Beyond the Lectionary Text: Hosea 4

by Heidi De Jonge

Comments and Observations

When I first learned to preach, I was told that each text has one theme, and one theme only. A few years later, another teacher of preaching told me that each text has many possible legitimate themes. One must choose a theme and run that theme like a magnet over the surface of the text. What sticks – you preach. What doesn’t stick – you don’t preach. I need that reminder when preaching a text like this.

Another preaching tool I use in almost every sermon is the tool that asks two main questions: What is the problem in the text and in the world? What is the grace in the text and in the world? (This, of course, is courtesy of Paul Wilson’s The Four Pages of the Sermon). The problem I chose to uncover in this text is the problem of Israel’s failure to acknowledge God. This failure surfaces in four places (all emphases mine): “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land” (v. 1); “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. ‘Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children” (v. 6); “they have deserted the Lord to give themselves to prostitution, to old wine and new, which take away the understanding of my people” (vv. 10-12); “a people without understanding will come to ruin” (v. 14).

Philosopher, Stanley Cavell, claims that there is a difference between knowing and acknowledging: “A ‘failure to know’ might just mean a piece of ignorance, an absence of something, a blank. A ‘failure to acknowledge’ is the presence of something, a confusion, an indifference, a callousness, an exhaustion, a coldness. Spiritual emptiness is not a blank” (Cavell, ‘Knowing and Acknowledging’ in Must We Mean What We Say?, p. 264). The Israelites knew God but didn’t acknowledge God. They suppressed and ignored what they knew to be true.

I wonder if Paul had Hosea 4 in the back of his mind when he wrote the opening sections of his letter to the Romans: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (Romans 1:18-21).

There are a few manifestations of un-acknowledgement that a preacher could focus on in this text. One could certainly work the prostitution/adultery/unfaithfulness angle (vv. 2, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18) – especially given the context of the rest of the book of Hosea. Along that same line, idolatry emerges as a clear manifestation of un-acknowledgement (vv. 12, 13, 17). I settled in on verse 8, where we read that the priests fed on the sins of God’s people and relished their wickedness.

I found Herman Veldkamp helpful here:
What did Hosea mean when he spoke of the priests as feeding on the sins of the people? It quickly becomes clear when we realize that he is alluding here to the sacrifices brought for sin. The priests had to eat the flesh of the animals offered as sacrifices. Hosea did not accuse the priests of eating the sacrifices which the people brought because of their sins – for there was nothing wrong with that. He accused them instead of feeding on sin. (Hosea: Love’s Complaint, p. 78).

Veldkamp makes a smooth pivot into the problem in our world:
The same kind of spiritual delight in the sins of others is present on many a Sunday evening when Christians get together to drink coffee and talk. As they drink their coffee, they simply ‘eat up’ the sins of their “brothers and sisters.” They do not eat quietly, as mice invariably do, but lick their lips and chew noisily. They gobble up the whole thing, like a man at a fish market who puts a whole herring in his mouth. They delight in the stories about others. They feast on them and devour them. The sins of the people become a banquet for them. (p. 79)

In the spiritual quagmire of Hosea’s day, the priests and the people are mirrors of one another. “And it will be: Like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways and repay them for their deeds” (v. 9).

There are several consequences for failing to acknowledge God. (James Montgomery Boice unpacks these consequences in The Minor Prophets, Volume 1: Hosea-Jonah.) First of all, there is an increase in moral depravity (v. 2). The priests, the prophets, the people are thoroughly saturated in it (v. 4-6). Secondly, there is a falling apart of the environment (v. 3). The land mourns; the creation groans (Romans 8:23). Third, there is a debasement of leadership. “Godlessness is not incompatible with religion. In fact, it goes along with it nicely” (Boice, p. 45). And finally, there is a personal emptiness and a futility to all the daily activities: eating (v. 10), love making (v. 10), sacrificing (v. 19). It’s all pleasure and no produce. Verse 10, especially, reminds me of the book of Ecclesiastes, well-summarized in this verse: “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecc. 2:11).

When I look for the grace in a text of Scripture, I often first come up with a solution. If the problem is failing to acknowledge God, then the solution is acknowledging God. To acknowledge God doesn’t just mean to know him, but to live according to his law and his way. What does the Lord require of you? the prophet Micah asks. To do justice! To love kindness! And to walk humbly our God.

If the problem manifests itself in sin-banquets, then the solution is to stop having sin banquets – and to do the right thing with the sin. Sin isn’t meant to be eaten – it is meant to be grieved. The sins of others are to be lamented to God. The sins of others against us are to be appropriately drawn through the channels of confrontation, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In some cases, these sins must make their way through the avenues of the justice system. Our own sins are to be confessed to God and to those we have sinned against.

Many sermons end with the solution. But how many of us are able to perfectly live the solution? None of us. Therefore, we need not a man-powered solution, but a God-powered grace. We need our God who pastures us like lambs in a meadow (see v. 16). “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3). God knows us – he knows his sheep. And because he knows us completely, he also knows our sin.

What does God do with that knowledge? Does he delight in it? Does he eat it? Certainly not… On the other hand… does he excuse our sin? Ignore our sin? Suppress our sin?

No. God acknowledges our sin on the cross. He becomes it. And through his death, he kills it. And then he rises for our life. And he has given us different food to eat. He takes away the banquet of sin and he gives us the banquet of his body and blood. In John 6, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.”

Liturgical Suggestion

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