A French friend was driving me through Paris one time, and we stopped at a traffic light. And the moment it went green the car behind tooted him. And I said to Francois, 'They're not very patient here, are they?' And he said, 'No. Parisians often say, "What's the shortest measurement of time known to man?" And the answer is: the gap between seeing the lights going green and hearing the horn behind.' (And I should add: he drove a Porsche and was certainly not light on the accelerator.)
Well, that's one use of a car horn – to vent your impatience. But the most important use is to wake up someone to the reality that they're doing something stupid. And in our series on Hosea, today's section starts with a horn – or trumpet – being sounded. Because Hosea's job was to wake up God's Old Testament people to the reality that they didn't have the relationship with God they thought they had.
The message of Hosea 8 is a spiritual reality check that we all need. For some of us it'll be encouraging – because we'll be able to say, 'Yes, I am relating to the Lord the way Hosea says I should be – albeit imperfectly.' But for some of us, it'll be unsettling – because it'll leave us wondering whether we are really relating to God as we should be. But if he unsettles us, it's only because he wants to get our relationship with him on the right footing. And if he encourages us, it's not to make us complacent, but to encourage us to keep relating to him better. And he might want to encourage and unsettle us – both at the same time.
So if you open up Hosea 8.1, the LORD says to Hosea:
"Set the trumpet to your lips!"
In other words, 'Sound the horn! Wake them up to the reality of how they're really treating me.' Verse 1 again:
"Set the trumpet to your lips!
One like a vulture is over the house of the LORD,
[so that pictures the LORD as a bird of prey preparing to dive in judgment on his people]
because they have transgressed my covenant
and rebelled against my law."
Now last time I spoke in this series, I reminded us of the story of Hosea's marriage (see chapters 1-3) – because his marriage was his message in a nutshell.
(Transcript readers, you'll have to imagine the pictures…) So there on the screens is Hosea. And there's his future wife, Gomer, already involved with various sexual partners. And the LORD told Hosea to marry her.
So, next picture, there they are on the left, newlywed. And there on the right is what their marriage was a picture of: it was a picture of the marriage-covenant that God made with Israel, after rescuing them from Egypt. When he promised, 'I will be your God, and protect and provide for you.' And they responded, 'We will be your people, and trust and obey you.' Two 'I wills', making a marriage. But look at verse 1 again, halfway through:
"… they have transgressed my covenant"
In other words, 'They have been unfaithful to me.' And the next part of Hosea's story was a picture of that. Because, next picture, Gomer left him and turned to other lovers again. And that was a picture of how Israel had turned to other 'gods' and places for security and blessing. But Hosea didn't stop loving Gomer – and he got her back to work on their relationship (although we're not told in chapter 3 how things finally ended). And that was a picture of how the LORD hadn't stopped loving Israel, either, and hadn't stopped working to get her relating to him properly – which is why Hosea preached this in the first place.
Now it's often said to married couples that if you want a reliable opinion of the health of your marriage, you should ask your wife. Because women are far more perceptive about that. Whereas men either don't see what's wrong or see it but do nothing about it. But in this case, asking the wife got you nowhere. Because look at verse 2, where the LORD says:
"To me they cry,
'My God, we—Israel—know you.'"
In other words, 'Our relationship with you is fine, isn't it? Everything's OK between us, isn't it?' And the answer was, verse 3, no it's not:
"Israel has spurned the good; [in other words, they'd actually, spurned God and all the good he wanted to do them. And so…]
the enemy shall pursue him."
[which is a reference to how God allowed Assyria, the superpower of the day, to invade Israel as a judgment on her treatment of him.]
And in the rest of chapter eight, Hosea is out to wake Israel up to how she was being unfaithful to the Lord. And the first thing he says is that:
1. She Trusted for Security in Other Places
So the LORD, the husband, had promised, 'I'll protect you and make you secure.' But now Israel, the wife, was saying, 'I don't trust you to.' So look on to verse 4, where God says:
"They made kings, but not through me.
They set up princes, but I knew it not [in other words, 'I wasn't involved or consulted']."
Now by this point in his unfolding plan, God had given kings to Israel. So having kings in itself wasn't the problem. The problem was the kind of kings they were now choosing, and what they were looking to those kings to do for them. Above all, according to the Bible, the king was meant to trust and obey God in order to lead the people to trust and obey God. Now that didn't mean the king did nothing to make Israel secure. For example, David fought tooth and nail to make Israel secure. But again and again, the Bible says "he enquired of the LORD" as to whether he should fight a battle and whether the LORD would give them victory. In other words, his trust remained in the LORD and, like any good spiritual leader, he didn't trust in himself, or encourage his people to, either. But by Hosea's time, Israel was now trusting in her kings and her defences to make herself secure and had forgotten God. Just skip to verse 14 to see that:
"For Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces,
and Judah has multiplied fortified cities;"
'Because that's what's going to make us secure, isn't it?' they would have said.
