Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Here commences a new part in the collection of Hosea’s prophecies. The entire chapter is one terrible series of accusations, supporting the severe character of the imagery already employed. It is difficult to assign it to any particular period. It may have been composed during the years that immediately succeeded the reign of Jeroboam II. Ewald divides it into four strophes: Hosea 4:1-5; Hosea 4:6-10; Hosea 4:11-14; Hosea 4:15-19. The first two expand the former part of the reproach conveyed in Hosea 4:1-2; Hosea 4:11-14 point to the licentiousness of Israel; while in Hosea 4:15-19 judgment is pronounced.
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) Controversy.—A judicial suit, in which Jehovah is plaintiff as well as judge (Isaiah 1:23; Isaiah 41:21). By the “children of Israel” we are to understand the northern kingdom of the ten tribes, as distinguished from Judah.
Mercy.—Better rendered love. The Hebrew word chésed expresses (1) the love of God for Israel under covenant relationship; (2) the corresponding quality in man exhibited to God or towards his fellow-men. (See Hupfeld on Psalm 4:4; and Duhm, Theologie der Propheten, p. 100.)
By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood.(2) Blood toucheth blood—i.e., murder is added to murder with ghastly prevalence. References to false swearing and lying are repeated in terrible terms by Amos 2:6-8 and Micah 7:2-8; and the form of the charge suggests the Decalogue and pre-existing legislation (Exodus 20:13-15).
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) The mourning of the land is the judgment of famine, which follows not only upon the living men, but upon all living things (the LXX. have introduced into the enumeration the creeping things of the earth). Even the fishes of the sea are swept away. There is plague on fish as well as murrain on cattle, and starvation of the birds of heaven.
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, nor reprove another.—Better, Nevertheless, let no one contend, let no one reprove, for the voices of wise counsel, the warnings of the prophet, will be silenced. Ephraim will in his obstinate wrong-doing be left alone. The last clause of the verse is rendered by nearly all versions and commentators, Though thy people are as those who contend with a priest—i.e., are as guilty as those who transgress the teaching of the Torah by defying the injunctions of the priest (Deuteronomy 17:12-13; Numbers 15:33). But the Speaker’s Commentary gives a different rendering, which is better adapted to the denunciations of the priest in the following verses (comp. Hosea 6:9). By a slight change in the punctuation of the Hebrew we obtain the interpretation, “And thy people, O priest, are as my adversaries.” The position of the vocative in Hebrew, and the absence of the article, are, no doubt, objections to such a construction, but they are not insuperable, and the compensating advantage to exegesis is manifest.
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 priest’s function is discharged in the day, and the prophet dreams in the night. Both will totter to their fall.
Thy mother—i.e., thy nation.
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) For lack of knowledge, which you, O priest, should have kept alive in their hearts. The knowledge of God is life eternal. (Comp. John 17:3.) The Lord’s “controversy” repudiates the entire priesthood, as they had rejected the true knowledge of God. They had inclined to calf-worship, had been vacillating respecting Baal, and had connived at moral offences. If, on the other hand, with most commentators, we consider the people themselves as thus addressed, the passage refers to the cessation of the position of priesthood, which every member of the true theocracy ought to have maintained. (Comp. Exodus 19:6.) The people should no longer be priests to Jehovah.
As they were increased, so they sinned against me: therefore will I change their glory into shame.(7, 8) The increase in numbers and prosperity probably refers to the priesthood, who, as they grew in numbers, became more alienated from the true God. These eat up, or fatten on, the very sins they ought to rebuke. The reference here may be either to the portion of sacrificial offerings which fell to the share of the priests, or (less probably) to the sin-money and trespass-money exacted in place of sin-offerings of 2Kings 12:16. (On the general condition of the priesthood at this time, see W. R. Smith, Prophets of Israel pp. 99-101.)
