As we look at scriptures like the book of the prophet Hosea, they can seem remote from our lives today. We read about the Israelites worshipping idols and false gods, and even stooping to ritual prostitution, and we can easily say to ourselves, “We would never do that!” And it is true that not many Christians nowadays consult idols made or wood or offer fertility sacrifices to nature gods. Baal worship is not a major threat to the church today.
There are some modern parallels to the sins of idolatry the Israelites were committing in Hosea’s time, which still drag Christians into sin today, but those tend to be in far away places and not in UK. Adultery is a temptation which is easy to recognise, if not to avoid, particularly for prominent church leaders in certain circles. In general, we think it is easy to avoid the sins Israel were committing in Hosea’s time. Then there is a real danger that we can be lulled into a false sense of security, when we think about the sins of Israel and say, “We would never do that.” But then Hosea chapter 6 gives us a “wake up call.” The prophet gets to the heart of Israel’s problems, and we will see three kinds of sins which are just as much a threat to Christians today as they were to the Israelites – three deadly sins waiting to trip us up and even ensnare us if we don’t watch out. Starting in the first three verses.
‘Come, let us return to the LORD. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us;
he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.
2 After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence.
3 Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains,
like the spring rains that water the earth.’
That sounds alright, you may say. Israel coming back to God. And it would be great, if their repentance was genuine. But it was not. The Good News Bible makes the meaning clearer and even gives the section the title,
“The people’s insincere repentance.”
Hosea 6:1 GNT The people say, “Let’s return to the LORD! He has hurt us, but he will be sure to heal us; he has wounded us, but he will bandage our wounds, won’t he? 2In two or three days he will revive us, and we will live in his presence. 3Let us try to know the LORD. He will come to us as surely as the day dawns, as surely as the spring rains that water the earth.”
The words attributed to Israel by the prophet here are ironic, even sarcastic. Israel thought that just saying some nice words would keep God happy. But empty words without changed lives mean nothing.
They were taking God’s love for granted. They were relying on being God’s chosen people, the redeemed of the Lord. They had become complacent in their relationship with God. They thought that whatever they did wrong, God would automatically forgive them without them needing to repent.
He has hurt us, but he will be sure to heal us; he has wounded us, but he will bandage our wounds, won’t he? 2In two or three days he will revive us, and we will live in his presence.
Christians can too easily drift into the same sin of complacency. Taking God for granted. Paul challenged the Roman Christians on this.
Romans 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
The risk of taking God’s amazing grace for granted. Just because God has saved us that doesn’t mean we can live in any way we like. Our wonderful undeserved salvation brings with it an obligation to live a new life in discipleship and holiness.
The problem the Israelites experienced was superficial repentance. They were not confessing or even acknowledging their many sins. They just presumed God was going to forgive them, presuming on the grace of God. The same problem can still trap Christians today. We may say, “God have mercy on me, a miserable sinner.” But those are only empty words if we are failing to recognise the sins we fall into, if we are not determined to do our very best to stop sinning by God’s grace. Some Christians tolerate their sins, and even wallow in them. True repentance will involve penitence – deeply regretting and weeping and bewailing our manifold sin and wickedness. Somebody has said, “repentance is the tear in the eye of faith.” Tears and sorrow for the past. And then repentance will involve turning away from sin for the future. The Israelites were not penitent and they were not changing their ways.
The people say, “Let’s return to the LORD! He has hurt us, but he will be sure to heal us; he has wounded us, but he will bandage our wounds, won’t he?
Empty words like those of the Israelites are not enough. God is not interested in insincere repentance or in people who take his love for granted. Hosea had just made this clear in chapter 5
Hosea 5 4 ‘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.
5 Israel’s arrogance testifies against them; the Israelites, even Ephraim, stumble in their sin;
Judah also stumbles with them.
6 When they go with their flocks and herds to seek the LORD,
they will not find him; he has withdrawn himself from them.
Christians must make sure that our repentance is always genuine and that we never take God’s love for granted, or presume on the grace of God. But then the Israelites were falling into a second sin. In verse 3 it sounds as though they might have the right idea
3 Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him.
Pressing on to know God is a good start. Trying to know God better, seeking for him and searching for God. But the trouble was, the Israelites didn’t follow up on these good intentions.
4 ‘What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.
The people suffered from evaporating love. Like in Jesus’s Parable of the Sower and the Different Kinds of Soil, the seed sown on rocky ground which sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow, but when the sun shone the plants withered because they had no root. Like people who receive the gospel but quickly fall away when the going gets tough. Evaporating love.
Again, we must not feel complacent. We shouldn’t think this couldn’t happen to us. Remember the words of the Risen Jesus to the Seven Churches in the Book of Revelation.
To the church in Ephesus,
Revelation 2 4 Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first. 5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
And to the church in Laodicea
Revelation 3 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.
He who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall. It is impossible to love God too much! The Israelites suffered from evaporating love. One minute they were pressing on to know God, the next they were worshipping idols and engaging in immorality. Inconsistency. A failure to press on and persevere in the things of God.
It is lovely to see new Christians who are really excited about prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit, and evangelism and holy living. Are we still as enthusiastic about these things as we were when we first came to know Jesus. Our love for God should be increasing year by year, not waning. The Israelite’s love was transient as the evaporating dew. And then they fell into another tragic sin which brought God’s judgment.
Hosea 6 5 Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth—
then my judgments go forth like the sun.
6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
The problem was Outward activity without inward reality. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees using exactly these words.
Good News Translation v 6 I want your constant love, not your animal sacrifices. I would rather have my people know me than burn offerings to me.
Israel’s worship had become empty and meaningless, outward acts rather than heartfelt devotion.
And here is a warning for Christians today, because it is still too easy to let busy activity get in the way of our relationship with God. We can know all about God, but not know God himself. We can be more concerned about the form of our acts of worship than we are about the God we are worshipping. We can be more concerned about getting the words of our prayers right than about the God we are addressing in our prayers. We can be so preoccupied with the physical building of the church, or the events and activities of the church, that we forget that the church is actually the people. We all need to make sure that what matters in our lives are the inward spiritual realities and not just the outward activities.
I heard about a letter written by the great preacher David Watson in his final days. He acknowledged, “I have loved God’s work more than I have loved God. I have loved God’s Word more thank I have loved God. I have loved God’s people more than I have loved God.” The dangers of allowing outward activities to take the place of inward realities.
The Israelites started off with the right ideas. Let us return to the Lord. But that returning was spoiled by insincere repentance and by taking God’s love for granted. Then they said, let us press on to know the Lord. But their love evaporated. All because they had been preoccupied by their outward activities and neglected spiritual realities. As we see all the different kinds of sins the Israelites fell into, let us not be complacent. Let us make certain that we do not make the mistake of saying, “we would never do that”.
There is a very old story of a lady who used to go to church with a pitchfork. When the minister was speaking about a particular sin she would say to herself, “That sounds good – that’s good for Brother Brown.” A little later she would be saying, “That’s good for Sister Sophie.” But then one day the true gospel transformed her life. Instead of her pitchfork, the lady would bring a rake and whatever the preacher said she would respond, “Oh yes, Lord, that word is for me.” Those who have ears, let them hear.