That's the classic mistake we all make – of trusting in the means God uses, rather than in God himself. For example, it's the mistake of thinking my job will secure me (plus or minus my family), rather than thinking, 'No, it's God who secures me – either by securing my present job or by getting me another one if I lose this one.' It's the mistake of thinking, 'I'm so glad I've got that particular surgeon – Mr X – because he'll secure my health.' But he can't: only God can. Or the mistake of thinking, 'I'm so grateful for JPC's children's and youth work, because that will secure my children's faith.' But it can't: only God can.
Of course, God uses means – like jobs and surgeons and the groups our kids are in right now. But we so easily trust in those means instead of in him, don't we?
So look back now to verse 9. (And can I say: I'm jumping around because Hosea mixes all Israel's mistakes together in this chapter, whereas I'm trying to un-mix them to help us see the three main ones.) So, verse 9. I said earlier that Assyria was the superpower of the day. And God had already allowed Assyria to threaten Israel as a judgment on her treatment of him. But instead of taking it as a wake-up call to start trusting him again, Israel went looking for security in Assyria. Verse 9:
"For they have gone up to Assyria,
[that is, to pay tribute money in return for favourable treatment]
a wild donkey wandering alone;
Ephraim [in other words, Israel] has hired lovers.
[in other words, she has paid Assyria for security. But, verse 10:]
Though they hire allies among the nations,
I will soon gather them up [which means, for judgment].
And the king and princes shall soon writhe
because of the tribute."
And paying it did become such a burden, which they did "writhe" under, that Israel decided to replace her king and rebel against Assyria instead, which triggered the Assyrian invasion that ended the northern kingdom of Israel. And all that was an example of verse 7:
"For they sow the wind,
and they shall reap the whirlwind."
So as they saw it, they were "sowing" clever changes of kings and clever deals with Assyria, to "reap" a harvest of security. And in the world's eyes, "sowing" those things was a wise move – they were seen as really substantial things which would 'get results'. But verse 7 says, 'Shock no.1 is that, in actual fact, what you're "sowing" is just "wind" – those things are empty – as insubstantial as a puff of air – and won't do anything. But shock no.2 is that you're actually going to "reap the whirlwind". In other words, it's not just that those things won't do anything for your security. They'll actually destroy it.'
And verse 7 applies to the church today. You see, how can we secure the church and its future in this country – or in your home country? After all, we're told it's in terminal decline here. Well, what looks wise, to secure the church, is to "sow" a different message – to modify the gospel, or at least keep silent about the bits that cut across the beliefs and behaviour that people already have, and are comfortable with. And that's what the Church of England's senior leadership has been doing for the last twenty plus years. And what have they "reaped"? Well, look at verse 8:
"Israel is swallowed up;
already they are among the nations
as a useless vessel."
Today you could paraphrase, 'The church is largely swallowed up; already much of it is just like the world around and so is useless to the world.' Because the only way we'll be useful to the world is if it hears something utterly different from us and sees something utterly different in us. We mustn't be afraid to be different: if we're no different, we're no use.
So that's Israel's first mistake here: she trusted for security in other places. And here's her second one:
2. She Credited Her Blessings to Other 'Gods'
So the LORD, the husband, had promised, 'I'll provide for you.' But Israel, the wife, ended up crediting the blessings he gave her to other 'gods'. Let's see that by looking down to verse 4, halfway through:
"With their silver and gold they made idols
for their own destruction.
I have spurned your calf, O Samaria
[Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel]
My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
For it is from Israel;
a craftsman made it;
it is not God.
The calf of Samaria
shall be broken to pieces."
What's that all about? Well, look at this next picture. (Transcript readers, again, you'll have to imagine the pictures…)
There's Israel when David was king. His son Solomon succeeded him, but wound up being unfaithful to God. As a judgment on that, God allowed Israel to split so that Solomon's son would have less of a kingdom to rule over. So that made two kingdoms. The northern one became known as Israel, with Samaria as its capital. And that's where Hosea lived and ministered. The southern one, where David's line continued to rule, became known as Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital. Jerusalem had the 'trump card' of the temple – the place God had provided for his people to meet with him.
So imagine you were Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom. You'd have thought to yourself something like this: 'Hold on, my people will be going south regularly to the temple. And that might make them think it would be better just to reunite the kingdoms and accept the southern king. Which would leave me up the creek. So what I'll do is: set up an alternative to the temple in the north.' And that's what he did. 1 Kings 12.28 says:
"[Jeroboam]… made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, 'You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.'"
And the shocking thing is that they accepted them – despite the fact that a moment's thought should have told them that Jeroboam was talking nonsense. After all, how could gods that had only just been made have rescued them from Egypt hundreds of years before? And given that they were obviously man-made, wasn't it obvious that they weren't God? So why did people accept them? The answer is: ease and fear.
On the one hand, it was just easier to worship these calf-idols than to trek down to Jerusalem to the temple. And ease is why we still worship idols today – not literal golden calves, but instead, as someone has said, "Our idols are mental rather than metal: they are false ideas of God which make relating to him morally easy and undemanding." And, as I said earlier, the Church of England is full of false ideas like that – for example, the idea that Jesus not only loves us as we are (which, wonderfully, he does), but also affirms everything about the way we are (which he doesn't). So ease pulls us towards idols – in other words, towards false versions of Christianity.
