God’s Indictment against Israel’s Priests, part 3 (Hosea 4:15-19)

We are all influenced by someone, whether for good or for bad.  We have a had time going against the grain, swimming upstream against our culture.  Our teenagers have difficulty breaking from the pack.  We want to be liked; we want to be popular; we want to be in the “in” group.

But Scripture wisely reminds us that “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33) and Proverbs is full of warnings against blindly following the crowd or caving in to peer pressure.

Hosea is here encouraging Judah to learn from, not follow, the mistakes that Israel was making.

God’s people were dividing into two kingdoms at this point in history.  Ten tribes, called Israel or Ephraim, broke off under Jeroboam.  Hosea is addressing most of his charges against Israel.  Ultimately, they were taken into captivity in 722 B.C.

In the south were two tribes, Judah and Benjamin.  They had a few bad kings, but stayed faithful to Yahweh longer than their brothers to the north.  However, they were susceptible to idolatry as well, especially since their brothers had been practicing it.  This is why Hosea says, in Hosea 4:15-19…

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.

Yahweh has just about given up on Israel, but did not want Judah to follow in their footsteps.  Israel was involved in spiritual prostitution, worshiping other gods.  But if Judah follows in their footsteps, they too will become guilty.

So Yahweh tells Judah to (1) stay away from tempting situations, (2) leave them alone and (3) learn from their fate.

Judah was not to worship at the places that Israel had defiled with false gods.  Gilgal was the first important campsite after Israel crossed the Jordan as they entered the promised land (Joshua 5:9).  This camp served as their base of operations during the initial conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua.

Gilgal, Bible Atlas full page map

Interestingly, the word gilgal means “to roll.”  God instructed Joshua to have a man from each tribe pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan in order to build a monument at Gilgal. This Hebrew name stands for “circle of standing stones.”

This directive is accompanied by a very important explanation of its purpose: “When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD.  When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.  So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever” (Joshua 4:6-7).

When the Israelites camped there, the new generation was circumcised there and because of their obedience God said to them

“Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.”  And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. (Joshua 5:9)

Recent archaeological discoveries in the Jordan Valley and the adjoining hills of Samaria appear to indicate that as Israel took possession of the land, they marked ownership of the land by building several structures that resemble a large foot print or sandal.

These unusual structures, studied extensively by Professors Adam Zertal and Dror Ben-Yosef of the University of Haifa, date to the Iron Age I period, based on pottery and animal bones found on-site.  They consist of two enclosed circles of stones that share a common border and, therefore, are joined together forming the shape of a foot print.

“The ‘foot’ structures that we found in the Jordan Valley are the first sites the people of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot.”

Bedhat esh-Sha'ab__A foot-shaped 'Gilgal'

In Deuteronomy 11:22-32, God promises the Israelites that if they obey his commandments, “Every place on which you set foot shall be yours.”  Also in Joshua 1:3 Yahweh said to Joshua…

3 Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.

There are five such structures like this in the Jordan Valley.  So Gilgal was a sacred place for Israel.  It is where Samuel judged (1 Sam. 7:16).  It was the city where Saul’s kingship was affirmed (1 Samuel 11:14-15; 10:1, 8).  It was also the place to which David returned after Absalom’s attempted coup (2 Samuel 19:9-15, 40).  They were the first to reaffirm his rightful status as king.  Gilgal was also the place where Elijah was transported to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-14; 4:38-41).

But, when the kingdom split due to Solomon’s sin and Jeroboam took over the northern territories, Gilgal became a place of idol worship.  Thus both Hosea and Amos speak of its wickedness and corrupt worship (Hosea 9:15-17; 12:11-14; Amos 4:4-6; 5:1-6).

Finally, in the course of calling the people of Israel to account for their abandonment of the Lord, the prophet Micah reminded them of God’s care for them in their early days in Gilgal and elsewhere—thus bringing the story of Gigal full circle (Micah 6:1-5).

Bethel had an even richer history.  Abraham built one of his first altars there upon entering the land (Genesis 12:8).  It was the place where Jacob (Israel) received his dream of a stairway to heaven (Genesis 28:10-22).  It was commonly a place where Abraham and Jacob worshiped God (Genesis 12:8; 13:1-4; 28:10-22; 35:1-15).  Bethel was one of the first places in the Holy Land where the ark of the covenant of God was set up, and where the priests offered sacrifices and inquired of God (Judges 20:18, 26-28; 21:2).

