Hosea 4
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 4. Israel’s gross moral corruption, abetted and increased by his religious guides

Hear the word of the LORD, ye children of Israel: for the LORD hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.
1. ye children of Israel] The northern kingdom only is addressed (see Hosea 4:15, where the prophet turns aside to Judah).

the Lord hath a controversy] Jehovah is both plaintiff and judge; comp. Hosea 12:2; Isaiah 1.

no truth, nor mercy] Or, ‘no truthfulness and no kindness.’ The Hebrew khesedh includes in its wide range of meaning[55] (1) the love of God to man, as Psalm 5:7, (2) the love of man to God, as Hosea 6:4, and (3) brotherly love, or the love of a man to his neighbour, as often. Here the context favours the last of these applications. St Jerome well describes the connexion between the two qualities,—‘nec veritas absque misericordiâ sustineri potest, et misericordia absque veritate facit negligentes, unde alterum miscendum est alteri’. In short, truth without love leads to hardness, love without truth to weakness.

[55] On the Hebrew words for love, comp. Carl Abel, Ueber den Begriff der Liebe in einigen alten und neuen Sprachen, Berlin, 1872, pp. 63.

nor knowledge of God] This might well have been mentioned first. Moral practice is low, because the heart has no experience of God’s personal dealings with it (see on Hosea 2:20).

1–3. The people are summoned to hear whereof Jehovah accuses them, viz. the universal prevalence of the most crying sins. The prophet assures them that this is the true cause of the physical calamity which is becoming more and more general in its range.

By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood.
2. By swearing …] Rather, (There is nothing but) swearing and lying, &c. The ‘swearing’ meant is of course false swearing (Hosea 10:4).

break out] Viz. into acts of violence; or, ‘break into (houses)’, as Job 24:16.

blood toucheth blood] The Hebrew has ‘bloods’, i.e. bloodshed. The sense is, one deed of blood follows close upon another.

Therefore shall the land mourn, and every one that dwelleth therein shall languish, with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven; yea, the fishes of the sea also shall be taken away.
3. shall the land mourn] Or, ‘doth … continually mourn’, for the prophet speaks amidst the anarchical and revolutionary scenes which followed upon the death of Jeroboam II. A severe drought is represented as the punishment of Israel’s misdoings. Nature, throughout the prophetic literature, sympathizes with man’s sins and sorrows. Comp. Isaiah 24:3-6, Amos 8:8; Jeremiah 12:4; Joel 1:18 (where render at end ‘suffer punishment’).

with the beasts …] Better, both, &c. (lit. ‘in’, i.e. whether consisting of … or of …).

Yet let no man strive, nor reprove another: for thy people are as they that strive with the priest.
4. Yet let no man strive … as they that strive with the priest] The view of the meaning of this verse suggested by A.V. may be expressed in the words of Henderson. ‘All reproof on the part of their friends or neighbours generally would prove fruitless, seeing they had reached a degree of hardihood, which was only equalled by the contumacy of those who refused to obey the priest, when he gave judgment in the name of the Lord, Deuteronomy 17:12.’ This assumes that the counsel not to strive comes from Jehovah. We might however follow Ewald, who understands the opening words of Hosea 4:4 to mean that the people ‘will not permit any one, even a prophet, to contend with them, although they themselves do not scruple in the least to quarrel with every one, even with the priest who would admonish them, in spite of the traditional reverence for his office, Deuteronomy 17:8-18; Eccl. 4:17, 18.’ The comparison at the end of the verse, when explained thus, is no doubt obscurely expressed, but not more so than that in Hosea 5:10, ‘the princes of Judah are become like those that remove the bound.’ Still there are objections, viz. (1) that in Hosea 4:6 the second person undoubtedly refers to the priesthood, and why should it be taken differently in Hosea 4:5? and (2) that in Hosea 4:6 the priests are so vehemently denounced, that we can hardly suppose that contending with them would be referred to as a sin in Hosea 4:5. Various conjectures have been proposed for emending the passage. The most plausible is that of Prof. Robertson Smith (The Prophets of Israel, p. 406), who for kim’ribhç ‘as they that strive with’, reads mârû bhî ‘have rebelled against me.’ At any rate, we must agree with him and with Mr Heilprin, that the concluding word is a vocative—‘O priest.’ The view of the meaning of Hosea 4:4-6 given in the note before this is based upon this conjecture. ‘Priest’ here = priestly caste, as ‘a prophet’ in Deuteronomy 18:18 = an order of prophets.

