.”
Ahab went home and pouted. But Jezebel said, “What are you pouting about? Just go take it.” So they trumped up some charges and had Naboth killed, and took his land. And that was one of the many things for which Ahab and Jezebel ended up suffering some terrible punishments.
The person who put an end to Ahab’s rule and the rule of Ahab’s sons was a fellow named Jehu; he was mentioned in the reading today. Jehu was the head of a dynasty that went on for quite a few years. By the time Hosea was speaking, that dynasty had come to an end. That was the last stable group of kings that there were in Israel, and none of them was any good. Once they took over, they went and found all of Ahab and Jezebel’s children, seventy children in all, the Bible tells us, and massacred them and brought their heads and piled them at the city gates in Jezreel (2 Kings 10:1-10).
Lots of terrible things happened at Jezreel, so naming that child Jezreel would be as though in this country, someone named a child My Lai, or Wounded Knee.
The second child, a daughter, has the name Lo-Ruhama. You have to have a little Hebrew lesson to understand that name and the name of her little brother. The Lo- at the beginning of both those names is a prefix that means “not.” Lo-Ruhama means “not pitied.” The word ruhamah is based on the word rehem, which actually means “womb,” but also means “compassion,” “pity,” or “acceptance.” The Jewish Study Bible actually translates the name not “Not pitied,” but “Not accepted.” “I will no longer have mercy on Israel”; “I will no longer accept Israel.” God is rejecting this people because of their sins.
And then we have the third child, and this is the worst of all. Lo-, again, “not”; and then ammi means “my people.” Remember that the covenant in its simplest form is, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Lo-ammi, “Not my people,” and God had Hosea give this little boy that name because “you are not my people and I am not your God.” In other words, the covenant is null and void.
The interesting thing about Hosea is that the book is an emotional roller coaster. You have these expressions of God wanting to get rid of these people, turn them away, show them no mercy, destroy them; and then almost immediately turning around and saying, “I love them. How can I harm them? How can I give them up?” Literally the next verse after our reading today speaks of comfort and speaks of a restoration. And in the first part of the second chapter of Hosea, the names are reversed. “Say to your sister Ruhamah, and your brother Ammi…”; in other words, “I will have compassion,” “I will accept,” “You are my people.”
What we learn from Hosea, from the way he understands his relationship with his wife and children, is that the people have been unfaithful. God has made a covenant with them. They have made a covenant with God. They renewed that covenant regularly, it looks like from the Scriptures; and yet they go after foreign gods, the “Baals,” they’re often called. Some of them were fertility gods; you have to imagine that their rituals were maybe a little more fun. But God didn’t want them doing that; God wanted them to be faithful only to God. And you can understand that. Just as when Gomer strayed, Hosea’s heart was broken, so when Israel strayed, God’s heart was broken. Out of that sorrow, God decides to destroy the people, but then turns around and says, “No, I love them.” Hosea takes Gomer back again and again—actually buys her at one point for the cost of a slave—and brings her home.
A lot of times we say that the Old Testament is all about God’s wrath, and the New Testament is all about God’s love. But that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. God’s wrath is quite evident in different places in the New Testament, and God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness are evident throughout the Old Testament. And whenever God’s wrath is seen in the Old Testament, it is not meant to be “eternal conscious torment,” as they say nowadays about Hell, but a refiner’s fire, burning away the impurities, burning away that unfaithfulness, burning away the things that make these people not able to keep the covenant with God; making them pure and righteous and holy.
And when God’s wrath is poured out, that provides God with an opportunity to show mercy, to restore the people, to bring them back, to help them to be faithful. That is the message of the book of Hosea: God loves us. God’s heart is broken when we stray away from what God wants for us, when we break the covenant that God has made with us. But on God’s side that covenant is never broken, and God always reaches out to us, even as we stray, and brings us back, restores us, speaks tenderly to us, and welcomes us home.