But, when the northern kingdom seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah, its first king, Jereboam, set up golden calves at Bethel and Dan (the southern and northernmost locations in Israel).  The golden calf at Bethel made it more convenient for people to worship.  They would no longer be required to go all the way to Jerusalem to worship (1 Kings 12:25-33).

Bethel was located in the hill country, near the town of Ai, only 12 miles from Jerusalem.

So Yahweh is pleading with Judah not to make the same mistakes Israel made.  They were not to make pilgrimages to these sites, no matter how significant they had been in Israel’s history.  If they did, they would become guilty, just like Israel.  The word for “guilty” in verse 15 is guilt in relation to God.

Yahweh calls Bethel (“house of God”) Beth-Aven here.  Beth-aven means “house of iniquity” because they were persistently breaking the 2nd commandment, which prohibited worshiping God with idols at all.  Amos had changed this name back in Amos 5:5, saying “Bethel shall become Awen.  It had been transformed from a place of true devotion to Yahweh (back when Abraham and Jacob worshiped there) to a major center for the kind of worship which the prophet disapproved (Amos 3:14; 4:4; 5:5, 6, 7:10, 13).  Hosea shares Amos’ outrage at what has happened to this place, calling it Bethel twice (10:15, 12:5), and Beth Awen three times (4:15; 5:8; 10:5).

Kidner notes…

Amos, a lover of surprise, had ironically invited his readers to both these famous shrines to deepen their—guilt! ‘Come to Bethel and transgress…” (Amos 4:4).  Join our pilgrimage and earn a black mark!

Hosea’s variation on the theme gets under the skin at two fresh points.  It makes a wounding comparison, presenting Israel as no fit company for her smaller sister [the southern kingdom]; and it invents a nickname for the royal shrine: no longer Bethel, ‘house of God,’ but Beth-Aven, “house of evil”—for God cannot own such a place, or have His name bandied about by those who think of Him as Baal.

The remainder of verse 15 reveals that they were breaking the 3rd commandment as well.  They were treating God’s name profanely by making an oath they did not intend to keep and using the formula “as Yahweh lives” to bolster their credibility.

The right use of the name of Yahweh in making legitimate and honest oaths is nowhere condemned.  It was one of the privileges of the faithful Israelite (Deut. 6:13; 10:20).

But the false use of an oath was often used to avoid repentance.  It reveals stubbornness.  As Coffman says, it “was a device for lulling the conscience to sleep.”  You cannot keep the third commandment while breaking the first two!

Ronald Vandermey notes that “swearing by the Lord falsely in a place of idolatry was a sin because it associated the living God with idols (Lev. 19:12; Zeph. 1:1-5).

The fundamental charge in vv. 16-18 is that Israel had become incorrigible in its evil, shameful ways.  This is shown (1) in the simile of the stubborn heifer, (2) in their unbreakable attachment to idols, and (3) in their habitual debauchery of drunkenness and promiscuity.

Verse 16 pictures Ephraim as a heifer, which is ironic because Jeroboam erected golden calves for Israel to worship.  Thus, these calves were pictures of themselves.

They are a “stubborn heifer,” which cannot be treated in the same way as a lamb in a broad pasture.  You simply cannot lead them.

Because of their stubbornness Israel would have to be confined soon (“now), in captivity.  Not only would they be confined, but Yahweh could not minister to them (at least as a nation) as a shepherd normally would.

Hubbard says…

However much God would like to shepherd Israel with his wisdom, it seems he must, because of her continual intransigence, treat her as those dumb animals who will not respond to their master.

This reminds us of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!

I would have, but you would not, Jesus says.  You’ve made the fateful decision to reject Me and now I must reject you.

Since they willed not to follow their master, Yahweh would grant them their wish.  But their freedom would turn to ruin.  They would go unprotected and eventually be destroyed.  Thus Albert Barnes says…

Woe is it to that man, whom, when he withdraws from Christ‘s easy yoke, God permits to take unhindered the broad road which leadeth to destruction.

