God’s Indictment of Israel’s Priests, part 1 (Hosea 4:4-10)

We are in Hosea 4 today.  God is indicting Israel for their unfaithfulness to the covenant—playing the harlot with other gods and depending upon foreign nations for their protection.  What upsets Yahweh the most is that the very people that He called and depended upon to teach the people to worship Him alone and obey Him—the priests—were the very ones who were misleading the people.

So this next section in Hosea 4 is especially directed at us in ministry, we pastors who have the responsibility to teach our congregations God’s truth.  Listen to Hosea’s indictment against the priests…

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

Hosea 4:4-5:7 is God’s indictment against the priests.  The crimes mentioned here are (1) failure to teach the law (4:6); (2) use of the sacrificial system to feed their own appetites (4:7-10); the practice of divination (v. 4:12); (4) offering sacrifices in the high places (4:13a); (5) participation in ritual sex orgies (4:13b-14); (6) encouraging drunken lewdness in connection with idol worship (4:17-19); (7) false trust in the sacrifices at the shrines (5:6); and (8) bearing of illegitimate children as the fruit of the pagan orgies (5:7).  That is quite a failure on the part of those who were supposed to teach Israel to be faithful to Yahweh!

This passage we’re beginning today has two sections—vv. 4-6 and vv. 7-10.  Both are judgment speeches in which accusations are interwoven with announcements of judgment.  In the first section, the indictment is failure to teach and keep the law; the punishment is rejection of the priestly status.  In the second section, the crime is hedonistic greed in the celebration of the sacrifices; the judgment, accordingly, is deprivation of any source of joy.

Israel’s guilt was so clear that the Lord forbade the people from denying His charge against them.  The charges Yahweh brings against the priests are undeniable and no one can rightly accuse Yahweh of being unfair in His judgments.

Yahweh’s contention is with the priests.  He will mention the prophets in v. 5 but this indictment is primarily laid at the feet of the priests.

In passages like Deuteronomy 17:9-12, Yahweh clearly commanded His people to listen to and submit to the priests, who would lead and help the people with the Word of God.  But in this case, it was the priests who were leading the people astray.

Therefore, the condition of the people in itself is evidence against the priests.  Thus Duane Garrett paraphrases…

“Even though this nation is full of blasphemers, liars, murderers, thieves, and adulterers (v. 2) there is no point in one person accusing or pointing the finger of blame at another.  When they accuse one another, your people are really bringing charges against the priest–they are evidence for what a poor job the priests have done.” (Garrett, Hosea-Joel, p. 116)

Ultimately, responsibility for the condition of the flock lays in the hands of the priest, or the pastor.

Malachi also brings a charge against the priests, comparing the calling Yahweh gave to Levi with the current negligence of the priests in his day:

5 My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. 6 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

8 But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts, 9 and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.”

Tom Constable does remind us that King Jeroboam I had appointed as priests people from any tribe and all walks of life in Israel (1 Kings 12:31; 13:33).  Thus, these priests may not even be from the lineage of Levi.  They certainly weren’t acting like it!

The New Testament also speaks of how God will hold leaders in the church responsible for the condition of the flock.  In Hebrews 13:17 we read

17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Paul even warns that in the last days preachers will fail to teach the truth, but rather teach people what they want to hear, affirming their life choices instead of challenging them:

1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

The consequence of the lack of biblical teaching from the priests is that they, the prophets, and we assume the people as well, will all “stumble” (v. 5).  The priests may have thought themselves immune because of their spiritual calling and reputation, but they are not.  When the truth is not taught, everyone suffers.

This stumbling makes them ineffective and it happens “day and night,” in other words, “all the time.”  Stumbling at night is understandable, but stumbling in the day speaks of God’s judgment.  In essence, the blind are leading the blind (Matthew 15:14).

It may literally be the result of being drunk with wine and alludes to the image of Yahweh making his enemies drink wine on the day of his wrath.  In Jeremiah 25:15-28 for example, the nations must drink the cup of God’s wrath, get drunk and stagger, and fall to rise no more.  Thus, this seems very final.

Both types of spiritual leaders fail the people, so that ultimately the “mother,” that is, the nation, will be destroyed.  All the key institutions in Israel’s life—spiritual and political—will fail.

The key reason for national destruction is communicated in verse 6:

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.

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” particularly their failure to know God.  This was mentioned back in v. 1 in the first indictment against Israel, that there was “no knowledge of God in the land.”  They failed to acknowledge Him as their God, instead turning to the Baals.  They forgot Him and all His blessings throughout their history, preferring to worship other gods.

This did not happen unconsciously, but was a conscious decision on their part—the priests “rejected knowledge” and “have forgotten the law of your God.”  Failure to teach the people rightly is always a serious offense to God (Matthew 18:6; James 3:1).  The preacher or teacher who sins in this way is not only responsible for his own misdeeds, but also of those whom he misled.

Pastors, this is our primary mission—to teach the Word so our people know and love and obey the true God.  If we fail in that, no matter what else we do well, we fail them and we fail God.