4–6. It is not you, the laity, bad as you are, who are most to blame; do not waste your time in mutual recrimination. The real blame lies with the priests. Jehovah has a solemn word for thee, O priest; thy whole clan are virtually in rebellion against me. For thy penalty, thou shalt suffer one blow after another, (a ‘fall’ means a calamity), as it were by day and by night; and thine accomplice, the prophet, shall partake in thy punishment. Yea, thy whole stock, priests as well as people, Jehovah will destroy. And why? Because thou, O priest, whose duty it was to teach the life-giving knowledge of God, hast absolutely rejected it thyself. Henceforth thou art no priest of mine.

Therefore shalt thou fall in the day, and the prophet also shall fall with thee in the night, and I will destroy thy mother.
5. the prophet also] Hosea of course refers to the lower class of prophets, to whom prophecy was simply a means of livelihood (comp. Micah 3:11 and Amaziah’s words in Amos 7:12), and who, like the priests, often came visibly drunk to their most solemn functions (Isaiah 28:7). The spiritually-minded prophets of this period do not inveigh against their rivals as false prophets (this term came from the Sept. version of Jeremiah), but as those who prostitute a sacred calling to selfish purposes. Very similar charges are brought against the priests, who are not on that account called false priests, though from the highest point of view they were such.

thy mother] i.e. the stock from which thou springest, i.e. either the entire Israelitish race (comp. Hosea 2:2), or some partly independent portion of that race, not indeed here a city (as 2 Samuel 20:19; comp. Psalm 149:2), but the caste or clan of the priests (so Prof. Robertson Smith). The expression ‘I will also forget thy children’ (see below) favours the latter view.

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.
6. My people are destroyed] The prophet cannot escape, because the people is on the brink of ruin through the prophet’s fault. It is the perfect of prophetic certitude, ‘my people is already as good as destroyed.’

for lack of knowledge] More precisely, by reason of (their) lack of knowledge. The ‘knowledge of God’ is meant (see on Hosea 4:1).

thou hast rejected knowledge] Thou is emphatically expressed in the Hebrew. ‘Knowledge’, viz. of God’s revealed will, was theoretically a deposit in the priestly order (Deuteronomy 33:10; Ezekiel 44:23; Malachi 2:7). There is no reason to think that the ‘priest-people’ of Israel is addressed; there was no priest-people till after the return from exile.

forgotten … forget] To ‘forget’ what has been committed to one’s charge is the same as to ignore it. The penalty of the priests is not really distinct from that of the people (see Hosea 4:9); the priestly office could in no full sense be maintained in captivity.

the law of thy God] ‘Thy God’, because the priest was specially ‘brought near’ to Jehovah. ‘The law’, Heb. tôrâh, will cover oral as well as written instructions (comp. Deuteronomy 17:11), but a later passage (Hosea 8:12) shows that a written legislation existed in Hosea’s time. The contents of this may be presumed from Hosea’s language to have been, at any rate to a large extent, concerned with applications of religious morality.

thy children] i.e. the members of the priestly caste; ‘thy brethren’ would be more consistent with the figure (comp. ‘thy mother’, Hosea 4:5).

As they were increased, so they sinned against me: therefore will I change their glory into shame.
7. As they were increased …] Rather, The more they increased, the more, &c. No doubt the priestly caste shared in the general prosperity under Jeroboam II., but the official conscience, torpid to begin with, was only the more deadened. A flagrant example of the sinning of the priests is given in the next verse.

will I change their glory into shame] An ancient various reading (one of the so-called Tikkunç Soferim, on which see the Introductions to the Old Testament) is, ‘they have exchanged my glory for shame’, i.e. the glory of Jehovah for the shameful worship of Baal. ‘To exchange (gods)’ or ‘to take another in exchange’ is a recognized phrase for a lapse into idolatry, and we know that the Jewish scribes sometimes ventured to modify expressions in the Scriptures which they thought too bold or liable to misunderstanding (see Geiger’s Urschrift). If we do not go so far as to accept the whole of this various reading, it would seem that we must at least accept the correction of the 1st pers. sing. into the 3rd plur. in the verb, rendering they have exchanged their glory for infamy; comp. Jeremiah 2:11 ‘my people have exchanged their glory for that which doth not profit’ (i.e. idols), Psalm 106:20 ‘they exchanged their glory (Psa 5:50 his glory) for the form of an ox.’ Still the received reading, already adopted in the versions, gives a good sense, and considered by itself is not less justifiable than the proposed correction. According to it, ‘their glory’ means, not Jehovah, but the splendour of their position as priests. These verses are important as showing how influential that position was; we could not have inferred this from the scanty references in the historical books.

