God’s Indictment of Israel (Hosea 4:1-3)

[Remember that this is a transcript for a radio broadcast, but longer than the actual broadcast.]

Thank you for joining me again in our study of the book of Hosea.  We have studied the first three chapters, which were more biographical in nature—using the marriage of Hosea and Gomer as a picture of God’s relationship with Israel.

Derek Kidner reminds us that…

[The book of Hosea] has begun to do what no other Old Testament book does quite so vividly: to speak of God and His people not primarily in terms of master and servant, or king and subjects (indispensable as these categories are), but as man and wife, with all that this implies of personal delight and potential hurt.

This approach is far from sentimental.  It sharpens guilt immeasurably by making it the betrayal of love; it shows the true motive of God’s persistence, so easily thought to be mere doggedness; and it deepens our understanding of repentance and renewal—for sins against love damage the very roots of a relationship, and are not healed by brisk apologies and hasty resolutions (The Message of Hosea, p. 45).

John Maxwell, a pastor and consultant who has written a number of books on leadership, has said, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  In this passage Hosea says it like this: “like people, like priest” in verse 9.  Much of the charges God lays out against Israel in Hosea 4 is directed against the priests, those who were given charge of educating Israel in God’s law.

Nothing is quite as revealing about a society, nor nearly so determinate, as the character of its leadership.  Israel, though God’s elect nation, was no exception.  The men in responsible positions of religious leadership—had failed to provide the caliber of leadership necessary to assure the national well-being.  The failure contributed to the nation’s religious and moral decline, and ultimately, to their devastation at the hands of Assyria.

But before God indicts the leaders, the priests in particular, lays a charge against the people of Israel.

Hosea 4:1-3 says…

1 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.

Any complacency which the happy ending of the first three chapters may have induced on the reader (if he has begun to picture God as the ever-accomodating husband), is now abruptly shattered.

Chapter 1 began with the words “the word of the Lord came to Hosea” and here in chapter 4, verse 1 we read “Hear the word of the Lord.”  This marks the beginning of a new section of the book.  Chapters 4—14 contain speeches that Hosea probably gave at various times in his long prophetic career.

Thomas McComiskey writes:

“At this point we leave the account of Hosea’s marriage and begin a new section, which extends to the end of the book and contains oracles of doom and hope.  Even in this section, however, we are never far from Hosea’s marriage, for it is always in the background and is the catalyst for his message to his people.  We see it in the references to the nation as mother and children, as well as in the numerous allusions to spiritual harlotry and adultery.”

Ronald Vandermay sees three attributes of God exhibited here: His holiness in chaps. 4-7; His justice in chaps. 8-10 and His love in chaps. 11-14.  “As God’s holiness demands that the nation of Israel receive an indictment for her sin, so also His justice requires that Israel should be punished.  But in the midst of these two great attributes a third is at work: the love of God, which has as its chief goal the restoration of God’s people to himself.

In this nearer context, Duane Garrett sees a threefold pattern in this structure indicating that Hosea’s three children continue to dominate the pattern of his prophecy.  So he sees the chapter 4, vv. 1-3 organized around Jezreel, due to the presence of murder in Israel.  The Lo-Ammi section is vv. 4-14, which address three groups and show the alienation between Israel and Yahweh.  Finally, there is Lo-Ruhamah, with three warnings for Judah and Israel.

This chapter may be divided into the charge of divine indignation (vv. 1-2) and its consequences (v. 3), charges particularly against the priests (vv. 4-11) and their followers because of gross idolatrous practices (vv. 12-14), capped off by a solemn warning to Judah not to follow in her sister’s footsteps (vv. 15-19).

Here Yahweh brings a legal charge against the Israelites for breaking the Mosaic covenant.  The offenses are stated in the negative in verse 1 and positively in verse 2.  This indictment is all the more telling because they are precisely what God pre-eminently looks for in our relationship with Him and one another.

Although not exactly a court case against Israel, this is the language being used here.  Thus, David Hubbard notes:

“Since a number of ingredients are lacking—a summons to witnesses (cf. Mi. 6:3-5), questions and answers about divine requirements (cf. Mi. 6:6-8)—it is more likely that the literary form compresses an argument or quarrel between Yahweh and the people rather than a scene of formal legal charges.”

Nevertheless, what charges God is bringing against Israel signal that they have broken covenant with God.  This is especially the language of verse 1…

There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land

Essentially, Yahweh is saying, “I can’t trust you.”  How sad that sounds.

We know how vital trust is in any relationship, but especially in a marriage.  When that trust is broken, it may take a long time, and hard work, to win it back.  It doesn’t happen overnight.

First of all, there was no “faithfulness” in the land.  The word here is emeth, which can mean truthfulness in word or action.  Here is likely has the idea of integrity or faithfulness to the relationship  and the sanctity of it.

