Saturday, May 28, 2022

Mining the Minors: Hosea (29)

The prosperity gospel is a lie for numerous reasons, but one of the more obvious is that Bible history shows uninterrupted prosperity is rarely good for God’s people in a fallen world. It does not tend to produce desirable outcomes like thankfulness or looking to God; instead, it frequently sponsors independence and entitlement.

In chapter 10, the prophet Hosea comments on the effect of prosperity in ancient Israel. It was much as we might expect ...

Hosea 10:1-2 — The Anti-Prosperity Gospel

“Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The more his fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars. Their heart is false; now they must bear their guilt. The Lord will break down their altars and destroy their pillars.”

The Luxuriant Vine

Israel, the “luxuriant vine”, increased his altars with his fruit and his pillars with the improvement of his territory — and it was not the God who had given the increase that he worshiped at those altars and pillars.

The word “pillar” refers to a religious memorial usually built with stones. The patriarchs built more than a few of these to commemorate their experiences with their God, but the practice was not original to Israel. The Old Testament records many references to the pillars of the Canaanites, and of Baal. It is probably these “Baal-pillars” that Israel is accused of “improving” rather than tearing down as God had commanded.

Moses predicted Israel’s poor response to the blessings of God in his song in Deuteronomy 32: “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.” Why did Israel fall away? Prosperity. “He suckled him with honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock. Curds from the herd, and milk from the flock, with fat of lambs, rams of Bashan and goats, with the very finest of the wheat — and you drank foaming wine made from the blood of the grape.”

The False Heart

In this respect the church’s history sadly mirrors Israel’s. Material prosperity and influence in the world have never been good for us spiritually. The glorified Christ would tell John to write, “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” A church with a Laodicean spirit is entirely unable to see the eternal value of spiritual riches toward God. It evaluates its condition based only on the material and the external.

The adjective translated “false”, as in “false heart”, means “divided”. This was a problem in Israel all the way back to the reign of Ahab. Elijah diagnosed it when he said to the people, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The mark of the false heart is its inconsistency. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. Because of his inability to make up his mind once and for all, he ends up deriving no real benefit from either of his “masters”.

Such a heart is not provoked to love or gratitude even by a plethora of good things. It simply assumes they are its natural right. It has been my experience that some of the least appreciative people in the world have the most they ought to be grateful for. In such a case, the discipline of God is a necessity, not because justice is always doled out in this life (it isn’t), but because sometimes nothing but suffering will turn the fat soul’s attention to what really matters.

Hosea 10:3-6 — Mere Words

“For now they will say: ‘We have no king, for we do not fear the Lord; and a king — what could he do for us?’ They utter mere words; with empty oaths they make covenants; so judgment springs up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field. The inhabitants of Samaria tremble for the calf of Beth-aven. Its people mourn for it, and so do its idolatrous priests — those who rejoiced over it and over its glory — for it has departed from them. The thing itself shall be carried to Assyria as tribute to the great king. Ephraim shall be put to shame, and Israel shall be ashamed of his idol.”

Kings and Futility

Toward the end of its history Israel made kings like the monarchy was going out of style ... which it was, at least so far as they were concerned. Jeroboam II was the last significant and successful monarch they had, reigning 41 years and expanding Israel’s borders. Everyone who followed him was notably inferior in one way or another. His son’s reign lasted a mere six months; he was killed by a conspirator, who was slain by a more powerful conspirator only a month after assuming the throne. The kings that followed him were vassals to Assyria, did terrible things to their own people, and taxed the nation to maintain their thrones. Even before Israel got to the state where they had no king, they might as well have had none for all the good their kings were able to do for the people.

Little wonder the people were fed up with their kings (“What could he do for us?”). The “great king” of Assyria would shortly become their new monarch, and they would be dispersed throughout the world.

They’re Only Words ...

The beginning of the second sentence (“They utter mere words; with empty oaths they make covenants”) makes the most sense to me when viewed as a continuation of the preceding quote. In that case, it would express the frustration of the Israelite people with the inability of their kings to protect them, first from Syrian invaders, then from the Assyrians. In fact, this was a major problem for the later kings of Israel, most of whom were illegitimate and recognized as such. So when they negotiated with the more powerful nations around them, they inevitably came out with a bad deal, and had to impose new taxes on their people to no discernable improvement in their living conditions. We are currently living through something similar in North America, in which our (elected?) leaders are attempting to reshape public opinion to their own liking rather than calibrate their political actions in deference to it. As a result, they are playing kingmakers in foreign wars, and the people of both our nations are paying the price for their misadventures at the gas pump and in the grocery store.

The image of judgment springing up like poisonous weeds in the furrows of the field is a powerful one. Sometimes judgment comes as an act of God, but most often judgment comes in the form of the inevitable consequence of our own behavior. For example, when leaders oppress the poor until they rise up in revolt, the resulting political chaos is a direct, natural reaction to the greed and arrogance of the leadership. In many cases, God need not step in; the thing we insist on doing produces its own poison and takes its own toll.

The Calf of Beth-aven

Hosea returns to the golden calf of Jeroboam I created as a substitute for worship at Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem under the Law of Moses. There were actually two of these calves, and it is unclear why the southern calf at Bethel is always singled out. Perhaps the calf at Dan was too far away to have much significance for the people of the major cities in the south of Israel.

As strange as it seems, like other idols the golden calf was worshiped because it was thought to house the form of a god. Victor Hurowitz comments on the Mesapotamian beliefs about idols which had probably infected the men and women of Israel:

“When a divine statue was sculpted in Mesopotamia, a so-called mouth-washing ritual was performed before the statue became the corporeal manifestation of the god itself — a living, anthropomorphic cult statue. The ritual assimilated the finite, physical image to the transcendent, intangible god, transforming the humanly manufactured icon into a living deity ... It was then escorted to its temple, where it was installed and honored as a living god. The actual washing of its mouth was believed to enliven the statue.”

Hebrew prophets carried along by the Holy Spirit often pointed out the patent ridiculousness of this belief system, but nevertheless it prevailed in the pagan world as well as in Israel during this period. As a result, when Assyria conquered Israel and swept its people away, it would be seen as more than a battle between earthly forces: rather, the gods of the Assyrians would have demonstrated themselves more powerful than the gods of Israel. As a result, there would be mourning and genuine shame in Israel. Their gods had been shown up as inferior. And to have the calf-idol of Beth-aven summarily carried off as tribute to the Assyrian king was the final straw.

It’s a reminder to Christians that putting our trust in anything less than the living God himself is not only an exercise in futility, but will almost certainly lead us to shame and embarrassment at one point.

No comments :

Post a Comment