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2 Kings 21; Hebrews 3; Hosea 14; Psalm 139

Nov 07, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 21; Hebrews 3; Hosea 14; Psalm 139

THE FINAL CHAPTER OF THE PROPHECY, Hosea 14, has a gentler tone. It is almost as if the thunder of rebellion and judgment has exhausted itself, and grace triumphs. The chapter begins and ends with exhortation from Hosea. In between there are, first, the words of the people (or, more precisely, the words the prophet instructs the people to say), and then the words of God. I shall reflect briefly on each of these four sections.

(1) Hosea begins with repentance: “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God” (Hos. 14:1). “Return” is perfectly answered by “your God”: the prophet is not calling for some new and hazardous spiritual journey, but for a turning away from the rebellion, a turning back to the Lord they have long known. They must come to terms with the heart of the problem: “Your sins have been your downfall!” (Hos. 14:1). There is never any way back without coming to grips with this fundamental reality. Moreover, what the prophet wants is not a mere return to formal adherence to a code of law. He wants them to “take words” with them when they return (Hos. 14:2). Words, of course, can be empty: sometimes actions speak louder than words. But often genuine repentance demands not only begrudging conduct, but words—not a sullen return to prescribed ritual and church attendance, but the kind of repentance that bubbles up in words that disclose what is in the heart.

(2) And what words should they say? Hosea tells them (Hos. 14:2b-3). They must ask for the forgiveness of sins; they must ask that God would receive them; they must renounce their political allegiances, implicitly acknowledging that such ties distracted them from trust in God; they must put aside their idolatry and place their hope in the living God. Precisely how should such petitions find echoes in our own lives?

(3) The Lord’s words (Hos. 14:4-8) are lovely. “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them” (Hos. 14:4). Then in a series of images God describes the blessings he will be to Israel and provide for Israel. The closing lines of the section reinforce the theological point of the entire chapter: “I am like a green pine tree; your fruitfulness comes from me” (Hos. 14:8). God has all the “greenness,” the constancy, of the evergreen, and all the nourishment and prosperity of a fruit-bearing tree (cf. Ps. 1:3).

(4) Hosea concludes the book: “Who is wise? He will realize these things. Who is discerning? He will understand them. The ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious stumble in them” (Hos. 14:9).

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2 Kings 20; Hebrews 2; Hosea 13; Psalms 137-138

Nov 06, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 20; Hebrews 2; Hosea 13; Psalms 137-138

IT IS APPROPRIATE THAT Hosea 13 should be read in conjunction with Psalm 137. Hosea 13 brings the prophet’s promises of judgment to their climax. God is going to destroy proud Samaria (Ephraim). Similar warnings were repeatedly thundered against Judah, but they showed no sign of repentance. In 587 B.C., God destroyed Jerusalem and the last great wave of people were transported into exile. Here in Psalm 137, the captives from that catastrophe voice their utter despair, and almost all of their focus is on the secondary agents—their captors, the Edomites, the people of Babylon. And both perspectives are valid and complementary.

Here I shall reflect on the four sections of Psalm 137.

(1) The first (Ps. 137:1-3) is so vivid it sounds like eyewitness recollection. A relief from the Assyrian palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh pictures three prisoners of war playing their lyres while a soldier marches them along; doubtless this also happened in Babylon. The “rivers of Babylon” was a system of canals connected with the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. The “harps” (lyres) were instruments of joy. In the symbolic language of Revelation 5, when the lion who is also the lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of the Almighty, signaling that he is worthy to open the scroll and bring about all of God’s purposes in blessing and judgment, all the “harps” break out; it is a moment of ineffable joy, the opposite of this paragraph.

(2) But the exiles refuse to sing (Ps. 137:4-6). All of the associations of the songs of the Lord are tied to Jerusalem and the temple. For them, their staunch refusal, even to their tormenting captors, was a sign not only of pathos and heartbreak
(v. 4) but also of passion and fidelity (vv. 5-6).

