Saturday, February 19, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (15)

“Bad company corrupts good morals.”

When the apostle Paul wrote it, he was probably quoting Menander, a Greek dramatist and popular writer of antiquity who had lived some 300 years prior, and it served his purposes just fine. But he could as easily have pulled half a dozen quotes from the Old Testament out of his sleeve to confirm the same truth.

Here are just two: Solomon wrote, “The companion of fools will suffer harm” and “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.”

Make no mistake, wickedness is infectious in a way goodness is not.

Hosea 5:1-4 — Corrupting the Neighbors

“Hear this, O priests! Pay attention, O house of Israel! Give ear, O house of the king! For the judgment is for you; for you have been a snare at Mizpah and a net spread upon Tabor. And the revolters have gone deep into slaughter, but I will discipline all of them.

“I know Ephraim, and Israel is not hidden from me; for now, O Ephraim, you have played the whore; Israel is defiled. Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they know not the Lord.”

It has been observed that in some cases evil men in charge corrupt a simple and gullible people. In others, evil is a banal, grassroots movement that infects and corrupts leadership that had once aspired to better things. For the record, in Israel’s case it’s a matter of historical record that the sin began with Jeroboam in the first weeks and months of the nation’s existence. But we are hundreds of years downstream from that now, and you will notice that all Israel is addressed at this point. The priests, the elite and the masses are all tarred with the same brush, cautioned by the same God, and subject to the same judgment.

At this point it didn’t really matter where the evil had begun: all were guilty before God, and all were called to attention to hear him. The situation after the Fall in Eden was similar: you and I are no better than Adam; he just happened to be the only man in history faced with the temptation to original sin.

Snares and Nets

The imagery is not complicated: snares and nets are designed to trap you. Israel’s idolatry was a trap for anyone looking on. It involved lots of excitement, drinking and debauchery. It looked like a neat synthesis of YHWH-worship with all the things the “cool kids” across the road were doing when they celebrated their gods. Naturally, it proved enticing to people habituated to a more austere form of religiosity in which humility, repentance, sacrificial giving and thankfulness were significant elements. This corrupting influence would include neighbors within their own nation as well as outside it.

The commentators have a field day with the words “Mizpah” and “Tabor”. Some say these were military strongholds where the priests and the elites corrupted the people; others that they were popular high places where sacrifices were offered to false gods (which seems more likely). Both were definitely mountainous, which makes either one possible. Both would surely be ensnaring, which is the grounds for God’s judgment.

Deep Into Slaughter

Likewise, there are a variety of opinions about the sense in which the “revolters” had “gone deep into slaughter”. Some refer this to a multitude of animal sacrifices made to YHWH in forlorn hope of restoring a damaged relationship. I think it is more likely the “slaughter” is of the same sort we find in Hosea 6, where Gilead is called “a city of evildoers, tracked with blood”. The priests are said to “band together” and “murder”.

These are probably not accusations of literal homicide, but they remind us that when we drag or entice others into sin with us, we are as good as killing them. Sin and death go hand in hand. Paul speaks of something similar in Romans 1, when he notes that there are men and women who “know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die,” but that instead of repenting of their misdeeds, these “not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” These are death-dealers of the worst kind, and their judgment is richly deserved. I suspect it will involve a millstone or two.

Their Deeds Do Not Permit Them

“Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God.” In one sense this statement is difficult to reconcile with other scriptures. After all, the Lord Jesus himself taught that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people”, one single exception apart. God is unbelievably gracious. This is a judge who would have given Sodom and Gomorrah at least a temporary pass for nothing more wonderful than a mere ten righteous men silly enough to dwell among them.

That doesn’t sound like an unreasonably high standard to me. A history full of misdeeds will not disqualify you from genuine repentance. That is the way God works, and I am profoundly grateful for it.

What will not ever pass muster with God is a man who is so enslaved to his habits that he loves them more than the salvation offered freely to him. You cannot return to God with an armful of baggage of which you steadfastly refuse to let go. God is gracious with error, but uninterested in accommodating ongoing, willful sin. That in itself is evidence you have no knowledge of him, and no desire to learn more; you are just looking for fire insurance.

God doesn’t do fire insurance.

Hosea 5:5-7 — Stumbling in Guilt

“The pride of Israel testifies to his face; Israel and Ephraim shall stumble in his guilt; Judah also shall stumble with them. With their flocks and herds they shall go to seek the Lord, but they will not find him; he has withdrawn from them. They have dealt faithlessly with the Lord; for they have borne alien children. Now the new moon shall devour them with their fields.”

