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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Hosea 4

 

 


Verses 1-19

I. THE LORD’S QUARREL WITH ISRAEL

Hosea 4:1-19

"Hear the word of Jehovah, sons of Israel! Jehovah hath a quarrel with the inhabitants of the land, for there is no truth nor real love nor knowledge of God in the land. Perjury and murder and theft and adultery! They break out, and blood strikes upon blood."

That stable and well-furnished life, across which, while it was still noon, Amos hurled his alarms-how quickly it has broken up! If there be still "ease in Zion," there is no more "security in Samaria." [Amos 6:1] The great Jeroboam is dead, and society, which in the East depends so much on the individual, is loose and falling to pieces. The sins which are exposed by Amos were those that lurked beneath a still strong government, but Hosea adds outbreaks which set all order at defiance. Later we shall find him describing housebreaking, highway robbery, and assassination. "Therefore doth the land wither, and every one of her denizens languisheth, even to the beast of the field and the fowl of the heaven; yea, even the fish of the sea are swept up" in the universal sickness of man and nature: for Hosea feels, like Amos, the liability of nature to the curse upon sin.

Yet the guilt is not that of the whole people, but of their religious guides. "Let none find fault and none upbraid, for My people are but as their priestlings. O Priest, thou hast stumbled today: and stumble tonight shall the prophet with thee." One order of the nation’s ministers goes staggering after the other!"‘ And I will destroy thy Mother," presumably the nation herself. "Perished are My people for lack of knowledge." But how? By the sin of their teachers. "Because thou," O Priest, "hast rejected knowledge, I reject thee from being priest to Me; and as thou hast forgotten the Torah of thy God, I forget thy children- I on My side. As many as they be, so many have sinned against Me." Every jack-priest of them is culpable. "They have turned their glory into shame. They feed on the sin of My people, and to the guilt of these lift up their appetite!" The more the people sin, the more merrily thrive the priests by fines and sin-offerings. They live upon the vice of the day, and have a vested interest in its crimes. English Langland said the same thing of the friars of his time. The contention is obvious. The priests have given themselves wholly to the ritual; they have forgotten that their office is an intellectual and moral one. We shall return to this when treating of Hosea’s doctrine of knowledge and its responsibilities. Priesthood, let us only remember, priesthood is an intellectual trust.

"Thus it comes to be-like people like priest: "they also have fallen under the ritual, doing from lust what the priests do from greed. "But I will visit upon them their ways, and their deeds will I requite to them. For they" (those) "shall eat and not be satisfied," (these) "shall play the harlot and have no increase, because they have left off heeding Jehovah." This absorption in ritual at the expense of the moral and intellectual elements of religion has insensibly led them over into idolatry, with all its unchaste and drunken services. "Harlotry, wine, and new wine take away the brains!" The result is seen in the stupidity with which they consult their stocks for guidance. "My people! of its bit of wood it asketh counsel, and its staff telleth to it" the oracle! "For a spirit of harlotry hath led them astray, and they have played the harlot from their God. Upon the headlands of the hills they sacrifice, and on the heights offer incense, under oak or poplar or terebinth, for the shade of them is pleasant." On "headlands," not summits, for here no trees grow; and the altar was generally built under a tree and near water on some promontory, from which the flight of birds or of clouds might be watched. "Wherefore"-because of this your frequenting of the heathen shrines-"your daughters play the harlot and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. I will not come with punishment upon your daughters because they play the harlot, nor upon your daughters-in-law because they commit adultery." Why? For "they themselves," the fathers of Israel-or does he still mean the priests?-"go aside with the harlots and sacrifice with the common women of the shrines! "It is vain for the men of a nation to practice impurity and fancy that nevertheless they can keep their womankind chaste. "So the stupid people fall to ruin!"

("Though thou play the harlot, Israel, let not Judah bring guilt on herself. And come not to Gilgal, and go not up to Beth-Aven, and take not your oath at the Well-of-the-Oath, BeerSheba, "By the life of Jehovah!" This obvious parenthesis may be either by Hosea or a later writer; the latter is more probable.")