(3) The Edomites had obviously delighted in the destruction of Jerusalem and perhaps helped it along. On this point the prophet Ezekiel has more to say (Ezek. 35; see meditation for October 2). God hates smugness and a vengeful spirit. The judgment on Jerusalem came, ultimately, from God—but he would also judge those who delighted in and contributed to Jerusalem’s fall. One of the ugliest recent evidences of that smug vengefulness within the ranks of professing evangelicalism was the slogan “no tears for queers” after a young gay man had been beaten to death.

(4) At the end of a siege, victorious soldiers might pick up small children by their ankles and kill them by bashing their heads against a wall. What such barbarism demands, strictly speaking, for justice to prevail, is similar suffering. These white-hot lines are not cool policy statements, but the searing cries of moral indignation. We must hear the anguish, before we also hear God insisting that vengeance is his (Rom. 12:19).

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2 Kings 19; Hebrews 1; Hosea 12; Psalms 135-136

Nov 05, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 19; Hebrews 1; Hosea 12; Psalms 135-136

SOME PSALMS GIVE US A glimpse of ancient Israelite worship, and Psalm 136 is one of them. Probably this was sung antiphonally: either a restricted part of the choir, or one part of the congregation in the temple would sing the lead line of each cycle, and the whole congregation would burst out and respond with “His love endures forever.” Comparing Psalm 136:18-22 with Psalm 135:10b-12 suggests that some other psalms were sung this way too. In Jewish tradition this psalm is known as the Great Hallel, “the Great Psalm of Praise.” The refrain itself celebrates God’s “love”: the Hebrew word is hesed, notoriously difficult to render consistently by one English word. The King James Version opts for “steadfast love.” It is bound up with God’s faithfulness to the covenant, and in various contexts might properly be rendered “grace,” “love,” even “covenant-fidelity”—with overtones of a reciprocal obligation.

What makes this psalm so thought-provoking is not the compactness of the refrain but its connection with a vast grounding of evidence—evidence that God’s love endures forever. The psalm speaks of God’s character (Ps. 136:1), the sweep of his sovereignty (Ps. 136:2-3), his creative power (Ps. 136:4-9), the extraordinary displays of his might when he redeemed his people from Egypt (Ps. 136:10-22), and his mercy displayed alike to his elect and to every creature under heaven that needs food (Ps. 136:23-25). Contrast this specificity with more than a few contemporary praise choruses that endlessly exhort us to praise the Lord, without telling us why we should praise the Lord, or perhaps giving us only a reason or two. In the choruses, the emphasis tends to be on worship; here, the emphasis is on the One who is worshiped, such that the worship has the flavor of being no more than the inevitable response to so great a God. The one focuses on what we do, the other on who God is and what he has done.

Some final reflections: (1) The expression “Give thanks” that opens the first three verses and the last suggests more than a casual “Thanks a lot.” It has to do with “confessing” (in the old-fashioned sense), “acknowledging” (with thoughtful God-centeredness), with grateful worship. (2) This God brooks no rivals. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords (Ps. 136:2, 3). (3) Informed as they are by pluralism, our ears find it strange to append the refrain “His love endures forever” to such lines as “who struck down great kings” and “[h]e swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea.” But these actions were expressions of God’s elective love for his chosen people. The notion that God loves all people exactly the same way and in every respect finds little support in Scripture.

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2 Kings 18; Philemon; Hosea 11; Psalms 132-134

Nov 04, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 18; Philemon; Hosea 11; Psalms 132-134

IN HOSEA 9, GOD SAYS OF HIS covenant people, “Because of all their wickedness … I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious” (Hos. 9:15). Yet here in Hosea 11 God declares, “My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused” (Hos. 11:8). How shall we put these two passages together?

First, this emotional turmoil is the language of the jilted husband: in this book, Almighty God plays the role of the cuckolded husband. Make all the allowance you like for anthropomorphism, this is as truly the way God presents himself in Scripture as the passages where his utter sovereignty is affirmed. It is the juxtaposition of such themes that has driven orthodox confessionalism to insist that God is simultaneously, on the one hand, sovereign and transcendent, and, on the other, personal and interactive with his image-bearers.

