Abraham Heschel observed, “The striking surprise is that prophets of Israel were tolerated at all by their people. To the patriots, they seemed pernicious; to the pious multitude, blasphemous; to the men in authority seditious” (The Prophets: An Introduction, 19). Hosea’s message was not a popular one. The prophet had hard words for Israel. He had to tell them they were wrong. After the third chapter, Hosea never mentions his wife’s adultery and prostitution again, though adultery and prostitution remain his major theme. He focuses his prophetic critique on Israel’s adultery—their unfaithfulness to God.
Chapter four opens with this charge against the Israelites:
Hear the word of the LORD, people of Israel,
for the LORD has a case
against the inhabitants of the land:
There is no truth, no faithful love,
and no knowledge of God in the land! -Hos 4:1 (HCSB)
’emet-truth, trustworthiness, and faithfulness. There was a lack of truthfulness in Israel. The people abandoned the truth and failed to act truthfully. “There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery” Ho 4:2. The princes of Judah (the leaders of the Southern Kingdom) are also guilty of the same lies as the Northern Kingdom in moving the boundary markers (cf. Hos. 5:10). The truth is short-shrifted as Israel chooses to chase the lie of idolatry.
What about us? Wouldn’t the prophet indict us as well? We are only a decade past the types of predatory sub-prime lending that led to a global economic collapse and the 2016 US election ended with the Electoral College disagreeing with the Washington Post about which major candidate’s lies were most significant. We decry fake news but we are each skilled at finding media outlets which gives us our preferred version of events. Untruth rules the age. Most of us are more worried about being taken in then we are about trustworthiness, and while “truth in advertising” may be the law of the land, doesn’t that sound more like a punchline?
hesed-faithful love: The Hebrew word hesed is a covenant word. It is variously translated as loyalty, loving-kindness, faithfulness (or faithful love, as above), graciousness, goodness and mercy. This is the word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the relationship that Yahweh has with His people. Sally Lloyd-Jones’s The Jesus Storybook Bible gives one of the greatest descriptions of hesed, “a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (JSB,36).
But despite God’s covenantal commitment to his people, there was no hesed in Israel—no faithful, covenant love for God. When Hosea uses the language of adultery, he is describing Israel’s broken covenant in chasing after other gods. Because Ancient Near East religions utilized temple prostitutes in their worship, Hosea’s language is a metaphorical description of Israel’s spiritual idolatry, and a literal fact. Baal worship involved “participating in Canaanite fertility rites and worship” (Fuhr & Yates, 74). Israel broke their relationship with God by chasing foreign gods and wanton sex:
My people consult a piece of wood,
and their divining rod gives them oracles.
For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray,
and they have played the whore, forsaking their God.
They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains,
and make offerings upon the hills,
under oak, poplar, and terebinth,
because their shade is good.Therefore your daughters play the whore,
and your daughters-in-law commit adultery.
I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore,
nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery;
for the men themselves go aside with whores,
and sacrifice with temple prostitutes;
thus a people without understanding comes to ruin. ( Ho 4:12–14 NRSV).
17Ephraim is joined to idols—
let him alone.
18When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies;
they love lewdness more than their glory.
19A wind has wrapped them in its wings,
and they shall be ashamed because of their altars. (Ho 4:17–19, NRSV).
Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the LORD. (Ho 5:4, NRSV).
Sex and religious ritual may no longer be intertwined to the same degree in our Post-Enlightenment age; but we too have forsaken our relationship with God to chase idols. This is, in Hosea’s phrase, the spirit of whoredom. It manifests itself in three ways (at least!):
- Alternative spiritualities– Dissatisfied with what we encounter in churches, we chase new spiritual options. For some this means choosing another religion, for many it means a choose-your-own-religion spiritualism. We blend aspects of Eastern religion, humanism, New-Age-mysticism and therapeutic pop-psychology. We end up rejecting a relationship with the God of the Bible, for some nebulous god of our own making.
- Materialism- Believing what we see, touch and feel, and feeling angry about injustice done in the name of religion, we deny the reality of anything that can’t be measured. We declare the supernatural a farce. We stand on evidentialist grounds (and we know that there are angles all around). We no longer have a relationship with God, because, for all practical purposes, we live like He doesn’t exist.
- Whatever gets us through the night- Good old American individualism and pragmatism encourages us to find whatever it is that works for ourselves. Certainly consumerism feeds into this (retail therapy!). As does the pursuit of all kinds of pleasure, and our self-medicating strategies of distraction. If we think of God at all, it is not because we love and honor Him. We want to know what He can do for us.
Whatever causes us to sever our connection to the Triune God is adultery/idolatry. Hosea could name the god that Israel chased (Baal). Our gods are called Legion for they are many.
da‘at-knowledge: “There is no knowledge of God in the Land.” They do not know the LORD (Hosea 5:4b). Israel was ignorant and lacking in a basic understanding of God:
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children. (Hosea 4:6, NRSV).
What is the lesson Hosea had for his bad people? Heschel writes, “The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind” (Heschel, 12). On Hosea in particular, he writes,”It is Hosea who flashes glimpses into the inner life of God as He ponders His relationship to Israel. In parables and in lyrical outbursts the decisive motive behind God’s strategy in history is declared. The decisive motive is love” (Ibid, 47). Hosea writes to make vivid God’s broken heart for Israel (and us) and call us to return to him. The charge has been spoken and our guilt laid bare. Yet this accusation is not meant to compound our sense of alienation. It is spoken with restorative intent:
I will return again to my place
until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.
In their distress they will beg my favor:Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind us up. Hosea 5:15–6:1, NRSV.