"A Country Off Course"
July 2, 2006 Hosea 8:1-14
Times Were Good, Yet...
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..." There are some eery parallels between society at the time of the prophet Hosea, and life today in Canada. As we celebrate our 139th anniversary of Confederation, it should be helpful to compare and contrast the situation of Northern Israel over 2700 years ago with what we see happening today. Have we learned anything?
A little background is in order as we begin this four-week study of the first of the 12 'minor prophets'. Israel experienced its high point or golden age during the reign of Solomon, David's son. Then in 930 BC a split developed: the ten northern tribes chose Jeroboam as leader, in reaction to the heavy taxes and forced labour required for Solomon's extensive building projects. To consolidate his rule and eliminate the need for northerners to feel religiously obligated to visit Jerusalem in the south three times a year, Jeroboam set up two golden calves as places to offer sacrifice: one in Bethel, the other in Dan (1Kings 12:28f). This was the first major step on the road away from God, toward destruction. Jeroboam's son was assassinated about 2 years after becoming king: thus began a long line of intrigue, plotting, and assassinations in the account of the northern kings. The assassin's son reigned a couple of years before he was assassinated. In 874 BC, Ahab became King, and married Jezebel, a king's daughter from Sidon. Ahab introduced the worship of Baal, the Canaanite fertility god of the surrounding nations, which Moses had forbidden the Hebrews from serving (Num 25:5). You may recall the prophet Elijah's contest on Mt Carmel with the priests of Baal about this time (1Kings 18). In 841 BC, Jehu, anointed to be king by a prophet, wiped out Ahab's son who was then king, and all Ahab's descendants, as well as all the ministers and priests of Baal (2Kings 10). There was some religious reform; Baal worship was destroyed, but the worship of the golden calves continued (2Kings 10:28f).
From 841-753 BC, nearly 90 years, there was relative stability as Jehu and his descendants reigned. Elisha was prophet for some of this time. Jehu's great-grandson Jeroboam II headed a sort of "golden age" for the northern kingdom, even managing to restore the boundaries of Israel; the Bible notes God knew the people's suffering and used Jeroboam II to save them (2Kings 14:26f). But as they prospered, they turned again to foreign gods.
One resource (Encountering the Old Testament) states, "Hosea began his ministry during a period of prosperity...Israel and Judah's territory expanded to what it had been in David's time. With economic prosperity, however, came spiritual trouble. The people had already adopted many of the religious practices of those around them...They worshiped the god Baal, Canaanite god of agriculture, and his consort Asherah. They built shrines to these gods, and adopted the sexual fertility rites that accompanied their worship. Sacred prostitution actually became part of Israel's religion! Gradually, the people became convinced that Baal, not the Lord God, had provided them with life's blessings."
This is the time when Hosea begins prophesying - when everything's rosey and there's not a cloud on the horizon. People must have laughed at his predictions of doom. Yet in only about 30 years after the death of Jeroboam II, Israel had been defeated and dispersed; it was no more. Jeroboam II was the last northern king to be succeeded by his son. There were 6 different kings in the space of 20 years, each of whom either succeeded or were succeeded by assassination. That doesn't help stability - especially when the Assyrian empire is making inroads! Overwhelmed by the massive Assyrian army equipped with the first awesome siege machines maintained by a corps of engineers, Israel's capital Samaria fell in 722 BC after a siege lasting three years.
The recipe for disaster involved four main ingredients: disobedience in the areas of religion, politics, commerce, and law. We see these reflected in Hosea's warnings.
(1) In the religious realm, most important and root of the other problems, the nation had turned away from Yahweh as God. We read from chapter 8(4,12): "With their silver and gold they make idols for themselves to their own destruction...I wrote for them the many things of my law, but they regarded them as something alien." The beginning of chapter 1(2): "the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord." Ch.4(1,6): "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land...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." In chapter 7(10), 9(7), 13(2): "Israel's arrogance testifies against him, but despite all this he does not return to the Lord his God or search for him...Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac...they sin more and more; they make idols for themselves from their silver, cleverly fashioned images, all of them the work of craftsmen.It is said of these people, "They offer human sacrifice and kiss the calf-idols." Putting the calves "up", they put people "down"! When we reject God, it's not long until we start buying Satan's lies and become destructive toward other people.