But on the other hand, so does fear. Because, you see, Jeroboam didn't just dream up these calf-idols. He copied them from the people around Israel. Because they were everywhere, with everyone saying they were fertility gods who'd make your crops grow. And so fear pulled Israel towards them as well – the fear that the LORD couldn't deliver harvests, whereas everyone around them said these fertility gods did. And Israel thought to herself, 'Well, surely that many people can't all be wrong, can they?' Do you ever find yourself worried by that thought, as you look at the non-Christian majority around you? And Israel thought to herself, 'Surely there's nothing wrong with hedging my bets – trusting God but trusting what the world trusts as well?'
But how does the LORD see that? Look at verse 5 again:
"I have spurned your calf, O Samaria.
My anger burns against them."
And God's anger is never the petty, selfish, I've-been-hurt kind of anger that comes so easily to us. It's the entirely proper anger of a husband whose wife receives all the blessings he gives her – and credits him with none of it. Back then, Israel credited the LORD's blessings to these so-called fertility 'gods'. Today, perhaps the 'god' we're most likely to credit his blessings to is ourselves. I think it was originally said of a rich American businessman who'd made his fortune from nothing, "He was a self-made man who worshipped his own creator." In other words, he credited himself with where he'd got to in life, rather than crediting it to the God who gave him the abilities and opportunities to get there. Which is easily done, isn't it? Are you proud of yourself that you're a senior partner or headteacher or consultant – or are you thankful to God for getting you there? Are you patting yourself on the back for your GCSE or A-level results, or for your uni place, or for your degree or Masters or PhD? Or are you crediting those blessings to the Lord, who has given you the abilities and opportunities to get those things?
Here's Israel's last mistake:
3. She Gave the LORD Religion Rather Than Real Love
Look down to verse 11 to 13 to end with:
"Because Ephraim [in other words, Israel] has multiplied altars for sinning [or other translations say 'for sin-offering'],
they have become to him altars for sinning.
Were I to write for him my laws by the ten thousands,
they would be regarded as a strange thing.
As for my sacrificial offerings,
they sacrifice meat and eat it,
but the LORD does not accept them."
So this is the mistake of giving the LORD what we think he wants, rather than what he actually wants. Which is a classic marriage mistake, isn't it – giving our spouses what we think they want, rather than what they actually want. And that explains many a duff birthday or Christmas or anniversary present which lies at the back of your cupboard at home.
So here Israel, the wife, thought that the LORD just wanted lots of religion – God's people thought that lots of sacrifices would keep him happy with them, regardless of how else they behaved. Whereas what God wants is to be properly treated as God, properly loved as God – and when it comes to loving God, love has to involve obedience. But he knows we can only pull off love for him very imperfectly this side of heaven – he knows we'll fail – which is why, ultimately, Jesus' death for our forgiveness was at the heart of his plan. But back in Old Testament times, before Jesus' death, he gave them that system of sacrifices so that they could come to him for forgiveness of their failure (not knowing that their forgiveness was yet to be paid for – at the cross). But to God, those sacrifices only meant anything when the people offering them were sincerely trying to love and obey him, and when offering them was a way of saying, 'I'm sorry I've failed to love and obey you as I want to – please forgive me.' Whereas most people in Hosea's day were insincere with God and just saw sacrifices as a way of keeping him happy with them, regardless of how else they behaved.
And it's possible for us to treat the Lord with similar insincerity. Because we now know that all those Old Testament sacrifices were just visual aids pointing forward to the Lord Jesus' one sacrifice – which really did pay for the forgiveness of all sins for all people for all time. Which means we can have a greater assurance of forgiveness than Old Testament believers.
But it's easy, then, to think that me being forgiven and God being happy with me through Jesus' sacrifice is the be-all-and-end-all of being a Christian – which makes it all about me. When in fact forgiveness is just a means to an end. And the end is to be back in relationship with God where – albeit imperfectly – I'm trying to love and obey him properly. Because it's really all about him.
And the confession prayer we use is meant to be a safeguard against this third mistake of giving the Lord religion rather than real love. Because it puts into our mouths that very searching line, "We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins." And I don't know about you, but that always sticks slightly in my throat. Because it tests my sincerity and asks me, 'Ian, are you really sorry? Do you really repent of all your sins? Do you just want to be forgiven your sins – which makes it all about you? Or do you want to be forgiven so that you can turn from your sins and (as the confession prayer says) "serve him in newness of life" – which makes it all about him?'
So that's God's spiritual reality check for us, this morning. And it's a reminder that we who talk about having a relationship with God need to keep listening to him in his Word and checking whether our talk is matched by reality. Because, in this case, it's the 'husband' we need to ask about the health of the relationship. And three questions, at least, that he gives us in Hosea 8 to ask ourselves are:
Are we really trusting him for our security?
Are we really crediting him with our blessings?
And are we really giving him (albeit imperfectly) what he wants?