God’s Indictment against the Priests, part 2 (Hosea 4:11-14)

I welcome you to turn with me to Hosea 4.  We’ve been studying this book for the past several months, going verse-by-verse to mine the riches of God’s Word.  This morning we’re going to look at vv. 10-14, which describe what happens to people who turn away from the knowledge of God.

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. 12 My people inquire of a piece of wood [wooden idols], and their walking staff [divining rod] 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. 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.

Although we talked about v. 10 last week, I want you to notice how its message of judgment matches that of verse 18.  Verse 10 said…

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

While verse 18 says…

18 When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring; their rulers dearly love shame.

So Israel’s judgment has to do with being unsatisfied, even with the basics of life, and prostituting themselves to other gods.

In these verses Yahweh gives three illustrations of Israel’s dementedness: (1) consulting wooden omens for guidance; (2) being engrossed in idolatry; and (3) engaging in sexual immorality.  In both Old and New Testaments, one of the chief characteristics of false teachers is sexual immorality.

Now, moving on to verse 11.  There Hosea gives a proverbial type statement: “Prostitution, wine, and new wine take away the heart” as the King James and NASB says.  It reflects back to the issue of the priests and prophets “stumbling” back up in verse 5 and anticipates the next section in which the prophet mourns the degenerate state of the people.

It reminds me of Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 5:18, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit…”  We can choose to “lose ourselves” to wine, or to the Spirit.

The heart, of course, is our control center—our reasoning ability, our affections and our strength of will to choose.  Debauchery, whether spiritually through idolatry or physically through strong drink, ruins the heart.

As Derek Kidner notes:

In itself, the proverb about whoredom and wine makes the point that what unbridled drinking does to blur the mind, unbridled sex will also do in a more subtle way.

Of course, all sin openly practiced and indulged results in the same destruction of the sinner; but Hosea probably focused upon this because, “It describes the excesses which were committed by the people on the festival days at the Baal shrines” (John Mauchline)

So, they lacked discernment because they gave themselves to intoxication, then they turned to omens for direction.

One aspect of their idolatry is mentioned in vv. 12-13a—they were consulting superstitions for guidance.  It begins with people consulting a “tree” and ends with them offering sacrifices underneath the trees because the shade “is good.”

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.

Instead of consulting God for direction, they were consulting pieces of wood.  The terms used here are representative; they stand for the many types of omen taking employed in the ancient world.  Casting arrows into the air and observing the pattern formed when they fell to earth, examining the liver of an animal, observing the flight of birds, and many other means were also used to determine the future and the will of a god.

Keil explains the ancient practice:

“Two rods were held upright, and then allowed to fall while incantations were uttered; and the oracle was inferred from the way in which they fell, whether backwards or forward, to the right or to the left.”

People today use Tarot cards, Ouiji boards and horoscopes.

By contrast, David would often “inquire of the Lord” and use the authorized Urim and Thummim to discern God’s will.  Although God did allow the casting of lots.

In essence, they were abandoning normative revelation for the passing fad of the day.  They were trading the living God for a divining stick.  Habakkuk’s comment on this absurdity is quite appropriate: “Woe to him who says to a piece of wood, ‘Awake!’” (Hab. 2:19)  It is foolish.

The trees here are likely the Asherah pole.  The Canaanite goddess Asherah, functioned as El’s consort as the mother of the gods.

God had promised, back in Deuteronomy 18:14-15:

14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this. 15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen–

Hosea focuses on taking omens from a tree and sticks because it links to another lamentation in this poem—going to sacred groves.  He sees this omen seeking as foolish and as debasing for a human.

How blind to the loving providence of God are those who could seriously resort to such pagan devices as those mentioned here.  The immoralities of their idolatrous worship had closed the windows of their minds, and they groped about in darkness.

The “spirit of prostitution” in verse 12 is both literal—in acts of sacred prostitution, and metaphorical—in acts of giving love to other gods.  Consorting with temple prostitutes would take people further away from God, not bring them closer.

By the way, I don’t think the phrase “spirit of prostitution” is naming for us a particular kind of demon.  Some believe that there is a “lying spirit,” an “unclean spirit,” a “spirit of jealousy,” a “Jezebel spirit,” different demons behind different sins.  I think this phrase is merely telling us that behind sin, in general, are often demonic forces.

Israel’s idolatry was metaphorically like adultery, literally “against” the LORD.  Every sacrifice made to a pagan god was like an act of brazen adultery.  The picture is striking when we consider what a faithful and good husband the LORD is to His people.  Adultery is never excusable, but is even more heinous against a good, faithful, loving spouse.

The picture is striking when we consider how Israel wanted to add pagan gods to their worship of the LORD.  It isn’t as if Israel officially said, “We want to leave the LORD, and now serve only pagan gods.”  Instead, Israel wanted to add the worship of pagan gods to their worship of the LORD.  God received this the same way a husband would if his wife said, “I want you to still be my husband, I just want to take on a few more lovers also.” (David Guzik)

Interestingly, the characteristic act for the priests is “stumbling,” a reference to their downfall (v. 5), but the characteristic act of the laity is passive—that they are led astray.

Duane Garrett explains…

The closing of the poem, that the shade is “good” where they worship, is not an accidental comment but implies that the cults were in some ways truly appealing to the average person. (Hosea-Joel, p. 123).