"Yea, like a wild heifer Israel has gone wild. How now can Jehovah feed them like a lamb in a broad meadow?" To treat this clause interrogatively is the only way to get sense out of it. "Wedded to idols is Ephraim: leave him alone." The participle means "mated" or "leagued." The corresponding noun is used of a wife as the "mate" of her husband [Malachi 2:4] and of an idolater as the "mate" of his idols. [Isaiah 44:11] The expression is doubly appropriate here, since Hosea used marriage as the figure of the relation of a deity to his worshippers. "Leave him alone"-he must go from bad to worse. "Their drunkenness over, they take to harlotry: her rulers have fallen in love with shame," or "they love shame more than their pride." But in spite of all their servile worship the Assyrian tempest shall sweep them away in its trail. "A wind hath wrapt them up in her skirts; and they shall be put to shame by their sacrifices."

This brings the passage to such a climax as Amos loved to crown his periods. And the opening of the next chapter offers a new exordium.


Verse 11

11; Hosea 2:1-23; Hosea 3:1-5

THE SIN AGAINST LOVE

Hosea 1:1-11; Hosea 2:1-23; Hosea 3:1-5;, Hosea 4:11 ff.; Hosea 9:10 ff.; Hosea 11:8 f.

The Love of God is a terrible thing-that is the last lesson of the Book of Hosea. "My God will cast them away." [Hosea 10:1-15]

"My God"-let us remember the right which Hosea had to use these words. Of all the prophets he was the first to break into the full aspect of the Divine Mercy to learn and to proclaim that God is Love. But he was worthy to do so, by the patient love of his own heart towards another who for years had outraged all his trust and tenderness. He had loved, believed and been betrayed; pardoned and waited and yearned, and sorrowed and pardoned again. It is in this long-suffering that his breast beats upon the breast of God with the cry "My God." As He had loved Gomer, so had God loved Israel, past hope, against hate, through ages of ingratitude and apostasy. Quivering with his own pain, Hosea has exhausted all human care and affection for figures to express the Divine tenderness, and he declares God’s love to be deeper than all the passion of men, and broader than all their patience: "How can I give thee up, Ephraim? How can I let thee go, Israel? I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger. For I am God, and not man." And yet, like poor human affection, this Love of God, too, confesses its failure-"My God shall cast them away." It is God’s sentence of relinquishment upon those who sin against His Love, but the poor human lips which deliver it quiver with an agony of their own, and here, as more explicitly in twenty other passages of the book, declare it to be equally, the doom of those who outrage the love of their fellow men and women.

We have heard it said: "The lives of men are never the same after they have loved; if they are not better, they must be worse." "Be afraid of the love that loves you: it is either your heaven or your hell." "All the discipline of men springs from their love-if they take it not so, then all their sorrow must spring from the same source." "There is a depth of sorrow, which can only be known to a soul that has loved the most perfect thing and beholds itself fallen." These things are true of the Love, both of our brother and of our God. And the eternal interest of the life of Hosea is that he learned how, for strength and weakness, for better or for worse, our human and our Divine loves are inseparably joined.

I.

Most men learn that love is inseparable from pain where Hosea learned it-at home. There it is that we are all reminded that when love is strongest she feels her weakness most. For the anguish which love must bear, as it were from the foundation of the world, is the contradiction at her heart between the largeness of her wishes and the littleness of her power to realize them. A mother feels it, bending over the bed of her child, when its body is racked with pain or its breath spent with coughing. So great is the feeling of her love that it ought to do something, that she will actually feel herself cruel because nothing can be done. Let the sick-bed become the beach of death, and she must feel the helplessness and the anguish still more as the dear life is now plucked from her and now tossed back by the mocking waves, and then drawn slowly out to sea upon the ebb from which there is no returning.

But the pain which disease and death thus cause to love is nothing to the agony that sin inflicts when he takes the game into his unclean hands. We know what pain love brings, if our love be a fair face and a fresh body in which Death brands his sores while we stand by, as if with arms bound. But what if our love be a childlike heart, and a frank expression and honest eyes, and a clean and clever mind. Our powerlessness is just as great and infinitely more tormented when sin comes by and casts his shadow over these. Ah, that is Love’s greatest torment when her children, who have run from her to the bosom of sin, look back and their eyes are changed! That is the greatest torment of Love-to pour herself without avail into one of those careless natures which seem capacious and receptive, yet never fill with love, for there is a crack and a leak at the bottom of them. The fields where Love suffers her sorest defeats are not the sick-bed and not death’s margin, not the cold lips and sealed eyes kissed without response; but the changed eyes of children, and the breaking of the "full-orbed face," and the darkening look of growing sons and daughters, and the home the first time the unclean laugh breaks across it. To watch, though unable to soothe, a dear body racked with pain, is peace beside the awful vigil of watching a soul shrink and blacken with vice, and your love unable to redeem it.