Second, the juxtaposition of God’s wrath and God’s love makes it unnecessary to pull verses out of two chapters (9 and 11). Within chapter 11 the tension is already almost unbearable. The chapter opens with a brief historical review. God saved Israel out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus (Hos. 11:1) and taught her to walk, leading her “with cords of human kindness, with ties of love” (Hos. 11:4). But the more he lavished on Israel the more they turned away (Hos. 11:2), and they utterly refused to repent (Hos. 11:5). So God will come at them with great wrath: “Swords will flash in their cities…. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them” (Hos. 11:6-7). It sounds as if it is too late. And then suddenly, almost as if God is talking with himself, he asks how he can possibly give them up (Hos. 11:8).

What is the answer? The answer lies in the very character of God. He is not exactly like a cuckolded husband. “For I am God, and not man—the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath” (Hos. 11:9). Or, more precisely, as the next two verses demonstrate, he will not finally come to them in wrath. They will go into captivity, but he will roar again with the lion’s royal sway and call his children from the west, from Egypt, from Assyria, and they will be settled again. Indeed, within the larger canonical framework, the fact that God is God and not a mere mortal, the fact that both his wrath and his love must be satisfied, means that wrath and love will rush forward together—until they meet in the cross, the cross of the man who was also called out of Egypt by God to be the perfect son, the perfect antitype of Israel (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15).

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2 Kings 17; Titus 3; Hosea 10; Psalms 129-131

Nov 03, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 17; Titus 3; Hosea 10; Psalms 129-131

MANY HAVE OBSERVED THAT PSALM 131 anticipates the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:1-4, where he asks, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”—and calls a little child to stand among his disciples. In certain respects, the follower of Jesus must be childlike, and this psalm makes its own contribution to that theme. Yet childlikeness is not childishness; simplicity is not simplemindedness; humility is not servility. The psalm will speak with greater power if we reflect on some of its features:

(1) According to the superscription, this is a psalm of David. One may well ask during what period of his career he wrote it. More than one writer has suggested it springs from an early period, before the successes of his middle and later years bred a certain arrogance that would have made it impossible for him to write, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me” (Ps. 131:1). That is possible, of course. Nevertheless a very young man who has not yet had the opportunity to concern himself with great matters would not be very likely to write these words—or if he did, they would sound vaguely pretentious, a bit like a pompous excuse for not tackling the tough issues. One cannot finally prove the point, but I suspect this psalm is easier to understand if it springs from the end of David’s life, after he has been humbled by such matters as Bathsheba and Uriah, and by the revolt led by his son Absalom. Humbled, less quick to imagine he alone understands, slower to take umbrage, and more impressed by the wise providence of God, David (one imagines) now quietly writes, “My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me” (Ps. 131:1).

(2) Some commentators (and even translations) picture the child of verse 2 as nursing at the breast. But that is not what the text says. David pictures himself “like a weaned child with its mother.” This child, like David, no longer cries for what it formerly found indispensable. This too suggests that David is mature enough now to be giving something up—namely, in the light of verse 1, the confident questing to understand everything, borne of more than a little arrogance. The immaturity he abandons is like a little child squealing to get hold of its mother’s breast. But David has eclipsed that point. He is weaned, and he is content. Cf. Philippians 4:11ff.

(3) The maturity David has reached is grounded not in escapist retreat from life’s complexities, but in trust in the Lord (Ps. 131:3), whose perfect knowledge is a bulwark for our hope.

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2 Kings 16; Titus 2; Hosea 9; Psalms 126-128

Nov 02, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 16; Titus 2; Hosea 9; Psalms 126-128

“THE DAYS OF PUNISHMENT ARE COMING, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this” (Hos. 9:7). This chapter (Hosea 9) spells out some of the connections between sin and judgment.