Think about some of those descriptions in terms of Canada today. What's happening to love and faithfulness? Is Biblical teaching regarded as something alien? Is God acknowledged? Are we arrogant because we're successful? How many people today are actively searching for God? Are those in religious vocations respected as much as they were 50 years ago? Are we fascinated by cleverly crafted idols made of precious metals?
(2) Religious views affect political attitudes. If we reject God's authority, that naturally makes us less receptive of and respectful towards those humans who are set in authority over us in government. Jehu's religious reforms began a return to political stability for nearly a century. But after that, as idolatry again increased, there was turmoil in the political sphere. Chapter 8(4,9) says, "they set up kings without my consent; they choose princes without my approval...they have gone up to Assyria like a wild donkey wandering alone.Ephraim has sold herself to lovers." [Ephraim is a way of referring to the northern tribes of Israel based on the biggest tribe.] With God cut out of the picture, it was every man for himself, might makes right - several of the successful assassin/rulers were military commanders. Rather than turning to God when there was a national crisis, they would attempt instead to form alliances with outside powers such as Egypt or Assyria, who often let them down. In chapter 10(13) Hosea criticizes them as having "depended on your own strength and on your many warriors..." As they flourished materially, they built their military and began trusting in it and their fortifications. But these would prove no match for the Assyrian resources and technology, let alone their psychological terror tactics.
(3) The nation's corruption spilled over into the commercial arena. When religious values disappear, integrity is not far behind. People were putting their security in material wealth rather than God the Giver. 8:14 says, "Israel has forgotten his Maker and built palaces; Judah has fortified many towns. But I will send fire upon their cities that will consume their fortresses." Chapter 10(1) begins, "Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself.As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones." Instead of worshipping God with their tithes and offerings, they invested in warped religion and decorations. Chapter 12(7f) reveals, "The merchant uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, "I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin."" As if being rich somehow miraculously exempts you from judgment! While the very reason they were rich had to do with their dishonesty and crookedness. Prosperity bred pride, self-satisfaction, and contempt for their Creator and Sustainer. 13:6 states, "When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me."
(4) This turning away from God in the religious, political, and commercial areas led to a general breakdown of social morality and increased crime. After it says there is no acknowledgment of God in the land, chapter 4(2) adds, "There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed." In case you missed it, that list takes a pretty big chunk out of the Ten Commandments! And "they break all bounds" suggests shocking immorality, unimaginably shameful acts. Chapter 6(8ff) says, "Gilead is a city of wicked men, stained with footprints of blood. As marauders lie in ambush for a man, so do bands of priests; they murder on the road to Shechem, committing shameful crimes. I have seen a horrible thing in the house of Israel. There Ephraim is given to prostitution and Israel is defiled." Even priests were committing crimes! Chapter 7(1) begins by observing, "They practice deceit, thieves break into houses, bandits rob in the streets..." Chapter 10(4) speaks of more subtle types of crime: "They make many promises, take false oaths and make agreements; therefore lawsuits spring up like poisonous weeds in a plowed field." Everybody out to sue somebody. Lawsuits as common as twitchgrass. Of course, that bogs down the court system, which interferes further with justice.
The New Bible Dictionary comments on how much the sins in these various arenas affected life overall. "...Hosea laid much of the blame for Israel's collapse on the adoption of an alien life-style borrowed from Canaanite neighbours. By going after 'Baal', the prophet's shorthand for the pagan deity and all that he stood for, Israel committed herself to a system which affected not only worship. Every part of life, from work in the fields, the use of leisure and the presuppositions of social duties and commitments to political decisions and relationships, was bound up with it. The Baals were regarded as the source of fertility and of financial prosperity. To worship them demanded neither self-discipline nor high moral standards. Instead, orgiastic ritual at the shrines appealed to the sensual in human nature and militated against everything that the ancient covenant morality had stood for."
