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Hosea, prophet of mercy—Chapter 18: Blind Idolatry

Dec 13, 2016

Hosea 4:14 continues,

14 I will not punish [pakad, “visit, pay attention to”] your daughters when they play the harlot or your brides when they commit adultery, for the men themselves go apart with harlots and offer sacrifices with temple prostitutes [qadesh, “Sodomites, (male) temple prostitutes”]; so the people without understanding are ruined [lavat, “to throw headlong to the ground, to fall down”].

In the worship of Baal, women were “purified” by having sexual relations with the priests. But men, too, could come and “worship” Baal, and he had his choice of male or female prostitutes. The prophet tells us that when society becomes so lawless that the men themselves are allowed to have homosexual relations with the Sodomites in the high places of Baal, then God will pay no attention to the women who have become harlots.

When society reaches this level of lawless degradation, the sin of simple harlotry is no longer God’s major concern. Perhaps, too, the prophet was making the point that many husbands were homosexual, so God can hardly blame their wives for seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere.

Whatever the case, “the people without understanding are ruined.” People without the knowledge of God, who have forgotten the law of God, have no understanding (discernment) of right and wrong, sin and righteousness, and so they are thrown headlong to the ground. The apostle tells us in 1 John 3:4, “sin is lawlessness,” that is, sin is a violation of the law of God. Paul affirms this in Romans 3:20, saying, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”

Paul says further in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” Note that Adam’s sin brought us mortality, which is the first type of death, which causes us to sin personally. Personal sin is then judged by the second death, which is the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). The lake of fire is the “fiery law” of Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV. The law does not judge us for being mortal, for such death is already the judgment upon Adam and his entire estate. The law’s judgments that apply to each individual are directed against our personal sins which stem from the condition of death or iniquity.

The Appeal to Judah

Hosea then turns aside in his prophecy from Gomer-Israel to the southern nation of Judah, saying in Hosea 4:15,

15 Though you, Israel, play the harlot, do not let Judah become guilty; also do not go to Gilgal, or go up to Beth-aven, and take the oath: “As the Lord lives!”

The prophet hoped that Judah would not be guilty of the same lawlessness that afflicted Israel. But Judah was also guilty, as we read in Jeremiah 3:8-11,

8 And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also… 11 And the Lord said to me, “Faithless Israel has proved herself more righteous than treacherous Judah.”

Israel was an open harlot, but Judah was a secret harlot that pretended to be God’s happily-married wife. Incredibly, God preferred Israel’s blatant harlotry to Judah’s hypocrisy and treachery.

Hosea appeals to the people, “do not go to Gilgal, or go up to Beth-aven.” In other words, do not go to the pagan temples that had been erected. Jeroboam had built a pagan temple in Gilgal, where people offered sacrifices (Hosea 12:11). Beth-aven, “house of iniquity,” was the prophet’s name for Bethel, “house of God,” where Jeroboam had built a shrine for one of his golden calves.

Gilgal itself had a lengthy history as a religious site. When Israel first entered the land, they took twelve stones from the Jordan River and placed them in a circle at Gilgal as a witness of their miraculous crossing on dry ground (Joshua 4:20). Many years later, Samuel was a circuit-riding judge and prophet who set up courts in Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah, in addition to having a court at his hometown of Ramah (1 Samuel 7:15-17).

Gilgal was also the place where Saul was crowned king (1 Samuel 11:15), showing its importance in the political history of Israel. One might think of Gilgal as the first capital city of Israel. Saul’s coronation came when the people rejected the direct rule of God and wanted to be ruled by men (1 Samuel 8:7). This seems to have been the first time that apostasy began to creep into Gilgal.

Gilgal was also the place where Saul was later rejected by God as the king of Israel. He usurped the priesthood by offering up a sacrifice, and this ensured that he would not have an enduring dynasty of kings (1 Samuel 13:12, 13, 14). Then later, when he spared King Agag and kept some of the flocks as booty from the war on the Amalekites, God fully rejected him as king (1 Samuel 15:9, 11, 12, 22, 23).

Hosea mentions Gilgal three times in his prophecy. In Hosea 9:15 God says of Israel,

15 All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds, I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels.

Divine anger is directed primarily at Gilgal and Bethel, which the prophet identifies with Beth-aven on account of the two towns being in close proximity. In earlier years, Beth-aven was just east of Bethel (Joshua 7:2), but perhaps by the time of Hosea the two towns had merged. Certainly, the prophet considered them to be the same town, and because Jeroboam had placed one of the golden calves in Bethel, the place was better named Beth-aven, “house of iniquity.”