7–10. Here the priests are referred to in the third person; they have been degraded from a great position; how sore must be the punishment!

They eat up the sin of my people, and they set their heart on their iniquity.
8. They eat up the sin of my people] The subject of the verb is evidently the priests (see Hosea 4:9), and the phrase can therefore only mean, they eat the sin-offering of my people (i.e. the portion assigned to the priests, comp. Leviticus 10:17). Here we come into collision with a theory of the radical school of criticism that the Levitical legislation (including the appointment of ‘sin-offerings’ and ‘guilt-offerings’) originated after the Babylonian captivity. There are however two earlier references to the sin-offering, viz. here and in Psalm 40:6, and one to the guilt-offering in Proverbs 14:9, not to insist on the disputable allusions in Isaiah 1:11; Micah 6:7; 2 Kings 12:16 (17). And if the dates of one or another of these passages be challenged, yet the supposed novelties are not referred to at all frequently in undoubtedly post-Captivity writings. Sin-offerings are mentioned twice (Nehemiah 10:34; 2Ma 12:43); guilt-offerings only once (if we accept a very probable emendation of Ezra 10:19, pointing ashâmîm). Next, granting a reference to the sin-offering, does the prophet mean to condemn the priests for eating of it? Certainly not; whatever were the traditional rules respecting the sin-offering, the priests would naturally have a just claim to their portion of the victim. The next clause explains the charge brought against them—it is that (like the sons of Eli, 1 Samuel 2:13-17) they greedily devoured what the people brought to atone for their sins; so that in eating the ‘sin-offering’, they also fed upon the ‘sin’ (the same word, khattath, covers both) of Jehovah’s people. Instead of trying to stem the tide of iniquity, they long for its onward march, with a view to unholy gains.

set their heart] Literally, ‘lift up their soul’ (or, ‘each one his soul’), i.e. ‘direct their desires’, as Psalm 24:4; Psalm 25:1.

And there shall be, like people, like priest: and I will punish them for their ways, and reward them their doings.
9. like people, like priest] i.e. the priest shall fare no better than the people. His official ‘nearness’ to Jehovah shall be no safeguard to him.

I will punish them …] Rather, punish him, viz. the priest representing the order.

For they shall eat, and not have enough: they shall commit whoredom, and shall not increase: because they have left off to take heed to the LORD.
10. they shall eat …] Greed is punished retributively by insufficiency of food (Micah 6:14; Leviticus 26:26); whoredom by childlessness.

Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the heart.
11. Whoredom, &c.] ‘The heart’, not ‘their heart’ (as the Targum and Peshito). It is a moral adage, showing that Hosea was not more inclined than Isaiah to abandon simple moral teaching to the class of ‘wise men’, who ‘sat in the gate’ and conveyed practical lessons in the form of proverbs. It is literal whoredom that is meant, as, even apart from Hosea 4:13-14, the juxtaposition with ‘wine and new wine’ shows. The impure rites of nature-worship had destroyed the reverence for the marriage-bond. Heart here means ‘the spiritual understanding’, ‘a heart to know Me’ (Jeremiah 24:7); ‘sons of Belial’ cannot ‘know Jehovah’ (2 Samuel 2:12). For the drunkenness of Samaria comp. Isaiah 28:1.

11–14. Thus the priests have led the way, and the people follow. They have lost the spiritual faculty; a wild impulse to the most sensual idolatry has carried them away.

My people ask counsel at their stocks, and their staff declareth unto them: for the spirit of whoredoms hath caused them to err, and they have gone a whoring from under their God.
12. My people ask counsel at their stocks] Lit., ‘My people—he asketh counsel at his wood.’ Jehovah alone can give oracular ‘counsel’; not the teraphim, nor yet the bull-images of Jehovah. The latter did, indeed, seem to the Israelites to bring Jehovah near to their consciousness, but it was not the true Jehovah, who could not be represented by images (Hosea 8:6) and hated the rites of the Israelitish worship (Hosea 9:15); Hosea therefore calls them ‘wood’; comp. Habakkuk 2:19; Jeremiah 2:27; Jeremiah 10:8. There is a touch of melancholy in ‘my people’; comp. Isaiah 3:12.

