The chapter begins with the Lord recalling the origins of his relationship with Israel at the time of the Exodus: 'When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.' Yet even back then the Israelites had shown a tendency towards idolatry (for example, the golden calf). Nevertheless the Lord was patient with them like a father with little children. He gave them his laws to guide them and healed them from judgement. The law was designed to help them how to live in a right way and to discover the means by which they would enjoy the Lord's kindness (vv. 1-4).
Still the Lord would not withdraw his decision to send them into exile in Assyria. Because they had departed from the Lord, he would allow their enemies to conquer them. The fact that they had not repented of their idolatry meant that judgement would come on them (vv. 5-7).
We are not to imagine that the Lord was acting indifferently when he made this divine decision. Verse 8 gives an amazing insight into the heart of God: 'How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.' Because he loved them, he could not totally destroy them as he had done with the cities near Sodom and Gomorrah.
So when he punished them with exile in Assyria, it would not be the end of them. The Lord, unlike earthly rulers, would restrain his wrath. They would yet return from exile, although when that time would come, they would come trembling with humility because they would be very much aware of the roar of the Lion (vv. 9-11). This is a reminder that humility and spiritual restoration go together. The promise here would have been fulfilled when some of the northern tribes returned at the end of the exile of Judah in Babylon.
Meanwhile, at this time, the southern kingdom was still walking with God, but it was only a matter of time before it too would depart from God. Despite all he had done for them, they would refuse to remain loyal to God.
In contrast to these unfaithful children, Matthew takes up verse 1 in his gospel and applies it to Jesus when his parents took him from there after the death of Herod (Matt. 2). At first glance we may wonder how Matthew could use this verse and apply it to Jesus. The explanation is that Jesus, unlike the Israelites who came from Egypt, was the real Israelite who served God with his whole heart. When God called him, he obeyed completely.