The Israelites might make promises, but they would be empty.  They might act, but their hearts were devious.

Second, there was no “steadfast love” in the land.  This is the word chesed, in Hebrew, the word often used to define the motivation behind making and keeping covenant.  With faithfulness gone, there was no steadfast love, and vice versa.

Covenant love will once again be operative when God draws the whole house of Israel back to Himself (2:19; 10:12; 12:6; Jeremiah 31:1-3; cf. Psalm 17:7; 25:6; 69:16; 103:4; Isaiah 63:7; Jeremiah 9:24; 16:5; 32:18).  Covenant love, or loyalty, is not simply a matter of fulfilling one’s duties to a covenant obligation; it is going beyond legal obligations to give kindness freely those with whom one relates.

Duane Garrett illustrates how this word is used.  He says…

When Lot proclaimed that the angels had shown him great chesed, in saving his life, he meant that they had given him mercy that he did not deserve, not that merely fulfilled some kind of duty to him (Gen. 19:19).  When Ruth offered herself in marriage to Boaz, he called it a great act of chesed, not meaning that she had fulfilled an obligation to him or to Naomi, but that she had gone far beyond what was required (Ruth 3:10).

The common thread here is that people are in relationship with one another, but that the person who shows chesed goes beyond basic requirements and freely gives kindness to the other.  Thus, chesed exists in a marriage when the husband goes beyond the minimal requirements of a husband’s obligations and shows real kindness to his wife. (Hosea, Joel, p. 119).

But more damning and more primary than these two deficits was that there was “no knowledge of God in the land.”  Any claim to it was already denied by the absence of the first two qualities.

Knowing God in the context of Hosea is deeply personal.  It is not knowing about God, although objective facts are involved, but knowing God in a deep, personal, intimate, experiential sense.  It is a personal relationship in which a person can honestly say, “You are my God” (Hosea 2:23).

It is also vitally important.  It was already mentioned in Hosea 2:8, 13 and 20; now here in Hosea 4:1, 6, 11, 14; in 5:4 and 15; Hosea 6:3 and 6; Hosea 8:2 and 13:6 and alluded to in several other places.

Not knowing God was Israel’s basic problem at this time, as indicated by Hosea 4:6:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.

This is not knowledge of the law, or math or science, but specifically a knowledge of God.  A. W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” and I would encourage you to read his little book The Knowledge of the Holy.

If you are more ambitious, I would encourage you to read J. I. Packer’s influential book, Knowing God.

When I was preaching through the attributes of God at Grace Bible Church a number of years ago, I made the distinction that we need to think both accurately and adequately about God.  Obviously, we need to think accurately about God.  We need to think of Him as the Bible presents Him, not as we would wish Him to be.  This is why God forbade making idols, because they could never capture the fullness of God’s perfections; instead caricaturing God by making one or a few attributes stand out to the exclusion of others.

But we also need to think adequately about God.  This is what I think increases our love for Him, our amazement and wonder of God.  For example, God is not just holy, but He is “holy, holy, holy.”  He is “rich in mercy,” “abounds in love” and “lavishes us with His grace.”  When we realize how over-the-top God is about us, our hearts are warmed and we experience that love that draws us into a deeper relationship with Him.

Unfortunately, that was not only missing in ancient Israel, but also our churches as well.

Derek Kidner comments:

“He is weighing Israel in the balance against faithfulness, kindness and the knowledge of God, only to find her wanting at every point: utterly light on all things that matter.  These three things lead us from the outskirts of goodness to its heart and centre, and at each point God finds in His people this fatal lack” (The Message of Hosea, p. 46).

As long as the knowledge of God was not found in the people of Israel, there would be no faithfulness and steadfast love in the life and activity of Israel.  Nor can there be in any other society, be it ancient or modern, because no society can possess “faithfulness” and “steadfast love” in the final analysis without a genuine knowledge of God.

Essentially the deficit of the heart attitudes in verse 1 reveal that Israel was breaking  the first table of the Ten Commandments, those directed towards Yahweh.

It is no wonder, then, that Israel was breaking the second table of the law as well.  Now put in the positive, Yahweh charges…

2 there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.

We are accountable to both sins of omission (v. 1) and sins of commission (v. 2).

Did you notice that these have to do with the breaking of the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth commandments?  The order differs from the two passages which lay out the Ten Commandments—Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—and there is no clear indication why.

It may be to indicate the order of frequency, from greater to lesser.  On the other hand, it may have been put in this order for the purpose of showing, in ascending order, the danger to the community or for the provocation of the wrath of Yahweh.

In any case, the breaking of the commandments reflected the people’s attitude towards their covenantal responsibilities to one another.  Because they had no knowledge of God, they had no respect for one another.