Such a clinical study Hosea endured for years. The prophet of God, we are told, brought a dead child to life by taking him in his arms and kissing him. But Hosea with all his love could not make Gomer a true, whole wife again. Love had no power on this woman-no power even at the merciful call to make all things new. Hosea, who had once placed all hope in tenderness, had to admit that Love’s moral power is not absolute. Love may retire defeated from the highest issues of life. Sin may conquer Love.

Yet it is in this his triumph that Sin must feel the ultimate revenge. When a man has conquered this weak thing, and beaten her down beneath his feet, God speaks the sentence of abandonment.

There is enough of the whipped dog in all of us to make us dread penalty when we come into conflict with the strong things of life. But it takes us all our days to learn that there is far more condemnation to them who offend the weak things of life, and particularly the weakest of all, its love. It was on sins against the weak that Christ passed His sternest judgments: "Woe unto him that offends one of these little ones; it were better for him that he had never been born." God’s little ones are not only little children, but all things which, like little children, have only love for their strength. They are pure and loving men and women-men with no weapon but their love, women with no shield but their trust. They are the innocent affections of our own hearts-the memories of our childhood, the ideals of our youth, the prayers of our parents, the faith in us of our friends. These are the little ones of whom Christ spake, that he who sins against them had better never have been born. Often may the dear solicitudes of home, a father’s counsels, a mother’s prayers, seem foolish things against the challenges of a world calling us to play the man and do as it does; often may the vows and enthusiasms of boyhood seem impertinent against the temptations which are so necessary to manhood: yet let us be true to the weak, for if we betray them, we betray our own souls. We may sin against law and maim or mutilate ourselves, but to sin against love is to be cast out of life altogether. He who violates the purity of the love with which God has filled his heart, he who abuses the love God has sent to meet him in his opening manhood, he who slights any of the affections, whether they be of man or woman, of young or of old, which God lays upon us as the most powerful redemptive forces of our life, next to that of His dear Son-he sinneth against his own soul, and it is of such that Hosea spake: "My God will cast them away."

We talk of breaking law: we can only break ourselves against it. But if we sin against Love, we do destroy her: we take from her the power to redeem and sanctify us. Though in their youth men think Love a quick and careless thing-a servant always at their side, a winged messenger easy of dispatch-let them know that every time they send her on an evil errand she returns with heavier feet and broken wings. When they make her a pander they kill her outright. When she is no more they waken to that which Gomer came to know, that love abused is love lost, and love lost means Hell.

II

This, however, is only the margin from which Hosea beholds an abandonment still deeper. All that has been said of human love and the penalty of outraging it is equally true of the Divine love and the sin against that.

The love of God has the same weakness which we have seen in the love of man. It, too, may fail to redeem; it, too, has stood defeated on some of the highest moral battle-fields of life. God Himself has suffered anguish and rejection from sinful men. "Herein," says a theologian, "is the mystery of this love that God can never by His Almighty Power compel that which is the very highest gift in the life of His creatures-love to Himself, but that He receives it as the free gift of His creatures, and that He is only able to allow men to give it to Him in a free act of their own will." So Hosea also has told us how God does not compel, but allure or "woo," the sinful back to Himself. And it is the deepest anguish of the prophet’s heart, that this free grace of God may fail through man’s apathy or insincerity. The anguish appears in those frequent antitheses in which his torn heart reflects herself in the style of his discourse. "I have redeemed them-yet they have spoken lies against Me. [Hosea 7:13] I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness-they went to Ba’al-Peor. [Hosea 9:10] When Israel was a child, then I loved him but they sacrificed to Ba’alim. [Hosea 11:1-2] I taught Ephraim to walk, but they knew not that I healed them. [Hosea 9:4] How can I give thee up, Ephraim? how can I let thee go, O Israel? Ephraim compasseth Me with lies, and the house of Israel with deceit." [Hosea 11:8;, Hosea 12:1]

We fear to apply all that we know of the weakness of human love to the love of God. Yet though He be God and not man, it was as man He commended His love to us. He came nearest us, not in the thunders of Sinai, but in Him Who presented Himself to the world with the caresses of a little child; who met men with no angelic majesty or heavenly aureole, but whom when we saw we found nothing that we should desire Him, His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form than the sons of men; Who came to His own and His own received Him not; Who, having loved His own that were in the world, loved them up to the end, and yet at the end was by them deserted and betrayed, -it is of Him that Hosea prophetically says: "I drew them with cords of a man and with bands of love."

