Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, “As the Lord lives.” Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture? Ephraim is joined to idols; leave him alone. When their drink is gone, they give themselves to whoring; their rulers dearly love shame. A wind has wrapped them in its wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their sacrifices. – Hosea 4L15-19 ESV
God warned the northern kingdom of Israel not to pollute the southern kingdom of Judah with its unfaithful practices. While Judah had not been exactly an icon of virtue and faithfulness as a nation, it had not yet sunk to the all-time low that Israel had. The northern kingdom was guilty of having set up pagan shrines throughout its territory, in places like Gilgal and Bethel. Hosea sarcastically referred to Bethel (house of God) as Beth-aven (house of wickedness) because of the pagan worship performed there. And he warns the people of Israel not to go to these pagan shrines and make oaths to God, because they no longer worshiped Him. Hosea knew that once they heard of God’s pending judgment against them, the Israelites would try and call on His name in an insincere attempt to avoid punishment. They were stubborn and set in their ways. They were not going to change and God was no longer going to treat them like one of His own.
Ephraim was the largest of the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom and so God uses the name of this tribe as another reference to Israel. The greatest and largest tribe had joined themselves to idols, and they were shameless in their abandonment of God. Even the leaders of the people felt no remorse or shame. So God was going to abandon them and called on all others to do the same. He would give them up to their desires and allow them to place all their faith and trust in false gods. But a wind of judgment was coming. The punishment for their rejection of God would catch them up like a mighty wind and blow them into captivity in Assyria, where they would finally recognize the folly of their ways. But up until that moment, they would remain stubborn and unresponsive to the calls of Hosea to repent and return to God.
It is amazing how stubborn we can become when we begin to stray from our faithfulness to God. We learn to justify our actions and defend our behavior, trying to prove that what we are doing is not all that bad. We argue that we have not really abandoned God, but our actions tell a different story. We stubbornly reject conviction, demanding that what we are doing is fully acceptable. We demand that we have really rejected or abandoned God, but are simply doing what is necessary to survive in this world. That’s how we end up justifying our more subtle forms of idol worship, turning seemingly innocent things like money, success, entertainment, pleasure, education, and materialism into replacements for God. When someone tries to point out that we have made a god out of money, having placed all our hope and faith in it and seeing it as our source of hope and contentment, we stubbornly deny it. But the very thought of losing or giving up our money frightens us beyond belief. If someone suggested that entertainment had become our god, providing us with joy and pleasure, we would vehemently deny it. But if we were challenged to give it up or fast from it for a month, the very thought would send chills up our spines. If we were accused of having made a god out of material things, we would scoff, arguing that we were simply enjoying the blessings of God. But if we were encouraged to give up those things and live simpler lives, trusting in the goodness of God, we would find the very though disconcerting.
There is nothing wrong with money, success, entertainment, pleasure, education, or materialism. In fact, God has promised to bless His people. But when we make gods out of those things, giving them prominence over the one true God, we are standing on shaky ground. When we look to anything other than God for our hope, happiness, fulfillment, satisfaction or peace, we are worshiping false gods. And when the threat of losing any of these things causes us to panic, it is a good sign that we have placed more trust in them than we have in God. Even our health can become a god. We can worship good health, trying to prolong our lives by spending inordinate amounts of time and money on our physical well-being, while neglecting our spiritual health. Paul warned Timothy, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8 NLT). The constant danger we all face as believers is making the things of this world our primary emphasis and focus. At the heart of faith is trust. It is a reliance on and belief in the promises of God, that He will supply all our needs. It is trusting that He has our best in mind and that material things, while not sinful in themselves, are not the primary indicator of God’s blessings. That is why Paul said, “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13 NLT). He had learned to place his trust in God, so that his circumstances no longer served as his source of contentment or happiness. God was enough. But can most of us say the same thing? Is God enough? Or have we developed a litany of other things we have to have in order to be happy, content, satisfied, and fulfilled? The fact that we have other things we worship is not so much the problem as our stubbornness and refusal to let go of them. God is calling us to trust in Him and Him alone. But will we?