Aven is a Hebrew word that means “emptiness, vanity, iniquity, lies.” So Hosea appeals to both Judah and Israel not to become guilty of harlotry by going to Gilgal and Beth-aven.

Blind Idolators

At Beth-aven the people went to swear allegiance to the golden calf, saying, “as the Lord lives!” Literally, this reads, “as Yahweh lives!”

It is perhaps remarkable that they would swear allegiance to the golden calf in the name of Yahweh. It seems that the people thought that the golden calf represented Yahweh. Recall from Exodus 32:8, when Israel first worshiped the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai, they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” It appears that in their blindness, they believed that the golden calf was just a physical representation of Yahweh. In their eyes, they were not worshiping another god, but were only making Yahweh visible and tangible.

It may be difficult for us to comprehend how the people could engage in idolatry while still believing that they worshiped Yahweh, but we see this later in Jeremiah’s denunciation of Judah’s apostasy. In Jeremiah 2:23 God asks the people of Judah,

23 How can you say, “I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals?” Look at your way in the valley! Know what you have done! You are a swift young camel entangling her ways.

The prophet was incredulous that the people would actually deny that they were going after Baals, i.e., the gods of the Canaanites. Yet it is clear that the people disagreed with the prophet’s spiritual assessment of the religious life. What seems obvious to us today was by no means obvious to them. Again, Jeremiah 2:35 says,

35 Yet you said, “I am innocent; surely His anger is turned away from me.” Behold, I will enter into judgment with you because you say, “I have not sinned.”

Here the prophet again can hardly believe that the people thought they were innocent of all charges. Somehow, in their blindness, they had justified their construction of images in violation of the Second Commandment. No doubt they claimed that they were not worshiping the icons themselves, but the god that those icons represented. They were sophisticated enough to know that the icons and images were just dead images. No one actually worshiped those images. They believed that they had constructed images in order to assist them in focusing upon Yahweh during their time of worship. So they claimed to be innocent of all charges of idolatry.

We may extend the problem of idolatry to include heart idolatry, as described in Ezekiel 14:3. Idolatry can be spiritual as well as physical. An idol is a “graven image,” which is forbidden because no image is an accurate representation of Yahweh. An image is man’s understanding of God and His nature. Some images picture gods as evil or frightening or compassionate. But they are all inadequate.

We must all learn not to depend upon our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5). We must always distinguish between God and our limited understanding of God. There are many who would never build an image of God, but they freely worship their understanding of God. Heart idolatry is a strong desire or opinion or belief that originates in the carnal mind of man’s understanding. When men worship a heart idol, they become judgmental of others who see God in a different way. This leads to unnecessary division and even violent behavior, as men stubbornly seek to impose their own idols upon others.

Israel is Stubborn

Hosea 4:16 says,

16 Since Israel is stubborn like a stubborn heifer, can the Lord now pasture them like a lamb in a large field?

The answer is NO. Their stubbornness prevents them from repenting. So God is prevented by the terms of the Old Covenant from blessing them like lambs in a large, grassy field. Instead, the law demands justice. The terms of the covenant include judgment for violating the law. These judgments are promised in Leviticus 26 and in Deuteronomy 28.

Hosea 4:17-19 concludes,

17 Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone. 18 Their liquor gone, they play the harlot continually; their rulers dearly love shame [qalown, “shame, disgrace, pudenda”]. 19 The wind wraps them in its wings, and they will be ashamed because of their sacrifices.

The prophet essentially gives up on Ephraim. The people are too stubborn and blind to change. They have drunk all their wine, and they are beyond reason and understanding. The wine has loosened their morals to the point where “they play the harlot continually.” When the prophet says “their rulers dearly love shame,” he uses the word qalown, which carries a sexual implication that is seen more clearly in Jeremiah 13:26,

26 So I Myself have also stripped your skirts off over your face, that your shame may be seen.

This idea goes back to the time of Adam and Eve, who, prior to their sin, were naked and not ashamed (Genesis 2:25). However, after they sinned, they felt a sense of shame at their nakedness (Genesis 3:7). Hence, “shame” is associated with exposure and nakedness.

Hosea 4:19 says “the wind wraps them in its wings.” In other words, they are clothed only by the wings of the wind, which do not offer much covering.


This is part 19 of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Hosea." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Hosea


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