We are not bound to God by any unbreakable chain. The strands which draw us upwards to God, to holiness and everlasting life, have the weakness of those which bind us to the earthly souls we love. It is possible for us to break them. We love Christ, not because He has compelled us by any magic, irresistible influence to do so; but, as John in his great simplicity says, "We love Him because He first loved us."

Now this is surely the terror of God’s love-that it can be resisted; that even as it is manifest in Jesus Christ we men have the power, not only to remain as so many do, outside its scope, feeling it to be far-off and vague, but having tasted it to fall away from it, having realized it to refuse it, having allowed it to begin its moral purposes in our lives to baffle and nullify these; to make the glory of Heaven absolutely ineffectual in our own characters; and to give our Savior the anguish of rejection.

Give Him the anguish, yet pass upon ourselves the doom! For, as I read the New Testament, the one unpardonable sin is the sin against our Blessed Redeemer’s Love as it is brought home to the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every other sin is forgiven to men but to crucify afresh Him who loved us and gave Himself for us. The most terrible of His judgments is "the wail of a heart wounded because its love has been despised": "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! how often would I have gathered thy children as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not. Behold your house is left unto you desolate!"

Men say they cannot believe in hell, because they cannot conceive how God may sentence men to misery for the breaking of laws they were born without power to keep. And one would agree with the inference if God had done any such thing. But for them which are under the law and the sentence of death, Christ died once for all that He might redeem them. Yet this does not make a hell less believable. When we see how Almighty was that Love of God in Christ Jesus, lifting our whole race and sending them forward with a freedom and a power of growth nothing else in history has won for them; when we prove again how weak it is, so that it is possible for millions of characters that have felt it to refuse its eternal influence for the sake of some base and transient passion; nay, when I myself know this power and this weakness of Christ’s love, so that one day being loyal I am raised beyond the reach of fear and of doubt, beyond the desire of sin and the habit of evil, and the next day finds me capable of putting it aside in preference for some slight enjoyment or ambition-then I know the peril and the terror of this love, that it may be to a man either Heaven or Hell.

Believe then in hell, because you believe in the Love of God-not in a hell to which God condemns men of His will and pleasure, but a hell into which men cast themselves from the very face of His love in Jesus Christ. The place has been painted as a place of fires. But when we contemplate that men come to it with the holiest flames in their nature quenched, we shall justly feel that it is rather a dreary waste of ash and cinder, strewn with snow-some ribbed and frosty Arctic zone, silent in death, for there is no life there, and there is no life there because there is no Love, and no Love because men, in rejecting or abusing her, have slain their own power ever again to feel her presence.


Verses 11-14

4. "THE CORRUPTION THAT IS THROUGH LUST"

Hosea 9:10-17 CF. Hosea 4:11-14

Those who at the present time are enforcing among us the revival of a paganism-without the pagan conscience-and exalting licentiousness to the level of an art, forget how frequently the human race has attempted their experiment, with far more sincerity than they themselves can put into it, and how invariably the result has been recorded by history to be weariness, decay, and death. On this occasion we have the story told to us by one who to the experience of the statesman adds the vision of the poet. The generation to which Hosea belonged practiced a periodical unchastity under the alleged sanctions of nature and religion. And, although their prophet told them that-like our own apostates from Christianity-they could never do so with the abandon of the pagans, for they carried within them the conscience and the memory of a higher faith, it appears that even the fathers of Israel resorted openly and without shame to the licentious rites of the sanctuaries. In an earlier passage of his book Hosea insists that all this must impair the people’s intellect. "Harlotry takes away the brains." [Hosea 4:12] He has shown also how it confuses the family, and has exposed the old delusion that men may be impure and keep their womankind chaste. [Hosea 4:13-14] But now he diagnoses another of the inevitable results of this sin. After tracing the sin and the theory of life which permitted it, to their historical beginnings at the entry of the people into Canaan, he describes how the long practice of it, no matter how pretentious its sanctions, inevitably leads not only to exterminating strifes, but to the decay of the vigor of the nation, to barrenness and a diminishing population. "Like grapes in the wilderness I found Israel, like the first fruit on a fig-tree in her first season I saw your fathers." So had the lusty nation appeared to God in its youth; in that dry wilderness all the sap and promise of spring were in its eyes, because it was still pure. But "they-they came to Ba’al-Peor"-the first of the shrines of Canaan which they touched-"and dedicated themselves to the shame, and became as abominable as the object of their love. "Ephraim"-the "Fruitful" name is emphasized-"their glory is flown away like a bird. No more birth, no more motherhood, no more conception! Blasted is Ephraim, withered the root of them, fruit they produce not: yea, even when they beget children I slay the darlings of their womb. Yea, though they bring up their sons I bereave them," till they are "poor in men. Yea, woe upon themselves" also, when I look away from them! Ephraim"-again the "Fruitful" name is dragged to the front-"for prey, as I have seen, are his sons destined. Ephraim" - he "must lead his sons to the slaughter."