Sheep are gregarious creatures and do not do well when they are alone.  To be alone is a very precarious situation.  Soon, judgment would come and the land would be depopulated.  Only a very few would remain behind.

Ephraim–another name for Israel because it was the largest of the ten northern tribes—is captivated by the idols.  Remember the “spirit of whoredom” back up in verse 12 and their consulting of poles and sticks?  It is likely that along with their worship of false gods and involvement in sexual immorality was also attended by some attempted magic.

Those who meddle with this magic become trapped by it.  All of these complex of sins—idolatry, sexual immorality and magic, are powerful, powerful magnets, drawing devotees to want more and more and more.

When it says “Ephraim is joined to idols” it suggests a total merging, a strong bond.  It is similar to the idea in Genesis 2 (v. 24) where God says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife.”  God is communicating there that the union between a husband and wife is to be permanent and indissoluble.

Likewise, nothing seemed to be able to break the bond between Ephraim and the Baalim.

Yahweh’s response to Ephraim is “leave him alone.”  This is a logical response to their enchantment and stubbornness.  Jamieson’s comment on this is:

“Leave him to himself.  Let him reap the fruits of his own perverse choice.  He is bent on his own ruin; leave him to his fate, lest instead of saving him thou shalt fall thyself.”

Let him go, like the father allowed his prodigal son to leave.

David Garland says

The greatest tragedy of all resulting from the failure of Israel’s leadership was, no doubt, that of the prophet’s being instructed to cease to minister to Israel (Ephraim).  Those unable to give up their idols deserved no less (4:17).  After all, the prophet’s words would only be wasted because they would fall upon deaf ears.  There appeared to be little likelihood now, that Israel would heed the prophet’s call.  Therefore, he was instructed to leave them alone, to leave them to their own choices. (Hosea, p. 43)

Paul says something very similar in Romans 1, indicating how a culture can devolve because God “gives them up” to their own desires—first to sexual immorality, then to homosexuality and ultimately to a depraved mind (Romans 1:18-32).

Listen, the worst thing God can do is to let you have your own wishes.  He knows what is best for you and has laid down guidelines on how to use your freedom within His Word and His law.  Listen to God.  Choose to obey Him and you will choose the path to greatest joy, both now and forever.

But there is a word of hope from Albert Barnes…

God will not, while there is hope, leave a man to sleep in sin; for so the numbness of the soul increases, until, like those who fall asleep amid extreme cold of the body, it never awakes

We should want and desire God’s disciplining hand upon us, while there is still time.

To whom is God through Hosea addressing the command “leave him alone?”  As I have mentioned, it most likely was the prophet himself.  Another possibility is that it is the priests who are being addressed—to stop misleading the people.

The final two verses in Hosea 4 seem to bring it back to the priests, and maybe in particular the high priest and transition us to chapter 5, which again picks up a charge against the priests.

The NASB has captured the first half of verse 18: “Their liquor gone, they play the harlot continually.”  Fueled and dazed by drink, they turned to idolatry, but they came up empty.  It did not fulfilled.  Possibly the draught had already made liquor scarce, and they, of course, turn to the false gods in another request for blessing.

Their rulers (lit. “shields”) dearly love shame.  How ironic!  Who would love shame except those intoxicated and enchanted by sin!  Judgment comes sweeping in in the final verse of Hosea 4…

19 A wind has wrapped them in its wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices

Wind is a perfect figure for describing the sudden and violent nature of the judgment that will sweep helpless Israel into captivity before the Assyrians.  The use of the past tense is prophetic and shows that the judgment was as certain as if it had already occurred.

When God brought them out of captivity to Egypt, God “bore them on eagle’s wings” (Exodus 19:4), but now that they have abandoned him, he would abandon them as chaff before the wind.  They will be driven away into captivity, dispersed here and there.

Finally, while in captivity, they “shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices” and will turn away from idolatry.  Unfortunately, it would take captivity and ruin in order to learn this lesson well.

Shame when it comes prior to judgment can lead to renewal that effects new life and hope.  But shame after the fact of judgment leads only to regret.  Hosea’s advice to Judah remains sound:  seeing the destruction and shame wrought by apostasy and immorality, avoid such a way of life.

Unfortunately, Judah would eventually fall to their own shame and judgment.


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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