(1) The language of prostitution continues: “For you have been unfaithful to your God; you love the wages of a prostitute at every threshing floor” (Hos. 9:1). Both politically and religiously, Israel flirted continuously with alien gods and foreign powers. All the ceremony of religion she dearly loved. But the days are coming when she will be scattered, forced to abandon “the LORD ‘s land” (Hos. 9:3, 17). Israel will return to “Egypt” (Hos. 9:3); some Israelites did end up there, but Egypt is also a cipher for any alien, oppressive country. Ephraim (= Israel) will “eat unclean food in Assyria” (Hos. 9:3). Not just the ceremonial uncleanness of the food is in view, but the prospect of forced exile. All the offerings for her much loved festivals and ceremonies will dry up (Hos. 9:5); the punishments are tied to the sins.

(2) Systematic denigration of the prophets means that the people cannot hear God’s warnings—and so their cynicism ensures that they stumble into the judgments against which the prophets warn. “Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac. The prophet, along with my God, is the watchman over Ephraim, yet snares await him on all his paths, and hostility in the house of his God” (Hos. 9:7-8). How well does this apply today?

(3) The history of Israel swings from really wonderful connections with the living God—from God’s perspective it was “like finding grapes in the desert” (Hos. 9:10)—to abominable degradation. The incident of Baal Peor (Hos. 9:10; cf. Num. 25) is telling, for it combines both physical and spiritual unchastity: the Moabite women seduced the men of Israel, and the local Moabite Baal attracted their worship. Our culture follows sex as avidly and sometimes connects it with the self-fulfillment of new age spirituality. The result with us will be what it was at Baal Peor: the people “became as vile as the thing they loved” (Hos. 9:10). What you worship you soon resemble (Ps. 115:8); more, you identify with it, defend it, make common cause with it—and if it is an abomination to God, soon you are an abomination to him. So the “glory” departs (Hos. 9:11), whether in the sense of reputation, or self-respect, or moral leadership, or, finally, the very presence of God (Ezek. 8:6; 11:23).

To defend a king or a president because of his economic policies when the moral core has evaporated means we have become as vile as the things we love.

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2 Kings 15; Titus 1; Hosea 8; Psalms 123-125

Nov 01, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 15; Titus 1; Hosea 8; Psalms 123-125

PERHAPS THE SINGLE ELEMENT that holds together the various sins condemned in Hosea 8 is human self-reliance. The “eagle” in Hosea 8:1 is probably a vulture. A “[vulture] … over the house of the LORD” is a way of saying that Jerusalem is as good as dead: the carrion eaters are already gathering for their feast. The people might be living in relative prosperity and peace, but the ominous signs were there for those with eyes to see. Evidences of sinful self-sufficiency include:

(1) A hypocritical allegiance to the covenant (Hos. 8:1-3). What makes it hypocritical is that Israel cries out, “O our God, we acknowledge you!” (Hos. 8:2) while breaking the covenant and rebelling against God’s law (Hos. 8:1). This is the rejection of what is good—and there are consequences (Hos. 8:3). Cf. 1 John 2:4.

(2) Defiant alternatives to the Davidic dynasty (Hos. 8:4). That is what is meant by the charge, “They set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval.” The Lord set his seal on the Davidic dynasty, but to preserve their independence from Jerusalem the northern ten tribes, now constituted as Israel, opted for their own monarchs. They were not “chosen” in any democratic sense; frequently they succeeded one another in bloody coups. But they were the choice of the northern tribes nonetheless, insofar as they preferred these to allegiance to David’s line. It is always the case that unless the Lord builds the house, those who labor do so in vain (Ps. 127:1); here the sin is compounded by the alienation from the messianic line.

(3) The development of idols, of the culture’s choice of religion (Hos. 8:4-6, 11-13). Initially two golden calves were set up, one in Dan and one in Bethel, to offset the draw of Jerusalem’s temple (1 Kings 12:27-30). Moreover, people in Israel would not have to travel so far. Thus, although they formally preserve the altars for sin offerings, these have become “altars for sinning” (Hos. 8:11).