And the prophet interrupts with his chorus: "Give them, O Lord-what wilt Thou give them? Give them a miscarrying womb and breasts that are dry!"

"All their mischief is in Gilgal"-again the Divine voice strikes the connection between the national worship and the national sin-"yea, there do I hate them: for the evil of their doings from My house I will drive them. I will love them no more: all their nobles are rebels."

And again the prophet responds: "My God will cast them away, for they have not hearkened to Him, and they shall be vagabonds among the nations."

Some of the warnings which Hosea enforces with regard to this sin have been instinctively felt by mankind since the beginnings of civilization, and are found expressed among the proverbs of nearly all the languages. But I am unaware of any earlier moralist in any literature who traced the effects of national licentiousness in a diminishing population, or who exposed the persistent delusion of libertine men that they themselves may resort to vice, yet keep their womankind chaste. Hosea, so far as we know, was the first to do this. History in many periods has confirmed the justice of his observations, and by one strong voice after another enforced his terrible warnings. The experience of ancient Persia and Egypt; the languor of the Greek cities; the "deep weariness and sated lust" which in Imperial Rome "made human life a hell"; the decay which overtook Italy after the renascence of Paganism without the Pagan virtues; the strife and anarchy that have rent every court where, as in the case of Henri Quatre, the king set the example of libertinage; the incompetence, the poltroonery, the treachery, that have corrupted every camp where, as in French Metz in 1870, soldiers and officers gave way so openly to vice; the checks suffered by modern civilization in face of barbarism because its pioneers mingled in vice with the savage races they were subduing; the number of great statesmen falling by their passions, and in their fall frustrating the hopes of nations; the great families worn out by indulgence; the homes broken up by infidelities; the tainting of the blood of a new generation by the poisonous practices of the old, -have not all these things been in every age, and do they not still happen near enough to ourselves to give us a great fear of the sin which causes them all? Alas! how stow men are to listen and to lay to heart! Is it possible that we can gild by the names of frivolity and piquancy habits the wages of which are death? Is it possible that we can enjoy comedies which make such things their jest? We have among us many who find their business in the theatre, or in some of the periodical literature of our time, in writing and speaking and exhibiting as closely as they dare to limits of public decency. When will they learn that it is not upon the easy edge of mere conventions that they are capering, but upon the brink of those eternal laws whose further side is death and hell-that it is not the tolerance of their fellow men they are testing, but the patience of God Himself? As for those loud few who claim license in the name of art and literature, let us not shrink from them as if they were strong or their high words true. They are not strong, they are only reckless; their claims are lies. All history, the poets and the prophets, whether Christian or Pagan, are against them. They are traitors alike to art, to love, and to every other high interest of mankind.

It may be said that a large part of the art of the day, which takes great license in dealing with these subjects, is exercised only by the ambition to expose that ruin and decay which Hosea himself affirms. This is true. Some of the ablest and most popular writers of our time have pictured the facts, which Hosea describes, with so vivid a realism that we cannot but judge them to be inspired to confirm his ancient warnings, and to excite a disgust of vice in a generation which otherwise treats vice so lightly. But if so, their ministry is exceeding narrow, and it is by their side that we best estimate the greatness of the ancient prophet. Their transcript of human life may be true to the facts it selects, but we find in it no trace of facts which are greater and more essential to humanity. They have nothing to tell us of forgiveness and repentance, and yet these are as real as the things they describe. Their pessimism is unrelieved. They see the "corruption that is in the world through lust"; they forget that there is an escape from it. [2 Peter 1:1-21] It is Hosea’s greatness that, while he felt the vices of his day with all needed thoroughness and realism, he yet never allowed them to be inevitable or ultimate, but preached repentance and pardon, with the possibility of holiness even for his depraved generation. It is the littleness of the art of our day that these great facts are forgotten by her, though once she was their interpreter to men. When she remembers them the greatness of her past will return.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Hosea 4:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/hosea-4.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 26th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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