And there shall be, like people, like priest: and I will punish them for their ways, and reward them their doings.(9, 10) As the people will be punished, so will the priest. The latter will not be saved by wealth or dignity. And I will visit upon him his ways (observe here the collective singular in the pronoun), and cause his doings to return upon him. The form of the punishment is to be noticed. The eating of the sin of the people shall leave them hungry, and their licentiousness shall leave them childless.
Whoredom and wine and new wine take away the heart.(11) Heart.—The whole inner life, consumed by these licentious indulgences.
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) Their stocks.—Blocks of wood fashioned into idols (Heb., his wood, the collective singular being maintained).
Their staff.—Cyril regarded this as referring to divinations by means of rods (ῥαβδομαντεία), which were placed upright, and after the repetition of incantations, allowed to fall, the forecast of the future being interpreted from the manner in which they fell. But perhaps the “staff” may refer, like the “stocks,” to the idol itself. The Canaanite goddess Asherah was worshipped under this form.
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) The tops of the hills were continually chosen for idolatrous temples, i.e., “high places.”
Poplar—i.e., the white poplar, not the storax of the LXX., which is a shrub only a few feet high.
Elms should be “terebinth tree” (’ēlah).
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) Jehovah threatens to visit no punishment on the women for their licentiousness, because they are more sinned against than sinning.
Sacrifice with harlots.—Referring to the sensuality of the religious rites, as represented by the women (q’dēshôth) who dedicated themselves to these impurities.
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) Israel . . . Judah.—The prophet warns Judah of Israel’s peril, and perhaps hints at the apostacy of some of her kings, as Ahaziah, Joram, and Ahaz. He returns to the symbolic use of the word “whoredom”; and Judah is exhorted not to participate in the idolatries of Gilgal or the calves of Bethel. There are three different places named Gilgal mentioned in Joshua (Joshua 4:19; Joshua 12:3; Joshua 15:7), and a fourth seems to be mentioned in Deut. 9:30; 2Kings 2:1. The Gilgal here referred to is the first of these, which Joshua for a considerable time had made his head-quarters. In the days of Samuel it acquired some importance as a place for sacrificial worship and the dispensation of justice. Bethel had a grand history. But Hosea and Amos call it by the altered name Beth-aven (house of vanity, or idols), instead of Bethel (house of God). The LXX. in Alex. MS. read On instead of Aven in the Hebrew, On being the name for Heliopolis, the seat of sun-cultus, whence Jeroboam may have derived his calf-worship. (See Smith’s Dict. of the Bible, Art. “On.”) But the Vat. MS. has ἀδικίας, in accordance with the Masoretic tradition (similarly Aquila and Symmachus).
For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer: now the LORD will feed them as a lamb in a large place.(16) Slideth back.—More correctly, is stubborn as a stubborn cow.
Will feed them as a lamb in a large place.—An expression of tender commiseration (so Ewald). But most commentators understand it in an unfavourable sense, i.e., will lead them forth into the desolate wilderness, a prey to wild beasts, or into the loneliness that a lamb would feel in a boundless pasture.
Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.(17) Ephraim . . . idols.—The prophet calls on Judah to leave Ephraim to himself. The Jewish interpreters Rashi and Kimchi understand this as the appeal of Jehovah to the prophet to leave Israel to her fate, that so perhaps her eyes might be opened to discern her doom.
Their drink is sour: they have committed whoredom continually: her rulers with shame do love, Give ye.(18, 19) The Authorised version is here very defective. Translate, Their carousal hath become degraded; with whoring they whore. Her shields love shame. A blast hath seized her in its wings, so that they are covered with shame for their offerings. “Shields” mean the princes of the people, as in Psalm 47:9. The fern. “her” in these verses refers to Ephraim, in accordance with the common Hebrew idiom. The change of person to the masculine plural is characteristic of the style of Hebrew prophecy. The storm-wind hath seized upon her with its wings—carried her away like a swarm of locusts or a baffled bird.