Cataloging Israel's Sins (Hosea 4) March 1
As Israel went through its final rulers, Hosea's preaching continued. The prophet now lists many of the sins of Israel, evident in his own day as well as in the end time.
Verse 1 mentions an absence of truth, mercy and knowledge. Actually, the phrase "no truth or mercy" can also be translated "no faithfulness or loyalty," as it is in the New Revised Standard Version (see Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Old Testament Section, "Loving-Kindness," explanation of Hebrew hesed). God had been faithful and loyal, but the Israelites hadn't—to God or to each other. Concerning their lack of knowledge, as we read earlier in the book of Amos, "They do not know to do right" (3:10). Thus, it was not knowledge in general that they lacked, but right moral knowledge. Hosea 4:2 mentions violations of five of the Ten Commandments. And the people's unrestrained murder causes the land to "mourn" (verses 2-3) because the land is defiled by it (Numbers 35:33-34). In our own day, criminal justice systems often fail to appropriately deal with murderers—contributing, along with wayward societal values, to high murder rates. Worse still, consider the "legal" murder of well over a million unborn children every year in the United States alone.
References to the people's "unfaithfulness" clearly illustrate a fundamental truth obscured within traditional Christianity today—that in a covenant relationship with God, human beings have obligations divinely imposed on them. And God holds people to those expectations. Of course, the behavior He expects from people for their part of the covenant relationship is all for their ultimate good.
Hosea then turned his attention to the priests and prophets, the ones responsible for teaching the people moral standards. The Hebrew of verses 4-5 of chapter 4 isn't clear and has been variously translated. The New Living Translation renders it as: "Don't point your finger at someone else and try to pass the blame! Look, you priests, my complaint is with you! As a sentence for your crimes, you will stumble in broad daylight, just as you might at night, and so will your false prophets. And I will destroy your mother, Israel."
Jeroboam I, under whom the northern kingdom had formed after the death of Solomon, had rejected the true Levitical priests, and many of them had left and gone back to Judah where they had a better chance of teaching the truth and practicing God's way of life (2 Chronicles 11:13-16). Jeroboam had appointed his own priests from other tribes instead of doing it God's way (1 Kings 13:33; compare 12:31). Furthermore, there were false prophets in the land. Many of these priests and prophets claimed to represent the true God but, of course, did not. The situation parallels that of religion today, with all manner of people serving as supposed ministers of God throughout the world yet who really don't serve Him—indeed, don't even know Him, rejecting His holy laws.
In Hosea 4:6, we learn that the lack of knowledge noted in verse 1 is the reason God's people are destroyed. And we also learn that their lack of knowledge is due to a willful rejection of God's truth by the religious leaders. How true this is today! Many preachers today teach in direct contradiction to God's Word, even though they ought to know better, supposedly having studied the Bible. They refuse to accept that the Bible means what it says. Perhaps some indeed do know better but have selfish motivations for continuing to misrepresent the Bible's teachings.
In verse 8, the priests are seen glorying in the nation's lawlessness because this allows them to "eat up the sin" of the people. In Hosea's day, this referred to sin offerings. The more people sinned, the more they brought sin offerings that the priests could eat, thereby providing these counterfeit priests with some of their livelihood (compare 6:6; 8:11-13; 1 Samuel 2:12-17). Even today, some try to relieve their guilt for their own sins through monetary offerings to a church—and there are religious leaders who actually encourage this type of thinking, though not directly stated.
Next, God addresses the spiritual harlotry of His people (Hosea 4:10-14). They turn to false religion, following worthless popular custom rather than worshiping God the way He intended (see Jeremiah 2:11; Matthew 15:9). Also, they become enslaved to habits and addictions, including alcohol, drug and sexual addictions (Hosea 4:11).
Judah is then given a warning to not follow Israel's evil example (verse 15). At this point in Hosea's prophecy, it appears that Judah was not mired in one of its idolatrous periods. It seems likely that chapter 4 was written either while Uzziah still reigned over Judah or during his son Jotham's reign. In any event, God tells Judah not to go up to Beth Aven (verse 15), "which means 'House of Iniquity'… a sarcastic reference to the important religious center Bethel, which means 'House of God' (see Amos 5:5)" (The Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 15). Yet Judah had sinned in other respects, and God knew they would soon follow in Israel's footsteps (5:5).
Chapter 4 ends with a reference to Ephraim, which afterward becomes a routine reference to the people of the northern kingdom and their descendants throughout the remainder of the book. Ephraim was God's firstborn (Jeremiah 31:9), spiritually speaking, and instructions or warnings given to the firstborn would also apply to the rest of the family, because the firstborn is considered responsible for guidance and leadership.