All of these listed offenses are infinites in Hebrew, and E. B. Pusey explains what this signifies:

“The Hebrew form is very vivid and solemn.  It is far more forcible than if he had said, ‘They swear, lie, kill, and steal.’  It expresses that these sins were continual, that nothing else (so to speak) was going on; that it was all one scene of such sins, one course of them, and of nothing besides; as we say more familiarly, ‘It was all, swearing, lying, killing, stealing, committing adultery.'” (The Minor Prophets, 1:46).

This list makes us realize that God doesn’t distinguish, as we often do, between serious and light offenses.  We would likely shrug our shoulders at someone swearing, but think murder and adultery are especially wrong.  But God doesn’t distinguish the way we do.

Also, it is important to realize that these sins are reaching to the point of no return.  We never know where that is, but there is a point where God’s patience runs out.  Patience is, you realize, the only attribute of God that is not infinite.

When virtues are lacking, vices are present, each of which is represented by terms plucked verbatim from Israel’s law code.

Doesn’t this sound so much like the United States?  Having forbidden prayer and Bible reading from public schools, our schools have become dangerous places, with murders and sexual abuse.

Education expert William Jeynes spoke at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 13, 2014 and said…

“One can argue, and some have, that the decision by the Supreme Court – in a series of three decisions back in 1962 and 1963 – to remove Bible and prayer from our public schools, may be the most spiritually significant event in our nation’s history over the course of the last 55 years.”

On June 25, 1962, the United States Supreme Court decided in Engel v. Vitale that a prayer approved by the New York Board of Regents for use in schools violated the First Amendment because it represented establishment of religion. In 1963, in Abington School District v. Schempp, the court decided against Bible readings in public schools along the same lines.

Since 1963, Jeynes said there have been five negative developments in the nation’s public schools:

  • Academic achievement has plummeted, including SAT scores.
  • Increased rate of out-of-wedlock births
  • Increase in illegal drug use
  • Increase in juvenile crime
  • Deterioration of school behavior

Other facts included a comparison between the top five complaints of teachers from 1940-1962 — talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls and getting out of turn in line – to rape, robbery, assault, burglary and arson from 1963 to present.

That last sentence sounds like it was taken right out of Hosea 4:2!  That is the consequence of removing the knowledge of God from our cultural life.

The first charge is “swearing,” which likely took the form of a curse, an imprecatory prayer or a man calling on Yahweh to support a falsehood.  It had the effect of denying faithfulness (v. 1) to one’s word.  It reflected a contempt for others.  It made real community an impossible dream.

Next, and likely occurring along with “swearing,” is “lying.”  This, too, deprives others of faithfulness.  It takes the form of dishonesty and deception.  It denies a person the right to fairness and justice in the market place, a court of law, or in any relationship.

If these first two, “swearing and lying” are a hendiadyes, then it refers to lying under oath.  But it is more likely that “swearing” breaks the third commandment and “lying” the ninth.

Paul shows us the importance of truthfulness in Ephesians 4:25 when he says…

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Paul’s reasoning for this “put off—put on” is the reality that lying rips the fabric of our relationships with one another.  There is no real community without truthfulness.

The third charge is “killing.”  Though the Old Testament allowed for divinely authorized killing of guilty persons, it denied a man the right to kill a fellow human being out of jealousy, hatred, revenge or lust.

But this was obviously happening in Israel.

This reflected a lack of steadfast love for their fellow countrymen and a lack of respect for human life and dignity.

The next thing with which they were charged was “stealing.”  Stealing denied a person’s right to material possessions that were entrusted to them by Yahweh, the ultimate owner of everything.

Finally, the people of Israel were charged with “adultery.”  This denied a person’s right to faithfulness and steadfast love within his own home.  Attacking the family in such a way, endangered the whole of society.

The verb in verse 2 is the term “break out,” so it is indicating that all these sins against one another run rampant, like an uncontrollable flood.  This is emphasized by “bloodshed follows bloodshed” as if it were an unstoppable force cascading down the mountain.  It is what Garrett believes signifies that this section is more closely related to Jezreel, because back in 1:4 Yahweh had declared, “I will bring the bloodshed of Jezreel upon the house of Jehu.”

Even though the primary blame will soon be placed in the lap of the religious leaders of Israel, the moral decline within the nation had become so widespread that the controversy was referred to as being “with the inhabitants of the land.”

There’s a movement going on within the realm of Christianity today where people are saying, “I don’t want to be known for what I am against, but what I am for.”  While that sounds good and noble, Eric Davis at Cripplegate, challenges that reasoning.  He says things like…

We don’t usually approach life that way, at least not wisely.  We teach our children what to avoid for their own good.  We hope our doctor is against things that are not good for us.

Also, to construct and conduct a good, stable society, we must be known for being against things.  We need to be against rape, pedophilia, sexual abuse.  We can’t just be for everything.