(4) The constant dependence on expensive and tricky allies (Hos. 8:8-10). Instead of trusting the Lord, they think their clever diplomacy with regional superpowers will save the day. God is demeaned, and Israel (“Ephraim”) is further seduced by idolatry.

(5) Reliance on wealth and military strength (Hos. 8:14). Israel (the north) has its palaces; Judah (the south) fortifies many towns—forty-six of them, in fact. But God will destroy them (8:14b). When Assyria vanquished Israel (722 B.C.), it also took all the walled cities of Judah except Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:13), which was spared until the rise of Nebuchadnezzar more than a century later.

What signs of self-reliance characterize our culture? What will God do about them?

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2 Kings 14; 2 Timothy 4; Hosea 7; Psalms 120-122

Oct 31, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 14; 2 Timothy 4; Hosea 7; Psalms 120-122

AMONG THE SONGS OF ASCENT (see vol. 1, meditation for June 29) is the delightful Psalm 122. Here the psalmist joyfully accompanies those heading to Jerusalem for one of the high feasts: “Let us go to the house of the LORD” (Ps. 122:1). Already in verse 2 the pilgrims have arrived: “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.”

Two themes dominate the remaining verses of the psalm.

First, verses 3-5 emphasize the unity of God’s people, brought about by their common worship in Jerusalem of the true God and by their common submission to the rule and justice of the house of David. There was of course diversity—not only the diversity common to all collections of human beings, but the diversity implicit in the twelve “tribes” (Ps. 122:4), each with its own marked character. The unity was more profound than blood ties. It was based on a common covenant with the one God. These were “the tribes of the LORD” (Ps. 122:4). Small wonder, then, that when the northern ten tribes revolted, the leader, Jeroboam, greatly feared that Jerusalem and its temple would become the rallying point for renewed unification (1 Kings 12:26ff.).

Yet unity was merely the byproduct of the festive ascents to Jerusalem. The purpose of the ascents was “to praise the name of the LORD according to the statute given to Israel” (Ps. 122:4). When God becomes the means to the end, unity is never achieved; when God himself is the end, the glorious byproducts of unity and peace are never far behind. The sheer God-centeredness of biblical religion is one of the things that regularly distinguishes it from paganism, which commonly sees religion as a means to certain ends (cf. Hosea 2:5).

Second, in another distinction between means and ends, David exhorts people to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, not for the sake of an abstract ideal or for the sake of the city per se, but for the sake of people (Ps. 122:8) and above all for the sake of “the house of the LORD our God” (Ps. 122:9). To pursue political peace and forget people is a sham. Indeed, the exhortation to pray for the “peace” of “Jerusalem” (Ps. 122:6) includes a pun: we are to pray for the shalom of Jerusalem; the Hebrew consonants are the same, and remind us that Jerusalem rightly conceived holds out the fullness of “well-being” to people. To pursue merely physical benefits for people and forget the presence and purposes of the Lord God is at best short-term thinking and at worst a route to disaster and to hell itself. “For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,” David writes, “I will seek your prosperity” (Ps. 122:9).
Reflect on how to transpose these two points to the Christian antitype (Heb. 12:22-24), not least in detailed application (Heb. 12:28-13:13).

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2 Kings 13; 2 Timothy 3; Hosea 5-6; Psalm 119:145-176

Oct 30, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 13; 2 Timothy 3; Hosea 5-6; Psalm 119:145-176

SOMEONE HAS SAID THAT THE entire book of Hosea can be understood as a study of what it means to turn back to God. Here there are no glib nostrums; merely verbal apologies are not acceptable. And yet hope is held out for people who display the kind of return that the Lord does accept. Nowhere is that tension clearer than in Hosea 5-6.

