Have you ever heard the expression, “you can’t get there from here?” Sometimes you get so lost you have to move backwards before you can start moving forwards. I can remember a time when I was driving cross-country, and missed an exit. The trouble was, I hadn’t really noticed. And while I was squinting at my “Mapquest” directions—oh, the days before smart-phones—I also missed the speed limit sign. So it wasn’t until I was pulled over by an Arkansas cop that I realized that I was over 100 miles off-course, and it would take another two hours just to retrace my steps. Sometimes, you can’t get there from here.
And that’s what’s going on with Israel. In Hosea 1-3, God reveals His plan for dealing with an adulterous people. But starting in chapter 4, God outlines just how bad the situation is. The whole system is broken. It won’t be an easy fix. The only way forward is for the entire nation to retrace their steps, to find their way back to God again.
BREACH OF COVENANT
God uses this opportunity to make His charge against Israel all the more specific:
Hear the word of the LORD, O children of Israel, for the LORD has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land; 2 there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. 3 Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away. (Hosea 4:1-3)
The nation was guilty of a breach of covenant. What’s a covenant? A covenant was a promise made between two parties. In this case, God had made the nation a promise of blessing and fellowship. These promises date all the way back to Abraham (Genesis 12-15), but became more focused, more defined through men like Moses and David. God’s promises were unconditional—a sheer act of grace—but the only way to flourish within God’s promises was to live life God’s way. That’s what the Law was about. To borrow an illustration from a pastor named Tim Keller, the law was like the owner’s manual for your car. Nothing in it was arbitrary. If you want your car to work the way it was supposed to, you follow what is written in the owner’s manual. In the same way, the Law shows us how to live. Deviating from this Law deprives us of all life in God’s promises has to offer.
The problem is that Israel had tossed their owner’s manual long ago. Do you notice in verse 2 that at least half of the “ten commandments” are listed? The nation was in clear violation of their relationship with God.
EVEN RELIGION IS BROKEN
You’d think this would be an easy fix. If the problem was that the nation was immoral, than surely a strong dose of morality would fix that right up. But even if that was true—which it’s not—the religious system was so damaged that it was of no help at all.
4 Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. 5 You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night; and I will destroy your mother. 6 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. 7 The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame. 8 They feed on the sin of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity. 9 And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds. 10 They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish 11 whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding. (Hosea 4:4-11)
Apparently the priests were guilty of pursuing religion for their own ends. It’s hard to say what this meant exactly, but the language of “increase” (v. 7) seems to suggest that somehow they were using the ministry for profit.
WHAT YOU WORSHIP YOU BECOME
Meanwhile, the people pursued their own religious ends. Verses 12-14 describe the nature of the nation’s spiritual adultery.
12 My people inquire of a piece of wood, and their walking staff gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have left their God to play the whore. 13 They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth, because their shade is good. Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery. 14 I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your brides when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes, and a people without understanding shall come to ruin. (Hosea 4:12-14)
One of my own professors summarizes the cultural background this way:
“These rituals involved drinking intoxicating wine, consulting pagan gods through divination, and offering sacrifices. The Israelites encouraged their daughters to visit the shrines, hoping that their participation in ritual sex with the priests of [other gods] would encourage these gods to give them numerous children.” (Robert Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets, p. 350)
The problem could not simply be reduced to a lack of morals. It ran much deeper than that. The problem was a heart that was inclined away from God and toward self, a heart that sought a solution anywhere it could be found. The problem is that the further the nation went from God, the deeper their need became.
God’s judgment can be finally seen in the last verses:
15 Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, “As the LORD lives.” 16 Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the LORD now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture? 17 Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone. 18 When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring; their rulers dearly love shame. 19 A wind has wrapped them in its wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices. (Hosea 4:15-19)
The people “shall be ashamed,” He says. Sometimes idolatry is its own consequence. We alternately treat God’s world like a treasure chest or an ashtray—forgetting that it was never about us to begin with.
What lesson is here for us? It is simple. We can’t possibly live our lives the way we want, and simply add in a few religious sentiments here and there. There is no substitute for a lifetime of faithfulness. That’s what God wants from us. And the gospel says that this is what God provides. To the church in Rome, Paul writes:
“3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Romans 4:3-5)
What does it mean to have our faith “counted as righteousness?” It means that even though we have no righteous deeds of our own, God treats us as though we do. It means that when He looks at our record, He sees not our violations, but a record of perfect obedience. How is this possible? Because on the cross, Christ exchanged our reputation for His. On the cross Jesus received the judgment that we deserve, so that we might receive the acceptance that we don’t deserve.
Therefore a lifestyle of radical holiness is not a requirement of the gospel—but it is the sweet fruit of it. As we live and grow in Christ, so will our character be drawn away from the idols of our world, and closer to the character of Christ.
If we want that life, then the bad news is that we “can’t get there from here.” We can’t achieve Christ’s character from where we’re at. Hosea shows us that in shocking, painful clarity. But the gospels says that Christ did the hard work for us, and the rest is joyful, faithful obedience.