Actually, even the person who wants to be known for what they are for are also known for what they are against.  If you are for homosexuality, you are against heterosexuality.

Whatever the case may be, the person who wants to be known for what they are for cannot escape that they are known for what they are also against. The difference could simply be that it is more socially fashionable in certain sub-cultures to be known for being against the particular things that they are against. So, the real issue is not that they want to be known for what they are for, so much as it is that they want to be known for being for a particular subset of currently trendy ideologies.

More importantly, there are things that God wants us to be known for being against.  The Ten Commandments, for example, give us a list of ten things God is against.  The New Testament also has its lists of fleshly expressions it is against.  God is against false teaching as well.

Frankly, the ministries of men like Hosea, and all the Old Testament prophets as well as John the Baptist, were known primarily for what they were against.

Most emphatically, Jesus was known (and hated) for what he was against.  He was especially against the attitudes of self-promotion, self-actualization and self-glorifying among the religious leaders (Matthew 23:5-6).

Much of the content of the New Testament is against some sin or false teaching.  And finally, the desire to be known for what we are for rather than known for what we are against is primarily motivated by culture more than Scripture.

So, like God, we should be ready to rebuke these expressions of sin which break both the first and the second tables of God’s law.

These thoroughgoing violations of the terms of the royal covenant call for a commensurate judgment.  The word “therefore” at the beginning of verse 3 steels them to hear it, but hardly prepares them for its scope.

The judgment seems to be in the form of a drought, a sentence appropriate to their reliance upon Baal for rain and growth and harvest.  It will be so severe that “all who dwell in it languish.”  This was predicted by God in His covenant warnings back in Leviticus 26:13 and Deuteronomy 28:23-24.  This judgment extends to the animal kingdom as well, affecting all three domains (land, air and sea).  In Genesis 1, these are created in the reverse order.  That is also true in the dominion text in Genesis 1:28.

David Hubbard notes:

The annihilation of the animal kingdom is picture in language that outstrips the flood story, where at least representatives of each species were preserved (Gen. 6:18-22).  Hosea’s holocaust resembles closely Zephaniah’s (12:2-3) and echoes Genesis 1:30 in such a way that the appointed judgment for Israel’s sin is nothing less than the “reversal of creation.  Thus, Yahweh’s restoration, promised in 2:15-23, must include a covenant renewal with the entire animal kingdom (v. 18).

We know from Genesis 3 and Romans 8 that the destiny of all of God’s creation is tied to ours.  When we sinned, death and decay and all kinds of judgment fell upon the creation.  But when we are “brought in the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20), all creation will be made new.  Prior to that, there will be a time when man and animal and all creation will live together in peace and prosperity, according to Isaiah.

It is put vividly in Leviticus 18, where a catalogue of perversions culminates in a warning “lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (18:28).  When man has no knowledge of God and no restraints in his violence against one another, we sacrifice the whole future for the cravings of a moment.

Anderson and Freedman summarize this portion by saying…

Yahweh’s ultimate passion is for chesed.  He has an unswerving commitment to covenant obligations.  The curses and blessings of the covenant work out in two contradictory directions–destruction and recreation.  The crisis in the mind of Yahweh is forced by fact, heartbreaking for him, that Israel’s chesed is so ephemeral–like morning mist, like clouds, insubstantial and speedily dissipated.  In contrast to this, Yahweh’s declaration is as certain as the daybreak.  In his chesed Yahweh is unalterably committed to two things: he will have a people of his own; and he will relentlessly punish the covenant violater.  These commitments collide and the collision leads to an impossible situation because the drive to punish and the drive to accept his people unconditionally are equally manifestations of his chesed, his determination to keep the promises he has made in both these areas.  He looked above all for a chesed in relation to match His own (6:6), but Israel’s chesed was like vapor (6:4a).  Hence Yahweh’s question to himself, “What shall I do?” (6:4)

For hundreds of years this question had grown in intensity.  The answer had been put off.  Yahweh was “slow to anger.”  He often relented and restrained Himself.  According to the analysis of Israel’s prophetic historians, toward the middle of the eighth century even the patience of Yahweh was exhausted.  At last the will for justice overcame the compassion which had hitherto restrained the divine anger.  The covenant curses are to be put into operation.  The punishment is describe in passages of unexampled horror.  They are made the more frightening because all secondary agents disappear, and the acts are ascribed to Yahweh himself.  He will rip, injure, hack and kill (5:14; 6:1, 5; cf. 11:9).

In Hosea we meet for the first time the clear statement of an astounding solution to this problem–Yahweh’s problem.  This solution satisfied both sides of his chesed.  Guilty Israel will be executed; that will satisfy covenant justice.  Then the people of Yahweh will be reconstituted through resurrection.  (Hosea, 328-329)

But that awaits full expression in Hosea 6.


Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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