The since of the priests is primarily a sin of omission, but it is a disastrous omission that gives birth to every sin of commission and leads to the collapse of the priesthood and the destruction of the nation.  Their primary calling, in this passage, was to teach, not make sacrifices.  But they had failed to do that.

Priests, prophets and people stumble together, even in the daylight, because they cast off the knowledge of God and the restraint and guidance of God’s law.

It should be no surprise that there is a strong connection between knowing God and knowing His Word.  There is no knowledge of God without knowing the Word.  The better we know the Word, the better we know God.  The better we know God, the more our lives will be transformed towards righteousness and goodness and beauty.

So get into the Word of God!

We have time to watch television, to mindlessly surf the internet, to read novels, to go to movies, to go out for dinner, to spend evenings in conversations with friends, to shop for a long list of Christmas presents, to attend sports events, to take a weekend get away vacation and so on and so on — but oh, my, we are too busy to teach a Sunday School class!  We are too busy to participate in a weekly Bible Study!  We are too busy to spend 15 minutes each day in Bible reading and prayer!  Thus we are well-versed in temporal things, but suffering terribly from a lack of godly, holy, transforming knowledge that comes from God’s Word as the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus Christ.

Get into the Word of God and let it shape your understanding of God accurately so that you begin to reflect His glory.

18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3)

God’s response of judgment is to reject the priests and forget their children (v. 6).  To our western minds it always seems a bit unfair for the children to have to pay for the sins of their parents, but the solidarity of the family and the idea of corporate guilt and punishment was common in ancient Near East cultures.

Also, since the priesthood is inherited through one family, these children would grow up to be priests, and likely bad ones as well.

One would think that the increasing of the priesthood would be a good thing.  We bemoan the fact seminaries aren’t graduating as many preachers as is needed.  However, in Hosea 4:7 the multiplication of priests turned out to be a bad thing…

7 The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame.

God had blessed the priests with increase (likely referring to children, but it could have broader reference to other kinds of blessing), but they took that blessing for granted and sinned all the more.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?  We live in what could be arguably called the most blessed nation on earth.  But what have we done with those blessings?  We have turned them around and used them to eliminate God from our lives, both politically and personally.

David Guzik reminds us

Blessing is a two-edged gift; it is obviously wonderful to be blessed, but it also brings more accountability and more opportunity for sin.

It would have been quite natural to think that the multiplication of priests, their increased influence, and the increased interest in worship would be signs of spiritual vitality.  But to the contrary, Hosea retorts that the more religious leadership the nation hand, the worse they became.

Their glory, their status and privileges, was about to be put to shame.  “The judgment is that someday God will bring the priests into disgrace in that he will cause the people to recognize them for the frauds they are and to despise them” (Garrett, Hosea-Joel, p. 119).

Another charge against these priests is that they were exploiting their worshipers.  The priest’s complicity in Israel’s sin is nowhere stated more forcefully than in verse 8.  There was an eagerness to get people to sin.  Hosea 4:8 says…

8 They feed on the sin of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity.

The priests were relishing the people’s wickedness in two ways.  First, they were making these offerings predominately to idols.  Second, the priests were benefiting from the sin offerings made.

In the religious system in which God established, the priests received their livelihood from portions of sacrificial offerings, whether animal or cereal and so they were encouraging the people to sin so that they would need to bring more offerings!

Contemporary charlatans who exploit the religious or emotional or physical needs of people for their own gain are as immoral and as responsible for the demise of genuine religious experience as were the corrupt priests before them.

Instead of the sacrifices being a means of repentance and grace, it had become a tool for permissiveness of the people and the gluttony of the priests.

The word “sin” in verse 8 could just as well refer to the “sin offering,” but in parallel with “iniquity” it is more likely referring to the act of sinning.

The last phrase is literally “they lift up their soul to their iniquity.”  Several times in the Psalms, to “lift up the soul” means to pray.  Thus, it is quite possible that this means that the priests were praying (if you could call it that) for the people to sin.

Thus it was all very shameful.

Hosea goes on to say…

9 And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds.

I think what Hosea means is that even though the priests were more culpable before God, they would be treated equally.  There will be coming a day of judgment and none shall be spared.  That general judgment is made more specific in v. 10…

10 They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish

The theme is frustration almost to the point of annihilation.  Their bodily appetites will no longer be satisfied.  Like addicts, they will experience the law of diminishing returns.  The land will not produce crops.

They will enact sexual worship with the prostitutes of Baal, but bear no children.  This fulfills the grave promise of v. 6, “I will forget your children.”  They just won’t be born.

Ironically worship of Baal was supposed to insure abundance of resources and fertile wombs.  But they would reap what they had sown.  Now they will always be hungry and childless.

Yahweh will do this because they had stopped listening to and obeying Him by observing His law.  And the object if “to cherish” is found in verse 11.  They cherished harlotry.  Instead of loving God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, they cherished the false gods.

Like we saw last week, when you break the first commandment to “have no other gods before me” you will soon be breaking them all.

David makes this contrast in Psalm 16.  Verse 4 says…

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply

But in v. 16 he says…

in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Do you want increasing sorrows, or ever-increasing joy?

Don’t forfeit the true and lasting joy for the fleeting pleasures given by the false gods of this age.

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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