The Pride of Israel

The word “pride” is often understood negatively, and with good reason: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” That one has been drilled into us since childhood, and that sort of negative usage of the Hebrew word gā'ôn would be a permissible interpretation. Hosea may be saying that Israel’s arrogance constitutes evidence against him in the presence of God and in the eyes of any objective onlooker.

However, gā'ôn is not exclusively a Hebrew way of referring to the sinful antithesis of humility. For example, the sons of Korah speak glowingly of the “pride of Jacob”, whom God loves. Here the psalmists are referring to the appropriate joy taken by the people of God in the heritage he has given them. Again, Isaiah ascribes gā'ôn to God himself in several different passages. “Pride” is a wholly inadequate English equivalent in such an instance, and so our translators have opted for “splendor”, “majesty” or “excellence”. Amos has God swearing by the “pride of Jacob”, which surely means himself, as when he swore his promise to Abraham; after all, there is no one greater for God to swear by.

In Hosea the term “pride of Israel” is used twice, here and in chapter 7. In both instances it is quite possible it is a reference to God. Whenever Israel was at its national apex under David and Solomon, its majesty and splendor was directly ascribable to its relationship with YHWH. He was the true excellence of Israel, and the source of all that was praiseworthy within its borders.

If this is the correct interpretation, then what Hosea is saying is that it is the sworn testimony of God himself that Israel’s culpability will cause him to stumble and fall. The nation will lose its standing in the world, and the matter is absolutely settled. There is no possibility that Israel will escape the consequences of its idolatrous behavior. God cannot accept it and will not allow it to continue. Indeed, the whole book of Hosea stands as God’s repeated testimony to that effect.

Judah Also Shall Stumble

Hosea’s primary target in the first four chapters has been the northern kingdom of Israel, which he also refers to as Ephraim. To date, all references to Judah have been positive ones. In 1:7 God specifically promises to have mercy on Judah when he will not have mercy on Israel. In 4:15 he appeals to Judah not to go the way Israel has gone: “Let not Judah become guilty.”

Notwithstanding this earnest appeal, God knows Judah is destined to go down the same road as its more populous neighbor within less than 150 years. One of the dangers to families with “party animals” for neighbors is that their teenagers may find the goings-on next door of prurient interest and decide to hop the fence and participate in the festivities. This is territory explored in more detail by Ezekiel, who depicts Israel and Judah as two sisters. Ezekiel says of Judah that she saw her sister play the whore with Assyria, “and she became more corrupt than her sister in her lust and in her whoring, which was worse than that of her sister”, and ended with whoring after the Babylonians.

But Ezekiel was writing after the fact. Both Israel and Judah’s rampant public idolatry were by then a matter of historical record. Hosea, however, had the privilege of warning the people of Judah in advance. While the nation as a whole was destined to go down the wrong road, it was still possible that individual Judeans might hear the word of the Lord and commit to remaining faithful.

Devoured by the New Moon

The next three sentences may refer to both Judah and Israel or to Israel only. I prefer the latter. Hosea prophesied during the reigns of four Judean kings (one wicked, three mostly-godly) and one (wicked) Israelite king. We do not know at which moment in Hosea’s long period of ministry these words were spoken, but during Hosea’s lifetime Judah saw political and/or spiritual high water marks under Uzziah (Azariah), Jotham and Hezekiah throughout which it could not be seriously entertained that the Lord had actually “withdrawn from” Judah. The last reign, Hezekiah’s, was arguably the best of the lot, and featured a miraculous deliverance from the Assyrian army.

So then, the Lord would certainly withdraw from Judah at one point, but not while Hosea was still ministering. God had plans for the house of David. Rather, I think these words probably apply to the “last gasp” of Israel in its declining relationship with YHWH. In their desperation to be saved from the Assyrian hordes, they would go to seek the Lord with every possible display of public religiosity at their disposal, but would be unable to call his attention to their plight no matter how prolific their sacrifices. Their fate was already decided.

Hosea continued to prophesy for a period of at least six years (and possibly quite a bit more) after Samaria fell to the Assyrian army in 722 BC, so it may be that these words were actually uttered only days before the end of Israel as a sovereign nation. It is quite conceivable that when he said, “The new moon will devour them,” he meant precisely that.

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