He goes on to explain that these would be idyllic places, away from the restraints of temple morality, but rather “getting back to nature” and engaging in sexual relations.  In words open to no reason for misunderstanding, Hosea characterized the men as having sexual relations with both common harlots and cult prostitutes associated with their compromised worship.

This is why Josiah found it necessary to close down all rural shrines in 2 Kings 23:8-9.  It is why God established a place of worship—Jerusalem—in an attempt to keep worship from becoming profaned.

This, combined with a belief that these gods and their rites had the power to insure good crops and healthy births in their flocks and herds, made for a religion as irresistible as it was corrupting.  The real tragedy, however, was not merely that these rites led to various kinds of immorality; it was that people went to the shrines and consulted trees and stones with a sense of piety and reverence. (Duane Garrett, Hosea-Joel, p. 123).

Worshiping on hill tops made people feel like they were “closer to their gods” and worshiping under the “shade” shows they worshiped at their convenience.  Hubbard believes that Hosea might be jeering at religious activities in sites whose only benefit is the relief they offer from the sun.

God had specifically commanded that upon their entry into Canaan, the Israelites should “utterly destroy” all of the places of pagan worship on the mountaintops and high hills and under every green tree (Deut. 12:2); but instead of obeying God, they set up their own pagan idol worship in exactly the same places (2 Kings 17:10-11).

Going back for a moment to the phrase “spirit of prostitution,” we can see that the driving force behind all this is Satan himself.  When we leave God’s leading in the Word of God, we subject ourselves to Satan’s leading.

Thus Kidner declares…

Whatever excuse there might be for these other nations, for Israel there was none.  Their infatuation was deliberate, a surrender to a ‘spirit of harlotry’ that had all the excitement of an elopement or an orgy.  This, they felt, was freedom!  Instead of high demands on mind and will there were the myths and magic of the corn god.  Instead of the remoteness of the temple, so unfairly situated in the rival capital, Jerusalem, there was the appeal of hilltop sanctuaries to local pride and superstition.

Not only are the men involved, but the remainder of verse 13 makes it clear that…

Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery.

Seldom does one find a more depressing portrait of depraved life than this father-daughter-wife scene in which all are involved in immoral sexual behavior.

By allowing their daughters to play the harlot, the Israelites willfully sinned against the Mosaic law that forbade the daughters of Israel from participating in the cult prostitution (Deut. 23:17) (H. Ronald Vandermey, Hosea, p. 40).

This society has gone as sex-mad as our own, with promiscuous adolescents and with marriages violated from the start.  And who has set the example?  Who is ultimately to blame?  Not the women, but the men.

Several years ago I watched a very disturbing documentary about sex trafficking called Nefarious.  It talked about sex trafficking in Europe, Southeast Asia and in the United States.  As I watched this it was driven home to me more and more that the reason we have prostitution, the reason we have strip clubs, the reason we have pornography is because of the lust and greed of men.  Not women, but men.

It is time for us men to repent, because we are the nexus, we are the turning point.  When we men repent and say “no” to our lusts and greed, then things will begin to change.  Then marriages will be stronger and society will become stronger.  Then all these sexually based sins will lose their power.

Hosea then says…

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.

This does not mean that God would allow such conduct, justifying it upon the basis of their husbands and fathers also being sinners; but it has the effect of saying, “I will not punish them apart from you, but I will overthrow all of you in total destruction.” This clause should therefore be read in conjunction with the last, “a people without understanding shall come to ruin.”

As Eugene Peterson puts it…

But I’m not going after your whoring daughters
or the adulterous wives of your sons.
It’s the men who pick up the whores that I’m after,
the men who worship at the holy whorehouses—

They were merely following the example left by the men in their lives.

Verse 14 is in fact a landmark in moral history, says Derek Kidner, by its refusal to treat a man’s sexual sins more leniently than a woman’s.

That double standard had been brutally taken for granted, long before, by Jacob’s fourth son Judah, who thought nothing of visiting a prostitute but reacted to his daughter-in-law’s apparent unchastity with “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” (Gen. 38:24) (Kidner, The Message of Hosea, p. 53).

Here is the only place in Hosea where “cult prostitutes” are mentioned.  Some argue that this is not literally the case, but that the word is being used as a pun to strengthen the idea of Israel as a wayward woman.

The actual word here is a “holy one.”  Obviously these people have turned upside down what it meant to be holy!

Here is their root problem, they are “a people without understanding.”  The idea of Hosea 4:6 is repeated here, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” because they rejected knowledge.  The priests rejected knowledge, the people reject knowledge.

Without understanding they could not perceive the real issues of their day or the root causes for their destruction.  Thus, they were doomed.  Without understanding God and His word, God’s people are destined for destruction.

God had revealed Himself to them, and had given to them His law, and was still sending to them His prophets, so that they could have known and understood God‘s will, had they willed.

E.B. Pusey notes…

“It is the last punishment of persevering sinners, that God leaves them to prosper in their sins and in those things which help them to sin [cf. Rom. 1]” (1:53)

Hence, we are taught to pray, “Correct me, O LORD, but in justice; not in anger…” (Jere. 10:24).

The priests had influenced the people, but they had chosen this immoral direction.  All the while, it is leading them to ruin.

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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