their staff declareth unto them] ‘Declareth’, with reference to secret things, as Isaiah 43:9; Isaiah 44:7. The ‘staff’ is probably the diviner’s wand; so in Ezekiel 21:21 the king of Babylon combines consultation of the teraphim with divination by arrows, which is merely another form of rhabdomanteia (Sept. substitutes ‘wands’, ῥάβδον, for ‘arrows’). Wands were one of the recognized instruments of soothsaying, in both East and West; see Pococke, Specimen Historiae Arabum, p. 327; Azraki, The Chronicles of the city of Mecca, Arabic and German by Wüstenfeld, 1. 73; Herodotus iv. 67; Tacitus, Germ. 10. Pococke however thinks ‘staff’ is synonymous with ‘stocks’, and that a staff is meant which had an idol carved at the top.

the spirit of whoredoms] i.e. an impulse prompting them to whoredom (in the literal sense, to avoid tautology); comp. ‘spirit of perverseness’ (Isaiah 19:14), ‘spirit of uncleanness’ (Zechariah 13:2), ‘spirit of jealousy’ (Numbers 5:14).

They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and elms, because the shadow thereof is good: therefore your daughters shall commit whoredom, and your spouses shall commit adultery.
13. upon the tops of the mountains] ‘Every high hill and every green tree’ are repeatedly mentioned together as the scenes of the popular nature-worship (e.g. 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:6); and, to avoid misunderstanding, it would have been better to supply an ‘and’ before ‘under oaks’, &c. The sacred hill-tops were specially selected for being treeless—‘bare places’ they are called in Jeremiah 3:2. ‘Elms’ should rather be terebinths (Tristram, Natural Hist. of Bible, p. 350).

13. therefore your daughters shall commit whoredom] (Rather, do commit.) Harlotry and idolatry being so inextricably connected, it was only natural that the women should be given up to licentiousness; the more religious they were, the stronger would the evil habit be. For ‘spouses’, read daughters-in-law. The allusion is to the lascivious worship of Ashérah and Ashtóreth (the goddesses were distinct); see next verse. Ashérah or ‘the propitious’ was at first probably a title of the feminine variety of the Assyrian deity Ishtar. See Introduction.

I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom, nor your spouses when they commit adultery: for themselves are separated with whores, and they sacrifice with harlots: therefore the people that doth not understand shall fall.
14. The precedence in guilt belongs to the elders who set so wicked an example.

themselves are separated with] Rather, they themselves go aside with. A change of person, instead of ‘ye yourselves.’

harlots] Rather, consecrated harlots, i.e. women who dedicate themselves, or are dedicated by others, to the service of Ashérah or of Ashtoreth, and give up their chastity in honour of the goddess. Mesha, king of Moab, says that, when he took Nebo from the Israelites, he slew the men, but spared the women in order to devote them to Ashtar-Chemosh (Moabite inscription, lines 16, 17).

sacrifice] Probably the reference is partly to the feast which followed the sacrifice (Exodus 32:6).

shall fall] Rather, shall be dashed to the ground.

Though thou, Israel, play the harlot, yet let not Judah offend; and come not ye unto Gilgal, neither go ye up to Bethaven, nor swear, The LORD liveth.
15. offend] Rather, become guilty, viz. by participation in Israel’s idolatry.

come not ye unto Gilgal] Gilgal was one of the chief seats of the idolatrous worship of the north, see Hosea 9:15, Hosea 12:11; Amos 4:4; Amos 5:5. But which of the Gilgals (see Smith’s Bibl. Dict.) is meant? The Jewish commentators are agreed that it was the famous Gilgal ‘in the east border of Jericho’ where Joshua pitched his camp for the first time after crossing the Jordan (Joshua 4:19), and later on ‘the true centre of the whole people’ (Ewald, History of Israel, iii. 29). Probably they are right. No doubt, we should have expected this Gilgal to have belonged to Judah, but the natural boundary of the two kingdoms was not the historical one; ‘those places which their past history had rendered most sacred or memorable—Bethel, Gilgal, Jericho—were incorporated in the northern kingdom’ (Ewald, Hist. iv. 3).

neither go ye up to Beth-aven] A Beth-aven near Bethel is mentioned Joshua 7:2; 1 Samuel 13:5, but this Beth-aven, ‘house of vanity’, or ‘of wickedness’, is a keenly sarcastic substitute for the desecrated name Bethel, ‘house of God’ (see Hosea 10:5; Hosea 10:8, and comp. Amos 4:4; Amos 5:5; 1 Kings 12:29-33). ‘Go ye up’, because Bethel was situated on the slopes of a hill, comp. 1 Samuel 10:3, ‘going up to the Elohim (i.e. the sacred place) to Bethel.’