Hosea 5 opens with an indictment of Israel, especially the leaders. Nothing about them is unknown to God (Hos. 5:3; cf. 7:2; Heb. 4:13). Their problem is not merely an intellectual one, but is profoundly moral: “Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. A spirit of prostitution is in their heart; they do not acknowledge the LORD” (Hos. 5:4; cf. John 3:19). Worse, when they do formally “seek” the Lord, their pursuit is so false that he withdraws from them, for God is not the prisoner of his own sacrificial system (Hos. 5:5-6). In bringing judgment upon them, God’s purpose is not only retribution but inducement to repentance: “Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me” (Hos. 5:15).

The opening verses of chapter 6 (vv. 1-3) can be understood in two ways. (1) They may be a moving plea from Hosea to his own people to repent and turn to the Lord. He wants them to move away from religion as sacrificial observance to religion as genuine acknowledgment of the Lord. The same God who has chastened the people will then gladly bind up their wounds. “As surely as the sun rises, he will appear” (Hos. 6:3). (2) They may be the words of the people themselves—and in that case the context in which they are embedded suggests that, although they sound very good, in reality they mean little (cf. Ps. 78:34, 36-37). Such repentance is mere presumption, and God sees through it and dismisses it, for their “love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears” (Hos. 6:4)—like Gomer’s love. Either of these two ways of taking 6:1-3 makes sense; in both instances the fickleness in God’s covenant people is deeply repugnant. If I have to choose between the two, I tilt toward the first. Hosea 6:1-3 sounds rather more like genuine repentance that is urged but not followed, than like the empty words of insincere hypocrites.

Whatever the interpretation, clearly God is not impressed with mere words and religious observance: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; cf. Matt. 9:13; 12:7). A generation that lustily sings God’s praises while lustily sleeping around had better expect the blistering judgment of God.

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2 Kings 12; 2 Timothy 2; Hosea 3-4; Psalm 119:121-144

Oct 29, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Kings 12; 2 Timothy 2; Hosea 3-4; Psalm 119:121-144

HOSEA 1 IS TO HOSEA 2 WHAT Hosea 3 is to Hosea 4. The first member of each pair of chapters is written in prose and focuses on Hosea and Gomer; the second is written in poetry and focuses on the parallel relationship between Yahweh and Israel.

In the pair of chapters before us (Hosea 3-4), Hosea begins with a restrained, first-person account of what happened next in his marriage. This chapter brings the account of his marriage to an end. Hosea is charged with loving his wife, who has apparently returned to her harlotry and now “belongs” to some other man (presumably a pimp). Hosea discloses none of his feelings as he buys Gomer back; actions are more important anyway (something our generation has all but forgotten). Yet at the same time he charges Gomer, now returned to him, to be faithful to him.

This exactly mirrors God’s situation. In theory he could righteously dismiss his “bride” and forget about her. Instead, he is committed to getting her back, to paying whatever is necessary to do so—but he also expects his bride, newly returned, to be faithful to him. God still loves his elect. He will pursue them, even after the most horrible rebellion and chastening, and he will buy them back. Indeed, the last verses of chapter 3 envisage an exile which on the long haul will do good: it will establish a time when the remnant will truly “seek the LORD their God and David their king” (Hos. 3:5).

In Hosea 4 God addresses apostate Israel. “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land” (Hos. 4:1). The long list of sins is profoundly depressing. The people “are destroyed from lack of knowledge” of God’s Word (Hos. 4:6). Otherwise put, “A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God” (Hos. 4:12). The corruption is now endemic. Sarcasm boils to the surface: why should God punish daughters and daughters-in-law for prostitution, when the men love to consort with harlots (Hos. 4:14)?

God is deepening his people’s sense of shame and guilt. The scorn is palpable: “Do not go to Gilgal; do not go up to Beth Aven” (Hos. 4:15). Gilgal and Bethel were two of the most important shrines for the covenant people of God. The second, Bethel, means “house of God,” but the prophet recasts it as “Beth Aven,” i.e., “house of wickedness,” for that is all that goes on there. “Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone!” (Hos. 4:17). Go to church with this lot, and all you are doing is participating in disgusting idolatry and self-seeking, with no attention devoted to learning God’s Word. Better to stay home; this sort of “church” will merely corrupt you.

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