Your relationship with God affects all of life; if you reject Him as Lord, every area will be out of kilter. Religion doesn't just have to do with an hour on Sunday; all our actions reveal something about our key values and beliefs, what's most important to us. Cheating on God paves the way for reneging and breaking trust in your other relationships.
In short, society was falling apart, chasing false gods and living for the moment. 8:7 summarizes the pointlessness of it all: "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.The stalk has no head; it will produce no flour." There was no substance in their living.
I was listening to a talk recently by John Piper on "Finishing well". He was bemoaning the fact that in our society today, we're largely 'doodlers, triflers'. As an example he quoted a Reader's Digest article about a couple who took early retirement so they could spend their time on their 30' trawler, and go looking for sea shells for 20 years. That's the sort of existence that sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind.
Canada - "The Good Life"?
So let's compare 21st-century Canada with 8th-century (BC) Israel. Is our "good life" really good? We must be doing pretty well financially - as of this week we get to start spending 1% more of our income as we please, rather than on the GST! The federal government must have money to spare; it's spending billions to bolster our military (which is probably long overdue). Unemployment is low, inflation and the long-term national debt are under control, the loonie's high, the economy is strong. By the standards of most countries in the world, we're enviably prosperous.
How are we doing in the moral sphere? Last weekend "Toronto the Good" was overcome by celebrating immorality; it was the annual Gay Pride Parade. People lined the streets to be amused by indecency. Government leaders were notably involved. A CP news article states: "Men clad in leather chaps, wigs, stiletto heels, feather boas or simply nothing at all worked the runway in Toronto on Sunday afternoon at the 26th annual Pride Parade...Members of the Totally Naked Toronto Men Enjoying Nudity strutted their stuff...Nudity is ubiquitous at the annual parade...Toronto Mayor David Miller, who was soaked by spectators with water guns as he marched with members of city council, said the parade is important for the entire city...Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman said the parade's theme honours people across the country who have fought for gay rights.'We're making sure that we shove our chests out proudly and say, 'We're here and we're staying, we're proud to be here and we're contributing,' " the openly gay Liberal said as he marched along the parade route." That's our province's health minister and the mayor of its largest city both gung-ho for what's biblically abominable. Proud of what's too lewd to be printed! (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2006/06/25/1652657-cp.html)
In ancient Israel, one of the saddest symptoms of societal degradation was the pagan custom of child sacrifice. Deuteronomy 12(31) warns, "You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates.They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods." Yet that's precisely what Israel later did; and one of the reasons explicitly stated as to why they were exiled from their land (2Ki 17:17). What are we doing to our little ones today?
An article on LifeSiteNews.com notes, "To pro-life minded Canadians abortion has always been understood to be individual and mass killing - murder of the most innocent of all living humans. To them, as any other citizens, there are of course many other important issues. However, for genuinely pro-life Canadians, none come close to the horror of what Canada is allowing to be done to over 100,000 of its tiniest children each year - funded, protected and abetted by all levels of government, the courts, law enforcement and numerous public institutions." Liberal MP Tom Wappel told CTV, "It's just an odd thing.You can talk about seals, you can talk about whales, you can talk about the environment, you can talk about anything, but you can't talk about unborn children being killed. I find it fascinating." Again, disobedience in one area affects other areas of life. At a pro-life rally in early May at Parliament Hill attended by some 6,000 supporters, New Jersey surgeon Dr. Angela Lanfranchi blamed the ready access to abortion in part for the fact that the incidence of breast cancer has risen 40 per cent in the last 30 years. She said, "It's the women of the Roe v.Wade generation that account for most of this increase.Dramatic lifestyle changes brought about by the sexual revolution and the women's liberation movement are largely responsible for the rampant breast cancer we see today." We want our sexual freedom, to break all bounds - but at what cost to women's health, not to mention social or mental health?