nor swear, The Lord liveth] Hosea may mean to say that the oath ‘As Jehovah liveth’ has been so profaned by the Israelites of the north that he wishes to see it abolished. It is more likely however (considering Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 4:2) that he deprecates oaths by the Jehovahs of Gilgal and Bethel—oaths which in the mind of the swearer are connected with idolatrous symbols of Jehovah, precisely as Amos denounces those who say, ‘As thy God, O Dan, liveth’, and ‘As thy God, O Beer-sheba, liveth’ (Amos 8:14, corrected partly from the Sept.).

15–19. Judah is cautioned not to fall into the same ruin as Israel, of which a deterrent picture is given.

For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the LORD will feed them as a lamb in a large place.
16. slideth back as a backsliding heifer] Rather, is stubborn like a stubborn heifer. A favourite figure of the prophets, Hosea 11:4; Jeremiah 31:18; comp. Deuteronomy 32:15.

now the Lord will feed them as a lamb in a large place] Israel in the weakness of captivity is compared to a lamb in a large pasture-ground, which is an object of attack to all the wild beasts prowling about—so most commentators explain. But ‘a large place’ is everywhere else an image for prosperity (see Psalm 18:19; Psalm 31:8; Psalm 118:5), and Isaiah in describing a happy future says, ‘in that day shall thy cattle feed in large pastures (Isaiah 30:23).’ It is much safer, therefore, following Ewald and Hitzig, to take the passage as an incredulous exclamation or question, this being so, should the Lord feed them as a lamb in a large meadow! In fact, a prophet would hardly have said that Jehovah shepherded His people during the Dispersion (see Ezekiel 34:11-14), and in the very next verse Jehovah exclaims, ‘Let him alone.’ On the other hand, the clause, thus translated, fits most naturally into the context,—‘Israel is a stubborn heifer, how then should it expect to be treated as kindly as a lamb?’

Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.
17. joined to idols] The cognate noun is used in Malachi 2:14 of a wife in her relation to her husband, and in Isaiah 44:11 of an idol-worshipper in his mystic relation to his god (comp. 1 Corinthians 10:20).

Their drink is sour: they have committed whoredom continually: her rulers with shame do love, Give ye.
18. Their drink is sour …] This translation is cannot be sustained philologically. If the text is correct, the only version at once intelligible and philologically sound is, ‘Their drunkenness has passed by.’ For the rendering of the verb comp. 1 Samuel 15:32 Hebr., and for ‘drunkenness’, lit. drink, comp. 1 Samuel 1:14; 1 Samuel 25:37 (where ‘wine’ must be synonymous with ‘the fumes of wine’). Connecting this clause with the following, we may render (as Henderson, following the Jewish commentator Abarbanel), When their carousal is over they indulge in lewdness, i.e. when tired of one sin they plunge without scruple into another. The Sept. rendering ἡρέτισε Χαναναίους is very difficult to justify. The Peshito omits the words. St Jerome explains the whole clause, Factum est, inquit Deus, convivium eorum à me alienum.

her rulers with shame do love, Give ye] Rather, her shields are enamoured of infamy (Henderson). This involves a slight change in the points, necessary in order to make sense of the word rendered ‘infamy.’ Probably, however, as Abp. Seeker was the first to infer from Sept. and Pesh., there is an erroneous repetition of three letters (comp. a similar case in Psalm 88:17), so that we may render simply, ‘her shields love infamy’ (‘shields’ for ‘rulers’, as Psalm 47:9). The Septuagint, indeed, suggests a various reading which possibly deserves the preference; it renders, ἠγάπησαν ἀτιμίαν ἐκ φρυάγματος αὐτῆς. Here, as in Amos 8:7, the Greek translator seems to have misunderstood the expression, ‘the excellency of Jacob’ (i.e. Jehovah). The Hebrew which he had before them may be thus put into English, they love infamy rather than her Excellency (or, her Pride, i.e. Jehovah, Israel’s God). Φρύαγμα is in fact the rendering of Heb. gâôn in Zechariah 11:3 and three other passages.

The wind hath bound her up in her wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices.
19. The wind hath bound her up in her wings] A figure for the suddenness and violence with which the enemy should carry Israel away into exile (comp. Isaiah 57:13), The perfect is that of prophetic certitude.

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