Compared to half a century ago, Canada is experiencing an epidemic of marital and family break-up. There is so much pain in communities and classrooms today because the threads binding together marriages and families are unravelling, often because of broken trust. That was happening back in Hosea's time, too. In a couple of weeks we'll see how God's grief over Israel's waywardness was reflected in a living parable: Hosea's trouble relationship with his unfaithful wife, after God told him to marry a prostitute.
A Call to be Vicarious Intercessors
This is not a 'feel-good' sermon! It's pretty sobering to compare our own country with Israel mere decades before it was destroyed. For those who are committed Christians, snug within our fortress church walls, there may be a temptation to shrug it off by saying, "The world's gone to hell in a handbasket..." To write off the gay paraders and more obvious 'sinners', to have a fortress mentality and distance ourselves from our more or less 'happy pagan' neighbours. But if you study the lives of the godly in Scripture, that's not what they did. We read in Exodus 32(30-32) that Moses said to the people after the golden calf incident, "You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." So Moses went back to the LORD and said, "Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin-- but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written."" See how he identifies with the people - putting his own neck on the line for them? What was Isaiah's response to seeing God's awesome glory? ""Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."" (Isa 6:5) He didn't distance himself, but claimed to be one of them. Nehemiah, that great godly hero prayed, "I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses." (Ne 1:5-7) It's "we" not "they". Daniel's prayer is very similar (Dan 9:4-19). Coming to the New Testament, Paul exclaims, "For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race..." (Ro 9:3) He adopts a vicarious posture, willing to take the punishment FOR the others. Of course, all these are reflections to some degree of Jesus Christ, who came to be a ransom for sinners (Mk 10:45). The Sinless One didn't dissociate Himself from us, but took our place on the cross so we could be forgiven. "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification...at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly." (Ro 4:25;5:6) So instead of distancing ourselves, we should be burdened for our neighbours and our society, identifying with them in sins that are reflected in our lives, and vicariously interceding for them before their sin destroys them. Not condemning, but being convicted of the need of ALL of us for God's grace, our need to confess how each of us has fallen short and our only hope is in the justification Jesus makes possible.
Hope on the Horizon
Don't despair - be hopeful! God is at work - all is not lost! Lest I sound all 'doom and gloom', here are a couple of positive signs that Christ's preserving salt is seeping into and changing society.
On June 21, according to LifeSiteNews.com, "Liberal MP Paul Steckle stood today in the House of Commons to introduce the first piece of pro-life legislation in the current parliament under the Conservative Government...Steckle called on the House to debate the issue noting that Canada was one of the only countries in the world with absolutely no protection for the unborn in law whatsoever. The bill would restrict abortion after twenty weeks gestation; currently in Canada abortions are performed at tax-payer expense up to birth...Statistics show that a majority of Canadians are supportive of at least some legal protection for unborn children." Go, Paul! Pray that his private member's bill will pass when it comes up in the fall.
Another positive sign from the corridors of power: the more than 500 politicians, diplomats and other leaders at this year's annual National Prayer Breakfast on Parliament Hill at the beginning of June constituted the largest attendance in the 41 years it's been running. Party leaders or their representatives read the Scriptures at the event, including Liberal leader Bill Graham and NDP leader Jack Layton. Tom Caldwell, chair of Caldwell Financial Ltd., challenged them to seriously consider investing in a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Caldwell emphasized three things to these high-profile politicians. First: spiritual vacuums don't exist; everyone believes in something or someone. Second: any god but the real God will let you down or even kill you. Third: when government erases all mention of God, it leaves space for more dubious faith in money, fame, and otherwise worthy goals like self-sufficiency.
Besides challenging the group prophetically (sort of like Hosea), Caldwell confessed that growing up agnostic, he pilfered the alms box in a neighbourhood Catholic church to fund his movie-going habit. But 47 years later, after he became a serious Christian believer, he decided to pay back what he had taken - with compound interest!
Sometimes when we look around, sin is still all too prevalent, as it was in Hosea's day - whether in the religious, political, commercial, or moral realms. But through Jesus, God is still calling people back to Himself today, getting them back on course - and affecting the lives of many in the nation still. Let's pray.